Here’s a tasty bit from an older post over @ Helen DeWitt’s paperpools

Most fiction does nothing to make us aware of the gulf between cases where intution serves us well and those (surely far more common) where it does not. It does nothing to show where we should be wary, or how to think through tough cases. Most fiction is confined to the realm of false intuition; it offers us no viewpoint with a better understanding of chance. Which is simply to say that, because we live in a culture with a profound hostility to mathematics, the type of person who writes fiction is likely to be the type of person who shares that hostility and can rely on a large audience which also shares it. Among other things, this means that someone like my friend Rafe Donahue, a biostatistician at Vanderbilt, tends to be both underrepresented and misrepresented among fictional characters.

"A Roger Federer Among Writers"

Still another DFW obit. I am still sad. Found this great paragraph in an obit at DeWitt’s capricious blog:

Well, this is the world we live in, brothers and sisters. It’s a rum old place. Oblivion doesn’t strike me as a difficult, never mind uncompromisingly difficult, book. Plato can be difficult; the speeches in Thucydides drive strong men to drink; Kant is difficult, Wittgenstein is difficult, David Lewis is not for the faint of heart. But Oblivion? DFW had a ravishingly lovely gift for voice; he took the sort of pleasure in variety that we see in (say) Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or Debussy’s Preludes. Why would a reader labour grumpily through the stories in search of hidden meanings? Let alone blame the profligate author for lack of generosity? I’ve no idea, but one thing is certain: in this world, here, now, there is no place for a Roger Federer among writers.

Communist Bookworms

Excellent idea over @ paperpools:

The odd thing about the people who specialise in decluttering people’s lives is that no one ever talks about the possibility of (shock horror) communal ownership. The alternatives offered are a) private ownership and b) divestment. So you have to choose between having a Greek-English Lexicon in the home, which you consult a few times a year, or not having access to one at all. The idea that you might be better off as a member of a group, so that you all paid once for a book you all might occasionally have use for, and all clubbed together to pay for a place to keep the collection… well, it’s not that it smacks of Communism. It’s not that it’s unAmerican. It’s so absolutely alien it’s not even considered as a possibility.

Exaggeration of the Year

It’s Endangered Languages Week, and even though I can see there’s a certain urgency to it all, this is way exaggerated and can’t be much help, can it.

What happens if we do not reduce our language footprints?
[…] If we are not successful, the result will be even more serious than global warming; everyone will lose the opportunity to take part in mankind’s cultural heritage because most of humanity’s accumulated knowledge of history and the planet will be erased forever.


History of Islam (paradoxe du bouquiniste)

On Helen de Witt’s wonderful blog I found this

Urvoy points out an oddity which he calls the paradoxe du bouquiniste. Anyone who spends a lot of time at secondhand bookstalls finds an image of the history of French thought in the 18th century quite different from what he was taught. In his studies they would have talked only of thinkers who were opposed to established religion, above all to religious orthodoxy; but in the bookstalls one finds a vast army of defenders of the faith, names one has never heard of, or heard of only as someone who criticised Rousseau… Since the Renaissance, he suggests, we have placed emphasis on originality, on individualism, so our intellectual history devalues whatever was typical of its time, rates highly whatever was at least self-proclaimed as original. Books offer us chapters on great individuals, with perhaps a dutiful chapter on background which the reader feels free to ignore.

In the history of Arab thought, on the other hand, the opposite is true. It has been written not by philosophers but by historians, and they privilege “representative” authors. The Arab philosophers who drew on the Greek philosophical tradition have just about managed to get taken seriously because of their immense influence on Scholasticism – but many Islamic scholars regard them askance as marginal thinkers. Attention was concentrated on the religious apologists, who were seen as expressing the essence of Arabic-Islamic thought. [I am writing this awkward English because paraphrasing DU, something I do very badly.]

Urvoy comments: the enterprise of setting out a collective structure of thought, with occasional detailed studies of individuals, is entirely legitimate. But isn’t there something odd about this radical antithesis between the study of Western and of Arab thought? Can it really be right for the Arabist to concentrate solely on writers whose equivalents he would despise if he were a specialist of the 18th-century in France?