Yesterday’s Table Topics

I posted about yesterday’s meeting without adding anything about the Table Topics session Young led. Prabhu certainly got my attention with his response about technology. I’ve dealt with the same theme ever since I read Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together. Just before the meeting, Ira Flatow had any interesting conversation with playwright Madeline George on Science Friday in which the following exchange occurred.

George: When he looks at the gun, he sees it as a device that brings people close together, and it keeps people apart. He imagines that this gun, by shooting a bullet farther than any gun was previously able to now that he’s enhanced it with his new piston technology, that it brings adversaries together, but of course it’s not as intimate as beating someone over the head with your own fists, and that to me is sort of an interesting metaphor for all tools. You know that’s what tools do—they create a bridge between a person and the thing they’re trying to touch and they also make a separation by their very nature. And so to me, the telephone does the same thing in a very interesting way, and certainly we feel that around us all the time, how far apart we are and yet how close together we are with our phones

Flatow: And yet how dependent we have become on them

George: and by extension once those things become almost integrated into our bodies, now we have this very complicated zone between each other, between ourselves and each other that’s mediated by these tools

In its notice of The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, The New York Times wrote

In multiple plotlines, the play examines the fear of depending on another person and the allure of using machines to meet emotional needs.

Our guest Bukky tackled the question of why we read. Here’s some thoughts that struck me so much that I saved them.

We lose ourselves in what we read, only to return to ourselves, transformed and part of a more expansive world. (Judith Butler)

We read, frequently if not unknowingly, in search of a mind more original than our own. (Harold Bloom)


95 responses to Yesterday’s Table Topics

  1. Sherry Turkle carried the Alone Together theme to a New York Times op-ed this morning. She wrote

    Technology doesn’t just do things for us. It does thing to us, changing not just what we do but who we are. The selfie makes us accustomed to putting ourselves and those around us “on pause” in order to document our lives. It is an extension of how we have learned to put our conversations “on pause” when we send or receive a text, an image, an email, a call. When you get accustomed to a life of stops and starts, you get less accustomed to reflecting on where you are and what you are thinking.

    and finished with this reflection

    It is not too late to reclaim our composure. I see the most hope in young people who have grown up with this technology and begin to see its cost. They respond when adults provide them with sacred spaces (the kitchen, the family room, the car) as device-free zones to reclaim conversation and self-reflection.

  2. Or this, from Utne Reader at Tumblr:

    “Henry David Thoreau wrote books that not many people read when they were published. … But a South African lawyer of Indian descent named Mohandas Gandhi read Thoreau on civil disobedience and found ideas that helped him fight discrimination in Africa and then liberate his own country from British rule. Martin Luther King studied Thoreau and Gandhi and put their ideas to work in the United States, while in 1952 the African National Congress and the young Nelson Mandela were collaborating with the South African Indian Congress on civil disobedience campaigns. You wish you could write Thoreau a letter about all this. He had no way of knowing that what he planted would still be bearing fruit 151 years after his death. But the past doesn’t need us. The past guides us; the future needs us.”

    — Rebecca Solnit, “The Future Needs Us

  3. It’s hard to select a passage from David Mikic’s essay at the New York Times, In Praise of (Offline) Slow Reading, to cite. How about this

    They give us the time and space we need to pursue a full picture of other people, and by extension ourselves. When we think of Anna Karenina’s death, we remember Tolstoy’s stunning, compassionate effort to give a complete image of her life over hundreds of pages. She is selfishly misguided, self-thwarting to the point of ruin, yet somehow she still has our sympathy. She interests us from first page to last, and each reader feels compelled to ponder why she has such a hold on us.
    All of us deserve to be seen fully, in the way that Tolstoy makes us see Anna. When we read about Anna, we see what it might be like to imagine a self. That’s why we reread Tolstoy, and why we read him slowly, drinking in every detail about Anna’s thoughts and her emotions. This is the way to build a self, not through a collection of personal tastes and opinions, the likes and dislikes that the Internet trades in.

    The Times notes that Mikics is the author of “Slow Reading in a Hurried Age, which I’ve just added to my queue.

  4. Here’s a long reply about the power, beauty, and magic of reading via Vintage Anchor Books. The source is Carl Sagan, and I think I’ve heard Neil deGrasse Tyson express similar thoughts during the current version ofCosmos

    What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic…

    … Books permit us to voyage through time, to tap the wisdom of our ancestors. The library connects us with the insights and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our history, to instruct us without tiring, and to inspire us to make our own contribution to the collective knowledge of the human species. Public libraries depend on voluntary contributions. I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries.

  5. Here’s another from Explore

    Ultimately, nobody wanted to be there and for me a good book was simply the best escapism. But I’ve always felt that good literature makes real life more interesting and beautiful too, and it was a time when I needed that more than ever.”

    As Britain faces the possibility of a ban on sending books to prisoners, The Guardian talks to prisoners about the gift of reading.

  6. Rebecca Mead contributes a thought on the experience of reading as well as of writing in the essay George Eliot and the Secret of Motherhood at The New Yorker

    That’s what fiction writers try to do: inhabit the experience and imagination of a life different from their own. One of the things Eliot sought explicitly to do in her fiction was to induce a reader to move beyond simple identification with people who are easy to comprehend because they are like us, and instead to feel with someone who is entirely unlike ourselves. “The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures,” she once wrote.

  7. mikeschultz – Author

    From Frank Bruni at The New York Times today:

    I’m coming at this differently, as someone persuaded that reading does things — to the brain, heart and spirit — that movies, television, video games and the rest of it cannot.

    There’s research on this, and it’s cited in a recent article in The Guardian by Dan Hurley, who wrote that after “three years interviewing psychologists and neuroscientists around the world,” he’d concluded that “reading and intelligence have a relationship so close as to be symbiotic.”

    Bruni was responding to a report at Common Sense Media about teen reading. I heard the report at NPR yesterday.

  8. I guess this become the thread that will not end.

    "You see that life is bigger,sweeter,more tragic and intense—more alive with meaning…" In praise of the English major— Explore (@Explorer) May 17, 2014

    At the link, you’ll find this quote:

    Real reading is reincarnation. There is no other way to put it. It is being born again into a higher form of consciousness than we ourselves possess.

  9. Love that David Brooks (probably not an author you’d expect me to cite) ended his op-ed in the New York Times yesterday with praise of Middlemarch and this thought about what you can and can’t expect to gain from reading—

    I suppose at the end of these bookish columns, I should tell you what I think books can’t do. They can’t carve your convictions about the world. Only life can do that — only relationships, struggle, love, play and work. Books can give you vocabularies and frameworks to help you understand and decide, but life provides exactly the education you need.

  10. From a memorial to Walter Dean Myers in today’s New York Times. A powerful statement on the reading.

    I read a story by James Baldwin….It took place in Harlem, and it was a story concerned with black people like those I knew. By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me. The story gave me a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map.

  11. Via Explore

    “Ever finished a book? I mean, truly finished one? Cover to cover. Closed the spine with that slow awakening that comes with reentering consciousness?
    You take a breath, deep from the bottom of your lungs and sit there. Book in both hands, your head staring down at the cover, back page or wall in front of you.

    You’re grateful, thoughtful, pensive. You feel like a piece of you was just gained and lost. You’ve just experienced something deep, something intimate… Full from the experience, the connection, the richness that comes after digesting another soul.


    It’s no surprise that readers are better people. Having experienced someone else’s life through abstract eyes, they’ve learned what it’s like to leave their bodies and see the world through other frames of reference. They have access to hundreds of souls, and the collected wisdom of all them.”

    Beautiful read on why readers are, “scientifically,” the best people to date.

    Perhaps Kafka’s timeless contention that books are “the axe for the frozen sea inside us” applies equally to the frozen sea between us.

  12. mikeschultz – Author

    “Literature can teach us how to live before we live, and how to die before we die. I believe that writing is practice for death, and for every (other) transformation human beings encounter.” 

    ― Jayne Anne Phillips

    Via Vintage Anchor Books

  13. mikeschultz – Author

    Rebecca Mead again in The Pleasure of Reading to Impress Yourself

    “There are pleasures to be had from books beyond being lightly entertained. There is the pleasure of being challenged; the pleasure of feeling one’s range and capacities expanding; the pleasure of entering into an unfamiliar world, and being lead into empathy with a consciousness very different from one’s own; the pleasure of knowing what others have already thought it worth knowing, and entering a larger conversation.”

  14. Explore has published a lot to think about lately. Here’s an example.

    “Reading insecurity. It is the subjective experience of thinking that you’re not getting as much from reading as you used to. It is setting aside an hour for that new book … and spending it instead on Facebook (scrolling dumbly through photos of people you barely remember from your high school). It is deploring your attention span and missing the flow, the trance, of entering a narrative world without bringing the real one along. It is realizing that if Virginia Woolf was correct to call heaven “one continuous unexhausted reading,” then goodbye, you have been kicked out of paradise.
    So where does this leave us…? I would not turn back the clock on the Internet, obviously. I am not stupid enough to question the tremendous good it does, even if at times I stare at my computer screen and feel like a water strider posed tantalizingly atop a stream of inaccessible knowledge… And yet. I worry that, over the past few years of living much of my life online, my relationship to text—especially the spacious, get-lost-in-it kind—has changed for the worse. It’s called reading insecurity. Do you have it?”

    — Slate’s Katy Waldman considers the modern existential malady of “reading insecurity,” caused largely by our inability to cultivate a truly “bi-literate” brain.

  15. mikeschultz – Author

    “Think before you speak. Read before you think. This will give you something to think about that you didn’t make up yourself – a wise move at any age, but most especially at seventeen, when you are in the greatest danger of coming to annoying conclusions.”

    —from “Tips for Teens” included in The Fran Lebowitz Reader By Fran Lebowitz

    Vintage Anchor Books

  16. mikeschultz – Author

    Maxine Hong Kingston was born Maxine Ting Ting Hong in Stockton, California on this day in 1940.

    “A story can take you through a whole process of searching, seeking, confronting, through conflicts, and then to a resolution. As the storyteller and the listener, we go through a story together.”

    ― Maxine Hong Kingston

    Via Vintage Anchor Books

  17. mikeschultz – Author

    In a post titled Someone reading a book is a sign of order in the worldMaria Popova sheds some light by citing Mary Ruefle and Alain de Botton.

    First, Ruefle—

    In one sense, reading is a great waste of time. In another sense, it is a great extension of time, a way for one person to live a thousand and one lives in a single lifespan, to watch the great impersonal universe at work again and again, to watch the great personal psyche spar with it, to suffer affliction and weakness and injury, to die and watch those you love die, until the very dizziness of it all becomes a source of compassion for ourselves, and our language, which we alone created, and without which the letter that slipped under the door could never have been written, or, once in a thousand lives—is that too much to ask?—retrieved, and read.

    Then, de Be Botton

    It looks like it’s wasting time, but literature is actually the ultimate time-saver — because it gives us access to a range of emotions and events that it would take you years, decades, millennia to try to experience directly. Literature is the greatest reality simulator — a machine that puts you through infinitely more situations than you can ever directly witness.

  18. mikeschultz – Author

    “People always seem surprised when I tell them the publishing business is doing just fine. They expect me to share tales of woe and misery—and incompetence. I remain optimistic. For every forgettable snarky Facebook rant, for every counterintuitive, impermanent let-me-explain-the-world-to-you thought piece, for every formulaic superhero movie or sitcom, there grows a place in the hearts of thoughtful readers out there for works by [dedicated] writers. Our culture will continue to churn out ephemera online (including, ironically, this piece), and we old schoolers in publishing will continue to chug along at our own slow pace. That’s because we know that no matter what else is out there, readers still want deep, meaningful work that can take years to produce.”

    Howard Yoon’s fantastic and necessary op-ed on how a bestselling book is actually made. And, no, there is no spoiler and no trick – good old-fashioned hard work, true to the idea that we should “expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.”

    via Explore

  19. mikeschultz – Author

    A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.
    William Styron, Conversations with William Styron

    Via Book Mania

  20. mikeschultz – Author

    A great story, then, is not about providing information, though it can certainly inform — a great story invites an expansion of understanding, a self-transcendence. More than that, it plants the seed for it and makes it impossible to do anything but grow a new understanding — of the world, of our place in it, of ourselves, of some subtle or monumental aspect of existence.

    At a time when information is increasingly cheap and wisdom increasingly expensive, this gap is where the modern storyteller’s value lives.

    Maria Popova at Brain Pickings. She also pointed to pointed me to the tempting-sounding The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller in a recent post.

  21. mikeschultz – Author

    If literature truly possesses a mysterious power, I think perhaps it is precisely this: that one can read a book by a writer of a different time, a different country, a different race, a different language, and a different culture and there encounter a sensation that is one’s very own.

    Yu Hua, China in Ten Words

    via Vintage Anchor Books

  22. mikeschultz – Author

    Haven’t added to this thread in a while. Here’s a contribution from Nora Ephron

    Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on. Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder medicates itself. Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss.

  23. mikeschultz – Author

    Discovered in Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie—

    Reading gives you an advantage over life and time.’ ‘I am aware of that,’ Sidney replied tersely. ‘You can travel through history, converse with the dead and live multiple lives . . .’

  24. mikeschultz – Author

    “It is in books, poems, paintings which often give us the confidence to take seriously feelings in ourselves that we might otherwise never have thought to acknowledge.”

    — Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness via VintageAnchor Books

  25. mikeschultz – Author

    “Reading is like looking through several windows which open to an infinite landscape….For me life without reading would be like being in prison, it would be as if my spirit were in a straight jacket; life would be a very dark and narrow place.”

    — Isabel Allende via Book Mania!

  26. mikeschultz – Author

    “It turns out that a mindful information diet is important for more than just one’s personal health. Filling one’s belly with nourishing meals tends to allow for a healthier self with more energy for life. But filling one’s mind with nourishing information tends to open eyes to unseen possibilities in life.”

    You Are What You Eat — And You Think What You Read

    via Holstee

  27. mikeschultz – Author

    Tom Chatfield proposes a brilliant combination of two themes important at this blog, reading and unplugging.

    Tom is interested in improving our experiences and relationship with the digital world. The premise of his sixth book is simple: “That it is more important than ever for us to give some undivided attention to the people we care about, [and] to the things that really matter in our lives, and to ourselves.”

    Tom explains that the book offers readers uninterrupted time with themselves, something that was often taken for granted but we now struggle to keep up with the pace and demands of modern life.

  28. mikeschultz – Author

    For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.

    — Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life via Vintage Anchor Books

  29. mikeschultz – Author

    Sorry…it’s there, and I think it’s to good to pass on.

    I automatically assume that anyone who tells me they do not like to read is an idiot. Usually they prove me right.
    — TBV

    via Word Painting

  30. mikeschultz – Author

    “Ideas, written ideas, are special. They are the way we transmit our stories … from one generation to the next. If we lose them, we lose our shared history. We lose much of what makes us human.”

    Neil Gaman via Explore

  31. mikeschultz – Author

    Fiction is one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved. Drugs, movies where stuff blows up, loud parties — all these chase away loneliness by making me forget my name’s Dave and I live in a one-by-one box of bone no other party can penetrate or know. Fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion — these are the places (for me) where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.

    — David Foster Wallace

    via Word Painting

  32. mikeschultz – Author

    “Books are the greatest companions, confessors, confidantes, tutors, a source of pleasure, a cure for loneliness, and to find one, in the middle of an island in Tahiti, in the heart of the Moroccan desert, or at an airport where one is stranded for a night, is to find the friend who reminds us we are not alone.”

    Anaïs Nin

    via Quotenik

  33. mikeschultz – Author

    Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.
    — Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

    via wordpainting

  34. mikeschultz – Author

  35. mikeschultz – Author

    This should have been here long ago—

    We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel—or have done and thought and felt; or might do and think and feel—is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.

    — Ursula K. Le Guin, from The Language of the Night (1979)

    via Poets and Writers

  36. mikeschultz – Author

    To read old books is to get an education in possibility for next to nothing.

    – Alan Jacobs

    called to my attention by Austin Kleon—

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