Skin – Thick or Thin

Are you the kind of person who tosses and turns at night replaying a minor remark you made at a social gathering? Can you be crushed by a single barbed comment? Do you cringe at the level of vitriol you see in the “readers’ comments” section of online news sites? If you’ve answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, I feel for you. Like me you appear to be thin skinned. Are there any strategies that can be deployed in order survive the dangers (to us) of a barbarous world?

Don’t go out: As someone short and clever once said, “It’s a dangerous business, going out your door.” You could try avoiding social gatherings where you have a tendency to embarrass yourself whenever you engage in conversation. You could embrace the honourable role of lurker on the Internet, never succumbing to the temptation to contribute your own input. You could take that one step further and simply lock your front door and disconnect your modem/router. It’s the only way to be sure, after all.

Limit your range: If you absolutely must go out, then you could at least stay close to home. What is the absolute furthest you need to walk in order to acquire sustenance? Don’t go any farther. The same holds for conversational topics. If you have to converse, you could try restraining your topics to the weather (just agree that the weather is either good or bad, and probably much worse than you remember it being). On the Internet you might want to limit your communication solely to those you know well. Stay away from any form of one-many communication tools like Twitter or Facebook (FB) or blogging. Remember, if possible say nothing.

Stay with your own kind: There is a reason that wildebeests hang out with other wildebeests. I don’t know why that is. But on the Internet it seems to be safer to hang out with others who already share exactly your own opinions and have no other opinions. Obviously the easiest way to accomplish that aim is to hang out only with yourself. There are dangers here, of course. It might be a bit lonely. Sometimes hanging out with people just like yourself is called homophily. I once heard Ethan Zuckerman convincingly argue that homophily can make you stupid. Is stupid really that bad?

You may know people who are remarkably thick skinned. I know a few. They make cringeworthy comments regularly and appear to be immune to the whole agonizing tossing and turning thing. Sometimes it is as though they don’t even realize that they have said something embarrassing. (Here, I’d like to say, “You know who you are!”, but of course you don’t.) I’m not sure how they got to be so thick skinned. Is there some equivalent of plunging your hand repeatedly into buckets of increasingly larger grained sand and stones? In any case most people described as thick skinned tend to be a bit too thick skinned for my taste.

I wonder if there is some happy medium between thick and thin that could be reached. It must be nice to always say the right thing, in the right way, at the right time. I suppose there are people like that; I just haven’t met any. Failing perfection (which sounds like a good title for a blog) perhaps the best that might be achieved is a kind of gracious humility. I think of this as a certain modesty in one’s claims and a ready willingness to acknowledge overstatements and misstatements and rectify them.

If you are thin skinned and not one of the hearty folk there is still plenty of scope for you to step out your door. With a bit of patience and a lot of bravery, there really is no telling where you’ll end up. You will still toss and turn at night, but it’ll only be because of that dirty great root sticking in your back.

And oh, don’t hang out with wildebeests.

If pleasure

If pleasure is all one or reducible to one, then there is no discernible difference between the pleasure obtained through reading literature, listening to music, or viewing art. Nor would such pleasures be discernible from those obtained through sport, or chopping wood, or playing push-pin. If maximising pleasure is your passion, then you might choose between activities based upon the quantity of pleasure that would ensue.

If pleasures are irreducible, then the pleasures obtained through reading literature, or listening to music, or playing push-pin are distinct. If maximising pleasure is your passion, then either you must employ some further metric in order to rank the variety of distinctly different pleasurable activities and aim to maximise that instead, or you must opt to maximise all pleasurable activities whenever the opportunity arises.

Are pleasures reducible or irreducible? Either answer has unsettling implications. The situation hints at an underlying confusion about the nature of pleasure. And perhaps this is what prompts me to pause over the claim that we “act for the sake of pleasure”. I am not sure that I understand what that actually means.

Let’s take an example from reading literature since that tends to be a common subject for this blog. Here are two novels that I very much enjoyed reading this past year: The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker and Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. Without doubt I obtained pleasure through reading these works. Would it make sense to say that I read them for the sake of pleasure? How would that be possible if I hadn’t read them already and could reasonably expect pleasure to be obtained? Certainly I read many novels this past year that were not accompanied by any abundance of pleasure; a few might best be described as unpleasurable. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say in each of these cases that I am reading for some other purpose and that pleasure or pain is merely a fellow traveller? Of course I do tend to prefer, after the fact, those novels whose reading is accompanied by pleasure. But I surely haven’t read them for pleasure’s sake.

The Anthologist and Excellent Women share some features. A lightness of touch. Poignancy. Gently humorous situations and observations. A sureness in the authors’ choice of words. No doubt it was these shared characteristics that prompted a friend to recommend Pym’s Excellent Women to me when we were enthusing about Baker’s The Anthologist.

I tend to read literature with the hope of discovering wonderful writers. Writers who through their captivating characters and situations, and most especially through their careful crafting of their texts create objects that delight and inspire. I think that great writing is morally rich. It challenges and puzzles and urges the reader, all without declaring itself. It nurtures our moral lives (as opposed to proffering moral instruction). I almost never know exactly what to make of a novel that I rate highly. And this holds true for both of these novels. But I always think that spending time with such works is worthwhile.

If a little pleasure wants to come along for the ride, so much the better.

Challenging long-held beliefs

I used to think that there was something rather important about reading literature. I held that the act of reading was an opportunity and a challenge. The reader risks his comfortable worldview, risks encountering new and contrary insights and convictions, risks facing fictive individuals and situations that he must shun or assimilate at cost. In return the reader gains entry into the great project – the collective process whereby we shape and evolve what it is to be human. I thought that project was what our moral lives were about and for. Reading – and significantly the community through which we share and reshape our readings – was a vital component in the development of our moral personhood.

Deep down, I suppose, I still hold with most of that. But now I think it obvious that I misjudged the relative importance of reading to the larger project. Not because of Lord Jim issues concerning the efficaciousness of literary exemplars. Not because the practice of individual reading is clearly a modern invention. And not because the vast array of novels currently available suggests that no single volume or even a canon will be read by anything approaching enough people to constitute a live practice. Those are all excellent counters to any pollyannaish conception of literature’s moral worthiness. I hope, however, my long-held belief in literature’s importance was more than that.

Rather, what has me doubting my previous conviction is a realisation of the practical impossibility of sharing our readings in anything more than a superficial way.

I regularly join with a group of people who love to read. We undertake to each read the same novel within a certain time frame. We then come together to discuss said novel. One might think this would be fertile ground for the great project. It is not. Sometimes some of us agree on the merits of a book. There is always a certain level of dissent. And I find that in practice I cannot discern anything morally significant, instructive, or praiseworthy about either our agreements or our disagreements. Moreover I now think that the effort that would be required to thoroughly investigate our various readings with the aim of reaching a consensus view on a text would utterly and comprehensively undermine any hoped-for benefit.

We appear to read for our own delight. We neither find the novels we read particularly morally instructive, nor do we find them abasing. We come together to share our thoughts on these books, if we do, in a convivial atmosphere that says more about our public commitments than our private convictions. This is the kind of thing that I do; I read. We are readers.

Is that all there is? It seems a bleak observation. It reminds me of the kind of thing I used to hear with dismay, “There’s no accounting for taste.” Is there really no accounting for our differing opinions? Is there no value in reconciling these differences even when these differences are over our readings of a novel? And must we conclude that literature itself is of no importance, or at least no more significant than our affective posturings?

That’s a hard road to take. I don’t know where it leads. I suspect, based on no more than a hunch, that it leads to a cul de sac. Even if it does, that will not in itself provide a ground for my ongoing conviction that reading literature has moral import. It may very well be that I am merely in the grip of picture.

One positive comes out of these observations. I am once again challenging my own long-held beliefs. Perhaps that itself is the next step needed for me to take up again with the great project.

Word choice

This morning I discovered a loss, a word loss, and although it feels like theft it is more likely just erosion. What I have lost is the meaning and sense of a word that I’m sure I used correctly more than once whilst living in Oxford. The word is “graft”. It is one of those words that has dramatically different senses depending on which side of the Atlantic it is used.

There are many words that have distinct and potentially humorous transatlantic differences in meaning. “Pants” is a great one. It typically means trousers on this side of the Atlantic and underwear over in Britain. It has additional uses there since calling something “pants” is a way of saying that it is a bit rubbish.

“Graft” is both more dramatic and more subtle. In the UK it most often means hard work, diligence, effort. I’m certain that’s how I used to use it when I lived there. Here, it most typically refers to a kind of political corruption. Hard work versus corruption. You might be hard pressed to find such divergent meanings for a single word.

What is fascinating is how immersive word meaning is. I’m fairly certain that I never once thought about “graft” when I lived in the UK. I just used it the way everyone did. And I used it correctly. Unlike “pants” there was never a frisson of double meaning in its use. Returning to Canada and immersing myself in the sea of word use here I appear to have simply shifted my use of “graft” over to the standard North American use.

The shift would not have become apparent to me had it not been for a friend in the UK congratulating my wife on a recent career milestone. “She must feel fantastic after all those years of graft,” she wrote. I was, to put it mildly, surprised at the accusation. And even more surprised, and embarrassed, when I realized that I was simply reading that sentence wrong.

It is one of those words that is telling but subtly so. Other words like “lift” and “pavement” and even “answerphone” and yes “pants” seem to swim nearer the top of the sea of language and in doing so, perhaps, more obviously hint at their potential misuse. Whereas “graft” is a deep swimmer.

Deep swimming meanings, if I can continue that inelegant metaphor, can be exploited by crafty writers. They also risk leading them astray. In one of the opening scenes of Posy Simmonds’ fabulous graphic novel, Tamara Drewe, the American academic, Glen, reflects somewhat disparagingly on the character of Nicholas, his hostess’ husband. “Several times I’ve overheard him spouting on the hard graft, discipline and loneliness of writing.” Clearly this is the British use of “graft”. Glen, however, is most definitely the “American” in the story. Of course he has been living and working at a university in London for some time. Does Simmonds want us to appreciate Glen’s immersiveness in the sea of British word meanings by showing him using such a word even internally with the correct British sense? Is she hoping that her reader will nonetheless, perhaps even unawares, catch the deeper swimming double meaning (Nicholas, after all, is corrupt in a fairly unambiguous sense)? Or is this a case where the writer has been tripped up?

Probably it is just another example of me over-reading a text. But I like to think that the writers I admire are so crafty, so careful, that they would select a word like “graft” and put it in the head of a foreigner as a subtle means of displaying that character’s integration in the British linguistic community even though not British society.

Content still matters

Content is still king. I’m thinking here, initially, about blog posts but I also want to extend this thought to other forms of communication.

An old hobby-horse of mine is the empty, redirecting blog post: I can’t stand them. Almost nothing irritates me more than a blog post that is merely a “pointer” to some other content on the Internet. Worse still is the post that is a pointer to a blog post which itself is merely a pointer to some further content. And so on.

I am stressing merely there (and here) because I think there is a useful place for secondary and even tertiary communications. A post that merely points to some other post is little more than a contextless citation. A post that, in the course of making some point or other, provides a link to some supporting documentation or content about which it is commenting employs secondary communication.   There are even some sensible posts that are really tertiary communications surveying, often, a set of secondary communications. I can see the point of such posts or even such web pages though, yes, they tend to come from librarians.

But I would maintain that content, i.e. primary communication, is still king. Ultimately no matter how much fluttering you have (or need), communication is still about communicating content. And what is content? It might be an opinion (ideally backed up with reasons, but we can only hope). It might be substantive research. It might be reasoned argument, an amusing anecdote, a description, or a story.

I can illustrate this with the posts from this very blog. Looking at the stats that are available on the blogger dashboard I can see that some posts attract a considerably larger number of views over time than others. (And no, this series on communications is not one of my big hitters.) By orders of magnitude.

Which brings me to Twitter. I was wondering whether or not my observations would hold true in the land of 140 characters. And it seems that even there content rules. If you look at the tweets of those with massive numbers of followers, you will find that only the tiniest percentage of those tweets are pointers to some other content and almost none of them are contextless citations or mere pointers. Even on Twitter, primary communication is still valued.

This might be a good opportunity to raise a related point.

Twitter tweets, and FaceBook (FB) status updates did (although I don’t think they do anymore), constrain the tweeter to a limited number of characters. Since some URLs are long, possibly very long, there is a clear need for some way to provide shortened URLs for the links one wishes to share. Fortunately there are very useful services that provide just that: and . Using these services you can transform a lengthy URL into something manageable. Great. The downside, of course, is that the now minuscule URL gives no clue as to the site it will take me to if I should click on it. Maybe that isn’t a problem for most people, but I like to know where I’m going (as far as that is reasonably possible) on the Internet. Combine an obscured URL with an already constrained communications window of 140 characters and you have a near-recipe for the contextless citation.

It appears I’ve finally found something I dislike even more than a blog post that merely points me somewhere else. It’s a tweet that points me somewhere else and doesn’t give me any real clue as to where it is pointing me. Now there is a metaphor for something or other!

Cave imitator. Let the follower beware.