Carl Sagan on Books

François Boucher. Madame de Pompadour. 1756, oil on canvas, Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Literacy is one of the great tools of civilization. Etymology is one aspect of this tool. Your ability to read my writing—another. The moral imagination invoked is a third. Unfortunately, writing is a recent invention—we’re still getting used to it. As Sagan notes in The Demon-Haunted World (335):

For 99 percent of the tenure of humans on earth, nobody could read or write. The great invention had not yet been made. Except for firsthand experience, almost everything we knew was passed on by word of mouth. As in the children’s game “Telephone,” over tens and hundreds of generations, information would slowly be distorted and lost.

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Perrine on Escape and Interpretation

The first question to ask about fiction is, Why bother to read it?

Rembrandt van Rijn. Scholar in His Study. 1634, oil on canvas, National Gallery in Prague, Czech Republic.

Laurence Perrine, an English professor whose Sound and Sense textbook series was immensely popular, splits literature between escape, which helps us “pass the time agreeably,” and interpretive, “written to broaden and deepen and sharpen our awareness of life” (3). Escape and interpretation are not “two great bins, into… which we can toss any given story” but a scale with each inhabiting opposite ends (4).

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Poem—”The Elephant Statue”

The elephant statue, dark colored coal,

a kingly pet bought by a kingly toll,

the remain of days of foreign conquest,

put here to attend to an age of rest.

Now defenseless from a people irate,

who seek to call ruin on the estate.

An axe scrapes a toe to heartless good cheer.

Drunk now, a farmer attacks the veneer.

From a rotten wound in its side outbreaks

the rat-bit scholar who lives in its legs;

shouts at the mob every curse that he knows:

“You anarchists, anti-Christs, and assholes.”

Below callous claws, skin peels away clean

to release beneath a summerset gleam;

a chest, trunk, and tail made of despot’s gold,

dissolved into dust – the marketplace sold.