Quotes of Note

There has died and been buried in this city, during the current week, at an advanced age, a man who is so little known, even by name, to the generation now in the vigor of life that only one newspaper contained an obituary account of him, and this was but of three or four lines. Yet forty years ago the appearance of a new book by Herman Melville was esteemed a literary event, not only throughout his own country, but so far as the English-speaking race extended. To the ponderous and quarterly British reviews of that time, the author of Typee was about the most interesting of literary Americans, and men who made few exceptions to the British rule of not reading an American book not only made Melville one of them, but paid him the further compliment of discussing him as an unquestionable literary force. Yet when a visiting British writer a few years ago inquired at a gathering in New-York of distinctly literary Americans what had become of Herman Melville, not only was there not one among them who was able to tell him, but there was scarcely one among them who had ever heard of the man concerning whom he inquired, albeit that man was then living within a half mile of the place of the conversation. Years ago the books by which Melville’s reputation had been made had long been out of print and out of demand. The latest book, now about a quarter of a century old, Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War, fell flat, and he has died an absolutely forgotten man. – New York Times, October 2, 1891

“. . . the brain’s arousal system has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be hijacked easily by something new — the proverbial shiny objects we use to entice infants, puppies, and cats. And this novelty bias is more powerful than some of our deepest survival drives: Humans will work just as hard to obtain a novel experience as we will to get a meal or a mate. The difficulty here for those of us who are trying to focus amid competing activities is clear: The very brain region we need to rely on for staying on task is easily distracted by shiny new objects. In multitasking, we unknowingly enter an addiction loop as the brain’s novelty centers become rewarded for processing shiny new stimuli, to the detriment of our prefrontal cortex, which wants to stay on task and gain the rewards of sustained effort and attention. We need to train ourselves to go for the long reward, and forgo the short one. Don’t forget that the awareness of an unread e-mail sitting in your inbox can effectively reduce your IQ by 10 points, and that multitasking causes information you want to learn to be directed to the wrong part of the brain.” – Daniel J. Levitin, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload

“The other day, a friend of mine, a Brazilian writer, said it took Brazil half a century to absorb her, and they’re not done yet. I think that there’s no denying that, as much as she writes about apparently accessible subjects—all her housewives with headaches—the books are extremely strange and disconcerting. In the opening of The Passion According to G.H., she warns people away from the book unless their ‘souls are already formed.’ And it sounds a bit melodramatic. But then you read the book and you realize that she was not at all speaking flippantly. That is a book powerful enough to destroy a human being, someone who is not prepared for it. And all her writing has a quality of spiritual rigor and emotional relentlessness that makes them far more difficult to absorb. What happened in Brazil is similar to what is happening now. She was read by a small group of the intellectual elite, mainly in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. People in a few neighborhoods. And then her passionate readers recruited others, who recruited others. Journalists, singers, critics, actresses, teachers brought her to more and more people. And then it reached a critical mass, and she became the most famous of modern Brazilian writers. That was certainly not the case in her lifetime. And in English, the more she is read and absorbed, the more apparent it will become that what I’ve always said, things that everyone thought were exaggerations, are obviously true—that she is, for example, the greatest Jewish writer since Kafka.” – Benjamin Moser on Clarise Lispector, Paris Review

“The example of the syllogism that he had learned in Kiseveter’s logic—Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal—had seemed to him all his life correct only as regards Caius, but not at all as regards himself. In that case it was a question of Caius, a man, and abstract, man, and it was perfectly true, but he was not Caius, and was not an abstract man. – Leo Tolstoy, “The Death of Ivan Ilych”

“Those who prepare for all the emergencies of life beforehand may equip themselves at the expense of joy.” – E. M. Forster, Howard’s End

“Now what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts along are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.” – Charles Dickens, Hard Times

“Intellectual ‘work’ is misnamed; it is a pleasure, a dissipation, and is its own highest reward. The poorest paid architect, engineer, general, author, sculptor, painter, lecturer, advocate, legislator, actor, preacher, singer, is constructively in heaven when he is at work.” – Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

“A man’s capable of understanding anything—how the ether vibrates, and what’s going on in the sun—but how any other man can blow his nose differently from him, that he’s incapable of understanding.” – Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons

“All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” – Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

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