Along with a few other independent booksellers and librarians, Karl Pohrt—owner of the amazing Shaman Drum Bookshop to China to attend the Beijing Book Fair, and give this speech on independent bookselling in America.
Additionally, he’s wrote a daily blog about the trip, which can be found in its entirety here.
Karl’s back in the States now, but has a couple of thoughts about the trip that are definitely worth sharing.
Postscript to China Report #2: Deep Literacy
for Paul Yamazaki, Lawrence Ferlinghetti & City Lights Bookstore
I ended my presentation in Beijing with this appeal to our bookseller comrades:
The social, political and ecological issues we all face are absolutely daunting, and we need a literate citizenry with attention spans long enough to honor the complexity and subtlety of these problems. I first heard the phrase deep literacy from my friend Paul Yamazaki, and I believe this is where we begin to solve our problems—with a commitment to deep literacy.
The first question someone asked me following the talk was: “What do you mean by ‘deep literacy’? How can we do that?” I mumbled something to the effect that this wasn’t meant to be programmatic, that the phrase “deep literacy” is richly suggestive.
It was clear to me that my answer wasn’t going to get me a pass with this audience, so I briefly talked about the medieval monastic tradition of Lectio Divina, of reading as a kind of prayer or meditation, but given the baffled looks I was getting, I don’t think this was a satisfactory explanation. Either that or what I was saying wasn’t getting translated into anything that made sense in Chinese.
So I wanted to offer some reflections on the topic of deep literacy in the hopes that maybe we could get a conversation going about this. Maybe we could figure out how to reverse the direction we seem to be headed in, buck the historical trend. Maybe we could start something.
Some synonyms for Deep are complex, focused, discerning, resonant. The opposite of Deep is shallow, trivial, diluted, light.
When we think about Literacy, I believe we tend to think in terms of two stages: Illiterate (stage 1) until we become literate when we learn to read at age 6 (stage 2). This is an impoverished view of a lifelong process.
Here are some books and an essay I’ve come across that I think are particularly interesting:
Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolf (HarperCollins). Ms. Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts, has synthesized a vast amount of information in this wonderful book about the complex processes that make up literacy. She never loses sight of the miraculous gift of reading.
In the Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary to Hugh’s Didascalicon, Ivan Illich (University of Chicago Press). In 1128 Hugh of St. Victor wrote a guide to the art of reading, which he saw as a moral activity that would result in enlightening the heart and mind. Illich argues that Hugh inaugurated the culture of bookishness from which we have now exited for a new social reality—the culture of the screen. This is a learned, clear and brilliant book.
Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina, Michael Casey (Liguori/Triumph). Casey, a Cistercian monk firmly grounded in Benedictine monasticism, has written “a book of instruction” for the practice of sacred reading. Written for a lay religious audience, it is particularly helpful in discussing the difficulties practitioners may encounter in this meditative tradition.
Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, Eugene H. Peterson (Eerdmans). Peterson writes personally and his tone is pastoral. The title comes from a strange and interesting metaphor in Revelations (10:9-10):
I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll; and he said to me, “Take it, and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.” And I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach was made bitter.
A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love, Alan Jacobs (Westview). Jacobs, an English professor and Auden scholar, has written a smart book about what it means to read charitably. He is very well read—from Aristotle and Augustine to Bakhtin and Ricoeur—and his book is a joy to read.
The Seventy Faces of Torah: The Jewish Way of Reading the Sacred Scriptures, Stephen M. Wylen (Paulist Press). Despite Wylen’s linkage of Jewish critical methods of reading Torah with contemporary Deconstruction theory, this is largely a historical description of traditional Jewish interpretive readings of the scriptures. It is a clearly written explication of a complicated subject.
Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God, Simone Weil, Waiting for God (HarperCollins). In this nine page essay Weil argues that the point of reading (in fact, all school studies) is to develop our powers of concentration for prayer. She moves beyond the efficaciousness of religious texts to an over-the-top inclusiveness—all reading…”thought of in this way is like a sacrament.”
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I’m interested in what you’ve read that you would recommend.
You have undoubtedly noticed that most of these books articulate religious ideas about reading. Judaism and Christianity are both scriptural religions after all, and—speaking personally—it is clear to me that my childhood religious education profoundly shaped my ideas about books. I attended a small Presbyterian church when I was young, and I grew up believing there was a book—the Bible—that explained the mysteries of the world. I fell away from the church, but I continued to believe that there was a book out there somewhere that broke the world open for lucky readers.
The books and essay I mention that use religious understandings of reading are all essential, but maybe the God talk unnecessarily complicates what are some fairly simple propositions:
Reading is an experience—a process really—that changes and deepens as we age.
During a publisher luncheon a few years ago, Christopher Hitchens told me that he thought you have to be of a certain age to read Proust. He’s right. There are books that were closed to me in my 20s, 30s and 40s that have opened now. I find this is one of the consolations of growing older.
We can increase the quality of attention we bring to reading with practice.
In this way, becoming a sophisticated reader is like getting good at sports or learning how to throw a pot.
Perhaps these points are banal and obvious. These are the same things, after all, that I was taught when I was six years old by the librarian at Civic Park Elementary School in Flint, Michigan in the 1950s. But they are worth repeating.
This is a photograph my wife Dianne took in 1992 at the Tikse Gompa, a Buddhist monastery in Ladakh. Note the monk’s intensity. He is reading a Buddhist sutra out loud (just as we’re told Christian monks did in the Middle Ages) from a book whose individual pages are each a single block print of text. This is pre-Guttenberg.
In this religious tradition, monastics go through a long period of preparation before they are allowed to see a religious text, and then they commit it to memory.
What is the difference between the reading experience of this monk and the way you read?
Finally, I want to call your attention to Single-Minded Way, a teisho by the Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Substitute “read” for “cook” in the following:
To cook . . . is not preparation, according to Dogen; it is practice. To cook is not just to prepare food for someone or for yourself; it is to express your sincerity. So when you cook you should express yourself in your activity in the kitchen. You should allow yourself plenty of time; you should work on it with nothing in your mind, and without expecting anything. You should just cook! That is also an expression of our sincerity, a part of our practice.
I’m particularly intrigued by the word sincerity here. Isn’t sincerity an odd but appropriate word to use in this context?
Pedro Zarraluki’s The History of Silence (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García) begins with the narrator and his wife, Irene, setting out to write a book about silence, itself called The History of Silence: “This is the story of how. . .
There are plenty of reasons you can fail to find the rhythm of a book. Sometimes it’s a matter of discarding initial assumptions or impressions, sometimes of resetting oneself. Zigmunds Skujiņš’s Flesh-Coloured Dominoes was a defining experience in the necessity. . .
In a culture that privileges prose, reviewing poetry is fairly pointless. And I’ve long since stopped caring about what the world reads and dropped the crusade to get Americans to read more poems. Part of the fault, as I’ve suggested. . .
I would like to pose the argument that it is rare for one to ever come across a truly passive protagonist in a novel. The protagonist (perhaps) of Three Light-Years, Claudio Viberti, is just that—a shy internist who lives in. . .
The last five days of the eleventh-century Icelandic politician, writer of sagas, and famous murder victim Snorri Sturleleson (the Norwegian spelling, Snorre, is preserved in the book) make up Thorvald Steen’s most recently translated historical fiction, The Little Horse. Murdered. . .
We all know Paris, or at least we think we know it. The Eiffel Tower. The Latin Quarter. The Champs-Élysées. The touristy stuff. In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying. . .
One hundred pages into Birth of a Bridge, the prize-winning novel from French writer Maylis de Kerangal, the narrator describes how starting in November, birds come to nest in the wetlands of the fictional city of Coca, California, for three. . .
At 30, the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli is already gathering her rosebuds. Faces in the Crowd, her poised debut novel, was published by Coffee House Press, along with her Brodsky-infused essay collection, Sidewalks. The essays stand as a theoretical map. . .
Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia (narrated by Julio Cortázar) is, not disappointingly, as wild a book as its title suggests. It is a half-novella half-graphic novel story about . . . what, exactly? A European tribunal, Latin. . .
Marie NDiaye has created a tiny, psychological masterpiece with her Self-Portrait in Green. In it she explores how our private fears and insecurities can distort what we believe to be real and can cause us to sabotage our intimate relationships.. . .