Why my toilet reading lends support to Jonathan Franzen….

Franzen likes the actual physical book. So do I. Consider my habit of reading reference books in the loo.

“The technology I like is the American paperback edition of “Freedom.” I can spill water on it and it would still work! So it’s pretty good technology. And what’s more, it will work great 10 years from now…

“I think, for serious readers, a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience. Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change…

“”The Great Gatsby” was last updated in 1924. You don’t need it to be refreshed, do you?”

If you get my drift. The Guardian reports:

The acclaimed and bestselling novelist, who denies himself access to the internet when writing, was talking at the Hay festival in Cartagena, Colombia. “Maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now, but I do. When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing – that’s reassuring,” said Franzen, according to the Telegraph.

“Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.”

For serious readers, Franzen said, “a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience”. “Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change,” he continued. “Will there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don’t have a crystal ball. But I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.”


There’s just no way you can browse and graze an ebook satisfactorily while sitting on the bog, that’s what I say. Today it was the turn of Fowler’s Modern English Usage… The Burchfield revision.

And speaking of Oxford, did you know – one of the blessings of British imperialism – that Oxford India celebrated its centenary in 2011? See Shelf Life: A personal history of the Oxford University Press India at 100 by Ramachendra Guha.

…To enter the Bombay office of the OUP in 1993 and 1994 was, for me, like entering an ancient club of which I was a privileged new member. The honour was manifest, but so also the pleasure. In the foyer were displayed the works of the best Indian sociologists and historians—André Béteille’s The Idea of Natural Inequality, Ranajit Guha’s Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, Ashis Nandy’s The Intimate Enemy, Irfan Habib’s An Atlas of the Mughal Empire. Also on display were the works of OUP authors who were not Indian, among them such colossally influential scholars as Isaiah Berlin, Ronald Dworkin and HLA Hart. The gentry and literati of Bombay came to this showroom, and I spent some time there myself. But my main work lay upstairs, where, in a locked cupboard, lay the correspondence between a writer whose life I was writing and a publisher who had once dominated the building in which I now sat.

This writer and his publisher were both Englishmen who had gone native. They were expatriates of standing who knew, or knew of, the most powerful Indians of the day. Their own relationship was personal as well as professional. They were (as in those days writer and publisher sometimes could be) really close friends. In their correspondence they discussed books, but also food, music, politics and, occasionally, sex. Their letters were sometimes businesslike, at other times warm and gossip-laden. Reading them, 50 or 60 years after they were written, was an exhilarating experience.

Occasionally, hearing me chuckle or gasp, the occupant of the next cabin would come to have a look. Named Rivka Israel, she was a senior editor at the OUP, and the person who was in charge of—and lovingly tended—the archive. (She came from a family of Bombay Jews who made their living as craftsmen of learning—her father, Samuel Israel, had been an admired editor himself.) Rivka, in turn, would sometimes call in the branch manager, a cheerful Gujarati named Ramesh Patel, and have me read out once more that passage about, for example, life with Gandhi’s “sexless and joyless entourage”….

But 2011 brought a controversy we here in Oz heard nothing about.

…But as it turned out, in its anniversary year OUP India had what may, in retrospect, be viewed as the worst episode in its history. In November 2011, the University of Delhi withdrew an essay, written in 1987, by the poet, folklorist, translator and theorist AK Ramanujan from the BA History syllabus. The essay, Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation, explored the many renditions of the Ramayana in India, an exercise in scholarship (and ecumenism) that offended rightwing dogmatists seeking to impose a single, authorised, invariant text on the public.

The decision sparked outrage, for Ramanujan was a truly great scholar, whose work has had a profound, enduring influence on Indian and global scholarship. That his essay was being suppressed due to pressure from Hindutva extremists was particularly ironic—for his majestic translations of medieval Hindu poetry had done much to make the world aware of the beauty and depth of Hindu mystical traditions.

The essay had originally appeared in a volume edited by Paula Richman called Many Ramayanas, and then in The Collected Essays of AK Ramanujan. Both books were published by the OUP. However, they had been allowed to go out of print after a petition filed in a court in the small Punjab town of Dera Bassi claimed that Ramanujan’s essay offended religious sensibilities. In withdrawing the books, OUP assured the litigant that it “very much regretted” publishing the essay, apologised for causing him “distress and concern” and assured him that the books containing the essay would be withdrawn…

Do read Guha’s article. It is from the Indian magazine The Caravan and came to my attention through the Arts & Letters Daily. Of course that in itself is a counterpoint to what Franzen has to say about technology: without the computer and the Internet I would never have had the opportunity to read any of the things mentioned so far – except for the reference to Franzen on the back page of today’s Sydney Morning Herald.

Also via Arts & Letters Daily comes Jonathan Haidt Decodes the Tribal Psychology of Politics.  Now I have always seen political opinion as very much a product of personality issues rather than rational thought, if only because I suspect that to be my own case! I am quite convinced that conservatism is at heart a personality disorder. One day there may be a pill for it. But if course why stop there?

Jonathan Haidt is occupying Wall Street. Sort of. It’s a damp and bone-chilling January night in lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park. The 48-year-old psychologist, tall and youthful-looking despite his silvered hair, is lecturing the occupiers about how conservatives would view their ideas.

“Conservatives believe in equality before the law,” he tells the young activists, who are here in the “canyons of wealth” to talk people power over vegan stew. “They just don’t care about equality of outcome.”

Explaining conservatism at a left-wing occupation? The moment tells you a lot about the evolution of Jonathan Haidt, moral psychologist, happiness guru, and liberal scold.

Haidt (pronounced like “height”) made his name arguing that intuition, not reason, drives moral judgments. People are more like lawyers building a case for their gut feelings than judges reasoning toward truth. He later theorized a series of innate moral foundations that evolution etched into our brains like the taste buds on our tongues—psychological bases that underlie both the individual-protecting qualities that liberals value, like care and fairness, as well as the group-binding virtues favored by conservatives, like loyalty and authority…

In March, Haidt will publish The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon). By laying out the science of morality—how it binds people into “groupish righteousness” and blinds them to their own biases—he hopes to drain some vitriol from public debate and enable conversations across ideological divides.

Practically speaking, that often means needling liberals while explaining conservatives and religious people, and treading a fine line between provocation and treason. Haidt works in a field so left-wing that, when he once polled roughly 1,000 colleagues at a social-psychology conference, 80 to 90 percent classified themselves as liberal. Only three people identified as conservative. So hanging out in his lab can jar you at first. You’ll be listening to his team talk shop over boar burgers and organic ketchup in Greenwich Village, and then you think—Wait, did Haidt just praise Sarah Palin?

Indeed. “She’s right,” he says, that “it’s not left-right so much as it is the big powerful interests who control everything versus the little people.” And National Review? “The most important thing I read” to get new ideas. And Glenn Beck? “A demonizer,” says Haidt, but one who has “a great sense of humor, so I enjoy listening to him.”

Meanwhile, though Haidt still supports President Obama, he chides Democrats for a moral vision that alienates many working-class, rural, and religious voters. Though he’s an atheist, he lambasts the liberal scientists of New Atheism for focusing on what religious people believe rather than how religion binds them into communities. And he rakes his own social-psychology colleagues over the coals for being “a tribal moral community that actively discourages conservatives from entering” and for making the field’s nonliberal members feel like closeted homosexuals…

I really think there is a lot in this. Really.