“Most of us take from books and articles that which we need, or want, leaving the rest, often including the author’s intentions, behind.”
From “Paul Goodman in Retrospect” by Joseph Epstein (1978)
We take what we want, that’s for sure. I’m guilty. Sometimes I don’t even know it until I’m quoting and explaining something from a book I read and the person I’m talking to tells me that it’s not what the author meant. We all have an agenda in our minds, our backgrounds, opinions, and personalities help us interpret what we see and read. If we know something about the author of the book, we have a better chance at interpreting what they meant, but usually we’re going into reading things one-sided.
Recently, I learned that George Orwell was a Socialist until his dying day and that Animal Farm was not condemning socialism at all (like I grew up believing) but remarking on how good socialism was hijacked by power hungry monsters.
I wonder how many things are misinterpreted or used to support one person’s argument when the whole text doesn’t support it. Scripture from various religions is often used that way. Statistics and research reports, as well.
I often worry that quotes I post from the books I read may be interpreted opposite of why I shared them in the first place. I can’t stand politics and sometimes I post things and think…is someone going to read this and use it to support some asinine law or tax?! Or what if they think I support something that I don’t? But that’s the thing about creating and putting your thoughts out into the world. Once it leaves your mind, it goes out into the world and starts a life of its own.
“”Vulgar” is the word intellectuals use when they mean “vile,” by which they actually mean in disagreement with their own views.”
From Commentary by Joseph Epstein (2010)
Vulgar: lacking sophistication or good taste; unrefined
Vile: morally despicable or abhorrent
I had to look those words up. I’ve been doing that a lot lately. I may read a lot, but I’m definitely not a scholar but I’ve been trying to do a better job of actually understanding the meaning of a word, sentence, or paragraph, instead of just going with the feeling I get from reading into it. In the past, I would have thought “vulgar” and “vile” meant basically the same thing, but maybe had a different intensity of feeling. Obviously, from the definition of the words, that isn’t true.
Something can be vulgar but not vile. Blowing your nose at the table may be considered bad taste or ill mannered, but not morally wrong.
I snickered at this line in the essay because I saw in my mind’s eye, a snooty English professor type from an old melodrama, looking down his nose at a young backwoods auto-didactic attempting to discuss his political views. “A man like THAT can’t possibly have anything intelligent to add to OUR learned conversation!”
The thing about views, though, is that everyone’s view is slightly different. Even people on the same mountain top have a slightly different view because they all have different backgrounds that they brought up with them, different baggage from their childhood’s, different intellects and personalities. Not one of those “views” is morally superior to another, none can be “vile” or “vulgar.”
My conclusion: behavior can be described as vile or vulgar, not points of view.
“I guess I had this naïve notion that we had a very intelligent audience that didn’t need to be told how to think, how to vote, what to do,” Kolatch told the Times.
From New Leader Days: Can You Have a Political Magazine without Politics? By Joseph Epstein 2006
Where is THAT news source? I’d love to watch/read a source like that, one that gives information, “reports” on what’s happening and doesn’t project its feelings on it.
Why have things changed so much? Why does every news source assume passive consumption of other people’s thoughts on events is what their audience wants?
My husband likes to say, “If you think something should be run in a different/better way, then go open a business of your own.” In my case, my first response is, “I’m not a journalist or a businessperson. I just know what I want to read!” My second thought is, “I know that even if I was capable of creating, marketing, and running my own actual news outlet, it wouldn’t sell. There just isn’t a big enough market to sell to.”
The truth of the matter is that the largest audience isn’t “intelligent” and that isn’t a new thing. Most people in the world are simply trying to get through their day, pay the bills and take care of their families. They don’t have the time to read, study, and debate all that’s going on in the world. They just want to be able to trust that the guy on the news, or writing the article, is going to give them useful information and maybe a little entertainment as well.
I don’t know what the answer is. I just know that something is terribly different these days. I sit here wondering what happened, where are we headed? Very few of my friends and family members read anything other than some popular fiction. Most everyone I know gets their news from articles shared by friends on social media.
I’ve been trying some new things lately. I subscribed to the Wall Street Journal but ended up cancelling after a few months because I got tired of reading the same “news” every day. I wish they had a weekend only version! I live in a small town, so getting my local paper is out of the question…it’s just so badly written. I think I’ll look into the Register and Times again, but they are usually so biased one way or the other.
Magazines are a hopeful source and there are a lot to choose from. The only downside is that it feels slightly wasteful to have them pile up…maybe I can share them?
How about you? Where do you get your news? Is it important to you?
“The personal essayist writes, I think, for himself and people – even though he has never met them – he assumes are potentially his friends.”
The Personal Essay: A Form of Discovery by Joseph Epstein
That’s exactly why I write the things I do, in the hope that someone out there will connect with me through my experiences. I don’t even need to know you and we have moved humanity forward by sharing the things we love, the books we’ve read, and the events that have changed us.
It happened again. I forgot why I put this book on my wishlist. I need a better system. Or do I? Does it really matter where I got the recommendation? I suppose not. I’ve learned to trust my list. It’s there for a reason, so I buy them when I can.
As I sat down to read, I remembered; my mother-in-law had recently shared an article with me that she thought I’d enjoy. We’ve lived together for 18 years and the woman knows me well. She had pulled it out of a magazine and brought it over to me, old school sharing. There is something awesome about that. I have it still sitting on my desk. What do I do with it now? Share it with someone else maybe? By mail? Before the internet, I had a folder of pulled articles like that, some photo-copied and sent from friends and relatives.
“A distinction needs to be made between solitude and loneliness. One chooses solitude, one is afflicted by loneliness.” Alone Again (Unnaturally) by Joseph Epstein – National Review
My favorite line from that article was, “Proust notes that books have over friends that you can call upon them only when you wish and dismiss them at your discretion. Proust also felt that reading could be an aid to solitude, especially to the indolent mind that is unable to think in solitude but requires rubbing up against, through the stimulus of reading, a finer mind than itself.”
Long before all this “social distancing” stuff, I always had a hard time navigating the social world. The past six months has made that much worse. I feel like I simply don’t fit in, not for any specific reason, just in my head more than anything else. But yet I crave conversation, that back and forth with another thinking human. On a weekly basis I cycle through, “I need solitude to think. Thank you, world!” to “But I want to sit in a coffee shop with friends or join a writer’s group!” to “Screw it. People suck!” Books have been my compromise, the “rubbing up against” that I need to spark my own thinking. Books ask for so little in return and they never get in my way, despite how my family feels about the bookcases.
Reading the article, I suddenly felt less lonely and far more secure in my solitude. I immediately went online to look for the author. Maybe he has a website. What else has he written? I love the internet, and especially Amazon, but I found myself longing for a well-stocked bookstore where I could thumb through and pick out the book I liked best, maybe get a cup of coffee and talk to a person…there I go again. I picked this one mostly because of its title. “A Literary Education” is what I’ve been working on for the past ten years.
Do you read the introductions to books? For fiction, I don’t want someone else’s thoughts to color my reaction to a story. Sometimes, I’ll go back and read it though. For non-fiction, or collections, I generally do read them…unless it’s boring!
Last Friday, I really wanted to chill and read my new book, so I went around the house looking for a spot. I’m easily distracted, so I need a very quiet space to read and that is hard to find in the afternoon in a small house with four adults. My husband was still working in our room. My younger son was in his room working on his college classes. And my older son was doing some research on the computer in the livingroom. The perfect scenario!
I gathered my book, glasses, notebook, and a cup of tea and settled myself into my favorite spot on the couch. It was glorious. Right from the start I knew I had the perfect book in my hands.
“Initially my essay collections were divided between what I thought of as literary essays and familiar essays; the former were essays about other writers, the latter about the world at large, or at least those things in it that captured my fancy at the time.”
…drops pencil…what the…other people write about these things?!
There are times when I wonder what the point of my blog is. Ok…I’ll admit…most times I feel that way. But then I come around to, I write about what I like to write about, what I find interesting, and because it makes me happy. I don’t look for and write to a specific audience. I write my point of view, my opinions, my thinking, in the hope that someone out there might want to hear it.
I kept reading for over an hour, smiling and nodding, tearing up and underlining pieces that spoke directly to my poor little writer heart. When my time was up, I marked my place, closed the book, and went off to get dinner started feeling on top of the world. I’d found encouragement to keep working, keep reading, and to keep writing and I wasn’t even looking for it.
Once again, my “follow the trail wherever it leads” way of living has paid off big time. I can’t wait to read more of these essays. And the world will be reading mine as well. I’m not lonely, I’m in solitude, quietly working away in the background building worlds to share.