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April 4, 2009

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What's Valuable, What's Real

I really admire Harper’s Magazine blogger/lawyer Scott Horton, not least because he is a voracious and sensitive reader, who often serves up nice chunks of older texts. This, for example, is from today’s excerpt of John Stuart Mill’s essay on Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

‘Lord, enlighten thou our enemies,’ should be the prayer of every true Reformer; sharpen their wits, give acuteness to their perceptions, and consecutiveness and clearness to their reasoning powers: we are in danger from their folly, not from their wisdom; their weakness is what fills us with apprehension, not their strength.

I’ve heard this quote before, without attributing it to Mill, and I’m guessing you might have too; but there’s more, and it’s all worth reading.

I know, I know; my bias on this is clear, since I read and reread old stuff as a matter of disposition - an irresistable need to know - as much as because of my profession.

I think what I want to emphasize, in this case and maybe in others, is that you, gentle reader, ought to be dissatisfied with the general knowledge you have of people like John Stuart Mill, whether from a college humanities course or wherever. It’s too easy to say, “yeah, Mill, Utilitarianism, I know all about that.” I mean, be thankful that you know that. But I think that kind of checkbox thinking about intellectual history is too easily encouraged by the way we teach this stuff.

What doesn’t come through in that isn’t the deep nuances of the different philosophies or systems or biographies that scholars and specialists concern themselves with. It’s the knowledge that most of these people that we remember were really important because they were great essayists, occasional thinkers, men and women who could speak about anything great or small. And there’s nothing to replace that feeling that you get, reading someone, that you’re thinking with them, and that their thoughts and words are… irreplaceable and necessary and just.

I don’t know. I am not saying this well. These thoughts are replaceable and unnecessary and almost certainly unjust. So I will take them to their limit. You have to continue to challenge yourself as a reader - a serious reader. And as one who learns - a serious student. That you have not calcified. That you do not know what you think you know, least of all who or what or where or especially WHEN is important.

I don’t have to impress upon you the need to embrace the new. But get a library card and wander somewhere dusty. Find something real. And then blog about it — bring it into this world.
Scan that creaky wisdom, make it sing. We need many things now, but wisdom most of all.

Posted April 4, 2009 at 7:49 | Comments (4) | Permasnark
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin'


"Yeah, Mill, Utilitarianism, I know all about that."

Ha, exactly! That's definitely my response when Mill comes up (which isn't often really in my field). Do what's best for the greater good, yada yada. He's a good example of what you are talking about here.

I suppose it depends on your interests. I've never been motivated to pursue Mill other than at the surface of what he's all about, but I like what you allude to here about engaging with the thoughts of the writer. You could get so much more value with just a little more critical thinking and pushing yourself just a tad more beyond the boundary of comfortable reading.

It might be a good "reading exercise" to flex every now and then...would be interesting to see if your reading habits/thought processes change at all.

Two Tim-isms that I expect a 23rd-century holo-blogger to blockquote in 4D:

That you do not know what you think you know, least of all who or what or where or especially WHEN is important.


I don’t have to impress upon you the need to embrace the new. But get a library card and wander somewhere dusty. Find something real. And then blog about it -- bring it into this world.

Although I will add a twist: Sometimes when you dive deeper into these old guys' writing, you find yourself not more impressed but *less* impressed. ("Jeez, seriously? This reads like an 11th-grade essay.") And that can be just as interesting & valuable an outcome.

The point is you don't just copy & paste some existing, standard-issue intellectual relationship -- you form your own.

No, there's a lot of bad stuff too. A lot of bad ideas and bad writing... if you're lucky, they're revealingly bad, symptomatically bad. But sometimes they're just uselessly bad.

Let me put this in a positive way. Sometimes I wish that bloggers and blogging, journalism and magazines, TV and everything, weren't quite so focused on the present. Snarkmarket at its best focuses on now -- which is different, a kind of urgent retrofuturity of the present.

A lot of the past-blogging, well, it's kind of dull. Maybe that's to bee expected. But I wonder why more bloggers don't try to be Sarah Vowell rather than Malcolm Gladwell -- to lovingly and smartly hunt the old and the lame as well as the new and the cool?

Yeah, looking beyond the obvious reason ("that kind of blogging is harder") there's another one: It's RISKIER!

Propagating the idea of the moment -- with or without some analytical twist -- is risk-free. Safety in numbers. Even if your take isn't particularly original -- even if it's straight-up wrong -- at least you're talking about the right thing.

"The right thing."

Breaking away from the well-trod path of the present fascination takes a LOT more courage, because, jeez, what if you end up alone? What if you do all this work -- identify a mostly-forgotten thinker who you believe is valuable, or a time that you believe is relevant to our own -- and everybody says you're wrong?

Or worse: What if they don't pay attention at all?

It's a more extreme kind of writing, blogging, whatever. Which feels weird to say b/c, you know, spending hours in the archives is not something we normally associate with danger! risk! and high stakes!

But I believe it. If that kind of work catches on -- for whatever reason -- the rewards are great: "Oh WOW! Fascinating! I'd never even HEARD of that before. Amazing! You just changed the way I think about this."

But conversely, if it doesn't -- for whatever reason -- the failure* is more painful: "..."

*Of course I don't really think that counts as failure. B/c now, in the age of Google, you don't just get one shot at relevance (as you did in the age of newspapers, magazines, etc.) -- you get many, for as long as you're indexed. And as you say, there is a deep value to the digitization of this old stuff -- part of which is that it can hang out and wait patiently to be discovered by the right searcher at the right time. Just as the original -- the old book, the original text, whatever -- waited so long to be discovered... by you!

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