Recent Readings

This past Friday I took the first of my comprehensive exams. I think it went well, well enough anyway. If my committee agrees, I’ll have two more to go, which I’ll be taking within the next three months or so.

The first exam was over selections from my program’s core list of readings. The list features a number of authors that I’ve mentioned before including Walter Ong, Lev Manovich, Jerome McGann, N. Katherine Hayles, and Gregory Ulmer. There were also a number of “classic” theorists as well: Benjamin, Barthes, Foucault, Baudrillard.

Additionally, there were a few titles that were new to me or that I had never gotten around to reading. I thought it would be worthwhile to briefly note a few of these.

Daniel Headrick’s When Information Came of Age: Technologies of Knowledge in the Age of Reason and Revolution tells the story of a number of information systems — for classifying, storing, transforming, and transmitting information — that preceded the advent of what we ordinarily think of as the digital information revolution.

I finally read one of Donald Norman’s books, Living with Complexity. Hands down the easiest read on the list. Engaging and enlightening on design of everyday objects and experiences.

From Papyrus to Hypertext: Toward the Universal Digital Library, a translated work by French scholar Christian Vandendorpe, is laid out as a series of short reflections on the history of texts and reading. It was originally published more than a decade ago, so it is a little dated. Nonetheless, I found it useful.

The most important title that I encountered was Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. It’s a shame that it has taken me so long to finally read something from Latour. I heartily recommend it. I’ll be giving it another read soon and may have something to say about it in the future, but for now I’ll simply note that I found it quite enlightening.

Historian Thomas Misa gives a fine account of the entanglement of technology and Western culture in Leonardo to the Internet: Technology and Culture from the Renaissance to the Present.

Then there was this 2010 blogpost by Ian Bogost, which was anthologized in Debates in the Digital Humanities“The Turtlenecked Hairshirt: Fetid and Fragrant Futures for the Humanities.” It is, how shall I put it, bracing.

Finally, this wasn’t part of my readings for the exam, but I did stumble upon a 1971 review of Foucault’s The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences by George Steiner: “The Mandarin of the Hour-Michel Foucault.” The review is not quite so dismissive as the title might suggest.

There you have it, that’s what I have to show for the past couple of month’s reading. As the semester winds down and grades get turned in, who knows but some new blog posts may appear.

Perspectives on Privacy and Human Flourishing

I’ve not been able to track down the source, but somewhere Marshall McLuhan wrote, “Publication is a self-invasion of privacy. The more the data banks record about each one of us, the less we exist.”

The unfolding NSA scandal has brought privacy front and center. A great deal is being written right now about the ideal of privacy, the threats facing it from government activities, and how it might best be defended. Conor Friedersdorf, for instance, worries that our government has built “all the infrastructure a tyrant would need.” At this juncture, the concerns seem to me neither exaggerated nor conspiratorial.

Interestingly, there also seems to be a current of opinion that fails to see what all the fuss is about. Part of this current stems from the idea that if you’ve got nothing to hide, there’s nothing to worry about. There’s an excerpt from Daniel J. Solove’s 2011 book on just this line of reasoning in the Chronicle of Higher Ed that is worth reading (link via Alan Jacobs).

Others are simply willing to trade privacy for security. In a short suggestive post on creative ambiguity with regards to privacy and government surveillance, Tyler Cowen concedes, “People may even be fine with that level of spying, if they think it means fewer successful terror attacks.”  “But,” he immediately adds, “if they acquiesce to the previous level of spying too openly, the level of spying on them will get worse.  Which they do not want.”

Maybe.

I wonder whether we are not witnessing the long foretold end of western modernity’s ideal of privacy. That sort of claim always comes off as a bit hyperbolic, but it’s not altogether misguided. If we grant that the notion of individual privacy as we’ve known it is not a naturally given value but rather a historically situated concept, then it’s worth considering both what factors gave rise to the concept and how changing sociological conditions might undermine its plausibility.

Media ecologists have been addressing these questions for quite awhile. They’ve argued that privacy, as we understand (understood?) it, emerged as a consequence of the kind of reading facilitated by print. Privacy, in their view, is the concern of a certain type of individual consciousness that arises as a by-product of the interiority fostered by reading. Print, in these accounts, is sometimes credited with an unwieldy set of effects which include the emergence of Protestantism, modern democracy, the Enlightenment, and the modern idea of the individual. That print literacy is the sole cause of these developments is almost certainly not the case; that it is implicated in each is almost certainly true.

This was the view, for example, advanced by Walter Ong in Orality and Literacy. “[W]riting makes possible increasingly articulate introspectivity,” Ong explains, “opening the psyche as never before not only to the external objective world quite distinct from itself but also to the interior self against whom the objective world is set.” Further on he wrote,

Print was also a major factor in the development of the sense of personal privacy that marks modern society. It produced books smaller and more portable than those common in a manuscript culture, setting the stage psychologically for solo reading in a quiet corner, and eventually for completely silent reading. In manuscript culture and hence in early print culture, reading had tended to be a social activity, one person reading to others in a group. As Steiner … has suggested, private reading demands a home spacious enough to provide for individual isolation and quiet.

This last point draws architecture into the discussion as Aaron Bady noted in his 2011 essay for MIT Review, “World Without Walls”:

Brandeis and Warren were concerned with the kind of privacy that could be afforded by walls: even where no actual walls protected activities from being seen or heard, the idea of walls informed the legal concept of a reasonable expectation of privacy. It still does … But contemporary threats to privacy increasingly come from a kind of information flow for which the paradigm of walls is not merely insufficient but beside the point.

This argument was also made by Marshall McLuhan who, like his student Ong, linked it to the “coming of the book.” For his part, Ong concluded “print encouraged human beings to think of their own interior conscious and unconscious resources as more and more thing-like, impersonal and religiously neutral. Print encouraged the mind to sense that its possessions were held in some sort of inert mental space.” Presumably, then, the accompanying assumption is that this thing-like inert mental space is something to be guarded and shielded from intrusion.

854px-Vermeer,_Johannes_-_Woman_reading_a_letter_-_ca._1662-1663While it is a letter, not a book that she reads, Vermeer’s Woman in Blue has always seemed to me a fitting visual illustration of this media ecological perspective on the idea of privacy. The question all of this begs is obvious: What does the decline of the age of print entail for the idea of privacy? What happens when we enter what McLuhan called the “electric age” and Ong called the age of “secondary orality,” or what we might now call the “digital age”?

McLuhan and Ong seemed to think that the notion of privacy would be radically reconfigured, if not abandoned altogether. One could easily read the rise of social media as further evidence in defense of their conclusion. The public/private divide has been endlessly blurred. Sharing and disclosure is expected. So much so that those who do not acquiesce to the regime of voluntary and pervasive self-disclosure raise suspicions and may be judged sociopathic.

Perhaps, then, privacy is a habit of thought we may have fallen out of. This possibility was explored in an extreme fashion by Josh Harris, the dot-com era Internet pioneer who subjected himself, and willing others, to unblinking surveillance. The experiment in prophetic sociology was documented by director Ondi Timoner in the film We Live in Public.

The film is offered as a cautionary tale. Harris suffered an emotional and mental breakdown as a consequences of his experimental life. On the film’s website, Timoner added this about Harris’ girlfriend who had enthusiastically signed up for the project:  “She just couldn’t be intimate in public. And I think that’s one of the important lessons in life; the Internet, as wonderful as it is, is not an intimate medium. It’s just not. If you want to keep something intimate and if you want to keep something sacred, you probably shouldn’t post it.”

This caught my attention because it introduced the idea of intimacy rather than, or in addition to, that of privacy. As Solove argued in the piece mentioned above, we eliminate the rich complexity of all that is gathered under the idea of privacy when we reduce it to secrecy or the ability to conceal socially marginalized behaviors. Privacy, as Timoner suggests, can also be understood as the pre-condition of intimacy, and, just to be clear, this should be understood as more than mere sexual intimacy.

The reduction of intimacy to sexuality recalls the popular mis-reading of the Fall narrative in the Hebrew Bible. The description of the Edenic paradise concludes – unexpectedly until familiarity has taught you to expect it – with the narrator’s passing observation that the primordial pair where naked and unashamed. A comment on sexual innocence, perhaps, but much more I think. It spoke to a radical and fearless transparency born of pure guilelessness. The innocence was total and so, then, was the openness and intimacy.

Of course, the point of the story is to set up the next tragic scene in which innocence is lost and the immediate instinct is to cover their nakedness. Total transparency is now experienced as total vulnerability, and this is the world in which we live. Intimacy of every kind is no longer a given. It must emerge alongside hard-earned trust, heroic acts of forgiveness, and self-sacrificing love. And perhaps with this realization we run up against the challenge of our digital self-publicity and the risks posed by perpetual surveillance. The space for a full-fledged flourishing of the human person is being both surrendered and withdrawn. The voluntarily and involuntarily public self, is a self that operates under conditions which undermine the possibility of its own well-being.

But, this is also why I believe Bady is on to something when he writes, “Privacy has a surprising resilience: always being killed, it never quite dies.” It is why I’m not convinced that we could entirely reduce all that is entailed in the notion of privacy to a function of print literacy. If something that answers to the name of privacy is a condition of our human flourishing in our decidedly un-Edenic condition, then one hopes we will not relinquish it entirely to either the imperatives of digital culture or the machinations of the state. It is, admittedly, a tempered hope.

Home

little way“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” – T. S. Eliot

Home. It’s a mythic notion. Two of the three great epics of the Greco-Roman world trade explicitly in its associations. Odysseus and Aeneas each journey homeward – the former back toward the home he left that yet remains, although not unchanged; the latter, his home destroyed, moves forward toward a home yet to be found. The Odyssey, then, is a story about those who have a home to go back to, and the Aeneid is a story for those who long for home but have no place that answers to the name.

And then there is the story of Cain in the book of Genesis. After Cain murdered his brother, he was condemned to be a wanderer, forever alienated from God and family. His plight presents itself as an allegory of the human condition. But then there was a twist. Cain, we are told, went on to build a city, he would not be a wanderer after all; and his descendants are reckoned the founders of agriculture, metallurgy, and the arts – in short, of human civilization. Out of the dissatisfactions of homelessness, we are led to conclude, flowed the great achievements of human culture. But the narrator has the last word. He tells us that Cain built his city in the land of Nod, a name that echoes the Hebrew word for wandering. It is a touch of literary artistry which poignantly suggests that, even when it is surrounded by the accouterments of civilization, the human soul wanders lost and alienated … homeless.

Reflections on the theme of home and homelessness are not the preoccupation of ancient writers alone. They persist because the condition with which they wrestle persists. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Rod Dreher’s recently published book about his sister’s untimely death and his subsequent return to rural Louisiana, takes its place within this ancient literary tradition, and admirably so.

Rod and Ruthie Dreher grew up in the same small Louisiana town that had been home to the Dreher family for generations. During his high school years, Rod felt increasingly alienated from his family and his small town, so he left to pursue what would turn out to be a successful career in journalism that took him from one metropolis to another. Ruthie stayed. She married her high school sweetheart, became a beloved middle school teacher, and cultivated enduring relationships with family and friends.

Then Ruthie was diagnosed with a nasty, virulent form of lung cancer. It was a devastating and inexplicable diagnosis for the young mother of three who had never once smoked. For the next several months, her small hometown rallied around Ruthie and her family in countless precious ways. Rod witnessed all of this, and it changed his heart. He was moved by the generosity and love that surrounded his suffering family, and he was impressed anew by the beauty of Ruthie’s seemingly simple, but wonderfully rich, life. Then he moved his family back to Louisiana to be a part of the same community he had escaped so many years before. Without illusions, he chose to return home.

Dreher’s book has received numerous, invariably favorable, reviews, so I’ll only repeat what others have more eloquently observed. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is a beautiful mediation on family, place, fatherhood, ambition, love, sacrifice, and much else that is a great human consequence. It is a moving book, but it is not sentimental. It praises the virtues of community without being blind to its vices. It raises all sorts of terribly important questions that we should all consider with great seriousness, but that we too often bury and supress. It deserves to be read widely, and I hope that it is. And I hope that it generates conversation, discussion, and debate about the assumptions that order our lives.

My Home and Homelessness

Little Way made me think again about my own identity. I grew up the son of Cuban immigrants living in South Florida. I spent the first 19 years of my life there, and then I moved away. Consequently, there are two ways in which Dreher’s story addressed my experience. I remain away from the place where I grew up, where most of my family still resides, and, as a first generation American, I inherited, at a certain emotional remove, my family’s status as aliens in a land not their own.

For reasons that remain opaque even to myself, and to the chagrin of my family, as a child I readily identified with American culture. Spanish was my first language, and I grew up in Miami where one can spend a lifetime without recourse to English.  When I was four, I was sent to school knowing only one English phrase:  “Where is the bathroom?” But within a very short period of time, and without retaining any conscious memory of the transformation, I was speaking English with ease. Today I cannot remember ever thinking in Spanish. And so it was with most every other cultural marker.

From a very early age, then, I came to feel that somehow I was out of step with my family and its heritage. It was just the way it was, and I didn’t think too much about it.  In time, that became my identity: I was the one who didn’t fit in. In fact, when I was very young, I entertained something verging on scorn for my Cuban background. Over the years, this mellowed into indifference. But more recently, I’ve noticed the stirrings of affection for certain aspects of my Cuban culture. Perhaps it is a function of growing older and coming to a better understanding of who I am. It is most evident to me in the unexpected pleasure that comes from meeting someone who also speaks Spanish and then stumbling through a conversation in the language with which I first confronted this world.

It would be disingenuous to say that I now finally feel myself to be fully at home in Cuban culture; that is simply not the case. But in ways that I would not have anticipated even a few years ago, I’ve learned that my family’s culture is very much a part of who I am. From time to time, certain cultural chords are struck that reverberate in my heart and remind me that identity is not merely a performance or a choice. Reading Little Way led me to think again about how an immigrant family can remain homeless even when they have made a new home for themselves. Aeneas will, after all, always be a Trojan. But it did something more, although I’m not quite sure I can capture it. Let me just say that it came to me at the right time. The story it told shed light on my own experience. The grace to which it bore witness helped me see the grace present in my own life.

My interests being what they are, Little Way also set me to thinking about how it might speak to our digitally augmented lives. Here again I turned to my own experience. I realized that my digital life could be read as a refusal of limits: the limits of time and place, my time and my place. The Internet — or better, those interests who create the experience we simply gloss as “the Internet”  – promises the world, all of it, now. That is especially appealing to someone who may be nursing dissatisfaction with their current state of affairs or harboring ambitions that outstrip their current place. This is not necessarily a complaint against the Internet itself or the ubiquitous devices through which we access it. Rather it is a complaint, against my own use of the Internet – or at least the shape it sometimes takes.

The Internet can be that bigger, more welcoming, more exciting reality that we seek when we are dissatisfied with the constraints of our present circumstances. It trades in possibilities and the fantasy of limitlessness. It is no longer that the big city lures the small town child with its expansive horizons; it’s that the Internet lures us all, for all of our lives seem quaintly provincial when set against the digitally augmented realities on offer, and aspects of life that are not subject to digital augmentation may begin to appear impoverished.

I want to be careful on this point. I do not want to deny that the possibilities created by the Internet are sometimes genuinely good. I am very glad, for instance, that it provides the means to easily keep in touch with friends and family that are scattered all over the country and beyond. But scattered they are and scattered they will likely remain. The comforts of social media are real, but they are at best partial and they have their very real limits which must be acknowledged. Dreher’s story reminds us that all of the affordances of communication technologies are a poor substitute for the aid and comfort that can only be offered in person.

As I’ve written before, the problem is not so much with the technology under consideration as it is with us. After all, Dreher, who makes his living as a blogger, could not have come home  without the work made possible by the Internet. The problem arises when we make the Internet an unhealthy escape from the sometimes difficult realities that confront us as we do the hard work of living and loving. It arises when our digital practices amount to a refusal of responsibility and a perpetual deferment of commitment. But these problems are not created by the Internet, they are a function of our own disordered loves.

Limits

Some have complained that Dreher naively offers up the mythic small town as the cure for all that ills our weary souls. These people, it seems to me, have missed the point. It is true that Dreher came to see the remarkable love and support one small town offered up to a family that had long lived in that place and cultivated those relationships. The city may offer some unique challenges to the cultivation of such a community, and so may the suburbs, but they do not render community impossible. The real enemy of community is the refusal of limits on our ambition, the unchecked pursuit of autonomy, and the narrowly construed quest for personal fulfillment. These are the ideals that must be, to some degree, sacrificed if we are to build abiding communities with the resources to sustain its members through times of sorrow and suffering and provide the deep social context in which joy and meaning are possible.

While reading Little Way, I thought often of something Wendell Berry wrote a few years ago:

“… our human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning. Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things, though limited, are inexhaustible … A small place, as I know from my own experience, can provide opportunities of work and learning, and a fund of beauty, solace, and pleasure—in addition to its difficulties—that cannot be exhausted in a lifetime or in generations.”

That is so well put I can hardly improve on it. This is what Ruthie Leming practiced.

Most of us live as if we believe that the surest path to happiness is that which spins out endlessly and offers up the least resistance, but traveling that path is a futile business. I’ve confessed elsewhere my assumption that the highest form of freedom is not the ability to pursue whatever whim or fancy may strike us at any given moment, but rather the freedom to make choices which will promote our wellbeing and the wellbeing of our communities. And such choices often involve sacrifice and the curtailment of our own autonomy. To put this another way, happiness, that elusive state which according to Aristotle is the highest good we all pursue, lies not at the end of a journey at which every turn we have chosen for ourselves, but along the path marked by choices for others and in accord with a moral order that may at times require the reordering rather than immediate satisfaction of our desires.

This vision of the good life does not play well in the society we have made for ourselves. In fact, it has become counter-intuitive. If it is ever to gain any traction, it cannot be merely preached. It must be lived, and its beauty must of its own mysterious accord draw us in. This is, I believe, Dreher’s great accomplishment. He has faithfully and honestly written that beauty into his story so that it may speak to his readers, may they be many.

Love

The search for home is, finally, an eschatological quest. For many, this means that it is an impossible quest, or even that it is no quest at all, but a tragic and pitiable misunderstanding of the nature of things. For others, like myself, it means that it is quest whose end will not be found within the horizons of this life. We are always on the way and it would be the gravest mistake to think that what we long for, truly, when we long for Home is tied without remainder to any one place. But that does not mean we cannot, in our present experience, seek good approximations of that Home which our hearts seek.

Talk of love, like talk of home,  always threatens to spill over into triteness and cliché. But as David Foster Wallace has reminded us,  “clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth.” Centuries earlier, St. Augustine wondered, “What do we love when we love our God?” This is an endlessly useful formulation. What do we love, we might now ask, when we love Home? What desire really drives our pursuit for the ideal of Home? Have we merely incorporated the search for Home into our project of self-fulfillment? If so, we’ve likely undermined the quest from the outset.

The quest for Home, like the quest for happiness, is such that, if it is to yield even its modest and partial fulfillments, cannot be undertaken for its own sake. Its success is premised on our loving something other than the idea of Home. We must love our place and we must, to borrow Auden’s apt phrasing, love our crooked neighbor with our crooked heart. We must abide. We must lay aside our self-interest and the project of self-fulfillment. We must be willing to sacrifice. We must give up our comfort. We must invest ourselves in the lives of others. And in so doing, we will find that we have been all along building a good and modest home for our pilgrim souls.

This is what the life of Ruthie Leming teaches us, and I’m grateful to Rod Dreher for writing this book that tells her story, and his.

I’m grateful to my parents for the home they made for me.

I’m grateful to my wife for the home we are building, and I’m grateful for the friends who are a part of it.

Deo gratias.

Excerpt from The Little Way of Ruthie Leming

“‘When a community loses its memory, its members no longer know one another,’ writes the agrarian essayist Wendell Berry. ‘How can they know one another if they have forgotten or have never learned one another’s stories? If they do not know one another’s stories, how can they know whether or not to trust one another? People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover they fear one another. And this is our predicament now.’

Those of us who have moved away are not necessarily callow and ungrateful people. We live in a time and place in which we are conditioned to leave our hometowns. Our schools tell our young people to follow their professional bliss, wherever it takes them. Our economy rewards companies and people who have no loyalty to place. The stories that shape the moral imagination of our young, chiefly by film and television, are told by outsiders who were dissatisfied and lit out for elsewhere to find happiness and good fortune.

During the decade leading up to Ruthie’s death, I had spent my professional life writing newspaper columns, blog posts, and even a book, lamenting the loss of community and traditions in American life. I had a reputation as a pop theoretician of cultural decline, but in truth I was long on words, and short on deeds. I did not like the fact that I saw my Louisiana family only three times a year, for a week at a time, if we were lucky. But that was the way of the world, right? Almost everyone I knew was in the same position. My friends and I talked a lot about the fragmentation of the modern family, about the deracinating effects of late capitalism, about mass media and the erosion of localist consciousness, about the consumerization of religion and the leviathan sate and every other thing under the sun that undermines our sense of home and permanence.

The one thing none of us did was what Ruthie did: Stay.

Contemporary culture encourage us to make islands of ourselves for the sake of self-fulfillment, of career advancement, of entertainment, of diversion, and all the demands of the sovereign self. When suffering and death come for you — and it will — you want to be in a place where you know, and are known. You want — no, you need — to be able to say, as Mike did, ‘We’re leaning, but we’re leaning on each other.’

I deeply believed then, and believe today, that one day I will be asked to give an account of my life to my Maker. That fateful week in Louisiana I wondered: When I meet the Lord, will I be able to say that my life had been about giving, not just taking? Would being able to discern the difference between a Bordeaux and a Burgundy bring me any closer to tasting the cup of salvation?

In short: Did I have love?”

For Your Consideration – 8

(Although I assume that this sort of thing goes without saying these days, I thought I should nonetheless throw out the typical reminder that linking below does not necessarily imply wholesale endorsement.)

“Loss and Gain, or the Fate of the Book”:

“Whether the book survives or not, I am firmly of the opinion that itought to survive, and nothing will convince me otherwise. The heart has its beliefs that evidence knows not of. For me, to browse in a bookshop, especially a second-hand one, will forever be superior to browsing on the internet precisely because chance plays a much larger part in it. There are few greater delights than entirely by chance to come across something not only fascinating in itself, but that establishes a quite unexpected connection with something else. The imagination is stimulated in a way that the more logical connections of the Internet cannot match; the Internet will make people literal-minded …

To refuse to use the new technology in the hope of preserving old pleasures will not work because to do so would be no more authentic or honest than Marie Antoinette playing shepherdess. The regret is genuine; the refusal is not.”

“Out of Touch: E-reading isn’t reading”:

“New research continues to emphasize the importance of mind wandering for learning. It turns out that not paying attention is one of the best ways of discovering new ideas. Reading books, whether silently or aloud, remains one of the most efficient means of enabling such errant thinking. As our bodies rest, our minds begin to work in a different way. New connections, new pathways, and sharp turns are being made as we meander our way through the book, but also away from it. There is no way to tell if anyone is actually paying attention anymore as I read, including myself. This seems to be one of the great benefits of reading aloud, that you can think of something else while you do it. We may be holding the book together, but our minds are no doubt far apart by now. The fairy tale is the first story of childhood because it tells of such leaving behind (parents and home), of entering the dreamscape of the woods—and the mind. It tells of the crooked path of change. How can one know where reading books ends and dreaming in books begins?”

“Kill the Password: Why a String of Characters Can’t Protect Us Anymore”:

“This summer, hackers destroyed my entire digital life in the span of an hour. My Apple, Twitter, and Gmail passwords were all robust—seven, 10, and 19 characters, respectively, all alphanumeric, some with symbols thrown in as well—but the three accounts were linked, so once the hackers had conned their way into one, they had them all. They really just wanted my Twitter handle: @mat. As a three-letter username, it’s considered prestigious. And to delay me from getting it back, they used my Apple account to wipe every one of my devices, my iPhone and iPad and MacBook, deleting all my messages and documents and every picture I’d ever taken of my 18-month-old daughter. Since that awful day, I’ve devoted myself to researching the world of online security. And what I have found is utterly terrifying.”

“Google Now: behind the predictive future of search”:

“In a single app, the company has combined its latest technologies: voice search that understands speech like a human brain, knowledge of real-world entities, a (somewhat creepy) understanding of who and where you are, and most of all its expertise at ranking information. Google has taken all of that and turned it into an interesting and sometimes useful feature, but if you look closely you can see that it’s more than just a feature, it’s a beta test for the future.”

“Gamer’s Paradise: Worshipping At The iOS Altar”:

“Game designer and academic Ian Bogost says the iPhone is a bit like a rosary. I have this way of refreshing my Twitter feed even when it doesn’t need reading, thumbing the touchscreen with a tactile pull-and-release, a sort of nervous lozenging that makes a popping noise when I let go.”

“How to Live Without Irony”:

“The ironic life is certainly a provisional answer to the problems of too much comfort, too much history and too many choices, but it is my firm conviction that this mode of living is not viable and conceals within it many social and political risks.”

“The Science and Art of Listening”:

“Hearing, in short, is easy. You and every other vertebrate that hasn’t suffered some genetic, developmental or environmental accident have been doing it for hundreds of millions of years. It’s your life line, your alarm system, your way to escape danger and pass on your genes. But listening, really listening, is hard when potential distractions are leaping into your ears every fifty-thousandth of a second — and pathways in your brain are just waiting to interrupt your focus to warn you of any potential dangers.

Listening is a skill that we’re in danger of losing in a world of digital distraction and information overload.”

“Axe worship”:

“Personally, I just like chopping for its own sake. There’s something warming about the ritual of it and the sense of provision. Place, stand, breathe, swing, cut. Watching the wood. Watching the radial splits out from the centre, marking the place to bring the axe down, waiting for the faint exhalation of scent from the wood as it falls. Like cooking, it provides a sense of sufficiency and delight but, unlike cooking, log-chopping has a particular rhythm to it, like a form of active meditation. You do, very literally, get into the swing of it.”

“Many books are read but some books are lived”

Just a quick post to pass along a link to a wonderful essay that appeared recently in The New Republic. Leon Wieseltier’s “Voluminous” is a smart, evocative reflection on the meaning of books and a personal library that is Benjamin-esque in its effect. Here are a couple of excerpts.  Do click through to read the rest. I trust you will find it worth your time.

“Many books are read but some books are lived, so that words and ideas lose their ethereality and become experiences, turning points in an insufficiently clarified existence, and thereby acquire the almost mystical (but also fallible) intimacy of memory.”

And…

“My books are not dead weight, they are live weight—matter infused by spirit, every one of them, even the silliest. They do not block the horizon; they draw it. They free me from the prison of contemporaneity: one should not live only in one’s own time. A wall of books is a wall of windows.”

This is one of those pieces that resonates deeply with me for how well it puts words to my own sensibilities (even if I might not strike quite so adversarial a tone toward digital media). I hope you’ll enjoy.

Many thanks to the reader who took the time to email me the link!