Friday, October 30, 2009

The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,

In Memory of W. B. Yeats
by W. H. Auden

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.


You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.


Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Brett Harte - ". . . at which they silently spat in some accepted sense of social communion"

In picking up a couple of books on hold at one of the branch libraries, I stumbled across a library book sale - always a delight to which I am susceptible. I walked away with a grocery bag of books (about fifteen or so) for $6. I always like these sales for the surprises you come across as well as for the fact that at the prices that prevail, you can hardly afford not to try some book on the fringe, something you have heard of but not ever checked into, an author whose name is familiar but for an unknown reason.

Such was the case for me with Tales of the Gold Rush by Bret Harte. Both the author's name and the title rang some distant bell but with no answering sound of real recognition. But home it came in the grocery bag with other good finds. A handsome edition from 1944 by the old Heritage Press. I sampled one of the short stories, How Santa Came to Simpson's Bar while waiting for my computer to reboot. What a delight. I look forward to the other stories.

A couple of great lines:
As night shut down on the settlement, a few lights gleamed through the mist from the windows of cabins on either side of the highway now crossed and gullied by lawless streams and swept by marauding winds. Happily most of the population were gathered at Thompson's store, clustered around a red-hot stove, at which they silently spat in some accepted sense of social communion that perhaps rendered conversation unnecessary.


The Old Man hesitated. His conjugal experience had not been a happy one, and the fact was known to Simpson's Bar. His first wife, a delicate, pretty little woman, had suffered keenly and secretly from the jealous suspicions of her husband, until one day he invited the whole Bar to his house to expose her infidelity. On arriving, the party found the shy, petite creature quietly engaged in her household duties, and retired abashed and discomfited. But the sensitive woman did not easily recover from the shock of this extraordinary outrage. It was with difficulty she regained her equanimity sufficiently to release her lover from the closet in which he was concealed and escape with him. She left a boy of three years to comfort her bereaved husband. The Old Man's present wife had been his cook. She was large, loyal, and aggressive.


The night was pitchy dark. In the first gust of wind their temporary torches were extinguished, and only the red brands dancing and flitting in the gloom like drunken will-o'-the-wisps indicated their whereabouts.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

If God did not exist, . . .

It seems sometimes, that growing older simply means filling in the blanks. I have long heard the catch-phrase that if God did not exist you would have to invent him. Interesting catalyst to rumination but not ever so significant to mull too long. Where did the phrase come from? I always thought it was just some 1960's slogan. Wrong.

Voltaire of course was the original author. It is a line from his poem, Epistle to the author of the book, The Three Impostors. Presented here in translation by Jack Iverson.

Epistle to the author of the book, The Three Impostors
by Voltaire and translated by Jack Iverson

Insipid writer, you pretend to draw for your readers
The portraits of your 3 impostors;
How is it that, witlessly, you have become the fourth?
Why, poor enemy of the supreme essence,
Do you confuse Mohammed and the Creator,
And the deeds of man with God, his author?...
Criticize the servant, but respect the master.
God should not suffer for the stupidity of the priest:
Let us recognize this God, although he is poorly served.

My lodging is filled with lizards and rats;
But the architect exists, and anyone who denies it
Is touched with madness under the guise of wisdom.
Consult Zoroaster, and Minos, and Solon,
And the martyr Socrates, and the great Cicero:
They all adored a master, a judge, a father.
This sublime system is necessary to man.
It is the sacred tie that binds society,
The first foundation of holy equity,
The bridle to the wicked, the hope of the just.

If the heavens, stripped of his noble imprint,
Could ever cease to attest to his being,
If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.
Let the wise man announce him and kings fear him.
Kings, if you oppress me, if your eminencies disdain
The tears of the innocent that you cause to flow,
My avenger is in the heavens: learn to tremble.
Such, at least, is the fruit of a useful creed.

But you, faulty logician, whose sad foolishness
Dares to reassure them in the path of crime,
What fruit do you expect to reap from your fine arguments?
Will your children be more obedient to your voice?
Your friends, at time of need, more useful and reliable?
Your wife more honest? and your new renter,
For not believing in God, will he pay you better?
Alas! let's leave intact human belief in fear and hope.

In vain you raise as an objection to me the hypocritical insolence
Of these proud charlatans promoted to high honors,
Nourished by our work, quenched by our tears;
Of these Caesars tainted by their usurped grandeur;
A priest on the Capitoline hill where Pompea triumphed;
Of these wretches in sandals, the excrement of humanity,
Soaking there detestable hands in our blood;
At the sound of their voice a hundred towns are covered in ruins,
And the horrible matins of bloodied Paris:
I know these awful monuments better than you;
I have unmasked them with my pen for the past fifty years.
But, as the fearsome enemy of this fanaticism,
I have also celebrated God when the devil was vanquished.
I always distinguished between religion
And the misery bred of superstition.
Europe has thanked me; twenty crowned heads
Have deigned to applaud the fortunate labors of my nights,
While Patouillet was insulting me in vain.
I have done more in my time than Luther and Calvin.
They were seen opposing, in a fatal error,
Abuses with abuses, scandal with scandal.
Eager to throw themselves amidst the factions,
They condemned the pope and wanted to imitate him.
Europe was long desolated by them all;
They troubled the earth, and I have consoled it.
I have told the disputants, hounding one another:
"Cease, impertinent ones, cease, unfortunate ones;
Foolish children of God, cherish yourselves in your brothers,
And stop biting one another for absurd chimeras."
Good people have believed me: the evil ones, crushed,
Have hurled cries that are scorned by the wise man;
And in Europe, finally, happy toleration
Has become the catechism of all well made souls.

I see from afar that era coming, those happy days,
When philosophy, enlightening humanity,
Must lead them in peace to the feet of the common master;
Frightful fanaticism will tremble to appear there:
There will be less dogma with more virtue.

If someone wants to assume an official position,
He will no longer bring along two witnesses [2]
To testify to his beliefs; rather they will swear to his good conduct.

A Huguenot lover will be able to marry
The attractive sister of an important cleric;
We will see poverty clothed and nourished
With the treasures of the Loretto, amassed for Mary;
The children of Sarah, whom we treat like dogs,
Will eat ham that has been cured by Christians.
The Turk, without asking whether the imam will pardon him,
Will go drink with the abbe Tamponet at the Sorbonne. [3]
My nephews will dine gaily and with no ill will
With the descendants of the Pompignan brothers;
They will be able to pardon this harsh La Bletrie [4]
For having cut short the course of my life.
We will see a reunion of the finest minds:
But who will ever be able to bear dining with Freron?

Voltaire's Notes

[1] This book of the Three Imposters is a very dangerous work, full of coarse atheism, without wit and devoid of philosophy.

[2] In France, in order to be accepted as procurer, notary, clerk, one needs two witnesses who confirm the Catholicism of the recipient.

[3] Tamponet was, in fact, a doctor at the Sorbonne.

[4] La Bletterie, as I have been told, has stated in print that I have forgotten to have myself buried.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Need of Being Versed in Country Things

The Need of Being Versed in Country Things
by Robert Frost

The house had gone to bring again
To the midnight sky a sunset glow.
Now the chimney was all of the house that stood,
Like a pistil after the petals go.

The barn opposed across the way,
That would have joined the house in flame
Had it been the will of the wind, was left
To bear forsaken the place's name.

No more it opened with all one end
For teams that came by the stony road
To drum on the floor with scurrying hoofs
And brush the mow with the summer load.

The birds that came to it through the air
At broken windows flew out and in,
Their murmur more like the sigh we sigh
From too much dwelling on what has been.

Yet for them the lilac renewed its leaf,
And the aged elm, though touched with fire;
And the dry pump flung up an awkward arm;
And the fence post carried a strand of wire.

For them there was really nothing sad.
But though they rejoiced in the nest they kept,
One had to be versed in country things
Not to believe the phoebes wept.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


Well this is just very interesting as I have never seen it alluded to anywhere else. I am in the midst of doing some research trying to pin down what exactly are the activities that parents can undertake in the home that are likely to increase the odds of their children becoming enthusiastic readers. As part of that effort you of course need to define what constitutes enthusiastic reading. I am turning up a lot of very interesting material that I hope will be useful.

One of the issues that arises is the perception that we have a crisis of "boy reading" or more accurately boy non-reading. I'll go into that issue later as there are many unstated assumptions that color the answer as to whether there really is a crisis or not. Regardless of the nuances, there is a measurable reality that in middle school and high school, boys are less likely to read at all and do read less than girls in terms of hours spent reading.

I have just been working with some of the data that is annually collected by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program and the Higher Education Research Institute of UCLA. They administer an annual survey to matriculating freshmen and graduating seniors regarding their college expectations and experiences. It is a very interesting body of data as these surveys have been administered to student populations in the tens of thousands across hundreds of institutions of higher learning and for more than forty years. So there is a lot of data that is pretty robust and with good consistency over time.

The nugget which I have come across is the comparative habits of reading for students at the time they enter college and the time that they leave. In 2008, some 23,423 graduating students had also taken the survey when they matriculated, allowing you to look at changes in habits during their college career.

One questions asks "During the past year, how much time did you spend during the typical week doing the following activities?"

Reading for pleasure
Less than an hour
1 to 2 hours
3 to 5 hours
6 to 10 hours
11 to 15 hours
16 to 20 hours
Over 20 hours

Analyzing the numbers, one can see that on entering university, fewer women than men read nothing at all for pleasure (14.5% versus 24.7%) and that women read more at each of the levels above None than do men. In aggregate, at the time of entering university, more women than men are reading at all and they read about 25% more in volume than do men.

Not unexpectedly, the volume of reading for pleasure declines during their college years. However, whereas the volume of reading for pleasure declines by about 25% for men, it declines by more than half for women. What is especially interesting is the decline by level of reading intensity. (Infrequent readers being non-readers and those reading less than an hour a week; intermittent readers reading between one and five hours a week; and enthusiastic readers reading between six and more than 20 hours a week for pleasure).

Infrequent male readers go from 52% to 59% but infrequent female readership goes from 41% to 64%. Intermittent male reading goes from 39.4% to 36% whereas intermittent female readers go from 47% to 33%. The Enthusiastic Reader population for males goes from 9.1% to 5.2% whereas enthusiastic female readers plummets from 12.2% to 3.6%.

The net is that in contrast to primary and secondary school where girls outread boys by healthy margins, by the time they graduate from college, (while everyone is reading less), men are doing more reading for pleasure at every level and among the most enthusiastic readers, men are spending more than 50% more time reading than women.

So all that is just data. What is the useful information? I am not sure. One might speculate that it is simply an artifact of males maturing at a slower rate than females. Possibly it is a function of being in a more male instructional environment, possibly it is greater freedom of reading choice. Other factors might also be at work. I just don't know but it does call into question the crisis of boy reading.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Extremely Stiff Upper Lip

Perusing Erik Durschmeid's The Hinge Factor (some interesting historical episodes but a bit over-written), I came across the famous incident at the Battle of Waterloo as Wellington and his cavalry commander, Lord Uxbridge sat horseback upon a plateau surveying the course of the battle. In their exposed position, they were subject to bullets and artillery fire.

Eventually, a stray cannonball took off Lord Uxbridge's leg. His classic British response to this gruesome wound was: "By God, sir. I've lost my leg." Betraying that British propensity to wild emotionalism in moments of crisis, Wellington responded, "By God, sir. I believe you have."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Defiant Ones

In this week's New Yorker, October 19, 2009, there is an article, The Defiant Ones, by Daniel Zalewski. As is common in articles of this ilk, the author attempts to find some indicative meaning about parenting and society, by looking at the children's books that are read. The pleasure of this pastime is that it is irrefutable. Pop psychology can be thoroughly indulged with no factual basis for determining whether the speculation warrants any regard. While that critical statement is harsh, it does not deny that that speculation is fun. It is. But it doesn't get us far.

The US is far too large and the habits and customs of our citizens so varied, that it becomes exceptionally difficult to draw large conclusions from what are always small samples. What passes for normal among the small, compact families of the highly degreed service economy denizens of the Upper East Side can seem to be the norms and mores of another planet to everyone else.

I would agree, as the article seems to imply, that there are pockets of practitioners of supine parenting practiced from a prone position, over-trodden by tiny furies. And perhaps it is more common in Manhattan than elsewhere. It is even possible that that particular style of parenting is practiced with greater frequency than in the past. But I think it would be a stretch to characterize it as either prevalent or distinctly contemporary. It is just one more strand in that frontier we continue to explore - how much variance in behavior can we tolerate while still remaining a common, identifiable culture.

The one observation in the article with which I would agree, is the, perhaps, increasing tendency to use books as bibliotherapy. We pay books the compliment of acknowledging our belief in their importance and consequence by turning to them for ever more varied purposes. They are not simply places to find knowledge, wisdom and escape but also tools for an ever greater range of therapies. Which books are good for dealing with bullying, death of a relative, first day at school, swearing, arrival of a sibling, etc.?

The motivation betrays an admirable and profound confidence in books to make a difference. I worry though, that too great a reliance on books for therapy might erode the raw joy that a child can derive from them. In moderation, perhaps, but not as a constant tool. If books become associated with negative things, then it would make sense that a child would turn away from them as something unpleasant and distasteful. But that is simply my unproven speculation.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Foreign or ancient phrases to do with books and reading

From Araltas, an heraldry store.

Corrigenda - A list of things to be corrected. (in a book)
Cui dono lepidum novum libellum? - To whom do I give my new elegant little book? (Catullus)
Fronti nulla fides - No reliance can be placed on appearance. (don't judge a book by its cover)
Helluo librorum - A glutton for books. (bookworm)
Ibidem (Ib.) - In the same place. (in a book)
In libris libertas - In books (there is) freedom
Index librorum prohibitorum - Official list of forbidden books not to be read by Catholics
Nullus est liber tam malus ut non aliqua parte prosit - There is no book so bad that it is not profitable on some part. (Pliny the Younger)
Optimis parentibus - To my excellent parents.A common dedication in a book
Optimus magister, bonus liber - The best teacher is a good book
Vita sine libris mors est - Life without books is death
Graeca sunt, non leguntur - It is Greek, you don't read that
Labra lege - Read my lips
Laudant illa, sed ista legunt - Some (writing) is praised, but other is read. (Martialis)
Lectio brevior lectio potior - The shortest reading is the more probable reading
Lector benevole - Kind reader
Lege atque lacrima - Read 'em and weep
Lege et lacrima - Read it and weep
Lege, sapere aude - Read, dare to be wise
Legite et discite - Read and learn
Ore lego, corde credo - I read with my face (i.e. eyes), I believe with my heart
Qui scribit bis legit - He who writes reads twice
Si hoc legere scis nimium eruditionis habes - If you can read this, you're overeducated
Varia lecto (v.l.) - Variant reading
Difficile est saturam non scribere - It is hard not to write satire. (Juvenalis)
Insanabile cacoethes scribendi - An incurable passion to write. (Juvenal)
Lex non scripta - The unwritten (common) law
Lex scripta - The written law
Post scriptum (P.S) - After what has been written
Scribere est agere - To write is to act
Semper letteris mandate - Always get it in writing!
Verba volant, (littera) scripta manet - Words fly away, the written (letter) remains
Literati - Men of letters
Ní fiú scéal gan údar. - There's no worth to a story without an author. (Irish Proverb)
Fabula sed vera - A story, but a true one
Historia est vitae magistra - The history is the tutor of life

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Unless a government interferes

I have not ever thought of Robert Frost as a particularly political poet and I don't suppose he necessarily was. He famously wrote and read a poem at John F. Kennedy's inauguration. But reading Something of Hope, one of his poems in the collection Versed in Country Things, edited by Edward Connery Latham, he expresses a sentiment oddly contemporary. (The poem also appears in Robert Frost Collected Poems, Prose and Plays) The poem follows. Saving those that might need a Latin refresher (as I did), spes alit agricolam is Latin for "hope sustains the farmer".

Something for Hope
by Robert Frost

At the present rate it must come to pass,
And that right soon, that the meadowsweet
And steeple bush, not good to eat,
Will have crowded out the edible grass.

Then all there is to do is wait
For maple, birch, and spruce to push
Through the meadowsweet and steeple bush
And crowd them out at a similar rate.

No plow among these rocks would pay.
So busy yourself with other things
While the trees put on their wooden rings
And with long-sleeved branches hold their sway.

Then cut down the trees when lumber grown,
And there's your pristine earth all freed
From lovely blooming but wasteful weed
And ready again for the grass to own.

A cycle we'll say of a hundred years.
Thus foresight does it and laissez-faire,
A virtue in which we all may share
Unless a government interferes.

Patience and looking away ahead,
And leaving some things to take their course.
Hope may not nourish a cow or horse,
But spes alit agricolam 'tis said.

Winter's coming

After a week of hard rains, flash floods, flood warnings, and continual drizzle, this morning presents a different prospect.

Winter is coming. The sky is metal gray. The temperature has moved beyond refreshing into the region of downright cold. The ground no longer looks sodden because it is beginning to look solid.

A perfect day for some Robert Frost. I recently picked up a copy of Robert Frost Versed in Country Things, poems selected by Edward Connery Latham and illustrated with wonderfully complementary photographs by B.A. King. There are only twenty poems from the immense trove of Frost's work and include none of his best known poems. But the ones that are here are good and as mentioned, the combination of these particular poems with the beautiful photographs of B.A. King make for an excellent wintry morning reading.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Child! do not throw this book about

From the dedication of Hillaire Belloc's The Bad Child's Book of Beasts.
Child! do not throw this book about;
Refrain from the unholy pleasure
Of cutting all the pictures out!
Preserve it as your chiefest treasure.

Child, have you never heard it said
That you are heir to all the ages?
Why, then, your hands were never made
To tear these beautiful thick pages!

Your little hands were made to take
The better things and leave the worse ones.
They also may be used to shake
The Massive Paws of Elder Persons.

And when your prayers complete the day,
Darling, your little tiny hands
Were also made, I think, to pray
For men that lose their fairylands.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Read More, Stay Sentient Longer

From the Nov/Dec 2009 edition of BBC Knowledge magazine.
We Can Work It Out

A regular mental workout can delay the rapid decline in memory caused by dementia. In a study published in the journal Neurology, nearly 500 people aged 75-85 were tracked for several years. Those who took part in 11 brain-engaging activities per week, like reading and doing crossword puzzles, delayed a rapid decline in their memory by an average of 1.29 years compared to those who engaged in only four. The results were still valid even when the researchers factored in the education level of the study's participants.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Preacher

This past weekend, we attended our annual church retreat in the North Carolina mountains. It is a wonderful opportunity to gather with all the other members of the congregation in a social setting and reknit some of those bonds that soften away when you attend different services, are on different committees, are involved in different missions. The mountains are usually gorgeous but especially this time of the year with cold nights, crisp mornings and warm afternoons. The trees usually are just beginning to turn and of course there is always apple picking to be done.

We had a bunch of kids with us this time in addition to our own and so we took both cars up. Sunday afternoon, we headed back to Atlanta with my eldest, Price, in the car with me. As I usually do on long drives, I cast around on the radio dial down in the 88 - 91.0 range to try and find an NPR station, hoping for news or Car Talk or Garrison Keillor. I don't know if it is true country wide but in the Southeast and Midwest, that is where you are usually able to find NPR. Making interesting neighbors, though, 88 - 91.0 also seems to be where you usually find the religious/pentacostal type broadcasts as well.

Being a Sunday in the mountains, we had plenty of choices of preachers and could find no NPR. Flipping through each station, listening for a minute or two and then moving on, we kept finding yet one more person berating, declaring and condemning. Not quite my preferred listening on a long drive.

Then, of a sudden, we came across such a distinct presentation that we were immediately gripped. I never caught the preacher's name and the broadcasting seemed to be in the hands of enthusiastic but inexperienced hands; the ends of a segment would be cut short, new sections opened without introduction etc.

What was so gripping was this preacher's distinctive speech. Real mountain vernacular. Very staccato delivery. Some of the rote cliches and standard speechifying but really much more genuine than that. It was of a type but so distinct. While some of his points I might disagree with, in the main we were in synch but it was his speech patterns and mode of delivery that really captivated me.

Such rich language and expression as well. We listened until he was, regrettably cut off as they transitioned to another, more mundane preacher. Only towards the end did I think to whip out my pocket commonplace and have Price note down a couple of the preacher's phrases. The one that especially caught my attention and made me laugh was his characterization of some person's thinking and faulty conclusions:
Your brain done took a vacation and left yo' head.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

How Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect

An article in the New York Times, How Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect, October 6, 2009, by Benedict Carey.

The rub of the article is the reporting of some recent studies suggesting that when the brain is stimulated by nonsensical information, it responds by heightening its efforts, towards which it is already predisposed, to find patterns in the information. The studies indicate that the brain, so stimulated, becomes more effective in finding patterns which it otherwise would overlook. At the same time, there is evidence to suggest that it also becomes more prone to false positives, seeing patterns where there are none.

Interesting studies in their own right but I wonder what the connection might be with traditions in children's literature. Does our early exposure of children to Mother Goose poems and rhymes (many of which are reasonably incomprehensible) and poets such as Edward Lear, prime children's brains to better find patterns in language and reading than they might otherwise? Do Mother Goose and Lear accelerate children's brain development or do they simply make them more attentive to patterns and therefore accomplish more earlier? And what about riddles? Does an early engagement with riddles (riddles being a frequent component of folktales and a tradition in its own right), better prime the brain for comprehending more subtle and nuanced stories?

Which other linguistic/cultural traditions include early exposure to the type of paradoxes and nonsense of Mother Goose and Lear so prevalent in the anglo-sphere? Are there notable differences in academic accomplishment (both static and innovative) between those linguistic cultures with early exposure to nonsense and those that do not have such exposure?

Further: how might this relate to jokes, puns, and other forms of humor which depend on misdirecting the brain in one direction while delivering the punchline from an entirely different angle, i.e. forcing it to adjust from one expected pattern to an unanticipated pattern?

There are many ways to dice up reading materials but one way might be to identify three categories of reading 1) that which tells us what we wish to know (instruction manuals and writing of that ilk), 2) that which affirms what we already know (comfort reading), and 3) that which instructs or informs us indirectly and by unexpected example (literature and higher functioning non-fiction). This third category is effectively an extension of the brain seeking to find patterns which it otherwise might have overlooked and to make sense of a pattern of information or events which otherwise seems to have no pattern. Is there a quotient of nonsensical reading which primes us for then making sense of more elaborate writing. Do we get more from other works by reading the likes of Kafka and Whitman first?

I wonder.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Interesting juxtaposition

One of my bibliographical sins is that of reading many books at the same time. I know there are drawbacks to this but it is a habit I have had from early years and betrays a bookish gluttony.

One of the benefits of this habit though is that it sometimes allows you to make connections you might not otherwise recongnize. I am currently reading, among others, Richard Dana's Two Years Before the Mast as well as Stephen Taylor's Caliban's Shore. In Dana's account, from the 1830's, they are on their return journey from trading on the California coast. They are approaching the area of Cape Horn and he mentions their longitudinal and latitudinal position with precision in the context of anticipating the weather they will encounter. The sailor's concern is clear in the text but it is specific - they fear the storms and the cold of the Horn but they know precisely where they are.

In contrast, aboard the Grosvenor, an East Indiaman returning in 1781 from India to Britain via South Africa's Cape of Good Hope, they have, owing to the lateness of the sailing season, been sailing across the remote stretches of the Indian Ocean without sight of land or ship for six weeks.

Mariners have long known how to measure their latitude (how far north or south they are from the Equator). However, there was no easy or obvious method for determining longitude (how far east or west one was). It was only in the 1750's and 1760's when John Harrison in Britain proposed the use of chronometers and began developing instruments for that purpose. However, in 1781, chronometers were still very expensive, fallible, and rare. Most ships, including the Grosvenor, did not carry chronometers and therefore were unable to determine their longitude other than through dead reckoning which often turned out to be grossly and catastrophically inaccurate.

Such proved the case with the Grosvenor. They have been sailing six weeks across the Indian Ocean, know they are approaching Africa but can't be certain if it is 2, 20, or 200 miles away.

It is interesting to read the two texts in near proximity and see how forty years and one critical technology can make a world of difference. The concern and fear in the Grosvenor are palpable whereas Dana betrays only a sailorly concern about the weather.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

How we know a dog is a dog . . .

An interesting article from the September 23, 2009 edition of Psychology and Sociology, titled How we know a dog is a dog: Concept acquisition in the human brain. Although in different language, it supports the comment in my post, The Brain is an Engineering System. The primary point is that routine reading is likely to build up a child's capacity to comprehend and anticipate situations by laying down patterns of reality gleaned from books.