An Autodidact. by M. W. Fogleman

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1 An Autodidact by M. W. Fogleman

2 Copyright 2010 Michael Fogleman. This book is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution- Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License, v 3.0 ( You must attribute this work to Michael Fogleman (but not in any way that suggests that Michael endorses you or your use of the work). You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one.



5 Preface 'I want to go on being a student,' I told him. 'I want to be a teacher. I'm just a reader,' I said. 'DON'T SOUND SO ASHAMED,' he said. 'READING IS A GIFT.' 'I learned it from you,' I told him. 'IT DOESN'T MATTER WHERE YOU LEARNED IT IT'S A GIFT. IF YOU CARE ABOUT SOMETHING, YOU HAVE TO PROTECT IT IF YOU'RE LUCKY ENOUGH TO FIND A WAY OF LIFE YOU LOVE, YOU HAVE TO FIND THE COURAGE TO LIVE IT.' John Irving s A Prayer for Owen Meany This book is the product of a summer, of my project called Autodidactism Thanks to the generosity of friends and family, I raised enough money so that I could spend the summer being an autodidact (a self-learner) while still saving for my college education at St. John s College in Annapolis, Maryland. The production of this book forced me to account for my learning and to practice writing. I hope you will find it informative, interesting, and enjoyable. Learning is a catch-all term for what I did this summer. I read many books, from the modern fiction I am not finding at St. John s to eastern religious texts, from philosophical tracts about love and literature to the books of my childhood. I had numerous experiences that I could not have done without the flexibility this summer offered me, the ability to dedicate a large amount of time and dedication. I v

6 attempted to switch to polyphasic sleep. I tried new forms of exercise (for me). I tried vegetarianism and meditation. I took pictures of many of my childhood toys before donating them to charity so I could treasure the memories forever while letting someone else make their own memories. I ve learned to drive again. I also wrote. The essays in this book document some of those experiences, some of my thoughts left over from books. I m proud to say that you can see the influence of a year at St. John s in my writing, but in a way that is still simple and conversational, which I believe is the best way to write an essay of this type. I plan on writing more in my lifetime. This book is a significant step on that path. However, it is a humble beginning. Remember that it was written in a summer, without a formal editor (although I am very grateful to those who took their time to write substantial critiques on the drafts I posted) or mainstream publisher. There are typos, and sentences that could benefit from some revision. It is also inevitable that I will ultimately disagree with some of these ideas as I change and grow. Remember that this book was written when I was nineteen, and that I have many more years to live and learn. The introduction to the edition I have of Virginia Woolf s The Common Reader makes the following observation: An essayist s learning, wrote Virginia Woolf in The Modern Essay, must be so fused by the magic of writing that not a fact juts out, not a dogma tears the surface of the texture. It is presumably upon something of this principle tat the original edition of The Common Reader was almost wholly unannotated. Woolf was unwilling to compromise her work by adhering to standards that she thought obsolete and harmful, and I admire her for that. I have made a few deviations from the customary vi

7 way of doing things, although they are certainly less important and somewhat inconsistent. For example, I have always found the practice of putting your own punctuation inside another author s citation when it cannot be found there originally deceptive and unattractive, so I do not do that in this book. Aside from these warnings, I hope you will enjoy the product of my work, and find it to be a worthy testament to Owen Meany s advice to Johnny Wheelwright. I am not ashamed of being a reader, a learner, or for making an effort to live it. Autodidactism has no room for harmful emotions like shame or doubt. vii


9 Acknowledgements For the success and mere existence of this book, this project, I owe thanks to a great many people. This list is going to be long, but it must be, considering I raised almost $1500 for my college education in order to be able to do this project. First and foremost, my greatest thanks go to my parents, Stanley Fogleman and Deb LeBel, for raising me, for helping me find and attend St. John s, for not thinking this project was crazy. This project would not exist without Jerry Januszewski, who encouraged me to figure out what it was I really wanted to do this summer, to stretch my imagination and make my dreams come true. Nor would it exist without all of my generous donors, who believed in this project and helped it come into existence. I see in this book the realization of the hopes and dreams of this project, made possible by you; I hope you do, too. I am very grateful for all of my teachers and tutors, who have continually encouraged and nurtured my appetite for learning. My writing, as exemplified by this book, demonstrates your help. I owe a large debt to everyone who read my drafts and posted thoughtful critiques. I hope they will enjoy seeing the final version, complete with their suggestions. Special thanks to Marco Damiano, Billye and Bob Taylor, Jim and Bev Fogleman, Jimmy Berry, Peter Kringdon, Chris Katrakis, Tommy Bonn, Lilly Datchev, Campbell, Tyler Fanning, Kara Roth, Ben Pence, Ben Whitney, Christine Engels, Jane Adams, Hannah Enoy, Ben ix

10 Condron, and Connor Thompson for their assistance and generosity in various forms, both this summer and in general. It is my utmost desire that my readers will learn from and enjoy this book, despite its flaws; thank you for reading it. x

11 Essays The main content of this book is essays written by me. Some are long, formal inquiries; some are more conversational and less philosophical; most are variations thereof.


13 Back I am back from my freshman year at St. John s. Hingham hasn t changed all that much, but I have. I feel more confident, and I am, on the whole, happier. My mind is filled with classic prose, Ancient Greek paradigms and mathematics propositions. I ve finished unpacking. It s remarkable how much crap we accumulate in each year of our lives. To compensate for the boxes upon boxes of things I ve brought into the house, I filled boxes upon boxes with books I don t want or need any more. How many Boxcar Children mystery novels does an adult man really need? That s another way I ve changed: I feel more like a man than I did a year ago. Graduation gowns and celebratory cigars hide the truth from even the humblest high school student. College and Socrates have shown me a thing or two while bringing me closer to manhood. Shifting back and forth between sets of friends is alienating. I alternate between Ben and Tommy, Jane and Bonnie, Mark and Campbell and other friends that don t match quite so nicely. My old friends have Tommys and Bonnies and Campbells that I don t recognize posting on their Facebook walls; they ve changed as much as I have in ways I ll never understand. We return to Hingham and stare in each others eyes, trying to see if what we remember and love is still there. I am physically different: I m no longer underweight, and I haven t cut my hair since August and have become a long-haired Achaean. It takes a second for friends to recognize me. Intellectual divides take a little longer to notice, but they are even more divisive. I can t talk about my essay on Homer or the beauty of Ptolemy with 1

14 them, and their stories about escapades and adventures are told with a context I have no access to. Switching between libraries is like switching between lovers. Accordingly, it is stranger than changing friends. The Greenfield Library has everything I could ever want that is classic or Great: Program books, complementary primary sources, faculty files and lectures, prizewinning essays, commentaries and reference texts. But the Hingham Public Library has interlibrary loan and all things modern 1. I checked what I wanted out of the College s library (the Loeb edition of Hippias Minor, for reading and translating, books on writing and rhetoric, some books my Language tutor recommended, a novel or two), but my literary diet for the summer will be mostly modern. I have 150 or so pages left of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. I ve almost perfectly followed the Tumblr blog community s schedule, even if they faded as quickly as the small study group of friends I formed to work through the book. It is summer. A time for forgetting Greek, the Program and St. John s for a while. A time for long (barefoot!) walks, naps under the warm sun, friends and picnics and movies and milkshakes. A time for finishing Hofstadter, for reading endless stacks of books, for writing essays on questions that have been bothering me forever. It is time for Autodidactism I borrowed pieces from this section for my essay A Bibliophile s Journey. 2

15 Suburbia To raise your children in the suburbs, as my parents did, is to value your children s well being and your own peace and quiet, and to find other parents and their children with whom you can make friends and community. Children flourish in this environment, as everything around them, including schools and churches and sports teams and clubs, is organized towards growth and nurturing of children in various aspects. But when they reach a certain age, when emotions are fragile, passionate demons within, when rebellion and contrarianism become necessary ingredients for self-discovery, they lash out against this environment which once fostered their growth so well. The onset of this phase is sudden, alarming, and perplexing for parents who have given them nothing but love. Youths seek out that which has been hidden from them so well, violence and hatred and alcohol and drugs, and embrace one or the other with cries of being misunderstood by the world at large. They cannot help but quench their thirst with excess, and while most learn moderation, this period of pleasure and indulgence rips the simple joys of childhood away, causing a wound that is not easily healed. Suburban parents and authorities react harshly, surprised that their paradise is not everyone s paradise, and attempt to suppress all cheeky words, actions, and feelings, and filter out those particularly nasty infringers. Let each young man and woman hear the call for reasonable moderation and balance, to accept them and begin to understand adulthood. Let each parent know their children are not statues, which can remain forever innocent and unblemished by the evils of the world, and react accordingly. 3


17 Thoughts on July 4 th 'THE ONLY WAY YOU CAN GET AMERICANS TO NOTICE ANYTHING IS TO TAX THEM OR DRAFT THEM OR KILL THEM,' Owen said. He said that once when Hester proposed abolishing the draft. 'IF YOU ABOLISH THE DRAFT,' said Owen Meany, 'MOST AMERICANS WILL SIMPLY STOP CARING ABOUT WHAT WE'RE DOING IN OTHER PARTS OF THE WORLD.' John Irving s A Prayer for Owen Meany There are two things I ve come to avoid thinking about: religion and politics. Unfortunately, St. John s does too, at least in terms of practical (read: modern) instances of both. The Program requires us to think about Religion and Politics, but only through the original texts, in the theory; beyond the books (which are worth reading, of course), we re on our own. The result of this is that Johnnies discuss relatively comfortable issues and questions, avoiding controversial issues which actually effect our lives, and succumbing to apathy and a vague agnosticism in the process. Not that there is anything wrong with St. John s in particular. This is a more general, perhaps uniquely American problem, one that A Prayer for Owen Meany forces us to confront within ourselves. At one point, a character quotes Kierkegaard: What no person has a right to do is to delude others into the belief that faith is something of no great significance, or that it is an easy matter, whereas it is the greatest and most difficult of all things. Being agnostic myself, I don t know about faith being the greatest of all things, but I can 5

18 certainly attest to it being the most difficult. I won t try to destroy anyone s faith, or shake their disbelief, but it does seem to me that agnosticism is the only reasonable choice. Of course, faith is beyond me. But dissuading you and myself from apathy: that, I have no problem with. I came to apathy by way of being disgusted: disgusted of being misled by dogma and deception. I crave simple solutions and answers to everything, and dogma preys on idealists like me. Prolonged contemplation, however, leads me to suspect, somewhat cynically, that there may only be complex solutions that cannot achieve the things I dream of, that we all dream of: happiness and peace and justice and equality. It seems that anyone who offers simple solutions, who always has an answer, can only deception and dogma. What no politician has the right to do, but almost all do anyway, is to delude others that the solutions to our most pressing problems are easily found, whereas finding an elegant solution is (one of) the most difficult of all things. But we must find solutions for these problems. We are responsible for our own ethical decisions, at home and abroad. There are wars to end, there is an environment to take care of, and there are starving, sick, and uneducated people who we have the means to help. Lest someone accuse me of being unpatriotic on this July 4th, let me assure any would-be accusers that the apathy I am trying to disentangle myself and others from is far more dangerous to our country than any particular beliefs I may have, and to share with them one final quote: Mrs. Hoyt was the first person I remember who said that to criticize a specific American president was not anti-american; that 6

19 to criticize a specific American policy was not antipatriotic; and that to disapprove of our involvement in a particular war against the communists was not the same as taking the communists' side. 7


21 Michael? A Deal With the Devil My eyes flutter. Hannah, my friend, is trying to keep me from falling asleep. I had heard of polyphasic sleep before, but when my friends and running buddies Campbell and Phil showed up at my door at seven twenty in the morning and announced that they were trying it and needed me to wake them up from their next nap before we could exercise that morning, my interest evolved into a certainty that I, too, would try it. But I didn t want to try it during the school year, so I offered to help wake them up from their daytime naps. This increased both the probability of their success and my desire to achieve twenty two hour days. Every four hours, I would wake them up from their twenty minute naps. They had signed up for ten days of Hell, a period of extreme sleep deprivation which is required to adjust to the schedule. If they succeeded, they would have a seemingly infinite amount of time to do anything they needed to or wanted to: homework, hanging out, reading for pleasure, writing. The day would expand greatly, and indeed their understanding of time would be fundamentally changed. Campbell and Phil made it three or four days before oversleeping, a fatal error that forced them to stop their project. I was shocked and upset. I d thought my friends had enough determination to conquer anything, and I wanted to see them succeed more than anything. It turns out that most people that attempt polyphasic sleep fail, due to lack of willpower or the sheer intensity of the whole project. You need 9

22 to compensate for the odds of failing with multiple alarm clocks, friends helping you in shifts, and a devotion to thoroughness and detail despite the mental fog of fatigue. Campbell gave me a book on polyphasic sleep 1, written by a Johnnie. She d tried it in Santa Fe as a solution to insomnia; when she and her friend succeeded, they called the schedule Überman (a tip of the hat to Nietzsche s Übermensch) and followed it for six months of paradise before getting jobs that required them to quit. I pored through it, reading it several times so that when I tried the schedule I would be able to follow it to the best of my ability. Hannah had told me she was also interested in trying Polyphasic Sleep, so we saved ten days in our calendars for an attempt. It turned out that she couldn t start for a day after the day we d agreed on, so I started ahead of time. This mistake was actually very helpful, because the first day is the easiest. Your body is simply not exhausted yet, even if it is tired in the night. The next day is also pretty easy, because daylight is on your side and you have begun to sleep in your naps. So when she joined me that night, I was beginning to feel the effects of sleep deprivation, and she was not even tired yet. My body was very irritated with me. I mean this more than colloquially: adjusting to polyphasic sleep felt like a battle between my mind and body, where my body was really plotting against me (and I, it). I got cold easily (I suspect this was to trick me into getting warm, which is an easy way to fall asleep), I would start falling asleep even when I was standing up, and my acid reflux (which is normally at about equilibrium) reacted in extreme proportions. I woke up from naps 1 Ubersleep by PureDoxyk. 10

23 confused, often not remembering if I d turned off the alarm or other details. Coherent conversation became impossible, to the amusement of my friends and my dismay. Daylight and the dark of night had noticeable effects on my mind, so that day was very easy where nighttime was very difficult. On one particularly difficult night, I woke up and walked to another town, walked back in time for my nap, and repeated the whole thing. Walking wasn t keeping me awake as well as the first time, so I started jogging, which worked much more quickly. Walking around at night is very strange. Almost no one is awake, and the people that are look at you suspiciously. You start becoming paranoid, scared of the dark even if you haven t been in years. Intersections have endless green lights because no one is driving. You notice certain things that happen only at night, things that must happen in order to make the day happen: people work late night shifts, street lights turn on and off automatically at certain hours, the sun sets and rises, and so on. Succeeding at polyphasic sleep takes great willpower. You must know why you want to achieve polyphasic sleep, and be able to pursue that even in the sleepiest of situations. Besides wanting twenty-two hour days, I also wanted to test my willpower: Would I give up because I was tired? If so, how tired would I have to be before I gave up? I d never so much as pulled an all-nighter before, and I always feel exhausted when I get less than six or seven hours of sleep a night. It turns out that while I did fail, it wasn t because of a lack of willpower. I wore a super-comfortable sweatshirt during a nap, and woke up two hours later. I decided to be done with the whole thing, since I was tired of being tired, and mistakes like that require at least a couple more days of sleep deprivation before you can get over them. I d lasted for thirty 11

24 three nap cycles, which is five and a half days. On the nap before I failed, I d started dreaming, a sure sign of adaption. I got very close, but ultimately messed up. Failure was another personal goal I had for the project: not that I wanted to fail, but I knew the odds were high that I would, and I wanted to react gracefully and learn from the experience. I ve never liked failing, but it is something we have to do from time to time, so I might as well learn from it. So, what s next? How has my view on sleep changed, and how will I sleep from now on? We have some options. We can sleep for ten hours a night, valuing quality waking time over quantity; we can seek polyphasic sleep, whether it is biphasic (also known as the Siesta ), Everyman, or Überman; or we can get ourselves addicted to coffee, buy cases of energy drinks and take stimulants. I was on a biphasic schedule before trying polyphasic, which was an enormous help during my attempt, as it was easier for me to fall asleep during the day. I am returning to that, just because it keeps me energized and productive for more of the day; the importance of naps in a healthy sleep schedule cannot be overestimated. I am also thinking about becoming a vegetarian, as I read somewhere that vegetarians need less sleep. I m not sure if this has been scientifically proven as fact, but I can confirm it anecdotally: that night I talked about, where I walked and ran for two sleep cycles in a row, came right after I d eaten a big meal at Taco Bell. The previous night, I d only been that tired for one sleep cycle. Damn you, fast food restaurants advertising your late hours! I dread sleeping now. It feels like a complete waste of time, a submission to inner laziness. Sleep deprivation proves that your body wants and needs a certain amount of sleep for peak performance, but I wonder if we can change that. Can we hack our bodies so that they 12

25 don t need sleep? Can we find a way to become like Thai Ngoc and Al Herpin, men who don t sleep? Whether or not they were actually capable of this feat, I think science could be. There s a section at the end of the book about the Philosophical Implications of polyphasic sleep. I guess she couldn t resist the urge to contemplate out loud, and I m glad she didn t. She asks some important questions: What is sleep, and why do we need it? Beyond the fact that we need it, does sleep have any real value? Would you give up sleep? She notes that sleep is enjoyable, and it can also serve to keep us sane. For these reasons, I would not give up sleep entirely, but if I could choose when I slept I would do so minimally. I noticed two conflicting human desires during my attempt. On the one hand, the sanest part of your brain says What am I doing? I should stop this minute!. But another part knows that there are dangers to being normal, that it is human nature to pursue progress. We will try to excel in all areas, even if it means surpassing what we ordinarily think of as being human. It is only the limits that we find we cannot pass that will stop us, and even then, we will seek ways of destroying those limits. One thing she talks about in other sections is how distorted time becomes. What does a day mean if it is not everything in between long chunks of sleep? I really started to notice the rising and setting of the sun. I would welcome the rising of the sun like a friend who would help me stay awake throughout the day, and prepare myself mentally for the night. I told someone on the second night of the experiment that the whole thing had felt like one big day, which was true. It felt less and less like one big day as the project went on, as if I had started 13

26 assigning mental markers of when a day stopped and another began. I began to have an understanding of just how long a day is, and how long the average night of sleep for adults is. So much could get done in the seven, eight, or nine hours that doesn t. Some polyphasic sleepers call monophasic sleep hibernation : pejorative, but true. Time doesn t seem to pass during a good night s sleep, but in fact, a large amount of time does pass. That brings up an important question: How much time seems to pass during the average polyphasic sleeper s naps? My naps felt like time had stopped entirely, but I imagine someone who had actually transitioned properly would experience them a bit differently. I remember reading somewhere during my experiments with lucid dreaming (I m probably known in Hingham by this point as the weird sleep experiments guy ) that when dreams happen, your estimate of how long they lasted correlates with how much time you were actually dreaming. I think that rule of thumb probably changes during polyphasic sleep. After all, twenty minutes becomes enough to last you for three and a half hours. I do not recommend polyphasic sleep lightly, even if it is on the easier Everyman schedule (three naps during the day and a 3/4.5 core sleep nap at night, but it takes a month to adjust to). You must have a burning desire to succeed, strong willpower and the ability to put theory into practice even when you are dead tired. Curiosity alone is not enough to propel you to success. Earlier, I compared the adaption period to Hell; polyphasic sleep is a deal with the devil. If you have the assets to make it past sleep deprivation, you gain the seemingly impossible: twenty-two hours a day. Even this is tarnished, however. You can never do anything that takes longer than three and a half hours, you have to eat at least one more meal a day than you normally 14

27 would, and you are alone for long periods of time at night. Of course, the long periods of solitude, in particular, can look like and be a blessing for some people. If this sounds reasonable and worthwhile to you, and you feel confident about your willpower, then I can recommend trying it. But otherwise, feel free to stick to the more comfortable, societally and medically endorsed eight or nine hours a night. 15


29 A Bibliophile's Journey When looking at my essay ideas list, I realized there were a vast amount of essays that had overlapping subject matter, about books, learning, literature and philosophy, and decided to combine them. It's a bad day for writing when you start an essay that you tentatively title "A Celebration of Bibliophilia and Autodidactism, and an Inquiry into My Qualms Concerning Literature and Philosophy". Whatever form this essay will end up taking, though, it's going to be one of my favorites. I. Bibliophilia and Autodidactism My love for books (or bibliophilia, for the Ancient Greek-inclined) is almost endless. It began innocently enough. I never had a television my father didn't want me to grow up like he did, always in front of the television watching cartoons and I found books to be a more than adequate substitute. I was always inclined to read a book rather than, say, play sports, and my habit was encouraged by my family and teachers. I was selected for a advanced reading group at my elementary school called "Junior Great Books", which I ultimately traded for the real thing at St. John's College. All of my classmates and friends enjoy reading just as much as I do. The first thing anyone does when they go into someone's room they've never been in before is look at their bookshelf. That s a habit I ve always had, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that my friends had it, too. I once heard an upperclassman jokingly refer to St. John s as a $50,000 a year book club, which isn't too far from the truth. I appreciate the many merits of the liberal arts education I am receiving, but between you and me, I often think the real benefit is that I'm able to tackle so many books I'd want to read 17

30 otherwise, and knock a few items off my reading list. I could use the help; according to Goodreads, a social networking site for book lovers that I am almost as addicted to as reading the books themselves, I've marked almost 600 books as "to-read". Books were also the beginning of another of my closely related intellectual loves, autodidactism. After readily absorbing the books that most children read, I moved on to more advanced, intriguing topics by checking out large stacks of books at the library. Books were, from an early age, a means to acquiring a basic mastery of things like magic or chess, to engage my imagination: I could travel to castles, meet real detectives like Allen Pinkerton, or perhaps go on an adventure with Bilbo Baggins. Later, I devoured books on money or journalism, picturing myself as a small business owner or reporter. When I got a computer, I explored more modern mediums, such as podcasts, videos, and RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds, with the same devotion but with a view towards a more diverse learning experience. Despite the power of the internet, its breadth of subject matter and mediums, a library has always been the foremost symbol of autodidactism. Does the internet and the host of modern inventions that blossomed from it the Kindle/iPad, Project Gutenberg, Scribd, Instapaper and the like have the power to surpass the relevancy and importance of the library? To answer this question, I recently spent the better part of a week in a library. The idea for this mini-project came from a constant feeling of being overwhelmed by a library that any bibliophile knows too well. On the one hand, you re excited by the opportunity offered by the multitude of books new and old, but on the other hand, you re simultaneously discouraged by the sheer amount of knowledge you have yet to acquire. It s true that nobody ever said you 18

31 had to learn everything, but at some level you have always hoped you could. Education in the traditional sense is inherently finite, but autodidactism requires a passion for the infinitude of knowledge and experience. Libraries have certainly changed over the years. The library in Hingham that s my hometown now offers audiobooks, films, CDs, graphic novels, frequent events, and a variety of online resources: downloadable ebooks and audiobooks, language courses, research databases, an online catalog and Twitter account. Some libraries even offer video games. But the most important change is the offering of free internet terminals. Libraries and the internet have always been tools that aim to democratize information, which makes them natural companions in spite of the cries of pessimists claiming that libraries will die. Yes, they have changed and will continue to, but they will not die in the foreseeable future. Of course, libraries have different flavors to them. The Greenfield Library at St. John s is an excellent classics library, with the best works by the best authors, plentiful editions and translations, criticism from different schools of thought and eras, and college-related materials such as lectures and essays and books by tutors. The Hingham Library caters to modern patrons with all the amenities they might desire, but has little in the way of classics beyond the basics. I m sure other towns have different requirements, as will other colleges, and beyond that there is an even greater variation between museum, business, and personal libraries. In the wise words put on a button my AP English teacher gave our class as a graduation present, Reading is Sexy. Reading widely with an 19

32 aim to learn and challenge yourself is one of the best things a man can do for himself. A cliché I've always endorsed is that you stop thinking when you stop reading. I believe the same thing about writing, which serves as an excellent tool for organizing and articulating one's thoughts. In fact, when I've paired reading and writing together by writing a short commentary about my reactions to and questions about a particular book, I remember its most important conclusions and points for a longer period of time than I would have otherwise. From time to time, I ve heard students or tutors at St. John s speak of conversing with a book or an author, or asking questions of a text, or something similar. This way of speaking about the experience of reading is initially strange to hear, but the better you become as a reader, the more it will make sense. Thinking analytically requires an involvement in the text that goes beyond reading the words and recognizing the ideas: you must insert yourself into the book. In a conversation, if you didn t understand what someone was saying, you d ask them to repeat it for you or maybe explain it in another way. You can t literally ask this of an author, but you can re-read his words and reformulate them if necessary. When readers begin to do this, there is an unfortunate tendency to become a devil s advocate and initially disagree with the material, especially in reaction to unfamiliar or complex ideas. Overcoming this tendency becomes possible when you take the time to fully understand an author s ideas; only then can you ask yourself if you agree. If you don t, attempting to understand why not is a valuable tool for growth. Even if you ultimately disagree with the author, you have strengthened and justified your self-understanding. There s a certain pleasure in finishing a book (or a reading at school). It is the moment when the accomplishment of reading is most 20

33 tangible, when the reward is most visible, when we see best that our time has been well spent. If the book I ve just finished is of reasonable size and heft, I ve always enjoyed closing the cover noisily or plopping it down on the table, accompanied by a sigh of relief and gratification. Even this small pleasure is variable, though. I find that the amount of pleasure I receive at this moment is correlated with the quality of the work itself and my reading of it. If you ensure ahead of time that you have a reasonable likelihood of reading something of quality and invest the time to read it well, you will maximize the pleasure you receive in this moment, which is really just an indication of what you ve gotten out of a book. Earlier, I mentioned that autodidactism requires a passion for the infinitude of knowledge and experience. Properly conditioned, this passion can grow from an enjoyment for learning to a more specific and practical energy, that for self-improvement. Self-improvement has a bad reputation merited by the work of sleazy salesmen, who capitalize on the presence of this desire. However, pursuing it genuinely, by learning a language or by taking measures to understand yourself and your actions with a view towards an end of social grace, success, or happiness is, in my view, the most practical application of the branch of philosophy most relevant to the individual. Remember that philosophy, or philosophia, means a love of wisdom. A philosopher loves all wisdom, and seeks out answers to all questions, but the most practical applications of philosophy, those with the most benefit to the philosopher, are those that involve the self. What is happiness? How can I achieve it? What do I desire, and why? What is the meaning of my life? 21

34 One of the best examples of this sentiment, that philosophy is, in its most useful form, a means to the ends of self-understanding and -improvement, is Socrates prayer at the end of Plato s Phaedrus: O dear Pan and all the other gods of this place, grant that I may be beautiful inside. Let all my external possessions be in friendly harmony with what is within. May I consider the wise man rich. As for gold, let me have as much as a moderate man could bear and carry with him (279C). In the realm of philosophy, questions which are asked with genuine curiosity and wonder, whether about subjects specific and practical or general and less relevant to day-to-day life, are worth pursuing. But men who turn to philosophy find knowledge which is useful and meaningful to them, whether they seek it or not. This desire for self-improvement may very well be, along with wonder, one of the origins of philosophy, and it is certainly the ultimate desire of autodidactism. II. Questions about Literature: An Apology Having reflected upon all of this, it is clear that I am a literary man. What can a literary man do with his life? Above all, I want to be, in the words of John Irving s Dr. Larch, of use. I could teach literature. That s certainly of use: it teaches the young student to read and write well, and of course introduces them to the world of literature and culture. I could also write. Sharing my own words with the world is the natural continuation of reading books with care and detail, discussion and thought. But what to write about? My tentative answer is obvious from the content of this book, but Fiction was my first love. She built me as a reader, a lover of books, by captivating my attention and imagination with characters, settings and 22

35 plots beautiful and ugly, light and dark, human and inhuman. The situations detailed within allowed me a pool of experiences from which to create moral principles and establish knowledge of the world at an age at which the world was hesitant to show me the widely varying sides of Nature and Humanity. Considering this, it would be a natural response to my question to say Write fiction! That s where your heart lies, after all!. While I know I would enjoy writing fiction reading brilliant works of literature calls me to try my hand at the art, and I know doing so would increase my appreciation of their genius but a question nags at my mind. What use does writing fiction have? Being of use having a positive impact, inspiring and helping those that I can. I hesitate to say that fiction has no benefit, as it has surely helped me in the ways I mentioned above and others that I cannot fully understand, but its benefit is far from guaranteed. Instead, its effect is unpredictable and incalculable. This line of questioning has led me to nonfiction, to the essay. Essay-writing is a literary art. Most consider the very word essay dreary and unpleasant, due to its role in education, but those written by authors like E. B. White and Virginia Woolf are beautiful. Of course, both White and Woolf also wrote fiction. I do not have to choose between fiction and non-fiction now, never to write the other again. However if I want to master either art, I must choose now. I am not so good that I can master both arts, as Virginia and Elwyn did. Most writers, the men among gods, stick to one literary art and become a poet, a novelist, a playwright, a scriptwriter, or an essayist. Only the best can become more than one. So which art calls my name? 23

36 The use of essays is self-evident: an essay is an opportunity to understand a memory, to flesh out an idea, to ask a question, or endorse a point of view. But understanding the use of fiction is more complicated. In order to do so, I want to create an apology, or apologia, in the classical sense. The word apology derives from the Greek word apologia, which means a defense. Defending literature will help me to understand literature and its purpose. Why does an author write fiction? Why do we read fiction? What use does it have? Is talking about "use" and fiction blasphemous because fiction is an art? There are simple answers for these questions: an author writes for a living, and a reader reads for escapism or entertainment. While these very well may be true, they are not the whole answer. The true art of literature, the true artists and the readers who read them surpass this level. Art is the output of our creative energies, which are in themselves the productive realizations of our desire to live, to experience life. While being of use has its place and time we could not live without acquiring food and water, for instance if we can, we must surpass them and enjoy life itself. Maslow is famous for his psychological theory of a hierarchy of needs, at the top of which is selfactualization. Self-actualization could be loosely defined as the realization of one s inner potential. As Erich Fromm elegantly put it, Man's main task in life is to give birth to himself, to become what he potentially is. Creative acts are one method for doing so. Selfexpression is inherent in any art form, and with it comes greater selfunderstanding. Creating art exercises our modern freedom from the lower levels of the hierarchy of needs. We aren t hunters and gatherers any more. While art may have uses, it doesn t need to. 24

37 That said, I ve already mentioned what I consider to be one of the most important practical functions of literature: the exploration of ethics. Even beyond a child s life, ordinary living doesn t afford us the opportunity to clearly define our own ethical frameworks. Literature transports us to various foreign scenes and challenges us to decide who is right and why, often in situations that don t afford clear and easy solutions. Maybe this is why the literary device of a deus ex machina is so disappointing; it solves the problem for us without giving us a chance to decide for ourselves what is right and what is wrong. This function of literature also closely relates to its ability to introduce us to culture, both our own and others. Thus, literature can also serve as a bearer of ideas, in what some have called philosophy in action. A novelist or poet forces us to confront the details and implications of an idea for ourselves, rather than delivering an argument in with a pre-made conclusion, ready for our absorption. Novels that are biased towards one viewpoint on a problem are generally received poorly; literature is better for helping us make up our own minds, for showing the inherent ambiguity and uncertainty of a given problem rather than delivering a dogmatic manifesto that leaves questions and doubts born from that ambiguity. Perhaps literature is more effective for conveying ideas than philosophical inquiries, which can be dry to some, in the same way that learning about a specific case of a greater problem (if, for example, you learned that your relative or neighbor had a disease) can be more meaningful and relevant than statistics about that same problem. Then again, maybe the distinction I am making between literature and philosophy is an unnecessarily divisive one (all such divisions of genre can fall victim to misunderstandings); I do believe that both philosophy 25

38 and literature seek truth and wisdom, albeit in different manners. But as Mario Vargas Llosa said, Only literature has the techniques and powers to distill this delicate elixir of life: the truth hidden in the heart of human lies. 1 I believe that this power comes from the poetic quality, from the compelling power and beauty of a character who is an instance of a specific problem or idea, who appeals to our emotions in lieu of a rational but dry argument conducted by the most wellintentioned philosophers (the advantage to a philosophical text is that one can tell what the author thinks, and a conclusion can be found within; but literature embraces and profits from the ambiguity of any path to the truth, while even the best philosophical texts can, by their very nature, be misconstrued as having found the answer in a manner final and certain). A good novel makes us believe that we truly understand a character, that we truly know who they are. It seems to me that truly knowing another person is at best extremely difficult, if not impossible, but a master of literature s expertise can bring us very close to knowing a character of their invention. Emerson once said that Every man I meet is in some way my superior ; in the same way, every character of a good novel can help us become better people, or learn more about the world. I began this section of the essay with an idea borrowed from a character from a novel, that each man and woman should be of use. Does John Irving believe, as his character Dr. Larch does, that each man and woman should be of use? If so, how does he rationalize being an author? Perhaps he doesn t. I can t say without a doubt what Mr. Irving believes, but I would wager that most artists believe utility is not the goal of art, nor should it be. Friedrich Schiller defends this viewpoint

39 articulately and appropriately poetically in his work On the Aesthetic Education of Man: Art must abandon actuality and soar with becoming boldness above necessity; for Art is a daughter of Freedom, and must receive her commission from the needs of spirits, not from the exigency of matter. But today Necessity is master, and bends a degraded humanity beneath its tyrannous yoke. Utility is the great idol of the age, to which all powers must do service and all talents swear allegiance. In these clumsy scales the spiritual service of Art has no weight; deprived of all encouragement, she flees from the noisy mart of our century. The very spirit of philosophical enquiry seizes one province after another from the imagination, and the frontiers of Art are contracted as the boundaries of science are enlarged. (Letter Two) The creation of art exercises our freedom to participate in beauty and spiritual activity; the realm of the imagination is beyond reason and utility. An artist shares his imagination with you. If you give a man a fish, he ll eat for a night, but if you teach a man to fish, he ll eat for a lifetime. One who finds pleasure and benefit in literature will find that exercising his own imagination will be even more rewarded. I will have to decide if I want to read other people s novels for the rest of my life, or contribute my own, for greater and more personal satisfaction. In the meantime, I ll keep working on this book the fact that I am including a creative section reflects this change in my mindset and perhaps I ll try NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, where would-be authors try to write a novel in a month) when November rolls around. I am hopelessly in love with literature, despite any misgivings I may have, and I cannot think of a better way to exercise and 27

40 demonstrate my devotion, to worship the art form than to write literature myself. I can only hope that whatever path I end up taking will be in accordance with Henry David Thoreau s appeal to philosophers, which, as we have seen, should apply as much to philosophers of the standard sense as followers of literature: To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically. I still have some doubt about literatures ability to comply with this appeal, particularly the last request. In this way, reading is an act of faith for me (an extremely pleasurable one!). Consider the following quote from W. Somerset Maugham s The Razor s Edge, about a more religious faith: "Our wise old church...has discovered that if you will act as if you believed belief will be given to you; if you pray with doubt, but pray with sincerity, your doubt will be dispelled; if you will surrender yourself to the beauty of that liturgy the power of which over the human spirit has been proved by the experience of the ages, peace will descend upon you." In the same way, I think that if I read and write fiction as if I believe in the sentiment expressed by Schiller; if I read and write fiction with doubt, but with sincerity, my doubt will be dispelled; if I surrender myself to the beauty of great literature the power of which over the human spirit has been proved by the experience of the ages, peace will descend upon me. Maybe this peace has already come to me at some 28

41 level, but I am just attempting to rationalize its onset in order to accept it. Writing this essay and articulating my doubt has been cathartic for me. I hope you will find it at least interesting, and at best similarly helpful. 29


43 Nadsat, Joyce, and Literary Genius D you pony nadsat horrorshow when you slooshy your droogies govoreeting it? All of the above words are taken from Nadsat, the slang vocabulary Anthony Burgess created for his novel A Clockwork Orange, which I just finished reading. A literal translation would be "Do you understand teen-speak well when you hear your friends speaking it?". Alex, the novel's narrator and anti-hero, speaks in Nadsat throughout the novel; its usage is a stylistic choice that both defines and distinguishes the novel. Such a choice creates a barrier between the book and the reader; the reader must assemble a running mental glossary of the terms based on context. If the reader is lucky enough to know some Russian or another Slavic language, they may be able to recognize the influence of Slavic languages on the dialect. But this barrier is not a difficult one: with a little patience, it is easy enough to understand what is going on. The words used are simple and predictable, meaning things like "hear" or "see" or "friend", and they are used frequently and consistently, so that the reader is not lost for long. Burgess' stylistic choice risks the reader's frustration, but it accomplishes so much in return for that small risk: the sound of the words informs the reader of Alex's psychotic mentality, of his obscene joy in violent acts. Today is "Bloomsday", an annual holiday on June 16th that celebrates James Joyce and his novel, Ulysses. Joyce is famous for taking the sort of risks that Burgess takes in A Clockwork Orange to extremes 31

44 with Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Unsurprisingly, Burgess admired Joyce s work, publishing several works of literary criticism, Joyce scholarship, and even an abridged version of the Wake. Here's a sentence from Finnegans Wake: A way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. Technically, this is two sentences: the word "the" is the final word in the novel, and "riverrun" is the first, making the novel into a circle where you can begin anywhere. Aside from the fact that this sentence creates the novel's circularity, it is from what little I ve poked through the book a typical sentence for Joyce, layered with wordplay and multiple meanings. Here's a gem from the Wikipedia article on the Wake, one that states simply one of the many reasons why the book is widely considered the most difficult book in English literature: "Critics disagree on whether or not discernible characters exist in Finnegans Wake." Most people that read Ulysses or Finnegans Wake read it in a college course, or in book clubs that read a few pages at a time, and often they need to buy another book which helps to decipher the meaning of the plot, symbolism, and wordplay. Intellectuals requiring Sparknotes: an absurd thought, but true. Joyce said that Critics who were most appreciative of Ulysses are complaining about my new work. They cannot understand it. Therefore they say it is meaningless. Now if it were meaningless it could be written quickly without thought, without pains, without erudition; but I 32