Why Do We Read?

Joshua Rothman searches for an answer in Deidre Shauna Lynch’s Loving Literature: A Cultural History. How reading has changed:

For a long time, people didn’t love literature. They read with their heads, not their hearts (or at least they thought they did), and they were unnerved by the idea of readers becoming emotionally attached to books and writers. It was only over time, Lynch writes—over the century roughly between 1750 and 1850—that reading became a “private and passional” activity, as opposed to a “rational, civic-minded” one.

To grasp this “rational” approach to reading, Lynch asks you to transport yourself back to a time when, in place of today’s literary culture, what scholars call “rhetorical” culture reigned. In the mid-seventeen-hundreds, a typical anthology of poetry—for example, “The British Muse,” published in 1738—was more like Bartlett’s “Familiar Quotations” than the Norton Anthology. The poems were organized by topic (“Absence,” “Adversity,” “Adultery”); the point wasn’t to appreciate and cherish them but to harness their eloquence in order to impress people.

According to Lynch, the “invention that disrupted this rhetorical world was the canon”:

Some readers read because they want to know about the here and now. But, when a young person’s favorite book is “The Great Gatsby” or “Jane Eyre,” something else is going on. That sort of reader is, as Lynch puts it, “striving to bridge the distance between self and other and now and then.” And, from that sense of striving, a whole set of values flows. In rhetorical culture, the most important writing was au courant, and the “best” readers made use of it to enhance their own eloquence. But in an appreciative, literary age, the most important books are the ones that have outlasted their eras, and the “best” readers are people who are especially susceptible to emanations from other times and places. Being a reader becomes an identity unto itself.

The Promise Of Psilocybin

Michael Pollan’s New Yorker piece on the medical benefits of psychedelics is well worth a read:

3567431472_f8414a7ea1_oAs I chatted with Tony Bossis and Stephen Ross in the treatment room at N.Y.U., their excitement about the results was evident. According to Ross, cancer patients receiving just a single dose of psilocybin experienced immediate and dramatic reductions in anxiety and depression, improvements that were sustained for at least six months. The data are still being analyzed and have not yet been submitted to a journal for peer review, but the researchers expect to publish later this year.

“I thought the first ten or twenty people were plants—that they must be faking it,” Ross told me. “They were saying things like ‘I understand love is the most powerful force on the planet,’ or ‘I had an encounter with my cancer, this black cloud of smoke.’ People who had been palpably scared of death—they lost their fear. The fact that a drug given once can have such an effect for so long is an unprecedented finding. We have never had anything like it in the psychiatric field.”

Kleiman calls Pollan’s article “as good an introduction to the field as one could ask for”:

The central idea is that the mystiform experiences that psilocybin and other drugs can trigger under the right circumstances can be beneficial, not only in treating specific problems – end-of-life anxiety, for example, or nicotine dependence – but by enriching lives: making some people “better than well.” So far the studies are small, but the results are impressive.

It’s encouraging to see the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health taking a scientific attitude: cautious but interested. It’s discouraging, though – alas! – not at all surprising to see the Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse responding to exciting research results by worrying about what might happen if someone tells the children.

The Dish has covered this subject extensively over the years. Update from a reader who contributed much of that coverage, especially on ibogaine:

The New Yorker‘s recent piece on psilocybin has been on my mind a lot lately.  I had a lot of reactions to the piece, but the most lasting feeling was a deep sadness.  I felt sad because I hoped this article would convince my 70-year-old parents to take psychedelics before they start seriously declining.  The author, unfortunately, bends over backwards to make readers frightened of psychedelics.

It depresses me to accept that the cutting edge of psychedelic research is generations away from acknowledging an obvious truth: that psychedelics are an incredible gift to humanity that could help billions of people deal with the overwhelming intensity of life.  We don’t need more expensive, intricate, double-blind experiments to know this. If we just approach what we already know without fear, then this is the only possible conclusion.

I have no doubt that psychedelics will one day be a completely normal part of a person’s life journey.  It is just a shame that billions of people will suffer before we get there: and the people who suffer will be our family, our friends, and ourselves.

PS  I am really going to miss you guys.

(Photo of Psilocybe Cubensis by Flickr user afgooey74)

Letters From Gitmo

Christian Lorentzen reviews Guantánamo Diary, the recently unclassified (and heavily redacted) 2005 memoir by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a former detainee still in US custody:

Guantánamo Diary is no masterpiece: inevitably, it’s repetitive (Slahi likens his interrogations to Groundhog Day), and often banal when what it recounts isn’t revolting. But Slahi is an intelligent and sensitive writer whose sense of irony somehow survived along with his sanity. He’s not quite Holden Caulfield but his personality consistently comes through. His efforts at characterisation – of his interrogators, guards and fellow detainees – are thwarted by the military censors’ redactions, which turn a wide cast of villains, friends and villain-friends into so many undifferentiated black marks. But his collective observations of his jailers – especially the prison’s racial dynamics, with white guards dominating their black colleagues, and a Puerto Rican contingent showing the most sympathy to the jailed – are some of the book’s most striking details.

A Book Cover That Judges You

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 11.08.28 AM

Alison Flood explains:

Thijs Biersteker of digital entrepreneurs Moore has created a book jacket that will open only when a reader shows no judgment. An integrated camera and facial recognition system scans the reader’s face, only unlocking the book – in the prototype, filled with creative work for the Art Directors Club Netherlands annual – when their expression is neutral.

“My aim was to create a book cover that is human and approachable hi-tech. If you approach the book, if you’re overexcited or your face shows a sceptical expression, the book will stay locked,” explains Biersteker on his website. “But if your expression is neutral (no judgment) the system will send an audio pulse and the book will unlock itself. I often worry about my scepticism and judgement getting in the way of my amazement. Judgment should never hinder the relentless enthusiasm of seeing things for the first time.”

Below, watch a video of how the cover works:

Why Can’t Vaccination Be Voluntary?

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig observes that, in “a variety of European countries, including the United Kingdom, Sweden, The Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, and Finland, high vaccination coverage (up to 99 percent in Finland, for example) has been achieved without the use of mandates.” But this won’t work in America:

Insofar as we detest mandates because they are an affront to our self-sovereignty, it seems unlikely that removing mandates and encouraging vaccination through voluntary means would do much to improve the willingness of fiercely individualistic Americans to risk their health or comfort for the good of the whole society. As Michael Gerson once wrote of capitalism, a mandate-free vaccination regime enacted strictly out of American disdain for obligation would rely on virtues it would not create.

But there’s another hitch. As researchers from a number of European universities wrote in the scientific journal Eurosurveillance, “a national healthcare system should promote and actively offer those vaccines that have been proven to be safe, effective, and with a positive public health impact. In a world where people trust health authorities, more compliance with national recommendations can be established.” In other words, the creation of a healthcare system that is both accessible and trustworthy is a key factor in ensuring widespread voluntary vaccination.

Email Of The Day

Mostly for the bottom part:

Hi Andrew, I know you’ll be receiving hundreds, likely thousands, of tributes and thank-yous this week, notes of appreciation long and short from your readers around the world. I hope you find time in your transition to read and absorb these messages of love and support. I hope too that you find pleasure and satisfaction in knowing that your readers appreciate you for who you are, not just what you do. You deserve all the good things you’re going to read about yourself, including (hopefully) this big chunk from me.

You surely know this already, but you’ve worked yourself into your readers’ daily lives in a way that cannot entirely be explained by your intellect and skill as a writer, prodigious as your talents may be. The internet is full of smart and talented writers. But their readers don’t know their favorite bands, their favorite shows, their favorite comedians, their favorite drag queens, where they vacation, what turns them on, what turns them off, the names of their partners, and, of course (because most people keep these thing private), deeply intimate details about their personal health. I haven’t seen these writers at their best and their worst. I was not brought to tears when their dogs died. I don’t even know if they have dogs. But you, Andrew, are unique. We have come to know you. You have come to be our friend, and we will miss you. I will miss you.

I’m finding it difficult to tell you how important your voice has been to me personally, and I think more broadly, to the political discourse, since I began reading the Dish eight years ago (I’ve read it nearly every day since). Back then, I was finishing law school in South Carolina. Raised in a very liberal, very Christian southern family, I had never felt quite at home in the red state of my birth or in the academy of conventional liberal thought.

In your voice I recognized a fellow-traveler, and – more importantly – an honest voice in what felt to me like an increasingly dishonest world. Between you and another fellow-traveler – Barack Obama – I felt a renewed sense of hope that there was space for honesty and integrity in public debate, or at least a worthy counterpoint to the toxic truthiness fed to us for eight years by the Bush Administration-Fox News noise machine.

You and Obama were certainly not Bush’s only critics. But you were his most important critics, because you recognized rightly that Bush’s biggest failures were not failures of policy (though his policies were failures); they were failures of process. They were failures, on some level, of judgment and character – the result of rash and reckless decision making that prioritized emotion and ideology over conservative, rational consideration based on ascertainable facts.

This always struck me as a moral critique as much as it was a political critique, and I always believed it was the most compelling reason for Obama’s candidacy. When I told my friends – Democrats and Republicans – in 2008 that the first reason I was voting for Obama because he was the “conservative” candidate (“small-c conservative,” I’d add), and the second reason was that he was the liberal candidate, everyone scratched their heads. No one knew what I was talking about.

But you know what I’m talking about. I think you learned these lessons yourself, the hard way. And I learned them – at least in part – from you. The lessons ground into me in those years inform my thinking as a practicing attorney – and indeed, just a normal person – every day.

I now live in D.C., and I don’t write on the internet much. But I do make arguments for a living. And I know how hard it is to work in an adversarial business while maintaining your integrity, to make winning arguments without giving in to the forces of ego and insecurity that will make bad facts disappear and turn nuanced arguments into grade-A cable news bullshit. Your open, daily struggle to examine and re-examine your own views is an act of moral virtue and courage, and I know of no other writer who is as vigilant in this regard. You should be very proud of that. It’s your character, not your intelligence, that makes you special. And to have built the credibility you have in this town – where a premium is placed on smarts, and too little value placed on character – is a colossal achievement.

I don’t mean to make this overly sentimental. We have obviously never met, and I cannot look into your heart. Like everyone – as I’m sure you would be the first to acknowledge – you have your share of faults and failures. But you (and your fantastic team, I should not fail to mention) have done something great here, something of which you should be very proud, and something that has been very meaningful to me. It’s not every day I write ridiculously long, laudatory emails to strangers. But there is so much that I will miss about the Dish – your faith; your skepticism; your humor; your humanity; your appreciation for the subversive and the absurd; your deep reverence for the rich complexities of the American experience; all the inside jokes. I am sad to see you guys move on, but I know you have much more to give. I look forward to seeing what that is, as I know you do too.

So, all that said, I’m closing with a parting gift. I’ll call it “The 10 Pet Shop Boys Songs Most Likely to Double As the Dish’s Final Post.”  Here goes:

10.  This Must Be the Place I’ve Waited Years to Leave

9.  A New Life

8.  Happiness Is An Option

7.  Leaving [embedded above]

6.  No Time For Tears

5.  The End of the World

4.  To Step Aside

3.  I Made My Excuses and Left

2.  I Don’t Know What You Want But I Can’t Give It Anymore

1.  I’d Rather Leave While I’m in Love

Best of luck to you, Andrew, and all the Dish staff. Get some rest!

The Generation Gap On MGM

It’s significant:


You know we couldn’t end the blog without at least one more post defending foreskin. Previous Dish on male genital mutilation here. Update from a reader:

Since it’s my last chance, I just wanted to thank you for your posts on circumcision (and all the others over the years). I hadn’t thought to question the practice, and as a secular Jew, always just assumed any sons I had would be circumcised. But my son is due any day now, and it only took a 30-second conversation with my (circumcised) husband to decide not to do it.

Another reader:

“You know we couldn’t end the blog without at least one more post defending foreskin.”

Yes, you wouldn’t want to cut it off short, now would you? :)

A Note To Our Readers, Ctd

In response to our Dish RIP post, a reader titles her email “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO, Ctd”:

Ugh. I had a sliver of hope and now it’s gone.  I understand, but man, this sucks bad.  I knew there was a chance you’d go through with leaving, so I’ve been looking around at other places to look for this great balance between current events, news, opinion – and nothing.  The Atlantic maybe comes the closest (which by the way, I only heard about because of the Dish), but it’s not the same. Will definitely miss you guys. This is such a bummer.  Starting to hit me now.  Uggggh.

It’s going to be painful for us too. The withdrawal signs are already setting in. Another reader:

I’ve been reading you since the very beginning. I’ve emailed a couple of times, but really nothing worth publishing. I’m going to miss The Dish immeasurably; it’s my #1 blog!  And I suggest that there’s one more angle to the thread on suicide, i.e. Is Killing The Dish Selfish? (I ask this with tongue only partially embedded in cheek.)

Another reader on our “impending demise”:

Well, all I can say is I think you’re a bunch of pussies.

More like scrotums, as Dan would say. Another asks regarding this quick post, “The real mother of Trig is Rick Astley?” Another fell for it too:

Goddammit Sullivan. I was just about to write a nice email to wish you all the best and thank you for everything the blog has given me over the years. And then you Rickrolled me with this post. Fuck you and good riddance.

Or how another puts it:

........('(...´...´.... ¯~/'...') 
..........''...\.......... _.·´ 

Heh. Another:


(I love you I love you I love you please don’t go please don’t go!)

Another confesses, “What I hate the most is what it says about me that I clicked on that Trig click-bait.” Another:

I should have known I was about to be Rick rolled. Captain Ahab was not after gold. The poor mixing of metaphors should have been a clue. Well done though. I totally fell for it.

Another asks, “Is this end of blogging just a set up for the mother of all rick rolls?!?”  Maybe if it were closer to April 1. One more reader for now:

Rick-rolled in the end. You suck. But I have to admit, I danced, and cried a little too. Really. It’s starting to sink in that Friday is the end of it all. I feel like I’m losing a brother, my online family, my home page, and one-stop shopping for almost everything that mattered. I just spent an hour visiting almost every sight on your blog reference list for a possible replacement. Nothing compares to The Dish. Damn it.

Best wishes to you all. Y’all really have no idea how much you mattered and the difference you made in my life. Please do use the list of emails you have and keep us updated. I would love to know where everyone ends up, what everyone writes, and that you are all thriving. My days will never be the same, but I’m smarter now, and glad to have been along for the ride.

You and 30,256 subscribers carried us.