Saturday, March 13, 2021

The King of Secondary Sources

Do you remember when ED Hirsch came out with the book Cultural Literacy in the late 80's? There was a quiz, and other quizzes developed in imitation. I nailed those things, every one of them except the protest ones or parodies. 

I have also always been a strong advocate for reading primary sources, and the original works of the author, as CS Lewis encouraged in "On the Reading of Old Books." Don't read about Paradise Lost or the Inferno, fellow, read them yourself! You get a much better feel for Puritans if you read a diary or three.  Even more modern works are buried in commentary, and people know some excerpts, or what is said by folks who seem to know what they are talking about.

So, how many of these works have I actually read, fully, start to finish? Very few. I am the King of Secondary Sources, having overheard, or seen references to, or read excerpts from way more material than just about anyone you know. The others spend so much of their time reading the whole thing.  It seems wasteful. The complete work is just boring, you know?  If you have to read slowly, noticing that TS Eliot is echoing Chaucer's Canterbury Tales' "Whan that Aprille..."  when he begins "The Waste Land" with "April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land," then I'm never getting past the first ten lines.  I would make an effort on those ten lines, just so I could have some tag for the poem that I might use to connect the ideas to something else (or to have something to say to give the appearance of having read the work), but then I'm out.  Boring.  Not enough happening. I read that Tyler Cowan reads only as far into a book until he thinks he has got enough of the idea, then just drops the book wherever he is standing - in an airport, at a restaurant, in the kitchen - never picking it up again.  That man is my hero.

I have read the Bible.  Once straight through, all of the NT books multiple times, and I think the OT as well.  Everything of CS Lewis I ever got my hands on. GK Chesterton, with a recent exception I found uninteresting, I read all the way through. Absurdist playwrights. I look at my shelves and see that there actually is a lot of nonfiction that I have read and reread. But fiction, or The Great Books, or The Classics? Not so much. One picks up things over the years and tries to assemble them and connect them.  I mentioned to a friend today that I am listening to 30 minute interviews about Great Books, and he nodded agreement that it must give me a good idea which one's I wanted to take out of the library or buy, then read all the way through.  Yeah, that would be a good idea, wouldn't it? Of the hundred episodes so far, I have bought or borrowed one.  Admittedly, there were some things on the list I actually had read at some point in the last 60 years, perhaps even thirty of them.  I could comment knowledgeably on about 80% before I started (and have!), and am now up to 90%, though even some episodes I just listened to have already begun to fade.  

I will have to look up the Wikipedia article on those, so that I have learned with two senses. 

I can name the countries of Europe and their capitals, even the debatable countries like Azerbaijan. It comes in handy the one time in your life you run into a guy from there.

I wrote about Pierre Bayard's wonderful book How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read about five years ago.


Zachriel said...

Once upon a time literate European people all knew one and only one book, the Holy Bible. They knew every jot and tittle and could talk about the text in great depth with one another. Then books happened. At first, there were only a few books, books which everyone shared. If someone made an allusion to Pilgrim's Progress, everyone knew what they meant. Then more books happened. Today, you might look at a book on your own bookshelf and not remember if have read it or not.

Nowadays no one can possibly read every book on every subject. A good mix of primary, secondary, and even tertiary sources is important to understand the wide range of materials available. Each has value and each adds to overall knowledge.

Secondary sources are especially important for scholarly research. Darwin's On the Origin of Species is one of the great books of science, wonderfully written and encompassing a vast array of evidence, but it is very much outdated. It isn't necessary to ever read On the Origin of Species even if your field is evolutionary biology.

On the other hand, SparkNotes does not substitute for reading Les Misérables, To Jane: The Invitation or A Clockwork Orange.

Texan99 said...

We have a set of Great Books, one of those deals where they send you one every month or so, gorgeously bound in leather. They look and smell great, they have nice ribbons for keeping your place, they're printed on high-quality acid-free paper with gilt edges, they'll last forever. I've read very few of them. The fact is only a very few classics grab my attention. The Iliad, the Odyssey, Pepys's Diary--though come to think of it, I don't think the collection contains any of those. There were some choices that strike me as obscure.

Texan99 said...

Looking at Bayard's book now, and the short list at the end: Moby-Dick (keeping trying from time to time, can't stick with it); Ulysses (not my cup of tea, works too hard at transgression); Heart of Darkness (not usually tempted by too much unrelieved grimness); Invisible Man (never called to me); A Room of One's Own (yeah, complain some more, whatever); Being and Nothingness (in general I eschew depression and/or nihilism in artistic form); In Cold Blood (ditto); The Scarlet Letter (read it, disliked it); The Man Without Qualities (never heard of it before this moment); Lolita (yes, repeatedly, like a giant piece of chocolate cake); Jane Eyre (ditto); The Sun Also Rises (haven't tackled a Hemingway work since my impressionable teenage years, when anything cynical was good enough). I guess my tastes run more to Jane Austen, George Eliot, and E. M. Forster.

james said...

WRT Great Books:
My parents bought the Britannica Great Books series and its teaching guide before going overseas--and in the event never actually used them.
However, without TV or much access to movies or other entertainments, I wound up reading some of it unprompted. I figured that if it was a book and in the house it was mine to read. If it looked to my taste, I snaffled it. If I got through more than a couple of pages (sorry, Principia and Das Capital) it was a point of pride to finish it.

I read more books/month in high school than any time after, I think. The comic stuff tended to be first on the list, of course--Aristophanes, Rabelais, Cervantes.
Sorry, Newton, but there are much easier and more intuitive approaches to the material--I didn't get through more than a couple of pages. Chaucer was laid out in parallel translation--I skipped the original.
Dante--I had to keep looking at the footnotes to find out who was on base, and the translator made such a tiring scramble of sentence clauses that I barely made it through.

Science I skipped. That's been well refined over the years--try Jackson instead of Maxwell for electromagnetism, it'll be easier and more powerful. My geometry text covered the same material as Euclid, but in an easier-to-understand way.

History I went for (Gibbon, Herodotus, the Will and Ariel Durant series); Moby Dick was OK. Shakespeare was fine, but Aquinas formal approach drove me nuts--I still get cranky when I try to pick it up where I left off.

I didn't get through half the books--but almost.

I remember reading a few "books about"--including one about the writings of the Inklings, which prompted me to borrow all of Charles Williams from Tucker Callaway.
And I liked The Classics Reclassified--much better than the actual Silas Marner inflicted on our English class later.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Zachriel - I so agreed with your history and analysis...until your last sentence. Woody Allen's description of War and Peace comes to mind. "It's about Russia."

Texan99 said...

I enjoyed the beginning of Gibbon, then got bogged down in a list of new upstarts every six months or so who "did not blush to assume the purple." Wonderful narrative voice, drily funny, but difficult, like reading the Declaration of Independence all day. He wasn't in my Great Books collection, though. Shakespeare was, but I'd rather see his plays performed than read them.

RichardJohnson said...

Instead of Great Books - or not-so-great, depending on POV - I'll give some anecdotes about primary versus secondary sources.

In the aftermath of the recent Texas cold spell and blackout, I discussed my experience with relatives. Without looking at the current data, I felt safe in stating that wind energy production falls during cold spells- because I had observed that in over a decade of following Texas wind energy production. (Over a decade ago, I had signed up for the wind energy option with my local electrical utility.)

A NYC cousin replied that wind energy wasn't the "main culprit" in the "Texas energy mess." (Having lived through multi-day blackouts in NE due to ice storms or hurricanes, I was quite aware that blackouts are not unique to Texas in 2021.) Undoubtedly, he got his information from secondary sources- web articles. It took some time to find a primary source for Texas electric energy production, but I found it at the EIA.

I found out in looking at the 30 days before the storm and the blackout, and in the 5 days during the storm and the blackout, and then after the blackout (Feb 20 on) that my informed intuition was correct: the greatest fall in electrical energy production was in wind - with a massive increase in electrical energy production from natural gas. I sent my findings to my relatives, along with the EIA link so that my findings could be checked.

My NYC cousin replied with a kitchen sink's worth of snark. He began by citing Mark Twain's "lies, damned lies, and statistics," and finished his reply by stating that Texas needs fewer "Trumplicans." Note that my reply involved only statistics- nothing about politics. As he is not one of the innumerate, his reply is even more disconcerting. He has an EE degree and had his own software company before retiring. In addition, his reply indicated that he made no effort to look at the EIA primary source data link I provided. He certainly had the savvy to download the data and analyze it using spreadsheets a/o databases.

Further primary versus secondary source anecdotes involve a Sociology professor of the Greatest Generation. In a conversation about a book with a STEM professor, the STEM professor found out that the Sociology professor hadn't actually read the book- he had only read reviews. The best primary versus secondary source anecdote comes from his memoir about his doctoral student days at Harvard. Harvard doctoral students were given a list of Sociology classics they needed to know for their doctoral exams (prelims). He and his fellows students finessed this by assigning a book(s) to each doctoral student. The doctoral student would write a detailed review of the book. Each review was shared among the fellow students. Instead of making detailed readings of each book on the list, the doctoral students made detailed readings of the student-written reviews. It worked. He passed his doctoral exam. I wonder if this was an annual practice among Harvard Sociology doctoral students.

A final primary versus secondary source anecdote comes from various of my blog comments on Latin America. Unlike most First World lefties whose support of various lefty/Marxist regimes in Latin America is done with little or no hands-on experience of Latin America, my dislike of lefty/Marxist regimes in Latin America is based on having lived and worked in Latin America. Primary source data, such as World Bank data that comes directly from governments, gives ready refutation of most of the alleged accomplishments of lefty/Marxist regimes in Latin America.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

What you describe is similar to my brother and my late uncle, both very intelligent but unwilling to deal with actual information. Usually. There were exceptions.