Difficult books & the death of reading


Philip Yancey worries about “the death of reading” in a recent Washington Post opinion piece; he says that even he, an inveterate reader and possessor of several thousand books, finds it harder than it once was to read for several hours each day. He feels distracted by modern technology’s urgency yet suggests reading–now more than ever–offers not just intellectual but neurological rewards:  “neuroscience proves…it actually takes less energy to focus intently than to zip from task to task. After an hour of contemplation, or deep reading, a person ends up less tired and less neurochemically depleted, thus more able to tackle mental challenges.” (Yancey does not cite the study, so I cannot do so; I think he picked this information up from Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows).

I find I still have time to read; but I am not a well-respected writer of books, articles, opinion columns, and blogs, nor am I asked to appear in public as a speaker very often. Yancey has a life that requires hours at a computer. My life contains less urgency from an audience, although my students–when classes are in session–certainly supply a sense of “prioritize me!” that can get distracting.

Most of us recognize that there are many forms of urgent distractions in our lives.

Anyway, I continue to apply myself to books.


My latest difficult book has a bit of family history. Royce on the Human Self was written by one of my father’s college professors, J. Harry Cotton, and published in 1955. Harry Cotton was a Presbyterian minister who later taught at Wabash College, where my father encountered him. My dad gave me this book a month ago, saying, “I thought you might be interested in this one. I came across it in my shelves and read it, thinking I’d never read it before. But apparently I had, because I see that I annotated it in the margins. And I hadn’t recalled that he inscribed it to me.” The human self must overlap with consciousness, so why not introduce myself to Royce, especially given the circumstances?

Josiah Royce is not a name I encountered in Philosophy coursework, even when I was studying William James’ work (it was undergraduate study, so we did not get to James’ correspondence with Royce and their disagreements over the Absolute; James & Royce were colleagues and very good friends).


My father notes the misspelling of his name by Dr. Cotton. I note the logic chart my father annotated above.

Royce’s philosophy was rather Hegelian–he studied in Göttingen–and he was a long-time proponent of “idealism” (defined in what strikes me as a rather phenomenologist way) based upon his rendering of what constitutes the Absolute. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, “In his later works, Royce reconceived his metaphysics as an ‘absolute pragmatism’ grounded in semiotics.” Royce moved from idealism into the possibility of objects, which took him for awhile on a symbolic logic train of thinking. He loses me a bit there, despite Dr. Cotton’s quite clearly-written summaries.

An intriguing aspect of the book, for me, is my then-22-year-old father’s marginalia. Sometimes, his notes–in handwriting that has hardly changed in 60 years–make a comment [“Royce denies a self-evident truth contra-Descartes”]. More often, there is a question, or some underlining, that suggests where his interests lay. I notice he seems to have skimmed over the “Logic as the Science of Order” chapter (that’s a section I found to be a bit of a slog myself).

I wonder whether the last chapter, which covers Royce’s late thinking on Christianity, the problem of evil, and salvation, would have made any sense to a person as young as my dad was in ’55. By the time Royce got to his most mature philosophical thinking on god and the human self, he was in his 50s and had experienced the loss of a young adult son to “madness” and typhoid. These are the sort of events that mature the thinking of a thinking and feeling human being such as Royce obviously was. In our early 20s, few of us have that kind of depth to our understanding of mortal, ethical, or spiritual issues.


Nevertheless–my father, influenced to some extent by his Uncle Raymond and by Harry Cotton–chose to go to graduate school in Theology. He may not recall whether Royce’s work on Salvation or Christianity had any bearing on his decision. But I wonder. I think of my dad–a classic extrovert, despite his prodigious reading habits–when I read the following words by Royce concerning the community and the relational aspect of the human self (in the Absolute, or in god, as referred to by the use of his in this quote):

And as the moments of my finite thought are to me when I reflect upon my own meaning and upon the relations of many moments of my life, so my neighbors and I are to the larger Self when, discoursing together about the same objects, we find ourselves as it were but moments in his inclusive unity.

All one. There are many philosophies and theologies that stress that premise.




Youthful narcissism

“It’s not all about you.”

zits004(Many thanks to those geniuses of the adolescent mind, Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman, creators of Zits.)


…Or is it? Psychologists, neurologists, and even philosophers seem to agree that human beings need to develop through the stage of self-centeredness in order to attain a mature sense of self-in-the-world. We do not recognize the world at large without finding a way to validate or maintain the self or consciousness that we are given.

One method of defining who that self is, what selfhood entails, is through dissent. The two-year-old who shouts “No!” establishes the foundation for the later process of expressing selfhood through making oneself distinct from others–sometimes through disagreement. As I guide my latest freshman class through the understanding of argument as reasoned discourse in an academic environment, one of my purposes is to encourage them to feel free to disagree as long as they can support their reasons for doing so. To accomplish that task, sometimes they have to learn how to “step back” from themselves a bit (see my last post).


Yeats: “We make of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”


I am aware that most of my students’ dissenting opinions will occur outside of the academic environment, i.e., in “real life.” Real life could benefit from a little more reasoned discussion and fewer overheated, intuition-based gut reactions and ad hoc attacks. Often what people (and students) need is what we desperately try to avoid: difficulties, complexities, challenges. Okay, I’m whistling into the wind…still, I’ve written about the topic briefly here.


…and maybe the narcissistic 18-year-olds who come to college subconsciously thinking “it’s all about me” are actually reasonable human beings whose developing conscious awareness of self is ready, (almost), to feel the push-back of the world against the whining ego and recognize that respect and understanding require wide perspectives and differing methods of operating in the world. Maybe they are ready to move beyond mere opinion and into the realm of thinking about thinking, analysis, generosity, compassion…and facts, if we can discern what’s factual.

Maybe they are ready to begin the quarrel with themselves.