When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalinithi

When Breath Becomes AirWhen Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalinithi.  Foreword by Abraham Verghese.  New York: Random House, 2016. 228 p.

Paul Kalinithi was a neurosurgeon, writer, husband, father. He was diagnosed with lung cancer and died about 24 months later in March 2015. This book became his focus in the last months of his life —a rare, movingly honest, literate, and beautifully written account of facing death and living. OK, I wept when I read this, not because much of it is sad, but because all of it is so beautiful.

Paul swam in the deep end of the pool: in the incredibly exacting work of neurosurgery and neuroscience —a surgery which is meant to heal the body but unavoidably also amends the soul, a person’s very sense of self. This weighty responsibility has to be met by physicians with equal courage, tenacity, knowledge, and stamina —excellence in all things, αρετή in the true Greek sense. When Paul, such a physician, then had to become a patient, the roles shifted to courageous colleagues more than a simple reversal. His oncologist (“Emma”) was uncommonly gifted, and preserved for him an ability to choose his identity, his future, and his life at a time when too often the illness can strip those way. Paul quotes Becket, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” And he does.

In physical, embodied words, this book is beautiful to hold as well –beautifully produced.  The Monotype Bell font renders the text crisply and without weight.  Since the book is about having a body subject to disease and death, its physicality is important.  Reading it on a digital device would be definitely second-best, but good enough if that is the only choice (for those who are very ill or with impaired vision).  The care shown in the production of the volume perfectly corresponds to Paul's drive for excellence and humane expression in all his works.

This book is about facing death and remaining time to be alive —which is everyone’s situation, whether shorter or longer. Paul’s illness allowed him keep this in focus in a way few achieve. He really was remarkable, a force of nature in his prime, blazingly intelligent and impossibly well-read, with a keen sense of humor that only partially reveals itself. His intelligence, education, and experience as a neurosurgeon distilled into wisdom. When I come to that “someday” when life and mortality are both clearly in focus for me, I will reach for rather few books. This will be one of them.

Hearts, Minds, and Truths for the Future

During this thoroughly depressing season of American life, I have been re-reading two books by Howard Gardner, the professor of education at Harvard Graduate School of Education. I was privileged to spend a morning with him this past March at the School’s Library Leadership for a Digital Age professional education forum. I was impressed again by his humanity, long-range vision, and insight that people are rarely either at their best or at their worst.

FiveMindsForTheFutureThe two books are Five Minds for the Future and Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed. Five Minds was originally published ten years ago, and Gardner added a substantial new introduction to the paperback edition of 2008. Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed was published five years ago, and he added a new introduction to the paperback edition of a year later. Rather than simply becoming out of date, if anything these books are more urgent than ever.  Disciplined, respectful, creative reflection: what could be more foreign to the spirit of 2016?

Five Minds alludes to Gardner’s famous work on multiple intelligences, but takes a different approach to minds which are made up of varying mixtures of intelligences and connections. The disciplined, synthesizing, and creative minds figure most prominently in education, whether formal or informal, and form the great content of many people’s work, whether mental or physical. The respectful and ethical minds, by contrast, figure the “how” of life, both to members of a group, and to other human beings in relationship (the respectful), and in relation to the wider impact of behavior and work on society (the ethical). What makes work “good,” both in a technical sense and a moral sense? The respectful mind elucidates personal morality and reciprocity; ethical work elucidates citizenship and the “common- wealth” in an eighteenth century term. Of course this brief summary elides a great deal of content, context, and subtlety.

TruthBeautyAndGoodnessCoverTruth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed extends this work: the five minds addressing the classical virtues and their uneasy transition into a digital world.   Gardner defends these classical questions against the determinism of free market theory (in which value tends to equal price), neurobiological determinism (in which truth is a result of genetic controls), and “hard” post-modern relativism, according to which truth, beauty, and goodness are inherently unattainable, and merely cloak the acquisition and exercise of power. Gardner’s extended defence and arguments are not easy to summarize. Suffice that these are fundamental to a respectful, ethical human society and in a hyper-connected, fleeting, digital world become more important than ever as anchors for human flourishing.

In a broad sense Gardner pushes back against radically reductive economic, neuro-psychological, or radically skeptical currents that would dislodge the major claims of liberal arts education. “Liberal arts” as a term never appears in these books, and yet implicit in his convictions lies a strong claim that in fact the unexamined life is not worth living (Socrates’ foundational claim). The great peril of unreflective, technological, market-driven capitalist society is not that it does not know enough to function, but that it cannot reckon what it does not know –greatly to its undoubted, eventual undoing. A reflective mind is a necessarily modest mind.

What does this have to do with an academic library? Everything. If a neo-liberal university is exclusively driven by utility –what sells? –what do users already know they want to use? –what is the return of utilization for price? –what keeps them paying tuition so they don’t move to a cheaper competitor, or away entirely? Then the question of minds simply goes out the window. In that view, a disciplined, synthesizing, and creative mind only matters if it can make money and further the aims of the organization’s management. Respect and ethics means only doing work that is good enough, behaving in the right way, and not being too nakedly self-centered or opportunistic. In that case, the library becomes simply a managed environment for stenographic repetition of known thoughts.   Concepts of truth, beauty, goodness –however tenuously re-worked—are simply beside the point, lovely luxuries for those who can flaunt high-end educational branding.

If on the other hand a university can find a way to articulate the fundamental values of reflective thinking in an unthinkingly reactive, pompous, and dis-respectful era, then the library has a place as a center for self-directed engagement with potentially transformative truths. In such a context the library enacts the university’s mission of nurturing sound learning,  new discovery, and the pursuit of wisdom by creating the physical and intellectual space where a biology student can become a biologist (just one example).  Gardner’s books have everything to do with the why of librarianship. David Lankes has been quoted that a room full of books without a librarian is just a room full of books, but an empty room with a librarian is a library. (Of course the latter case is really easier to do with at least a few books.) That focuses on the why of librarianship: it is what librarians do; the library is all the people (librarians and readers) and their thinking, not just their stuff. The librarian’s and the user’s actions can transcend their self-interests. They can create and re-create their minds for a respectful and creative future.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Deep WorkDeep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport. New York:  Grand Central (Hachette), 2016.  296 p.  ISBN 978-1-4555-8669-1 $28.00 list

Cal Newport became a guru of study hacks after publishing Study Hacks, two other books, a dissertation, and six articles.  Clearly “do as I say and as I do,” he knows his subject.  Deep Work extends his thinking to sharper critique of the glut of social information that distracts many people.

Newport is especially sharply critical of Facebook (including the new Facebook headquarters building), Twitter, and the well-recognized Fear of Missing Out (FOMA) that can drive compulsive distraction and seriously erode the quality and quantity of work.  His critique is well-sustained, but its claims to be counter-cultural or disruptive are overblown: numerous other writers have critiqued the culture of distraction, including Neil Postman, Nicholas Carr, and Sherry Turkle.

Newport’s positive formulation of deep work betrays a certain ambivalence at the heart of the book.  Deep work is “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limits.  These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”(p. 3)  By contrast shallow work is “noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”)(p. 6) His hypothesis: "the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare . . . [and] valuable . . . . The few who cultivate this skill with thrive."(p. 14)  His goal: to help you be one who can work deeply, a noble aim.   His examples are not always convincing, however.

His leading example (which opens the book), Carl Jung’s creation of Bollingen Tower as a retreat for his writing, is more multi-faceted than Newport suggests.  Jung retreated to his tower to write without distraction, but based in large part on his interaction with patients in Zurich.  Later Newport identifies Jung’s “bimodal” pattern, contrasting the Tower with Zurich, a “busy clinical practice,” “gave and attended many lectures,” “active participant in the Zurich coffeehouse culture,” all suggesting to Newport the hyper-connected, digital-age knowledge worker: “replace ‘Zurich’ with ‘San Francisco’ and ‘letter’ with ‘tweet’ and we could be discussing some hotshot tech CEO.” (p. 107)

I think this is a serious, ideologically-driven misunderstanding of Jung’s life in Zurich, and life's work.  Jung’s own writings are filled with episodes, instances, and cases from his practice in Zurich.  To suggest that Jung’s work in Zurich was “shallow work” devalues his clinical practice and Jung’s whole motivation for developing depth psychology and disputes with Sigmund Freud.  The ideas and art work Jung picked up in his Zurich life provided some of the critical raw material from which he fashioned his singular and valuable insights in the Tower.  Suggesting that Jung’s beautifully written letters are the work equivalent of contemporary tweets is simply preposterous and and fundamentally misconstrues Jung’s life’s work.  Valuable as Jung's deep concentration in the Tower was, it never would have amounted to much without his corresponding life in the city.

Newport's other examples (Adam Grant, Jack Dorsey for example) probably work better, but tend towards the two-dimensional.  This valuable book has to be read with caution.

Cal-newport-media-kit-smallIn the end, I am left with the uneasy sense that Newport’s beloved “deep work” is really what computer scientists do.  (He is an associate professor at Georgetown.) His concept of deep work is less applicable to those whose work is primarily leading people and organizations.  I know in my own work as a library director that sometimes I have to work on a project uninterrupted.  Some interruptions are shallow, but some definitely deep: the work I do listening to coworkers, helping them develop their ideas, skill and insights, indeed pushes my cognitive and emotional capabilities, improves my abilities, is hard to replicate mechanically, and (I hope) creates value.  Every encounter with a colleague is not deep work, but I always have to be alert to the moment when it turns deep, sometimes on a dime.

I completely accept Newport’s critique of the numerous, superficial distractions of social media, e-mail, and news, and the confusion of busyness with productivity.  But his concept of deep work needs broadening and humanizing. This seems to be the work of a very confident and highly creative young professor appropriately characterized as brilliant, creative, and important, but whose very brilliance and confidence may have drawn him towards an unnecessarily narrow conception of generosity, significance, and depth of insight.  I wonder how his ideas will change over time, work, and experience.  I would really like to find out, because it will be important.