KURT VONNEGUT ON THE DEATH OF KURT VONNEGUT Writer Kurt…
Worth the read every single day?
TO READ OR NOT TO READ?
I read two newspapers everyday.
It is the one ritual I promised to keep after the upheaval of becoming a father, the daily activity I would keep to bridge the gap the life between the “before” and “after” metamorphosis of becoming responsible for a baby. “I am the same person as before; I am still me,” I tell myself, as my day retains a semblance of its earlier pattern. The ritual anchors my life in the vertiginous upheaval which is new parenthood. Some people stop at Starbuck’s on the way to work or do a crossword puzzle over breakfast. I read the newspaper. So much else has changed in my life but this hasn’t.
Years ago in training to become a gang/grief/addiction facilitator at a former school, I was urged to give up something important in my life for a week to gain empathy for what an addict felt in being deprived of their drug of choice. Supposedly we would see what it felt life to go “cold turkey.” I chose to give up the daily newspaper, and I felt unpleasantly and nervously isolated from the wider world. (A gay man in my training cohort swore off sex with men.) I missed my newspaper badly. The world seemed out of balance. Perhaps I missed the daily ritual as much as the actual newspaper.
Nowadays my ritual is to leave work in the early evening and to stop somewhere on the way home and read my newspapers. This is how I decompress from my work day and do something purely for myself. It is an indulgence, and I can hear finally myself think. My wife is home waiting for me and I know she is watching the clock. She wants me home; there is much to do there; and so I read quickly. Only on the rare occasion that a newspaper article is of the highest quality and worthy of it do I read slowly, carefully, and with my full attention. That is relatively rare.
I also subscribe, in the order of my interest, to the following publications: The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic Montlhy, The New Yorker, and The Week. Sadly, I only manage to read some of “New York Review of Books” and totally ignore the others when they arrive in the mail. Yet I cannot bring myself to cancel my subscriptions. Perhaps it is an homage to an earlier time when Richard Geib did indeed read all those publications cover to cover almost all the time.
Yet increasingly over the past five years or so I have called into question the wisdom of devoting so much time to reading the newspaper. Rather more often than not, I look up after forty minutes of reading the newspaper and ask myself if I learned anything of real value. Was I not again just skimming the frothy surface of mankind? Wasting my precious leisure time and attention? Would I be much better off instead read the Bible – or the poetry of Milton, the rants of Thoreau, or the insights of Montaigne? As William Penn advised,
“Have but few Books, but let them be well chosen and well read, whether of Religious or Civil Subjects… reading many Books is but a taking off the Mind too much from Meditation. Reading your selves and Nature, in the Dealings and Conduct of Men, is the truest human wisdom. The Spirit of a Man knows the Things of Man, and more true Knowledge comes by Meditation and just Reflection than by Reading; for much Reading is an Oppression of the Mind, and extinguishes the natural Candle; which is the Reason of so many senseless Scholars in the World.”
That seems to me a sage judgment. Do I waste my time on newspapers? Should I instead pick up and read the Autobiography of Benuvenuto Cellini that has sat next to my bed for three months? There are so many books I want to read but for which I lack the time.
But do I really lack the time? I could make time… but instead I have read the newspaper!
As Henry David Thoreau claimed:
“If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter- we never need read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications? To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea. Yet not a few are greedy after this gossip.”
Is not dwelling on “the latest news” not a form of seeking for excitement and meaning in the external world where it could be more properly found in one’s internal emotional life in relation to it? It is, of course, much easier just to read a newspaper and see what is “new.” It is much harder, in contrast, to seek renewal and meaning in oneself. Clearly, it is easier to read a newspaper than to write your own book — it is the “path more taken.”
In settling for the newspaper, am I settling for mediocrity? Is this not mundanity? To read thousands of words daily in the newspaper without anything sparking one’s interest? Conventional. Boring. Mediocre. The articles in the newspaper become aged and of zero value even before the paper it was printed on turns yellow. Poet Ben Johnson warned, “What a deale of cold busines doth a man mis-spend the better part of life in! In scattering compliments, tendring visits, gathering and venting newes, following Feastes and Playes, making a little winter-love in a darke corner.” The newspaper seems to be part of the ordinariness of life, and perhaps I should reach for the extraordinary.
In my fifteenth year of teaching, it is this boring conventionality that increasingly irks me about schools and the education system. (I have noticed it irks students far more than teachers!) The system wants everyone to become proficient in certain skills and to conform to certain rules. And certainly for those are far from proficient in reading and writing understanding the rules, the system can serve to knock some sort of that into student’s think skulls. But for students who can read and write understand the reasoning behind the rule, the cookie cutter approach does not serve: it results in sheer mediocrity – that cursed, yellow-bellied mediocrity so often arrived at by strong students in their schoolwork without breaking a sweat. “Teacher! Tell me what you want — what is on the rubric and on the test, and then I will learn it! But don’t ask me really to think or to invest myself in my work. Tell me what you want so I can do it quickly and painlessly — and so I can get back to my video gaming! To do what I really want to do, and that ain’t homework!!”
Oh, how I hate this sentiment! This is how young people gradually conclude that school is NOT a place where one comes to learn. Rather, it is a place where one learns to OBEY.There is more truth in the below cartoon about the role of the school in American society than I would like to admit:
Just be quiet and listen to those who know more than you do! Sit down. Be quiet. Obey. Conform.
I tell my students, “Shock me! Surprise me! Make me angry! Be sarcastic, witty, elegant, profound! Take risks! Do anything but turn in that musty cheese you think I want – that perfectly mediocre piece of writing done for the grade! Write more for yourself than for your teacher. And by all means do not bore me! I much prefer failed brilliance to perfect mediocrity.” A colleague once decried students breaking the academic rules thusly: “Who do they think they are? F. Scott Fitzgerald?” I thought to myself, With that attitude your student never will have a chance at becoming the next F. Scott Fitzgerald! It is not unconventionality but apathy that is the main enemy of learning – rank apathy. Apathy and boredom.
So it goes in school, so it goes in the “real world.” Look at all the academic essays that nobody will ever read with pleasure – those you have to pay people to read (ie. pay an instructor). Think of all the trees cut down to print out highly specialized PhD dissertations that are boring as warm spit. The “peer-reviewed scholarship” that are read never for pleasure but as a professional duty – and read by about four persons total. All the think tank publications that are predictable, conventional, and perfectly mediocre: I see the writer of an article is associated with The Carnegie Endowment for Peace, and I already know what he or she is going to say from the political Left – the Hoover Institution hack will similarly spout the standard party line of the orthodox Right.
But….but…. once a blue moon I read something in the newspaper that almost makes it all worth it. Something fresh! Something unexpected! Something outside of those well-worn ruts so much of the world drowsily slumbers in. You read it and have to marvel at the writer’s insights – the putting into plain, clear prose the thoughts that have been in our heads but have not been able to be put into clear form – and then someone else does it for you! Oh, mirabile dictum!
This morning I read the following essay by Andrew Klavan about self-righteousness in the wake of Republican Idaho Senator Larry Craig’s arrest for allegedly making a sexual pass in a Minnesota men’s bathroom:
by Andrew Klavan
How rare that article! How special! For me like water in the desert to a man dying of thirst!
Congratuatiuons, Mr. Klavan!
“Believe me, if I could be hanged for my dreams, I’d be a dead man.”