Letters — From the October 2013 issue

Letters

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Mark Kingwell’s essay on the future of reading [“Beyond the Book,” Readings, August] reminds us that for hundreds of years books were the only tool that made us think better. That thinking is threatened by new habits of multitasking, which, as Nicholas Carr shows in his book The Shallows, change our neural pathways and make us less able to concentrate, contemplate, and reflect.

If we do not learn to think better, I fear we are doomed to accelerate toward the cliffs we can already see ahead. Bookstores, perhaps, can provide the antidote to this new problem. There we can take the time to talk about books and think together. Just as café culture changed the way new ideas and modes of thought emerged in nineteenth-century France, bookstores could be the salons of today, providing a locale for people to discuss and develop new ideas. Because it is a threat to our current intellectual laziness, this will meet resistance, but it is important. As one of my bookstore customers recently told me, “There’s a reason they burn books, you know.”

Bob Williams
Hood River, Ore.

Love in Shroom

Hamilton Morris’s article on the life and death of Steven Pollock [“Blood Spore,” Folio, July] does not present the whole picture of the man. I once dated Steve, starting in his last year at the Medical College of Wisconsin, in Milwaukee. We later moved together to San Antonio, making a brief excursion first to Colombia in search of magic mushrooms and ayahuasca. We found both.

In Milwaukee, I was a laboratory technician at the medical school, and I was assigned after we had already begun dating to help Steve with his research into dihydromorphinone ketose reductase. He loved the idea of working together, and we often conducted experiments late at night. I was always impressed with Steve’s dedication and meticulous lab work. He was so consumed by his research that he would talk about it constantly, even during lovemaking. Nothing could distract him from his efforts to improve medical science.

Linda Fugate
Red Bluff, Calif.

Scents of Place

In his “Brief History of Scent” [Miscellany, August], Beau Friedlander reports that attempts to reproduce petrichor, the smell of rain on dry earth, are “rare, and always failures.” But petrichor has been available as a natural perfume for thousands of years. Mitti, an attar of the scent of the first monsoon rain, is made from clay from a region of Uttar Pradesh, in northern India, that is molded into small figures and hydrodistilled into sandalwood oil. Because sandalwood is largely unavailable today, mitti attar is now distilled into various plasticizers such as white oil. Roman Kaiser’s attempts to re-create scents in a laboratory are interesting, but many of these smells are already available as natural aromatics.

Trygve Harris
Salalah, Oman

The Mocking Cure

I admire the depth of Christine Smallwood’s impressive research into bed-wetting therapies [“Are You Sleeping?,” Forum, August]. One treatment she neglected to mention, however, was the method my mother used: she brought me in from playing outdoors, stood me before my bed, forced my head down, and rubbed my face in the soiled sheet. I’ll bet her “cure” was not an uncommon practice back in the 1940s. And while I did later have occasional incontinence issues on the playground, I never again wet the bed. Success — except for the sad memories.

Noreen Ayres
Henryville, Pa.

Why on Earth?

Harper’s Magazine is one of the most progressive periodicals being published, yet it lingers in the dark ages when it comes to referring to the planet on which we live. In “Emptying the World’s Aquarium” [Letter from the Sea of Cortez, August], Erik Vance writes that “there is no better place on earth to look at the future of global fishing” than the Gulf of California. This is a story about what’s in the water, not in the soil, so the word “earth” is obviously incorrect. Referring to Earth as “earth” is a vestige of the Judeo-Christian legacy. You can’t have dominion over our planet or pillage it quite so easily if linguistically you put it on the same level as all the sacred words we capitalize. Please change your style. This is an egregious philosophical error in an otherwise excellent story on the decline of our Earth.

Howard Passell
Earth Systems Analysis Department, Sandia National Laboratories
Albuquerque, N.M.

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  • smartmouth

    as regards the demise of books: for hundreds of years we have read books but for thousands of years before that humans related our knowledge verbally. i imagine when books were first becoming widely disseminated those who were charged with relating knowledge via lore lamented the loss of memory this new practice of reading would engender. we seem to have survived that transition.

    to think that moving on from books will render us unable to ponder deeply seems to me to be unnecessarily alarmist. simply because we don’t know what the next step will be in the evolution of human intellectual development is no reason to believe that development will be in a negative direction. perhaps we will become more creative when we are freed from the constraints of carrying memories in our heads. when all information is available to us merely by tapping a smartphone a few times we will need to remember far less than we ever have. this may free up our brains to do more spontaneous imagining than ever before in history.

    as in any transition, there will be both positive and negative developments but to think books are the be-all and end-all of information processing seems shortsighted and contrary to patterns established in human intellectual evolution. books have served their purpose for the era in which they were the highest form of information sharing but there are more sophisticated methods now: smartphones, readers, tablets, home computers are all devices which rather obviate the need for paper books.

    i love books but have not felt the need for the dead tree format since purchasing my kobo. when i do read something on paper i find my finger wanting to double-click a word or highlight a passage as i do with electronic devices. maybe it’s time to accept that dead trees are not necessary to intellectual/pleasurable pursuits. maybe having all human knowledge in the palm of our hands at all times won’t be such a bad thing after all.

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