Tag Archives: reading

Charles Dickens wanted to…

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Letters revealing Dickens’ attempt to accuse his wife of being mentally unstable (from Google)

All would have been well if the truth had remained buried under the dusty files of forgotten letters from the past in the bottom drawer of History.  Alas, it happened – a recent revelation of the letters delineating Charles Dickens, a literary great whom I admired, concocting a plot to send his sane wife to a mental institution in order that he and his 18-year old paramour could be forever together.   

How and why these forgotten letters have been brought into light out of the blue are clandestine from my reading of the article about such letters from the recent issue of a history magazine. Besides, the possession of the letters is curiously divided between the Atlantic Ocean because some of the letters are held by Harvard University in the U.S., while the others by the University of York in the U.K. The article does not provide the reader with more detailed information as to whys and wherefores of such divisional custodianship of the letters, not to mention the background of such uncovering of the provocative textual artifact that would certainly do no good on Dickens in any way. Methinks it would be a possibility that a descendant of the estranged wife Catherine Hogarth or even of their eldest child might have staged this rather dramatic publicity of the letters revealing the other side of the great writer out of indignation as comeuppance for his sins of adultery and perjury, which in a twist of whimsical irony befits the ethos of #MeToo Movement.

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Mrs. Catherine Dickens

The content of one such letter written by a neighbor of Catherine Hogarth details the following: (1) Dickens at the age of 45 fell madly in love with 18-year old actress named Ellen Ternan: (2) it was the death-knell of the marriage, pace Dickens’ complaints about his legal wife; (3) his wife confronted him when a bracelet meant for the young actress providentially was delivered to her, after which she separated from him by moving to a house in Kent with their eldest child. The rest of the children were in the care of their aunt, while Dickens continued his relationship with the actress until his death; and (4) after the separation, Dickens tried to seek for divorce from the court by trying to prove that his wife was mentally unstable and that she would be sent to an asylum. However, the attempt to seek such remedy was foiled by the absence of proof of her insanity.

The whole scandalous charade of this great literary figure reminds me of the axiom by Ralph Waldo Emerson that the admiration of great works of geniuses should not become the worship of idols. That is, one must disembarrass the idea of a story from the person of the author, who is only a fallible, whimsical, temperamental human. The works of writers, I believe, are a separate reality based upon their epistemological knowledge magically alloyed in imaginativeness, ideals, and dreams in the peculiar alchemy of literature that deserves of distinguished approbation and recognition. In this regard, my disappointment with Dickens as a person should be kept separate from my admiration of the humane characters he created and the benevolent stories he entertained. Sometimes, it’s better not to know much about whom you like lest his follies and faults should dishearten you against your wishes and imaginations. For these reasons, I am more in sorrow than in anger upon reading this troubling article about Dickens, one of my all-time favorite writers, which leads me to the lamentation of Et tu, Mr. Dickens?

‘The Rational Optimist’, by Matt Ridley -review

The Rational Optimist (P.S.)The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you are anxious about when the sky will fall upon your head, you sure need to read this book that will awaken you from the ghastly trance  cast by populists who make living out of scaring people. The fallacy of popular pessimistic views on the impending end of the world resulting from overpopulation, a lack of food, or any other apocalyptic reasons befitting a doomsday scenario, arises out of sheer ignorance of the nature of the human progress and/or of willful negligence of acknowledging it so as to populate epidemic scare across the globe for sensational attention and personal gains on the part of the popular authors of such doomsday scenarios.

This book by Matt Ridley is a fresh breath of air that gives people of the world a beacon of truth. Ridley asserts on the grounds of rational evidence and explanation that the progress of the human race within the historical times ranging from the ancient Greek/Roman times to the modern time has been made possible by collective human intelligence by which we exchange our ideas, skills, and knowledge in the form of specialized division of labor. This social collectivism, whether tacitly or unconsciously realized by doers, appertains to synchronicity, a kind of inter-brain entrainment in which information based on experience is exchanged between individuals, which is also known as collective phenomenon. This collective intelligence is a vital essence of cultural evolution which results from selection by imitation of successful institutions and habits. It is this element of cumulative culture that makes us singularly different from beasts. Since this social trait is innately pre-programmed in mankind, there is no inevitable end to specialization of efforts and talents that keeps this collective phenomenon going. In fact, more jobs will be produced in more specialized areas contrary to brooding premonition that technology will push out manpower from work.

In sum, Ridley aims to enlighten readers about the necessities of changes as part of cultural evolution for the betterment of mankind and the world itself. In the human history, no other time period has produced the better living conditions and cultural developments than those we have now due to a continued cumulative cultural evolution, which links to the evolution of the origins by natural selection. This book renders me a feeling that how wasteful it would be fretting about the uncertain and dark future that looks darker by popular theories of dystopian economic and social future. Just as Ridley will remain a steadfast rational optimist, I will continue to perform demands imposed upon daily tasks of life as a contribution to the orderliness and constancy of the world just as my ancestors did because I know the world will not fall in calamity as long as we as a collective body of the human race exist.

On keeping a journal

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Frau am Schreibtisch (Woman at writing desk ) by Lesser Ury

Keeping a journal is, I believe, a vehicle for creating myself, my sense of selfhood. Every page of my dairy is to be breathed with my heart that does not have to entertain anybody but myself.  It’s also proof that I have lived situations which today would seem uncertain and fretful, that I have climbed up the paths of my life thus far to reach the peaks so ambitious, so adventurous. Above all, I want to bring out every treasure that is buried deep in my heart. So writing day in and day out in my Midori Traveler’s Notebook is my daily ritual to remember what it is to be me, which is always the whole point of doing it.

I carry about my traveler’s notebook  everywhere I go to write my journal and reading pointers from books I read, and some occasionally attempted drawings for practice. There are three notebooks: One is used categorically for my freedom of thoughts, feelings, and just about anything that is to be kept only for myself. It’s not to be shared by anyone, so my soul can rest herself there. Another one is for notes I take from reading that I need to refer to when I write book reviews. And the last one is reserved for jotting down anything out of brainstorm, from devising storyboards for my short stories, to scratching some images of my poems, to making bullet lists to do, and to practicing my newly inspired drawings for more balanced nourishment of my soul. Most of the times – that is 5 days a week – before heading into my job, I usually go to a coffee shop and write in my beloved Midori. It is during this writing time when I feel creative and special out of the melee, out of the existential horrors of every day, and out of the humdrum of daily life.

I love combining drawings and a variety of crafting to my writing to heighten the expressions of feelings and deepen the depths of thoughts in the way I want them to. The only obstacle I have to huddle is drawing. As someone whose aesthetic standard is as high as that of Pope Julius II, who commissioned Michelangelo to fresco the Sistine Chapel,  I only wish I could draw things I see to its exactness with fine details. But then I always remind myself of the adage: “A flower does not compare itself to other flowers. It just blooms.”

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In the Garden by Celia Thaxter

Therefore, keeping a diary is a veritable record of myself, a personal treaties on the breadth and depth of being who I really am. It sounds grandiose, but writing in my Midori gives rise to the elevation of my weltanschauung in reflection of contextualizing concepts and beliefs kept in me and also helps me unearth hidden treasure in the realm of unconscious mind. And by creating a kind of work relating to the crafts of the arts, I like to think that I am fulfilling my purpose of life to live a meaningful life, for the sake of ego qua meaningfulness. That said, I like to cherish Kurt Vonnegut’s advice that the arts are what makes the human life bearable and livable in dealing with existential matters of daily lives, for practicing any form of the arts – however clumsily or amateurishly done –  is a noble means to attend My Secret Garden of Mind full of Begonias of Fancy, Roses of Beauty, Tulips of Passion, Lavenders of Devotion, all blooming and bountiful around Spring of Eternal Youth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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‘Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of Reading Brain’, by Maryanne Wolf – review

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading BrainProust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The act of reading is a noble achievement of mankind that has been developed through a succession of ages; it is a collective biological, cultural, and spiritual progress because human beings were never born to read according to Maryanne Wolf in Proust and the Squid. Wolf guides the reader in the capacity of a learned cicerone to the ancient worlds of Sumer, Egypt, and Greece to show us the cultural history and the neurological development of reading through a succession of ages. Wolf’s provocative theory that we were never meant to be natural readers corresponds to Darwinian evolutionary theory in terms of its illuminating reconstruction of fundamental beliefs in the reading brain that we take for granted in this book about the magic and mechanism of reading.

As the title of the book indicates, Wolf’s analysis of the history and development of reading encompasses the two dimensions in the reading process. – biological/neuronal as symbolized by the squid with tentacles of each different function vis-a-vis cognitive/spiritual by Marcel Proust, a French visionary writer who sublimated a reading experience into a sovereign miracle of transcendence into a spiritual realm. These two complementary dimensions in reading process are a testament to evolutionary traits of our reading brain and our innate spiritual essence that is our prerogative. Wolf starts with explaining the neurons and the brain structure responsible for decoding letters and grasping their meanings in coherent linguistic arrangements. We come to understand the context of reading by dint of retinotopic organization of the eyes and capabilities of neural circuits until the received information reaches the frontal lobe, the control room of all our cognitive activities. What seems to happen in a blink of eye is the grand beginning of a wondrous phenomena of human psyche from the moment of perceiving letters to passing over to the world of the book itself and mind of the writer. In fact, this reading brain is an epigenetic manifestation, which explains a modification in our genes can upend the whole functions of neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to rewire the connections between neurons) and neurogenesis (the ability of the brain to form a new neuron). The epigenetic revolution in the brain started with the invention of writing in the form of Sumerian cuneiform developed out of accounting necessities. Then came the Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Phoenician, Linear B Script of Crete, the Greek, and the modern day global lingua franca English, and what’s more fantastic is that the evolution still continues in our time.

The leitmotif of this book is to know the history and development of our reading brain, which are a remarkable collective human biological, cultural, and cognitive progress, and to preserve it against the prohibitive surge of the Internet on which we mindlessly surf the on-screen letters for instant information. Wolf’s concerns about the increasing dependency on the Internet for easy information relate to Socrates’ disagreement to the encouragement of reading at the time when the ancient Greece was in transition from the oral tradition into the written culture. It was not that Socrates was a Greek version of luddite against reading, but that he distrusted the effects of the written words to become internalized knowledge itself in the minds of readers because by reading, readers would absorb the letters without wholly understanding the gist of the meanings. The mutual misgivings of Wolf and Socrates are understandable, but I opine that they stem from the unfamiliarity of the new modes of learning at their incipient development. Just as Socrates were unfamiliar with the power of the written words as an unlocking key to the inner dialogue with the mind of the other, Wolf seems to magnify the manifest and latent dysfunctions of the Internet that can be used as an effective educational tool for spreading knowledge under sagacious guidance. For instance, nowadays volumes of classic literature can be retrieved from the Internet, let alone be downloaded as e-books on Kindle. Books are books in whatever form they are fashioned. A book is merited by its content, not by its design or form. Moreover, it’s up to the reader’s ability to merit the content of the book and to reach the most profound realm of spiritual experience, which Wolf seems to disregard.

Perhaps, Wolf should have considered the case of Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish Roman Catholic priest who volunteered to die instead of a married Polish man in a Nazi concentration camp; he was all for the advantages of modern technological inventions, such as films and radios, to use them for the benefits of mankind under wise discretion, instead of worrying about the presumed dysfunctions. All of the human inventions are neutral, and whether or not they are harmful to our human enterprise boils down to our own wisdom and guidance of how to use them to our advantage.

Written in a kindly tone of an altruistic scholar trying to explain the modus operandi of the reading brain and process as easily as possible, the book is not entirely intended for the uninitiated without  basic knowledge of neurological terms and the brain structure in the background information on the ancient civilizations. Also, Wolf’s frequent dichotomy between the Chinese language and the English language in attempt to differentiate the neuronal and cognitive functions in the mechanism of the reading brain is less effectual than her assumed efficacy, for the syntaxes of the two languages are not totally apples and oranges. It could have been more apt for Wolf to pinpoint a language whose grammatical structure is wholly different – say, Japanese or Korean belonging to the Ural-Altaic lingual family that also includes Turkish, Finnish, and Hungarian – from English of the Indo-European lingual family.

Notwithstanding the dissension as aforesaid, the book is an informative guide to the history of how our brain has been geared to read through the ages, which speaks to the wondrous capabilities of the brain and the infinite varieties of the human mind that is always in progress of evolution. All in all, the book transforms an act of reading to an act of magicking in the panoply of the biological, cognitive and spiritual dimensions that creates the wonders of connecting us to the minds of the others in solitude, uniting us with the souls of the book, and thus making us a citizen of the world. For this reason, we become what we read, and we are never the same ones we were before reading the books of our choice. And Wolf wants to make sure we know of this secret magic of reading. That is the beauty of this book.

The Library of Alexandria: The History and Legacy of the Ancient World’s Most Famous Library

The Library of Alexandria: The History and Legacy of the Ancient World's Most Famous LibraryThe Library of Alexandria: The History and Legacy of the Ancient World’s Most Famous Library by Charles River Editors

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first time I visited the New York Public Library to write a research paper on female monasticism in the High Middle Age, I was amazed by the volumes of book it possessed and its classification system of organization staffed by knowledgeable librarians, as well as the colossal architectural building in the middle of Manhattan, New York. Perhaps it might have been this kind of awe and wonder kindled in the minds of ancient travelers or scholars who had seen or visited the Library of Alexandra, one of the largest and greatest of the ancient libraries in the history of civilization, which is said to exist from the 3rd century B.C. until the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 B.C. The Library of Alexandra: The History and Legacy of the Ancient World’s Most Famous Library by Charles River Editors presents a comprehensive history of this great ancient library from its genesis to demise on the grounds of historical accounts and logical scientific reasoning thereof.

For centuries when libraries were still few and far between as written knowledge had been exclusively held by the religious classes in private repositories, the image of this ancient library once existent in Alexandria had been evocative of mysterious ambience of esoteric mystical knowledge of the bygone eras and thus inspired imagination to create myths and legends. In fact, libraries as we know now and find ubiquitously are fairly a modern invention born of the cultural legacy of the Library of Alexandria as the apotheosis of two ancient literary and cultural traditions converging the Greek and the Egyptian.

  • The Egyptian Background
    When Alexander the Great and his army conquered the ancient Middle East in the 4th century – one of which was Egypt -, they were encountered with cultures with long literary traditions and traditions of literary documents in repositories called, “the House of Life” and “the House of Books” that housed thousands of documents written in papyrus-made scrolls for the Egyptian and clay tablets for the Mesopotamian under the administration of the priest class. Of these two houses of documents, it is the House of Life, the ancient Egyptian equivalent of a library, from which the majority of texts have survived until the present time. Consequently, Alexander and his army were overawed with the rich literary culture of their conquered land, took the ancient Egyptian concept of a library and transformed it from a religious to a secular institution by providing a bridge of knowledge from the most ancient concepts of libraries to the modern libraries in the process of Hellenization of the Egyptian.
  • The Greek and Hellenization (The spreading of the Greek culture)
    Alexander’s Hellenization was a two-fold political program consisting of (1) acculturation by performing and accepting certain religious and cultural traditions making him look “Egyptian” to gain acceptance by the Egyptian elite class; and (2) the promotion of the Greek culture, “Hellenism” by spreading the Greek culture throughout Egypt. The process of Hellenization in Egypt was well succeeded by his general named Ptolemy, (the founder of the Ptolemy dynasty from 304 to 330 B.C., including Cleopatra VII) who made Alexandria the capital of Egypt and the cultural center of the Hellenistic and the famed Library of Alexandria as the centerpiece. In fact, the Ptolemies’ subsidization of the Library was their way to link their dynasty, which was in a foreign land far away from their homeland Greece, to the greatness of their culture. They also banned the export of papyrus from Egypt, which resulted in increase of prices for books and creation of the industry of forgeries and plagiarism.

According to the Greek historian/geographer Strabo (64 B.C.-24 A.D.) upon visiting the Library of Alexandria, it was part of the royal palace and an annex to the museum, which was a community of academic and religious scholars gathering in the shrine of the Muses of the arts and intellect. The membership was exclusive to the men holding property in common with a priest in charge of the museum. The library housed over 500,000 papyrus book-scrolls written by the ancient notables, such as Homer, Euripeds, Sophocles, and Herodotus, all in Greeks as most of the documents stored therein had been translated from their original languages by priests under the Hellenistic influence. Besides, the Library organized all the entries into alphabetical order as a classification system of library organization that is akin to modern library information system.

  • Destruction of the Library of Alexandria
    Since there has been no definite archeological evidence of the Library discovered, myths and legends concerning its end are still rampant in the imaginations of creative minds. It is said to be burned down by the Civil Wars in 48 or 47 B.C. by Plutarch in Life of Caesar, the theory advocated by Seneca, a famous Roman orator, and later popularized by Edward Gibbon of “The Fall and Decline of the Roman Empire.” However, the most plausible and logical theory of the destruction of the Library is that the humidity must have ensued the destruction of books in papyrus and that the process of destruction would have taken place over hundreds of years contrary to a popular dramatic version of its being burned to ashes by Caesar’s men in one night. Also, another speculation is that after Egypt was annexed to the Roman Empire in 30 B.C., the presence of the Library of Alexandria became an afterthought to the Romans, who imported Greek Scholars and books into Rome, rather than made a long trip to the foreign land. The Romans were more concerned with building their own architectural building, including libraries and schools, in their own land by sending their book agents to the Library of Alexandria to take the originals back to Rome, which contributed to a gradual demise of the Library, by making its presence obsolete and unnecessary for the upkeep of the maintenance.

The great ancient Library of Alexandria as an architectural artifact might have disappeared into history, but its cultural inheritance of civilization preserving intellectual act of learning in appreciation of arts and beauty still strongly resonates with its historiography and contribution to our modern world by continuing to inspire our minds to carry it on for posterity. The Library of Alexandria still exists in the presence of any place of learning or knowledge as long as we appreciate such cultural influence on what we take for granted, such as using our own library. Now that I have read this book, the next time I visit any library, I will think of those ancient librarians and appreciate the legacy of the Library of Alexandria and Alexander the Great for making it all possible.

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