Philip Pullman on how the mind takes in art:
One minute we’re admiring the way Degas puts his pastel marks on the paper, the next we’re wondering what it might be like to kiss the model. But then we notice something intriguing in the diagonals of the composition, and that sets us thinking about the Japanese print in the painting by Van Gogh on the other wall of the gallery, and while we’re thinking about Japanese art we remember the very sociological print involving the fisherman’s wife and the octopus; and that reminds us that it’s time for lunch. But on the way out, we look again at Degas, and think that his way with pastel really is exquisite. He puts this color against that one, and something quite different happens. Could I do that with words? we think. How would it work?
This is from a talk he gave in 1997. The "very sociological print" he refers to is Hokusai's "The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife," an erotic woodcut of a two cephalapods on very familiar terms with a sleeping woman. Earlier in the lecture, he tells a story about a secondary school teacher confiscating his copy of Lady Chatterly's Lover because, said the teacher, Pullman was reading it not for its literary merit but for "the sociology," which I suppose meant the smutty bits.
Robert Greene, from Mastery:
With our limited senses and consciousness, we only glimpse a small portion of reality. Furthermore, everything in the universe is in a state of constant flux. Simple words and thoughts cannot capture this flux or complexity. The only solution for an enlightened person is to let the mind absorb itself in what it experiences, without having to form a judgment on what it all means. The mind must be able to feel doubt and uncertainty for as long as possible. As it remains in this state and probes deeply into the mysteries of the universe, ideas will come that are more dimensional and real than if we had jumped to conclusions and formed judgments early on.
From notebooks written by the brilliant Eric Hoffer:
- The simpler the words in which a thought is expressed the more stimulating its effect.
- I assume that the only way to find an answer is to hang on long enough and keep groping.
- How terribly hard and almost impossible it is to tell the truth. More than anything else, the artist in us prevents us from telling aught as it really happened. We deal with the truth as the cook deals with meat and vegetables.
- A multitude of words is probably the most formidable means of blurring and obscuring the truth. There is no thought, however momentous, that cannot be expressed lucidly in 200 words.
- It has been my experience that there is no substitute for time where thinking is concerned. Why is it so? The answer seems to be that in many cases to think means to be able to allow the mind to stray from the task at hand. The mind must be able to be “elsewhere.” This needs time.
- We are ready to die for an opinion but not for a fact: indeed, it is by our readiness to die that we try to prove the factualness of our opinion.
- Actual creativeness is a matter of moments. One has to piece together the minute grains to make a lump
- Good writing, like gold, combines lustrous lucidity with high density. What this means is good writing is packed with hints.
- What counts most is holding on. The growth of a train of thought is not a direct forward flow. There is a succession of spurts separated by intervals of stagnation, frustration, and discouragement. If you hold on, there is bound to come a certain clarification. The unessential components drop off and a coherent, lucid whole begins to take shape.
- A good sentence is a key. It unlocks the mind of the reader.
- Our doubts about ourselves cannot be banished except by working at that which is the one and only thing we know we ought to do. Other people’s assertions cannot silence the howling dirge within us. It is our talents rusting unused within us that secrete the poison of self-doubt into our bloodstreams.
Put this in the newsletter this morning, but thought it might amuse a wider audience. From Madrid, New Mexico.
The 11th edition of the 10,000 Days newsletter goes out tomorrow. If you wish to receive it, look to the top of the screen and click your way to joining the other cool kids.
Meanwhile, here is the essay from the previous issue. Enjoy.
Chosen by the god of Row 19
Last night I flew back from a conference in New Orleans. The flight was at capacity, about half the seats occupied by teenagers, parents, and teachers from a Christian academy on their way to Philadelphia for a class trip. I know all about it because one of the chaperones had the window seat in my row and spent the entire 2 1/2 hours of the flight talking to the gentleman in the middle seat. How anyone talks for 2 1/2 hours baffles me, but these two introduced themselves as we taxied down the runway and by Baltimore had promised to look each other up in Mississippi, which is where they lived. Or so I gathered.
I wasn't really eavesdropping because it isn't eavesdropping if the people are talking too loud for you to avoid. The gentleman was a surgeon, looked to be in his early 70s, still practicing. The woman was about half his age, a mother of at least three. They were evangelical Christians.
They sounded like sincere, big-hearted, noble people. Their conversation was polite, encouraging, amiable. She had, I gathered, done some evangelizing in South America and was raising three Chilean girls she had adopted. He had stories about how faith had saved various family members. One would tell a story, the other would say "that's great!", and then they'd switch roles.
They were not people I'd want to spend much time with—I have no religious faith nor any interest in faith, and simply cannot be anywhere near that upbeat for 2 1/2 hours—but they seemed like admirable people. And they were convinced that their god had selected Donald Trump and made him president, and they prayed that Christians would turn out to the polls in 2020 because it was imperative that Trump be reelected to continue their god's work.
I closed my eyes and died a little inside. Not because they were Republicans, or conservatives, or even Trumpists. Because two people who sounded smart, well-intentioned, earnest, generous, and morally upright were still somehow convinced that a dumb, lying, cynical, amoral, greedy, unfaithful, incompetent, egomaniacal jackass had been hand-picked by the supreme deity to be their president. The surgeon made his case with a set of verbal bullet points. How else could a man who had never been in politics ascend to the highest office if not for the hand of god? What explanation might there be for defeating all the other Republicans who had sought the nomination in the primaries? How else could he have defeated an experienced politician like Hillary Clinton and the Democratic campaign machine? There could be no other explanation but divine intervention. And they prayed for his reelection because, above all else, Donald Trump "was a man who did what he had promised to do."
I hunched in my aisle seat and brooded. How do they not see that Trump has done nothing for people like them, except, perhaps, eased their fears?
And there it was, right in front of me. They had voted for the man who had pulled off one of the oldest tricks in the demagogue's kit bag—understand what scares a large group of people, tell them that not only are they right to be scared, they actually should be scared to death, and then convince them he is the one person who can stand tall and vanquish all that frightens them. My companions in Row 19 were convinced that only a man chosen by their god could accomplish such a thing. To them, Trump is a savior.
There is not a politician alive who could pull those votes away from Trump. Issues? Facts? Data? Reason? Not in play. i walked off the plane glad to be home but soured by my in-flight primer on the divine right of Trump. It was past 11 pm and I was tired, but I reached for the gin.
A few years ago, I wrote about a contemporary composer, Oscar Bettison. Interesting fellow, good composer, Fulham supporter. In one of our conversations, he recalled one of his composition teachers, Martijn Padding. Bettison, in the story, had just described to his teacher the next piece he wanted to compose. Oscar recalled Padding's response:
Martijn said, “No, you shouldn’t do that, because that’s the piece you can write. You should always write the piece that you can’t write. Never do the thing that you know you can do.” Which is the greatest piece of advice I’ve ever been given. Now I always try to make myself uncomfortable. I deliberately create problems and challenges for myself. The difficulty is kind of the attraction. It’s addictive, you know? Now, if stuff comes easy to me, I’m really, really suspicious of it. I don’t accept my own ideas. They’ve got to really prove themselves.
I have just begun Philip Pullman's volume of essays, Daemon Voices, and after the first selection I am enamored, so consider yourself warned that there might be a bit of Pullman in the coming days. This is him on taking care with language:
We should become attuned to our own utterances; we should install a little mental bell that rings when we’re using expressions that are second-hand or blurred through too much use. We should try always to use language to illuminate, reveal, and clarify rather than obscure, mislead, and conceal. The language should be safe in our hands—safter than it is in those of politicians, for example; at the least, people should be able to say that we haven’t left it any poorer, or clumsier, or less precise. The aim must always be clarity.
From A Field Guide to Getting Lost:
Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go. Three years ago I was giving a workshop in the Rockies. A student came in bearing a quote from what she said was the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno. It read, “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” I copied it down, and it has stayed with me since. The student made big transparent photographs of swimmers underwater and hung them from the ceiling with the light shining through them, so that to walk among them was to have the shadows of swimmers travel across your body in a space that itself came to seem aquatic and mysterious. The question she carried struck me as the basic tactical question in life. The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration—how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?
Got no real writing done today, so here is a picture.
Work continues apace on the anthology of profiles that I plan to publish this summer. My working title has been Profilia, or something more like Profilia: Encounters with Interesting People." That had the virtue of employing a distinctive word, distinctive because I made it up. (Though just today I came across a street usage: profilia, the act of liking every single thing on someone's Facebook page.) But I worried that it might mislead because it sounds Italian, or like some sort of unusual sexual predilection. Or is just mystifying and therefore offputting; I want readers to put the book down after they've started reading it, not before they even open it.
So, I am all but settled on a new title, one that makes use of the title of one of the anthologized pieces: The Man Who Signed the City: Time Spent with Remarkable People. I'm not committed to "remarkable"—that could become "interesting" or "fascinating" or "intriguing." Or, "people who were willing to talk to me."
The contents are all but set, too. One or two of these could drop off—right now this would weight in at around 90,000 words, not unreasonable for a book but a bit pricey to produce—but this could be the Table of Contents (the order will change):
- Dan Dubelman, indie rock musician
- Larry Hoffman, composer
- Jonathan Haas, drummer
- Drew Daniel, literature professor and electronic musician
- Leon Fleisher, pianist
- Stephen Dixon, novelist
- Rosemary Mahoney, author and travel memoirist
- Roy Blount Jr., humorist
- Tim Kreider, essayist
- Walter Murch, film editor and polymath
- Raoul Middleman, painter
- Chuck Keiger, sign painter
- Avi Rubin, computer scientist and poker player
- Barclay Tagg, thoroughbred trainer
- Kevin Tallon, deaf boxer
- George Kennedy, championship swim coach
- James Taylor, historian of carnival sideshows
- Park Dietz, forensic psychiatrist and serial killer expert
- Sidney Mintz, food anthropologist
- Denis Wirtz, biophysicist and cancer researcher
- Kathy Edin, sociologist of extreme poverty
I think that's a pretty good lineup, don't you?
Author Neil Gaiman recently spoke to podcaster Tim Ferriss. Much of the conversation had to do with Gaiman's creative process, including his strategy for getting the writing done.
...I would go down to my lovely little gazebo at the bottom of the garden, sit down, and I’m absolutely allowed not to do anything. I’m allowed to sit at my desk, I’m allowed to stare out at the world, I’m allowed to do anything I like, as long as it isn’t anything. Not allowed to do a crossword, not allowed to read a book, not allowed to phone a friend, not allowed to make a clay model of something. All I’m allowed to do is absolutely nothing, or write.
What I love about that is I’m giving myself permission to write or not write, but writing is actually more interesting than doing nothing after a while. You sit there and you’ve been staring out the window now for five minutes, and it kind of loses its charm. You’re going, “Well, actually, let’s all write something.”
Seems very smart to me. But then Neil Gaiman is a smart man.
Listen to the conversation here.
An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements and the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships. The habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.
From A Technique for Producing Ideas.
Another piece on the shortlist for inclusion in Profilia, a forthcoming anthology of profiles that I hope to publish this summer. This is an excerpt from my profile of Larry Hoffman, guitarist, blues historian, classical composer who often incorporates the blues into his compositions.
In middle school, Hoffman took up banjo, passing on guitar for the time being because guitar seemed too cowboyish, too Gene Autry, and he wanted to learn songs by Earl Scruggs and other banjo pickers. He might not have cared to read music, but he enjoyed reading about music, and soon began perusing issues of Sing Out! and The Little Sandy Review to learn the lyrics of folk songs. His life as a music scholar had begun, and he started digging deep into the history of whatever interested him. In those days, near the zoo on McMechen Street, Baltimore had a record store called the HiFi Shop, and the adolescent Hoffman would dig through the bins looking for rarities. He bought obscure 45s by mail order and pored over the liner notes of new releases on the Folkways label. Years later, he discovered the great collections of folk musicologist Harry Smith and began to realize that the popular folksingers and pickers who he thought had created this music actually had cadged tunes and lyrics from progenitors like the Skillet Lickers, Doc Boggs, and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Music had a history and Hoffman discovered that he loved delving into it.
By 14 he was playing a guitar, Gene Autry be damned. He kept it at the foot of his bed. He recalls it as the first thing he saw upon opening his eyes in the morning and the last thing he saw at night. He would go into his father’s downstairs workshop and play at 4:30 in the morning, which his father did not always appreciate. By high school, he was playing guitar, banjo, and autoharp in a folk group, and singing harmony. He says the first Bob Dylan album haunted him. When he was 17, he formed a short-lived trio called Larry, Larry, and Chuck with a pair of college students, Larry Miller and Chuck Aaron. “We argued a lot,” Aaron says. “We used to fight over arrangements and stuff like that. He was the youngest one, so he got outvoted. In retrospect, we probably should have listened to him a little more.” A group of girls, including Aaron’s future wife, would listen to the band rehearse. They giggled so much the musicians called them The High Frequencies. There was a club in town called The Flambeau and it offered the band a Wednesday night gig. Not on a school night, his mother ruled.
After high school, Hoffman wanted to go to college at the University of Chicago or New York University. No, said his father, all you’ll do there is play music and chase girls. The University of Virginia was all male in 1963 and that’s where his father sent him. Hoffman hated it. “What was there to like?” he recalls, all frat boys in blue blazers and neckties. He pledged at two fraternities just to eat as much free food as he could before they caught on that he did not actually intend to join. He came across pianos on campus that carried warnings—NO BLUES OR JAZZ ARE TO BE PLAYED ON THESE PIANOS AT ANY TIME. “Oh yeah,” he recalls of his time there, “it was great.”
From the woman with one of the best writer's names ever, from Reading as a Writer:
The only time my passion for reading steered me in the wrong direction was when I let it persuade me to go to graduate school. There, I soon realized that my love for books was unshared by many of my classmates and professors. I found it hard to understand what they did love, exactly, and this gave me an anxious shiver that would later seem like a warning about what would happen to the teaching of literature over the decade or so after I dropped out of my Ph.D. program. That was when literary academia split into warring camps of deconstructionists, Marxists, feminists, and so forth, all battling for the right to tell students that they were reading ‘texts’ in which ideas and politics trumped what the writer had actually written.
I left graduate school and became a writer.
Nonfiction is the nexus of reality and dream, faith in things seen and unseen. Nonfiction is the fact that everything isn't what it is. Nonfiction is the fiction of fact, the interpretation of personal perception, the internalization and processing and digesting of experience and its rippling echoes cast out over time.
I once interviewed John Isaacs, a professor of oncology and cancer biology in the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Our conversation focused on a method of researching cancer biology in a three-dimensional matrix. The standard methodology was to use Petri dishes, which were effectively two-dimensional environments that distorted cancer cell behavior.
Isaacs was talking about the risks involved in relying on models. But models are unavoidable in science, and Isaacs recognized their necessity: “I have always lived by the belief that ‘a model is a lie which can tell you a lot about the truth.’”
And isn't that a perfect definition of literature.
The Google news alert set for my name has not gone off in months, because I haven't published anything in months. How soon the internet forgets. Anyway, today in my inbox—lo and behold—was a news alert from a site titled Brainly that appears to let schoolkids post questions for help with class assignments. A middle-schooler by the name of Whit8143 posted the following:
Okay, young Whit8143, first of all, you're missing an apostrophe in your question. Hey, it happens. Second, who planted the idea in your head that Rebecca Skloot is a better and more effective writer than I am? Sure, she's sold a gazillion more books than I have, but listen kid, I know my way around a dependent clause or a reflexive pronoun, and don't you forget it.
That said, I signed up for Brainly so I could respond. Told young Whit that I didn't think I could answer his question, but I was the Dale Keiger in question and knew both Rebecca Skloot and Ruth Faden and would be happy to answer any questions if it would help with his assignment.
Plus I'll be able to straighten him out on this whole "better and more effective" thing.
Robert Darnton on how reading was done in early modern England:
Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.
Clearly, that 16th-century information superhighway ruined their attention spans.
Newsletter No. 10 goes out tomorrow. Assuming I get it written. The essay in No. 9 was titled "Uneducation" and appears below. Subscribing to 10,000 Days is pretty simple: Look to the top of the page, go there, and click where it says "click right here." thank you for reading.
In the United States, we laud ourselves for valuing education.
This is bullshit. We don’t value education at any level. We value social status. We value wealth. We value our vanity as parents. There is little evidence that we value education.
In much of the country, especially in the inner city, our public school system is a shambles. It suits us to underpay teachers while our public commentators routinely denigrate the profession. Lack of funds forces those same underpaid, denigrated teachers to reach into their own wallets to buy basic supplies and books for their students. School boards and state committees stacked with religious zealots, ideologues, and idiots authorize textbooks replete with errors and omissions and terrible prose, and nobody can be bothered to object.
State and federal governments no longer bother to pretend genuine concern and no longer evince any desire to find solutions to these problems. For years, government has done all it can to subsidize a parallel private system that benefits only those with the means to pay for it, while the public system decays. What became of the ideal of education for the masses? Child, please.
I’ve spent the last 26 years working in higher education at an elite university, and the experience left me with growing disaffection for American higher education as well. A quarter-century of close observation of university administration, college development and admission professionals, parents, and students—especially the last two—has done nothing to convince me that education is the most valued part of the American college experience. A college degree has become an extraordinarily expensive work permit, obtained in the hope that the young adult who has just received that degree has a chance at being admitted to an occupation of acceptable social status. Whether that young graduate has actually been educated doesn’t even come up. Who cares, so long as the young woman or man has been certified as an obedient, trained technician who knows enough about the law or accounting or finance or medicine or computer code to land a socially valued job. (A category that does not include artist, thinker, tradesman, craftsman, or bureaucrat. Or school teacher. All of whom are essential, none of whom enjoy or benefit from social standing.)
If you were fortunate enough to receive an education, and not just pricey vocational training and social indoctrination, then you were taught how to read, how to discern quality, how to think about values and events, how to evaluate ideas and institutions and rhetoric with rigor and judicious skepticism. You have been taught enough of the past to assess and understand something of the present. You have been taught the culture’s fundamental stories, and equipped to intelligently question them. You have been taught that 12 or 16 or 20 years of genuine education is only the beginning, and you have been taught how to learn for the rest of your life.
Does this sound like what we do in our schools in this country? Not to me.
If you have an American college degree, it’s almost certain that in 2019, the highest paid person at your alma mater is either the president (and don’t start me on that overpaid and self-important klatch), the football coach, or the basketball coach. Enough said.
That a few dozen privileged, ethically unencumbered nitwits were recently indicted for getting their kids into “prestigious” American universities through fraud, deceit, and bribery shocks no one who has worked for one of those schools. Don’t for a minute think that any one of those dopes did it because they were desperate for their kid to get a good education. They don’t know the meaning of the word. Why would they? They are the product of American schools.