Sunday, November 4, 2007

Experience, knowledge, and understanding through narrative (Books, books, books)

"Falling back" last night gave me some time to lounge around in bed and decide what to read next. Ahhh, delicious. I've just started the two books above, Experiencing Narrative Worlds by Richard Gerrig and The Rational Imagination by Ruth Byrne, for some research I'll be doing for school. The first attempts to coherently describe the ways in which narrative can transport its reader. The second is a broader look at manufacturing alternative realities in general, how they differ from rational thought and how they do not. It might sound dry, but these are the type of concepts I really enjoy asking questions about.

My own little research project will be asking questions about belief in narrative worlds and I will be posting an on-line survey fairly soon in an attempt to rope you all in - prodigious readers that you are. (I will not be able to tell who gave which answer). I hope you will be willing to help out. I'll post the results for all interested.

On the more recreational side of things, Houghton Mifflin sent me another book (thanks guys!) - Last Seen Leaving by Kelly Braffet. A novel which came out last year and looks like it was just released in paperback. I've only just started it, the prologue begins with a frenetic energy.

When she drove, she liked to think she was plugged into a huge, powerful machine. Like science fiction: the car's nervous system joined with her own through the sole of her right foot. That was where the car told her to add more gas or take it away, when she had a low tire and was driving soft, when she was on ice and when she was on dry pavement. That was where she felt it when the car hydroplaned.

A man rescues her from the wreck of her flipped car and she gets into his Mercedes, presumably never to be heard from again. Well, it's got me so far.

I've read Steven Johnson's Mind Wide Open, in fact, it made me give some serious consideration to getting into neuroscience. He has a breezy way of giving non fiction a compelling drive. The Ghost Map weaves together epidemiology, biology, and urban design, using the London cholera epidemic of 1854 as a way to examine how the modern city evolved. The relentlessly mucky landscape he describes at the book's beginning leans heavily on Dickens - in fact, he writes of Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend and Nicholas Nicklelby in the opening chapter. He creates a pervasive atmosphere while asking complex questions and does this all with a swiftly-moving narrative stream. First quoting Bleak House and then reflecting on it.

...a hemmed-in churchyard, pestiferous and obscene, whence malignant diseases are communicated to the bodies of our dear brothers and sisters who have not departed...With houses looking on, on every side, save where a reeking little tunnel of a court gives access to the iron gate - with every villainy of life in action close on death, and every poisonous element of death in action close on life - here, they lower our dear brother down a foot or two: here, sow him in corruption, to be raise in corruption: an avenging ghost at many a sick-bedside: a shameful testimony to future ages, how civilization and barbarism walked this boastful island together.

To read those last sentences is to experience the birth of what would become a dominant rhetorical mode of twentieth-century thought, a way of making sense of the high-tech carnage of the Great War, or the Taylorite efficiencies of the concentration camps...But Engels and Dickens suggested a new twist: that the advance of civilization produced barbarity as an unavoidable waste product, as essential to it metabolism as the gleaming spires and cultivated thought of polite society. The barbarians weren't storming the gates. They were being bred from within...It [this idea] came, in part, from seeing human being buried in conditions that defiled both the dead and the living.

I get the feeling that Johnson does not just wants us to understand. As with Dickens, there appears to be a mission driving him - he wishes to set us right:
No one died of stench in Victorian London. But tens of thousands died because the fear of stench blinded them to the true perils of the city, and drove them to implement a series of wrongheaded reforms that only made the crisis worse. Dickens and Engles were not alone; practically the entire medical and political establishment fell into the same deadly error: everyone from Florence Nightingale to the pioneering reformer Edwin Chadwick to the editors of The Lancet to Queen Victoria herself. The history of knowledge conventionally focuses on breakthrough ideas and conceptual leaps. But the blind spots on the map, the dark continents of error and prejudiced, carry their own mystery as well. How could so many intelligent people be so grievously wrong for such an extended period of time.? How could they ignore so much overwhelming evidence that contradicted their most basic theories?

That sense of mission makes this information about... well piles of shit, actually, into a compelling narrative. He seems to be a synthesist - one who brings things together - in this case, complex ideas. All of his books have lengthy subtitles: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate, or The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. I feel as though his larger mission is that, through reading, he hopes that we can use what we know to see clearly how things work and therefore to live more usefully. I may be imputing too much into his writing - but that's the way I experience it. This driving sense that we could do better if we only understood, and I enjoy that about his books.


Anonymous said...

Ted - I'm really interested to hear more about that narrative book. I remember having a conversation wtih you "on my blog" (ha) about how we create stories - to explain ourselves to ourselves and to others ... I think it was in connection with one of AS Byatt's short stories, and her work (to me) is alllll about narrative. God, I love her.

Hope you're doing well - I miss you!

Ted said...

S - I'm enjoying it quite a bit. I remember that conversation, I think it was a Byatt story and an article in the Science Times about narrative. We've got to find time for some red wine and talk!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, that was the same conversation where that dude showed up and was kind of condescending to both of us - not engaging WITH us but, trying to steer the conversation his way. "It's funny but I've always tried to AVOID narrative due to the horrors of the Soviet Union which I saw up close ..." Yawn. I was so rude to him that he's never been back since.

Good riddance! Ya gotta be tough with these people!!

I know - we must find some time! \

Ted said...

S - Ok, here's how my mind worked on this one. Even though you said we discussed it on the blog, by your 2nd email I had forgotten that and 'saw' our conversation at 'ino. Then you said this dude showed up and I was desperately trying to picture him and couldn't. Then you said you were rude - 'certainly,' I thought 'I would remember THAT. WHY can't I remember it because I do remember this discussion.' And then I realized, we never actually saw him (even though I could see us at 'ino) and you showed him the door on your blog. Ah yes. The mind's eye - ever active.

Anonymous said...

Ted - HA!!!!!! Yes, I am talking about a completely virtual experience.

There was no guy. Just some dude with a screenname who loved to pontificate about his time behind the Iron Curtain, whether or not it was applicable.

I am now trying to imagine behaving in real life as I do (sometimes) on the web, and I'm laughing.

Like, out of nowhere to some random stranger: "Take a hike, pally. You're not welcome here."

Ted said...

It would be fatal for civilization. But way more fun for a while.

Anonymous said...

Ted - here is a VERY funny parody showing what a business meeting would be like if everybody spoke the way many people do on blogs:

(swearing. do not watch in public.)

Anonymous said...

I'm so behind in reading your posts!

The narrative world book sounds very intriguing, very related to what I have been working on in the dissertation. Just think about how there can be infinite number of narratives for one event and how these narratives might overlap but at the same time dispel one another owing to the difference of cultures and values of the narrators.

Dewey said...

What a great post! I found it by searching your blog to see if you've read Mind Wide Open, which I just finished.