The shared solitude of writing and reading

Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Every once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading. Is it the shared solitude of writing, is it that separately we all reside in a place deeper than society, even the society of two? Is it that the tongue fails where the fingers succeed, in telling truths so lengthy and nuanced that they are almost impossible aloud?

—Rebecca Solnit, “The Faraway Nearby” (via Brain Pickings)

UNESCO World Book & Copyright Day 2014

Happy World Book and Copyright Day! It is very significant that this year UNESCO chose Port Harcourt, Nigeria, as the World Book Capital of 2014. I can’t help but think it is a direct response to the ongoing terrorist attacks by Boko Haram, whose name literally means “books are forbidden.” Their stated aim is to abolish what they call Western education and impose Islamic law on all Nigerians. They enforce that law with the most brutal methods imaginable, preferring blades to guns. They have been responsible for the murder of some ten thousand Nigerians, mostly Christians but also Muslims who actively oppose them, and have succeeded in shutting down the school system in the northeast of the country.

This Easter, Boko Haram launched their most horrific attacks yet, with a string of bombings that killed nearly 300 people and the mass abduction of over 200 girls who were sitting their final exams. The school had only two guards, who were easily dispatched by the raiders. It is in the midst of this worsening nightmare that UNESCO is celebrating the power of books to foster peaceful prosperity and coexistence. Though a good education never stopped anyone from becoming a terrorist, I believe an educated public is essential to organizing a society that is capable of repelling threats like Boko Haram.

We can help by supporting literacy organizations the operate in Africa and other regions where schools are under violent threat. If these children are brave enough to risk death or abduction in order to learn, surely we can do something to help them? This year UNESCO has partnered with Worldreader, a non-profit organization that is trying to capitalize on the popularity of mobile technology in Africa to distribute ebooks and ereaders where they are needed. In places where it is simply too dangerous to go to school this is a godsend. There are also other great organizations that distribute paper books and teacher resources in Africa; here are some of my favourites. In the battle between books and brutality, let’s make sure books win.

Adam Gopnik: “The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human.”

Here’s an excerpt from a wonderful article on why we need the humanities, and in particular, literature departments:

So why have English majors? Well, because many people like books. Most of those like to talk about them after they’ve read them, or while they’re in the middle. Some people like to talk about them so much that they want to spend their lives talking about them to other people who like to listen. Some of us do this all summer on the beach, and others all winter in a classroom. One might call this a natural or inevitable consequence of literacy. And it’s this living, irresistible, permanent interest in reading that supports English departments, and makes sense of English majors.

If we abolished English majors tomorrow, Stephen Greenblatt and Stanley Fish and Helen Vendler would not suddenly be freed to use their smarts to start making quantum proton-nuclear reactor cargo transporters, or whatever; they would all migrate someplace where they could still talk Shakespeare and Proust and the rest….

So: Why should English majors exist? Well, there really are no whys to such things, anymore than there are to why we wear clothes or paint good pictures or live in more than hovels and huts or send flowers to our beloved on their birthday. No sane person proposes or has ever proposed an entirely utilitarian, production-oriented view of human purpose. We cannot merely produce goods and services as efficiently as we can, sell them to each other as cheaply as possible, and die. Some idea of symbolic purpose, of pleasure-seeking rather than rent seeking, of Doing Something Else, is essential to human existence. That’s why we pass out tax breaks to churches, zoning remissions to parks, subsidize new ballparks and point to the density of theatres and galleries as signs of urban life, to be encouraged if at all possible. When a man makes a few billion dollars, he still starts looking around for a museum to build a gallery for or a newspaper to buy. No civilization we think worth studying, or whose relics we think worth visiting, existed without what amounts to an English department—texts that mattered, people who argued about them as if they mattered, and a sense of shame among the wealthy if they couldn’t talk about them, at least a little, too. It’s what we call civilization.

Even if we read books and talk about them for four years, and then do something else more obviously remunerative, it won’t be time wasted. We need the humanities not because they will produce shrewder entrepreneurs or kinder C.E.O.s but because, as that first professor said*, they help us enjoy life more and endure it better. The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human. That’s enough.

—Adam Gopnik, Why Teach English? [The New Yorker, August 27, 2013]

*The “first professor” being Dr. Johnson, who said “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.” [Review of Jenyn’s Free Enquiry,” 1757]

via @sophieelmhirst


This is a tale of neglect and obsolescence. Julian Baggini didn’t have room for his Encyclopædia Britannica. The thirty-two volumes represented his parents’ hopes and dreams for him, but now that he was all grown up they were no longer of any use—if they ever were. They went into storage until one day he discovered that they had gotten wet and were now covered in mold. The only thing left to do was to dispose of them. He chose to burn them.

It’s a provocative act—I think we all have a negative gut reaction to book-burning—but he sees it more as a cremation. The books died long ago, and perhaps had never truly lived. While carrying out this last duty to these great books, Baggini wonders if they ever served their intended purpose, or if they were simply a marketing trick, preying on the aspirations of working class families who wanted a better future for their children. Did anyone really use them?

My parents couldn’t afford a set of encyclopedias, or rather, they chose to take me to Europe instead. Baggini suggests that parental influence is far more important to later success, and that parents could have done more for their children’s education, without going into debt, by buying plain old good books. I must admit that as a child I lusted after the Encyclopædia Britannica. A few years ago, when I found it drastically marked down on Amazon, I jumped at it. It was the fulfillment of a childhood dream, and the thirty-two volumes sit proudly behind me as I type this. Do I use them? Rarely. But that doesn’t make them worthless in my eyes. I think it’s worth having tangible symbols of the things we believe in, especially now that so much of our lives is virtual. I think the next generation is more comfortable living in the cloud, but I like to be able to hold the things I care about, and you can’t get a more substantial symbol of carefully collected knowledge than the Encyclopædia Britannica.

It is not only Baggini’s set of EBs that have passed on, but Britannica finally stopped producing print editions last year. So let us bow our heads, and mark the end of an era.

You can also see Julian Baggini’s written account here.

via @eatingwords

Hungry for books

This photo by Micah Albert won first prize in the Contemporary Issues category of the 2013 World Press Photo Contest. It depicts a woman taking a break from her work as a scavenger near Nairobi to read a book she has found. As dire as her situation seems, her hunger for intellectual sustenance outweighs, at least for a while, her hunger for economic sustenance. When asked about it, she told the photographer, “It gives me something else to do in the day besides picking [trash].” It’s a vivid reminder that the life of the mind is not an upper class luxury but a universal human need.

Micah Albert - Dandora Dump

If you’d like to help put more books into the hands of those who hunger for them, consider making a donation to one of these charities.

via @NomdeB