Quotes

Reading gains and losses

One thing that changed pretty dramatically is that the visual cortex, the part of our brain that processes our vision, became dedicated to deciphering text. [...]

As we practice that, more and more neurons get dedicated to reading. Eventually, you no longer have to decipher a particular letter or even a particular word because our brains represent those letters and words — it’s automatic. So we got all the benefits that come with being good readers, whether it’s the value of losing yourself in a novel or the value of gaining complex information from some sophisticated nonfiction book.

But we also lost something. One thing we lost is a lot of our visual acuity in reading nature and reading the world. If you look at older cultures that aren’t text-based, you see incredible abilities to, for instance, navigate by all sorts of natural signs. This acuity in reading the world, which also requires a lot of the visual cortex, we lost some of that simply because we had to reprogram our brain to become good readers.



Read promiscuously

To read promiscuously is to comprehend the caresses of one work in the arms of another—and the promiscuous reader is a pedagogue par excellence. How should we read? We would read as gourmands eat, gobbling down huge gobbets of text. No one told me not to pivot abruptly from Valley of the Dolls to The Brothers Karamazov—so I did; anymore than they warned me not to intersperse passages of Fanny Hill with those written by Frantz Fanon—so I did that, too. By reading indiscriminately, I learned to discriminate—and learned also to comprehend: for it’s only with the acquisition of large data sets that we also develop schemas supple enough to interpret new material.



Primed for distraction

The suggestion that, in a few generations, our experience of media will be reinvented shouldn't surprise us. We should, instead, marvel at the fact we ever read books at all. Great researchers such as Maryanne Wolf and Alison Gopnik remind us that the human brain was never designed to read. Rather, elements of the visual cortex – which evolved for other purposes – were hijacked in order to pull off the trick. The deep reading that a novel demands doesn't come easy and it was never "natural." Our default state is, if anything, one of distractedness. The gaze shifts, the attention flits; we scour the environment for clues. (Otherwise, that predator in the shadows might eat us.) How primed are we for distraction? One famous study found humans would rather give themselves electric shocks than sit alone with their thoughts for 10 minutes. We disobey those instincts every time we get lost in a book.



Ordinary superpower

Draw ten five minute cats. Use a timer. Don’t stop. In less than an hour you will get to know some cat that starts showing up under your brush. No by willful effort, but by some sort of being together over a period of time. A drawing of a cat can be that, a being together with the image you make of the cat and then five minutes later you can draw the same cat to see what it is up to. Maybe it’s in the same position, maybe it has gone to sleep. But I like to imagine this place where the cat is being itself and I can somehow pull up pictures from that place onto the paper. It becomes a kind of conjuring. And ordinary superpower.



Off to the reading state

The heightened state brought on by a book—in which one is “actively present at every moment, scripting and constructing”—is what readers seek, Birkerts argues: “They want plot and character, sure, but what they really want is a vehicle that will bear them off to the reading state.”



Nietzsche’s typewriter

...the [typewriter] had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.”

“You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler , Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”



Myrmecologist quote

The Finnish myrmecologist Rainer Rosengren showed that when the ants emerge in the spring, an older ant goes out with a young one along the older ant’s habitual trail. The older ant dies and the younger ant adopts that trail as its own, thus leading the colony to remember, or reproduce, the previous year’s trails.



Mortal turkey combat

While residents have to work together to hunt salmon, salmon don’t fight back. For the transients, Hafey said, every meal is a potential death match: “It’s as if every time you opened the fridge you had to have mortal combat with a turkey to get a sandwich.”

[...] residents and transients have lived separate lives for at least a quarter-million years. They generally do their best to avoid each other, and they don’t even speak the same language—the patterns and sounds they use to communicate are completely different. Over time, each type has established cultural traditions that are passed from generation to generation. While transients’ small groups enable them to hunt more quietly and effectively, residents’ large extended families allow them to work together to locate and forage for fish. Biology isn’t destiny, but for orcas, food sources might be.



Mort Drucker’s chicken fat

...Drucker’s art partakes in the most venerable MAD tradition of all: the “chicken fat” aesthetic, the stuffing of panels with sight gags and visual digressions pioneered by Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder (and defined by Elder as the inessential “parts of the strip that gave it more flavor,” as chicken fat gave more flavor to his mother’s soup, “but did very little to advance the storyline”).





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