What is a great book? What is a great conversation? What counts as a great class? a great education? a great idea? a great life? For that matter, what is a conversation? an education? a life? As a great books college, Shimer College is about the questions -- questions which we carry with us across our lives as we work, play, think, read, live. We are about acting responsibily in our world with joy and seriousness. So, Evocations is about higher education -- but like higher education about much more. Please join our conversation today. Scoll down and read more!
I recently met someone who recommended the book High Rise Stories. And, then there it was at a bookstore I was visiting. So, I purchased it, carried it around for a bit, and have now read it. I would say it is must reading for Shimerians -- at least those who want to understand our current environs.
A volume in a series entitled Voices of Witnesses (published by McSweeney's) that brings together oral history with matters of conscience, High Rise Stories is subtitled Voices from Chicago Public Housing and is edited by Audrey Petty. The book is exactly what it says it is: narratives compiled from interviews, extensive interviews, with former residents of places like Cabrini Greens, hte ironically named Robert Taylor Homes, and elsewhere across Chicago. Their experiences living there - and their experiences being displaced by the "Plan for Transformation" that led them to be demolished. They are recent, they are troubling, and they are inspiring.
I brought to this reading my own stereotypes, as we all do. And yes, there is an enormous everyday-ness to the violence described, to the poverty. And yet, there is also joy and community and much much more. There were facts I learned -- like the setting of the television show Good Times as connected to Chicago. And, I did read the appendices, which include some material on high rise architecture, a time line of public housing in the city, and more.
What makes this work critically important? For Shimer, perhaps the most directly relevant is the voice of the individual whose home was in the Robert Taylor homes for that is our neighborhood. To be part of this neighborhood is to know it. I recommend the read. And, then, a walk around the neighborhood. And, for those of us who no longer reside in places like Chicago, it is a welcome introduction to the notion that Voices of Witnesses -- a series focusing on "illuminating human rights crises through oral history" exists. And, as importantly, a model of the public intellectual that is inclusive and wide ranging.
Greetigns from Shimer College! I am going to begin a new theme across Evocations called "Reading Chicago" which will focus on several matters.
First: For those of us in the "great books" or "great conversation" community, both at Shimer and beyond, we must reflect on what we read that has its roots where we are. IN the case of Shimer, this is asking what "great" books or art works or texts have their roots in Chicago (or, more broadly) Illinois. There are, in fact, many, I would argue. And that is part of what I intend to indicate here.
Second: Are there texts (or art works or music) that are, in some sense, required readings for all Chicago-ans? I woudl argue yes Why? Because we ought to understand and reflect upon our surroundings in an informed way. Here too, I will offer some reflections -- and ask you to do so as well!
So: moving beyond "One Book One Chicago," we must ask: what does it mean to read Chicago?
Blogging is supposed to be something done regularly, dear readers, and I have been negligent. The last post was in May and . . . well, it is July. So, here is an alert that I am getting back to writing these, and I hope you will find what I say useful and enlightening -- and provocative. Look to this blog for the following kinds of pieces in the coming while:
1. Books about Chicago: Why Shimerians Ought to Read Them, and more!
2. Continuing reflection on who counts as a "Shimerian" -- Who would you include?
3. A guest post or two from Shimerians across the country -- and perhaps the world!
4. The return of Six Degrees of Shimer
And more. Of course, for a real sense of what is happening at Shimer, you ought, also, check out the Shimer website at www.shimer.edu and I urge you to stop by and submit news (have you written a book? Had a child or grandchild? Climbed a rock wall? Taken a new job? Run into other Shimerians and taken a picture?) or offer your help. Like all colleges, Shimer depends on your donations and support as a volunteer to ensure that our education is available for coming generations.
The main point is this: let's not get ourselves into a lather about the internet and related matters, because in many ways this is simply a continuation of teens' desires to congregate and create community with one another. Yes, there is cyber-bullying (blown somewhat out of proportion in terms of number, though serious in each instance). And yes, there are some concerns when people only only only stare into screens. But, most teens are not doing that, even when we see them texting at football games. Rather, they are reaching out and saying stuff like "hey, where are you? the game is starting."
Another main point is that the whole darn thing changes very very quickly. Teens move from favored approach to the internet to another quickly. There are aspects of race and class that shape this and are worth knowing. And, even boyd, who is not a geezer, might be a geezer in some ways as her early internet life was quite distinct from that which is predominant in her study -- or now.
A main theme: the networked public. This is what teens (and others) are creating. And, really, this is not awful -- in fact, it is a form of sociality worth supporting. No, it is not and ought not be the only kind, but it is not itself ontologically or inherently bad.
By toning some of the melodrama down, boyd allows her readers to look at a phenomenon that is changing our world. And, she is pretty forthright, even handed, and easy going. Would that we all were.
For Shimer, this is a good place to look to consider calmly the changes that technology is bringing to our world(s).
The month is almost over, but the celebration of poetry continues, right? SO, for those of oyu whose love is poetry -- and whose love is Shimer -- here are a few things to look at
1. A poetry reading by Shimerian Peter Cooley is available here. Peter is a 1962 graduate who teaches at Tulane and is. . . a poet! You can find a bit about him (and a terrific picture) here at the Poetry Foundation.
2. Do we teach poetry at Shimer? Of course we do. Click here to look at Hum 2 which is one place that we do so.
3. Are there other Shimerians who are poets? Again, of course. An example is Deborah Sperberg who reminds us all you can be an executive and a poet. Try here for some information.
Of course, there is much more to be said -- including the names and poems of this year's poetry contest winners. But, I shall end here. And hope you will add through comments!
As you drive (or walk) along Michigan Avenue, heading north from Roosevelt Road, turn your head a tad to your right. (I think.) What do you see? What appears to be a gathering of legs. Yes, I said legs. There are 106 of them. They are tall. And they are cast iron. This art work, titled Agora, was created by Magdalena Abakanowicz. And, I argue, it shows very clearly that the artist is a Shimerian. Of course, she did not graduate from Shimer. But: there it is, right there, the Shimerian sensibility (implied footnote here to Tim Lacy and Stuart Patterson).
I have several reasons for making this argument. Here they are:
1. Yes, the title. Agora. Doesn't it make you think classical literature? The Polis? Socrates? Aristotle? Plato? And all those chaps? While the artist herself -- and much of the commentary I have read -- focuses on her relation to the notion of "Crowd," the title gestures to a different notion, right? And as a public sculpture, perhaps it gestures to the notion of public as well. Seems to me somewhat Shimerian.
2. Here's another argument. The piece has multiple interpretations. Yes, it is indeed, an aesthetic experience that requires reflection and, perhaps, discussion. Here's a bit from the Chicago tribune that might spark ideas. Such requirement that discussion emerge in any encounter -- well, that too seems Shimerian. Meaning emerges. It is not simply there.
3. Most crucially, perhaps, the experience of walking through the sculpture seems to me Shimerian. In a way, it is like the experience of walking our hallways, where conversations sparkle and mutate and are never quite what they seem? Perhaps the Agora's seeming antiquity, despite the fact that the installation is relatively new, can be read as similar to the continuity I experiene when Shimerians across generations start talking to one another.
When I saw the title -- well, when I heard the title in an interview with Edwidge Danticat -- of her book entitled Create Dangerously, I already knew that she was Shimerian. Then, I IIL-ed the book, read it -- and was even more convinced. No, of course she did not attend SHimer; but yes, she shares the spirit of Shimer. And it is not only because our tag line is "Dangerously Optimistic Since 1853." It is because Danticat is amazing -- as writer, thinker and likely more. Plus, she referenced Algerian (often mistaken for a Frenchman only) Albert Camus in her work.
Danticat, a Haitian writer, a Haitian American writer, a fiction writer and not, is interested in how one crosses borders, sometimes quite literally and sometimes quite figuratively, in life and in writing. To do so can be (again quite literally) dangerous. It can mean one's life (an interesting locution for the notion that one can be killed for one's writing, imprisoned for life, tortured and more). And, it can mean one;s life in an equally meaningful way, for such dangerous creativity can vivify, vitalize, create. Being a writer, a story teller, walks the edge of truth and lie, of life and death, of hope and possibility.
And, it is a political act. Camus knew this as does Danticat, who cites his work on this very topic. Here a her key chapter is: "Create Dangerously: THe Immigrant Artist at Work." After her description of the execution of two writers, Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin in 1964, she moves to an overarching theme: a disobeyed directive from a higher authority and a brutal punishment. For those told "do not write", the punishment for writing can be brutal. So too with preading. Here, much of what she writes about is familial: about the plesures and dangers of reading.
So: as we Shimerians read and write -- the pelasure and the dnger are both literal and figurative. For, both are more than leisure, more than "mere" thought. Each is an enactment of the world we expect, we live in and we resist.
Who is Alastair Reynolds? He writes science fiction and I have read a range of what he has written. First, I have read a series that includes the terms revelation, absolution, and redemption in the titles of various novels. So, who could fail to be drawn in by the ways the arc of his series "redeems" or, perhaps better, reframes, the narrative arc of aspects of Christian history.
More crucially, I recently read House of Suns. Without in anyway divulging the plot of the space-opera-ish novel, I will say this: I truly enjoyed this book and it made me think about writing here, on Evocations, a blog devoted to higher education.
Partly, this is for some silly reasons: there is a major aspect of the plot which has to do with "shatterlings" -- aka clones -- that disperse across the galaxy to collect information and experiences. I love the word shatterlings (are all Shimerians actually shatterlings in some sense?). But, what is truly amazing is the ways Reynolds points to the complexity of information - and the various ways in which information and knowledge and memory are distinct from one another and related. As an author, Reynolds does not engage in any didactic asides -- and is always engaging the reader in his tale. Thus the thematic emphasis on the ethics of information collection, information withholding, and censorship reach you in very subtle and important ways. In many ways, the novel raises ethical issues around these themes -- and identifies a whole range of kinds of information collection as well as potential ways that such information might change those who "hold" it.
In addition, the novel (as all of Reynolds' work, actually) directs our attention to the relation of machine and human culture (extending both beyond what is today's experience thereof). By doing so, Reynolds does make us all think -- again, without a heavy hand -- about the ways we all (as I sometimes say) outsource our memories and more.
So: is this enough for Reynolds to be a Shimerian? I would also bring forward the following evidence: (a) he has a vivid (very) imagination capable of communicating extraordinary ideas through the written word; (b) he has a Phd in astronomy and was emplyed by the European Space Agency as an astrophysicist; and (c) he lives in Wales. At least two of these three (perhaps all three) simply make me say even more directly: my verdict is yes. Yours?
This book, authored by David Mikics, is both wonderful and frustrating. Wonderful? Because it says what many of us seem to be thinking -- slow down, think, pause, read. Frustrating? Because it reads in a kind formulaic fashon and as though the author's main idea is that the people he is speaking with might be . . . . well, slow. reflecting on this, I suspect he is truly attempting to get his readers to slow down as they read, thus illustrating the point he is making. Thus, I suspect it is not his intent at all to treat his readers as though they are (always already) slow. His intent is not embedded exactly in his style or even in his review of wonderful pieces of literature. (he introduced me to some I shall, indeed, read.) His intent is to encourage just what his title says so clearly: slow reading in a hurried age.
Several things I found delightful: (a) a description of why reading well includes using a (preferably print rather than digital) dictionary. I loved this because it read like a description of someone I know - and also because it noted a few of the new words that the OED has recently included. I also found delightful (b) the notion that reading is inherently dialogical -- that is, a conversation between author and reader. Neither, in Mikics' view, can or ought be passive. Neither agreement or disagreement is the goal -- connecting is. And, taking one another seriously. (c) self-reflection is a crucial part of all this. And, the emphasis on self-reflection (and transformation) is another delight in the book. This includes reflecting on why certain books or authors just. . . annoy us. That some annoy us -- but that ignoring the annoyance is not such a good idea -- itself delights. I also loved -- and I mean loved -- (d) the section on writer's revising their works. Totally reassuring. In addition, you may want to know that Mikics himself revised the title of his tome; perhaps thinking about the change from Lost in a Book: How to Recover the Pleasures of Reading to Slow Reading in A Hurried Age itself teaches us. Mikics' reflection on revision encourages stepping a bit out of any given version to think about the spaces between.
I also liked the moments of humor that poked up out of Mikics' text. The author's point is not that reading is entertaining or fun -- but that it is important in a variety of ways. And yet, he does seem to remember that humor is important as well.
All in all, Slow Reading in a Hurried Age is well worth slowly, patiently, reading. It is, in some ways, like liberal education itself. It is, well, Shimerian in many ways.
A quotation for the day? None. But, I can tell you I intend to read -- again -- "The Kraken." And, I may, in fact, read it slowly. Want to join me? Click here.