Friday, December 12, 2008

Becoming cultured, part 1.

I'm reading a couple books right now. One is about renovating my apartment, and the other is called Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist (by Tyler Cowen).

The apartment book is interesting, and I'm getting a lot of ideas, which I hope to do something with when I someday have money. I'll someday post pictures, and I'm sure I'll tell about the book then also.

The Inner Economist book is clever, and I like it a lot. I already have a few parts that I want to share. Since I should probably go to work soon, I'll post one, and then I'll share more later.

This is from Chapter 4, which has kind of a "becoming cultured" theme, since that's something people want. (Or think they want.) I'll share part of the museums and art stuff later, but after he writes about that, he continues...

"Art museums are just one part of our culture and just one medium for becoming a cultural billionaire. Reading is no less a source of depth and inspiration; indeed it seems that more modern lives have been transformed by novels than by paintings or sculptures.

But how should we "attack" classic novels that seem boring on first inspection? One Amazon.com reviewer noted that William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury "...is like an ungrateful girlfriend. You do your best to understand her and get nothing back in return." Many other readers, perhaps less figuratively, feel the same way.

Keeping in mind our fundamental principles--the scarcity of time, attention, and giving a damn about art--here are a few tips for reading. The key is to keep ourselves involved, rather than to mimic the behavior of a literature professor at Yale. If people stay interested in a product--like their favorite computer game--they will put in the extra time to understand it better.

That said, try some combination of the following:

1. Read some middle or end chapters first. They may pique your interest. Don't obsess over sequence.

2. Read through the novel the first time, following each voice or character, skipping passages as you need to. Get interested in at least one character, even if the rest is a cipher. Then reread the book as a whole in order. This works especially well for multi-voice works such as Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.

3. Read the first fifty pages three times in a row before proceeding. Make sure you understand at least one part of the book.

4. Don't be afraid to skip over material and return to it later. This is necessary for the first fifty pages of Joseph Conrad's Nostromo. Material that destroys our interest in a book is negative, no matter how important its contribution to plot or character development. Since you're not oging to remember all of a book anyway, don't feel so guilty about skipping over some key parts. Laugh and cackle while you skip, if you wish.

5. Read through the book for the first time without stopping, but do not try to understand what is going on. Treat it as investment in the book, akin to driving to the bookstore, rather than as a forum for judgment. Then try the book again, but with some idea where matters are headed.

6. Start by reading some of the secondary literature on the tough book. Again the goal is to get ourselves interested. I don't like CliffsNotes, if only because they are boring and they deaden the works they summarize. But don't be afraid to "go low" when looking for help. Do not start with exalted literary critics unless you are persuaded they will be either involving or entertaining.

7. Take notes on the names and most important features of the major characters. Write these notes on the front leaf of the book or somewhere else accessible.

8. Give up. Recall the words of Samuel Johnson: "A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good."

Some combination of these tricks almost always works. Most generally, we enjoy reading most when we feel we are in control (there's that word again). Harold Bloom tells us, correctly, that we should read: "to strengthen the self, and to learn its authentic interests." It is hard to meet those ends if we go through the book feeling like hopeless idiots."

(That's from pages 62-63.) It's a good book. Tyler Cowen's blog looks good, too.

A couple days ago he posted this sentence about time management:

All people are equally good at time management, but some people are more willing than others to admit that they are doing what they want to do, while others maintain the illusion they wish they were doing something else.

And that's something to think about. Also, Tyler Cowen has an Ethnic Dining Guide blog, but it looks like it's all stuff in the DC area. Interesting guy.

5 comments:

bawb said...

I have such a crush on Tyler Cowen. His blog is fantastic.

Emily said...

Yeah, he's like my new hero. Almost.

SHANNON MOLLIE said...

I had no idea he was an author (although I did know he was an economist) -- his Ethnic Dining Blog is definitely my go-to source for eating around here. Go figure.

Emily said...

Ha. Awesome.

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