Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Category: personal (page 1 of 27)

Reflections on Close Reading

for Laura Garofalo. With thanks to Ricky McAlister & Nathaniel Cochran

1. blah blah blah close reading will change your life you’ll get a real education you’ll think independently you’ll feel like the past is with you always you’ll be stronger and smarter and you’ll know god and morality better as well as the limits of science blah blah blah BLAH BLAH

The humanities are all but dead in our world. This all of us know, as they can never be dead enough. They’re a convenient scapegoat for calling others impractical and deflecting the words “greedy,” “asshole,” or “unimaginative tool,” words that normally stick to the guy saying we throw too much money as a society into the liberal arts. Just point at someone who majored in English and everyone can have a good laugh, as they can’t even get that job at McDonald’s nowadays. Apparently the ultimate sign of our decadence isn’t the money we waste on phones or cars, but time spent reading poetry.

It’s easy to see that something else exists beyond making money, getting the trains to run on time, advancing technology. The problem is creating a positive case for the humanities without talking about that “something else” as the sum total of the universe or human freedom or divine perfection. I know what I like about close reading; Nathaniel, via Nietzsche, really hits the mark for me. His brief comment talks about the back and forth of wondering why any words were written at all. For me, this translates into taking books one line at a time, stopping, talking, talking through each one.

Still, Ricky didn’t hesitate to mention books that mattered to him centering on important themes, whether they portray a world completely throwing books away, or consider what freedom and dignity mean in a world which relishes making people slaves. No one would read if they didn’t get anything out of it, and focusing too much on close reading itself forgets that we tend to be selective about what we read.

I guess what I’m learning through close reading is how to convey the import of things, how to take seriously things I wouldn’t normally think through and communicate them to others. No wonder so much moralizing accompanies careful readers. Even if the humanities weren’t under assault, it’s impossible not to treat a discovery in a book as a revelation. At the very least, you’re stumbling upon someone’s concern; simply by being a discovery it becomes central to you. Shouldn’t it be shared, proclaimed to the world?

I think so, but I also think that points less to the humanities as transformative and more to them as necessary. They are foundational. They’re about how and that we talk to each other. To take one not-so-trivial example: if we can’t engage the past seriously, we will more than likely use some romantic notion of it or rejection of it to hurt others. While the humanities can certainly be about the trivial and encourage a lack of productivity, they have more to do with this “freedom” and “morality” thing than most people today assume. Typically, the ones telling us that reading or formal schooling are wastes of time have a very specific and very mindless agenda.

2. I need to say something about close reading itself. I was asked. This was not prompted by books with titles like “How to Read like a Professor.” No, I’ve been making my notes public for 7-8 years now as I read. Some people actually care and are wondering how this works or doesn’t work.

For myself, it has taken years to learn how to read, and there is this strike against the state of the humanities nowadays. When I miss a detail, it feels like I don’t know how to read at all. Same goes for writing badly. How could I possibly write a bad sentence, given that I work on my writing all the time?

The humanities, as they stand, are far too small, far too exclusive. This is not to excuse my failures, which are legion and well documented in a number of incomprehensible posts on this blog. It is to say that the whole point of the humanities is that we should be working together to make sure more opinions are more thoughtfully expressed, read, and promoted. Instead, the whole culture has become a snobfest, a way for some professors to play pundit and shirk the real duty of educating the body politic. To do their real duty would involve making mistakes publicly and taking the risks that accompany having an important part of the truth and believing one’s profession worthwhile. The ultimate risk seems to be admitting one is wrong and someone else is better. It’s very rare I see people graciously recommend others.

With that in mind, I propose two simple rules for those who want to close read. They are:

  1. “Why is this being said?”
  2. It is far more important and valuable to come up with a serious question or insight about a part of a work than have the whole figured out.

All of you will recognize that 1 is the sum total of close reading. Regarding literature, one posits an internal speaker and internal audience for a given work in order to treat it as a self-contained world. In other words: all the fancy attempts at using a method to read are about finding intention and relevance from another point of view. We are working to be informed, and trying not imposing our assumptions.

2 is much more controversial. Leo Strauss has been an invaluable guide for me, showing me how to think carefully about texts. Strauss is always attentive to the whole, and I always work to get an interpretation that takes it seriously. And I do think good readers will show some respect for the whole no matter what.

But one of the reasons why the humanities is in crisis is that its exclusivity demands too much from thoughtful, serious people who have better things to do than close read thousand page books all the time. A lot of people who don’t really know as much as they should read too much, too fast. Or they close read to absurd degrees, not bothering to ask whether they have good questions or not, or whether one insight may have more weight than another.

I want more people to dare to be wrong. We’ve got too many right answers: everyone knows everything. The best way to get people to be wrong in the right way is to get them talking about what speaks to them, to let themselves find a path where they can discover why the whole text ultimately matters.

I’m putting my money where my mouth is. You’ll notice that my approach to poems is more personal than it has been previously, focusing on the dramatic action of a given poem and considering various ways in which a thing could be said. I want stanzas and lines to sing; I want people to feel the relevance of certain questions or ideas. My gamble is that the twists and turns those questions and ideas take later in the poem are twists and turns others will want to follow. It’s a gamble I know is worth taking. For a while, I thought I was talking to myself.


I need to toughen myself against criticism and at the same time be more flexible.

It’s a ridiculous demand, but it can be accomplished by realizing that a number of people only know to pull others down. I think what’s hitting like a truck is knowing that some of those people are taking from me personally and still looking to put me down. That there are people who really believe that other people are meant to be suckers or deserve to be bullied.

It’s enough to make you not trust anyone. It does have the benefit of making one less comfortable, more focused on what has to be done. It can make me stronger. But you know what? I liked being happy – and maybe a bit ignorant – before.


You want things reported to you, so you make it as painful as possible for the messenger.

Good job, world. Really good job. Doing what is right is thankless. Part of me is grateful for that, ironically enough.


The sun beats down upon the ground and every step in the thick air feels forced. These days there are many musings. Sometimes a stray cloud looks out of place against a steeled blue.

Was thinking of that warmth she had, displayed in otherwise routine moments. How she brightened when others talked, encouraging them to say more and be received. How she talked to me like I wasn’t a stranger. Suffice to say I wasn’t mature enough to see what was in front of me.

There are a few others like her I’ve known. One was gone before I could even blink, another is in a delicate situation, yet another has obligations which take precedence over any time I could spend with her. I’ve been beating myself up recently over not appreciating her enough when I was younger. Wondering if I’m doing enough for them, for others.

I somehow suspect I’m not doing enough to keep up with everyone, that I’m taking a certain kind of loveliness for granted. What made her stand out, I believe now, was how the world seemed familial to her. Not a possession, not a place she had to prove herself, but an opportunity to show appreciation to others for simply being there.

Again, that’s just an impression. I’m purposely waxing romantic to understand why I’ve been feeling guilty the last week or so. Independent of any exaggeration on my part – I will say that if you meet the people I’m describing, you’ll be as impressed if not more so – I think the reason for the guilt is the following. Not that I’m not paying attention to those who have her gift, as I certainly have been. More that the world seems so selfish, that there is pressure to be ever more selfish, and it is just incredible to see some who look like they’re focused on another good entirely.


I’ll probably always be nervous, bad in front of authority or crowds. That’s fine. On the one hand, I need my work to speak for itself – still dissertating, still editing this blog, still thinking about/working on future projects. Writing can speak for me when I’m apt to freeze up and not speak for myself well.

On the other hand, I need to get a routine in place so some of the nerves subside. Taking suggestions. I think a deep breath and saying to myself “start slowly” might work well. I don’t need to say the first thing and dominate a conversation, proving a theory of the cosmos. I just need to get that conversation started and make it enjoyable for all involved.

Dan Crane, “Magazine Ready, Except the Marriage”

Dan Crane, “Magazine Ready, Except the Marriage”

The author shares a painful chapter in his life. He married a girl he met while competing in air guitar. She was considerably younger than him. He confesses they weren’t very “adult” about things, but at one point they bought a house that required major renovation. He ended up working a considerable amount on the house. The marriage fell apart because the responsibility of home ownership weighed on her; a house entails things that remind of other commitments and ways of living. The author finished work on the house, making major design decisions that made it his home, and ends his reflection with this: “I never pictured myself living alone at 41, but then again, I also never imagined I would have the vision or the ability to transform a fixer-upper into a home, handling almost all of the decision-making on my own. I was a divorced homeowner. An adult.”

There are a number of things to wonder about in this article. Not just on the narrow level, say, of what people who compete in air guitar are like or what it means to marry someone much younger. Those details aren’t really my concern and I don’t want them to be a concern. Mr. Crane shared his experience and I want to leave his own story alone as much as possible. And then there’s too large a level to wonder about. One could talk about how everyone wants celebrity, how this creates childish goals, how things like “faithfulness” become less important than not being bored. It’s too large a level because it doesn’t get at the root of what’s actually being discussed. We see a failure where there was actually a couple trying.

The key experience related is all too personal, but involves some of the larger level. A house means lots of decisions with consequences one has to live with. The competitive world of air guitar and being in lots of bands, for the author, not so much. To fix the house to make it liveable, to do so in a marriage for two as well as under the pain of a recent divorce for one, is the experience of life itself without any other trappings. I think the author gets at this in his conclusion – “I was a divorced homeowner” – but I’m not sure the full import is always clear in the piece.

To be blunt: as crazy as air guitar and age differences can be, they are not the constraint on growing up. Nor is buying a home and working on it an invitation to become an adult. Lord knows there are plenty of people throwing babyish tantrums and acting like perpetual 5 year olds who obsess over their houses. And even thinking a house a responsibility, a duty isn’t necessarily mature. That can actually just be fear and another form of childishness.

I don’t know if this is right, but it’s what strikes me right now from reading Mr. Crane’s piece. Something about maturity is about recognizing what you’re doing and what you’re avoiding. To live well, to provide for yourself and others, you need a number of goods but also need to be able to close some options. One can’t take care of everyone, for example – thus, the concept of a household. Part of closing some options and getting a number of goods is having something one can take pride in, use for fun, and gain materially from. What was unexpected regarding home ownership might have been confronted in something far more ridiculous and silly, with “responsible” choices still being avoided.

After all, some people get paid a lot of money to play silly games and we still cheer them on, invested in their story. Decisions are secondary to wanting to be somebody. I suspect the problem with trying for things like celebrity is that we feel fame and fortune is a panacea where we don’t have to think. Each step where we try for more of both can be a drug we see the same as accomplishment. We don’t really bother to build ourselves or others. Not home ownership but the mundaneness of home ownership may be crucial in a world where people would rather be on Maury fighting over paternity than reading picture books in the library.

On the pain of not being wanted

Dear Madeline:

It is easy to say there are those who only want to be loved and have an imprudent and insatiable appetite. I remember one time in classical literature one of the worst tyrants working to establish his glory to be that much more attractive to a beloved.

There’s a pain from not being wanted we may be sorely tempted to dismiss as failure to feed our ego. We want to get rid of this pain by saying it drives those who cannot live without being showered with love and attention. We’re not them; our culture’s emphasis on popularity has only made us think we should be like them; stop wanting to belong and we’ll find our happiness.

Yeah, right.

I don’t think the solution is as simple as love versus pride, or even love versus pride with both being problematic. There is no ideal way to feel rejected. Recently I was treated like dirt by 4 women. I wasn’t remotely interested in any of them, but they seemed to think I was growing a second head or something. Each of them was going through a tough time; that they treated me badly was understandable, if not excusable. And yet I couldn’t shake the sting.

It took me a little while to remember that 1) I know how to deal with people and 2) I know what I want out of life. It took me a little while to remember that only part of being better at being social is having a thicker skin (i.e. dealing with the million and one trolls I’ve dealt with online). The other part is developing a sensitivity to others. That sensitivity won’t engage if the other people reject me right off the bat. But the 4 women with whom I had dealt knew quite a bit about me. The very skill of working with others better contains the trap that one has to get hurt in certain situations. One has to establish something at stake, be vulnerable in some way, in order to get something more out of social interactions.

It is true that some in love will obsess incessantly about persuading someone to love them. They’ll think that because they’re hanging on every detail, creating a vision of a couple, their beloved will see a detail, then their vision or construct, their something at stake, their vulnerability, and love accordingly. That peculiar kind of insanity, where one in thinking the beloved will see as one sees is actually making the beloved another version of himself, is not particular to romantic love. There’s a part of it that’s necessary for friendship. You have to hope someone wants to see as you see, at least for a moment.

From my experience, people nowadays are terrible at making friends. I have story after story where the ability to tell the difference between “people I hang out with” and “people I trust and admire” is nonexistent. What you’re hoping for, in love and friendship, is a little bit of imitation. Not just of you, but what you stand for, what you think is lovely or best. Our emphasis on survival, getting by or getting stuff annihilates the possibility of taking that risk.

So kudos to you, Madeline. You do take that sort of risk. You definitely do stand for something. A ton of people want to befriend you, but even better is how many compliments you give out, how many people you’re excited to meet. As long as you’re excited about others, you’ll be a bit vulnerable, but it is a weakness from a strength. I daresay it is a blessed thing, divine not only in the goods you receive that complement your character. The greatest curses seem to arise when we won’t see what’s right in front of us, when what we’ve taken for granted is gone.


Quick Note: Published a Review of Michel Serres’ “Biogea” in Zeteo

If you’re short on time, Part II is what I’m thinking about at the moment. The talk about science and religion isn’t about getting a firm conclusion, but about getting a grasp on what Serres implies and seeing where his ideas take us.

See if you like: Review of “Biogea,” by Michel Serres

Yes, it’s the birthday. No, I don’t have plans yet. Yes, that will change.

I owe a lot of people on facebook messages – I’m getting an awful lot of “Happy Birthday” greetings there from some incredible people.

Right now I just want some coffee and I want to go outside. It is 70 degrees.

Some of you may have seen this, but it did indeed start my weekend the right way:

When I first started coaching, one of the worst things that I think I heard was “It will be O.K.” I would wonder, How the hell is it going to be O.K.? The worst word in the English language is “hope.”

That’s Bob Knight everyone. I don’t think any other comments are necessary.

Thank you all in advance. The thoughts are appreciated.

In Which I Talk About “Little Things” and Mimic a Bad Evangelical Speaker

Sometimes I want to write and see immediate change. Type in “better microwave” and all of a sudden the microwave has more cooking power. Or scribble something in my journal about that red-haired girl and actually have a date Valentine’s Day.

I got up this morning thinking that I have to learn to take “getting there” in stride, that I have to enjoy not being there yet. It isn’t just that plenty of people get successful and have no idea what to do with themselves. There’s something deeper about the myriad injustices you don’t see because you’re in a position of relative success. From my vantage point, I see a million and one failures and problems. I’m hardly cynical. Each of them could be remedied or alleviated and give some slight advantage or happiness to someone that wasn’t available before. One doesn’t need to tackle an entire system’s corruption all at once. A lot of good can be had through really little things that seem really stupid.

It sounds like hippie nonsense, I know. I don’t even know my younger self would laugh at me, because this might be a naivete I’ve had all along. At the same time, it occurred to me that one criterion for when you know everything is busted is actually the stupid little things.

This is very counterintuitive. Don’t get me wrong, the big things do matter: if there’s no difference between a president and a tyrant, then yes, there are repercussions that affect everyone whether they like it or not. And yes, there are certain markets – for example, for lawyers and academics – where the possibilities of getting long-term success are so remote that one might as well give up before trying.

And yet, that’s why the little things matter so much. The big things matter, but they’re never guaranteed. The greats fail far more than they succeed. What keeps them going? We’ve got all these business gurus focusing on what an individual can do to keep going and maximize the possibility of success.

But anything worth doing – especially when one has to change the rules the game is played with – requires those “little things,” the times people show trust and attention and hope in whatever it is you’re trying to do. Those times people show a willingness to change or bend a rule or disagree with some norm, those times they want to invest.

What stunned me when thinking through the issue is how we have an individualism that doesn’t at all complement how enterprise or activism actually work. We want to do things and that requires us to be far more social than we are, perhaps far more involved with each other. It requires a tremendous amount of giving support and believing that each of us makes the world better. Yet we’ve got a bunch of notions from “leave me alone” to “look at that CEO. He used the money he made from cutting all those workers to get his son into Yale. Good for him!” that just don’t fit. I don’t think this is because we have such a debased notion of individual freedom: we do need to be left alone at times, we do need to do some things that are obviously advantageous for us. I think it’s mainly because we want success so badly that we want to feel it in every little thing we do. Unfortunately, that leads to forgetting what success really looks like.

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