Saturday, January 26, 2013

Drawing Outside The Lines: Marginalia and E-Books

I was an early adopter of the Kindle, but I stopped using it several years ago.  The books I most wanted weren't (and many still aren't) available for it, and it was hard to use it as I like to use books.

You see, I am an annotator.  I draw in books.  

Everyone told me when I was a kid that you should NOT draw in books.  But I can't help it.

Last summer my sister-in-law, seeing me read with a pencil in my hand, asked me if I always do that.  I hadn't really thought about it as unusual until then, but yes, I guess I do.  That way my reading becomes a kind of conversation with the book.  The author writes, and I write back.

It is becoming a bit easier to annotate e-books, but we have a long way to go, perhaps because we have structured our computers to think in a linear fashion.  Computers think in stoichedon, in lines and ranks, like soldiers in formation.  Which is a good way to organize information, but it's not the only way, because it's not the only way lines can move.  "Idea mapping" or "mind mapping" is another way.  This can be expanded to three dimensions or more, as well.  Think of a way a line can move and you have another way of taking notes. 

Over the years I have devised my own shorthand for note-taking.  For some things, I borrow old conventions of abbreviation and expand them, like this:

could - cd
would - wd
should - shd
something - s/t
everything - e/t
nothing - n/t
because - b/c
nevertheless - n/t/l

And so on.  Some words, like selah, have entered my annotative vocabulary because they say so much so briefly.  (See footnote 3 here, about "selah.")

At times, I've also found it helpful to invent new symbols, pictograms of whole ideas, sentences that can be written a single picture.  I can do these with a flick of the pen, but they're much harder to incorporate into a digital text.

I draw lines from one page to the next to connect ideas.  I circle names when they first appear in a text so that I can find them again.  I draw vertical lines beside paragraphs to quickly highlight long sections of text.  A double line emphasizes that highlighting.

I draw maps, and sketch pictures.  Sometimes I write in other languages, other alphabets, when those other languages get the idea down more quickly, or more carefully.  I haven't written music in books, but I don't see why you couldn't. 

And all of that becomes an icon of a conversation.  The annotated page is no longer text; it is an image, and a symbol of a set of relations between ideas and authors.

When I was in grad school, José Vericat (who did not know me from Adam) kindly gave me a list of books belonging to Charles Peirce and housed in one of Harvard's libraries. Peirce died in 1914, but his lines and words still illuminate his reading of those pages.

Another bit of scholarly generosity was shown to me a few years ago when I was working on my book on the environmental vision of C.S. Lewis at the Wade Center.  The director, Christopher Mitchell, learned of my interest in Lewis's reading of Henri Bergson.  Mitchell brought me Lewis's copy of Bergson's Évolution Créatrice to peruse.  Every page is covered with marginalia written by Lewis as he recovered from his war injuries.

I think my favorite part of Thomas Cahill's book, How The Irish Saved Civilization, was seeing the facsimiles of marginal paintings - including some racy self-portraits - by monks who copied books in Ireland in the middle ages.

My point in this long blog post?  Keep drawing in books.  And maybe I'll get another Kindle someday if they can figure out a way to make it easy for me to draw outside the lines.  And to preserve those drawings for posterity.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Locking Up The Neighbors

This week the South Dakota Senate made a good decision for a bad reason.  The Senate approved a welcome set of changes to the way the state treats convicted criminals, effectively reducing prison sentences for a variety of offenses.

South Dakota's prisons are nearly full to capacity, and the state was forced to choose between building more prisons and reforming its sentencing laws.  The latter choice was the less expensive one, and that appears to be the main reason for the reform.

I've read that in the USA we now have more prisoners than farmers.  I'm also told we have more prisoners than any other country in the world, and a much higher per-capita incarceration rate than any other developed country.   Either we produce more criminals than other countries, or we are more aggressive in our incarceration policies.

I've argued before that our criminal code should not be devised along economic lines, but along the lines of love.  Jens Soering similarly argues forcefully that our prisons are "an expensive way to make bad men worse."

We don't need to make men worse but to give them every opportunity to better themselves. 

I'm not saying we shouldn't be tough on crime; we should be very tough on crime.  But our current policies are not so much tough on crime as they are tough on criminals.

What I am saying is this: we should not regard criminals as people with a past but as people with a future.  Many need to be incarcerated, yes, but if a man is to be locked up, let us lock him up as a neighbor.  As they enter the prisons, let it be our first and guiding thought that they will soon emerge as our neighbors.  And let us therefore do all we can to allow them to emerge as better men and women, not as worse ones.


UPDATE:  I did not know it at the time, but as I was writing this post above, a family in my city was pleading with a judge to have mercy on the man who killed one of their family members.  Their words, which you can read here, show a remarkable ability to look past their desire for vengeance and exemplify concern for the criminal.  It is possible.  It is possible.  It is possible.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Finding One's Way: Three Questions About Vocation

My students often ask me, "What should I do with my life after I graduate?"

The simple answer I usually give is this: you should pursue your vocation.

In answering that way, I hope to encourage students not to accept others' stories about how their lives should go, and to begin to give them some tools for answering their own question.

My reason for caution is that the word "vocation" is a tricky one.  It has tendrils that grow in many directions, and some of them don't need much fertilizer before they reach into some messy metaphysical and ethical questions. 

There's an important lesson in all those stories about magic that have been handed down through the ages: words have real power to change the world and to swerve the direction of others' actions.  Which means they should be handled with care. "Vocation" is one of the strong words.  It's got a kind of magic to it because it has the power to enchant our lives by drawing a lot of ideas together into one place, and by drawing some long arrows leading towards and away from the place where you stand right now.  Its root, the Latin word vocatio, means "calling."  This is what I mean by the "tendrils" and the messy metaphysics they can grow into: if you're called, that might imply a caller, which might imply some strong obligations. 

Here are some suggestions for how to handle the idea of vocation with care: 

First, don't tell other people what their vocation must be.  Imposing strong narratives on others' lives is what we do when we pretend to be God.  I don't recommend trying to play that role.  Read some Milton before you do, anyway.

Second, no matter how strong your sense of your own calling, remember that we see as in a glass, darkly.  You can't judge a voice except with your own ears, so remember the limitations of your hearing. 

Third, and along those same lines, don't make rash decisions about the last step of your journey; look instead to the next step. This means having some humility, and a lot of patience with yourself and with your own life.  It means not knowing how the story of your life will unfold, but reading it - and writing it - one page at a time.

With those caveats in mind, here are three questions that I offer students who are trying to figure out what their calling may be.  I recommend taking the time to consider them thoughtfully.  Write your answers down, and after a while, ask trustworthy friends who know you and love you if they agree with your answers.  As you consider these questions, don't think about jobs and careers, lest that limit your answers.  The aim in asking each of these questions is this: to know yourself better.

First, what are you good at?  What are your skills and your strengths? Don't just think about the things you enjoy doing here; include all your gifts and talents.

Second, what do you love to do?  Don't just think about what you're good at, but include those things you love but haven't any talent for.

Third, what do you want to accomplish? How would you like the world to be changed when you are done with it?  How would you like to be known?  What do you most want to do, or be?  What would you write in your autobiography?

Do any patterns appear?  As you answer these questions honestly, do you discover anything about yourself that you didn't see clearly before?  Answering these questions won't sort everything out for you, and I know I can't tell you what your calling is.  But I do think that getting to know yourself, your loves, your talents, and your aspirations can help you to avoid simply doing what others want you to doAnd they just might shed some light on the path ahead.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


When I was an undergraduate studying Classical Greek, one of the first Greek words I learned from Professor Eve Adler was chaire! It's the common greeting in Attic Greek, the "hello, there!" of the ancient Greek world.*

We can translate it as "Hail!" or "Hello!" but it literally means "Rejoice!"

There are a lot of ways to greet someone.  You can announce your own presence, or acknowledge the presence of others; you can offer a command, or express a wish; you can arrive with a blessing. 

I like the idea of greeting someone by wishing them joy.  Wherever we're going, it's good to arrive with a desire to see others rejoice, with a blessing on our lips.


This Sunday the Gospel reading in the Revised Common Lectionary was the story of the Wedding in Cana.

The story goes like this: Jesus is invited to a wedding.  The wedding guests drink all the wine, and it looks like the party might be over.  Jesus' mother, Mary, tells him "They have no more wine."  Jesus makes lots more wine.  And it's good wine.  The party goes on.

And people wonder why I'm a theist.  This is a good God.

Because whatever else is going on in this story, this is a God that arrives with a desire to see people rejoice.

It's easy to forget that.

Miroslav Volf posted something on his Facebook page this week that reminded me that in some ancient cultures, wedding parties lasted a whole week.  I wonder, how long had these people in Cana been drinking?

And then I think: would I even know how to throw a party that lasted for a whole week?  What would such a party be like?  I admit I don't know.  But I like the idea of trying.

How would that change the way we saw the world?  What if the aim of life was not prosperity but mutual enjoyment and living towards times of rejoicing?  What if we made it our purpose to prayerfully complain, on behalf of others, "They have no more wine!"

So to you reading this, I have one word, a blessing on my lips for you: Chaire!  Rejoice!  And may you find joy that endures throughout your week.


 * The Greek word is spelled χαῖρε, dual χαίρετον, plural χαίρετε.  I've transliterated it here on the assumption that most of my readers don't know the Greek alphabet.  The verb χαίρω, of which these words are several forms, means "rejoice."