One thing the book club taught me (so far)


Thanks to our book club (Literary Ladies), my reading selection has expanded dramatically, because I read books which I would have never come into contact otherwise. Our discussions also prompt many thoughts regarding reading which I have been interested in throughout my life. What follows presents the results of thinking about our two meetings and the conversations we had about the two books chosen.

As far as readers are concerned, there seem to be two main perspectives underlying the act of reading (fiction, but perhaps other genres can be included here too). These perspectives underpin the interpretation of themes, settings, actions, descriptions, and allow for very different types of enjoyment/disappointment/expectations of the book which all contribute to delightful discussions. The two perspectives are mutually exclusive but neither is “better” than the other. Each, however, lets us understand the world differently, although often without any possibility of rapprochement.

  1. Some readers identify themselves with a character. This is reading and thinking/feeling with one’s own mind: the reader looks for validation of her/his own ideas through a character’s language, race, gender, religious affiliation, social class, education, familial status, etc. (Pace Steven Pinker and other psychologists). Clearly, affection for a character of identical background reaffirms one’s situation and makes one exclaim: “I am not the only one that is experiencing these troubles/joys”. Women who went or are undergoing separation from a partner read The Love Warrior and find the “memoir” meaningful as they feel their life experience is reaffirmed since they can identify with Glennon. The book’s content, then, is part of the real world of suffering/joy. It is almost a given that this type of reading makes it much less probable that the readers would actually criticize the character with whom they identify. Conversely, if the readers do not identify (but would very much like to ) with a character (usually a protagonist), they are more likely to criticize the character’s  choices and lifestyle. Those readers who “could not” identify with Leo Gursky in The History of Love were more likely to find his quirks and life choices not understandable.
  2. Some readers suspend their way of thinking and stand back, so to speak, which makes them read and think/feel using the author’s mind. In other words, for them, “reading is thinking with someone else’s brain”, as Schopenhauer apparently claimed. This perspective does not seek to validate any aspect of the reader’s personality through an identification with a character. The characters are perceived purely on the strengths or weaknesses of the artistry of their description and on the intrinsic web of relationships they form with other characters. Readers who did not identify with Glennon of The Love Warrior and who read the “memoir” purely on the strengths of the description were more likely to detect the fact that the author was not entirely honest. This type of reading made it therefore possible to find faults, for example,  with Glennon’s abandoning her family and going off to expensive yoga sessions. As for The History of Love, those readers who found Leo Gursky’s life interesting or poetic, were more likely to find enjoyment and appreciation of the description of his quirks and life choices. This perspective interprets the book’s contents as an enrichment of one’s real life, rather than a confirmation of it; and therefore the farther the book’s content is from the reader’s experiences, the more chance it has to mold critical skills.

These two types of reading, however, leave various questions unanswered. For example, what are the criteria for constructing the countless book classifications, suggestions, lists? Do they measure the contents from the perspective of identity or from the perspective of detachment? Moreover, and, more significantly, the algorithms which are forced on us by the digital technology surely support our “preferred” type of reading and therefore the destruction of the boundaries (identity vs detachment) we as readers fall prey to becomes ever more impossible. Also, do the genres themselves force us to read from one perspective or another, as Edgar Alan Poe suggests? What do you think? You are welcome to leave your reactions by clicking on the “Comment” button below.

Praising oneself in public and getting accolades for it

I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist, so my comments on Glennon Doyle Melton’s Love Warrior. A memoir (Two Roads, 2016) will strictly adhere to an analysis of the book’s language, and an account of the culture it reflects and promotes.


It is almost given that the last 30 years or so are an era in which it is easy to flaunt shameless and public self-promotion, patting oneself on the back, and self-aggrandizing. The Italian linguist and cultural critic Raffaele Simone has called this “il trionfo del privato” (the triumph of the private life). It is a surprise, though, that a memoir which deals with one woman’s emancipation from her demons (alcoholism, bulimia, unfulfilled life) and a report of what is according to her less-than-perfect marriage would garner the accolades of The New York Times and find a spot on Oprah’s 2016 Selection. Clearly, the publishing world and its mass media machinations can make anything of a piece of writing, no matter how thin.

Without diminishing the real Glennon’s accomplishments, the book is a thorough disappointment. Here are some reasons why:

  1. The language is plain and outright simple, but not in a pleasant way. Certain crucial notions are used without depth. Specifically, the concepts “God”, “warrior”, “love”, and “hero” – the most obviously crucial hooks on which her account hinges –  do not receive even a minimal definition, and yet the phrases  “x is a proof that God loves me” ( “Craig is my proof that God loves me”) , “love warrior” (“I am a love warrior”) and “hero” (“I am my own damn hero”) are repeated a number of times. This attitude of using words without reflection illustrates the superficiality of  the conceptual world view offered. Although Glennon is a victim of the consumer society’s stereotyped image of what a woman should be, she is ecstatic when she self-defines herself as “hero”, using a notion that is masculine in its origin and effects. She does not even attempt to give these notions fuller meanings.
  2. In a memoir, the reader expects some context in which the narrated events are unfolding. Glennon’s recounting is devoid of any clear setting – be it geographical (until the very end), social, political, educational, religious, philosophical. Little is said of her parents’ style of raising their children; Glennon goes through high school and presumably some college without the content of the lectures, classes, classmates or profs ever having had any effect on her. One thing is clear: her higher middle-class standing allows her access to therapists, days in a posh hotel and yoga classes whenever she feels like it. She hints at “those people in the boardrooms” who feed consumers desires they do not need, but there ends her commitment to question consumerist society of which she is a perfect victim.
  3. It seems that Glennon is hiding something: on a number of occasions, she does what she thinks is expected of her or what she is supposed to do  (to be accepted in certain circles of her peers, marriage, belonging to certain church,  find true love, have good sex, etc.), rarely questioning the reasons behind her actions. Glennon sets up a “representative” of herself which she presents to the world and then  demands that the world be sincere with her; and all through this she yearns for acceptance and she is suffering from loneliness. She is playing hide and seek with herself: “There is no way to be as honest in spoken words as I can be in written words.” (p. 115).
  4.  Glennon is a perfect example of a character who follows Luigi Pirandello’s dictum così  è  se vi pare (“it is so if it seems to you so”). She thinks she needs to do certain things to be accepted and when she is not her world collapses. Childishly, she always needs to imitate someone, but above all, she needs someone to tell her what to do (right up until the end: in her 20s she followed the model of her peers, post 35 she needs a therapist). Then she realizes her error, but in a megalomaniac way: “The cage I built to protect myself from the world’s  toxins also stole my oxygen. I didn’t know I needed to be seen  and known like I needed air” (p.225).
  5. Social media exasperate her shallowness since she finds comfort in the number of “likes” on her blog: “My blog community is my sanctuary…” (p.114).
  6. The role reversal in sex seems to satisfy her desire for true love: “I need to be the one to initiate every new step” (p. 241), not realizing that she is simply doing to her husband the same thing  he used to do to her.  After her triumphant proclamation that she is her own hero and her husband is a hero,  they disappear into a cliche beach sunset, forgiving each other all the hurt and grief they caused.
  7. The title (Love Warrior) may be interpreted in two ways: 1. Glennon is a warrior who fights on the side of love (i.e., fighting against forces which do not promote love); 2. Glennon is a warrior who actively fights for love (i.e., on a quest for it). Unfortunately, neither of these expectations is realized in the writing.

The book is an impeccable instance of the unquestioning promotion of limited cultural horizons.  It contains a description of the life of an individual who needs to have her every act approved by others even after she heals herself (she is invited to speaking engagements which she accepts). It reinforces the need for a different definition of a middle-class woman’s life, but does not offer any suggestions, other than promoting more navel gazing. Furthermore, it is a commentary not only on loneliness and desperation of one individual but also on her self-imposed intellectual loneliness and cognitive limitation brought about by the milieu of arid cultural postmodernism.

The book is not a memoir, Glennon is not a hero. The cultural horizons are so limited that any comparison only demeans the work to which Love Warrior can be compared. The most obvious parallel would be St Augustine’s Confessions, but the depth of observation, the wide Weltanschauung, and the universal spiritual struggle the Bishop of Milan describes are light years away from Glennon’s considerations about her life. She describes herself as a hero (i.e. self-definition), he, a sinner (also a self-definition). Clearly, he must attempt to reach higher, whereas she hardly thinks of this possibility.




Social Media: Implications for the University


The purpose of this volume is to offer a balanced critical reflection on the role of social media in the workings of the engaged university. The 15 contributors analyze, critique, and explore the rich ideological and pragmatic relationships ensuing from the intersection between social media and academic life. This book is the sixth volume in the Social Theory: Communication and Media Studies published by Aracne Editrice (Rome). Its contents are definitely of interest to 1. those who work or have a stake in modern academia, as well as 2. those who observe the radical transformations of the manner in which knowledge is shred, elaborated, and used in contemporary life and 3. those who reflect on the unforeseen ramifications of technological advances. Moreover, many contributions have readers step outside of the classroom, presenting bridges especially to the arts communities: bridges that would have been impossible even 5 years ago. Oftentimes, edited volumes are criticized for “unevenness”, but the pleasure deriving from reading various ideological perspectives on, and multifaceted illustrations of the same general topic overrides any “unevenness”. The individual voice of each of the contributors is clear and purposeful.  It is hoped that the volume engages all the crucial players in today’s academic life and that the contributions may reach those who work as platform designers, making the most of (automated) connectivity and (human) connectedness (J. Van Dijck’s terms). In times such as these, when the end of many human occupations and professions are being placed in the hands of robots, questions should be asked also of what will become of the engaged and purposeful university – and it is without doubt that social media will have a significant role to play in the spread of knowledge. Decisions must be made regarding the balance between academic gatekeepers and technological gatekeepers: this volume provides a number of starting points in order to reach satisfactory answers.

The book is available from



Romani/Sinti/Gypsies and (Italian) science fiction

Clearly, the attractive seduction of the ideal Gypsy lifestyle is easy to see: outside the grid, no taxes to pay, traveling wherever and whenever with whomever, no responsibilities other than to oneself, no consequences to engaging in what may be defined as some illegal activities. Nevertheless, there is always the other side of the coin, in this case,  discrimination, hate, uncalled-for beatings, detentions and arrests, etc. In addition to the  lifestyle mystique, the question of Gypsy origin looms large. And here is where things start to become full of amazement: what is their original “homeland”? Are they survivors of the Atlantis upheaval? Do they come from outer space?


This last is a hypothesis suggested by Lino Aldani in his themoro korik (Perseo Libri, 2007). Lino Aldani (1926-2009) is hailed by many as the most important of Italian science fiction writers. But by any measure, themoro korik cannot be part of a list of science fiction works simply on account of the other-worldly origin of the Gypsies, suggested but not elaborated on in this novel. Aldani’s love for the Roma and Sinti (living in Northern Italy) is obvious in this and his other novel, Quando le radici (Piacenza, Science Fiction Book Club, La Tribuna, 1977).  In both novels, Gypsies (more specifically, young Gypsy women) provide a possible way out for disenchanted young gadjo men: urbanized, caged-in by work and unable and unwilling to fit in a technological world, but above all who wants to find a different lifestyle.


In Quando le radici (literally, “When the roots”), Aldani seems to be suggesting that impermanence in the form of eradication of one’s past has two paths (for the gadjo). On the one hand, technology levels villages to the ground and therefore obliterates the old way of life. On the other, the possibly unchanged Gypsy nomadic life offers a fresh start. The protagonist, Arno Varin, works in the city but visits the area of the small village he was born in, and talks to the old generation of survivors who live without water and electricity and who are in constant danger of being dispossessed because a new highway is planned on the site. Gypsy peddlers come regularly to sell their wares and Arno falls in love with a young Gypsy woman. Being young and impulsive, he kills the bulldozer driver sent to prepare the ground for construction, and therefore he has to flee to save his life. His solution? Join the Gypsy peddlers.


Themoro korik (literally “the world over there”, in Aldani’s imaginative version of Romani) presents the view that the chasm between Gypsy life and non-Gypsy life is just too great to be able to make meaningful connective bridges. Towards the end of the first part of the novel, a  Gypsy father, his wife, and their daughter, enveloped in round, violet-colored light, disappear into another dimension (or another, parallel world, from which the Gypsies have been kicked out millennia ago), without the protagonist having a chance to join the daughter, with whom he is in love. The novel is more like a write-up of an unorthodox participant observation study, in which the protagonist joins an old professor, an admirer of all things Gypsy, and meeting them, studies their ways and above all, language. Almost half of the book is dedicated to a glossary of Gypsy terms, coming from both Hervatsko Roma and Sinto Lombardo, given as equivalents to the Italian lemmas. One can only wonder if all of these equivalents are in use or are genuine, as the introduction to the glossary notes that “lo zingaro e` svogliato e mentitore… ama scherzare e prendere in giro il gagio che l’interpella” (p. 153; “Gypsies are indolent and liars…they love to joke around and make fools of non-Gypsies who consult them”). Linguists have characterized Romani as an Indo-Aryan language, therefore Romani cannot support Aldani’s other-worldly origins.


In conclusion, Django, the Gypsy who disappeared, does not pilot a spaceship, nor is he a King of his people, like Yakoub of Robert Silverberg’s Star of the Gypsies (Pyr, 2005). So Aldani’s use of Gypsy characters puts them squarely in the HIC (here) and NUNC (now) of history, even though Django and his family vanish inexplicably, from a science fiction point of view, but not from the point of view of a fantasy, a very poorly elaborated fantasy nonetheless.

Science fiction and capitalism

Ursula K. Le Guin’s short talk made me think about the following three things:

1. Without her publishers and readers she would not have been where she is today. Even though the thrust of her speech can be enjoyed and appreciated, it is undeniable that it easy for her to make certain claims, literally, from the pulpit. But this is the irony of capitalism: one can bite the hand capitalism feeds without the hurtful consequences. She surely cannot force publishers to charge public libraries less than the outrageous amounts they do; she can communicate it, but verba volant without consequences, especially until profit drives everything, as she says.

2. Fear, technology and capitalism seem to go hand in hand. Fear: fear of not being able to pay debts, fear of someone destroying your property, robbing you of it, and/or killing you,fear of falling ill, fear of death,  etc., etc., etc. Technology: that technology which seems to be running amok  without us being able to do anything about it. Capitalism: the bigger the better, etc., etc., etc. Fear, technology, capitalism make up the three cornerstones of any dystopian science fiction. As someone has claimed before, it is difficult to write a really inspiring, beautiful, important, attention-grabbing utopian science fiction narration.

3. She says: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.” The parallelism is interesting, but it falls short of being useful for a more profound discussion (exactly like all short maxims on which social media thrive). Let’s see if scifi writers take up the challenge and offer us alternatives to capitalism which may become clear working models, not just words. This would make scifi proactive, rather than reactive: and this is the real challenge posed by her suggestion that writers help us envision alternative worlds. There are reasons behind the difficulty of this enterprise (pun intended): if science fiction illustrates the troubles of the present, contemporary society, or a future one which behaves just like this one, it is reactive and intimates that coping with what is now is already too outrageous. But a scifi novel cannot really give us anything that is completely outside of our capacity of perception and understanding, otherwise it would be gibberish.  The challenge therefore is not only to construct worlds which depict alternatives to capitalism, but to do so in a comprehensible and solid manner.

“Saussure’s Muse”

This blog post concerns a relatively new publishing product: from blogs to book. In other words, the blogger collects his or her Internet blogs and then publishes these on paper, the old-fashioned way. Apollonio Discolo’s La musa di Saussure (Edizioni ETS, 2013, pp. 116, 12 Euros) is one such example. This booklet is also an example of that type of reading material which produces great intellectual enjoyment as well as abundant cognitive frustration.
Apollonio Discolo (a pseudonym of a well-known Italian linguist teaching in Zurich) is of course the name of the most august of the ancient Greek grammarians; but it is a somewhat fanciful anagram of the Italian version of two names of Greek gods: Apollo and Dionisio. As a consequence, the reader is forewarned and expects thoughts about languages and grammar, and culture and fancy. This expectation is fully realized, and more.
The 58 blogs (which appeared on the Web between 2005 and 2012) all present interesting and thought-provoking ideas; there is simply no way they can individually be dealt with justly here. What follows presents some general impressions which underpin this reader’s enjoyment and frustration with the libricino. The points below contain two parts: the first part expresses my intellectual enjoyment and the second part, introduced by “But”, my cognitive frustration.

1) The author presents ideas about language of which we do not find echos in the linguistic literature of the received, generally accepted and published, academic knowledge about how languages function. In other words (as is wont in many linguistic circles on the periphery), throughout the booklet, there are subtle and not so subtle hints at the ridiculousness of some of the traditional and above all modern (read: formal[ized]) theories of language. The observations offered by Apollonio Discolo range from sheer anger at the continuous usage of terms which do not really illuminate our knowledge of what language is (terms such as, for ex., “noun”, “possessive”) to heartfelt mockery of the idea that linguistic theory as practiced now really illuminates our knowledge about such complex phenomenon as language.
But, Apollonio Discolo never presents any way out of this situation: if linguists are useless because they do not really illuminate our knowledge of what language is, then what would make them useful? It is well to define linguistics the science of the relation(ship) between being and expression (“la scienza della relazione tra essere ed espressione”, p. 7), but it is clearly not enough to remain within the vagueness of Saussure’s “relationship (of difference)” procedure. No clear examples of this procedure are given – hence the frustration.
2) The author’s modus scribendi presents an idea as a given, which the reader accepts at face value, but then he quickly presents the opposite of this idea and therefore forces the reader to choose between the first or the second interpretation. Obviously, this follows the Socratic method, but Apollonio Discolo goes even further and uses chiasmus whenever he can to make this love of the opposites shine through.
But, the final and highly dissonant reading experience leaves us neither here nor there, and therefore frustrated. Even he falls into the hands of postmodernist tyranny of “fluidity” and “speed”, when, evidently, a more lengthy train of thought (his thought) is required.
3) Being disconcerted at the amount of conventionalized, accepted ways of doing things (and of seeing linguistic phenomena) is one of the endearing features of these bits of wisdom. The subtitle of the booklet can be “Against conformism”: especially in the sciences and in the science of language particularly. In research, conformism marks the death of originality.
But, interestingly enough, Saussure’s idea of language (or any semiotic system for that matter) requires convention and therefore it is based on conformity: how could we presume to have a notion of understanding even slightly what our interlocutor has in mind if we did not agree/conform to the values of the system which lies between us as speakers? Apollonio Discolo does not entertain any discussion regarding this point.
4) Italian as a foreign language is defined jokingly as a “frivolous subject”, listed in one publication (the title of which is nowhere cited) among other frivolous subjects such as music and arithmetic for household use. Apollonio Discolo makes the following wish: “il cielo voglia ancora conservare a questa lingua non comune il carattere che la rende insostituibile tra le lingue del mondo: la sua femminile, amabile, irritante, profonda frivolezza.” (p. 63, translation mine: may heavens keep the characteristic of this not-so-common language which makes it irreplaceable among the languages of the world: its feminine, lovable, aggravating, profound frivolousness). As a personified image of the Italian language, this picture warms the heart; could it (the frivolousness) also explain the attraction Italian has for non-natives who attempt to learn it and who therefore do not believe that pragmatics guides everything (i.e. having frivolousness does not mean having a goal…)?
But, even all irony and joking aside, as a non-native speaker, I would more than like to know what exactly contributes to the Italian “feminine, lovable, aggravating, profound frivolousness”.
In conclusion, if it is true that Italian is one of the less common languages, then this booklet must be translated; not only for the intellectual enjoyment the reading of it brings, but also for the cognitive frustration it creates, because these two are sure to produce novel ideas. Hopefully, linguists and non-linguists alike will come up with a way out of our metalinguistic tunnel. It remains to be seen whether anything like this can be achieved thanks to “from blogs to book”.

“Old farts going to the library”


In class, a student, during a discussion about the differences between oral, written and digital communication, said that she “heard about old farts going to the library to get a book” and that she did not want to have anything to do with that. Besides the fact that her statement seems to make an age-related comment (her use of the word “old”, i.e. not digital native) and is inappropriate for an academic setting (“farts”), it shows how easily some crucial differences in experience are dismissed. My answer? I said, Let’s look at the picture from a closer perspective. Let’s imagine a person who, about 40 years ago, wanted to find more information about Cicero. By the time he or she got to the library, even before starting to look at the card catalogue, their imagination went (sometimes wild) with anticipation about discovering elements of the orator’s life, mode of reasoning, topics he spoke about, historical events he lived through, etc. Then, after finding the call number, he/she got to the stacks, where there were numerous books (with different titles, also telling the library patrons more about Cicero) to choose from. And, obviously, reading of the selected book followed, if one so desired. Today, if one wanted to know something about Cicero, the answer would be right at one’s finger tips (close to ten billion hits including pictures). The real change points to the duration of anticipation: it indicates that the experience in retrieving and enjoying information is dramatically different. One mode is neither better nor worse than the other – they are different.
This anecdote is related to the way information and knowledge are discussed in Raffaele Simone’s book Presi nella rete. La mente ai tempi del web (Garzanti, 2012). Simone claims that pre-digital culture was based on an encyclopedic view of knowledge, where topics were connected, where school curricula rested on step-by-step sequences of knowledge construction. Post-digital era offers what Simone calls “sapere irrelato” (unrelated/discrete knowledge). The library patrons described above were coerced, involuntarily, by the circumstances of having to look for information painstakingly, to make connections in their minds even before reading (having the time to do it), to situate Cicero in their mental encyclopedia. Digital access provides instantaneous information gathering, but as usual in everything postmodern, the onus of relating those facts to others is on the user, in this case, after accessing the information. The effects of this significant transformation of mental attitude to information gathering remain to be seen.