Showing posts with label enlightenment. Show all posts
Showing posts with label enlightenment. Show all posts

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Libraries: earliest fond memories

For some people, I suspect, libraries have become an act of faith, or a kind of heritage; they hang on to libraries like cathedrals long after their belief in the deity has past away. No doubt the great libraries will survive. Those are the ones with vast national collections, or those with a special antiquity, or a majestic architecture.

The fate of the rundown relics of suburbia is less clear; not matter how much we celebrate the power of the little library it appears that its extinction is as likely as the video-hire shop, or even the local bookshop, with its greeting cards, its quaint plantpots, and its local authors.

Yet some of us still delight in tea-leaves, coffee-beans, and the safe solidity of printed books, long after the the victory of the instant download has streamlined the past, the present, and the future, in a dizzying sea of sameness. Sometimes there is something radical in remembering the past; it need not collapese into a conservative tear-torn nostalgia.

Gazing over these old photos of my local library, Crossgates, in Leeds, I remember the smell of polished floors; it was also the odour of Barclays Bank, the Leek and Westbourne Building Society, and civic buildings such as the Town Hall. The smell of leather seats and books bound in leather. Built to last.



I soon outgrew the Children's Library. I had enjoyed a book on The Life of Birds (especially the chapter on the sociability of rooks); for  I had moved on now to insects and, having learned the Latin names Diptera, Hymenoptera, Lepidopetera ... what I was seeking was a very big book containing all the English and Latin names for all the animals.

The bewildered librarian and my apologetic mother led me round to the section of the adult library dealing with principles of classification. This ought to have taught me a lesson, and in a way it did; for now there was the awesome realization that libraries did not classify their books by size or colour, or rank them according to popularity, but instead used the Dewey system of numbers on their spines. Books, like animals and plants, were subject to a taxonomy.

Main Adult Library

That section of the library also had books on religion and spirituality; so it seemed reasonable to respect this temple of wisdom by sampling some of those books. The History of Monasticism was not a book that I read in its entirety. In fact, as I now recall, the only part of the book that shocked me at the time was the outline of the problems with monastic discipline; and certain highly sinful, and to me deeply mysterious, irregularities of conduct, which persistently threatened to undermine the holy orders.

Ouspensky's The Fourth Way was a book that I laboured with for years. I'm still not sure whether Gurdjieff was a charlatan, but I know that I had accidently taught myself the foundations of meditation, self-realization, awakening, and awareness. But the real conversion was to the library experience, to history, and mythologies.

As I had just read all the Tolkien books, and I was now busy writing my young adult novel, Lord Ethelred, an Anglo-Saxon adventure, it was invaluable to have access to Beowulf and Its Analogues. Whenever my novel ran out of steam someone would recite the next episode of Beowulf using the voice of an 11-year old Yorkshire lad. Sadly this great work, like many others, remains unfinished.

The Crossgates Library still appears to be functioning. In 2009 it celebrated 70 years of community service.  I'm intending to make the pilgrimage and pay my respects the next time I'm visiting Leeds.

Crossgates Library, 1939

We all know that books have largely ceased to be sacred objects or things to be reverenced, and that the technology that replaced scrolls and parchment, and now throws out the relics of the printed book, is creating a new reformation and renaissance in the dissemination of wisdom and knowledge. Times change and so do our media for experiencing those changes. The sublime cathedrals of knowledge and their modest little suburban cousins have shrunk to the palm of my hand. Here is all God's plenty at the touch of a finger and the flick of the thumb.

For me, the library was a refuge. It was a place of peace and calm. But it could also make you heart beat with wonder, with delight, with discovery. It was the amazement of scale, of order, and system; it was power, authority, and respect. It was also gentle curves, an invitation to join the circle. Its polish was an invitation to ascend and to participate, to glide along its smooth surfaces.

But I fear that the vision of a great library built in 1939 to serve the vast council housing project (to the left of the image above) was a bold statement for a brave people perched on the precipice of poverty, and the darkest war hitherto witnessed in the historic 'progress' of humanity. What we are perhaps gaining in the march technology we are also losing in the vanishing magnitude of our vision. That vision, whether it belonged to the East or the West was a kind of Enlightenment that still has the capacity to decrease and hold back the forces of cultural vandalism and community fragmentation.





Dr Ian McCormick is the author of
also available on Kindle,

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Bonnell's list of topics for debate in class (1867)




In A Manual of the Art of Prose Composition: For the Use of Colleges and Schools (1867), John Mitchell Bonnell explained the value of Extemporaneous Composition;  Debating by the Class; and proposed a list of topics for debate. This is an extract from his book.


The following list presents a few of the questions that afford good fields for debate.

Does wealth exert more influence than intelligence?

Should a criminal be capitally condemned on circumstantial evidence?

Are banks more beneficial than injurious?

Ought military schools to be encouraged?

Should colleges be endowed?

Did the French revolution advance the cause of liberty in Europe?

Is there any real danger of the over-population of the globe?

Is country life more favourable to the cultivation of virtue than life in a city?

Is history a more useful study than biography?

Is ambition more destructive of personal happiness than avarice?

Is it the duty of good men to discountenance the theatre?

Is the Bible more essential to the spread of Christianity than the living ministry?

Does poetry demand a higher order of genius than oratory?

Does military life tend to qualify men to become good civil governors?

Has Mohammedanism produced more evil than good?

Is it ever right to deceive a rational man?

Should the chief end of civil punishment be the reformation of criminals, or the prevention of crime?

Ought the state to provide for the free education of all children within its borders?

Is it expedient to form colonies of convicts?

Would a congress of nations be practical or beneficial?

Was the field of eloquence in ancient Greece or Rome superior to that in our own country?

Are novels more injurious than beneficial?

Is it expedient to unite manual with mental labour in an educational establishment?

Which exerts the greater influence on society, the teacher or the preacher?

Which controls public opinion more extensively, the ministry or the newspaper press?

Does a natural proclivity to crime diminish the guilt of the act?

Should a member of the American House of Representatives be bound by the will of his constituents?

Do savage nations possess an exclusive right to the soil?

Should the right of suffrage be co-extensive with resident manhood?

Is a lawyer justifiable in defending a cause that he believes to be bad?

Ought the Protective Policy or the Free Trade principles to prevail?

Ought gambling to be suppressed by law?

Which is the better for the development of good character, poverty or riches?

Ought the liberty of the press to be restricted?

Ought imprisonment for debt to be abolished?

Should corporal punishment be allowed in schools?

Ought religious institutions to be supported by law?

Should infidel publications be suppressed by law?

Should atheists be eligible to office?

Has government a right to suppress Mormon or Mohammedan polygamy?

Are all mankind descended from one pair?

Is man responsible for his belief?

Can any of the moral attributes of God be proved from the light of nature?

Is a scholastic education preferable to a private one?

Are the principles of the Peace society practicable?

Should the course of study in college be the same for all pupils?

Are monastic orders favourable to the cultivation of true piety?

Are inequalities of rank in society favourable to social progress?

Was the influence of Jefferson upon his age and country beneficial?

Was Bonaparte greater in the field than in the cabinet?

Have the United States the right to forbid European interference with other American governments?

Does morality keep pace with civilization?

Which has done the greater service to the cause of truth, philosophy or poetry?

Is the cultivation of the Fine Arts conducive to virtue?

Has sectarianism done more to advance or retard the interests of Christianity?

Is a "little learning" more dangerous than ignorance?


Further Reading

On Extemporaneous Composition and Debating by the Class... here.

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)

 

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The gentle art of reading and writing blogs


Because there are now millions of free blogs we have the opportunity to dip into lots of different kinds of writing and to sample quite different approaches to recurring topics or themes. Doing this kind of reading randomly can have wonderful results. It's called serendipity which involves surprise discoveries and unexpected connections.

Serendipity is, of course, an eighteenth century word (1754). While we may consider that the period of the Enlightenment was obsessed with reason, system, order and process, the variety of different kinds of topical, fictional and journalistic writing offered many opportunities for fluid expression by creative people and mercurial personalities.

Serendipity is also a useful strategy for broadening your interests and for avoiding the so-called writer's block.

I believe that all great writers are also intelligent critical readers. I despair when I hear people saying that they want to write, but then proceed to say that they are not interested in other people's work. Sometimes it's a good idea to imitate or parody writers that you like or dislike. (Imitation is not the same as copying.)

Part of writing is a craft, and it's good to learn the rules before you start to break them creatively. There are plenty of style and grammar manuals on the market.

In order to establish your own voice and style it’s essential to compose regularly. It is also correct to say, in my view, that improvements come slowly over a period of time. In the art of writing there are few miracles that manifest themselves overnight. And genius is 90% effort and training. Learning to write fluently and effectively can be as difficult as learning to play an instrument such as the piano, violin, or guitar,

It is crucial to be self-critical, but you should avoid becoming self-destructive. Think about how you would the improve blogs that you wrote 6 months ago. Reviewing past material should also build your confidence by giving you a sense of progression.

Also, ask yourself how you are responding to an issue, and think about the kind of reader that you have in mind - this is also something that you can research. These days, writers tend to know who they are writing for.

I would also say that blogging is a genre in itself. This means that you will need to write differently when you turn your blogs into a larger article, essay, or book. Typically, the most popular blogs are very personal, or they offer lots of tips in bullet points. That said, there are REALLY no fixed rules or expectations for this genre. My own blogs have a variety of styles, and I see them sometimes as experiments, and as work-in-progress.

Another positive aspect of blogging is that you can break a larger project down into smaller components, or event fragments that do not fit together as you compose them. After a period of time you start to see links between the pieces, and new patterns of significance are established.

Finally, one of the most valued aspects of blogging is the opportunity for dialogue and what we have come to term interactivity.

In our time, writing is a bit more collaborative and a little less solitary.

Quote from Wiki:

"Although not a must, most good quality blogs are interactive, allowing visitors to leave comments and even message each other via GUI widgets on the blogs, and it is this interactivity that distinguishes them from other static websites. In that sense, blogging can be seen as a form of social networking. Indeed, bloggers do not only produce content to post on their blogs but also build social relations with their readers and other bloggers."



Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences (2013) ... 
also available on Kindle, or to download