Aug 25 2010

A Love for the Love of Reading

(A Dialogue between the Brothers Grimm)

Wilhelm: Today I woke up believing how, like Montaigne, each of us brothers is the kind of person who has: “forgotten it all; for though I am a man of some reading, I am one who retains nothing,” (01). We read, yes, but what do we retain? I mean not just the text itself, but do you or I retain the memory of the act of reading the text and not just a remembrance of texts past? How does that affect our interpretation and recall?

Jacob: Yes, along those same lines, sometimes I don’t know whether I wield or wax or wane away my love for books simply for the sake of a deeper devotion: the love for the love of books.

Wilhelm: Well, after all, Psyche fell in love with love itself … perhaps we should not be so surprised. (02)

Jacob: Were that true, we might dare to call ourselves “selfless readers.”

Wilhelm: I remember an opening remark by the enlightened bookman Samuel Johnson, in his Rambler No. 02 (1750), and in introducing us to his essay (whose topic happens to be authorship), we find Johnson’s words apply to the way we Brothers Grimm see ourselves reading:

That the mind of man is never satisfied with the objects immediately before it, but is always breaking away from the present moment, and losing itself in schemes of future felicity; and that we forget the proper use of the time now in our power to provide for the enjoyment of that which, perhaps, may never be granted us, has been frequently remarked; and as this practice is: a commodious subject of raillery to the gay, and of declamation to the serious, it has been ridiculed with all the pleasantry of wit, and exaggerated with all the amplifications of rhetoric. Every instance, by which its absurdity might appear most flagrant, has been studiously collected; it has been marked with every epithet of contempt, and all the tropes and figures have been called forth against it. (03)

Wilhelm: Take Johnson’s first line: That the mind of man is never satisfied with the objects immediately before it, but is always breaking away from the present moment, and losing itself in schemes of future felicity; and that we forget the proper use of the time now in our power to provide for the enjoyment of that which, perhaps, may never be granted us—when I read those words of Johnson’s they remind me of how I generally want to read all the books behind the book that’s in my hand at the moment.

Jacob: Oh?

Wilhelm: And while doing so, I think: “Which books should I have read before this book I have now?” In short, I dismiss the book at hand.

Jacob: But then remember that Emerson advises us: “If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument.” (04)

Wilhelm: Yes, if I knew what I should’ve read, I could anticipate the arguments of the book at hand.

Jacob: Okay, but please elaborate on this desire for anticipation.

Wilhelm: Take M. Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1967)—

Jacob: —Oh, do I have to?

Wilhelm: So I ordered, received the book from Amazon. It’s a thick, heavy, pretty book with nice paper. But, browsing through its index, I see that I should probably read more deeply in Condillac, Freud, Hegel, Heidegger, Husserl, Levi’-Strauss, Nietzsche, and Rousseau before I fully plunge into the grammatology of M. Derrida. I feel as though I need to read what he’s read so I can anticipate him, that I may then “know” his text and acquire gnosis of it before I’ve even read it.

Jacob: Johnson continues:

Censure is willingly indulged, because it always implies some superiority; men please themselves with imagining that they have made a deeper search, or wider survey than others, and detected faults and follies, which escape vulgar observation. And the pleasure of wantoning in common topics is so tempting to a writer, that he cannot easily resign it; a train of sentiments generally received enables him to shine without labour, and to conquer without a contest. It is so easy to laugh at the folly of him who lives only in ideas, refuses immediate ease for distant pleasures, and instead of enjoying the blessings of life, lets life glide away in preparations to enjoy them; it affords such opportunities of triumphant exultation, to exemplify the uncertainty of the human state, to rouse mortals from their dream, and inform them of the silent celerity of time, that we may believe authors willing rather to transmit than examine so advantageous a principle, and more inclined to pursue a track so smooth and so flowery, than attentively to consider whether it leads to truth. (05)

Jacob: For Johnson (or at least our reading of him), behind the love for the love of reading lurks a temptation to censure, a temptation to criticize what occurs in life as well as what occurs in the act of reading.

Wilhelm: So does Johnson’s line to pursue a track so smooth and so flowery, than attentively to consider whether it leads to truth” leads us back to the “silent celerity” of time?

Jacob: For our purposes brother, the love for the love of books seems more “flowery” than a direct, immediate love of absorbing the printed word.

Wilhelm: Although Johnson specifically discusses authorship in this essay, we readers may also, as Johnson writes, be “willing to transmit than examine” our readings onto others.

Jacob: A lot of times I feel I’ve somehow censured myself (or at least my intellect) once I recognize the love for the love of reading. It is a barrier.

Wilhelm: Yes, it impedes my attention towards the text.

Jacob: With the line: “that many read but sought action” we might interpret Johnson to mean: when we Brothers Grimm read, we act out of our love for the love of reading, but the reading itself is for a kind of reading we shall never reach.

Wilhelm: Then do we read in order to escape Johnson’s foreboding phrase “the silent celerity of time”?

Jacob: Or do we read in order to envelope our attention into any book at hand and its own “silent celerity of time”?

Wilhelm: What I think Johnson means in this line is that this is what happens when style conquers truth: truth is silenced by the speed of style.

Jacob: And you look to Johnson as an authority on Style? Hmm, I see.

Wilhelm: Compare Johnson’s line “Censure is willingly indulged, because it always implies some superiority” to a passage from Lord Shaftesbury’s Sensus Communis (1711) when his lordship mentions some who are:

Imposers [who] naturally speak the best of human nature, that they may the easier abuse it. These gentlemen, on the contrary, speak the worst and had rather they themselves shou’d be censur’d with the rest, than that a few shou’d by imposture prevail over the many. For ’tis the opinion of goodness which creates easiness of trust, and by trust, we are betray’d to power; our very reason being thus captivated by those in whom we come insensibly to have an implicit faith. (06)

Wilhelm: In our case, we can take Shaftesbury to mean an implicit faith in books. It seems, at least from Shaftesbury’s point of view, that these impostor-authors have censured themselves.

Jacob: The “schemes of future felicity” mentioned earlier by Johnson are themselves schemes of censurship: schemes for readers to impose criticism onto the authors at hand.

Wilhelm: As Shaftesburian readers, we put “an implicit faith” in authors when instead, we should censure them by feeling superior to them.

Jacob: If we maintain a love for the love of books rather than the act of reading, it becomes easier to abuse our minds (our beliefs and doubts) with the texts we read. Drugs and delusions galore.

Wilhelm: Or, is it only that we desire to display the implied superiority found in censurship? Because if we are all censures, I have a hard time not believing we are little more than impostors who impose reading and our love of reading upon others.

(01) Montaigne, Michel de. Essays II, x, “On Books.” (1580). Trans. Charles Cotton. Project Guttenberg. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3600/3600-h/3600-h.htm#2HCH0067>.

(02) Apuleius, Lucius. “Cupid and Psyche.” The Golden Ass. (~200 A.D.).

(03) Johnson, Samuel. The Rambler 02. March 26, 1750. (¶ 1).

(04) Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self Reliance“. (1841).

(05) Johnson, Samuel. The Rambler 02. March 26, 1750. (¶ 2).

(06) Cooper, Anthony Ashley, Third Earl of Shaftesbury. Sensus Communis. (1711). In Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times.


Aug 7 2010

The Difference between Quoting and Vomiting up the Words and Works of Authors

(A Dialogue of Diagnosis between the Brothers Grimm)

Let us try to clarify what we said earlier….

JACOB: So brother, did you dream of any books last night?

WILHELM: Yes, again I dreamed of books, of authors, of words, and even ideas—ones read before and ones I can’t remember.

JACOB: I too have forgotten most of my readings from the stacks and shelves and piles of books scattered around my parlor.

WILHELM:  Yes, all words and works inside my mind have fermented into squalor.

JACOB: I am losing my sense of taste as well—it now seems that all books are bland.

WILHELM:  All literature lukewarm…

JACOB: Yes, and frequently cited but not enough studied are the words of Lord Bacon, who once suggested: “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and a few to be chewed and digested,” (01). But because I find it difficult to remember what I’ve read, it’s to a point where I don’t even know whether they were books I wanted to read.  Perhaps it reflects a tendency of mine to fixate on the desire rather than the act of reading.

WILHELM: My memory has lost words once absorbed as well as ideas once articulated by others—everything now dims toward dementia. But I take a touch of comfort in knowing that I’m not unlike Montaigne.

JACOB: How so?

WILHELM: Recall who Montaigne was: a man who retired to read, who attempted (or “essayed”) to discover himself as he put his thoughts on paper—here was a man who, after holding up a book marked full of strange notes in its margins, hesitated upon realizing that the book which seemed foreign should actually have been familiar to him, because the notes were written by Montaigne, and only afterwards did he remember having already read the book (02).

JACOB:  The devil he didn’t bother telling us the name of the book.

WILHELM:  True, he must not have digested it properly, but instead, read and chewed and ate too fast, as often occurs to people in opulent retirement.

JACOB: Often for me a book appears unfamiliar because I didn’t read it closely enough—

WILHELM:  —Because you tend not to savor the flavors of those spicy sentences.

JACOB:  I forget to fasten them to my memory, probably because I am strapped more to the idea, rather than the act, of reading books. I attend to the context of reading something while ignoring that something’s contents.

WILHELM: Perhaps Montaigne fell in love with the idea of reading his unnamed book but cared little for its contents?

JACOB: That difference, a desire for method over meaning, confounds me.

WILHELM: Ah, but haven’t you heard how preferring methods over meanings is what it means to be modern? “The medium is the message” and all that?

JACOB: I remember in another place where Montaigne compares his readings of books to: “the excrements of an old mind, sometimes thick, sometimes thin, and always indigested,” (03). Montaigne reveals an attitude similar to the advice on reading prescribed by Bacon, but the Frenchman’s humility makes him more honest (more intimate) than the English Lord.

WILHELM: So when it comes to reading books, do you prefer eating “excrement” or “bacon”?

JACOB: Ah, brother, but wouldn’t a far number of Muslim and Jewish readers equate the two?

WILHELM: As I am neither, I can respond only with an old pirate’s proverb: Why fart and waste it, when you can burp and taste it?

JACOB: I am astonished at your ability for over-specificity.

WILHELM: Dear brother, I am only trying to get at how it seems as though Montaigne were about to spout a kind of “bookish bulimia” onto his readers—a projectile vomit full of anorexic annotations of God knows what obscure Latin authors Montaigne read as a child. He probably quoted them aloud and at random—

JACOB: —As we ourselves often do—

WILHELM: —As does Bookbread on his blog.

JACOB: And well before Montaigne, there was Epictetus—a man who, unlike Montaigne, owned no library of books to organize his thoughts, nor castle in the French countryside with which to house them—yet still that slave and Stoic recognized:

Accordingly if any conversation should arise among uninstructed persons about any theorem, generally be silent; for there is great danger that you will immediately vomit up what you have not digested. And when a man shall say to you, that you know nothing, and you are not vexed, then be sure that you have begun the work (of philosophy). For even sheep do not vomit up their grass and show to the shepherds how much they have eaten; but when they have internally digested the pasture, they produce externally wool and milk. Do you also show not your theorems to the uninstructed, but show the acts which come from their digestion. (04)

WILHELM: In other words, we have both the ancient Epictetus and the more recent Renaissance men (Montaigne and Bacon) warning us against this habit of reading books and then regurgitating their quotations before we have let them settle in the stomachs of our souls.  And they warn us because such a habit fails to provide the mind of the reader with any sort of mental-nutritional value?

JACOB: Precisely.

WILHELM: Should we (as readers) then behave like dogs—dare we return to our own vomit?

JACOB: There you go with that over-specificity again, brother, but recall the old proverb: if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog….

01. Bacon, Francis. “Of Studies.” The Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral. (1625).  Project Guttenberg. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/575/575-h/575-h.htm#2H_4_0050>.

02. Montaigne, Michel de. Essays II, x, “On Books.” (1580).  Trans. Charles Cotton.  Project Guttenberg. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3600/3600-h/3600-h.htm#2HCH0067>.

03. Montaigne, Michel de. Essays III, ix “On Vanity.” (1580).  Trans. Charles Cotton.  Project Guttenberg. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3600/3600-h/3600-h.htm#2HCH0102>.

04. Epictetus, Encheiridion (“The Manual”) xlvi, pp. 400–401.  Trans. George Long.  Google Books. <http://books.google.com/books?id=qgwqAAAAYAAJ&dq=Epictetus&source=gbs_navlinks_s>.


Jul 14 2010

Some Bookish Bulimia of the Brothers Grimm (a dialogue)

JACOB: So brother, did you dream of any books last night?

WILHELM: Yes, again I dreamed of books, of authors, of words, and even ideas—ones I’ve read before and ones I can’t remember. It’s difficult to remember what I’ve read.

JACOB: And still more difficult to remember are those vast volumes from the future, those books already written and yet to be dreamed, wouldn’t you agree?

WILHELM: Yes, Lord Bacon once accurately suggested that “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and a few to be chewed and digested,” (01). Like Bacon, I too have forgotten most of my readings from the piles of books in my parlor.

JACOB: Oh, come on, bruder, it can’t be that bad.

WILHELM: Ah, but I am afraid that the poets are dead, they are no longer read, and even nowadays it seems I have lost the words I once absorbed. In such a state, I am not unlike Montaigne who confesses in “On Books” (1580) to have held up a book full of strange notes only to then hesitate upon realizing that what seems foreign is actually familiar to him, because the notes are Montaigne’s own notes, and only later can he remember having already read the book (02). It is in such a state that I now find my mind in.

JACOB: Oh, but I remember in another essay entitled “On Vanity” where Montaigne compares his readings of books to “the excrements of an old mind, sometimes thick, sometimes thin, and always indigested,” (03). When I read this line, it seems as though Montaigne were about to spout a kind of “bookish bulimia”—of reading books and then vomiting up their quotes without letting them digest, never to give the mind any kind of mental-nutritional value.

WILHELM: Yes, brother, I often feel the same way.

JACOB: It is true that you and I have aged like Montaigne. Each of us is the kind of person who has “forgotten it all; for though I am a man of some reading, I am one who retains nothing,” (04). Sometimes I don’t know whether I possess a genuine love for books or merely a love for the love of books. Perhaps I don’t care much for reading so much as care for those who care about reading, because it seems that now, brother Wilhelm, after several lifetimes worth of reading, I must quote at near random whatever remnants of digested books bother to burp their way up to my attention.

WILHELM: Well, if “quoting” is type of borrowing, it should not bother us to be like Montaigne. Here is someone who wishes to “be judged from what I borrow whether I have chosen the right means of exalting my theme. I make others say what I cannot, sometimes from poverty of expression, sometimes from lack of understanding. I do not count my borrowings, I weigh them,” (05).

01. Bacon, Francis. “On Studies.” Francis Bacon, the Essays [1625]. ed. Brian Vickers. Oxford World Classics. (1999). pp. 114–115. Based upon Bacon’s Works ed. James Spedding, R. L. Ellis, and D. D. Heath London (1857–74), New York (1968), London (1996).

02. Montaigne, Michel de. “On Books.” (1580). ed. J. M. Cohen. Penguin Classics. (1958). (1988 printing). p. 171.

03. Montaigne, Michel de. “On Vanity.” (1580). The Essays of Michel de Montaigne. Vol. III. Translated by Charles Cotton. Second Edition, Revised. (1908). Ed. by W. Carew Hazlitt. George Bell & Sons, London. p. 180. [On Google Books].

04. Montaigne, Michel de. “On Books.” (1580). ed. J. M. Cohen. Penguin Classics. (1958). (1988 printing).  p. 159.

05. Ibid.


Mar 5 2010

Why There Is No Jewish Narnia (Jewish Review of Books)

via Why There Is No Jewish Narnia > Publications > Jewish Review of Books:

Some readers may have already expressed surprise at my assertion that Jews do not write fantasy literature. Haven’t modern Jewish writers, from Kafka and Bruno Schulz to Isaac Bashevis Singer and Cynthia Ozick, written about ghosts, demons, magic, and metamorphoses? But the supernatural does not itself define fantasy literature, which is a more specific genre. It emerged in Victorian England, and its origins are best understood as one of a number of cultural salvage projects that occurred in an era when modern materialism and Darwinism seemed to drive religious faith from the field. Religion’s capacity for wonder found a haven in fantasy literature.

This is the first time Bookbread has encountered labeling Kafka under Victorian Fiction since, apparently, anything that was both literary and fantastic came out of that era. Atrocious. (But what can you do?) Thank goodness there’s nothing supernatural or fantastical to be found in the märchen der Brüder Grimm und Martin Buber….