A Virtual Colloquy - What are YOU reading?!

Tag: robert alter

Cultural Literacy is the key to Communication On the Internet

The best way to build cultural literacy is to read widely.
Last post about this gloriously written book!

Rebuilding a common cultural literacy doesn’t mean we all have to return to the same classical books as our grandparents. We don’t all need to read all the same dead western white guys to understand each other, but we probably should start reading (and watching, listening, and experiencing) a little of as many different works of art, from as many different cultures and backgrounds as possible, if we’re going to save civilization from ourselves.

“How does an audience identify an allusion? The whole system of signaling depends, quite obviously, on a high degree of cultural literacy – an easy assumption in traditional societies with fixed literary canons and a high capacity for verbatim retention of texts, but something of a problem for contemporaries, who often come to literary texts from a background of loose canons, little reading, and languid memory.”

The Pleasure of Reading in an Ideological Age by Robert Alter

That’s a lot of fancy words for we aren’t all coming from the same entertainment background. We aren’t all reading the same small collection of books these days, even more today than when he wrote this because our world has become infinitely larger and more connected virtually.

Funny story, and one you’re probably familiar with. My kids think the memes they find on social media are hilarious. Sometimes, when they show them to me, I don’t get the joke. Or the other way around. I think something is deep and wonderous and they look at me like, “Huh?”

We don’t get the allusion in each other’s media. We don’t see the signals. Once again, I’m reminded of the Star Trek TNG episode “Darmok and Jalad”

To understand each other, especially in the written word, we have to come from a similar background first of all. The more figurative the media, the more it relies on allusion, the more similar our backgrounds need to be for us to “get it.” I can’t understand why you say that the character is like Sisyphus if I haven’t heard or read that story. And you won’t understand that I “Trumped your sly comment with a better one” if you’ve never played the game.

Each nation, each culture, each generation alters its canon a little at a time. We build on the past, let some things go, and add new things, all in an effort to do what? Describe and understand the world around us? Communicate with others near and far, now and in the future? Too bad we can’t send messages back in time and warn them. “Don’t light that match mom!” or “Don’t invent that device!” But then, I’m not sure that would help us really. If we know anything from time travel movies, it’s that events are sticky. They seem to want to happen no matter what we do.

Unlike most children in the U.S., my sons grew up in close proximity to us, 24/7, not because we’re paranoid about someone taking them, or over-protective. It was because we liked them. I wanted to be around them more and figured they’d go to school later when we got tired of each other. I’ve talked about it before, but we unschooled instead of homeschooled. We lived as if school didn’t exist. I should write a new post about THAT!

The short version is that we lived and worked from home, together for 18 years. They had a very similar canon of books, tv, movies, and music as we did because that’s what we knew and shared with them. As we grew, so did they. New movies. New books. New music. Human events unfolded around us. All of it happened in light of what we already knew, our own family’s background canon.

So, when we write a story, share a joke, or make a reference, all of us almost always get the allusion. Until…cue dramatic music…they began to move in circles outside our house. Noooo!!! Once, they found social media, got jobs, friends, and then started college, it all changed. Their canon shifted from ours. And I know that shift isn’t over. Now that they have moved out on their own it will keep growing and changing as long as they live. We’ll be coming back together for holiday gatherings and sharing our worlds with each other for a long time to come.

Michelle? What they heck? What does that have to do with reading?!

It’s the same with books, not to mention articles, movies, and music. The artist creates his work from the memory of his own canon, assuming that the audience has a similar enough background to understand the allusions. If I read something by someone that is so far outside my world, it’s more difficult for me to understand the deeper meanings of the references the creator is trying to convey. That’s what happened to me when I read, “The 28 Mansion of the Moon.”

I think most of us tend to remember that when we’re reading a book but tend to forget that we need to do the same when we read or watch anything, especially on the internet. Here we are with the world at our fingertips. We can see and hear everyone all over the world, but are we communicating? Rarely. It’s not because we’re mean and evil, or less smart than we ever were. It’s simply because we are assuming that everyone we see and hear has the same canon, the same cultural background, as we do. Translation is not simple. We may even be speaking the same language but come from entirely different worlds.

It’s going to take humanity a long time to adjust to this new development. Let’s hope we don’t destroy each other in the process.

Click over to my original post, “The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age” to read my initial thoughts on this book!

Find “The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age” on Thriftbooks and read along with me. If you do, be sure to comment so I know you’re out there. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

The love of classic books can help humanity be more empathetic.

Book cover on book shelf of classic books.
The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age

What do we have to learn from classic books? What could be relevant to me inside something written by someone that has so little in common with my own time and person? How can I possibly learn anything other than what happened in the past and what went wrong?

“Much of the way we perceive ourselves and the world manifestly changes as society, language, ideology, and technology change; but we also continue to share much as creatures born of woman, begotten by man, raised with siblings, endowed with certain appetites, conscious of our own mortality, confronting nature from our various locations in culture.”

“The characters and life situations of the narratives of different eras speak to us not because they reflect a knowledge which never changes but rather because they express a set of enigmas with which we continue to wrestle.”

The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age by Robert Alter

That’s what a good book is all about. This is why we read novels, why we pick up books written a hundred years ago, by a person completely unlike us, from a place completely unlike ours. We see the commonality in the experiences of others throughout history, in fiction and non-fiction.

When we write, we create characters and put them in situations to experience and work through. While we write them, we are working through our own things, “wrestling” with that “set of enigmas.” And when you read it, you see our work and incorporate it into your own. It’s magical and crosses time and culture in a way no other medium can.

No, I’m not a young white female in Victorian England, but I can understand that character and use her experience to round out my own thinking. I’m not a black male in the American South, escaping slavery and falling in love…but I can feel those feelings, experience it, in a way through the authors words, and see ways we share humanity.

We learn empathy when we read classic books, fiction from ages past. We learn about ourselves when we experience life through another person’s thoughts, real or imagined. And we learn that what it really means to be human across all times and cultures doesn’t change that much. There’s some comfort in continuity.

Click over to my original post, “The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age” to read my initial thoughts on this book!

Find “The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age” on Thriftbooks and read along with me. If you do, be sure to comment so I know you’re out there. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Can the Free Association of Writing Help You Find Yourself?

The Pleasures of Reading book cover on a book shelf. Can you "find yourself" through writing?

Oh, my gourd, I see the words “find yourself” and cringe. What does it even mean? Is there a better term? Maybe…discover my own depths? Learn more about who I really am, what I want, clarify my thoughts and feelings and use them to my advantage, instead of running blindly through life?

“It is the very process of writing allowed the writer to tap unguessed levels of his own self, to achieve a kind of nonvolitional heightening of ordinary insight, as, analogously, the process of free association in psychoanalysis is supposed to do.”

The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age by Robert Alter

That is exactly why I write, here and in my personal journals. My process with almost everything I write is to start and see where it goes. With books, I read and make notes, then go back later and pull out the quotes that trigger to me think a little. Most of things I made note of at the time I was reading, usually mean nothing to me a few weeks later. But those that do still trigger me get marked and brought here for further use.

I write out the quote in a word document and start musing. Sometimes I wander far from the author’s original intent. Sometimes I wander far from my own! And sometimes the trail goes nowhere. That’s when I file it away and begin again.

The same goes for my “New Read” and “Why I Get Up” posts. There’s a trigger and then some meandering down the path of thought through words. My personal journals go the same direction, but they are never censored or edited for content. They are mine only and lead me to more ah-ha moments that I use in my daily life. I apologize to anyone that reads those. They are circular and quite profane at times. I’m sure they look the ravings of a mad person.

“Nonvolitional” is the perfect word. They all just go where they go, a free association of thoughts followed by new ideas, and thoughts on those ideas, in the hopes that some conclusion can be found.

Once I get a bit down the path and feel like I’m close to a discovery of sorts, I close the document and open the previous day’s work for editing. That’s when I try to put a bit more order and polish on my work. I didn’t use to. I used to post right after I wrote. I’d say it was some noble attempt to “be real” but honestly it was just laziness.

The past few months I’ve tried to be more consistent and deliberate with my work. I start in the same way, but spend more time editing and rearranging things so that they get across better the idea I’m attempting to convey. Hopefully, I’m starting to get better at it.

What I do know is that I’m enjoying writing more, I’m getting much more out of the books I’ve read, and I’m learning a lot more than I used to. I’m able to quote from and use the information and helps that I’ve written on, in my own life. It brings me happiness, a sort of personal purpose.

Click over to my original post, “The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age” to read my initial thoughts on this book!

Find “The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age” on Thriftbooks and read along with me. If you do, be sure to comment so I know you’re out there. I’d love to hear your thoughts!


At the end of each month I send out a newsletter where I describe all my juicy immediate afterthoughts about the books I read that month, along with various other hilarious tidbits, and a few links to my favorite posts.

It’s a special, once-a-month edition that only those who opt-in through my email list receive. If you want to be part of the club, subscribe by entering your email below!

“The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age”

The Pleasures of Reading book on a bookshelf background.

“The Pleasures of Reading…”

The title, “The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age,” sounds so deliciously pretentious! I love it!

I take a lot of pleasure in reading but I haven’t taken a “literature” class since public high school and I never had any intention of taking one again. Yes, I’m a bit of a book snob. THAT book is trash, THIS one is a classic. But honestly, I know what one reads is just a matter of personal taste. I’m 40 pages into this and now I want to take an actual class and see what happens. It’s on my to-do list to look a free one up online.

You’re going to laugh, but I’m not much of a deep reader. I choose to read what I like. If I pick up something and I find it too hard to read or unenjoyable for some reason, I put it down. There are just too many books out there to read. That doesn’t mean I think it’s a bad book or completely useless, though. It just isn’t what I need at the moment. I have started to read things that drove me bonkers and only to come back to them years later and devoured them. Like that guy you knew in high school and fought with daily, but you meet years later and fall in love…shit…too many romance novels lately!

This book is one of those more difficult reads. It has big words! I have to pay closer attention to understand and much of what he’s talking about is beyond me. That’s why I want to take a class. I feel like I understand what I’m reading intuitively but I’d like to understand on a more academic level. I’d like to see what they see and know the historical and philosophical significance of the more serious books that I dive into.

“Literary language is an intricate, inventively designed vehicle for setting the mind in restless pleasing motion, which in the best of cases may give us a kind of experiential knowledge relevant to our lives outside of reading.”

The Pleasures of reading in an ideological age by robert alter

Sometimes we read to get information, like newspapers, nonfiction, magazine articles, and manuals. Sometimes we read to escape from life for a bit; “dime store” novels and pulp fiction. But other times we read to experience a world, a relationship, a feeling outside our own. We use what we learn in those hours of lives glimpsed through the pages of a book in our own lives.

That’s why we read, Charlie Brown!


Find “The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age” on Thriftbooks and read along with me. If you do, be sure to comment so I know you’re out there. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

I’ve written some posts about the book, thoughts on quotes and ideas triggered while I was reading.
Can the Free Association of Writing Help You Find Yourself?
The Love of Classic Books Can Help Humanity Be More Empathetic
Cultural Literacy is the Key to Communication on the Internet


At the end of each month I send out a newsletter where I describe all my juicy immediate afterthoughts about the books I read that month, along with various other hilarious tidbits, and a few links to my favorite posts.

It’s a special, once-a-month edition that only those who opt-in through my email list receive. If you want to be part of the club, subscribe by entering your email below!

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