Newsletters from the Athenian Way

After reading Technopoly last month, I went looking for more Neil Postman material. I got Amusing Ourselves to Death from the library — and then sent it back unread, because I just wasn’t going to get to it (another time, I hope). But there are some articles of his available online and I was very much struck by a short piece entitled “My Graduation Speech”. Here is its introduction:

Having sat through two dozen or so graduation speeches, I have naturally wondered why they are so often so bad. One reason, of course, is that the speakers are chosen for their eminence in some field, and not because they are either competent speakers or gifted writers. Another reason is that the audience is eager to be done with all ceremony so that it can proceed to some serious reveling. Thus any speech longer than, say, fifteen minutes will seem tedious, if not entirely pointless. There are other reasons as well, including the difficulty of saying something inspirational without being banal. Here I try my hand at writing a graduation speech, and not merely to discover if I can conquer the form. This is precisely what I would like to say to young people if I had their attention for a few minutes.

If you think my graduation speech is good, I hereby grant you permission to use it, without further approval from or credit to me, should you be in an appropriate situation.

Now, I don’t expect to be speaking at any convocations anytime soon! But I commend the speech to you. Go read it — it’s only 85 sentences and will not take long. Postman’s argument is that there are, essentially, two types of people in the world: Athenians and Visigoths — or rather, spiritual heirs of either the one or the other. He gets a little more specific in his examples, but a broad way of understanding it is that, in interacting with culture, people who are functioning in the Athenian spirit build up, while those who function in the Visigoth (Visigothian?) spirit tear down.

This is something that I’ve been slowly thinking over in the past few weeks. Are there spaces in my life where I’m functioning more as a Visigoth than an Athenian? Am I feeding my Athenian side with what I do, what I read, what I look at, what I think about? How am I directing my children’s steps towards one or the other?

And of course, because I’ve also been thinking a lot this year about technology, social media, etc., I’ve been pondering the way that those things interact with the Athenian and Visigoth ways. I don’t know whether social media makes people more likely to turn Visigoth, or if it just makes more visible what was there all along, but I don’t think many people need convincing that an awful lot of public-internet-spaces are being quite overrun by Visigoths. But being overrun is not the same as wholly conquered; there are many pockets of the internet where the Athenian spirit burns bright. I’ve been seeking some of them out, lately, and what I’ve found is… newsletters. Seriously.

I mean, blogging is dead, right? Everyone knows blogging is dead (she wrote on her blog). But newsletters — something’s happening with newsletters. Newsletters interest me. I’ve been signing up for newsletters with abandon; I don’t even know who most of these people are, but they got linked to in other newsletters that I already read. It’s some sort of newsletter causal chain, and I am following to see where it goes. (This is the part of the post where I drop a lot of links.)

In no particular order, some newsletters for your consideration:

  1. Snakes and Ladders by Alan Jacobs: for me, this is where it all began. Alan Jacobs is one of my favourite living writers/thinkers right now, and his was the first newsletter I subscribed to. Just look what that started.
  2. Notes from a Small Press by Anne Trubek. Just what it says on the box: notes and interesting bits and bobs about running a small publishing business.
  3. Orbital Operations by Warren Ellis. Ellis writes comic books and novels and things, and this engaging weekly(ish) bulletin.
  4. Year of the Meteor by Robin Sloan. Another of my favourite living writers. Also he has an olive oil business.
  5. The Public Domain Review newsletter. The two best things about the public domain are that 1) it’s full of weird, interesting stuff and 2) it’s constantly expanding. The PDR newsletter is a nice curation.
  6. All My Stars by Joanne McNeil. Mostly about technology, also art, music, books, etc.
  7. Restricted Frequency by Ganzeer. Art, social commentary, storytelling,
  8. Mark Athitakis Newsletter by Mark Athitakis. There’s something that tickles me about just straight-up naming your newsletter after yourself. You go, Mark Athitakis.
  9. The Tourist by Philip Christman. Christianity, culture, reading, writing.
  10. Roden Explorers by Craig Mod. Reading, writing, long walks in the woods (and other places).

These newsletters reflect my particular interests, of course (though I hope they are also working to expand my interests). But I take them as an encouraging token of Athenianism. It’s not all dust and ashes yet… not even on the internet.

Reading Round-Up: January 2019

Twenty full days into the next month is probably the latest I’ve ever left a round-up post. Here at Chez Pennylegion we’re mired in moving logistics at the moment, which seem to be taking most of my mental energy; I had been delaying this post because I really wanted to write about one book on its own, Neil Postman’s Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. I’ve started that post three or four times now — I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon. It’s time to set it aside; for the moment, suffice to say that you should consider giving it a read. As to the rest, here’s January’s list:

  1. The Mysterious Benedict Society (Trenton Lee Stewart)
  2. The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoners Dilemma (Trenton Lee Stewart)
  3. Tending the Heart of Virtue (Vigen Guroian)
  4. The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion (Fannie Flagg)
  5. An Acceptable Time (Madeleine L’Engle)
  6. A War of Loves (David Bennett)
  7. Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng)
  8. The Lost Tools of Learning (Dorothy L. Sayers)
  9. Over Sea, Under Stone (Susan Cooper)
  10. The Dark is Rising (Susan Cooper)
  11. Greenwitch (Susan Cooper)
  12. The Grey King (Susan Cooper)
  13. Silver on the Tree (Susan Cooper)
  14. Annabel Scheme (Robin Sloan)
  15. Technopoly (Neil Postman)
  16. The Little Mermaid and Other Fairy Tales (Hans Christian Andersen)

This was one of those heavy-on-the-fiction months, and included reading/completing two series… serieses… groups of related books. The Mysterious Benedict Society and [Ditto] and the Prisoners Dilemma capped off my re-read of Trenton Lee Stewart’s delightful middle-grade puzzle books (completely out of order, mind you). And I (re)read through Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence while barely pausing to breathe between each installment. It’s an interesting series, with that very British mix of Christian and Pagan symbols and forces — plus some ethical dilemmas worth pondering. At the end of the last book, a secondary character finds that his wife has been in league with the Dark — that his entire marriage has been built around a lie. She is destroyed; he has the choice put before him to either remember all that has truly happened (including the great grief of her betrayal) or to remember only that she has died (but no details of her misalliance with the Dark or the truth of their union). The choice, in a way, is between grief and grief: but is it better to grieve the truth or the lie?

I picked up Fannie Flagg’s The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion after enjoying Friend Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe in December. It’s a fun read, moving between present-day Alabama, where middle-aged Sookie Earle finds out something shocking about her past, and WW2-era Wisconsin, where a group of Polish-American sisters run their family’s filling station before enlisting and flying with the WASP. The family-drama side of the narrative is heartfelt, and I learned a lot about an area of the war effort I had never heard much about.

An Acceptable Time is one of those Madeleine L’Engle novels I’ve had kicking around my shelves approximately forever but hadn’t actually read. I liked it; much food for thought as always and a fun time travel element. I think this is one of the middle books of a series, though, and it probably would have been a better read if it had been slotted into its proper place.

Little Fires Everywhere was probably the best of the fiction I read last month; indeed, I still think about it from time to time. Ng’s story is set in a Cleveland suburb in the late 1990s — my uncle’s garage makes an appearance, which was a bit surreal — and the plot circles around motherhood in all of its many complicated forms. I think she hits it all: miscarriage and infant loss, adoption (from bio-and adoptive-parent perspectives), surrogacy, abortion, wanted and unwanted motherhood, good relationships between mothers and children, bad relationships between mothers and children… you name it, Ng invites us to ponder it. The greatest strength of this novel is that she manages to make all of her characters sympathetic; our expectations about their motivations are constantly getting overturned, which makes the book’s moral/ethical explorations all the more poignant. I’ll be reading this one again.

If I hadn’t read Little Fires Everywhere, I probably would have pegged Annabel Scheme as the best in January — it’s a strange, compelling little novella from the wonderfully weird brain of Robin Sloan (author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Sourdough). And you can download it for free in several formats here!

Last but not least on the fiction side of things, I read the collected fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen — in an absolutely gorgeous edition put forth by MinaLima, the design firm behind the Harry Potter movie aesthetics. I hadn’t read most of the stories for decades, probably. Since the MinaLima edition is a thing of beauty and a joy forever, it’s gone onto my to-buy list, along with the other books in the series (The Jungle Book, The Beauty and the Beast, The Secret Garden, and Peter Pan).

Phew! On to the non-fiction!

Tending the Heart of Virtue was briefly treated in this post.

Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Lost Tools of Learning is really just a long essay I happen to own in book form. You can read it for free here (go on, it’ll just take a few minutes). This is one of the resources that is helping to shape my thinking as we consider school options for Anselm and Perpetua.

A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus recounts David Bennett’s surprising conversion to Christ; one of its major strengths is how gracious and even-handed Bennett is towards those on all sides of this particular culture war. Everyone we meet in A War of Loves is a human being — something all to easy to forget.

Finally: Technopoly. I have a blog post in my drafts folder that’s just long excerpts of Technopoly that I just want everybody to read — and I hope they’ll see the light of day. In the mean time, the Cliff’s Notes version: Neil Postman published Technopoly in 1992, looking at the intersection of culture and technology. He uses a historical approach in discussion how technological innovation changes culture (the printing press being the obvious example) and then traces the roots of what he sees as a particularly American obsession with technological progress as a marker of human progress. Postman was writing at what we might think of as the dawn of the computer age; his remarks are eerily prescient and, although social media, “smart” technologies, and the like did not exist at the time of his writing, it’s pretty easy to extrapolate his points. America, Postman argues, is a “techonopoly” (as opposed to a “tool-using culture” or a “technocracy”); that is, a culture which sees technological innovation as its highest cultural good and in which technological innovation is chiefly seen as only ever good. Postman invites us to interrogate those claims. He is no Luddite; Postman doesn’t see technological advances as bad things per se — but argues that every major technological change is a mixed blessing, creating cultural winners and cultural losers.

There is a lot more that I would say about Technopoly if I could drag my grey matter into line to do so right now. But instead, let me close with Postman’s recipe for how to become “a loving resistance fighter” against the forces of cultural technopoly:

… if there is an awareness of and resistance to the dangers of Technopoly, there is reason to hope that the United States may yet survive its Ozymandias-like hubris and technological promiscuity. Which brings me to the “resistance fighter” part of my principle. Those who resist the American Technopoly are people

who pay no attention to a poll unless they know what questions were asked, and why;

who refuse to accept efficiency as the pre-eminent goal of human relations;

who have freed themselves from the belief in the magical powers of numbers, do not regard calculation as an adequate substitute for judgment, or precision as a synonym for truth;

who refuse to allow psychology or any “social science” to pre-empt the language and thought of common sense;

who are, at least, suspicious of the idea of progress, and who do not confuse information with understanding;

who do not regard the aged as irrelevant;

who take seriously the meaning of family loyalty and honor, and who, when they “reach out and touch someone,” expect that person to be in the same room;

who take the great narratives of religion seriously and who do not believe that science is the only system of thought capable of producing truth;

who know the difference between the sacred and the profane, and who do not wink at tradition for modernity’s sake;

who admire technological ingenuity but do not think it represents the highest possible form of human achievement.

A resistance fighter understands that technology must never be accepted as part of the natural order of things, that every technology — from an IQ test to an automobile to a television set to a computer — is a product of a particular economic and political context and carries with it a program, an agenda, and a philosophy that may or may not be life-enhancing and that therefore requires scrutiny, criticism, and control. In short, a technological resistance fighter maintains an epistemological and psychic distance from any technology, so that it always appears somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural. — Neil Postman, Technopoly, 183-5

Indeed. Tune in this time next month when I tell you about the two whole books it looks like I’m going to get through in February.

Reading Round-Up: September 2018

Happy October! This is one of my favourite times of year — when it finally really starts to feel like fall. The weather is cooler, the leaves are starting to turn, we’ve got a string of family birthdays coming up… it’s a good time of year! I’m looking forward to some good reading this month — but first, here’s what I got to in September:

  1. Educated (Tara Westover)
  2. The Whistler (John Grisham)
  3. How to Think (Alan Jacobs)
  4. A Gentleman in Moscow (Amor Towles)
  5. From A to Bee (James Dearsley)
  6. Why Not Me? (Mindy Kaling)
  7. The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir (D. Watkins)
  8. China Dolls (Lisa See)
  9. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (Frederick Douglass)
  10. The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles (Julie Andrews Edwards)
  11. The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America (D. Watkins)
  12. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Robin Sloan)
  13. Sourdough (Robin Sloan)

This month was pretty heavy on memoir; it’s a genre I’ve really been enjoying these days. Human beings are endlessly fascinating! Now, some of these books were pretty heavy, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend reading them as closely-spaced as I did; I found my mood plummeting after reading The Cook Up, and then China Dolls (not memoir, but saddish fiction), and then Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass all in a row. It was, how you say, a bummer. Worth reading… but not exactly uplifting.

Previous posts have touched on The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, A Gentleman in Moscow, and Narrative of the Life and The Beast Side.

Educated is Tara Westover’s memoir of growing up with survivalist, “sovereign citizen”-esque, anti-government Mormon parents in the Idaho mountains. She and her brothers were kept home from school, not vaccinated, and spent most of their time either working their father’s junkyard business or prepping for a government assault and/or the end of the world. She didn’t even get a birth certificate until she was nine years old. It’s really crazy stuff. But with the help of one of her older brothers, Tara made it out — she got accepted (by the skin of her teeth) to BYU, and later went on to complete a doctorate at Cambridge. It’s a powerful story, and I appreciate that she didn’t try to tie a neat bow on everything at the end. She is estranged from half her family; things are unresolved; it’s clear that her story has not ended.

Two memoirs on the fun side of things were James Dearsley’s From A to Bee and Mindy Kalings Why Not Me? Dearsley’s book is his account of his first year as a beekeeper; it’s clearly just a blog shoved between two covers, but it’s an interesting read and made me consider beekeeping as a possible future endeavour. (That lasted about fifteen minutes.) Why Not Me? is Mindy Kaling’s second book; this one is more personal, I think, than Is Everyone Hanging Out with Me? (And Other Concerns), looking at career and personal turning points in her early thirties. It’s a fun read. Oh, and she meets Bradley Cooper.

D. Watkins’s memoir The Cook Up was an incredible read, although not for the faint of heart: it opens with his brother Bip’s murder, and the going doesn’t get easier from there. The Cook Up is ultimately a story of redemption, of Watkins’s journey from a life of crime on the streets of East Baltimore to his current position as a college professor. I would recommend this book over The Beast Side if you want to start with Watkins; because the latter is a collection of essays it reads as fairly disjointed. The Cook Up shows Watkins’s skill as a storyteller; I’m sure this will not be his last book.

Alan Jacobs’s How to Think was the only other nonfiction I read this month. It’s a quick and insightful read. What I remember best is Jacobs’s point that thinking doesn’t happen in a vacuum; when we learn to think differently of something it’s usually because we are learning to think with different people. Similarly, when we say that someone has is “finally thinking for themselves” what we usually mean is that they’re “finally thinking like me.” He ends the book with what he calls “The Thinking Person’s Checklist”, which I abbreviate for you here as a useful resource:

  1. When faced with provocation to respond to what someone has said, give it five minutes.
  2. Value learning over debating.
  3. As best you can […] avoid the people who fan flames.
  4. Remember you don’t have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness.
  5. If you do have to […] realize that it’s not a community but an Inner Ring.
  6. Gravitate … toward people who seem to value genuine community and can handle disagreement with equanimity.
  7. Seek out the best and fairest-minded of people whose views you disagree with.
  8. […] assess your repugnances.
  9. Sometimes the “ick factor” is telling; sometimes it’s a distraction from what matters.
  10. Be ware of metaphors and myths that do too much heavy cognitive lifting…
  11. Try to describe others’ positions in the language that they use…
  12. Be brave.

On to fiction! First on the list was The Whistler by John Grisham, which was pretty mediocre. I like Grisham, but this wasn’t anywhere near one of his stronger efforts. I’d give it a pass.

After reading The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane I knew I would want to read more from Lisa See, and so China Dolls was my second venture with her. The novel tells the story of three young Oriental women (as they were then called) working in San Francisco’s Chinese nightclubs in the years surrounding the Second World War. It’s a fascinating look at a world I never knew existed, exploring some big questions about friendship, race and nationalism, and loyalty.

Finally, we come to Robin Sloan. I had read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore some years ago — long enough to just remember the broadest of outlines — and decided to re-read it after stumbling across something or other online that reminded me of his books. Mr. Penumbra’s is a super fun read about books and technology and secret societies and the quest for unending life. There are puzzles galore and his characters are satisfyingly quirky without going overboard. Sourdough is his second novel, following Lois Clary as she moves from to Michigan to California for a programming career, only to find her life turned upside down when she is gifted a (sentient?) sourdough starter and is drawn into the weird world of California food culture. There’s a lot about humanity vs. technology, what makes a culture, and microbiology (really). It’s super strange and super interesting, and I’ll definitely be reading it again one day.