January 7, 2010

How to Learn Something New Every Day

new-york-public-library-reading-roomimage via victoriapeckham

The bonus of being in school, despite Saturday afternoons writing long-winded papers about transcendentalism and institutional food, was the daily possibility to have one’s mind blown right open. A poem with a just so turn of phrase or listening to friends talk about concepts they were studying, working it out for themselves in the retelling, all held the capability for daily rapture. I used to sit in a coffee shop near campus with painted black benches and tables and bright red chairs. The near floor-to-ceiling windows of the south-facing storefront ensured that clear, white sunlight spilled on the pages of my book even in the doggiest days of winter. There, I fell quietly in love with Walden and worked my way, thrilled and on fire, through Luce Irigaray. I suspected, of course, that the time of being in school is especially rich with learning (that is, after all, the point), but I assumed that daily life itself would somehow be filled with philosophy, great art, and critical analysis. This is, in a nutshell, the cruel realization that awaits after one receives her diploma. Surprise!

There were years there, though, after college when I relished being away from the — excuse the colorful phrase — blowhard tendencies of academia. I read mystery novels (and abandoned them if they weren’t to my liking), I shed the phantom worry on Sunday nights that there was an assignment I needed to be chipping away at, I fully embraced my love of reality television without having to connect it to greater ideas about the state of our culture and its social mores. And yet, (you felt that coming didn’t you?), in the past few months I find myself gravitating to Big Ideas, Fine Art, and Great Books. If there is a vein of truth and mystery that runs beneath the surface of everyday life, I want more than ever before to tap into it.

Someone crudely and rudely suggested that this was because I had obtained the “life goal” of “snagging a man” and yet hadn’t moved on to the next stage of popping out babies. Interesting theory, I guess, but I find it more likely that a curious mind can only lay relatively fallow for so long — challenged only by new recipes, sewing patterns, and The New Yorker — before it craves more. Is this a feeling any of you are familiar with?

Not quite having the means to sign up for a class, I turned to our fine interwebs to find sources of mind betterment and blowing. Here, my friends, the spoils:

To explore more online courses on iTunes, go to iTunes U.

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  • Traci: Oh, yes, yes, yes, I know EXACTLY that feeling. (And I think it has nothing at all to do with marriage or parenthood.) Good for you for going out and doing something about it! And thanks for making it easier for me to do something about it!8 years ago

  • Kelly: I love this post. Thanks for the links, Sarah!8 years ago

  • Adrienne: Have you read _Loving Frank_ by Nancy Horan? Minus the whole sordid affair with famous architect bit, I think you might identify with the main character and her quest for meaning. Plus it’s a great book.8 years ago

  • Adrienne: Sorry for the double comment, but Philosphy Made Simple by Robert Hellenga is another book (not as good as Loving Frank, but still) about philosophy veiled by a novel. Given the title, it’s more thinly veiled, but I like my philosophical meanderings to be disguised in digestible and amusing story form.8 years ago

  • Anne: As if your curious mind might be the result of a lack of husband and baby — what decade did we just enter?8 years ago

  • Traci, Yes, I’ve been listening to the first link, the Intro to Philosophy class, though I have to confess — I haven’t done any of the reading! Just like college all over again.

    Kelly, You’re so welcome.

    Adrienne, No, I haven’t read Loving Frank — sounds wonderful! Thank you for the recommendations!

    Anne, Right?!?8 years ago

  • Chris: I graduated from college 3 years ago and I know the exact feeling! I try to apply abstract and theoretical ideas to my work, and am reminded repeatedly that those ideas don’t work in the “real world.” Since when is the world not real! I struggle with it every day, and I am so glad that you have suggested these classes. I plan on taking full advantage of them to fulfill the mental void that has developed over the past 3 years.

    I am also married, and would have to say that although I love him greatly, “snagging” him and “popping out babies” is not a “life goal.” It is a privilege and a pleasure, but never a goal.8 years ago

  • Chris, I hear ya on the “life goal” business — definitely.8 years ago

  • Jen: That was perfectly put. I just got a detailed mental image of the coffee shop at my college campus (there’s always good coffee and one guy wearing shorts on a college campus, no matter the location or the weather). I’ve always said my dream job would be as a paid college student for life. That intense period when you’re ‘growing up’, breaking away, throwing yourself into your own thoughts and ideas…there’s nothing like it.

    This is how I learn something new everyday:

    Thanks as always!8 years ago

  • Haley: I’ve definitely been feeling the pull of weighty subjects lately. I forgot how much I like thinking about things in a way that reading fiction doesn’t usually push you to do. Pretty much all I want to do lately is sit in bed and read, much to my partner’s chagrin as I think he might prefer to leave the house more often.

    I’ve been reading Astra Taylor’s “Examined Life” which is a transcription of her documentary where she interviews philosophers while taking walks with them. It’s great. I then proceded to clean out the library’s collection of books titled “Examined Life” and am working my way through them. It seemed to be a good way to go. After I finish those I’m going to try to work my way through the Western philosophical cannon, but be pretty relaxed about it and not feel bad about dropping the boring/too dense to understand ones.

    Also, World Lecture Hall is a big index of free university content, not all of it as sophisticated as the itunes stuff, but it is browsable by subject and there is so much there.
    http://wlh.webhost.utexas.edu/index.cfm8 years ago

  • Jen, The guy with shorts! Yes! We called him Running Boy at our school.

    Haley, Love your suggestion of the Examined Life books. My link to the Great Books reading groups got me thinking maybe I should join a chapter. I figure it’s a lot more fun reading Plato in a group than before I fall asleep. Wonderful tip on the World Lecture Hall, too. Thanks!8 years ago

  • Margaret: Wow- what timing! This is a great list, Sarah, and I appreciate the intro to Luce Irigaray- sounds good.
    I had just happened on my heart’s decision to re-explore spirituality a couple days ago when my feet steered me to the cathedral across the street from work on a break. It just felt like the time was right to dive back in to thinking about it, after a long break since being “in it” during college. Needing something bigger than fun routines, as you say… those philosophy and mythology links will be good to explore!8 years ago

  • Brooke: Love this! I’m approaching the end of my graduate degree and I spent the last post-dissertation week doing nothing but reading vampire novels and watching TV. It was delightful and satisfying and now… I’m itching to learn something else. I’ve spent the last few years immersed in British literature and history–I’m think I’m ready to brush up on all that American history I learned and promptly forgot.8 years ago

  • Meghan: I tend to feel exactly the same way this time of year — something about the coziness of being safe inside on long, dark nights and drinking hot beverages makes me want to study. Maybe it’s because in the warm months, I just want to run around outdoors.

    Another great way to get college courses with minimal reading is the Great Courses series, found in most public libraries (it’s rather expensive to purchase privately, but you can if you want). It’s published by the Teaching Company, and I checked NYPL’s catalog and they have loads of them. http://www.teach12.com is the publisher’s website.8 years ago

  • Ashley: I identify so completely with this post! I initially loved the guilt-free weekends spent on the couch watching trashy tv without that nagging feeling that I should be studying, but now, 5 years after graduation I am starting to crave talks about big ideas and the thrill of learning something new. (Funny how by the end of my degree I loathed the big ideas talks and unfortunately by 4th year nothing felt new anymore!)

    I love the variety of the Ted talks on Ted.com, I like to listen to them while I’m doing tedious projects at work. I can’t wait to check out the Great Books Foundation!8 years ago

  • EB: As someone still fully enmeshed, if not perpetuating the “blowhard tendencies of academia”….. I totally get it…8 years ago

  • Margaret, It’s so hard for me to imagine hunkering down with Luce Irigaray now, but I’m sure she still has her charms! 🙂 There’s also a thread in the forum about spirituality books that people like.

    Brooke, Wow, quick turnaround! It’s amazing how mastery in one area can make you realize how little you know in others.

    Meghan, You’re so right. It’s cozy study time! Ask me in June and I very much doubt I’ll be listening to a philosophy podcast. But it’s perfect for right now. Thank you so much for the tip on Great Courses. I’m going to look that up.

    Ashley, Thank you so much for the link to ted.com! That’s a great tip and will surely make doing the dishes much more enlightening.

    EB, Perpetuate away, my dear!8 years ago

  • Anne: Yes, I second the Ted talks! And This American Life podcasts always have fascinating topics to listen to while cooking.
    A couple books I can’t recommend highly enough for someone with a literary and philosophical bent (with a little science mixed in) –
    I am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter
    The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb
    Sync by Stephen Strogatz
    Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
    The Seven Mysteries of Life by Guy Murchie
    Paris Peasant by Louis Aragon
    Stripping and Other Stories by Pagan Kennedy
    Second Hand by Michael Zadoorian8 years ago

  • Christine S.: The life of teacher is one where the life in academia never ceases. It is so much fun finding ways to intrigue students about the writings of Hawthorne, Wharton, and Cather – the focuses in my curriculum for regular and honors 11th grade English…we just finished Amer. Transcendental thought as well.

    I find myself, though, to have become such a literary snob…taking little pleasure in an “easy read” b/c of the predictability. This I blame completely on the fact that all of the pieces of literature I teach are rich examples of what is great in our American heritage. I need works with some meat and teeth…British literature, that is more modern, seems to fit that bill more than much fiction I read in the more modern/current American musings. Or, maybe that is just because British literature is vastly different from American and has the tendency to be intriguing sheerly because my daily life is absent of the exposure to it.

    Either way, I foray in the quick/easy/mass produced volumes of fiction for the first few weeks of summer and then grow quickly tired of the trite story lines and predictable plot outcomes. Goal for 2010: read Proust!8 years ago

  • Sarah: I hear you, Sarah!

    This last year I’ve found that the smalled things are touching my soul in ways I’ve never imagined. Abstract art, for instance. I couldn’t stand it before, and then I ran into a painting one of my friends did, as part of an Advent series on Mary the mother of Jesus, and I started crying. I have a print of it hanging in my room. I’ve suddenly developed an interest in ee cummings and Byzantine history, when I was quite content with my English history (thank you very much) and my hatred of all things poetic that weren’t Shakespeare or Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I think there is only so much we can take of shallow existence before our soul cries out for more.

    I’m looking forward to looking through your list above and seeing what I can find- thanks for putting into words things I’ve been sensing recently!8 years ago

  • Nikki: Yes! I’ve been there and currently am there. I’ve started an online degree. Yes, to better my career but more so to stimulate the mind. After I graduated college a few years ago I indulged in the reckless abandon of chick lit and mysteries and what had just hit the shelves, throwing out anything that didn’t strike my fancy. But now that the “real world” has hit hard, and been hitting hard since I finished school, I desperately want to go back to… what is it? The “unreal world?”

    Thanks for your post. I identify and love that you can articulate something I’m feeling or have felt but just haven’t been able to put down in words.8 years ago

  • Amy C: I love you for posting this!
    After spending 4 years in college, and then 5 in grad school, I burned out. Honestly – for about 2 years after graduation, I couldn’t watch any movies with a seriousness level above “Ace Venture: Pet Detective”. Sad, I know, but I just couldn’t take it. But slowly, s l o w l y, I have been recouping my intellectual energy. I sat down at the piano and explored some Bach the other day. Then a little later, I read a short piece on practical existentialism in clinical psychology practice. I even engaged in a debate the other day about the ethics of evangelical conservativism. I’m using my brain again, people!
    So all that to say, love the links. I will be trawling through them happily 🙂8 years ago

  • Sara Rose: I have always felt the tendency towards continuing my brain expansion with larger thoguhts and ideas, but my efforts redoubled upon marriage and parenthood. Mostly because one doesn’t need to speak in rhyme or talk about poop all day long. But this list is fantastic!8 years ago

  • Anna: Have you heard of dailylit.com? It sends you pages of a book each day (or even multiple times a day as I recall) to your e-mail. I read Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” this way and it worked well for me. It allowed me to have my dose of plup fiction for my commute AND read a literary classic. I haven’t had a new book sent to me recently but I think it’s time I sign up for a new book! Also – if you’re interested in philosophy I’m currently reading “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” and loving it!8 years ago

  • Anne, Of course This American Life is pure gold! And thanks for all those reading recs!

    Christine S., I hear you — the pleasure of the easy read is kind of lost on me, too (with the great exception of a paperback mystery). And listen to this — at a friend’s house recently she had to take a phone call, and emboldened by a glass of wine I plucked Swann’s Way off the shelf to amuse myself. I couldn’t believe how utterly readable it was! Of course, I promptly forgot about it until now, but think that’s a goal maybe I should take on too.

    Sarah, Isn’t so interesting how different works of art speak to you at different times? I used to be utterly transfixed by abstract expressionism, particularly Mark Rothko, but now it doesn’t hold the same magic over me. I suppose that’s why reading the perfect book at the perfect time in your life, for example, is such a great moment of synchronicity.

    Nikki, Congrats on the online degree program. The real world does hit hard, but I have to remind myself that the “unreal world” had it’s limitations, too. If we can just combine the best parts of the unreal world with the real world, we’ll be golden!

    Amy C, Small steps, and slowly but surely. But a bit of mind trash can be very comforting to an over-exercised brain.

    Sara Rose, See, you have this naturally curious, wild mind so I think it’s probably hard for you to escape brain expansion whether you’re talking about poop (in rhyme) or not. 🙂

    Anna, Never heard of dailylit.com but thanks for mentioning it. The forum book club read The Elegance of the Hedgehog — that book just keeps coming up!8 years ago

  • Ginger: Couple of questions everyone/Nikki:

    Nikki – may I ask you (or anyone else) where you are getting your online degree from? You see, my husband’s job has us currently moving a good bit in the next few years (engineering), so while I’ve got some “free” time prior to those babies I truly look forward to popping out, this would be a great time in my life to complete a much-desired degree, but while I LOVE all the travel it affords us, I couldn’t commit to a physical location. Most programs want at least partial physical attendance, so if anyone knows of a reputable program, I’d be interested. Most fully online degrees are either MBAs (not business for me, thanks!), or from less than storied institutions (not that there’s anything wrong with the University of Pheonix type programs, it’s just not for me).

    As an alternative to that, and/or in the meantime, some of the “fun” of corporate learning, as opposed to individual learning, was the discussion. Would Sarah or anyone else want to “take” perhaps the Intro to Fiction, or another of the MIT courses together, and have a certain way/forum to meet and discuss and to keep ourselves accountable, of sorts? I’d love the discussion and the accountability. I wouldn’t even mind adapting one of the given syllabuses to have goal dates and such for us all to work on and be on the same page? Any takers crazy as me?

    And as one last “PS,” I just finished a FANTASTIC book called “The Well-Educated Mind” that basically re-teaches you to learn. It walks you through many of the great classics I can all assume we were supposed to have read, with questions and follow-through. Really good for self-educating!8 years ago

  • Jesse Lu: Totally do the iTunes U thing. Just listened to an awesome intro to philosophy lecture series from Oxford. How cool is that?8 years ago

  • geek+nerd: A few years ago, I wanted to expand my knowledge of classical music. The Boston Symphony Orchestra has some tremendous online resources.

    They have an online conservatory: http://www.bso.org/images/conservatory/default.html

    A Classical Companion to their season: http://www.bso.org/bso/mods/toc_01_gen_images.jsp?id=bcat12600004

    and a podcast:


    If that interests you – enjoy!8 years ago

  • KBG in DC: Thanks for the reminder that the interwebs are good for something other than celebrity gossip and movie reviews! I’m definitely giving these links a try.8 years ago

  • Melissa: What a great thought…I’ve been taking graduate classes the past few years, slowly working on a masters degree. I took this semester off, number one, because the class I need isn’t offered and, number two, because I wanted a little break and craved having my weekends to myself again…However, it’s been one month and I’m already finding myself missing the learning and the challenges that come with learning something new. It’s a strange feeling because when I’m in class and working late at night, I wish more than ever to have my free time back and not have to meet any deadlines. But then when I get that free time I find myself a little lost, not knowing what to do to occupy my time or my thoughts…thanks for reassuring me that I’m not strange to feel this way…!! love your website 🙂8 years ago

  • Denise | Chez Danisse: Oh yes, I know this feeling. I dealt with my own version post-MFA. Sometimes our curious minds need a rest, but it is not long before they begin demanding nourishment again. I hope you are having fun with your new list of online courses. By the way, is that the Rose Main Reading Room? I believe it is… One of my favorite places!8 years ago

  • tiny twig: dude, coolest thing ever! 🙂 thanks for the hookup on the class ideas! i’m going to have to study this list and look up others, too. you’re fabulous!8 years ago

  • lindsey clare: oh, i hear you! it has now been four years since i graduated and i have missed studying the whole time, but only on and off. i too have learned to shed the sunday night “i should be studying” guilt, and i genuinely enjoy my 9-to-5 job that allows me to do whatever i like each evening.

    but i do miss studying. i look into postgrad courses every now and then, and i’ll get around to it one day, i’m sure. in the meantime, my suggestion for a bit of cerebral action is anything Carl Sagan. he opens up my world every time i listen or read him.8 years ago

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