November 20, 2015

On Libraries

The Place of a Library
If you think that a library is merely a place to store and share books then you've settled on the wrong word. The word you're looking for is "book warehouse." A library is a space to use and a place to be, in short, a reader. It takes more than a stack of books to accomplish this. It takes a special kind of place designed and maintained with purpose. It takes a library in the fullest sense of the word.

One thing I need in a library is ambiance. Living in Belgium has made me appreciate the style of American libraries. Here in Belgium, libraries tend to be massive closets filled with thousands of books. There are large tables for groups of people to sit around. Reading at a library table here makes me feel like a cow feeding at a trough with hundreds of other cattle jostling for a place to feed. Then there's the decoration and lighting: if it had a little more warmth it would have the charm of an operating room.

In contrast, the kind of library I love is an idyllic example of easy, quiet ambiance. Warm lighting, comfortable reading chairs, and personal desks secreted away into cornersa labyrinthine design goes a long way. The decorative style of a library should cultivate a relaxed, intellectual mood through tacit cues and subtly impressed symbols. Personally I like maps and classic physical models, small geological or biological exhibitshints of a museum. What is perhaps most important to me is that I can easily find a nook to myself.

But a library is not just a solitary place, any more then reading is a solitary activity. Libraries are first and foremost interpersonal and communitarian. I can construct a study at home, but I need other people to make a library. Even the atmosphere is improved with other people around. A library connects people with each other, but it also connects a local community with the world at large. It brings the knowledge of the world to a single place, but it can also exhibit the relationship that a place has to the rest of the world. Still more, it provides a place to exhibit local knowledge including the history, ecology, and artistic culture of a community. True learning begins at home, or as we've said since Classical Greece: know thyself. Everything about a library from it's architecture, decoration, and design can explore a local place and its relationship to the entire world of knowledge.

Doubtless it's been the growth of the internetebooks and Wikipediathat's diminished the storage and lending function of a library. But with the waning of one function comes the waxing of another: more then ever a library is a community's place of study, and that function needs to be written into its design.

November 13, 2015

Writer's Block

An Ongoing Series on Productivity:
Writer's Block
I'm something of a productivity geek, mostly because it's such an edifying way of procrastinating. It might also be because I'm an optimistno matter how much I procrastinate I always think I'll discover some way to overcome my bad habits and accomplish something worthwhile. So I like to find tools, tips, and tricks to help myself become more productive. This is the first post in a series on this topic.
I'll start with a tool I'm using to write this post called Writer's Block. It's a free writing app I recently downloaded. Yes, I'm publicizing an app but that's because it's revolutionizing my productivity. It's simple: 1) start the app, 2) enter in the number of words I want to write (I usually go for 100-500) or the time I want to work (I've never done this because it doesn't work for me), 3) start the writing session. Everything else on my computer remains locked until I complete my task. I can't exit the program until I've reached my goal.

Since starting a task is usually the hardest part for me I like to start a simple writing task of 100-200 words which is easy enough even for a master procrastinator like me to start "Psh, I'll burn that out in 2 minutes and be on my merry, time-wasting way. " Once I get going I often exceed my minimum because I want to get a few more thoughts down. It's called inertia and for me it's just as powerful in productive mode as it is while procrastinating. All I need is a slight impetus to reverse the trajectory of my inertia and I'm off and working.

I have two tricks that help me actually start a task. Procrastinators are oh-so optimistic about tomorrow or some other time. All I need to do is harness that optimism. So I start the program right before putting my computer to sleep. When I go to the gym or run errands, even when I go to bed, I start a small task and then press the sleep button. I feel good about it because I don't have to do any work right now, "I'll do it later." Later comes and when I open my computer in order to procrastinatebecause with few exceptions that's the reason I start my computer, pathetic I knowthen I burn out some text first. I'll free-write, jot down ideas, make a to-do lists, write emails, or tackle something specific. I wrote this entire blog post just to shut down this stupid (read: effective) program so I can watch Sherlock online. And the required task was only 200 words which I easily exceeded!

Fortunately, now that my computer's unlocked I can head over to my favorite streaming site and discover that it's blocked for the next few hours with another free app called Cold Turkey or a browser add-on called StayFocused. Well, now that there's nothing to do I guess I'll do some reading for my thesis.

November 8, 2015

Can you read with your ears?
If someone asks me if I've read The Great Gatsby or Frankenstein, what do I tell them? One the one hand I've never seen the words written by F. Scott Fitzgerald or Mary Shelley, on the other hand I'm closely acquainted with the characters and plot, the themes and narrative style, even the authors' syntax and word choice, just as if I've read these novels. So maybe I have. You see, I've listen to them in audiobook format. My instinct is to tell someone that they were read to me, not by mebut I need to stop making that distinction. I need to admit that I can read with my ears.

This is more than a question of whether or not the blind can read, although that question helps illuminate the problem. Surely we can read through touch as long as we can read braille, so why can't we read with our ears? This is also more than a semantic question regarding the meaning of the verb "to read." The bigger question here is why we give priority to visual learning over auditory learning. If in answer to the question, "Have you read..." I answer, "I listened to it" it implies that my reception of the work was of less value than someone who looked at every word. But hearing is a perfectly legitimate way of taking in information; in fact, for some people it's more natural. For some, listening to an audiobook will result in higher comprehension and retention then looking at a printed book.

But there's more than the practical argument for audiobooks, I also have history behind me. Writing was born from oral tradition. Wouldn't it be ridiculous to disallow or diminish the value of a form of reading that recalls that tradition? At one time stories, news, and philosophy were only told and heard. Even with the advent of writing many texts were written by dictation. So who was the author of Aristotle's Metaphysics, the Gospel of John, or Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae? Scholars believe that all of these texts are transcripts of the authors' voices. It's conceivable that they never saw some of the words they wrote, never traced a single word with pen and ink, and yet they are the authors. John Milton was blind when he wrote Paradise Lost but he wrote it nonethelesshe wrote it through dictation, shouldn't I be able to read it through recitation? It seems like a natural corollary.

So yes, I've read Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. I've read it so closely that I can recite lines. Ordinarily I wouldn't qualify that statement because I no longer see any significant different between visual and auditory reading but just this once I'll admit that I read it with my ears.