“Dreamland” by David K. Randall

Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep by David K. RandallDreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep
David K. Randall
W.W. Norton & Co.
304 pp.

Like most people with a chronic case of being human, I often have trouble with sleep. I am a particularly light sleeper blessed (?) with an excellent sense of hearing. I live out in the boonies so it’s often the wildlife that wakes me up at night, whether it’s mice scrabbling in the ceiling, birds heralding the dawn, or, occasionally, a stag bumping his antlers against my window while devouring my strawberries. If I have anything the least bit worrying going on I can pretty much count on a night of insomnia. Thanks to M.E. (chronic fatigue syndrome), I can also expect wakefulness if I exert myself too much during the day—I literally become too tired to sleep (a mysterious symptom common to neurological disorders).

Considering what a problem it is, I wonder why I’ve only read one book about it before now. That book, the excellent Sleep Thieves by Stanley Coren, was mostly about the consequences of not getting enough sleep: low grades, car accidents, plane crashes, medical errors, and other dire outcomes. The message was that we could probably all do with more sleep, a lot more. Traditional societies without so many clocks and electric lights tend to sleep about 8.5 hours and night and another 1.5 during an afternoon nap. Other sleep experiments confirm that the modern notion of only needing 5 or 6 or even 8 hours of sleep is delusional. Anyone getting less than 9 or 10 hours of sleep a night is simply not functioning at their full potential.

While Dreamland covers some of that territory as well (including harrowing tales of military disasters caused by sleep-deprivation), it is more about sleep disorders and the big question of why we (and every other animal) need to sleep. I found the chapter on dreaming most enlightening. Ever since Freud (and the subsequent debunking of Freud), studying dreams has been regarded as only slightly more legitimate than studying UFOs, so there hasn’t been a lot of research on dreams, but what there has been is starting to make some headway (no pun intended).

There are actually several things going on when we dream, sometimes in concert with other phases of sleep. I had heard before that we are more likely to remember unpleasant dreams but as it turns out, most of our dreams are negative. It seems to be our way of dealing with potential or actual threats, either by looking for solutions, trying to adjust to the new reality, or simply storing it in long-term memory so we can recognize the danger next time. [Coincidentally, sleep is also the time when the immune system sweeps the body for foreign invaders and we repair any damage done during the day. Both physical and psychological defenses are working the hardest when we sleep.] Dreams usually start out as a fairly literal rehearsal or restaging of the thing that’s worrying us. Since we rarely wake from these dreams we don’t remember them. As the night progresses our brain starts to make associations between the subject of the dream and things we already have in our long-term memory. As these connections develop and grow, our dreams get weirder, until we finally end up talking to a dead relative who turns into a parrot on a pirate ship bound for Mars.

This process of associating day-to-day events with our long-term memories is also what drives learning. If sleep is interrupted the night after learning something new, particularly in the first half of the night, we retain much less the next day. Also, taking a nap after learning improves memory retention. So the next time you see a student asleep over their books, leave them alone—they’re learning! Associations may also play a role in the phenomenon of waking up with a solution to a problem that we couldn’t solve during the previous day. With the (self-)conscious mind out of the way, the free-associating brain can sift through all sorts of possible combinations until it finds one that fits.

It seems that our brains are nearly as busy when we are asleep as when we are awake, the only difference is that our bodies are (or should be) paralyzed, and we are unconscious. Consciousness, as it turns out, is not one thing, but has several components located in different parts of the brain and goes through different stages during sleep. If those stages aren’t properly coordinated you can get problems like sleepwalking, sleepeating, sleepdriving, and even sleepmurder. It was a painful episode of sleepwalking that prompted the author to begin investigating sleep. It is entirely possible to get up, have a snack, drive across town, or bash someone over the head with a tire iron while asleep. There is no consciousness, but most other brain functions are working and the body is not paralyzed so it does what it dreams. Some sleepwalkers tie themselves to their beds for fear of jumping out of a window by accident. There isn’t much doctors can do about it other than prescribe muscle relaxants that help keep the body still.

The author didn’t really find a solution to his sleepwalking problem, and this is not intended as a self-help book. It does discuss how cognitive behavioural therapy, relaxation, and “sleep hygiene” (best practices for sleeping—I’ll let you Google it) are more effective than sleeping pills for dealing with chronic insomnia. But I think the main message of the book is that we need to take sleep more seriously. Modern people tend to see sleep and sleepiness as negotiable and manageable with enough caffeine. We also see it as something we should just be able to do, like eating and breathing. Neither attitude is based on reality. Sleep has profound effect on every area of our lives, from academic performance to marital happiness. If there is something not working in your life, sleep should perhaps be the first place to look. As mysterious as it is, we do know a lot about how to improve the quality of our sleep. We can and should inform ourselves about sleep and plan for it in the same way that we research and make plans to improve our fitness, education, career, or anything else important in our lives. We’re dreaming if we think we can get the most out of life without being conscientious about sleep.

Lady Susan: Busted!

Facts are such horrid things!

—Jane Austen, Lady Susan

I just finished reading Jane Austen’s early epistolary novel, Lady Susan. It could almost be called an unfinished novel because of its precipitate ending. Just when the truth about Lady Susan’s scheming comes fully to light, the letters stop and all matters are concluded in scarcely three pages of prose. Did Austen not know how to proceed or did she simply tire of the project? It does seem as though she was following a form from the waning 18th century—correspondence around a scheming female—but that was simply not her style, to judge from her later novels. Lady Susan is not a nice person, and the only one who seems like a typical Austen heroine, her daughter Frederica, is only allowed a single, desperate letter (though we are assured she marries well in the end).

To me, Frederica seems to be the direct forerunner of Fanny Price. She is young, mild, bookish, affectionate, sensitive, neglected, and subject to the schemes of powerful adults. Her aunt writes:

“Though totally without accomplishment, she is by no means so ignorant as one might expect to find her, being fond of books and spending the chief of her time in reading.”

Books are clearly her saving grace, having lost her (presumably superior) father early in life and being neglected by her mother, both emotionally and educationally, though in the latter case that was perhaps for the best. I wonder if Austen was acquainted with any girls in similar circumstances? She evidently thought enough of the plight of such girls to create Fanny Price twenty years later. Obviously the public sympathized with the shy, overlooked, friendless girl because Mansfield Park ended up being Austen’s best-selling book in her lifetime. Today we may prefer the beautiful, talkative, swash-buckling female, but I’m glad Austen paid some attention to those who do not naturally attract it.

“Jane’s Fame” by Claire Harman

Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire HarmanJane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World
Claire Harman
Henry Holt and Co.
304 pp.

While I was tidying up the list of books I read in 2011 I noticed that I began the year with a short biography of Jane Austen, read the wonderful A Jane Austen Education in the summer, and finished the year with Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World. Add to that a re-reading of Persuasion (my favourite) and much munching of popcorn in front of various film adaptations and the enjoyable Lost in Austen spinoff. This all happened without even trying, which just goes to show how ubiquitous Jane Austen has become. Jane’s Fame traces the development of Jane Austen’s popularity, which was by no means a sure thing in the beginning. She was nearly forgotten after her death in 1817, but a biography published by her nephew in 1869 revived interest in her, which prompted the reprinting of her books, and her renown steadily grew from there to today’s all-Austen-all-the-time proportions.

I found it interesting that for a long time the most ardent Janeites were male scholars. No doubt it only seems that way because they had the floor, but in any case her books were certainly not considered to be particularly for women until recently. She was also much-loved by soldiers in World War I, who read and discussed her books in the trenches to escape the hell they were going through. Austen was also prescribed to wounded and shell-shocked soldiers for comfort and solace in their convalescence or their last days.

Claire Harman points out that one of the reasons Austen is so easily appropriated by generation after generation of readers is that her books lack details of time and place that would make it seem dated or foreign to future readers. Apparently she did this quite deliberately and mentions it in her letters. Though some criticized her books for failing to mention the great events of the time, such as the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars, in retrospect she made the right choice if she wanted her works to be enduringly accessible. Two centuries later, references to contemporary issues and obsolete facts of life would only get in the way of the stories. Today’s writers might do well to question the conventional wisdom about describing the setting of a novel in vivid detail. People are people, whether they communicate by text message or penny post.

Jane’s Fame is quite a thorough examination of the reception of Austen’s books, and even describes the huge success of the recent film adaptations (including a discussion of the wet shirt), and mentions the most popular Austen blogs and web communities. Nothing is left out, as far as I can tell, though it is understandably UK-centric. If you want to know what people have thought about Jane Austen and her books over the last 200 years, this book will tell you. The tone is scholarly but with enough Austen-like wry humour to make it enjoyable.

After reading this book I realize that I have been remiss in not reading Austen’s unfinished novels, now called Sanditon and The Watsons, as well as the story Lady Susan. I even have a Penguin edition of them sitting on my bookshelf so I have no excuse. I believe that will be my first new book of 2012!

“Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human” by Richard Wrangham

Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard WranghamCatching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human
Richard Wrangham
Basic Books
320 pp.

When we think about what makes us human, we usually think about our upright stance, our large brains, and our ability to use tools and language. Those aspects of humanity are easy to see and leave durable traces, such as million-year-old stone hand axes from Africa and ten thousand year old cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia. Yet it may be something more humble and difficult to spot that really set us on the evolutionary path to where we are now. According to anthropologist and primatologist Richard Wrangham, cooking is likely the one thing above all others that made us human.

It is possible to envision how it got started. Modern primates are known to throw rocks around, perhaps in conflict or play, and perhaps one of our tree-dwelling ancestors noticed that crashing certain types of rocks together would send off sparks that could catch grass on fire. Tending such a fire would certainly have been within the capability of our distant ancestors, as it is for primates today. Some can even start a fire if given matches. Fire would have been an excellent deterrent against predators, and would have made living on the ground and out of the trees safer. This would have been important during times of climate change when forest was replaced with savannah. It was probably not long before someone noticed that food dropped in the fire for a while tasted better, was easier to eat, and felt more satisfying. The rest is evolutionary history.

These days there a lot of theories going around about what humans are supposed to eat. Two of the most popular (and extreme) are the raw food movement and the (supposedly) paleolithic diet. Wrangham easily demolishes the former by pointing out that cooked food is far more digestible than raw food, and that our digestive systems are clearly adapted to easily digestible food. Compared to other primates, our teeth are small, our jaws are weak, and our intestines are small. We are simply not physically capable of chewing and digesting wild raw foods as other primates do. The proof of this comes from studies of raw food enthusiasts, which show that about half of the women stop menstruating, even on a diet much richer than you would actually find in the wild. No species can survive with half of its females infertile.

The other diet fad Wrangham addresses is the “paleolithic” diet, which emphasizes meat, meat, and more meat, and avoids carbs as much as possible. People on this sort of diet (as on the raw food diet) find that they are always hungry. This is something the native peoples of North America could have told them about. They call it “rabbit hunger” and scientists call it “ketosis.” A diet heavy in lean meat causes protein poisoning that damages the kidneys and liver, causes intense hunger, and eventually leads to death, as many early explorers discovered the hard way. In fact we know that the maximum safe level of protein intake is half of all calories, so at least half our diet must consist of carbohydrates and fat. Fat, whether animal or vegetable, is a rare commodity in the tropics where we evolved, so that means our ancestors ate at least half of their diet as carbohydrates. So much for that theory.

Although cooking can seem like a chore to some of us, it actually liberated us from the much more onerous chore of chewing and digesting raw food. Primates spend a good deal of their day just chewing tough raw foods like leaves and wild fruits (which are not as soft and plump as agricultural fruits). Furthermore, because their food was so low in digestible calories, they had to eat almost constantly throughout the day. Chimpanzees only get about 20 minutes off between meals, which doesn’t leave much time for doing anything constructive. Our ancestors, on the other hand, could get far more calories from cooked food, and so had hours of free time to go gather choice foods, such as carbohydrate-rich roots, honey, and of course, animals. All that travelling, hunting, digging, and carrying would have encouraged our bipedal stance and our ability to walk and run with our hands free. (See more on that here.) The more rich cooked food we ate, the less energy was devoted to chewing and digestion and the more could be devoted to our growing brains. And so, here we are.

I posted before about the downside of all this: due to the size difference between males and females, a male can force a female to cook for him in exchange for occasional meat and, more importantly, protection from other males who would take the cooked food by force. Wrangham calls it a protection racket, which sounds about right. This is the system that prevails in every culture ever studied, past or present, rich or poor, pastoral or agricultural, “primitive” or “civilized,” patriarchal or (otherwise) egalitarian. It may be dressed up with romance and marriage rituals, but the cooking compact is at its foundation an unequal bargain. What really impresses me is that women still know it. Our sense of equal worth has not been blunted by two million years of involuntary servitude. Anthropologists have recorded the complaints of women from diverse cultures saying exactly the same thing: “Here I am, slaving over the fire/stove while my husband sits around doing nothing.” The ability to cook has done wonderful things for our species, but perhaps it is the utterly unquenchable desire for equality and freedom that is the best human characteristic.

“The Whole Five Feet” by Christopher Beha

The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else by Christopher BehaThe Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else
Christopher R. Beha
Grove Press
256 pp.

The only reason I read this book is because I was assured that it actually took the great books seriously, unlike some other tome-conquering tales I’ve read. The author initially intended to write a comedy—“a feckless, somewhat lost young man who shuts himself away from the modern world … the young man might learn a few easy lessons, and we could all share some laughs along the way.” However real life intruded—birth, death, and serious illness—to remind him that neither life nor books are to be taken lightly.

The lost young man part was more or less right. Not clear on what to do next, he moved back home to his parents’ luxurious New York apartment and decided to spend a year doing nothing other than read the Harvard Classics, a five-foot long set of books intended by its editor, Harvard president Charles W. Eliot, “to provide the literary materials from which a careful and persistent reader might gain a fair view of the progress of man observing, recording, inventing, and imagining from the earliest historical times to the close of the nineteenth century.” You may notice right away that gorging on 22,000 pages of serious text in one year does not sound very “careful.” There were works, particularly in the poetry volumes, that Beha would have liked to linger over, but in the end he realized that he had the rest of his life to get better acquainted with the books and poems that spoke to him.

I was hardly done with some of these books when I knew that I would never return to them, whereas other will probably remain touchstones throughout my life. But again, it was the books themselves that taught me this. Before I read these two superficially similar books, I couldn’t have known that Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ would mean little to me while Pascal’s Pensées would mean so much. Many of my favourite works in the Classics, such as Dana’s Two Years before the Mast or Haskell’s letter from Gettysburg, had been entirely unfamiliar to me when I started. While reading these books, I needed to judge their worth for myself. But first I needed that outdated body—the clerisy, the intellectual elite—to tell me which books to read.

There is a definite sense of passing and loss in this book, and a desire to reclaim something for the future.

I wanted to establish a connection with those who came before me… I wanted to believe that for all the things lost, there might be abundant recompense somewhere.

Beha had personal reasons to read the Harvard Classics. His grandmother had had a set, and he was intrigued as to what a devoutly Catholic wife and mother with an 8th grade education would want with the great books. He also wondered how much of what she had absorbed from those books had filtered down through to family into himself. But of course reading the classics made them his own. He relates what he read to his own experiences of loss (including loss of faith) and illness, but he also feels the loss of the literary culture that the Harvard Classics (and the Great Books of the Western World) tried to popularize. He knows he cannot re-enter that culture without becoming an anachronism in his own time, but still he feels that we have lost something valuable and beautiful.

His poems, Wordsworth tells us, “were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure.” He warns that readers who are used to the “gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers” may find his work strange or awkward: “they will look round for poetry, and will be induced to inquire by what species of courtesy these attempts can be permitted to assume that title.”

It would surprise most readers now to hear Wordsworth’s description of his own language after reading about “that blessed mood, / In which the burthen of the mystery, / In which the heavy and the weary weight / Of all this unintelligible world, / Is lightened.” It’s not just the relative elegance of his supposed “awkwardness” that is so striking, but the complexity of this “language of conversation.”

One could be charitable and say that colloquial language evolves over time, and what seems conversational in one era is destined to sound strange more than a century later. But this won’t quite do. Wordsworth’s conversational language isn’t just different from ours; it’s richer and more beautiful. Simply put, something has been lost. When I came to this conclusion, I thought back to my grandfather. It seemed to me that our decline in self-expression rested somewhere in the fact that he had grown up memorizing lines from Longfellow whereas I had grown up memorizing lines from Caddyshack.

But what has been lost can be regained. Our predecessors were not born reciting poetry, they learned it by reading, which we can also do. We may lack the tweedy taskmasters of the past, but the task has never been easier. Culture has never been more accessible, even to elites, as it is now. Libraries and the Internet have made just about every significant work of art or thought available for little effort and expense. You can do the Grand Tour from your living room and read the classics for price of a library card. You can watch Shakespeare’s plays and listen to symphonies on YouTube. We don’t need a Harvard Classics any more, we only need people to remind us why we should keep reading (and watching and listening to and looking at) the classics.

In many ways, this is how I feel about having finished the Classics: I shall go on in the same way. Nothing in my life is going to change in any visible fashion. But these books have helped me to find meaning in events—illness and loss as well as moments of great joy—that didn’t make any sense to me. At the same time, life helped me make sense of these books. And so it will continue to go, for although I have read through the whole five feet, I’ll never be finished with them.

“A Jane Austen Education” by William Deresiewicz

A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter by William DeresiewiczA Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter
William Deresiewicz
Penguin Press
272 pp.

I knew I was going to like this book when it began with chapter 1 on page 1. No introduction, preface, foreword, not even acknowledgements (they are at the end). William Deresiewicz just gets right down to business, which I very much appreciate. His business, in this case, is to tell the story of how he came to appreciate Jane Austen’s novels while working on his doctoral dissertation. He admits to being prejudiced against her, having been educated to believe modernist literature was the only literature that mattered. However, after reading Austen’s novels carefully and reflecting on his own life, he began to realize that her vision of human social life was not only relevant but sorely needed, as much today as in her time.

The cover art for this book is brilliant because he describes how, by reading Austen’s novels, he learned to put on the behaviour of mature, well-mannered, and socially functional man. Each novel had particular lessons for him, and the parallels with his personal life are quite striking. Perhaps some artistic license has been applied, but the point is that the challenges of modern life bear a striking resemblance to the dramas of Meryton, Hartfield, Bath, and Austen’s other locales.

From Emma he learned that it’s the small details of daily like that hold people and communities together (I posted a related quote here). With some chagrin he recognized himself in Emma, who felt herself to be above the humble concerns of the likes of Miss Bates.

Emma, who had it all, was forever discontented with the world around her—just like me, in my perpetual fog of resentful gloom. Instead it was Miss Bates—scraping by, facing a lonely old age, dependent on everybody else’s good will—who was the happy one. If her speech bubbled and flowed in an endless stream of little matters, that was only because, like Austen herself, she found everything around her so very interesting.

Things went no better for him with Pride and Prejudice. I have never been able to understand why so many readers admire (to put it mildly) Eliza Bennet. It never seemed quite right to me, though I could not say why. Deresiewicz puts words to what I only felt instinctively: Elizabeth Bennet is wrong for almost the entire book, and it nearly results in disaster for herself and her entire family. It is only through total humiliation that she learns to question herself, which to Deresiewicz amounts to growing up. For him, the lesson of Pride and Prejudice is that growing up requires humiliation, for that is the only way we can learn to temper our feelings and opinions with reason.

Northanger Abbey is not the most entertaining of Austen’s works, for me, but for Deresiewicz it came as a profound revelation. At the time he was struggling with his new role as teacher. The more he tried to cram his brilliant insights into his students, the more they slouched and sighed and stayed silent in class. He then began to look at Northanger Abbey as a story about different kinds of teaching and the effects they have.  Catherine Morland was taught by lurid novels and fashionable friends to view the world in a certain way, and she willingly complied. Then Henry Tilney comes along and tries to lead her to think about things for herself.

…students don’t come to school with open minds, they come with all the concepts they’ve already acquired … and they can’t wait to project them on to everything they read. If you’re in college you go hunting for “symbolism” or “foreshadowing” or “Christ figures.” If you’re in graduate school it’s “constructions of otherness” or “discourses of sexuality” or “the circulation of power.” Either way you end up like Catherine, with a very elaborate theory that bears no relationship to what’s actually going on in front of you. Henry challenged Catherine; my professor challenged his students; Austen challenged all of us. The job of a teacher, I now understood, is neither to affirm your students’ notions or fill them with your own. They job is to free them from both.

Sometimes I regret that I have no formal education in English literature, but a passage like this makes me think that it might actually be an advantage!

Now, about Mansfield Park… I can sense the eyes rolling already, but hold on. Fanny Price has to be Austen’s most disdained heroine, even though she is one of the few who is not in fact a disaster. Everyone around her, except for her cousin Edmund and brother William, are most certainly disasters. Both wealth and poverty have corrupted the people in her life, turning them into selfish beings who see others more as objects than as people. We see this especially at Mansfield Park itself, but it is no less true in Fanny’s own family, where only one brother and sister among many have developed a real sense of affection for her. Her own parents are barely aware of her existence. The Crawfords are even worse, swooping in from the big city and charming everyone with their witty banter, while they desperately try to fill their inner emptiness with intrigue and constant amusement, usually at someone else’s expense.

Deresiewicz saw the same dynamic exactly in the upper class New York clique he had been mysteriously admitted to. He soon learned that he was mainly there as a play thing and if he wanted to stay he had to provide a constant stream of funny stories about his disastrous love life. He was not human to them, no one was; they weren’t even human to themselves. One of them quipped that they are doing well if they haven’t committed suicide by 30, which gives a sense of the inner terrors of these purposeless heirs and heiresses. The author admits being bewitched by the glamour of the high fashion lifestyle, but Austen helped him see it for what it was so he could free himself from it. It also showed him that Fanny, far from being a bland doormat, was in fact the most richly human of them all. She had strong feelings, but had the self-control and dignity not to impose them on others. She could entertain herself, with books and her imagination, while the only entertainment the other young people could come up with was to stage a scandalous play as an excuse to flirt with people they shouldn’t be flirting with. Most importantly, she had a sense of her social duty to others, and made herself useful to everyone around her. This is the antithesis of the likes of the Crawfords, who assumed that everyone else was placed on earth to be of use to them. Though Fanny suffered much abuse and lack of appreciation, she still had infinitely more peace of mind than someone like Tom Bertram, who had all the money and freedom in the world and destroyed himself with it. Austen’s message is simple and timeless: the way of self-will and self-indulgence leads to despair and destruction. Only selflessness and attending to others can bring happiness and the affection of other good people.

Persuasion’s Anne Elliot is another Plain Jane character, taken for granted by everyone, but still making herself useful and helping where she can. For Deresiewicz, Persuasion is as much about finding friends as about finding love. Anne’s family haven’t the slightest interest in her, as she won’t join their game of social climbing, and so she has to look in unconventional places for friendship, namely the navy and her old school friend, the now destitute and disabled Mrs. Smith. People that her father sneers at turn out to be full of warmth and welcome and appreciation for herself rather than for her status. Deresiewicz also points out that Anne makes friends with men, showing that where there is a true meeting of the minds, neither class nor sex is relevant. Mrs. Smith is perhaps the most selfless model of friendship. Had she kept her mouth shut and allowed Anne to marry the rascal Mr. Elliot, she could have benefited greatly from Anne’s generosity. But as a friend she had to tell her the truth about Mr. Elliot. This relates to one of the key lessons that Deresiewicz takes away from Persuasion: being a true friend sometimes means having uncomfortable conversations and even challenging your friends when you think they are on the wrong track. Deresiewicz began to put this into practice by confronting a friend with a drinking problem. Not surprisingly his friend stopped talking to him, but eventually his friend saw the truth of the matter and thanked him for having spoken up. Sometimes being a good friend means disagreeing with your friend, no matter what it costs you.

Austen is often seen as a romantic writer, since her novels tend to end with weddings, but it’s really only Sense and Sensibility that Deresiewicz sees as being principally about love. It contrasts two approaches to love, personified by hyper-romantic Marianne and sensible Elinor. In Austen’s time, as in our own, there was a general belief in the romantic ideal—love at first sight, soul mates, violins and fireworks. However, the folly of this approach is brought home to Marianne in the most humiliating way. She did not take the time to ascertain who this young man really was, and so she was easily deceived. Elinor, on the other hand, when she met Edward Ferrars, proceeded slowly, carefully, and got to know his ideas on all subjects and became acquainted with his true character. To Marianne this seems cold and lifeless, but as Deresiewicz points out, “Elinor’s way … is every bit as intuitive as Marianne’s, and, if anything, takes place at a deeper level.” Elinor does not “fall” in love suddenly (and literally!) as Marianne does, her love grows organically as she learns more about Edward’s fine character. Deresiewicz again: “Austen believed that if a person’s character is good, love increases with simple familiarity.” So Austen is not against love, she is against the false fantasy of romance that is so often mistaken for love.

…making a mature decision, patiently feeling and thinking your way toward mutual respect and regard and esteem, accepting the responsibility of challenging and being challenged, refusing both the comforts of fantasy and the cynicism of calculation—that is the really radical, the really original, the really heroic move. That is the true freedom; that is the way you lift yourself above the bondage of impulse and cliché.

If you are wondering what effect this had on Deresiewicz, it did no less than convert him from confirmed bachelor to the marrying kind. He ends the book with an allusion to another literary Jane by writing, “Reader, I married her.” The irony is that Austen herself never chose marriage, despite having had plenty of admirers and at least one offer. She knew that marriage entailed many duties and many pregnancies, any one of which could kill her. It is a chilling fact that all of her brothers’ wives died in childbirth. She chose to remain single and revelled in her freedom to live and to write. Unfortunately for her and for us, that freedom did not last long and she died of a mysterious disease at only 41 years of age.

Despite the slightly corny ending I greatly enjoyed A Jane Austen Education. It made me see new aspects of all of Austen’s books, which I will dutifully try to unsee the next time I read them. I wouldn’t want to be like Catherine Morland! I will instead try to pay attention to the small details, keep my opinions in check, avoid being charmed by vivacity, look for connections in unexpected places, and, little by little, gradually deepen my knowledge and love for these wonderful books.

“The Warden” by Anthony Trollope

The Warden (Oxford World's Classics) by Anthony TrollopeThe Warden [ebook] [audiobook]
Anthony Trollope
Oxford University Press, USA
336 pp.

In former times great objects were attained by great work. When evils were to be reformed, reformers set about their heavy task with grave decorum and laborious argument. An age was occupied in proving a grievance, and philosophical researches were printed in folio pages, which it took a life to write, and an eternity to read. We get on now with a lighter step, and quicker: ridicule is found to be more convincing than argument, imaginary agonies touch more than true sorrows, and monthly novels convince, when learned quartos fail to do so. If the world is to be set right, the work will be done by shilling numbers.

Of all such reformers Mr Sentiment is the most powerful. It is incredible the number of evil practices he has put down: it is to be feared he will soon lack subjects, and that when he has made the working classes comfortable, and got bitter beer put into proper-sized pint bottles, there will be nothing further for him left to do. Mr Sentiment is certainly a very powerful man, and perhaps not the less so that his good poor people are so very good; his hard rich people so very hard; and the genuinely honest so very honest. Namby-pamby in these days is not thrown away if it be introduced in the proper quarters. Divine peeresses are no longer interesting, though possessed of every virtue; but a pattern peasant or an immaculate manufacturing hero may talk as much twaddle as one of Mrs Ratcliffe’s heroines, and still be listened to. Perhaps, however, Mr Sentiment’s great attraction is in his second-rate characters. If his heroes and heroines walk upon stilts, as heroes and heroines, I fear, ever must, their attendant satellites are as natural as though one met them in the street: they walk and talk like men and women, and live among our friends a rattling, lively life; yes, live, and will live till the names of their calling shall be forgotten in their own, and Buckett and Mrs Gamp will be the only words left to us to signify a detective police officer or a monthly nurse.

This swipe at Dickens in chapter 15 of The Warden was my first serious hint that Mr. Trollope and I were not going to see eye to eye. All seemed well at first: it was discovered that a charitable foundation (a home for retired wool-carders) had increased its value and income dramatically, but the increase had gone to the warden of the establishment, rather than to its occupants, so that he (a clergyman) was living in ease and luxury while they ate soup. An earnest young man took up the cause, and the church establishment naturally opposed him. So far so good. The church obviously had no leg to stand on, so I expected the situation to be rectified, one way or another. I could not have been more wrong. Not only was the situation not rectified, the elderly wool-carders were punished for having the temerity to demand a fair distribution of the income intended for them. Their ingratitude was their downfall, and they ended up with less than they had before and no warden to be their friend.

“Some gentleman will probably take my place here very soon, and I strongly advise you to be prepared to receive him in a kindly spirit and to raise no further question among yourselves as to the amount of his income. Were you to succeed in lessening what he has to receive, you would not increase your own allowance. The surplus would not go to you; your wants are adequately provided for, and your position could hardly be improved.”

“God bless your reverence, we knows it,” said Spriggs.

“It’s all true, your reverence,” said Skulpit. “We sees it all now.”

“Yes, Mr Harding,” said Bunce, opening his mouth for the first time; “I believe they do understand it now, now that they’ve driven from under the same roof with them such a master as not one of them will ever know again,—now that they’re like to be in sore want of a friend.”

Poor old men! how could they be cordial with their sore consciences and shamed faces? how could they bid God bless him with hearty voices and a true benison, knowing, as they did, that their vile cabal had driven him from his happy home, and sent him in his old age to seek shelter under a strange roof-tree?

As you can see the wool-carders are suitably repentant, not least for losing the extra twopence a day they received from the “open-handed” warden (who got £800 a year). Trollope follows this up with a pathetic diptych in which cupidity pollutes a pensioner’s deathbed and the only loyal inmate attempts to forgive his brethren for their sins:

The poor old bed-ridden creature still kept Mr Harding’s hand in his own, and the warden thought that he had met with something like warmth of feeling in the one of all his subjects from whom it was the least likely to be expected; for poor old Bell had nearly outlived all human feelings. “And your reverence,” said he, and then he paused, while his old palsied head shook horribly, and his shrivelled cheeks sank lower within his jaws, and his glazy eye gleamed with a momentary light; “and your reverence, shall we get the hundred a year, then?”

How gently did Mr Harding try to extinguish the false hope of money which had been so wretchedly raised to disturb the quiet of the dying man! One other week and his mortal coil would be shuffled off; in one short week would God resume his soul, and set it apart for its irrevocable doom; seven more tedious days and nights of senseless inactivity, and all would be over for poor Bell in this world; and yet, with his last audible words, he was demanding his moneyed rights, and asserting himself to be the proper heir of John Hiram’s bounty! Not on him, poor sinner as he was, be the load of such sin!

Mr Harding returned to his parlour, meditating with a sick heart on what he had seen, and Bunce with him. We will not describe the parting of these two good men, for good men they were. It was in vain that the late warden endeavoured to comfort the heart of the old bedesman; poor old Bunce felt that his days of comfort were gone. The hospital had to him been a happy home, but it could be so no longer. He had had honour there, and friendship; he had recognised his master, and been recognised; all his wants, both of soul and body, had been supplied, and he had been a happy man. He wept grievously as he parted from his friend, and the tears of an old man are bitter. “It is all over for me in this world,” said he, as he gave the last squeeze to Mr Harding’s hand; “I have now to forgive those who have injured me;—and to die.”

In the end, the warden leaves without being replaced, and the sinful wool-carders drop off one by one, “with no kind friend to solace their last moments, with no wealthy neighbour to administer comforts and ease the stings of death.” Even their places are not filled by other retired workers, so the rents just accumulate in the bank, benefiting no one. This, we are led to believe, is the natural consequence of trying to upset the natural order of things, that is, the system whereby the poor must be eternally grateful for the crumbs that fall from the tables of the wealthy. To raise workers out of poverty would be anathema, laughable, but to receive great wealth unearned is an honour and a right. Suffice it to say that Trollope was a champion of the status quo, and I am more than glad that it is his kind who were made to reform and repent.

“Party of One” by Anneli Rufus

Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto by Anneli RufusParty of One: The Loners’ Manifesto
Anneli Rufus
Da Capo Press
320 pp.

This book is for all the non-social-butterflies out there. If you are reading this blog, you are probably one of them. Bookish types are the quintessential loners, though as Anneli Rufus (or anneli rufus) points out, loners defy description almost by definition. Rufus defines loners as people who simply like being alone, and a side effect of spending time alone following our own internal promptings is that we tend to develop very individual personalities and habits. Unlike most people we have no desire to fit in with the crowd and so we quite naturally veer off in our own directions, that is, in all directions.

The book celebrates many of the lonerish manifestations—artists, writers, heroes, adventurers, geeks—and does a good job of defending the loner by showing how much society benefits from all the creative projects we give birth to in our secret lairs. Rufus also spends some time taking down the most negative and unjustified loner stereotypes, the serial killer and the crazy person. She points out that while the media robotically portray every psychopath as a loner, it turns out that most of them had plenty of friends and family, at least before they got caught. There is a hardly a loner in the bunch. A few kept visitors away for the obvious reason that they had something (bodies, bombs, etc.) to hide. Some desperately craved human companionship but ended up alone because of an offensive personality. Social rejection prompts them to kill, not some inborn misanthropy that supposedly led them to shun society in the first place. Real loners don’t much care whether people accept us, so we don’t kill them when they don’t. It seems logical, but criminologists persist in profiling suspects as loners and so the friendly, smiling psychopaths get away.

The mentally ill are another class of what Rufus calls “pseudoloners.” Very often, like most people, they crave friendship and love but their distorted personalities turn people off and they end up alone against their will. The unfortunate consequence is that people tend to see solitude as a symptom of mental illness and this causes no end of trouble for the happy loner, especially for children. No parent wants their child to end up a maladjusted freak, or worse, and so they fling their little daydreamers into group activities, not realizing they may be torturing their own children and perhaps even stunting their internal growth. Rufus speaks from experience here, and relates how her mother kept trying to make her play with other children, basically at random. Research on how hard-wired our personalities are shows how futile this sort of remediation is. Making a loner social is as possible as making gay straight. You can make people miserable, but you can’t make them something they’re not.

My least favourite chapter was on religion. The basic premise is that religion, being inherently collective, is not of any interest to a true loner. This is then followed by some garden-variety Christianity-bashing (Crusades, check; Inquisition, check; witch-burning, check), as well as a freak-show tour of the ancient desert ascetics and medieval anchorites. Apparently bias against Christianity trumps the defense of loners because these spiritual seekers are portrayed as crazy people living completely useless lives. A few pages on and hermits of other traditions are treated with great respect. It’s an all too typical double-standard and shows a lack of research because there is a great tradition in Christianity of appreciating solitude and valuing solitary seekers. Rufus does bring up Thomas Merton, America’s famous hermit-monk, but then questions his loner cred by pointing to his fame and wide circle of correspondents. It seems the only good hermit is a non-Christian hermit.

I think the strongest part of the book is the emphasis on the creativity of the loner. Using time alone constructively is what separates the true loner from the outcast and the mentally ill. The arts and popular culture are dominated by the products of loners. We entertain the masses, even if we do not wish to be with them at the time. Loners are also responsible for a great deal of our scientific and technical achievements. It cannot be otherwise—creativity and invention come from within and cannot happen if there is distraction from without, therefore solitude is required. It’s an affirming realization, and one that I wish all young loners in today’s hyper-connected world could hear to counter all the voices telling them to join the crowd and stop being “anti-social.” It’s possible that nonloners will never be able to understand loners, but at least loners can come to understand themselves and let themselves be who they are.

“Script and Scribble” by Kitty Burns Florey

Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting by Kitty Burns FloreyScript and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting
Kitty Burns Florey
Melville House
225 pp.

I’ve been wanting to read Script and Scribble since reading Stefanie’s review of the book at So Many Books. Although I was very interested in handwriting in my teen years and developed my own distinct script, the quality of my handwriting has deteriorated in proportion to my use of the computer for communication. I do still write in a journal by hand, but in that case illegibility is a virtue in that it shields my innermost thoughts from prying eyes (and sometimes even my own!). I have been dissatisfied with the state of my handwriting for some time, and so I was glad to hear of a book dealing with the issue.

Lest I give the impression that the book is some dry instruction manual, let me say that Script and Scribble is so much fun that I devoured it in a day and a half. Its unabashed curmudgeonliness is delivered with such abundant wit that even a die-hard keyboarding purist would enjoy it. The book traipses through the history of handwriting from antiquity to the latest pedagogical trends, with a sprinkling of anecdotes from the author’s own graphological joys and sorrows.

I must admit I did skip the chapter on “graphology” (handwriting analysis), a subject so ludicrous it doesn’t even merit the effort of mockery. Otherwise the book was thoroughly entertaining. I was (temporarily) wooed by the graceful beauty of the florid (to us) Spencerian script, which was

…based on natural forms. To Spencer, the stones washed smooth by the lake became the ovals that are the foundation of his letters; arching tree branches and smooth-flowing streams led him to his graceful connecting lines. Remembering the joys of nature—the wild flowers, the smooth pebbles, the beams of sunlight, the flight of birds across a sky traced with wispy clouds—he mingled round and angular, light and dark, trailing vines and curling stems, slender upstrokes and shaded downstrokes, swooping capitals and judicious flourishes.

But I soon came to my senses when I considered the practicality of such handwriting in my life. It’s difficult to write (though by no means the most difficult hand available), and for those not used to it, difficult to read, which makes it a poor medium for communication. When I glanced back over the examples of past writing and calligraphy styles, I came to the same conclusion as the author does in the last chapter: Renaissance Italic stands out as the most legible, beautiful, and practical hand we have come up with yet. Indeed there is a movement (which has its epicentre in Oregon) to teach children (and adults) a single, semi-cursive Italic-based writing hand to replace both “ball and stick” printing and the loopy Palmer-esque cursive that is sprung on children just as they are getting the hang of printing.

We can only hope this is the beginning of the end of Puritanical (literally—Puritans disliked calligraphy) domination of handwriting. I wonder if the pointed arches of Italic reminded the Puritans too much of “Papist” cathedrals? In any case, the roundhand (a.k.a. copperplate) writing they invented replaced the earthiness of a broad nib with the ethereal swooping of a pointed pen, and it obviously caught on among a growing literate population. I don’t imagine they would have approved of the excessive flourishes their style of writing gave rise to, but without it we might not have the humble ballpoint pen, which might have been more to their liking.

While the author does not hold any illusions about the status of handwriting in this digital age (i.e. it’s on life-support, with the family divided on whether to pull the plug), she does point out that there are areas where handwriting is still essential. Our competence may still be judged through hand-written job applications, notes of love, thanks, or condolence are only acceptable when written by hand, and in the case of medical records and prescriptions, good handwriting can save lives. There is also the fact that a full quarter of the children in the USA do not have access to a computer at home, and so handwriting is still an essential skill for students. If this is the case, then a quick, simple, good-looking Italic-based writing style might fulfill all of these needs, as well as solve more mundane problems like deciphering the shopping list or post-it note.

Alas, the book the Florey recommends for learning the new cursive Italic, Write Now, is out of print [Edit: is now available here], but there are plenty of websites and even YouTube videos showing how it’s done. But for me the most exciting thing about rethinking handwriting is the opportunity to come up with one’s own style. Technology may have handwriting on the ropes, but it also makes the entire history of handwriting available to us. We can take what we like from history and adapt it to our needs. Perhaps in the end technology will help us improve our handwriting and make it more open, accessible, streamlined, and customized—like technology itself.

A true source of human happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life and elevating them by art.

–William Morris

Postscript: One of the many amusing sidenotes in the book includes this gem from the writers’ guidelines for Verbatim magazine:

Under no circumstances will a handwritten MS be read. Instead, it will be roundly ridiculed, unless it is written using the Palmer method, in which case it will be stared at in amazement.

“The Overflowing Brain” by Torkel Klingberg

The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory by Torkel KlingbergThe Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory
Torkel Klingberg
Oxford University Press, USA
224 pp.

I can’t remember where I heard about this book (see subtitle) but it sounded like it might have some answers on how to deal with the torrent of information that washes over me each day. As it turns out, this is not a self-help book for information addicts, nor is it an appeal for society to return to simpler times. No, its argument is that information overload is good for us.

Most of the book is a fascinating trip through recent brain science as it relates to working memory. Working memory is the function in the brain that allows us to hold several pieces of information or thoughts in our head simultaneously so that we can do something with them. Things like repeating a phone number until we can find a pen, doing some quick mental math to compare prices in the grocery store, or holding on to the meaning of each clause in a long sentence until you get to the end, are possible thanks to working memory. Like the RAM in our computers, the capacity of our working memory is a major determiner of our overall cognitive abilities.

Working memory is intimately linked with concentration. Concentration and working memory use overlapping parts of the brain, and they seem to work together—the better we can concentrate, the better our working memory, and vice versa. One of the author’s own experiments involved creating a video game that exercised working memory and giving it to children with ADD to play with. Not only did the children’s working memories improve in a matter of weeks, their ability to concentrate and sit still was also improved.

Working memory is also the best predictor of general intelligence and IQ. The higher a person’s working memory, the higher their intelligence. It stands to reason that the better you can concentrate and the more complexity in thought you can handle, the more intelligent you are and the higher you can score on IQ tests.

The experiment with the children with ADD and the connection between working memory and IQ would seem to suggest that we can actually increase our intelligence by improving our working memory. Indeed this seems to be happening naturally. Average IQ has been steadily increasing, decade by decade, and even seems to be accelerating. This has been known for some time but psychologists couldn’t account for it. Klingberg suggests that the reason is that our societies have been getting more complex, forcing us to master more information in order to participate, and this overloads our working memory, which responds by getting stronger.

Klingberg counters the usual argument that mainstream culture is being “dumbed down” by observing that television and movies are far more complex and intellectually challenging than they used to be. In the past stories would be told in a straightforward, chronological manner and in simple, familiar terms, while today the viewer is presented with mysteries to unravel, blanks to fill in, flashbacks and flash-forwards to keep track of, exotic elements, and all kind of surprise twists.

This last fact suggests something that the author mentions but unfortunately doesn’t elaborate on, which is that our brains enjoy challenge. We hunger for novelty, for puzzles, and for information about our world. I’ve read elsewhere that our brain actually has an insatiable appetite for new information. Unlike the rest of the brain’s feedback loops, getting new information does not satisfy the craving, it increases it. So it’s no wonder that we have created cultural complexity, and that we keep upping the ante as our brain’s capacity to cope with complexity increases.

For those who would like to get ahead of the curve, there isn’t a whole lot in the book, or in the research literature, on how to effectively increase one’s working memory or IQ (though that doesn’t stop marketers from making claims about brain-building products). Researchers have found that strenuous daily challenges are required—just doing the Sunday crossword won’t cut it. In fact crossword puzzles don’t cut it at all. According to one prominent study, chess is the best activity for training the brain, with reading also being helpful. Doing crosswords has almost no effect.

There is also the controversial issue of using drugs to increase cognitive ability. Ritalin, the drug most prescribed for ADD, does in fact improve working memory whether you have ADD or not. So should we be taking it if we want to get ahead? Some students already do. But this obviously raises a number of ethical and medical issues. Pharmaceutical companies are already developing drugs specifically for improving cognitive function, so we will be dealing with this issue soon. As a person whose brain has been impaired by disease, I have to say that I would be very tempted to take that pill, depending on the side-effects. Until then, I’ll just continue to self-medicate with chess and books and information overload.