Why It’s Good to Scribble in Your Books

My brother was horrified when I first showed him my copy of Leo Strauss’ On Tyranny. Half of it was highlighted in a host of colors, and there was a wide selection of pencil scribblings, black underlinings, red circles, and blue stars. I can’t deny it; the book doesn’t look as clean and pretty as it once did. But it’s obviously very well loved, and the marks attest to the hours and hours of time I’ve spent with it, giving it the devoted attention it deserves (and demands…being Leo Strauss). I had a professor tell me once that I shouldn’t write in my books because he had starved himself in graduate school, skipping meals to scrounge up the money to replace the books he had scribbled to death in his undergrad. Dr. N, I would like to respectfully disagree. You should have made that McDonald’s run.

Another professor told me that reading should be like taking your books out on a date, lavishing them with attention, having a conversation with them. To mark up your books is to have a conversation. You will never remember the things people say if you don’t listen attentively and respond, and you will never remember the things you read if you don’t listen attentively and respond. Writing in your books is a way to do this. I’ve found that it’s much easier to remember the passages that I’ve underlined, because when I underline something I make it my own. There’s a study that shows that the activity of writing with a pen helps with memory and cognitive ability. Beyond the practicality of making it easier to find on the page when you return to it, the process of selection recognizes the importance of that particular passage and ingrains it into your memory. Perhaps the different types of marks you make on the page of a book are like the various responses you can give when listening to someone. An underline is like a nod; an asterisk might be like a smile; a circle or a check mark could mean emphatic agreement. These are the types of gestures you make when you listen to someone speak; why not respond to written words the same way?

Of all the ways to give attention to your books I think marginal notations are the most important. When you respond to the text with your own thoughts on each side of the paragraph, you know you are listening well and absorbing what the book has to tell you, and you have something to say back. The book is inspiring you with new thoughts, ideas and questions of your own, which is exactly what it’s meant to do. If you’re writing in the margins, you are probably paying much closer attention to the text than if you were letting your eyes gloss over the page without effort. As a plus, it’s interesting to return to a well-scribbled book years later and see how your thoughts have grown and matured.

Is the final sullied product ugly in the eyes of strangers? Probably. But you have made that book your own, and you may find a proportional relationship between the degree of scribbling you’ve done in the book and the love you’ve developed for it.

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In Defense of Frustrating Professors

“Then someone had used the phrase ‘the Socratic method.’ What was that? It was apparently a way of giving your friend his head in an argument and progging him into a pit by cunning questions.”

– Winston Churchill

I had a bad case of senioritis and I was in no mood to put up with that impish smile and those sparkly eyes as he declared enigmatically, “there is no such thing as ‘Catholic Political Thought’.”

Then why on earth am I in this class? I thought. I had skipped a test and tried to drop it several times, but my stubborn advisor wouldn’t let me. He thought it was good for me to stay in this seemingly pointless class. He was right, as usual.

The man who taught my Catholic Political Thought class was one of the most frustrating professors I ever had. Class often felt chaotic and disorganized, and it was hard to see a consistent narrative. Why is he still talking about love and suffering? What does this have to do with politics? Ok, I get that morality and the human experience are important, but tell me what Augustine thinks. But he was also one of the most gentle and humble men I ever met, and it’s also possible that I learned more from him than I learned in any of my other, more organized and efficient professors. The very un-academic phrases he often repeated are the ones that stayed with me and still have bearing on a whole variety of real-life situations I’ve faced, as well as on my academic pursuits.

It’s easy to enjoy straightforward classes because you get to feel like you’re in control. Taking notes is a breeze, and at the end of the semester you wind up with a series of bolded points with clear definitions; all you have to do is commit them to memory and you’re good.

And then there are the ones that force you to think by putting you through painful and confusing processes. None of my political philosophy teachers in college ever answered a question, in the strict sense. Instead, they started to muse and would go on sometimes for five minutes at a time. There was never a simple solution, and there always seemed to be many…many…annoyingly many sides to the issue. This used to drive me nuts. Students hate roundabout answers. When we ask a question, we want a straightforward definition we can write quickly and fit easily into a neat outline in our notes. In this age of bulleted buzzfeed lists and 250-word tweets, we don’t have the patience for rambling old men who make us feel confused and lost in problems, and who make us feel like we are not in control.

But in graduate school I’ve come to realize that, in retrospect, these frustrating classes are the ones that have taught me something more than a list of definitions; they are the ones that taught me how to reason and think for myself. The patterns of thought I learned in those classes have remained with me. My frustration at their refusal to answer my questions straightforwardly forced me to continue to ponder the issues outside of class until I really did see that there were, in fact, many sides to the issue and many steps to the answer. A good professor teaches you to understand the value of each step. There are answers, but sometimes they are complicated; “reason” is the ability to find your way through the maze of complications in a problem and arrive at a resolution, all the better for having made your way through it slowly, one step at a time.

Slow, rambling answers are highly underrated by us young people. But their value lies in the fact that they force us to listen carefully for the answer, and show us how everything is connected in a whole. Learning in terms of bulleted lists and bolded definitions creates a temptation to see the world as a series of clear and straightforward divisions when, oftentimes, that is not the case. A list cannot teach you to think for yourself. Practicing patience can.

We all want answers, and we want them as quickly as possible. Even the best students. That hunger for knowledge makes it feel frustrating when we aren’t given the answers we crave right away. But the professors who take the time to work through problems slowly (and who withhold parts of the answer on purpose, forcing you to find them for yourself) are the ones who teach us to have the patience it takes to become a true lover of learning.

Why patience? Because patience is the ability to take what is front of you (be it a text, a situation, or a person), see it, and value it for exactly what it is, even if it’s initially difficult to understand. Patience opens you up to receive what is being offered to you in the moment, even if you don’t immediately recognize the benefit it can bring you. Patience is the ability to allow it to remain with you as an experience or a thought that changes you and your habits of mind. This is learning.

This is not to say that straightforward, clear, organized professors don’t have anything meaningful to teach you. On the contrary. Learning is a matter of taking each professor as he is, for his own person, and having the patience to receive what he has to offer as a unique individual with his own methods and years of experience. If you are a truly dedicated student, this won’t be difficult. The ability to learn can be exercised in any circumstance if you truly desire to know.

15 Remarkable Likenesses Between Grace and Caffeine

  1. They are both divine gifts. It is a truth universally acknowledged that grace and coffee are God’s two greatest gifts to mankind. Period.
  2. They are both essentially intended to give invaluable assistance. The teleology of both grace and caffeine are one and the same: they are basically functions of divine mercy, intended to give you the mental, physical and spiritual energy you need to continue writing papers and studying for exams when all you want to do is sleep. Just as grace perfects nature by giving it the added bonus of Divine Presence, caffeine perfects your brain by giving it the added bonus of special focus beyond its natural ability. They are both basically super-powers, insofar as grace and coffee are unmerited gifts that transcend the abilities of unassisted human nature.
  3. They both feel good. Warm and fuzzy and consoling.
  4. They both make you popular. Movements of grace in the soul make you want to shout with spontaneous joy in praise of the Lord; movements of caffeine in the bloodstream make you more chatty, witty, eloquent and charming. The first endears you to God; the second endears you to your friends.
  5. They both include the element of surprise. This is part of their essential nature as gifts: just as grace can surprise you at odd times, you can surprise friends by giving them coffee at odd times and absolutely make their day. Or their week. Or their month. Or their life.
  6. They both help you grow in virtue. Just as grace helps you overcome the weaknesses of your nature and mould your soul with good habits, caffeine’s natural addictive qualities help you to build the virtuous habit of drinking coffee every morning, afternoon, and evening. Coffee and virtue are virtually the same thing in this respect. (Yes, that pun was intended.)(This witty moment brought to you by the cup of hazelnut coffee on my desk.)
  7. They both smell really good. Ok, fine, so maybe grace is extra-sensory and you can’t actually smell it. But if you could, you can bet your life it would smell really good. Like hazelnut coffee at 6 in the morning. Mmmm.
  8. They are both a 100% necessary part of your life if you are a student. You can’t survive without them. It’s that simple. You just can’t.
  9. Like really, you’d die without them. Or at least get a bad caffeine headache.
  10. They both give meaning to life. Nature left to itself is incapable of providing man with a purpose for existence. For this reason, we have grace, or the presence of Christ, to give meaning to our lives. And coffee. Thanks to Him, and coffee, we get to spend our lives working to grow closer to Him, which gives value to everything we do. And coffee. Even the smallest tasks which seem meaningless become fruitful and fulfilling with an abundance of grace in the soul, and an abundance of coffee in your mug.
  11. They are both hip. A cup of coffee in your hand instantly ups your coolness factor; grace does the same for your soul. Just like a cup of coffee makes you that much more fabulous while you walk through Central Park with a homemade scarf on, sanctifying grace makes you that much more fabulous while you walk through the Pearly Gates with a homemade halo on (and a cup of coffee in your hand).
  12. They are both loveable. The perfection of the object makes it choiceworthy for its own sake, and a fitting object to which the human soul can conform itself. In other words, Christ is so great that He is necessarily the first Love of the human soul, and coffee helps the human soul to perfect this love in three fundamental ways: 1) by radiating the goodness of Christ in so great a caffeinated gift, 2) by giving you the mental focus to pray well and conform your soul to His presence, and 3) by giving you the energy to perform good and virtuous deeds out of love for Christ. For these reasons, coffee is also loveable. Especially hazelnut, because it tastes the best.
  13. St. Augustine. This august man is known as the Doctor of Grace, and I’m fairly certain he also drank coffee.
  14. Notice the pun in the above item. My wit is on fire, thanks to the hot cup of coffee I recently purchased from the café across campus, and also the movement of grace in my soul as my mind participates in the logos of Christ.
  15. They’re both awesome. Literally. They inspire awe. This merits no further argument, since it is plainly self-evident.

Memory and Mythic History

There’s a RadioLab podcast that profoundly disturbed me the first time I heard it. The topic was the nature of the human capacity to remember, and Jad and Robert’s findings startled and even slightly offended me; the results dared to question our ability to remember things with precision. The experts suggested that while we tend to think of “memory” as a compartmentalized cabinet in our minds where we stash impressions and recollections which we can access at will, it’s actually more creative than that. Every time you remember, you are actually pulling together scattered pieces of sensory impressions and reconstructing an image of what happened. The process is essentially creative. But it gets better – each time you repeat this operation on a given memory, one tiny detail or another is always altered. The “creative” process of remembering actually changes the substance of your memories in subtle ways. The more you remember, over time your perception of memories may depart profoundly from the details of what actually happened in reality. In a word, the memory embellishes. The more it remembers, the more it embellishes.

Like I said, I was disturbed. You mean we don’t actually get to keep our memories? It’s a startling prospect to a sentimentalist. We can never hold onto our memories in their pristine detail, and the more we try, the more we fail.

But then, like a good nerd, I started to think about what this process might suggest about the nature of the human mind, and the way we learn. The idealizing or embellishing tendency of The Memory is a perennial literary theme. It pops up in all kinds of places; one of the lessons of The Great Gatsby, for instance, is that we can never re-create the past exactly, and that the romantic impulse to do so can harm ourselves the the people around us (and you just might end up dead in a swimming pool). Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris recently dramatized the tendency to look to an idyllic past with an unrealizable longing. These depictions are critical of this impulse to embellish and idealize the past, and with good reason; blind veneration of the past devoid of concrete reasons can be useless, unhealthy, or dangerous.

I have a hunch, however, that this natural human tendency has a place in our learning process.

Take the ancient method of writing history, for example. The ancients did not think of “history” in the strict, scientific sense that we regard it today. Ancient historians such as Thucydides, Plutarch, and Herodotus would be admonished by today’s historians for their awful habit of exaggeration. These guys shamelessly embellished their stories. They forged events and people into mythic figures that became the stuff of legend and the substance of tales told for generations – and I’m willing to bet that the tales got taller each time they were told. I suppose this type of history can be described as panegyrical; an embellished portrait intended to sing the praises of a certain person or event which has been deemed worthy of veneration and imitation. In a word, these are examples that can be used for moral instruction. We hold them up as models for how we ought to behave, and to help us understand what human excellence is. If that’s the case, why not exaggerate the point a little?

I’m actually serious. Hyperbolic depictions of things from the past have the effect of impressing a truth into our minds which we might miss if they weren’t highly colorized and lit up with exaggeration. Why is this the case?  Think about the way children learn. They are most easily impressed by stories that are fictitious in the extreme. That says something about the way we all think. We learn most effectively through beautiful and moving images that touch our emotions.

I want to suggest that exaggerated, panegyrical history is akin to the embellishing tendency of the human mind in the sense that they both create a longing for something more. They depart from the strict realism of concrete historical circumstances and take us beyond what is here and now; they point to some trans-historical reality that might be an indication of a truth that extends beyond scientific fact. They inspire us to strive for something better.

There is a recent tendency in historical studies to deconstruct the myths that drive us this way, especially in America. Through the means of one abstract theory or another, our heroes are systematically debunked and denounced as racists or imperialists or sexists. Pick your poison. Columbus exploited and ravaged the Indians; the Founders were proponents of slavery. In many cases (including the ones mentioned), these accusations are not even true; the truth is that scientific exactitude about things that happened a long time ago is extremely difficult (as any historian will tell you), and today’s history is dominated by a different myth – the narrative of political correctness. But that is not what I’m contesting here. I am contesting the value of the strict historical “realism” that seeks to find out exactly what happened in its precise detail, the ugly truth of the reality, lest we get caught up in our idealized imaginings and blind veneration of mythical heroes that show us how to live. If the goal is to learn from the past, I want to suggest that the mythologizing tendency is just as valuable as the strictly realistic accounts. Legendary tales of figures like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln have something about them that touches the soul and moves it to strive for greatness, regardless of the real human flaws they doubtless possessed. We can choose to forget these flaws and remember the great things they did, because they teach us something about greatness, something that matters just as much as a perfect account of the historical reality.

Friedrich Nietzsche noticed this problem at the end of the 19th century when this type of history was becoming popular. In On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, he wrote that the modern “historical sense” destroys a certain “atmosphere” which is necessary to human flourishing. “Every living thing needs to be surrounded by an atmosphere, a mysterious circle of mist: if one robs it of this veil, if one condemns a religion, an art, a genius to orbit as a star without an atmosphere: then one should not wonder about its rapidly becoming withered, hard and barren.” Nietzsche’s concern was that the modern scientific emphasis on historical realities had the effect of robbing the human soul of meaning. He was afraid that our way of looking at the past had become so focused on empirical facts that our outlook on life was becoming blase. In order to live meaningfully, humans seem to need some embellishment on life, in one form or another. Embellished portraits provide models that are essential to our moral formation and our ability to live meaningfully.

Does this amount to blind veneration of the past and refusal to acknowledge realities? No. We don’t make up “meaning” out of nowhere, and I don’t believe that embellishing memories of events and heroes diminishes the value of what I am calling historical realism. Precise, scientific knowledge certainly has its place, and reason must be the vanguard of every legend and imaginary tale. I have a professor who likes to complain that we live in a “fact-free world” where people are so caught up in their abstract theories that they do not reason properly about real life. He’s right. I am not questioning the status of reason and scientific knowledge; for the concerns of practical life or statesmanship this type of thinking is indispensable. What I am offering here is simply an alternative way of learning; though they are related, the process of character formation is different than the process of acquiring scientific knowledge of historical circumstances. What I am offering is a reflection on the power and importance of myths, their centrality in the nature of the human soul and the way we learn, and the power of imaginative embellishments for moral and political education. Sometimes reflections of the truth can bring us closer to it than we think.

In light of these considerations, I’m less disturbed by the idea that our memories aren’t perfect. Even if the details aren’t preserved in their pristine condition, perhaps the larger impressions that remain have a value all their own.

It’s Just a Core Class

I remember the first time I realized that learning could actually be pleasant. I was a freshman in college, crunched under a library desk with Dante Alighieri at 2 in the morning, cramming for a final exam. Since “Literary Tradition 2” was one of those core classes everyone complained about having to take, it caught me off guard when I was struck by the odd realization that I wasn’t miserable. Actually, I couldn’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be than huddled under that desk with Dante and a cold cup of bad cafeteria coffee. “I actually kind of LIKE this… weird.” I didn’t quite know what to make of it at the time.

After graduation I realized that moment was the first time I had experienced the wonderful effect on my soul that came from doing something I was hard-wired for: pursuing the good, the true and the beautiful. We live in a culture where education has come to mean expertise – a specialized study in a narrow field one has chosen on the basis of one’s individual inclinations and talents. This can be a good thing, and the productivity that has come out of this type of learning has built up the world we live in and allowed individuals to exercise their unique talents. But I’m afraid something has been lost in the process; very few people these days get to experience that Dante-moment like I did when I was 19.

These days education seems to be so focused on the objective, the end goal of achieving your dream job, that much of the pleasure of it is lost in the process. I hear often about people who try to knock out their “gen eds” at community college so they can move on to another school to get specialized in their field, or even about people at liberal arts schools who slog torpidly through 2 years of core classes, anxious to begin their major electives because those are the classes that REALLY matter. Philosophy, Western Civilization, Great Books are regarded as “classes I HAVE to take before moving on to the good stuff that actually pertains to me and my life.”

But there’s something wrong with this view. I would argue that the core classes are the most essential part of a liberal arts education, and even the foundation for education itself.

Let me try a thought experiment. Step outside the modern mindset about education for a second and imagine that the purpose of education is something more than getting a job. Imagine that education is meant to shape the soul and form the character. This is exactly what happens when you put 20 young minds, one wise instructor, and a couple of thousand-year-old books in a room together. Kids suddenly realize that Homer is speaking directly to them about that anger management problem, and that Shakespeare has been there in that moment when their boyfriend is acting crazy and they don’t know what to do. Even more: they have answers. If this worked for Odysseus then it just might work for me. Why? Because some things never change. Encountering those things that never change, those eternal truths about the human soul, is tremendously delightful.

But it’s also instructive. We don’t study timeless philosophy and poetry because it’s fun to see how people thought a long time ago – they teach us to use our minds in a way that a hyper-specialized degree couldn’t, because the orientation is different. Where most modern universities tend to focus on a narrow set of data and information to teach expertise in a particular field, the liberal arts strive for the broadest, most general, most unchanging, most universally applicable truths known to man. These are the things that trigger that inward spark of recognition, because they are the most human things. As such, they have relevance in any situation.

The Core is a selection of classes that have been deliberately chosen for their special relevance to all men at all times. I’ve heard people say that the liberal arts aren’t for everybody, and for a while I wondered if they were right. It’s true that not everyone is inclined to enjoy cramming their noses into books until the wee hours; everyone is different and not everyone is naturally built to enjoy academic life. But if given the attention they merit, these classes can be tremendously rewarding because they appeal to things that are most profoundly human in everyone. There is no one who can’t profit from a little exposure to thoughts and sentiments that have been true and relevant for thousands of years, and when they are taught well I’ve found that they are almost always universally enjoyable. Seeing oneself reflected in an ancient story strikes a certain chord with people, and can foster reasoning skills that can’t be learned from technical formulas. This is the type of wisdom that one learns from core liberal arts classes, and the whole reasoning behind having a core curriculum; there are certain books and certain ideas which are good for everyone to know, no matter who they are, because they appeal to our shared nature as human beings.

Does this mean people should give up learning practical skills or taking specialized degrees to achieve the job they want? Certainly not. This type of training has an important place in the world we live in. My point is simple: don’t sell the core classes short. If you go to a liberal arts school, don’t be in a hurry to rush into your major electives; love the core, and be open to the knowledge, formation, and pleasure it has to offer you. If you don’t go to a liberal arts school, read the great books. There’s something there for everyone. There are certain types of wisdom that are a central part of human life, and if given the chance, they can make you fall in love with them the way I fell in love with Dante under the desk at 2 a.m.

But don’t ask me why I felt compelled to curl up underneath the desk instead of using it like a normal person. Some things will always remain mysterious.