Why read The Odyssey?

Stephen Mitchell, a translator of The Odyssey, on the imaginative world of the epic poem:

Reading “The Odyssey,” we enter a world infused by the imagination. Everything becomes fresh and new; familiar objects light up with an inner radiance, as if we were seeing the sky or smelling the grass for the first time. And we are always carried along by the steady yet constantly varying rhythms of the meter, which serves as a counterpoint to even the most horrific events, so that everything we read is lifted up into the realm of the beautiful.

On the central theme of going home:

“I know no place that is sweeter than my own country,” Odysseus says, and that is a feeling we can all recognize. The goddess Calypso even promises Odysseus eternal life, if only he will stay with her on her idyllic island and submit to a life of constant sex and unalloyed sensual pleasure. But he refuses her offer. He longs for his home and his wife more than he cares about immortality. This is not a case of nostalgia, which is a longing for a past that can never be and perhaps never has been, and therefore necessarily ends in disappointment. He is longing not for a past but for a future, in a place that is beloved beyond all others on earth or in heaven. Penelope, his wife, was 20 when he sailed for Troy; she is 40 now, and whether or not she has kept her physical beauty is beside the point. She is a woman, not a goddess, but she is the one he loves. Odysseus’s refusal of immortality is the most moving tribute that a marriage has ever received. It is like Adam’s refusal in “Paradise Lost”: when Eve offers him the fruit, Adam bites into it, fully aware of the consequences, because he loves her so deeply that he can’t bear to remain in Eden without her.

Why You Might Want to Read The Odyssey (Huffington Post)

On reading Kafka

Franz Kafka is a tough read. Of course that’s his intention. Consider this famous quotation from Kafka’s letter to Oskar Pollak in 1904:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we would write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.

While I would not choose all my reading based on this criteria, I do think we occasionally need to read those books that “wake us up with a blow on the head.” The poet W. H. Auden provides wise guidance on when one should read Kafka:

I am inclined to believe that one should only read Kafka when one is in a eupeptic state of physical and mental health and, in consequence, tempted to dismiss any scrupulous heart-searching as a morbid fuss. When one is in low spirits, one should probably keep away from him, for, unless introspection is accompanied, as it always was in Kafka, by an equal passion for the good life, it all too easily degenerates into spineless narcissistic fascination with one’s own sin and weakness.

Quotations about Franz Kafka

A reviewer remarked recently that Kafka was in danger of becoming the idol of a clique; this would be a pity indeed, for there is no modern writer who stands so firmly and directly in the European tradition, none less romantic and eccentric. Had one to name the artist who comes nearest to bearing the same kind of relation to our age that Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe bore to theirs, Kafka is the first one would think of.
—W. H. Auden, “The Wandering Jew

The distinction Kafka, or his heroes, draw between this world and the world does not imply that there are two different worlds, only that our habitual conceptions of reality are not the true conception.
—W. H. Auden

Fantasy, for Kafka even more than for most writers of fiction, was the way out of his skin, so he could get back in. He felt, as it were, abashed before the fact of his own existence, “amateurish” in that this had never been quite expressed before. So singular, he spoke for millions in their new unease; a century after his birth, he seems the last holy writer, and the supreme fabulist of modern man’s cosmic predicament.
—John Updike, Foreword to Franz Kafka’s The Complete Stories (Schocken)

Kafka’s survey of the insectile situation of young Jews in inner Bohemia can hardly be improved upon: “With their posterior legs they were still glued to their father’s Jewishness and with their wavering anterior legs they found no new ground.” There is a sense in which Kafka’s Jewish question (“What have I in common with Jews?”) has become everybody’s question, Jewish alienation the template for all our doubts. What is Muslimness? What is femaleness? What is Polishness? These days we all find our anterior legs flailing before us. We’re all insects, all Ungeziefer, now.
—Zadie Smith

Kafka engaged in no technical experiments whatsoever; without in any way changing the German language, he stripped it of its involved constructions until it became clear and simple, like everyday speech purified of slang and negligence. The common experience of Kafka’s readers is one of general and vague fascination, even in stories they fail to understand, a precise recollection of strange and seemingly absurd images and descriptions—until one day the hidden meaning reveals itself to them with the sudden evidence of a truth simple and incontestable.
—Hannah Arendt

Becoming someone else that you were not in the beginning

In a 1982 interview, French philosopher Michel Foucault remarked:

I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to becoming someone else that you were not in the beginning. If you knew when you began a book what you would say at the end, do you think you would have the courage to write it? What is true for writing and for a love relationship is true also for life. The game is worthwhile insofar as we don’t know where it will end.

On the Internet and deep reading

Nicholas Carr:

Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the gifted young men who founded Google while pursuing doctoral degrees in computer science at Stanford, speak frequently of their desire to turn their search engine into an artificial intelligence, a HAL-like machine that might be connected directly to our brains. “The ultimate search engine is something as smart as people—or smarter,” Page said in a speech a few years back. “For us, working on search is a way to work on artificial intelligence.” In a 2004 interview with Newsweek, Brin said, “Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.” Last year, Page told a convention of scientists that Google is “really trying to build artificial intelligence and to do it on a large scale.”

Such an ambition is a natural one, even an admirable one, for a pair of math whizzes with vast quantities of cash at their disposal and a small army of computer scientists in their employ. A fundamentally scientific enterprise, Google is motivated by a desire to use technology, in Eric Schmidt’s words, “to solve problems that have never been solved before,” and artificial intelligence is the hardest problem out there. Why wouldn’t Brin and Page want to be the ones to crack it?

Still, their easy assumption that we’d all “be better off” if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial intelligence is unsettling. It suggests a belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized. In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.

The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link—the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.

Maybe I’m just a worrywart. Just as there’s a tendency to glorify technological progress, there’s a countertendency to expect the worst of every new tool or machine. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates bemoaned the development of writing. He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue’s characters, “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.” And because they would be able to “receive a quantity of information without proper instruction,” they would “be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.” They would be “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.” Socrates wasn’t wrong—the new technology did often have the effects he feared—but he was shortsighted. He couldn’t foresee the many ways that writing and reading would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge (if not wisdom).

The arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press, in the 15th century, set off another round of teeth gnashing. The Italian humanist Hieronimo Squarciafico worried that the easy availability of books would lead to intellectual laziness, making men “less studious” and weakening their minds. Others argued that cheaply printed books and broadsheets would undermine religious authority, demean the work of scholars and scribes, and spread sedition and debauchery. As New York University professor Clay Shirky notes, “Most of the arguments made against the printing press were correct, even prescient.” But, again, the doomsayers were unable to imagine the myriad blessings that the printed word would deliver.

So, yes, you should be skeptical of my skepticism. Perhaps those who dismiss critics of the Internet as Luddites or nostalgists will be proved correct, and from our hyperactive, data-stoked minds will spring a golden age of intellectual discovery and universal wisdom. Then again, the Net isn’t the alphabet, and although it may replace the printing press, it produces something altogether different. The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.

If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with “content,” we will sacrifice something important not only in our selves but in our culture. In a recent essay, the playwright Richard Foreman  eloquently described what’s at stake:

I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self—evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available.”

As we are drained of our “inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance,” Foreman concluded, we risk turning into “‘pancake people’—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”

Is Google Making Us Stupid? The Atlantic