Sor Juana: The Sheer Love of Learning

Mexico 2010 Reading Challenge

I went on with the studious pursuit (in which I found relaxation during all the free time remaining from my obligations) of reading and more reading, study and more study, with no other teacher than books themselves. On can readily imagine how hard it is to study from those lifeless letters, lacking a teacher’s live voice and explanations. Still I happily put up with all those drawbacks, for the sheer love of learning. Oh, if it had only been for the love of God, which would have been the sound way, what merit would have been mine! I will say that I tried to uplift my study as much as I could and direct it to serving Him, since the goal I aspired to was the study of theology, it seeming to me a mean sort of ineptitude for a Catholic not to know all that can be found out in this life trough natural means concerning divine mysteries. I also felt that being a nun and not a lay person, I should, because of my ecclesiastical status, make a profession of letters—and furthermore that, as a daughter of Saint Jerome and Saint Paula, it would be a great disservice for the daughter of such learned parents to be a fool. This is what I took upon myself, and it seemed right to do so, unless of course—and this is probably the case—it was simply a way of flattering and applauding my own natural tendency, proposing its own pleasure to it as an obligation.

In this way I went on, continually directing the course of my study, as I have said, toward the eminence of sacred theology. To reach this goal, I considered it necessary to ascend the steps of the human arts and sciences, for how can one who has not mastered the style of the ancillary branches of learning hope to understand the general and specific methodologies of which Holy Scripture is composed? How, without rhetoric, could I understand its figures, tropes, and locutions How, without physics, all the natural questions concerning the nature of sacrificial animals, which symbolize so many things already explicated, and so many others? How, whether Saul’s being cured by the sound of David’s harp came about by virtue of the natural power of music, or through supernatural powers which God was pleased to bestow on David? How, lacking arithmetic, could one understand such mysterious computations of years, days, months, hours, weeks, as those of Daniel and others, for the intelligence of which one needs to know the natures, concordances, and properties of numbers? How, without geometry, could one measure the sacred ark of the covenant and the holy city of Jerusalem, whose mysterious measurements form a cube in all its dimensions, and the marvellous proportional distribution of all its parts? How, without a knowledge of architecture, is one to understand Solomon’s great temple, of which God Himself was the artificer who provided the arrangement and layout, the wise king being only the overseer who carried it out? In it, no column’s base was without its mystery, no column without its symbolic sense, no cornice without allusiveness, and so on with all its parts, not even the most miniscule fillet serving solely to support or complement to the design of the whole, but rather itself symbolizing greater things. How will one understand the historical books without a full knowledge of the principles and divisions of which history consists? Those recapitulations in the narrative which postpone what actually occurred first? How will one understand the legal books without a complete acquaintance with both codes of law? How without a great deal of erudition, all the matters of secular history mentioned in Holy Writ, all the customs of the gentiles, the rites, the ways of speaking? How, without many rules and much reading of the Church Fathers, will one be able to understand the prophets’ obscure forms of expression? And how, unless one is thoroughly versed in music, will one understand those musical proportions, with all their finer points, found in so many passages, especially in Abraham’s petitions to God for the cities, asking whether He would forgive them, providing there were fifty righteous men, from which the number went down to forty-five, which is the sesquioctave and as from re to mi; thence to thirty, which is the sesquitierce, or the proportion of the diatessaron; thence to twenty, which is the sesquialter, or that of the diapente; thence to ten, which is the duple, or diapason—and went no further, there being no other harmonic proportions. Now, how is this to be understood without music?

—Sor Juan Inés de la Cruz, In Reply to Sor Philothea

My own justification for spending most of my time in pursuit of knowledge sounds similar to this, but I’m not sure I believe it any more than I believe the sassy Sor Juana. These paragraphs are part of long, sarcastic, allusion-encrusted letter to “Sor Philothea,” a Bishop who publicly admonished her for writing poetry and studying, improper activities for a female, in “her” opinion. Sor Juana’s own sense of the relevance of gender in intellectual matters is stated pretty clearly in her poem to a gentleman of Peru who suggested she should become a man if she wants to write:

with one thought I came to this spot:
to be rid of those who’d inquire
whether I am a woman or not.

In Latin it’s just of the married
that uxor, or woman, is said.
A virgin has no sex at all—
or indeed she has both, being unwed.

So the man who looks upon me
as a woman, shows want of respect,
since one embracing my state
is foreclosed to the other sex.

Of one thing I’m sure: that my body
disinclined to this man or that,
serves only to house the soul—
you might call it neuter or abstract.

You go… um… person!

Charlotte Brontë on Jane Austen

I have likewise read one of Miss Austen’s works “Emma” – read it with interest and with just the degree of admiration which Miss Austen herself would have thought sensible and suitable – anything like warmth or enthusiasm; anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all demonstration the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outré and extravagant… she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood…’

—letter to W.S. Williams, April 12, 1850 (source)

Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point. What induced you to say that you would have rather written “Pride and Prejudice” or “Tom Jones”, than any of the Waverley Novels? I had not seen “Pride and Prejudice” till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book. And what did I find? An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses. These observations will probably irritate you, but I shall run the risk.

—Letter to G.H. Lewes, January 12, 1848 (source)

Well, there you have it—the great Charlotte Brontë’s opinion of the great Jane Austen. I shudder to think what she would have said about Mansfield Park.

I found these excerpts in the Reading Experience Database, a project of the UK Open University to collect data on the reading experiences of British subjects from 1450 to 1945. Project researchers and volunteers are scouring letters, diaries, book margins, and other documents for comments by readers on their reading. They aren’t just interested in famous readers because the ultimate goal is to create a large database from which we can learn something about the reading habits of the British throughout history. Anyone can contribute by filling out an online form whenever you encounter a reference to reading that meets the project’s criteria (e.g. no fictional readers allowed!). They are also looking for more volunteers to take on specific readers or mine sources of their own. The most important thing is to spread the word so people know about the database and can add to it. It will be interesting to see what kind of research comes out of this and how it compares to what the blogosphere says about how we read today.

Notes on Notes

I recently revived my languishing Latin studies and remembered that I had started a vocabulary list in Word. After looking at it I realized it would be much more useful in OneNote, where I could arrange the conjugations and declensions on separate “pages,” making them easier to update and review. Once I had that set up I started adding more pages of Latin notes, which got me on to the subject of note-taking generally.

I had started taking Latin notes in pencil in a little spiral notebook, but I found that writing in it was awkward if I got too close to the edge or the spiral, and finding anything required a lot of page-flipping. Since I already had a binder set up with downloaded answer keys, I switched to loose leaf paper, which is much more practical as it lays flat. I have to admit I love the sound and feel of pencil scratching on paper, but I wonder if it would be easier to do my work on the computer?

I’ve also been thinking about note-taking for my serious reading. I don’t expect to keep my Latin notes, but I do intend to keep my reading notes. Until now I’ve used Moleskine notebooks for my reading notes (as I’ve posted before), but as aesthetically pleasing as the notebooks are, they have some drawbacks. The main problem is what to do if I want to go through a book two or three times, as per the traditional grammar–logic–rhetoric method. Notes or comments from a second reading can’t be placed with notes from the first reading for a given chapter. One solution is to write on one side of the notebook and leave the other page blank for future use or for quotations. I tried that and ended up with many blank pages, which is not much fun with an expensive notebook. I’ve also had problems with running out of room to write down a list of characters (I’m looking at you, Tolstoy!). Switching to loose leaf paper would solve both of those problems, but cheap paper will yellow soon and binders are bulky to use and store. Typing or scanning rough notes into a notebook is a possibility, but an onerous one.

Going digital would eliminate the problem of my increasingly illegible handwriting. I can type much faster than I can write, and being able to search my notes could come in very handy. My little netbook is really not much larger than a Moleskine, and, with wifi, has the added advantage of letting me look up words or facts wherever I happen to be reading. The only problem is ergonomics. If I’m taking notes on paper, I can hold the book open with one hand and write with the other. Typing obviously requires two hands, so I’d have to put the book in a bookstand, which makes it a nuisance to turn the pages.

There is also the perennial problem of digital obsolescence. The notes in my sewn, acid-free Moleskines will probably last as long as I do. The notes in Microsoft OneNote will last as long as Microsoft exists and continues to support OneNote. OneNote has been around for a mere 6 years, and though the people who use it absolutely adore it, it is not well known, which is usually a recipe for getting cancelled! Like all electronic formats, OneNote is only temporary, and my notes will require updating and converting for as long as I want to use them in digital form.

Then there’s the more important question of whether typing notes is as good of a memory aid as writing notes. ME/CFS has ravaged my short-term memory, so I must take notes if I want to remember (and blog about!) what I’ve read. I’ve been googling around and there doesn’t seem to be any research on the subject, despite the fact that laptops are taking over university and even some high school classrooms. I did find some comments from students who found they retained information better if they took notes by hand, but I wonder if that’s just a question of acclimatization. If you’re used to writing notes on paper, switching to computer will probably not work as well at first. It used to be that I could only write by hand and had to type it in later, but now I only write on the computer and can edit on screen as well. Something has changed in my brain with regard to how I perform the act of writing. But memory is a different faculty, and I wonder if typing on a computer gets stored in the same way as handwriting? Typing is arguably as tactile as writing with a pen, but the connection between our fingers and the letters on the monitor is perhaps more virtual than our quarter-million year old brains can relate to.

I suppose the only thing to do is to keep experimenting. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages, and there doesn’t seem to be a clear winner. It probably comes down to personal preference and which system is more likely to get used. If you’ve tried taking reading notes electronically I’d love to hear about it!

Derek Price, King of the Autodidacts

[Derek de Solla Price] was born in 1922 to Philip Price, a tailor, and Fanny de Solla, a singer. The couple didn’t have many material possessions, but they had enough money to indulge their young son in his love of Meccano, which was all the rage at the time. With enough ingenuity, the red and green painted girders, pulleys and cogs could be built into pretty much anything a boy could imagine—a bridge, a crane, a car, a spaceship—and Price wasn’t short of either ingenuity or imagination. The toy instilled in him a passion for mechanics and for how things work, which stayed with him for life….

Despite his talent, Price didn’t have the money or the background to go to university, so he followed a less conventional route to pursuing the subjects that he loved. He got a job as a lab assistant at the newly opened South West Essex Technical College, which enabled him to study part-time for a degree at the University of London. The physics equipment there was one glorious step up from Meccano. Square and black with clunky dials and flickering green screens, the oscilloscopes, voltmeters and spectrometers were as heavy as stones, and packed full to bursting with valves and wiring. With such instruments you could make sense of things; you could measure the whole world! Price spend hours taking these devices apart, tinkering with them and putting them back together, until his fingers and his heart were intimately familiar with their workings.

He got his degree in physics and maths in 1942 and the college—seriously short-staffed because of the war—instantly promoted him to lecturer. He worked in one classroom often for eight hours straight, learning the curriculum as he taught it. He also carried out research for the military on the optics of molten metals, and the University of London awarded him a PhD for it in 1946. Once the war ended, however, there was no job for him in London… He accepted a teaching position at the young Raffles College in Singapore….

Singapore was wonderful and exotic and it inspired in Price a new love for oriental culture and its history. It also introduced him to the history of science. Raffles College acquired a full set of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society—the journal of Britain’s foremost scientific body, with such worthy members over the centuries as Humphry Davy, Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke. The college library was still being built, so Price seized his chance and took the beautiful calf-bound volumes home with him—into ‘protective custody’, he joked. Accustomed by now to teaching himself everything, he used them as bedtime reading, starting with the first volume from 1665 and working his way through.

—Jo Marchant, Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000-Year-Old Computer—and the Century-Long Search to Discover its Secrets

Price’s reading of the Royal Society papers aroused an interest in the history of science, particularly the history of scientific instruments, especially clockwork and astronomical instruments. When he found out about the Antikythera Mechanism there was only one thing to do: go to Athens!

"A Great Idea at the Time" by Alex Beam

As you can probably tell from my right sidebar, I am a fan of the Great Books movement, so there was no question of me reading A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books by Alex Beam. Alas, the humorous title is followed by chapter after derisive chapter portraying the architects of the movement as wackos and its followers as weirdos. It seems to be assumed that books by “dead white males” (a phrase repeated countless times in this book) couldn’t possibly contain any worthwhile or relevant content (mainly because they were written by dead white males), and therefore anyone championing them is by definition quixotic (apologies for the dead white male book reference).

Beam puts the magnifying glass on the movement’s missteps: user-unfriendly book design (Great Books of the Western World), overzealous door-to-door salesmen, horse-trading over the canon, and public bickering over pedagogical philosophies. It’s a bit like reality TV in book form: show all the exciting conflict and scandal, and cut out the boring 95% where things go well and people are happy. No doubt it sells but it does a disservice to the books in question and those who appreciate them.

What makes the whole thing perverse is that in the last chapter Beam sheepishly admits that he actually likes the great books, that they are indeed better than other books, that they are the foundation of our culture, and that they are still very much alive and all around us if we have the eyes to see them. Why couldn’t he start out that way? Is it so uncool these days to value and appreciate things that have real human meaning? Beam does suggest that youngsters who are interested in the classics are unmitigated nerds. He is also a journalist and it seems he couldn’t shake the obligatory mood of cynicism and nihilism that pervades the news media today.

Beam does seem to genuinely appreciate the classics to some extent, but they get no substantial mention in the course of the book. They only seem to be taken seriously in the appendix, a list of the works in the Great Books of the Western World annotated by Beam. Although the annotations are extremely short, mostly phrases or short quotations, it is the only place in the book where the content of these books is given any real attention. But it is probably too little too late for any reader who is not already a confirmed “great bookie.” Those for whom “dead white male” is a red flag will come away with the notion that those who like the great books are just as comical and irrelevant as the old men in togas who wrote them so long ago. Too bad.

For a more dispassionate review of this book, visit So Many Books.

Literature: Language, Stories, and Something Else

Joe at Constanza Book Club has something special to say about why he reads great literature. Pleasure, aesthetics, ideas aren’t enough. He wants more:

I want literature that reaches to my sinews, to my very marrow. I want literature to reach me in the depths of my soul, and to touch the heart of how and why I live. I want it to teach me, but to teach me not just intellectually, morally, but spiritually, passionately. I want to feel the literature in my very being, for it to grasp onto the core of a lived life.

Read more: art to the marrow


I really have to thank Stefanie for mentioning Paul Saenger’s book, Spaces Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading. I have always been interested in the origins of language and writing, and reading a little bit of this book on Google Books has supplied many amazing insights into the development of writing and language. We tend to think of the invention of writing, some 5,000 years ago, as the invention of the tool we use to communicate with each other today. In reality it was something quite different.

At first, alphabets lacked vowels, and so words were written out separately, with spaces between them, to make decoding them easier. However, after vowels were invented, it became much easier to decipher words and sentences, and the spaces were eventually abandoned. This sounds incredible to us, since we know how much faster it is to read with spaces, but there is an explanation, or at least a theory.

For one thing, unless you have been trained to read by sight, spaces do not speed up reading. Give text without spaces to an adult and their reading speed slows to a crawl. Give the same text to a young child and their reading speed is pretty much the same because they haven’t progressed beyond the point of reading by sounding out syllables. Adding spaces does not speed up their reading because they haven’t learned to recognize whole words by their shape. Moreover, according to Saenger, if you give a child text without spaces they will automatically read it aloud. This is exactly how the ancients “read.” Today we might call it recitation instead. One ancient text that points to this quite explicitly is the Quran. It’s first word is “Read,” which is interpreted to mean “Recite,” and indeed the book was first transmitted orally and only later written down.

I think the underlying answer to the question of why we stopped using spaces is that writing was developed more as a mnemonic device for oral recitation than as a way to record thought. Saenger doesn’t say this explicitly, but this is how it seems to me. Ancient texts, especially poetry, are full of complex internal rhythm and rhyme that only make sense aloud. This is the natural outgrowth of oral culture. Books were read much as we used to play cassette tapes: from beginning to end. Separating text into sections or paragraphs and numbering pages were not at all common practices, especially among the Romans. “Reference reading,” that is consulting a book for specific information, was unknown. Writing may seem “digital” to us, but it was “analog” to them—an integral oral performance rather than a collection of individual bits of information.

Ancient languages were inflected, meaning that the function of words was determined by their prefixes and suffixes, not word order. Words could theoretically be placed in any position, and they were often jumbled (in our view) for effect. Typically, the whole sentence had to be read and held in working memory before the relations between the words and the meaning of the sentence could be understood. As it turns out, according to modern experiments, we can retain many more words in our memory if we hear them. It is simply much easier and faster to read inflected language aloud, and as pointed out above, if you are reading phonetically, adding spaces doesn’t make it any easier or faster.

So, how is it that we came to our senses and adopted the style of language we use today? I haven’t gotten to all the details in Saenger’s book yet, but it seems that the breakdown in the system of inflection started in late antiquity. The “vulgar” Latin that Jerome used in his monumental translation of the Bible known as the “Vulgate” was already starting to drop inflection in favour of word order. This was considered degenerate by scholars, who were probably concerned with preserving their high erudition, but in the end, utility trumped artistry. Throughout the middle ages, inflection gave way to word order, and thanks to the monks and scribes of Britain and Ireland, spaces between words were reintroduced.

Now language was written according to the logic of cause and effect—subject-verb-object— not according to the music of rhythm and rhyme. Word order allowed people to decode the syntactical meanings of words on the fly, and so it was no longer necessary to say them aloud to keep them in memory. Finally, spaces between words allowed us to start reading even more quickly by recognizing the shapes of words, and we haven’t looked back since.

The adoption of word spacing and word order was, I think, as revolutionary as the invention of writing itself. They not only made reading possible for the masses, they also (along with punctuation) made the writing and reading of more complex thinking possible, and so scholarship blossomed. The Renaissance was probably only a matter of time after that. Yes, we have lost the music of the high poetic language of the ancient orators and poets, but mass literacy and intellectual progress were obviously worth more to our ancestors. The people have spoken!

To test some of this for yourself, try the exercise on this page from Rice University. The site has other interesting information on the development of language as well.

Virgil: Aeneid

The State of the Humanities

Susan at Pages Turned recently linked to a pessimistic New York Times article by Patricia Cohen about the state of humanities education in the United States. The implication is that people think studying things like history and art and literature is impractical at the best of times, and downright foolish at times like these. The article presents ominous portends and anticipates a widespread collapse of humanities departments, going so far as to suggest that there is an atmosphere of panic among faculty.

To bring the point home, the article includes a graph from the Humanities Indicators Prototype (incorrectly identified as the Humanities Indicators Project, though I don’t blame them!). The graph shows precipitous downward trends in the percentage of Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctorate degrees in the humanities since 1966. Well, whoa there cowgirl. There has been a great expansion in educational options in the last 40 years, and so a percentage of total degrees doesn’t really tell you much. I perused the voluminous Humanities Indicators Prototype (who came up with that name?) website and as it turns out the humanities are in much better shape than that one graph would suggest.

First of all, fluctuations in the numbers and percentages of students in the humanities seem to have more to do with cultural and academic trends than economic considerations. This is according to a spinoff essay, “Taking the Pulse of the Humanities,” based on the HIP data. One big change was the entry of large numbers of women into higher education. At first they gravitated to subjects that could lead to female-friendly careers such as teaching, but as the women’s movement progressed, they branched out into science, business, and other male-dominated fields. Another change was the expansion of educational offerings, especially in technical fields and business administration. There are simply many more choices now.

These and other factors created a big boom in the humanities around 1970 and then a crash during the 80’s, but things have stabilized since then. In fact, the actual number of students completing degrees in the humanities has been pretty stable since 1990, and has been climbing steadily since 1997 for undergrads. The more “selective” liberal arts colleges and universities have experienced the most growth, so the humanities are obviously still appealing to the best and brightest. This is hardly cause for despair.

There are other hopeful indicators too. A part of the HIP report on public attitudes toward art and literature shows very positive attitudes towards the humanities. In particular, the people surveyed were very supportive of teaching the classics, and felt that great literature was universal and not to be defined or limited by ethnicity or other factors. Interestingly, the percentage of people who would favour removing books from libraries for objectionable content has declined significantly, the greatest decline being for books with homosexual content. The book banners are on their way out. And it seems that there is more respect for modern art that you might think. Nearly 70% of respondents disagreed with a statement that modern art looks like a child could do it.

So it appears that Americans have not lost their interest in the humanities, and their strong respect for both the classics and modern art is very encouraging. Most importantly, students are still flocking to history, English, and philosophy classes. Now, if we can only get them interested in ancient Greek and Latin too!

Another DIY Bookmark

Since we were talking about home-made bookmarks, I thought I’d post a bookmark I created to read War and Peace. After reading Anna Karenina I figured War and Peace would also have numerous characters, place names, and terminology to keep track of. I had used index cards to write those things down for Anna Karenina, but they kept falling out of the book and weren’t terribly practical. So, I created a bookmark to take on the job of temporary notebook.

At the top is room for the title and start and end dates, and then there are sections for people, places, things, and vocabulary. The latter is very handy because I find that if I write down unknown words and their definitions I am far more likely to remember them the next time I see them.

It’s not a terribly beautiful bookmark—mine lives in the endnotes—but I am finding it very handy. I printed mine out on white card stock, but next time I think I’ll use coloured paper or, if I’m feeling creative, add a background image appropriate to the book I’m reading.

If you’d like to try my invention, here are the links to Word and PDF versions:

Download bookmark.doc

Download bookmark.pdf



Read and Chat with Book Glutton

There’s a new online book website and it has an interesting twist. Book Glutton not only lets you read books online but it also allows you to chat with others who are reading the same book (or even the same chapter) at the same time. You can also mark and comment on particular passages, either publicly or privately, and reply to other readers’ public comments.

Book Glutton (click to enlarge) The “Unbound Reader” window is quite slick (click image for screenshot). In the middle is a page of the book, nicely presented, with navigation at the bottom. On the left is the chat tab, and on the right is the comment tab. The website also has a groups feature, and you can limit chatting and comments to other group members.

Although I’m not a fan of reading whole books online, the social features are intriguing. I can see this being an option for online book clubs. (Those participating in the Russian Reading Challenge might be interesting in Book Glutton’s edition of Best Russian Short Stories.) The one thing that’s missing is a search function. So far that is all I use online books for, and I can see it being useful in Book Glutton for digging up quotes to use while chatting.

I should add that Book Glutton is in beta, so the choice of books and number of users is limited, and it only works in Firefox (for now). One of the features to come is the ability to upload original or public domain works yourself. It will be interesting to see if this catches on and whether links start to form with other book-related enterprises such as LibraryThing or Project Gutenberg. I can see schools and libraries being interested in this as well. I think I’ll be keeping an eye on this one.