Sunday, October 23, 2016
Huw Price in Aeon:
Well, two big things have changed in recent decades. First, there’s been a lot of real progress – theoretical, practical and technological – in understanding the mechanisms of intelligence, biological as well as non-biological. Second, AI has now reached a point where it’s immensely useful for many tasks. So it has huge commercial value, and this is driving huge investment – a process that seems bound to continue, and probably accelerate.
One way or another, then, we are going to be sharing the planet with a lot of non-biological intelligence. Whatever it brings, we humans face this future together. We have an obvious common interest in getting it right. And we need to nail it the first time round. Barring some calamity that ends our technological civilisation without entirely finishing us off, we’re not going to be coming this way again.
There have been encouraging signs of a growing awareness of these issues. Many thousands of AI researchers and others have now signed an open letter calling for research to ensure that AI is safe and beneficial. Most recently, there is a welcome new Partnership on AI to Benefit People and Society by Google, Amazon, Facebook, IBM and Microsoft.
For the moment, much of the focus is on safety, and on the relatively short-term benefits and impacts of AI (on jobs, for example). But as important as these questions are, they are not the only things we should be thinking about.
Siddharth Varadarajan in The Wire:
Emile Zola was a great man and an even greater writer. His 1898 article, ‘J’accuse…’, in which he indicted the French establishment of his day for its anti-semitism, is a classic of journalism. I am a journalist but I have neither the skill nor the courage of Zola. There is probably plenty that the establishment of my day can and should be indicted for but I will leave that to better and braver women and men. Where Zola said ‘I Accuse’, I am saying, ‘I Confess’.
Until this morning, I was angry and upset with the pro-establishment television anchors and actors who were bullying the whole of Bollywood into declaring they would not work with Pakistanis any more. It alarmed me when thugs in Mumbai said they will not allow the screening of any film featuring Pakistani actors. I thought it was mean-spirited for the Mumbai film festival to scrap the screening of a 1959 Pakistani classic. I was saddened when my alma mater, Mayo College, canceled a friendly cricket match with Lahore’s Aitchison College. How would this closing of the Indian mind help protect India’s borders, I wondered.
It is only when I read the stirring words of our information and broadcasting minister that I realised the error of my ways.
“It is very simple to say art has no boundaries,” Venkaiah Naidu ji said, “but countries have boundaries … I’m not building a case for a boycott of anyone but … the people’s sentiments should be respected. When a war is taking place, you have someone doing a drama with that country, that is not expected.”
Following Venkaiah ji’s advice of what is expected of people like me, and in keeping with the nationalist sentiments of our times, I am, therefore, choosing to make a full confession.
More here. [And watch Siddharth read his very touching confessions below.]
Marlon James in Literary Hub:
The problem is all this talking. Liberals, in particular love to talk. We debate issues, we explore the conservative angle (despite them never returning the favor), we talk about solutions, we even try to tolerate those who would not tolerate us. The problem with all this conversation, is that it is all we do. We have diversity panels and invite writers of color, perhaps Roxane Gay (who has long called out the lit establishment on this habit, and who inspired me to write this piece), or Junot Diaz, or an Indigenous American and/or Australian so as to not ignore original peoples. We invite a gay man or woman, with extra bonus points if the homosexual is a person of color. Then we invite a few white persons who claim to get it, even if they are mystified by the racial arguments breaking out on college campuses (aren’t they all rich kids?) or Black Lives Matter.
It’s not just that diversity, like tolerance is an outcome treated as a goal. It is that we too often mistake discussing diversity with doing anything constructive about it. This might be something we picked up from academia, the idea that discussing an issue is somehow on par with solving it, or at least beginning the process. A panel on diversity is like a panel on world peace. It should be seeking a time when we no longer need such panels. It should be a panel actively working towards its own irrelevance. The fact that we’re still having them not only means that we continue to fail, but the false sense of accomplishment in simply having one is deceiving us into thinking that something was tried.
Carl Zimmer in Stat:
The experience is maddening for Moore — especially because he’s a virologist. For everything that virologists have learned about rhinoviruses — the cause of the majority of colds — they have not invented a vaccine for them.
In 2013, Moore wondered if he could make one. He consulted a rhinovirus expert for some advice. Instead, the expert told him, “Oh, there will never be a vaccine for rhinovirus — it’s just not possible.”
“I thought, ‘Well, let’s look into that,’” recalled Moore, an associate professor at Emory University and a research scholar at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
Three years later, Moore and his colleagues now have a vaccine that has shown promising results in trials on macaques. The monkeys were able to produce antibodies against many types of rhinoviruses. Moore and his colleagues are now following up on those results with more research and hope to move soon to human trials.
Anis Shivani in AlterNet:
As the mainstream media keep up their relentless barrage of criticism of Donald Trump’s personal foibles, and as Hillary Clinton’s campaign takes advantage of it in a manner that seems clearly coordinated, the genuine concerns of nearly half of all Americans Donald Trump has tapped into are being ignored and sidelined by the intellectual elite. But Trumpism is a new constitution of populist authoritarianism in America, a permanent ideological tendency that will not fade away, regardless of the outcome of this election.
In one sense—having been up against the entire political and intellectual establishment—Trump has already come out the winner, because he has put into radical doubt (as did Bernie Sanders on the other side) the neoliberal consensus around which both major parties and their institutional supporters cohere in Washington. His is a renegade candidacy that will have a lasting impact on world politics, though it is easy to overlook this amid the din of moral righteousness currently trumped up by the establishment.
Brian Dillon in Cabinet:
Consider the possibilities broached in “Billie Holiday.” Here is Hardwick describing a young trumpet player (most probably Joe Guy) with whom the singer had recently become involved: “He was as thin as a stick and his lovely, round, light face, with frightened, shiny, round eyes, looked like a sacrifice impaled upon the stalk of his neck.” Or recalling Holiday’s coiffure: “And always the lascivious gardenia, worn like a large, white, beautiful ear…. Sometimes she dyed her hair red and the curls lay flat against her skull, like dried blood.” Holiday’s huge dogs, always present, are “like sculpted treasures, fit for the tomb of a queen.” As an admirer and hanger-on of the perennially “over-scheduled” performer, “one felt like an old carriage horse standing at the entrance, ready for the cold midnight race through the park.” In her most dismally concise image, Hardwick writes of Holiday’s death: “The police were at the hospital bedside, vigilant lest she, in a coma, manage a last chemical inner migration.”
And then there is this sentence—here it is again: “In her presence on these tranquil nights it was possible to experience the depths of her disbelief, to feel sometimes the mean, horrible freedom of a thorough suspicion of destiny.” It is one of those Hardwickian moments when the figural falls away and we’re faced, she and we, with the calamitous, gnomic essence of her subject: a woman who has never been a Christian, who cannot believe in family—Holiday’s mother fusses at the edges of the essay—and still less in the men she meets. A person whose sole commitments are to her “felonious narcotism” and perhaps to her art. The realization is stark, and unadorned by simile. But it is also not simple: it was “possible,” merely, to apprehend (or is it to inhabit?) Holiday’s absence of faith, and then only “sometimes.” Why?
a curve billed thrasher
is cleaning its beak on the ground—
we are closer now than ever—sitting
in shadow—I never want to scare
anyone—not really—I have a friend
who loves people who come out
suddenly—in the dark—
is the same distance as pain from here—
that’s my skin on your sweater—both hands
stripped now—I know I am someone
to you I am entirely—practicing
Spanish on the computer—gesturing to
the neighbor instead of speaking—
the body is never an accident—someone
I know I am not—letters are inseparable
from loss—moving what can be still
moved—one is sweeping the mouth—
what ever isn’t skin—take it off—
Saturday, October 22, 2016
Scott Esposito in Literary Hub:
The ten books below are selections from Scott Esposito’s The Missing Books, available exclusively as an electronic download from his website. The Missing Books is a curated directory of nearly 100 books that don’t exist, but should. Its listings are taken from the ranks of books that have not yet been published (but might one day be), books within books, and books whose authors did not manage to ever complete.
The Missing Books is a living document. As Esposito discovers more missing books (and as circumstances demand changes to this list) Esposito will update The Missing Books and release new editions. Anyone who purchases The Missing Books is entitled to all future versions of it, for free.
The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy (Reputed manuscript-in-progress by Cormac McCarthy.)
McCarthy’s most recent novel, The Road, was published in 2006, ten years prior to the time of this writing; at no other point in McCarthy’s 50-year career has the author let such a span pass without publishing a new novel. He has reportedly filled this time with two major projects, The Passenger being the one about which the most is known. Some light was shed on The Passenger in August 2015 (creating a small media firestorm) when McCarthy appeared at a Lannan Foundation event where he reportedly read excerpts from the book. The Passenger is said to be a very long book set in New Orleans, and there is conjecture that it engages theoretical physics and tropes of science fiction to a large degree. Additionally, there are reports that the book has been continually pushed back and may at one time have had a 2016 release date.
Ed Yong in The Atlantic:
At a lab in Berkeley, California, there’s a mouse with no legs. Its head, torso, and tail are normal. It just lacks limbs. It didn’t lose those limbs; it just never grew them originally. And that’s because a team of researchers led by Axel Visel at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory had replaced part of its DNA—a small sequence known as ZRS—the equivalent sequence from a snake. That tiny change was enough to “serpentize” the mouse, to stop it from developing any limbs.
ZRS is not a gene itself. Rather, it’s an enhancer—a stretch of DNA that controls the activity of genes. These sequences have long been thought to drive the wide variety of body shapes found in back-boned animals. By influencing when and where genes are activated, they can produce astonishing variety from the same basic toolkit, changing everything from the length of limbs to the number of toes.
“But it’s been difficult identifying concrete examples of this,” says Visel. Enhancers are hard to identify. You can’t just eyeball a stretch of DNA and work out where the enhancers are. They also tend to sit far away from the genes that they control—they’re like a sentence in a book that changes the meaning of a paragraph several chapters away.
Chris Hedges in Films For Action:
Noam Chomsky is America’s greatest intellectual. His massive body of work, which includes nearly 100 books, has for decades deflated and exposed the lies of the power elite and the myths they perpetrate. Chomsky has done this despite being blacklisted by the commercial media, turned into a pariah by the academy and, by his own admission, being a pedantic and at times slightly boring speaker. He combines moral autonomy with rigorous scholarship, a remarkable grasp of detail and a searing intellect. He curtly dismisses our two-party system as a mirage orchestrated by the corporate state, excoriates the liberal intelligentsia for being fops and courtiers and describes the drivel of the commercial media as a form of “brainwashing.” And as our nation’s most prescient critic of unregulated capitalism, globalization and the poison of empire, he enters his 81st year warning us that we have little time left to save our anemic democracy.
“It is very similar to late Weimar Germany,” Chomsky told me when I called him at his office in Cambridge, Mass. “The parallels are striking. There was also tremendous disillusionment with the parliamentary system. The most striking fact about Weimar was not that the Nazis managed to destroy the Social Democrats and the Communists but that the traditional parties, the Conservative and Liberal parties, were hated and disappeared. It left a vacuum which the Nazis very cleverly and intelligently managed to take over.”
For Morgan Meis. Video length: 6:09
“It is always open season on the truth,” the great cultural critic Albert Murray wrote in his first and probably best book, “The Omni-Americans” (1970), “and there never was a time when one had to be white to take a shot at it.”
Murray (1916-2013) took his share of shots in “The Omni-Americans.” He skewered social scientists for pathologizing black life in what he called “this great hit-and-miss republic.” He poured scorn upon black protest writers and certain novelists, including Richard Wright, for insisting on narratives of victimhood and marginalization. Not for him were novels that “read like interim research reports.”
Part of Murray’s genius was for sounding so cheerful in the midst of battle. He’d pause during an extended and elegant argument to toss off a riff like this one (the dated word “meriny” refers to a light skin and hair tone): “If U.S. Negroes don’t already have self-pride and didn’t know black, brown, beige and freckles, and sometimes even m’riny is beautiful, why do they always sound so good, so warm, and even cuss better than everyone else?” Murray, it should be said, was an imaginative swearer himself. Henry Louis Gates Jr. said of his conversation, “Imagine Redd Foxx with a graduate degree in literature.”
During the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s lifetime, it was commonly said that in Poland each of her new volumes was greeted with a rush to the bookshops, with enthusiastic readers even memorizing and reciting her verses. After winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996, her fame spread worldwide. Modest and private, Szymborska found the experience mortifying—she reportedly referred to her Nobel Prize as “the Stockholm tragedy” and kept the medal itself in a drawer.
Szymborska and her fellow Nobel Prize–winner Czesław Miłosz formed two opposite poles (if you’ll pardon the expression) of the postwar generation of Polish poets. Miłosz’s intellectual seriousness and grandiose ego contrasted with Szymborska’s accessible wit and self-effacing charm. But much united them—both survived the Second World War, both embraced and then abandoned Communism, and both endeavored to express their country’s suffering through their work. Though chafing against the idea of political poetry, they shared with their fellow postwar poets a conviction that poetry should tackle the big questions—life and death, freedom and slavery.
By the time Szymborska passed away in 2012, she was one of the last exemplars of that school: Polish poetry had been blown wide open by the collapse of Communism two decades before, and, reconnected with the Western world, younger poets looked abroad for inspiration.
Danube was originally published in Italian in 1986, the same year Mikhail Gorbachev introduced the Soviet Union to two new concepts: glasnost andperestroika. Written during the final efflorescence of the cold war – when, as we now know, the world came the closest it has ever been to a nuclear war – the countries of what was then called eastern Europe had become, after four decades of isolating Soviet rule, terra incognita to many in the west.
Ignorance always summons greater ignorance in its defence. When Danube was published in English, in 1989, the influential American Kirkus Reviews called the book “heavy-going” in its description of what it termed “this little-known (at least to most Americans) corner of Europe”. The New York Times reviewer tellingly declared his preference for the Rhine as the river of civilisation, “closer to our western world and to our history ... It only sends its Nibelungen to the east to get them massacred by the hordes of Attila.”
Like Ovid: I’ll have no last words.
This is what it means to die among barbarians. Bar bar bar
was how the Greeks heard our speech —
sheep, beasts — and so we became
barbarians. We make them reveal
the brutes they are, Aleph, by the things
we make them name. David,
they tell me, is the one
one should aspire to, but ever since
I first heard them say Philistine
I’ve known I am Goliath
if I am anything.
by Solmaz Sharif
from Poetry, 12/2014
Matthew Browne in Harvard Magazine:
Last week, a brimming crowd of grayed, bespectacled, and Tyvek-ed Cantabrigians, dotted throughout with important figures from the Harvard administration and faculty, packed into Sanders Theatre to hear actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith.
...All of the scenes spoke to Smith’s notion of Radical Hospitality, which was only loosely defined, to the point of being difficult to pin down. At different times, she presented it as the virtue of patience, laboring to empathize with others, and giving the exiled a home, just to name a few. Radical Hospitality, in its elasticity, ran the risk of not seeming radical at all, and just becoming a stand-in for the warm nicety du jour. But there seemed to be a stable core that held it together: people around the world ought to do a better job of treating each other as welcomed guests. Like the maxim “Love thy neighbor,” the principle is apparent, simple, and unsurprising—but to insist on its importance, and to hold oneself and others to its standards, is radical. A lot of what seemed novel about Smith’s concept was in language: the focus on the very word hospitality, and the attempt to trace its political import. We are familiar to the point of callousing with the idea that we should love strangers or that we should empathize with others, but we rarely hear that we should be more hospitable. The word feels new in our mouths. Focusing on hospitality reinvigorates the vitality of a word that’s retreated to the hotel and dining room. And these common associations strengthen Smith’s political usage, rendering otherwise abstract debates in terms of warm, ground-level personal relations. Offering amnesty to refugees, for example, can be thought of as a matter of hospitality; should we not feel the same careful responsibility to those around the world that we do to those in our homes? The idea suggests that there is an ethics to our etiquette and an etiquette to our ethics.
Casey Schwartz in The New York Times:
In the course of his life, Vincent van Gogh wrote hundreds of letters to his beloved brother Theo. “I have the grounds pretty well in my mind, and will choose a fine potato field at my ease,” he wrote in the early 1880s, when he was 30 and just beginning to think of himself as an artist. Vincent’s letters often sounded more like private speech than outward exchange; he didn’t seem to expect or require a reply. The act of writing, the expression of his internal, inchoate jumble of thoughts, was a crucial part of his creative process, helping him orient himself within his own vision and plan its execution. In “The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves,” Charles Fernyhough, a professor of psychology at Durham University in England, points to van Gogh’s letters as showing how these voices in our heads are connected to larger questions of thought, decision making, creativity — even consciousness itself.
Inner voices are Fernyhough’s subject, but he admits they are slippery, hard to track, chaotic and cacophonous. “A solitary mind is actually a chorus,” he writes. Tune into yours right now: What are you hearing? Who’s speaking, and when did the conversation begin? This is ambiguous territory. Measuring one’s own private soundtrack is hard enough. Now add in the confounding element of other people’s, too. “Studying something as private and ineffable as our inner voices was, my elders might have warned me, never going to furnish a successful research career,” Fernyhough writes. Yet he has a penchant for exploring exactly these kinds of shifting landscapes. In an earlier book, “Pieces of Light,” he took on memory, building an artful case for the intensely improvised, subjective way we recall the experiences that make up our lives. In “The Voices Within,” he has again rendered complicated mental experience without losing its human texture, as so often happens when psychological questions are addressed in the lab.
Friday, October 21, 2016
Max Holleran in Boston Review:
This summer’s holiday season in the Mediterranean began with the startling announcement, from the International Organization for Migration, that more than 3,000 migrants have already died in 2016 attempting to cross into Europe over the Mediterranean Sea. While Germany resettled nearly a million people in 2015, other EU nations have been far more reluctant. Since last year, the European public has resolutely told their national leaders to begin deportations and reform border security, often in urgently nationalistic language of the kind found in Brexit’s “Breaking Point” ad. The EU has begun to tighten entry for those immigrating from outside of the continent, and securing the southern border has become an existential test of whether the political federation can survive. Mediterranean countries are on the frontline of this effort despite their limited economic resources compared to their wealthier Northern neighbors. They have been tasked with the role of sentry, patrolling the walls of fortress Europe. Yet a backdoor to the castle seems to have been left open.
Since the 2008 financial crisis, many Mediterranean countries have begun to offer citizenship-for-sale to non-European nationals. These countries include places hit hard by austerity like Cyprus, Portugal, and Spain (where the program is called “golden visa” in a nod to the optimism about the value of an EU passport as well as excitement for the wealth that citizenship investors could potentially bring). Often connected to the purchasing of property, these programs offer residency, a passport, and—after several years—full citizenship to those able to pay several hundred thousand euros. Selling citizenship is a contentious idea that disrupts some of our basic notions about what it means to belong to a national community. Mediterranean states support it partly as a way to raise revenues after the global financial crisis, which brought budget slashing and pushed unemployment over 20 percent in many countries.
David Kaiser in Nautilus:
If all the bizarre facets of quantum theory, few seem stranger than those captured by Erwin Schrödinger’s famous fable about the cat that is neither alive nor dead. It describes a cat locked inside a windowless box, along with some radioactive material. If the radioactive material happens to decay, then a device releases a hammer, which smashes a vial of poison, which kills the cat. If no radioactivity is detected, the cat lives. Schrödinger dreamt up this gruesome scenario to mock what he considered a ludicrous feature of quantum theory. According to proponents of the theory, before anyone opened the box to check on the cat, the cat was neither alive nor dead; it existed in a strange, quintessentially quantum state of alive-and-dead.
Today, in our LOLcats-saturated world, Schrödinger’s strange little tale is often played for laughs, with a tone more zany than somber.1 It has also become the standard bearer for a host of quandaries in philosophy and physics. In Schrödinger’s own time, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg proclaimed that hybrid states like the one the cat was supposed to be in were a fundamental feature of nature. Others, like Einstein, insisted that nature must choose: alive or dead, but not both.
Although Schrödinger’s cat flourishes as a meme to this day, discussions tend to overlook one key dimension of the fable: the environment in which Schrödinger conceived it in the first place. It’s no coincidence that, in the face of a looming World War, genocide, and the dismantling of German intellectual life, Schrödinger’s thoughts turned to poison, death, and destruction. Schrödinger’s cat, then, should remind us of more than the beguiling strangeness of quantum mechanics. It also reminds us that scientists are, like the rest of us, humans who feel—and fear.
Liza Batkin in Broadly:
In All the Single Ladies, her recent book about the growing population of single women in America, Rebecca Traister relates her experience of going off to college knowing that, "by most accounts, marriage was coming to swallow [her] up in just a few short years," but simultaneously feeling that nothing was less likely. A gap, resulting from a sizable sociological shift, had yawned between the expectations of her parents' generation and her own. The median age of first marriage—which hovered between 20 and 22 years old during the 20th century—today is approximately 27, and whereas 60 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 were married in 1960, the percentage now falls around 20. Today it is more common to be unmarried than married in your 20s, and Traister concludes from this that young women will "no longer have to wonder," as she did when she graduated high school, "what unmarried adult life for women might look like, surrounded as we are by examples of this kind of existence."
But figuring out "what unmarried adult life for women might look like" still seems to require a good deal of wondering. In Spinster, published last year, Kate Bolick recounts her realization at the age of 23—which stands out for her as the age at which Sylvia Plath married Ted Hughes—that "marriage was the last thing on [her] mind." With a husband far from her vision of her future, Bolick experienced a "failure of imagination." "How do you embark on your adulthood," she asks, "when you don't know where you're headed?" In Labor of Love, another recent book that examines modes of dating as they reflect and are produced by historical economic conditions, Moira Weigel describes being broken up with by a boyfriend and finding herself asking him what she should want.
"Why was I always asking some man?" she wonders. When she realizes that she "had learned to do it by dating," she sets out to understand why she "was struggling to follow desires that did not seem to be [her] own."
In the introduction to Future Sex, another hyped nonfiction book about modern relationships, out from FSG this week, Emily Witt narrates her own moment of reckoning with a failure of imagination. It arrives after she sleeps with a man who is seeing another woman; she is chastised for "pantomiming thrills" and fears that she may have contracted chlamydia. Researching methods for preventing STDs, Witt finds that the CDC recommends being in "a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected."
Richard Marshall interviews Samuel Scheffler in 3:AM Magazine:
3:AM: A criticism of some moral philosophy – and perhaps of the position that you’ve just been discussing where the scope is about small-scale personal relationships and avoiding harm – is that it doesn’t accommodate big-scale issues like justice. These are deeply felt values, so how do you propose we accommodate them within your non-consequentialist ethical position?
SS: Your question seems to suggest that the issue of how to accommodate justice within one’s overall moral outlook is a problem for non-consequentialists alone. And in a way that’s right, but only because justice is not a concept that plays a fundamental role in consequentialist thought at all. We can, if we like, treat utilitarianism (for example) as a candidate theory of justice, as Rawls did in A Theory of Justice, but this is in one respect misleading. Utilitarianism offers us a theory of right action, but it is not a theory that even mentions, let alone uses, the concept of justice. At no point in their theory do utilitarians rely on an independent notion of justice or fairness. They are concerned solely with the maximization of value. Non-consequentialists are the only people who treat justice as a fundamental moral concept.
Since justice is a fundamental moral concept, the question should be: how do we (any of us) accommodate ideas of justice, and especially ideas about the justice of basic social, political, and economic institutions, within an overall outlook that is also sensitive to a variety of other moral values and principles, including values and principles that apply to small-scale personal relationships? That is a pressing and difficult question. One of the attractions of Rawls’s theory is that it suggests a kind of division-of-labor answer to the question. The idea is that there are sui generis principles of justice that apply to the basic institutional structure of society. If a society’s basic structure satisfies those principles, then individuals in the society may appropriately and without qualms be guided by the many different values and principles that apply to them, including principles governing the conduct of their personal relationships. Of course, individuals have duties to support and sustain just institutions, according to this view, but they have duties of other kinds as well.
Frank Furedi in Aeon:
It is Saturday, 1 November 2014. I am book-browsing at Barnes and Noble on Fifth Avenue in New York City when my attention is caught by a collection of beautifully produced volumes. I look closer and realise that these books are part of what’s called the Leatherbound Classic series. An assistant informs me that these fine specimens help to ‘embellish your book collection’. Since this exchange, I am reminded time and again that, as symbols of cultural refinement, books really matter. And, though we are meant to be living in a digital age, the symbolic significance of the book continues to enjoy cultural valuation. That is why, often when I do a television interview at home or in my university office, I am asked to stand in front of my bookshelf and pretend to be reading one of the texts.
Since the invention of the cuneiform system of writing in Mesopotamia around 3500 BCE and of hieroglyphics in Egypt around 3150 BCE, the serious reader of texts has enjoyed cultural acclamation. The clay tablets on which marks and signs were inscribed were regarded as precious and sometimes sacred artefacts. The ability to decipher and interpret the symbols and signs was seen as an extraordinary accomplishment. Egyptian hieroglyphics were thought to possess magical powers and, to this day, many readers regard books as a medium for gaining a spiritual experience. Since text possesses so much symbolic significance, how people read and what they read is widely perceived as an important feature of their identity. Reading has always been a marker of character, which is why people throughout history have invested considerable cultural and emotional resources in cultivating identities as lovers of books.
In ancient Mesopotamia, where only a small group of scribes could decipher the cuneiform tablets, the interpreter of signs enjoyed tremendous prestige. It is at this point in time that we have one of the earliest hints of the symbolic power and privilege enjoyed by the reader.