apple’s “your verse?”

January 19, 2014

Yes, interesting things happen at the corner of the arts and technology. And technology can do some truly amazing things. But I can’t listen to Apple’s recent ad without a jolt of ambivalence. Watch the TV ad here; the language is below:

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry, because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering — these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love — these are what we stay alive for.

To quote from Whitman,

“O me, O life of the questions of these recurring. Of the endless trains of the faithless. Of cities filled with the foolish. What good amid these, O me, O life? Answer: that you are here. That life exists and identity. That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

“That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

What will your verse be?

The language is simple and direct. And I’m even tempted to say profound. Not because my beloved Whitman is quoted — that’s part of the ambivalence, like when a believer learns that a religious verse is used to sell toothpaste — but because there’s a very clear distinction between conventional livelihoods like “medicine, law, business, engineering” and poetry. And poetry is awarded primacy, as it is associated with the life-giving powers of imagination, meaning and purpose. Like I said, I can’t watch the ad without a sense of deep ambivalence.

The Nutritional Profile of Reading Books

January 18, 2014

Reading novels is like stuffing your face with mental veggies. It can lower stress levels, help you sleep better, keep your veggie pagebrain sharp, and stave off Alzheimer’s, all at the speed of a turning page. Before you whip out your laptop, however, consider this: “At least a few studies suggest that screens sometimes impair comprehension precisely because they distort people’s sense of place in a text.” For years I’ve been interested in the effects of reading, ranging from its impact on subjective experiences, i.e., moral and psychological, as well as on the underlying objective physiology. In a gorgeous bit of serendipity, I find myself working at HopeLab where we research the connection between mental states and the body so we can develop interventions to improve health and well-being. In the coming months, I hope to uncover and share fascinating tidbits in the realm of reading, psychology and biology.

“with my best thoughts”

January 13, 2014

Not that one.
The other: Schweitzer.
I read The Quest of the Historical Jesus in grad school.
It laid the groundwork for a whole new appreciation of the Bible for me.
A theologian, musician, philosopher, doctor, surgeon, and Nobel Peace Prize winner —
Albert Schweitzer is many things.
But today he’s a 90-year old gentleman,
Penning a thank you note to my aunt Kris in the last months of his life.
In September 1965,
Aunt Kris, 16, sent Albert a birthday wish;
Their birthdays were only a day apart,
Plus she was an admirer of his —
A fan of his anti-war stance and his reverence for life philosophy,
Minus the vegetarianism.
In a missive that’s partly templatized,
Albert wrote back in August.
Here’s the front side of the envelope.


And the back.

2The postcard shows the dock at Schweitzer’s hospital in Lambarene, Africa.

3Here’s the heart of the matter,
Where Albert thanks “Dear Miss Karlsten”
And signs off “With my best thoughts Albert Schweitzer”.


He died later that September.
I held the postcard today, thoughtfully, a lovely bit of minor history.
Here’s a press clipping from a local paper in Ontario, CA.



wherein a disagree with rohan — 2 of 2

January 12, 2014

tIn last Friday’s post, I got tuckered out. My bad.

Picking up the thread, let’s agree that Gone with the Wind is a morally appalling book.

Here’s the passage in the Rohan’s superb article I’ve been mulling over:

“While I read [Gone with the Wind], in the present, I am invited to share its point of view; I enter, today, into its particular pattern of “desire and fulfillment.” The desire it urges on me is a desire for the South to prevail. Of course, this wish cannot be fulfilled, which is why the dominant mood of the novel—one to which even Scarlett finally succumbs—is nostalgia. But it’s a retrograde nostalgia, one that requires me, if I play along, to compromise my commitment to a just and equal world.”

Like most novels, good or bad, well written or not, Gone with the Wind has a definite point of view. In this case, it adopts a stance on labor, land, family, leisure, race, history, and duty, among other things. A complex moral framework with many moving parts, some of which are appealing, others not.

Entering a point of view, with its alien and foreign values, doesn’t require us to compromise our commitment to a just and equal world.

Why would it?

We can read an adulterous novel without abandoning our belief in the virtue of fidelity. And we can read misogynistic, hebephilic, and even homicidal necrophilic novels without losing or staining our moral beliefs in these areas, too. A moral stance isn’t compromised by entering a strange odious world.

Rohan suggests that reading Gone with the Wind sympathetically suppresses one’s best self. I disagree.

There’s an alternative way to frame the issue. Bring one’s best possible self to bear on a novel, period. Do one’s level best to enter its world, good or bad, familiar or alien. Allow one’s emotional center to be moved by it. Then one might learn something new and unexpected about language, about desires and values, about in-group and out-group dynamics, about the primacy of gut feelings over reason, about different moral foundations and viewpoints, and about the mysterious transit between belief and action in a pluralist world.

We’re so easily divided into hostile groups, each convinced of its own righteousness.

Instead of worrying about the possibility of moral contagion, bring your best possible self to bear on reading alternative points of view, especially when they strike you as morally appalling. Especially then.

Struggling to find common ground through the difficult practice of sympathy is a lot better than the alternative.

wherein i disagree with rohan — 1 of 2

January 10, 2014

wilde2At last I’ve finally screwed up the nerve to disagree with Rohan Maitzen, an English professor and talented book blogger at Novel Readings. She’s read Gone with the Wind a staggering 31 times. That to my one.

Of course I’m likely playing the upstart to a wiser, more informed perspective. Or not.

If you haven’t read Gone with the Wind, here’s what you need to know to join the party.

The novel is a compelling read, a page turner, and it’s splattered with many vices. Yeah, it suffers from aesthetic limitations as a work of art.

But these aren’t the vices I’m foregrounding (thanks, Tom!) at the moment.

No, I’m talking moral vices.

As Rohan says, “It’s a morally appalling book.” It ignores the iniquity of slavery, adopts an apologetic stance toward the Confederacy, and whitewashes the history of the civil war.

Now I’m not convinced books can be immoral. I tend to agree with Wilde that they’re either well written or not.

The proper objects of moral condemnation are people and their actions.

Not fictional people, those thronging denizens of stories.

Real ones.

You, me, and all the rest, including Margaret Mitchell.

Perhaps she is immoral after all. Assuming the narrator is not only a literary device but is also a kind of incendiary or morally retrograde bullhorn, Mitchell might be writing (read: acting!) immorally.

Even then I’m not convinced.

But let’s assume it is a morally appalling book with a morally offensive point of view and that Mitchell is an immoral author and person to boot.

Let’s just grant all that. Or rather please allow me to grant it when I’ve mustered the energy to press on.

I’ve plumb run out of steam and am ready for bed…