The Love of Wisdom


I have nothing to add about the facts in this case of University of Miami “star” philosophy professor Colin McGinn and his alleged sexual harassment of one of his women graduate students. But as someone who—despite quite enjoying reading philosophy occasionally—has always believed that the ironies of actual situations reveal truth better than abstract reasoning does, I found the following fitting, satisfyingly just, and even a little bit funny:

The case, which was first reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education, has set off voluminous chatter among philosophers on blogs and social media. The discussion has been fueled partly by Mr. McGinn’s own blog, where his use of the cryptic language of analytic philosophy in attempts to defend himself seems to have backfired.

Two open letters, posted online in mid-July and signed by more than 100 philosophers, including a majority of Mr. McGinn’s colleagues at Miami, criticized some of the posts on his blog as “retaliation” against the student.

Meanwhile, some of Mr. McGinn’s posts —  including one meditating on the difference between “suggesting” an action and “entertaining” it, and another (since removed) riffing on alternate meanings of a crude term for masturbation — have struck even some of Mr. McGinn’s onetime supporters as less philosophical than self-incriminating.

Writing always reveals more about us than we think we’re revealing, but professional thinkers and writers are often the least aware of its slipperiness because they think they’ve mastered it. The cleverest among us are quite good at fooling ourselves, probably better at it than those of us who aren’t so clever.

Current Events

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Join the Close Reading Club! August: Malcolm Cowley’s “The Greenwich Village Idea”

UPDATE: I stupidly used the wrong email address below. The correct email address is julien [at] newsstandsophisticate [d0t] com. Sorry!

Would you like to be part of a book club, but find you don’t have time to get through an entire book quickly enough to make the discussion worthwhile? (Or maybe you’re already in one and don’t like the other people in it?)

I can’t necessarily help with the latter (because maybe you won’t like me), but I’m starting an online reading club to help address the first problem, since it’s a problem I experience myself, what with children and housework and jobs and computers and TV all the other time-sucking important and entertaining catastrophes of modern living that cut into my reading time.

The Newsstand Sophisticate Close Reading Club will focus on a short piece of writing once a month, something that you can read in half an hour or less—but closely and carefully, and more than once, if you like. Then we’ll talk about it online. If you want to be part of the club, send me an email, and I’ll send you an invitation to the discussion board, where I’ll post an introduction to the reading and a PDF. Then all club members, including myself, can begin discussing it on the group board over the coming month. We can also do live Google hangouts or similar if there’s interest, where we can all drink wine together just like a non-virtual book club.

So if you’d like to join, send your email address to julien [at] newsstandsophisticate [dot] com. Let me know if you’re interested in a live Google hangout and what times would be best for you, if so.

The first selection, for August, is “The Greenwich Village Idea,” a short essay about bohemianism and capitalism from Malcolm Cowley’s excellent literary memoir of the twenties and thirties, Exile’s Return. It’s a perpetually relevant, interesting, and well written piece, and I think you’ll enjoy our discussion.

Close Reading Club

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Reading Roundup: July 31, 2013

Lucky Luke

Here are some interesting links I’ve lassoed for you over the past week or so:

UT-Austin’s Harry Ransom Center has acquired the McSweeney’s archive

John Graves, author of Texas classic Goodbye to a River—about the dammings of the Brazos (I used to live next to the product of one of them, Lake Whitney)—has passed away.

The Paris Review interviews Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell: ”My parents discovered they could shut me up for hours by mounting a large piece of cartridge paper on a drawing board—beautiful quality paper, a big beautiful snowy expanse—and leave me to draw, and name, maps of imaginary archipelagos and continents. Those maps, I think, were my protonovels. I was reading Tolkien, and it was the maps as much as the text that floated my boat. What was happening behind these mountains where Frodo and company never went? What about the town along the edge of the sea? What kind of people lived there? The empty spaces required me to turn anthropologist-creator.”

Crank up the Lee Greenwood!: Missouri judge fires 34-year court employee for providing document that helped free innocent man.

On second thought, this actually does make me “proud to be an American”: Protesters occupying the Florida Capitol in memory of Trayvon Martin want to change school policies that disproportionately suspend black students and often end in arrest.

Then again, on third thought: Salon‘s “8 appalling ways America leads the world”. (“Number one in obesity, guns, prisoners, anxiety, and more!”)

Atlas Obscura explores a beautiful Bay Area island ghost town.

A Visual History of the Evolution of the Penguin Paperback from The New Republic.

Nobody wants to go to malls anymore, even teenagers. They’re turning the mall near my house into a branch of Austin Community College. Progress!

Food guru Mark Bittman calls the bluff of should-I-feel-guilty-for-eating-quinoa liberals. “Well-intentioned people often ask me what they can do to help improve our food system. Here’s an easy one: When you see that picket line next week, don’t cross it. In fact, join it.”

Photos of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec defecating on the beach.

Patricia Lockwood’s excellent, harrowing, sad, and bitterly funny poem,  ”Rape Joke”.

Sports!: An exciting, Gold Cup–winning summer for the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team.

Follow me on Twitter or Tumblr, if you go in for that sort of thing.


Reading Roundup

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Fact or Fiction?


I’ve never quite understood people who only read nonfiction (or that rarer beast, the person who only reads fiction and is uninterested in history or the news). I like well told and interesting stories, whether they’re true or not. (I’m also pretty bad at focusing on one thing all the time, so maybe I’m just a fox with an inability to understand hedgehogs.) But even though both fact and fiction are united by use of narrative—storytelling—I’ve also never had much sympathy for the idea that they’re therefore the same thing. (This is the idea behind much “post-modern” literary criticism, as well as, to some extent, in Hayden White’s analysis of history writing as literature and David Shields’s Reality Hunger.)

To my mind, the important difference between the two is not necessarily in how much is factual, though of course that’s part of it, but in the role of imagination and experience and the deal the writer makes with the reader. In fiction, the writer’s experience is filtered or projected through his or her imagination, and thus altered by it, sometimes beyond recognition. This is true for even the most fantastic writing, which always uses gestures and details the writer experienced—even if only through reading other writers’ descriptions of gestures and details! Meanwhile nonfiction uses imagination to illuminate the experience and research of the writer. Imagination picks the details from the reality, arranges them in an often unexpected order (think of the seemingly—but not at all—random structure of John McPhee’s books on geology), but tries not to alter the facts themselves, only illuminate them by description and context.

Imagination is like light, but light can be used for colored gels and kaleidoscopes and Lazer Zeppelin shows at the planetarium, or as a high-powered spotlight. So the main difference between fiction and nonfiction is the deal the writer makes with readers regarding how his or her imagination will be used. Because all good readers know that facts and imagination will be jumbled together in both “true” and “made up” stories, but we need ground rules so we know what we’re getting into, and what we can do with the story after we read it. People think James Frey is a scumbag because he presented stuff he made up as fact—the quality, good or bad, of the writing was irrelevant. But of course Frey’s writing wasn’t very good. The sole interest in his book came from the idea that the crazy things he described had actually happened. They were implausible as fiction. This is why it would likely have failed if marketed originally as a novel.

Good fiction reveals the strangeness in ordinary things. The best nonfiction tells us surprising and weird stories, but reveals them to be part of a larger pattern or web—part of our ordinary lives, whether we knew it or not.


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Book Report: Stay Awake by Dan Chaon


This an excellent collection of creepy and mysterious short stories. If you’ve read Chaon before, you’ll know what to expect: gloomy midwesterners, suggestions of ghosts and painful pasts, an obsession with twins and changing identities, all written in his simple but vivid style. Highly recommended! The first story, “The Bees,” is the most creepy, disturbing, and nightmarish; read it first or last depending on whether that appeals to you or not.

Another I particularly liked is “To Psychic Underworld:,” about a widowed father who keeps finding (and collecting) little notes and lists and scraps of paper he finds, a habit I have, as well. He describes the appeal, mystery, and sadness of finding such things well:

Now, suddenly, it seemed that there were notes everywhere, emerging out of the blur of the world. Something had happened to him not that Beth was gone, he thought—there was an opening, a space, a part of his brain that had been deaf before was now exposed, it was as if he were a long-dormant radio that had begun to receive signals—tuned in, abruptly, to all the crazy note-writers of the world.

“Please,” someone had written on a napkin and left it on the table in McDonald’s, where he had taken Hazel for a little peaceful snack, a casual Toledo afternoon, but now here was this other voice poking its head through the surface of his consciousness like a worm peeking up out of the ground. “Please,” in ballpoint pen on the napkin. And then “Please” on the napkin underneath it, and “Please” again on a third. Someone was either very polite or very desperate.


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The Big Takeover has bought Goodreads.

Why do people think blogs are dead (or dying)? As more and more sites are bought by the same big companies (Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc.), it’s easy to imagine that many people will want to go back to a format in which they can create their own networks, without targeted ads or annoying algorithms, that won’t be feeding quite so directly into those big companies marketing data operations. Isn’t it?


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“Awake, sleeper, And arise from the dead . . . “

Is this thing on?

I’ve been reading a lot of comments on Twitter and elsewhere around the Internet lately saying that blogs are dead or that you should kill your blog, and it’s inspired me to start posting here again.


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Books I Have Read More than Once

I posted quotes from Roland Barthes and François Mauriac about rereading to my Tumblr yesterday, and it’s got me trying to think of all the books I’ve read more than once. I’m sure I’m not remembering a few, but here’s a partial list (not including children’s picture books):

  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
  • The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Right Ho, Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse
  • Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor (I’ve also reread most of her short stories.)
  • A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan, Ursula K. Le Guin
  • A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole
  • The Stranger, Albert Camus
  • The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
  • My Life and Hard Times, James Thurber
  • David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
  • 1984, George Orwell
  • The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami
  • Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
  • Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy

Not sure what Mauriac would make of me. Lots of fantasy, because I was an obsessive fantasy reader when I was in junior high school, and then I reread some of those books as an adult to see if I could remember why I was so obsessed with them. Rereading a book you first read when you were younger reminds me of the saying about egg nog: when you drink it as a child it makes you feel like an adult, and when you drink it as an adult it makes you feel like a child again.

You never really read the same book twice, because you change between every reading.


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Adding to the Pile

The Millions tells us of interesting books to be published this upcoming year. It’s a good list, and contains many titles I hope to read. At my current rate, however, I feel I won’t get to many of them until the next decade. This week I started reading a book (The Verificationist, by Donald Antrim) that I bought in 2001 but have only now gotten around to reading.

(It’s good, by the way. Not sure why I waited so long to read it.)


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This Year’s Model

It’s been interesting seeing stories pop up about projects funded by the 2009 Recovery Act, the so-called “stimulus package.” It’s funded such an odd assortment of things, as I suppose it was designed to do. I was pleasantly surprised to come across this article, detailing a plan to renovate Sausalito, California’s Bay Model, a hydraulic scale model of the San Francisco Bay Area that allows you to see how the tides and currents work from the Sacramento River Delta to the Golden Gate. I used to love visiting this when I was a child, and though the renovation will cost $13.2 million, it strikes me as a better use of government money than the bank bailouts.


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