Monthly Archives: June 2013

Thoughts in Third Person (1-7)

henry-adams-2Another long lyric essay in two parts to avoid trying anyone’s attention…. the rest will appear on Saturday, 6/8

1.

Henry Adams, great grandson and grandson of presidents, Harvard history professor, and early voice of modernism, wrote a third person memoir, The Education of Henry Adams. In it, he skips over twenty years—much of his marriage—and only obliquely refers to his wife’s suicide. He cannot name her or discuss the event and includes only a description of his visits to the Saint-Gaudens monument he commissioned for her grave.

Is his third-person omission love or cruelty? Did he wish to erase her or was he saying she, and his years with her, were the one aspect of his life beyond words?

2.

After his wife’s death, Adams wrote John Hay, “The world seems to me to have suddenly changed, and to have left me an old man, pretty well stranded and very indifferent to situations which another generation must deal with… I have been thrown out of the procession, and can’t catch up again.”

Adams tastes bitterness in everything, and, even if he never utters Clover Adams’ name in his autobiography, her absence seems another shadow in a dim and disappointing life. Any report of comfort is missing too.

3.

Using third person doesn’t shake the message from the messenger, nor does metaphor, imagery, or elusive syntax. Observers see the author hiding in the scene. That dwindling candle is his longing. The photograph without a frame is his conception of life in our age. Light scattered through that crystal bowl is a spectral vision of idiosyncratic perception.

Authors remain as long as readers look to find them.

4.

Michel de Montaigne believed, “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.” Montaigne thought even his idiosyncratic observations and revelations would be understood because his readers must also be idiosyncratic in their own ways.

Moderns are not so sure. Henry Adams coined the term “multiverse” to describe the product of irreconcilable perspectives. Subjectivity destroys the uni-verse because two people never experience the same scene or reach exactly the same understanding of it.

“Exactly” seems key phrasing. Any degree of disagreement signals the impossibility of a shared perspective. To speak in third-person, as God might, is just as much an invention as speaking as oneself.

Montaigne said he could express himself and humanity all at once, but, apparently, he was wrong—humans don’t know anything, least of all themselves.

5.

Writers sometimes prefer first person narration because they think they can speak directly using a voice that, if not themselves, is at least some facsimile. Yet first person can be challenging too. As inventions, first person narrators must communicate character, and not just in what they say but also in their expression, the fingerprints of their voice.

And omission is no less critical. First person narrators omit without noticing. They still leave gaps for readers to fill and, in the process, allow readers to observe more than the narrators notice themselves. They grant readers judgment, just as third person narrators do.

6.

Hidden authority is ominous. A voiceless, faceless perspective dictates what’s known and also what world readers occupy. Insufferable first person narrators can be smothering, but readers can walk away, rejecting this character’s take on the world. Third person leaves little choice but to believe. Third person says, “This is real.”

Yet it may not seem so.

7.

When a person uses third person to describe him or herself it’s called “illeism.”  Lebron James, the Big Lebowski, and Bob Dole are notable examples, and when they slip outside themselves and look back, a listener senses oblivious—often comic—egotism. Once a reporter asked the baseball player Wade Boggs why he always referred to himself as Wade Boggs, and he replied, “’My father always told me not to be a braggart, not to say I, I, I.”

It’s hard for a person to voice his or her name without elevating it. To go third person is to go big and expand a solitary view into something cosmic.

Parts 8-15 on Saturday…

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Filed under Aesthetics, Art, Doubt, Ego, Essays, Experiments, Fame, Fiction writing, Genius, Henry Adams, Identity, life, Lyric Essays, Memory, Modern Life, Reading, Recollection, Thoughts, Writing

E-Reading (and Just Plain Reading)

tablet-maniaHumans didn’t evolve to read, so the process repurposes various circuits in the brain. Eyes hunt and gather. The mind interprets shapes and situations the way it would find prey hiding in shadow or edible plants suited to certain settings. The cortex registers meaning in patterns and trends, determining what grander lessons lie in individual observations.

Readers looking to recover detail often say, “I think that’s on a right hand page at the top” the same way a gatherer might say, “In the shadows of a rock beside the eastern branch of that stream is a bed of plump mushrooms.”

A recent Scientific American article suggests the brain undergoes a different sort of repurposing for electronic media, rendering finding information more troublesome.

Knowing has at least two dimensions—what it is and where it is—and, correspondingly, each dimension is subject to two types of memory. Some details humans remember exclusively in context, like knowing where to turn next when traveling to a location visited infrequently or singing the next line of song without being able to quote that line at other times. Babies are masters at this type of memory. When a parent sits them in a high chair, they know what’s next.

The other type of memory is deliberate and arises from a conscious effort to recall. Babies haven’t memorized their daily schedule or created a to-do list to assure they will eat, nap, and cuddle in appropriate sequence. They may not like the next activity when a parent proposes it. They know what’s coming only when it begins.

Another way to think about this distinction is to consider two questions from English class: “What does Holden say when the nuns ask him where he goes to school?” and “Which characters ask Holden about school and what’s consistent in his responses?” The former relies on knowing what’s next, the latter on locating, gathering, and retaining useful detail.

The research on electronic reading is preliminary and not entirely clear, but it appears that, when contextual memory doesn’t imprint strongly enough, conscious memory weakens accordingly. Reading comprehension quizzes demonstrate that electronic and physical readers do just as well immediately, but, when tested later, physical readers retain more detail and retain it longer. Some researchers say the results are transitional. Students still take paper more seriously, and those trained on physical texts are adjusting to a world where electronic ink predominates. Future generations will adapt to scrolled rather than paginated texts and results will even out.

Other researchers, however, believe these findings suggest electronic reading is inherently ephemeral. They theorize virtual location makes less of an impression on the brain than actual location. They place a great deal of importance on readers’ being able to hold the text and handle it physically, to regard the text as an object rather than as content in one of many undifferentiated receptacles. This “haptic” element of a tangible, sensory object, they say, is crucial to the hunter-gatherer in humans. Thus application writers are smart to adhere to page layouts that nod not only to familiarity but also to the way the brain works.

To complicate matters, however, some thinkers claim the sort of reading a person does electronically and physically are not the same. They make a distinction between focused reading and connected reading (which, elsewhere on this blog, go by “immersive” and “extractive.”) Focused reading requires a close examination of a single text, whereas connected reading assumes a nexus of meaning. Connected readers look for what’s relevant or interesting or important, rifling through containers to complete a larger task.

Connected readers also show an amazing ability to link disparate ideas and information, but their aims demand moving on. They may have lower expectations—one or two nuggets among all the ore—and less patience. They may skim more and be less likely to remember where they found a particular piece of information. When a reader gathers detail without context, to fulfill an overall conception, the information isn’t always discerning or accurate.

Some researchers even believe light fired into the face of the reader and flashing screens (though not perceived consciously) may prod readers to move on. Physical books exude permanence. While people skim them too, they aren’t as well-built for rapid ingestion and don’t accommodate extractive reading as easily. Nor do readers regard conventional books as readily searchable.

Overall, this early experimentation brings to mind Thoreau’s injunction against inventions that are “improved means to unimproved ends.” The most successful reading devices are those with low light, standard pagination, and signals like double screens or graphic book edges to indicate location and progress. In other words, they are costly and complex books. While these devices store more and save students everywhere backaches—an advantage not to be taken lightly—many of their touted improvements remain unverified.

More troublesome are findings indicating electronic ink improves neither means nor ends. If it’s true few landmarks mark a reader’s way through the undifferentiated topography of electric media, many readers could be lost… without really knowing it.

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Filed under Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Jeremiads, Memory, Modern Life, Persuasion, Reading, Recollection, Thoreau, Thoughts, Worry