Monday, May 31, 2010

Can bacteria make you smarter?

It is hard enough in the social sciences to disentangle cause and effect as it is. Now this - Can bacteria make you smarter?

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The copycat's whiskers

From the May 1, 2010 edition of the Spectator. Bevis Hillier reviews Nicolas Barker's Horace Walpole's Description of the Villa at Strawberry Hill in an article, Strawberry Hill Forever. What a marvelous club.
The book is produced by the Roxburghe Club, of which William Waldegrave is a member. It is perhaps the most exclusive club one can belong to - more so than White's, Boodle's, Pratt's or the Athenaeum. It was founded in 1812 by a group of patrician bibliophiles after the sale of the bankrupt Duke of Roxburghe's collection, the first English sale at which a book was sold for more than £1,000 (the Valdorfer Boccaccio, 1471, bought by the Marquess of Blandford for £2,260). The first president was the second Lord Spencer, but the idea of the Club came from the Rev. Thomas Frognall Dibdin, author of Bibliomania (1809).

The club is restricted to 40 members. The present membership includes a French prince, 13 peers (Waldegrave among them), three North American members and one South American member. They tend to be inheritors or custodians of important libraries. They meet for dinner, normally combined with a visit to a library, once a year in June: the 'anniversary dinner', that is, of the Roxburghe sale. There is also a 'business' dinner in the autumn. Members are expected to publish a book to be presented to each of their fellow members. Every member has his or her name printed in red in his or her copy; a limited number of extra copies is issued for sale - of which the book under review is one. The price may seem exorbitant; but you can be pretty sure that your copy, in its half-morocco binding, will become a bibliophile's treasure. This facsimile is the copycat's whiskers.

General Systems Thinking

I read Gerald Weinberg's An Introduction to General Systems Thinking years ago in college. It was not an assigned book for a course but I came across it at my favorite used bookstore, the Red Cross bookstore in Washington, D.C. where they had the marvelously straight-forward pricing system: Hardbacks - $1, Paperbacks - 50 cents.

With a title as intriguing as An Introduction to General Systems Thinking, it could not be left neglected on the shelves. It appears to be out of print now. I can't have absorbed but 10% of it's insights way back then. I simply had not yet lived long enough. I am reminded of General Systems Thinking from an entry at The Neglected Books Page. Some of the gems:
A state is a situation which can be recognized if it occurs again. But no state will ever occur again if we don't lump many states into one 'state.' Thus, in order to learn at all, we must forego some potential discrimination of states, some possibility of learning everything. Or, codified as The Lump Law:

If we want to learn anything, we musn't try to learn everything.

The Lump Law of course mirrors E.D. Hirsch's observation "In some of our national moods we would like the schools to teach everything, but they cannot. There is a pressing need for clarity about our educational priorities."

Then there is Weinberg's Used Car Law:
1.A way of looking at the world that is not putting excessive stress on an observer need not be changed.
2.A way of looking at the world may be changed to reduce the stress on an observer

Which of course echoes Alison Gopnik and her research about babies and how their brains develop ("As they grow older and absorb more evidence, certain possibilities become much more likely and more useful. They then make decisions based on this selective information and become increasingly reluctant to give those ideas up and try something new.")

"All general systems thinking," he writes, starts with one of three questions:
1.Why do I see what I see?
2.Why do things stay the same?
3.Why do things change?

Of our grappling with these questions, Weinberg says,
. . . [W]e can never hope to find the end; we do not intend to try. Our goal is to improve our thinking, not to solve the riddle of the Sphynx.

Which is also why I've found myself returning to An Introduction to General Systems Thinking again and again in the twenty-plus years since I first stumbled across it. I know no better spark to revive a mind that's stuck in dead-end thinking than to open this book, dive into one of Gerald Weinberg's wonderful open-ended questions, and rediscover how one looks at the world.

Again echoing the observation of Gopnik's; babies explore in their thinking while adults exploit.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

We tend to substitute opinions for thinking

Is Thinking Back in Fashion, Lane Wallace, The Atlantic June 2009. See our earlier Pigeon Post article on Imagination in children's stories as well as Science Experiments in the Kitchen.
"We're capable, but not practiced, in the art of thinking," says Phil Terry, CEO of Creative Good, a business consulting company, and the founder of a web-based reading and lecture organization called Reading Odyssey. "We're all endowed with curiosity, but a lot of us, for very good reasons, stop using it after a certain point. After a certain age, we tend to substitute opinions for thinking."
Which brings us to Aristotle. Wisdom, according to Aristotle, isn't an object anyone acquires. It's a habit; something that emerges from a particular way of processing information and engaging with others and the world. And a habit that's essential for us to develop to make better decisions in business and life.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Reading is productive

An interesting diagram from Introduction to Social Macrodynamics, Compact Macromodels of the World System Growth by Andrey Korotayev, Artemy Malkov, and Daria Khaltourina, 2006.

I am not versed in the comparative academic rigor of Russian historical research but I think these authors are all associated with Moscow University which by reputation is solid. Their graph shows the predictive power of literacy rates in 1800 to future national economic productivity.


A man writing such history is driving more horses abreast in his team

Hilaire Belloc, On the Decline of the Book. The lament for the decline of reading, the decline of the book is of course ageless.
It is an interesting speculation by what means the Book lost its old position in this country. This is not only an interesting speculation, but one which nearly concerns a vital matter. For if men fall into the habit of neglecting true books in an old and traditional civilization, the inaccuracy of their judgments and the illusions to which they will be subject, must increase.

To take but one example: history. The less the true historical book is read and the more men depend upon ephemeral statement, the more will legend crystallize, the harder will it be to destroy in the general mind some comforting lie, and the great object-lesson of politics (which is an accurate knowledge of how men have acted in the past) will become at last unknown.

This seems right.
The excellence of a book and its value as a book depend upon two factors, which are usually, though not always, united in varied proportions: first, that it should put something of value to the reader, whether of value as a discovery and an enlargement of wisdom or of value as a new emphasis laid upon old and sound morals; secondly, that this thing added or renewed in human life should be presented in such a manner as to give permanent aesthetic pleasure.

I have to agree with this assessment of writing history.
To read History involves not only some permanent interest in things not immediately sensible, but also some permanent brain-work in the reader; for as one reads history one cannot, if one is an intelligent being, forbear perpetually to contrast the lessons it teaches with the received opinions of our time. Again, History is valuable as an example in the general thesis I am maintaining, because no good history can be written without a great measure of hard work. To make a history at once accurate, readable, useful, and new, is probably the hardest of all literary efforts; a man writing such history is driving more horses abreast in his team than a man writing any other kind of literary matter. He must keep his imagination active; his style must be not only lucid, but also must arrest the reader; he must exercise perpetually a power of selection which plays over innumerable details; he must, in the midst of such occupations, preserve unity of design, as much as must the novelist or the playwright; and yet with all this there is not a verb, an adjective or a substantive which, if it does not repose upon established evidence, will not mar the particular type of work on which he is engaged.

So with locusts, so with humans?

Productivity is the source of human well-being and it took a marked leap upwards back around 10,000 years ago when people settled down, changed from a hunter gatherer life-style and began to have settled agriculture and shortly afterwards to live in small hamlets, villages, towns and eventually cities. Increasing density of human habitation has paralleled yet higher gains in productivity. Larger communities required better capacity to coordinate and cooperate. More coordination and cooperation required reading and writing. It also required our brains to keep evolving and adapting.

Here is a report from BBC News (by Victoria Gill, May 25, 2010, Swarming 'swells' Locusts' Brains) which reports on discoveries of a similar phenomenon in locusts. Brains continuing to evolve to living conditions, not locusts reading.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Golden Verses of Pythagoras

I am always intrigued by cultural continuity, the capacity for ideas or memes to continue on down the generations through stories, songs, and linguistic phrases. I have blogged before on George Washington's The Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation in Published in France, by the Jesuits

Here is another instance. In this close to raw translation of The Golden Verses of Pythagoras, there is almost a feel of The Rules of Civility.

We may phrase it differently today, but many of these injunctions remain alive and well in families near and far.

High population density triggers cultural explosions

An interesting article over at e! Science News, High population density triggers cultural explosions from June 4th, 2009.
High population density leads to greater exchange of ideas and skills and prevents the loss of new innovations. It is this skill maintenance, combined with a greater probability of useful innovations, that led to modern human behaviour appearing at different times in different parts of the world.
It would appear to be analogous to the reading research we are finding that volume of books read and access to books are key determinants to yet further improvement in reading capability.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Turning Fifty - To Kill a Mockingbird

The New York Times has an article (A Classic Turns 50, and Parties are Planned) outlining the celebrations planned for this year to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

Loved the story when I was a child, as have each of the kids in their turn. What fascinates me about To Kill a Mockingbird, beyond just being a great tale, is the nature of its attraction and longevity. The article references a million copies being sold each year, implying that at least a quarter of all children today still read this book from two generations ago. Back to the old conundrum of why some books take up residence in our collective psyche while others never find a home. One of life's enduring mysteries.

Books are no more education than laws are virtue

Kate Douglas Wiggin wrote a book, Children's Rights: A Book of Nursery Logic in 1892. A good portion of the book relates to children's stories and children reading. I find it intriguing the relevance of some of her descriptions of what they were concerned about then and what we are concerned about now, more than a century later. From the chapter, What Shall Children Read?
"What we make children love and desire is more important than what we make them learn."

I do not wish to drift into a cheap cynicism, and apotheosize the old days at the expense of the new. We are often inclined to paint the Past with a halo round its head which it never wore when it was the Present. We can reproduce neither the children nor the conditions of fifty or even twenty-five years ago. To-day's children must be fitted for to-day's tasks, educated to answer to-day's questions, equipped to solve to-day's problems; but are we helping them to do this in absolutely the best way? At all events, it is difficult to join in the paean of gratitude for the tons of children's books that are turned out yearly by parental publishers. If the children of the past did not have quite enough deference paid to their individuality, their likes and dislikes, and if their needs were too often left until the needs of everybody else had been considered,-- on the other hand, they were not surfeited with well-meant but ill-directed attentions.

There has never been a time when the difficulty of making a good use of books was as great as it is to-day, or a time when it required so much decision to make a wise choice, simply because there is so much printed matter precipitated upon us that we cannot "see the wood for the trees."

It is not my province to discriminate between the various writers for children at the present time. To give a complete catalogue of useful books for children would be quite impossible; to give a partial list, or endeavor to point out what is worthy and what unworthy, would be little better. No course of reading laid down by one person ever suits another, and the published "lists of best books," with their solemn platitudes in the way of advice, are generally interesting only in their reflection of the writer's personality.

I would not choose too absolutely for a child save in his earliest years, but would rather surround him with the best and worthiest books, and let him choose for himself; for there are elective affinities and antipathies here that need not be disregarded,--that are, indeed, certain indications of latent powers, and trustworthy guides to the child's unfolding possibilities.

"Books can only be profoundly influential as they unite themselves with decisive tendencies." Provide the right conditions for mental growth, and then let the child do the growing. If we dictate too absolutely, we envelop instead of developing his mind, and weaken his power of choice. On the other hand, we do not wish his reading to be partial or one-sided, as it may be without intelligent oversight.

Whatever children read, let us see that it is good of its kind, and that it gives variety, so that no integral want of human nature shall be neglected,--so that neither imagination, memory, nor reflection shall be starved. I own it is difficult to help them in their choice, when most of us have not learned to choose wisely for ourselves. A discriminating taste in literature is not to be gained without effort, and our constant reading of the little books spoils our appetite for the great ones.

Knowing, then, as we do, the dangers and obstacles in the way, and realizing the innumerable inspirations which the best thought gives to us, can we not so direct the reading of our children that our older boys and girls shall not be so exclusively modern in their tastes; so that they may be inclined to take a little less Mr. Saltus, a little more Shakespeare, temper their devotion to Mr. Kipling by small doses of Dante, forsake "The Duchess" for a dip into Thackeray, and use Hawthorne as a safe and agreeable antidote to Mr. Haggard? We need not despair of the child who does not care to read, for books are not the only means of culture; but they are a very great means when the mind is really stimulated, and not simply padded with them.

Mr. Frederic Harrison says: "Books are no more education than laws are virtue. Of all men, perhaps the book-lover needs most to be reminded that man's business here is to know for the sake of living, not to live for the sake of knowing."

For, to speak in better words than my own, "It is the books we read before middle life that do most to mould our characters and influence our lives; and this not only because our natures are then plastic and our opinions flexible, but also because, to produce lasting impression, it is necessary to give a great author time and meditation. The books that are with us in the leisure of youth, that we love for a time not only with the enthusiasm, but with something of the exclusiveness, of a first love, are those that enter as factors forever in our mental life."

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

We cannot read an author for the first time . . .

W.H. Auden:
We cannot read an author for the first time in the same way that we read the latest book by an established author. In a new author, we tend to see either only his virtues or only his defects and, even if we do see both, we cannot see the relation between them. In the case of an established author, if we can still read him at all, we know that we cannot enjoy the virtues we admire in him without tolerating the defects we deplore. Moreover, our judgment of an established author is never simply an aesthetic judgment. In addition to anv literary merit it may have, a new book by him has a historic interest for us as the act of a person in whom we have long been interested. He is not only a poet or a novelist; he is also a character in our biography.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The young brain is remarkably plastic and flexible

I have already alluded to Alison Gopnik's article in Your Baby is Smarter Than You Think in the August 16, 2009 New York Times. Read the whole thing.

Part of the explanation for these differing approaches can be found in the brain. The young brain is remarkably plastic and flexible. Brains work because neurons are connected to one another, allowing them to communicate. Baby brains have many more neural connections than adult brains. But they are much less efficient. Over time, we prune away the connections we don't use, and the remaining ones become faster and more automatic. Moreover, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls the directed, planned, focused kind of intelligence, is exceptionally late to mature, and may not take its final shape until our early 20s.

It is worth noting that Gopnik's research supports the importance that Through the Magic Door places on creating an early reading environment. If much of a child's exploration is occurring pre-five years old, it explains why Head Start and other programs are already playing catch-up when children join their programs.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A shabby curate

W.H. Auden
When I find myself in the company of scientists, I feel like a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a room full of dukes.

He is also a character in our biography

via "Reading: An essay" by W.H. Auden
We cannot read an author for the first time in the same way that we read the latest book by an established author. In a new author, we tend to see either only his virtues or only his defects and, even if we do see both, we cannot see the relation between them. In the case of an established author, if we can still read him at all, we know that we cannot enjoy the virtues we admire in him without tolerating the defects we deplore. Moreover, our judgment of an established author is never simply an aesthetic judgment. In addition to any literary merit it may have, a new book by him has a historic interest for us as the act of a person in whom we have long been interested. He is not only a poet or a novelist; he is also a character in our biography.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Charles S. Benson - Books

An essay by Charles S. Benson - Books. All sorts of passages.
There are, indeed, many books in our library; but most of them, as D. G. Rossetti used to say in his childhood of his father's learned volumes, are "no good for reading." The books of the College library are delightful, indeed, to look at; rows upon rows of big irregular volumes, with tarnished tooling and faded gilding on the sun-scorched backs. What are they? old editions of classics, old volumes of controversial divinity, folios of the Fathers, topographical treatises, cumbrous philosophers, pamphlets from which, like dry ashes, the heat of the fire that warmed them once has fled. Take one down: it is an agreeable sight enough; there is a gentle scent of antiquity; the bumpy page crackles faintly; the big irregular print meets the eye with a pleasant and leisurely mellowness. But what do they tell one? Very little, alas! that one need know, very much which it would be a positive mistake to believe. That is the worst of erudition--that the next scholar sucks the few drops of honey that you have accumulated, sets right your blunders, and you are superseded. You have handed on the torch, perhaps, and even trimmed it. Your errors, your patient explanations, were a necessary step in the progress of knowledge; but now the procession has turned the corner, and is out of sight.

The challenges related to reading.
But, on the other hand, here in the University there seems to be little time for general reading; and indeed it is a great problem, as life goes on, as duties grow more defined, and as one becomes more and more conscious of the shortness of life, what the duty of a cultivated and open-minded man is with regard to general reading. I am inclined to think that as one grows older one may read less; it is impossible to keep up with the vast output of literature, and it is hard enough to find time to follow even the one or two branches in which one is specially interested. Almost the only books which, I think, it is a duty to read, are the lives of great contemporaries; one gets thus to have an idea of what is going on in the world, and to realize it from different points of view. New fiction, new poetry, new travels are very hard to peruse diligently. The effort, I confess, of beginning a new novel, of making acquaintance with an unfamiliar scene, of getting the individualities of a fresh group of people into one's head, is becoming every year harder for me; but there are still one or two authors of fiction for whom I have a predilection, and whose works I look out for. New poetry demands an even greater effort; and as to travels, they are written so much in the journalistic style, and, consist so much of the meals our traveller obtains at wayside stations, of conversations with obviously reticent and even unintelligent persons; they have so many photogravures of places that are exactly like other places, and of complacent people in grotesque costumes, like supers in a play, that one feels the whole thing to be hopelessly superficial and unreal. Imagine a journalistic foreigner visiting the University, lunching at the station refreshment-room, hurrying to half-a-dozen of the best known colleges, driving in a tram through the main thoroughfares, looking on at a football match, interviewing a Town Councillor, and being presented to the Vice- Chancellor--what would be the profit of such a record as he could give us? What would he have seen of the quiet daily life, the interests, the home-current of the place? The only books of travel worth reading are those where a person has settled deliberately in an unknown place, really lived the life of the people, and penetrated the secret of the landscape and the buildings.

On aging and reading.
But I think that as one grows older one may take out a licence, so to speak, to read less. One may go back to the old restful books, where one knows the characters well, hear the old remarks, survey the same scenes. One may meditate more upon one's stores, stroll about more, just looking at life, seeing the quiet things that are happening, and beaming through one's spectacles. One ought to have amassed, as life goes on and the shadows lengthen, a good deal of material for reflection. And, after all, reading is not in itself a virtue; it is only one way of passing the time; talking is another way, watching things another. Bacon says that reading makes a full man; well, I cannot help thinking that many people are full to the brim when they reach the age of forty, and that much which they afterwards put into the overcharged vase merely drips and slobbers uncomfortably down the side and foot.

The influence of reading:
And thus in such a mood reading becomes a patient tracing out of human emotion, human feeling, when confronted with the sorrows, the hopes, the motives, the sufferings which beckon us and threaten us on every side. One desires to know what pure and wise and high- hearted natures have made of the problem; one desires to let the sense of beauty--that most spiritual of all pleasures--sink deeper into the heart; one desires to share the thoughts and hopes, the dreams and visions, in the strength of which the human spirit has risen superior to suffering and death.

Further -
It will make us tolerant and forgiving, patient with stubbornness and prejudice, simple in conduct, sincere in word, gentle in deed; with pity for weakness, with affection for the lonely and the desolate, with admiration for all that is noble and serene and strong.

Well, this thought has taken me a long way from the College library, where the old books look somewhat pathetically from the shelves, like aged dogs wondering why no one takes them for a walk. Monuments of pathetic labour, tasks patiently fulfilled through slow hours! But yet I am sure that a great deal of joy went to the making of them, the joy of the old scholar who settled down soberly among his papers, and heard the silvery bell above him tell out the dear hours that, perhaps, he would have delayed if he could. Yes, the old books are a tender-hearted and a joyful company; the days slip past, the sunlight moves round the court, and steals warmly for an hour or two into the deserted room. Life--delightful life-- spins merrily past; the perennial stream of youth flows on; and perhaps the best that the old books can do for us is to bid us cast back a wistful and loving thought into the past--a little gift of love for the old labourers who wrote so diligently in the forgotten hours, till the weary, failing hand laid down the familiar pen, and soon lay silent in the dust.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

There is no substitute for simply knowing these primary associations.

From E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy.
There is no substitute for simply knowing these primary associations. They must be called up with lightning speed in the course of reading and conversing. We do not have the luxury of figuring out such associations one at a time. We may do this with one or two words in a paragraph - that is the way we learn new words - but we cannot pause over many words at a time. When we encounter U.S. Grant, the primary associations must be available to us in milliseconds: that he was an important Union general, that he became president, that he drank. These are some of the implicit associations needed to make meaningful what is explicitly written about Grant.

Research into the importance of primary associations thus introduces a subject of profound significance for teaching reading and writing. Successful communication depends upon shared associations. To participate in the literate national culture is to have acquired a sense of the information that is shared in that culture. No adult-level discourse retreats to the rudiments of knowledge. If assumptions about rudiments could not be made, ordinary discourse would be so lengthy and intricate as to obscure its own point.

Educators in the Rousseau-Dewey tradition, who favor less emphasis on mere fact and more emphasis on the intensive study of a few cases, encourage us to believe that students will thereby understand general principles and learn how to think critically. But literacy requires us to have both intensive knowledge of relationships and extensive knowledge of specifics. We need not only a general understanding of the principles of biology (which would enable us to infer that canaries breathe and lay eggs) but also specific knowledge of facts about canaries. We need to know not only the broad social and historical significance of the American Civil war but also who U.S. Grant was, and what the word Appomattox signifies. It is not enough to say that students can look these facts up. The research reviewed above shows that in order for readers to integrate phrases into comprehensible meanings, they must already possess specific, quickly available schemata. When readers constantly lack crucial information, dictionaries and encyclopedias become quite impractical tools. A consistent lack of necessary information can make the reading process so laborious and uncommunicative that it fails to convey meaning.

A mother's touch

Alice in Wonderland by George Dunlop Leslie, 1879

One of the recommendations in Growing a Reading Culture - Just for Parents, is to make reading personal. When children are young and being introduced to reading, the mere act of snuggling up close has strongly affirming qualities. Now here is some interesting additional confirmation of the recommendation, though not as it relates to reading per se.

Researchers have found that a woman touching a person carries strongly reassuring connotations which encourage greater confidence and risk taking. The researchers speculate that this is a product of childhood interactions with mothers. If so, it adds a dimension to the recommendation to snuggle up close and read together. Reading, in the early days, is a challenging proposition. If a child's association with Mom is one which does indeed encourage a sense of self-confidence and a willingness to take risks, then that can only be helpful when it comes to tackling the art of reading.

The research is reported in this article.

Kids and Family Reading Report

Scholastic sponsored a survey of children's reading habits and released a report in 2008, Kids and Family Reading Report. The findings from the survey are consistent with and complimentary to our own in Growing a Reading Culture - Just for Parents. Some of the nuggets that support our own findings:
Kids like choosing their own books - 89% say their favorite books are the ones they picked out themselves.

Most kids say there are not enough really good books for boys/girls their age, and they say
finding books they like is one of the key reasons they do not read for fun more frequently.

Parents underestimate the degree to which kids have trouble finding books they like.
There is an extremely strong relationship among the three dynamics of reading importance,
reading enjoyment, and reading behavior.

Kids who are higher on one measure are higher on all measures, and kids who are lower on one
measure are lower on all measures

For example:
High frequency readers are five times more likely than low frequency readers to say
reading is extremely or very important (94% vs.18%).

Kids who think reading is extremely important are more than four times more likely than
those who think reading is a little or not important to love or like reading a lot (96% vs.

Kids who think reading is extremely important are ten times more likely than kids who
think reading is a little or not important to be high frequency readers (53% vs. 5%).

Kids are nearly twice as likely as their parents (26% vs. 14%) to say having trouble finding books they like is a reason kids do not read more books for fun.

Children who struggle to find books they like have far weaker reading relationships than other kids.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

No man - no human, masculine, natural man - ever sells a book.

Non Libri Sed Liberi by Kenneth Grahame, an essay from Pagan Papers, originally published in 1893.
It will never be clear to the lay mind why the book-buyer buys books. That it is not to read them is certain: the closest inspection always fails to find him thus engaged. He will talk about them - all night if you let him - wave his hand to them, shake his fist at them, shed tears over them (in the small hours of the morning); but he will not read them. Yet it would be rash to infer that he buys his books without a remote intention of ever reading them. Most book lovers start with the honest resolution that some day they will "shut down on" this fatal practice. Then they purpose to themselves to enter into their charmed circle, and close the gates of Paradise behind them. Then will they read out of nothing but first editions; every day shall be a debauch in large paper and tall copies; and crushed morocco shall be familiar to their touch as buckram. Meanwhile, though, books continue to flaunt their venal charms; it would be cowardice to shun the fray. In fine, one buys and continues to buy; and the promised Sabbath never comes.

At last . . .

As part of our effort to identify those activities which parents can undertake in the home that will likely predispose their children to becoming habitual and enthusiastic readers (Growing a Reading Culture - Just for Parents), I have for more than a year been searching for information about the number of books in the home and have always come up short. At last I have some answers. M.D.R. Evans, et al have published a paper (Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations) which provides some data, not just for the US but 26 other countries as well.

This is a very interesting report which validates much of the other research we had compiled on this issue. In Growing a Reading Culture - Just for Parents, we identified access to books as one of the five bedrock activities that have a material impact on children's predisposition towards reading. The answer regarding how many books the average American has in their home is - 112. The same number as the average for all twenty-seven countries in the study. Israel and Latvia come in at the top at 224 and 265 books in the average home. Mediterranean countries tend to be lower, as expected from other studies (in the 40-60 range), Scandinavian countries much higher (150-160), reflective of their much higher reading participation rates.

Only 3% of US homes indicate that they have no books, which is better than some of the indicative evidence I had seen. Still, nearly fifty percent of homes have fewer than 25 books in them. 18% of homes have more than 500 books.

Some of the interesting observations and conclusions from the study:
Where do libraries come from - who acquires a large library? The answer is unequivocal: a taste for books is largely inherited (Fig. 6 and Table A.8, column 7). Parents' library size is by far the dominant influence on one's own home library size, .62 in standardized terms (see also Crook, 1997a). Importantly, once other factors are taken into account, education, occupational status, and class are irrelevant. Prosperous people buy more books, although not a lot more.

Thus it seems that scholarly culture, and the taste for books that it brings, flows from generation to generation largely of its own accord, little affected by education, occupational status, or other aspects of class.

First, because scholarly culture provides skills and knowledge that are central to literacy and numeracy, and hence valuable in schools everywhere, it implies that parents' participation in scholarly culture will enhance children's educational attainment in all societies, net of the parents' formal education and social class (Hypothesis 1). As we have seen, the evidence strongly supports this hypothesis. Moreover it also suggests that social and economic policies have little effect on the advantages conferred by scholarly culture; instead, the advantage is large in all nations, at all times, under all political regimes.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Plus ca change . . .

Nicholas Lemann in the November 1997 Atlantic with his article, The Reading Wars. Plus ca change . . .
I'd like to offer three predictions arising from the California curriculum wars. First, efforts to establish greater quality control in public education, which will almost inevitably mean trying to impose more central authority over the advanced countries' most decentralized system of schooling, will go on constantly over the next few decades. Second, given that the traditional side is now winning the ongoing battle between traditional and progressive education, schools all over the country will be pressed hard by parents and politicians to move toward imparting skills and away from simply inculcating the joy of learning. Third, the longer the United States remains in its current peaceful and relatively prosperous condition, the more issues like school curricula, which politicians and the press aren't used to considering at any length, will come to the fore in American politics. Politics can be contentious and consequential without being about the adjudication of world affairs. Great clashes of ideas and interests can take place on the battleground of everyday life.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Decay of Lying

The Decay of Lying: An Observation by Oscar Wilde, 1891 published in Intentions. In the form of a dialogue between two friends, it is really a vehicle for some witty and waspish literary criticisms on the part of Wilde. A sampling:
If Nature had been comfortable, mankind would never have invented architecture, and I prefer houses to the open air. In a house we all feel of the proper proportions. Everything is subordinated to us, fashioned for our use and our pleasure. Egotism itself, which is so necessary to a proper sense of human dignity, is entirely the result of indoor life. Out of doors one becomes abstract and impersonal. One's individuality absolutely leaves one. And then Nature is so indifferent, so unappreciative. Whenever I am walking in the park here, I always feel that I am no more to her than the cattle that browse on the slope, or the burdock that blooms in the ditch. Nothing is more evident than that Nature hates Mind. Thinking is the most unhealthy thing in the world, and people die of it just as they die of any other disease. Fortunately, in England at any rate, thought is not catching. Our splendid physique as a people is entirely due to our national stupidity. I only hope we shall be able to keep this great historic bulwark of our happiness for many years to come; but I am afraid that we are beginning to be over-educated; at least everybody who is incapable of learning has taken to teaching---that is really what our enthusiasm for education has come to.

Please don't interrupt in the middle of a sentence. `He either falls into careless habits of accuracy, or takes to frequenting the society of the aged and the well-informed. Both things are equally fatal to his imagination, as indeed they would be fatal to the imagination of anybody, and in a short time he develops a morbid and unhealthy faculty of truth-telling, begins to verify all statements made in his presence, has no hesitation in contradicting people who are much younger than himself, and often ends by writing novels which are so lifelike that no one can possibly believe in their probability. This is no isolated instance that we are giving. It is simply one example out of many; and if something cannot be done to check, or at least to modify, our monstrous worship of facts, Art will become sterile, and beauty will pass away from the land.'

However, my dear Cyril, I will not detain you any further just here. I quite admit that modern novels have many good points. All I insist on is that, as a class, they are quite unreadable.

Consider the matter from a scientific or a metaphysical point of view, and you will find that I am right. For what is Nature? Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life. Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us. To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and then only, does it come into existence. At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

On Buying Old Books

An essay by Charles S. Brooks, On Buying Old Books.
By some slim chance, reader, you may be the kind of person who, on a visit to a strange city, makes for a bookshop. Of course your slight temporal business may detain you in the earlier hours of the day. You sit with committees and stroke your profound chin, or you spend your talent in the market, or run to and fro and wag your tongue in persuasion. Or, if you be on a holiday, you strain yourself on the sights of the city, against being caught in an omission. The bolder features of a cathedral must be grasped to satisfy a quizzing neighbor lest he shame you later on your hearth, a building must be stuffed inside your memory, or your pilgrim feet must wear the pavement of an ancient shrine. However, these duties being done and the afternoon having not yet declined, do you not seek a bookshop to regale yourself?

Further -
I have in mind such a bookshop in Bath, England. It presents to the street no more than a decent front, but opens up behind like a swollen bottle. There are twenty rooms at least, piled together with such confusion of black passages and winding steps, that one might think that the owner himself must hold a thread when he visits the remoter rooms. Indeed, such are the obscurities and dim turnings of the place, that, were the legend of the Minotaur but English, you might fancy that the creature still lived in this labyrinth, to nip you between his toothless gums--for the beast grows old--at some darker corner. There is a story of the place, that once a raw clerk having been sent to rummage in the basement, his candle tipped off the shelf. He was left in so complete darkness that his fears overcame his judgment and for two hours he roamed and babbled among the barrels. Nor was his absence discovered until the end of the day when, as was the custom, the clerks counted noses at the door. When they found him, he bolted up the steps, nor did he cease his whimper until he had reached the comforting twilight of the outer world. He served thereafter in the shop a full two years and had a beard coming--so the story runs--before he would again venture beyond the third turning of the passage; to the stunting of his scholarship, for the deeper books lay in the farther windings.

There was such a bookstore in the cathedral town of Guildford, not too far from my parents' home in England. For years, every time I visited them, I made the effort to get over to Thorley's, not too dissimilar to the store described by Benson, until that awful visit when I found them to be having a going out of business sale. Such a sad event: but being a true buyer of books my sadness did not stop my acquiring a daunting armful of books.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

In some of our national moods we would like schools to teach everything, but they cannot.

From E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy.
The failure of our schools to create a literate society is sometimes excused on the grounds that the schools have been asked to do too much. They are asked, for example, to pay due regard to the demands of both local and national acculturation. They are asked to teach not only American history but also state and city history, driving, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, consumerism, carpentry, cooking, and other subjects. They are given the task of teaching information that is sometimes too rudimentary and sometimes too specialized. If the schools did not undertake this instruction, much of the information so provided would no doubt go unlearned. In some of our national moods we would like schools to teach everything, but they cannot. There is a pressing need for clarity about our educational priorities.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Such a citizen will, on the contrary, be a sort of universal man

Dukedom Large Enough by Michael Knox Beran in City Journal. An article length review of Kevin J. Hayes' The Road to Monticello. Jefferson was every bibliophiles patron president.
Jefferson alluded to the Greeks and Romans not only in his writing, but also in his architecture. Derivative pedantry? Servile tribute to the cultural supremacy of the Old World? Not quite. Classical standards were intimately involved in his vision of what America might become and what qualities of character might flourish here. Jefferson knew, from his reading of Thucydides, that the Greek idea of eutrapelia stood for a larger conception of civilized life: the root word means "graceful turning" (hence our idea of the "well-rounded" man), and it implied a beautiful versatility in action, what Matthew Arnold, in a lecture at Eton, called "a happy and gracious flexibility." A citizen so educated as to be able to "turn," easily and gracefully, from one task to another perhaps very different one, will not, Thucydides has Pericles say in the Funeral Oration, be idiotes, an idiot, imprisoned in a fragmentary part-life. Such a citizen will, on the contrary, be a sort of universal man, sufficiently broad-souled to contribute to the life of the city.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

People who have never troubled to read his books

From Anthony Lawton's site, Rosemary Sutcliff, is this article by Sutcliff on Kipling. Well worth a read.

I like Sutcliff's plea that people know what they are talking about before they hurl abuse at writers of yesteryear. Too many of our contemporary culture critics are prone to besmirching the reputations of writers from long ago without actually having read them.
Rudyard Kipling died just when the old order was dying, and many of the things that he believed in were falling into disrepute; when Britain was beginning to be ashamed of having - or ever having had - an Empire. And so the charge of Jingoism was levelled at him, and has been levelled at him off and on ever since, by people who have never troubled to read his books with an open mind. I have even heard conscientious parents and school teachers doubting the rightness of giving certain of his books to their children, lest they should imbibe jingoistic ideas from them - particularly from Stalky and Co., the very book which contains, had those conscientious parents and teachers noticed it, the unforgettable portrait of the Jelly-Bellied Flagflapper.

Empire had not become a dirty word to Kipling, but he saw it in terms, not of dominion but of service. One of the extremely sound lessons he has for the child of to-day is that service is not something to be ashamed of. Another is that history is something to do with oneself. Most children tend to grow up seeing history in a series of small static pictures, all belonging to the past and with no communicating door between them and the present. The two Puck books, with their mingling of past and present in one corner of England must help them to feel it as a living and continuous process of which they themselves are a part, and so see their own times in better perspective than they might otherwise have done.

Yes, Rudyard Kipling still has an honourable place to fill in the ranks of children's writers, and it is a place which, without him, must remain empty, for nobody else can fill it.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Who was the chap who was always beefing about losing gazelles?

From Jeeves in the Morning by P.G. Wodehouse.
"Thank you, sir."

"Who was the chap who was always beefing about losing gazelles?"

"The poet Moore, sir. He complained that he had never nursed a dear gazelle, to glad him with its soft black eye, but when it came to know him well and love him, it was sure to die."

"It's the same with me. I am a gazelle short. You don't mind me alluding to you as a gazelle, Jeeves?"

"Not at all, sir."

The poem by Thomas Moore is The Fire-Worshippers (in The Complete Poems of Sir Thomas Moore) and the relevant passage is:
Oh! Ever thus, from childhood's hour,
I've seen my fondest hopes decay;
I never loved a tree or flower,
But 'twas the first to fade away.
I never nurs'd a dear gazelle,
To glad me with its soft black eye,
But when it came to know me well,
And love me, it was sure to die!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

"The Odyssey will tell you an awful lot about human nature and life"

There are some wonderful versions of both the Odyssey and the Iliad available for children (such as Rosemary Sutcliff's The Wanderings of Odysseus and Black Ships Before Troy). Lane Wallace recently had an article in the February 19, 2010 The Atlantic Monthly, Original Sin on Wall Street in which one of her interviewees made the point of the importance of a well rounded knowledge of the classics, including, Odysseus.
"I think a lot of [the financial crisis] could perhaps have been avoided if our business leaders had a broader vision," Bogle told me. "I'm skeptical about the narrowness of the business school curriculum. I happen to believe it should have a much greater liberal arts emphasis, and even a much greater emphasis on the classics. The Odyssey will tell you an awful lot about human nature and life, and therefore about business, and societal values. Read the Odyssey. Read Dante's Inferno. You can also learn a lot by reading Seneca's essay on the shortness of life or Montaigne's essay on vanity."

Monday, May 10, 2010

On the balance between distinctiveness and commonality

From E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy.

Hirsch identifies the paradox that if there is to be a nation committed to tolerance and diversity, there still has to be some core of commonality - if no one shares values and beliefs in common, then there is no longer a common community.

. . . the values affirmed in traditional literate culture can serve a whole spectrum of value attitudes. Unquestionably, decisions about techniques of conveying traditions to our children are among the most sensitive and important decisions of a pluralistic nation. But the complex problem of how to teach values in American schools mustn't distract attention from our fundamental duty to teach shared content.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Seen only amidst the lumber of libraries which are seldom visited

Samuel Johnson, from Idler No. 59. Saturday, June 2, 1759. On the fate of reputations of books and more broadly the challenge of writing for today's audience in a fashion that catches the current fancy but might also endure outside the particularities of the here-and-now.
Fame, like all other things which are supposed to give or to increase happiness, is dispensed with the same equality of distribution. He that is loudly praised will be clamorously censured; he that rises hastily into fame will be in danger of sinking suddenly into oblivion.

Of many writers who filled their age with wonder, and whose names we find celebrated in the books of their contemporaries, the works are now no longer to be seen, or are seen only amidst the lumber of libraries which are seldom visited, where they lie only to show the deceitfulness of hope, and the uncertainty of honour.

Of the decline of reputation many causes may be assigned. It is commonly lost because it never was deserved; and was conferred at first, not by the suffrage of criticism, but by the fondness of friendship, or servility of flattery. The great and popular are very freely applauded; but all soon grow weary of echoing to each other a name which has no other claim to notice, but that many mouths are pronouncing it at once.

But many have lost the final reward of their labours, because they were too hasty to enjoy it. They have laid hold on recent occurrences, and eminent names, and delighted their readers with allusions and remarks, in which all were interested, and to which all, therefore, were attentive. But the effect ceased with its cause; the time quickly came when new events drove the former from memory, when the vicissitudes of the world brought new hopes and fears, transferred the love and hatred of the publick to other agents; and the writer, whose works were no longer assisted by gratitude or resentment, was left to the cold regard of idle curiosity.

He that writes upon general principles, or delivers universal truths, may hope to be often read, because his work will be equally useful at all times and in every country; but he cannot expect it to be received with eagerness, or to spread with rapidity, because desire can have no particular stimulation: that which is to be loved long, must be loved with reason rather than with passion. He that lays his labours out upon temporary subjects, easily finds readers, and quickly loses them; for what should make the book valued when the subject is no more?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.

From Virginia Woolf's essay, How Should One Read a Book?
Yet who reads to bring about an end, however desirable? Are there not some pursuits that we practise because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final? And is not this among them? I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards - their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble - the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us coming with our books under our arms, "Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading."

Friday, May 7, 2010

Things that ought to be taught and which aren't

In the earlier post, There is a pressing need for clarity about our educational priorities, quoting from Hirsch, I think he is indirectly getting at something that we at Through the Magic Door are trying to address through Growing a Reading Culture. We can only outsource so much educational responsibility to schools. A modicum of core behaviors and knowledge has to be cultivated within the family environment. Cultivating a love of reading that establishes the habit of enthusiastic reading is a key facilitator for reducing the burden on schools. As Hirsch observes, schools cannot teach everything. Within the family we can make up for some of that desirable knowledge that constrained time in school prevents from being imparted. The best mechanism for filling in the gaps between what can be taught and what ought to be taught is growing that love of reading. An enthusiastic reader will often, completely incidentally, substantially fill out most those missing enumerated subjects of things that ought to be taught and which aren't or can't be taught.

If we want to equip children with cultural literacy, we need to equip them with the love and habit of reading.

Universal literacy is inseparable from democracy

From E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy.
In the present day, that dream depends on mature literacy. No modern society can hope to become a just society without a high level of universal literacy. Putting aside for the moment the practical arguments about the economic uses of literacy, we can contemplate the even more basic principle that underlies our national system of education in the first place - that people in a democracy can be entrusted to decide all important matters for themselves because they can deliberate and communicate with one another. Universal literacy is inseparable from democracy and is the canvas for Martin Luther King's picture as well as for Thomas Jefferson's.

Both these leaders understood that just having the right to vote is meaningless if a citizen is disenfranchised by illiteracy or semiliteracy. Illiterate and semiliterate Americans are condemned not only to poverty, but also to the powerlessness of incomprehension. Knowing that they do not understand the issues, and feeling prey to manipulative oversimplifications, they do not trust the system of which they are supposed to be masters. They do not feel themselves to be active participants in our republic, and they often do not turn out to vote. The civic importance of cultural literacy lies in the fact that true enfranchisement depends upon knowledge, knowledge upon literacy, and literacy upon cultural literacy.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A book is a mirror

via "Reading: An essay" by W.H. Auden
A book is a mirror: if an ass peers into it, you can't expect an apostle to look out.

- C.G. Lightenberg

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Bring order into this multitudinous chaos . . .

From Virginia Woolf's essay, How Should One Read a Book?
But to enjoy freedom, if the platitude is pardonable, we have of course to control ourselves. We must not squander our powers, helplessly and ignorantly, squirting half the house in order to water a single rose-bush; we must train them, exactly and powerfully, here on the very spot. This, it may be, is one of the first difficulties that faces us in a library. What is "the very spot"? There may well seem to be nothing but a conglomeration and huddle of confusion. Poems and novels, histories and memoirs, dictionaries and blue-books; books written in all languages by men and women of all tempers, races, and ages jostle each other on the shelf. And outside the donkey brays, the women gossip at the pump, the colts gallop across the fields. Where are we to begin? How are we to bring order into this multitudinous chaos and so get the deepest and widest pleasure from what we read?

Babies possess certain moral foundations

A very interesting article in the May 3rd, 2010 New York Times, Moral Life of Babies by Paul Bloom. This is a tricky field (cognitive development of very young children) and it is easy to both misread experiments and over-extrapolate the possible implications. Tentative though the findings have to be, they are none-the-less intriguing.
Morality, then, is a synthesis of the biological and the cultural, of the unlearned, the discovered and the invented. Babies possess certain moral foundations - the capacity and willingness to judge the actions of others, some sense of justice, gut responses to altruism and nastiness. Regardless of how smart we are, if we didn't start with this basic apparatus, we would be nothing more than amoral agents, ruthlessly driven to pursue our self-interest. But our capacities as babies are sharply limited. It is the insights of rational individuals that make a truly universal and unselfish morality something that our species can aspire to.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

I become a thousand people

From Aidan Chambers' Booktalk: Occasional Writing on Literature and Children.
There is a phrase of C.S. Lewis's that sums this up. Through literature, he wrote, 'I become a thousand [people] and yet remain myself.'

Monday, May 3, 2010

Plain speaking in the 1700's

From one of Isaac Watts' ABC books.
He that ne'er learns his A B C,
For ever will a blockhead be;
But he that learns these letters fair,
Shall have a Coach to take the Air.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

What's that? All gas and gaiters

From Jeeves in the Morning by P.G. Wodehouse.

Wooster refers at one point to "everything is once more gas and gaiters" to mean that everything is in good shape. Still, where did the term come from. When I lived in England in the sixties there was a TV show starring Derek Nimmo as a clergyman and titled "All Gas and Gaiters."

Michael Quinion explains fully here. The origin is in Dickens:

But the original is in Charles Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby of 1839, in which a mad old gentleman who has been paying his addresses to Mrs Nickleby arrives precipitously down the chimney of an upstairs chamber dressed only in his underwear. Then Miss La Creevy comes into the room, whom the old man immediately mistakes for Mrs Nickleby:
"Aha!" cried the old gentleman, folding his hands, and squeezing them with great force against each other. "I see her now; I see her now! My love, my life, my bride, my peerless beauty. She is come at last - at last - and all is gas and gaiters!"

Despite its being nonsense (or possibly because it was), all is gas and gaiters became a well-known interjection. The original sense - as you will realise - was of a most satisfactory state of affairs. This is how nineteenth-century speakers used it and also clearly what Wodehouse meant by it. But another sense grew up in the twentieth century in which gaiters referred to the senior clergy - such as bishops and archbishops - because of their traditional dress that included those garments, and gas alluded to their supposedly meaningless eloquence. So all gas and gaiters has come to mean mere verbiage.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The First of May


illustration by Blanche Fisher Wright

The First of May

The fair maid who, the first of May,
Goes to the fields at break of day,
And washes in dew from the hawthorn-tree,
Will ever after handsome be.