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10 Dec 2017

November reading review – It’s been a busy December so far as we try to wrap up our stay here in Cambridge. Yesterday we had originally thought of going to the Harvard Semitic Museum, but it turns out that it is closed on Saturday, so instead we went down to Allston for the Ceramics Program Holiday Show and Sale and the Allston-Brighton Winter Market (in the same building). We had breakfast in a highly rated place called The Breakfast Club, and sure enough it was a reference to the 1985 John Hughes classic, with breakfast menu items such as “The Dork,” “The Criminal,” “The Basket Case,” “The Jock,” and “The Princess” (if you’ve seen the film, you’ll understand the references). In fact, the whole place was a homage to the 80s, with 80s film posters and other 80s memorabilia decorating the walls, and 80s music (Tears for Fears, Madonna, Genesis, A-Ha, etc.) in the air. Of course, we were served by a girl who wasn’t even alive in the 80s—and I’m guessing that a good portion of the clientele remembered little of anything of the 80s either. It was fun, and the food was good, but it made me feel old.

“Though I know the story by heart, it is always a great pleasure to read, and I expect it will remain so for as long as I am able to read.”

The ceramics market and show was also very interesting. Were we living long-term in the area, we no doubt would have picked up a number of items, but we are trying to reduce the amount of stuff we have to take back to Korea, not increase it. Unfortunately, we could not pass up a bargain on a very interesting (and relatively small) piece, so the visit can only be deemed a partial success.

The rest of the day was spent trying to organize things in preparation for the big move as we had our first snow of the season. Today we woke up to a world blanketed in white beneath a bright sun and blue skies. (Actually, we woke up, while it was still dark, to the noise of snow-clearing equipment, but that doesn’t sound nearly as romantic.) But that’s not the reason for today’s entry, of course. This was all just a really long and unrelated introduction to my reading review for the month of November. Last month I managed to read only two books outside of my academic and research reading. So, without further ado....

The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance (Josh Waitzkin, 2007)

I discovered this book through the suggestion of a chess YouTuber who posts a lot of great videos, agadmator. He mentioned that he was reading this book, and it sounded interesting, so I went to the library and picked it up. Even before I had finished reading the introduction, I knew that the author was operating on a level far above my own. He is most famous for being a chess prodigy (and the subject of the film Searching for Bobby Fischer), but it turns out that he is also a champion martial artist.

I have often looked at people who achieve great things and thought that I will never be able to reach such a level. Whatever it is that they have, whatever that spark of genius might be, I don’t have it. I might be good at certain things, but can I ever be truly great? Similar thoughts were going through my mind as I read the introduction, and I wondered if I would find Waitzkin’s advice to be useful at all or simply out of my league. Then I finished the introduction and started reading the first chapter... and I felt like I had walked right into a royal fork. The first subject Waitzkin delved into was the difference between what are known as the “entity theory of intelligence” and the “incremental theory of intelligence.” These are two different ways to think about learning capacity; in short, the former sees intelligence as fixed while the latter sees intelligence as changeable. In other words, if you are an entity theorist, you believe that there is a limit to what you can achieve (in part) because there is a limit to your intelligence. On the other hand, if you are an incremental theorist, you believe that your achievements are limited only by the effort you are willing to put into learning.

These were not new ideas for me, of course. I was aware of them on a theoretical level, but being put into a very entity-theory mindset and then shown how limiting that mindset is was, to put it bluntly, shocking. I immediately began to see more aspects of entity theory thinking in my life. As a mental exercise, I generally do a chess puzzle or two each day, and on the day I started reading this book I happened to have a long streak of successful solves. I felt a little tense when I was trying to solve that day’s puzzle, hoping that I would be able to keep the streak going. I did, in fact, solve the puzzle successfully and keep my streak alive, but I also immediately realized that I was thinking in an entity-theory fashion. That is, if intelligence is malleable, then the puzzle simply becomes a way for me to better myself, and a failure is as valuable as (if not more valuable than) a success. But if intelligence is fixed, a failure means that I am not good enough—and probably never will be. This is a somewhat simplistic way of looking at chess puzzles, of course. They do indeed test intelligence, but they also test other things, like concentration and patience, so it’s not really possible to draw a straight line between A and B. But I still generally get frustrated when I fail a puzzle, and I will often fail several in a row because I’ve gone on tilt (to borrow a poker term). I once failed nine puzzles in a row because each failure just made me more frustrated and unable to concentrate and see the possibilities on the board. Had I seen each failure as an opportunity to improve my “chess intelligence,” I would have been much better served by the experience (and probably wouldn’t have failed nine in a row).

Although I was familiar with the ideas Waitzkin was discussing, I was not familiar with the terminology. I’m more familiar with the ideas of “results orientation” and “process orientation,” and these concepts map pretty closely to “entity theory” and “incremental theory,” respectively. I suppose I have always been guilty of leaning to the former side rather than the latter. I did fairly well in high school without trying all that hard simply because I didn’t have to try that hard. But then when I got to university I ran headlong into the reality that I didn’t know how to study. I managed to learn, though, showing that I was not entirely an entity theorist, but I did go into a bit of a funk for a while before I was able to pull myself together. It’s a little annoying to realize that I am still often an entity theorist, but I suppose I should look at this as yet another opportunity for improvement.

Waitzkin talks about a lot more than just entity and incremental theories of intelligence, of course. It was amazing to see just how much thought he has put into the art of learning, going as far as inventing his own terminology for different techniques and concepts. There is, for example, the concept of “studying numbers to leave numbers,” which refers to mastering the fundamentals of something to the point that those fundamentals become completely internalized and can then be transcended to reach a higher level of skill. A chess example might be to study various combinations on the board to the point that you see them without even having to think about them. Another concept is “making smaller circles,” which refers to delving down into a technique to determine its essence, then training yourself to gradually carve away the external manifestations of the technique until you are able to achieve the essence with an absolute minimum of effort. This idea sounds a bit more esoteric, but a martial arts example is illustrative: Start with the full motion required for a punch, but then pare away all unnecessary motions until you are left with an explosive punch that seems to come out of nowhere. (This will make sense to anyone who has ever trained in a striking martial art, at least.)

I could go on about this book, but I think that is enough for now. Suffice it to say that, although I borrowed this book from the library and will have to return it soon, I plan on picking up a copy for myself when I get back to Korea. In addition to being a chess prodigy and champion martial artist, Waitzkin is also a pretty good writer, and the book was as much of a pleasure to read as it was enlightening and inspiring. I will be returning to this one often.

The Lord of the Rings (J. R. R. Tolkien, 1954-55)

Speaking of returning to books, after I mentioned in my previous reading review that LOTR is one book I go back to every now and then, I decided that it was time for another read. I honestly have no idea how many times I have read this now, but the number is well into the double digits. Reading LOTR is like sitting down with an old friend for a long talk and reminiscence. Though I know the story by heart, it is always a great pleasure to read, and I expect it will remain so for as long as I am able to read.

So what can I say about a book that I have read more times than I can remember? Well, I guess I could say anything, since I don’t think I’ve ever reviewed the book here. But trying to write everything I could about LOTR would result in a book itself rather than a journal entry, so I’ll focus on something that I have noticed before but which struck me with particular force this time around: Tolkien’s respect for oral tradition.

I suppose it is no surprise that Tolkien should have a great respect for oral tradition, since he did draw on various epic traditions and intended LOTR itself to be a mythic epic of sorts. This time, though, all of the instances in the text where Tolkien references oral tradition really jumped out at me. The most obvious are the many songs and poems included in the text. I was very happy to see Peter Jackson bring much of the song and poetry into the LOTR films, although even that was only the tip of the iceberg. In the book, characters break into song so often that a first-time reader might be forgiven for thinking that he or she had stumbled into a musical. I don’t know how other people feel about all the songs, but I love them. You can tell how important these songs are to Tolkien—they are not just musical interludes, they are a vital part of the culture and history that underpins the story. I remember being blown away the first time I realized that the songs of the Rohirrim were modeled after Old English poetry like Beowulf in their use of poetic alliteration. That was probably when I first started looking more closely at the songs and began seeing how each reflected the culture it came from. (Minor but related film gripe: The song that Pippin sings for Denethor in Return of the King is indeed a hobbit song, although it leaves out the “hobbit-like” lines, and Billy Boyd’s melody—while hauntingly beautiful—is definitely not a hobbit melody.)

Oral tradition in LOTR goes far deeper than the songs, though. There are many old songs and tales that are referenced but never presented in full (at least not in the main body of the text—some of these stories are related in the Appendices). There are also a number of times when someone remembers some old piece of lore that holds the key to solving the problem at hand. One example that comes immediately to mind is the scene from the Houses of Healing, when old Ioreth remembers the saying, “The hands of a king are the hands of a healer,” which leads to Aragorn entering the city to save Faramir and Eowyn. So, in a way, Ioreth and her knowledge of old lore are directly responsible for the lives of two important characters. There are many other examples, of course, such as the prophecy regarding Isildur’s Bane or the verse about the rings of power and the One Ring. And all of this takes place in a world of (mostly) literate societies.

I actually thought about going into much greater detail about this as I was reading—even briefly thinking about the possibility a paper that discusses the role of folklore and oral tradition in Tolkien’s work. I quickly scrapped this idea, though, mainly because I don’t really have time for a completely unrelated research tangent at this point, and also because I figured that someone else would have already written this paper already—I mean, how could it not have already been written? I haven’t bothered digging around to see if such a paper already exists, since the first reason for not writing it still holds, but I imagine that the idea will remain in the back of my mind, percolating away until I one day decide to do something about it—even if that something is nothing more than a much more involved journal entry.

But I will leave it at this for today. Despite the fact that I only covered two books, this still turned out to be a respectable entry. I guess it didn’t hurt that the books, both new and old, were great. It is unlikely that I am going to be able to read much more in terms of non-academic or research-related books (although, looking back at some of the earlier reading reviews, I see that I did include research-related books in the beginning), so this will probably be my last reading review. It’s a good enough note as any to end a year of good reading on.

Send me your thoughts.

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