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?
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .
It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .
Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .
It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has. . .
Jorge Eduardo Benavides’ novel La paz de los vencidos (The Peace of the Defeated) takes the form of a diary written by a nameless Peruvian thirty-something intellectual slumming it in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. Recently relocated. . .
Anyone with any interest at all in contemporary Moroccan writing must start with Souffles. A cultural and political journal, Souffles (the French word for “breaths”) was founded in 1966 by Abdellatif Laâbi and Mostafa Nissabouri. Run by a group of. . .
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .