Quotation: Walker Percy on Hurricanes in Louisiana

”I've noticed in Louisiana in hurricanes — my theory is that people enjoy hurricanes whether they say so or not. Because in hurricanes, terrible things are happening, people are getting killed, you're liable to get killed, there is a certain exhiliration. It comes from a peculiar sense of self, the vividness. As Einstein said, ’Life is dreary as hell. Ordinary life is dreary.’ Somebody asked him why he went into quantum mechanics. ’Well, to get away from the dreariness of ordinary life.’ Louisianans enjoy hurricanes if they're not too bad.”
Walker Percy, American novelist 
Percy, Walker. "The Modern Prognosis: An Interview with Walker Percy" Reprinted from "The Novelist's Freedom": Walker Percy Talks About Science, Faith, and Fiction. Brent Short. Washinton: Sojourners, N/A May 1990. 27-29.


On Compulsive Readers: A Response to Joe Queenan's Article "My 6,128 Favorite Books"

William Adolphe Bouguereau, La leçon difficile, 1885
I read
a piece by Joe Queenan in the Wall Street Journal on compulsive readers. It prompted me to write about compulsion in reading.

    Compulsive readers are not plagued by the mantra "I have no time to read." We read in the interstitial spaces, before work, before feeding the baby, after dinner, and in between lovemaking. I am reading White Noise by Don DeLillo before work, I will read the poetry of William Blake to my mewling baby, and in between lovemaking perhaps I will read out loud to my lover selections from Umberto Eco's Infinity of Lists. It's true we don't read because it helps us. Or makes us smarter. Or gives us further insight into the problem of reality. Reading is a mental condition. We read because we are crazy. It should be listed as a mental disorder in the DSM-IV.

Reading in Place 

    I remember reading The Catcher in the Rye on the back porch of my Aunt Ida's house. I was a teenager bored with the holidays so I read the seminal text of post-war American adolescence while my cousins rode down the tree-lined block in their go-carts. I read all sixteen of L. Frank Baum's Wizard of OZ books (and most of the forty written after Baum's death) in my walk-in bedroom closet in Mandeville, Louisiana. My brother thought I must have been masturbating. He would bang on the closet door. "What are you doing in there?" "I'm reading. Leave me alone!" The compulsive reader demands his privacy. We are labeled anti-social, lumped together with the onanists, misanthropes, and other creeps. I read Douglas Brinkley's book about Katrina in a pub on late Saturday night and some drunken dude was flabbergasted. He sat next to me and heckled me about why I was reading and not socializing. I thought the answer to his question was because I like to read. But I realized I had a mental condition. I just read because it was a compulsion. When I was a busboy for an after-school job in High School I was remonstrated by the fry cook for reading in the walk-in freezer. So I moved to the cracker boxes and read there.

Reading is a Mental Illness

 We compulsive readers, I agree, are not working with a full deck. We read to ourselves when we otherwise should be engaged. I read Lolita in Jerusalem on a religious field trip to the Holy Land for Easter in 2000. The priest who led the trip caught me reading about Humbert Humbert and said, "Hmmmm. Not spiritual reading but is it interesting?" He wanted a reason why I would read Nabokov's novel about a beguiling young tween on a great American road trip with a middle-aged man when I should have been focused on the sorrowful mysteries of Christ. But, I told him, I had already read Thomas a Kempis's Imitation of Christ. It was onto other things. I read the Sickness Unto Death while at the graveyard of Kierkegaard which was funny because Kierkegaard's name means churchyard in Danish. I read the Moviegoer by Walker Percy in the college library at the Catholic University of Leuven. Native Son was read during a road trip that included seventeen states. I had completed college that year and my traveling companion was a Roman Catholic priest. I read Patriot Games in my seventh grade Louisiana History class while Mrs. Docker went on about the history of king cakes and Mardi Gras beads. I am not even sure how many books I read in my parent's van during family vacations. Jack Prelutsky, Shel Silverstein, Avi, Madeleine L'Engle. At first, I became dizzy while reading in a car but after a while, I adjusted to the bumps and screams, taunts from my brothers.

Where Reading is Inappropriate

     Now I read in planes, cars, closets, cubicles. It is true it is a tad bit socially inappropriate to read a book in public. Reading a book at the dinner table made my father angry. I read the Duino Elegies in New Orleans in 2005 waiting for the streetcar. A truck pulled up and two college kids cursed me out. "Fucking faggot. Reading a fucking book!" What was it about Rainer Maria Rilke that freaked them out? I imagine it is a queer thing to do. Read. I learned about sex from books. On the shelf was a book I remember titled, Serious Questions About Sex Answered. I don't remember much about the answers. We have clandestine moments in reading. I read Gore Vidal's the City and the Pillar in secret at the back table of the library. It was the first novel I remember reading about coming out. Working as a page one summer I shelved a book on nudist colonies so many times I realized people were taking it off the shelf and after a quick look putting it back on a shelf, no concern for where it belonged. I finally sat down and read the book myself. The photographs were black and white, grainy, of upper middle-class white people doing all sorts of everyday activities in the nude. Nothing exciting.

Etiology of an Incurable Habit

     I think my compulsive reading habit started in kindergarten. On the first day, Mrs. Robicheaux gave us our reading book and I read the last story about a red fire engine during nap time. The teacher caught me reading the book and she said, "Don't read that story. We have not gotten to it yet." It was a lot more interesting to read the fire engine story than to sit on the floor and share my blocks with Skylar who was not that nice and faintly smelled of tomato soup. I wish I could remember the name of reader. Skylar teaches Geometry at a private Catholic high school in southern Louisiana. I think he is the assistant coach for the football team.

Books are Not Sacred Objects

    I don't think books are sacred objects. I will read a scroll, a web log, a typed out letter, a found piece of tissue paper with scrawl on or an epub file of Of Mice and Men. To me the medium doesn't matter. A symptom of the compulsive reader is to read whatever is in front of you. Yes, we like to discriminate -- and the more books you read -- the more you know what to avoid. I don't read Harlequin Romances nor do I read much biography or memoir -- unless the subject is someone I am intensely interested in, like Virginia Woolf, Steve Jobs, or a biography of someone I am currently reading a lot of at a given time -- or someone who is not an artist, writer, or someone who doesn't express themselves too much. A biography of a Jewish Hasidic woman in Crown Heights is something I would read.
    I think it is a misconception that people who are compulsive readers read a lot to appear smart. Joe Queenan argues people who read vast amounts of books do so because they are ultimately dissatisfied customers. They read because they are dissatisfied with reality. I think this is partly true. It is perhaps too neat, however, to divide reality into those who read compulsively and those who don't -- as if those who are dissatisfied bury their dissatisfaction in a big, fat nineteenth-century novel. People who are dissatisfied don't all commit themselves to compulsive reading. People who read voluminous amounts of literature find pleasure in what they find in books. Even badly written books. It is not an escape from reality but rather reality is somehow represented through a different lens than we get through our bone-worn senses. To engage reality is to read.

Reading and the Concern with Reality

    I think Orhan Pamuk said correctly, we find places to read, and for him, to write, as well as to read, because not to do so would be unbearable. Reading is an extension of being in the world. We read not so we can escape reality but we find in reading an extension of what we always already are coming to know. I postulate the first "book" ever written was a grocery list. Or maybe it was a tax roll. Then we went on to carve epigrams into blocks of stones, then great epics, and now we post blogs. This thing called writing and reading what we write is something we have been doing for over six thousand years. The painter who paints feels disconnected without her paintbrush. Take away the iPod buds from the music addict and they feel discomfited. For readers engagement with a book is engagement with the world. Since we carved cuneiform into soft clay, reality has not been the same since. Perhaps there was once an ancient Sumerian, now forgotten, who compulsively read every scroll, every carving, every piece of etching he could consume. Asked why, he just shrugged and went onto to find his next unread carved block.
     It is my hypothesis that those who read compulsively are better equipped to face reality and its vicissitudes -- as well as recognize its triumphs and pleasures. I really don't think I compulsively read because I feel it will make me a better person or make me more intelligent. Those might be healthy byproducts. I read Jane Eyre in the tenth grade not just because it was assigned by the teacher but I thought maybe the character of Jane had something to say to me. I read because I wanted to listen to Jane. And in the first pages she is reading. A reader reading about a character reading. Mise en abyme -- mirrors facing mirrors. I read about Jane Eyre who in turn was reading a story that was speaking to her and so on and so.
     When I go home for the holidays my mother still has my old bookshelves in my bedroom that she has converted into her office. I am surprised I still own books that I have not yet liberated. They still sit there, mementos of books I read or books I bought but never got around to reading. When I go home I have a sudden nostalgia for those unread books. I have gotten into the habit of pocketing one or two when I visit. I take them back with me. Sometimes I read them. Or sell them back to get a new book. I still have my set of the Chronicles of Narnia at my mother's house. The copies are browned and each one has my sixth-grade scrawl inscribed on the frontispiece. I re-read the first few pages of the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I was struck again by Mr. Tumnus, just as I was struck by him when I read the book as a child. Mr. Tumnus has a shelf full of books. Is Man a Myth? reads one of his titles. I would want to read that book, a book written by a fantastical creature about other fantastical creature.
    People think we read lots of books, those of us so inflicted because we want to have knowledge of everything. I don't think I exist in Borges's Library of Babel where the sole motivation is to find the Ur-Book, the book that will unlock the mysteries of everything and give a unified theory of life, the universe and everything. There are plenty of books in Borges's Library, an infinite library with every possible configuration of words splayed out in an infinite enclosure of an infinite set of hexagonal rooms. No monkies need to slam on keys to potentially pound out at some unspecified time the complete works of Shakespeare. I read because I am like the monkey pounding away aimlessly at the keys. I read knowing that I am slogging through the muck, and perhaps there is the hope that I will come across a diamond in the rough. Sometimes I read crap and I then I read some more crap. To find a book that moves the spirit, that moves the mind, for example, Marilyn Robinson's Home or Plato's Phaedo, to name such a few, or the crown of my book pile, those books I would keep with me on a trip to a desert island. Logophiles, bibliophiles, those lovers of morphemes strung together like beads of delicious taste morsels -- we sing the songs we hope to find in the flowing pages of books, kindles, iBooks, pages. I am Mr. Tumnus reading Is Mr. Tumnus a Myth? who in turn is reading Is Man a Myth?, seated on a weather-worn armchair, sipping tea, in the interstitial spaces of a reading life.

image credit: Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - The Difficult Lesson (1884)


Aesthetic Thursday: Edvard Munch's "The Scream"

Edvard Munch "The Scream". Pastel on board, 1895.

Moma will display one of four versions of Edvard Munch's expressionist painting "The Scream". The heavily reproduced and often parodied image will be on view at the museum on October 24 - April 29. The version Moma will display is pastel on board and has been lent to the museum by a private collector. The other three versions are in museums in Norway.


Lyrics: Science-Fiction Double Feature

Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

Michael Rennie was ill the day the earth stood still
But he told us where we stand
And Flash Gordon was there in silver underwear
Claude Raines was the invisible man
Then something went wrong for Fay Wray and King Kong
They got caught in a celluloid jam
Then at a deadly pace it came from outer space
And this is how the message ran:

Science Fiction - Double Feature
Dr. X will build a creature
See androids fighting Brad and Janet
Anne Francis stars in Forbidden Planet
Oh-oh at the late night, double feature, picture show.

I knew Leo G. Carroll was over a barrel
When Tarantula took to the hills
And I really got hot when I saw Janet Scott
Fight a Triffid that spits poison and kills
Dana Andrews said prunes gave him the runes
And passing them used lots of skills
But when worlds collide, said George Pal to his bride
I'm gonna give you some terrible thrills, like a:

Science Fiction - Double Feature
Dr. X will build a creature
See androids fighting Brad and Janet
Anne Francis stars in Forbidden Planet
Oh-oh at the late night, double feature, picture show.
I wanna go, oh-oh, to the late night double feature picture show.
By RKO, oh-oh, at the late night double feature picture show.
In the back row at the late night double feature picture show.

source: lyrics
film: imdb


Book Review: What is Intelligence? — Douglas Hofstader's Book Godêl, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

The Constellation Orion
In Douglas Hofstader's book about music, mathematics and artificial intelligence, Godêl, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, he mentions briefly some requirements for intelligence: learning, creativity, emotional response, sense of beauty and sense of self. Hofstader argues that if indeed this is intelligence then a computer would have to be able to do more than play chess or compute π x many times after the decimal point in order to be considered intelligent.

Are Intelligent Machines A Possible Reality  
    I must say, I am intrigued that one day intelligent machines will be a reality, whether or not my hopes are my own idealistic flights of fancy, or the influence of too many Phillip K. Dick novels and Ridley Scott movies has had on my adolescent mind is hard to tell. I am still fascinated sometimes by the prospect of artificial intelligence: a sentient duplicate of a human being that can indeed be intelligent  it is a long way in coming, but my sci-fi mind is nevertheless intrigued by it, even though the massive work that will have to be done to even get to that stage is immense. Some even doubt it is even possible. On one side there is the argument that it is possible, the ability to reproduce human natural intelligence, whereas on the other side of the argument is the contention that machine learning is not the same as how human beings learn. While I wait for the day we can unlock the minute, complicated structures of the brain and apply them to artificial structures, I am more intrigued by the requirements themselves  for humans.  Each one poses a unique set of questions in of itself, not only in its reference to artificial intelligence but the question of human potential itself, how we possess and reflect the myriad facets of what it means to be human.  It seems we have not exhausted the possibilities of human intelligence, let alone an intelligent machine.
How Can You Measure Intelligence?
    Take learning, for example, the first on Hofstader's list.  Learning seems to be an obvious component of intelligence.  Usually, it is learning that we use to gauge human intelligence.  We measure people up by the scores they make on their GED's and SAT's.  Our schools are super-charged with advanced placement courses and gifted classes; schools have quiz bowls and Jeopardy! is a popular show, not to mention Trivial Pursuit and Scrabble.  In fact, a machine beat humans in a recent bout of the minds in Jeopardy! last year.
     The human lost at that game. The computer had been able to mimic natural intelligence to such an extent it beat out the human brain. The human mind is incredible. It can know so much / and in many ways is superior. The machine beats us in sheer computational power. But the human brain knows short cuts. But sometimes we short circuit (excuse the pun). My godmother marveled to me on the phone how she has been hooked on Jeopardy!, canceling dinner plans to watch the "Human Encyclopedia" respond to every answer correctly.  She lauded the "Human Encyclopedia" who swept Jeopardy! for six months straight with his correct answers, only to lose to a Final Jeopardy! question about H & R Block.  Although we marvel at this man's learning achievements, secretly we are convinced that it is merely a ploy to bolster ratings and that perhaps Mr. Jeopardy! winner was happy with his taxable 2.5 million dollars and decided to go home, content.
    A computer can store Jeopardy! data too  easily spit it out when appropriate.  Have you ever tried to beat the computer on an electronic quiz game?  It's not easy.  I still haven't been able to beat the computer at checkers, let alone chess.  But, computer learning is different than a human's capacity to learn.  A computer can only store a string of data as a series of 0's and 1's.  It cannot learn anything that has not deliberately been stored into its hardware.  This was the limitation of the Jeopardy! computer. It was only able to cull from date stored in its database and it was not connected to the internet. A computer dictionary cannot come up with an adjectival form of the word moon, for example, if it isn't already stored there.  A human can.  We can surmise that the word lunar means "similar to the moon" or "referring to the moon." The ability to take what she knows to form new ideas and concepts.  Lunar.  A human can stumble upon lunar and possibly derive its meaning just from the word itself, based on what she has already learned.  A human possesses creativity.  It may be silly to think we thought the moon was made of green cheese but it is this erroneous thinking that built our imaginations to know for sure. Galileo was wrong  the moon is not made up of larges seas as he had thought the dark spots on the moon were, but that insistence to know is the catalyst that eventually spurred scientists to build more and more powerful telescopes.
    A computer can mimic learning.  For example, Amazon.com seems to learn what kind of books you like, the music you listen to, the magazines you buy.  How does it do that?  I can tell my word processing program to learn a new word, or to even forget a word. But, this is all mimicry.  There is something different about a person learning a new word and a computer's storage of an electronic lexicon. The human capacity to know words, for example, to know a vocabulary is not based on a repository of knowledge stored in the brain. We are both open to the world and at the same time have the ability to process what we learn through our involvement with others through language that does not correspond to the way a search engine query works. It is not like I hear the word "lunar" and then my brain searches for the keywords and then finds it and links it to its definition stored in my brain. How we actually have the ability to think through language is still somewhat of a mystery. To think it is done the same was as a computer is facile thinking.


On Writing: Late Night Post On Practice Makes Perfect

On writing, and why practice makes perfect.
A joy wall we made at school.

Developmental argument: Practice makes perfect. I look at stuff I wrote when I was thirteen and think, "who was that?"
My friend Glenn and I ate lunch in the 
museum café and then saw the exhibit Lifelike.
Retrospect argument: I look at the stuff I wrote yesterday and think, "ain't perfect but better."
Words I tell myself: Experience contributes to the adage practice makes perfect.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Or maybe writing is simply creating several versions of oneself.
Psychopathology of Everyday Life: It is spooky to find something in a discarded notebook with your name inscribed at the top but the contents are alien to your very sense of being.


Quotation: Lucretius On Childish Fear

"Our life is one long struggle in the darkness; and as children in a dark room are terrified of everything, so we in broad daylight are sometimes afraid of things that are no more to be feared than the imaginary horrors that scare children in the dark."
Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, Liber Secondus
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