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Friday, August 26, 2016
Facts and Stories
Hardly green cheese, eh?
a reader and as a thinker, I am absolutely not an anti-fact person.
Facts are important because truth is important. Living in the real world, as
opposed to dreamy, wishful fantasy, demands recognition of reality, in all its
complexity and all its myriad forms. And so, while we may have wanted nothing
but fairy tales as children, as adult readers most of us mix the leaven of
nonfiction into our reading.
facts are going to appear in sentences, however, rather than in graphs or
tables, I want something more than a mind-numbing recital of dates and numbers.
I do not want an avalanche of nothing but facts. In fact (ahem!), when I suspect an
author of trying to overwhelm rather than appeal to my
critical faculties, I get downright annoyed.
the avalanche, lost in the blizzard – what is the writer trying to hide? That’s what I ask myself when the fact storm gets too wild and woolly.
read a few books where a single unstated premise, when I plugged it in, was sufficient to undermine
an argument otherwise well buttressed -- even overly so -- by a snowstorm of facts. (As a
philosopher, I have learned to be very careful when reading historians, who are
often tempted to tread lightly on argument and depend overmuch on fact storms.)
Other authors, as becomes dismayingly apparent after several tedious chapters,
try to cover so many bases that they are obviously trying to say everything
that can be said on their subject (so as not to be wrong?), which boils down to
once the snowdrifts are cleared away. Don’t waste my time!
of a meaningless fact storm, I want at least one of the following: either a
clear line of argument, leading to convincing conclusions or a compelling
narrative. The nonfiction book that delivers both has knocked it out of
nonfiction reading these days is taking me far from home – up to Lake Superior,
out to Arizona, and over to southern France -- and I've been reading some very good books. The most demanding in terms of
argument and evidence is Tony Judt’s Socialism in Provence 1871-1914: A Study
in the Origins of the Modern French Left, but the book is demanding not because the author
resorts to blizzard tactics but because, on the contrary, he is very, very
careful and clear about the claims he is making, the arguments he opposes, and
the evidence for both sides. Painstakingly rigorous. It is exciting to be challenged by such a
rigorous thinker, a writer so careful to avoid unsubstantiated
temptation is great for me. No, not to leap into generalization but to pick up yet
another book when I already have three or four others going. And so I could not
resist looking into Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality,
by Carol S. Dweck.
Wow! Again, a writer perfectly clear about
what has been said before on her subject and what she has discovered,
experimentally, that contradicts and disproves long-held beliefs still, unfortunately, quite
prevalent. Not to give away the whole show here, but Dweck’s studies show that
learners’ self-concepts influence their motivation more than initial success and more than praise. Does the learner hold what Dweck calls an “entity” theory of
intelligence or an “incremental” theory? The former is a belief that
intelligence is a fixed trait, a belief shoring up "a system that requires a diet of easy
successes.” On the other hand are learners who believe that intelligence can be cultivated and
increased. These are more eager to learn, not simply to take an easy path where they
can succeed and reaffirm to themselves that they are smart. Dweck calls the
patterns that emerge in the face of setbacks “the helpless pattern” and “the
mastery-oriented pattern.” You can probably guess which pattern connects to
which theory of self, can’t you?
Land and the Story of Grand Marais, Michigan, by Karen Brzys, does not strain my
brain as much as the Tony Judt book, but like Judt’s and Dweck’s it is clearly
written and presents its facts in accessible form, not in a blizzard. U.P.
blizzards are best kept in meteorological form, as the author well knows! Very good stories emerge from well-chosen facts in this book.
there is A Beautiful, Cruel Country, Eva Antonia Wilbur-Cruce’s memoir of her
life in southern Arizona, near la frontera, when she was a little cowgirl of
three to five or six years old. In her book, the facts are not only very local
(as are the facts presented by Judt and Brzys) but also quite personal. They
are also recollected many years after the events described. Some could no doubt
be verified; for others, we must either take the author’s word for her account
or remain skeptics.
to learn more about the author, I searched online and found this piece from a
Tucson newspaper. Holy cow! “La Pistolera” – what a nickname! It seems the
grown woman was every bit as feisty as the little three-year-old self-described
in the memoir. Follow the link, read the article, and maybe you’ll want to read
the book, too. (I found A Beautiful, Cruel Country still in print and
have ordered a couple copies for the bookstore.) But a word of warning: There are some terrible, terrible events reported in
the book and in the newspaper article. The book ends with the sad removal of the Indians
from Arivaca, leaving the land silent in its sudden isolation, and even in the
story of young Eva’s very early years there are many painful episodes – indigenous Indians, then called Papago and now identified as Tohono O'odham near starvation; the little girl whipped by her father, and such. The ensuing feud described in the newspaper, not part of the book, is also nightmare stuff.
What do you know? Whose story do you believe? What do you see
as the facts of your world?
although not material objects independent of believers, are as real as
microbes, the operation in the world of beliefs and microbes both dependent
on so many other factors that we human beings are continually surprising one
another. “X had such a healthy lifestyle, I thought she would live forever!” we
say, or, “I thought I knew Y,” or, “Z had that election in the bag – how
could he have lost?” The beliefs we hold about the economy influence the
direction of the economy, as beliefs about the past influence the course the
future will take.
your own conclusions. But think carefully. And don't stop thinking when you've reached a conclusion, either.