by Andrea Scrima
“If the spirit of the fox enters a person, then that person’s tribe is accursed.”
In his 1953 essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” which postulates two quintessential moral dispositions at the heart of history’s main opposing ideologies, Isaiah Berlin divides the world’s influential writers into two categories of thought. Elaborating on Berlin’s dichotomy in her latest book Fox, which came out the spring of 2018 in English translation, Dubravka Ugrešić distinguishes between “those who write, engage, and think with recourse to a single idea (hedgehogs), and those who merge manifold heterogeneous experiences and ideas (foxes).” Clearly, the fox sounds more enticing; Berlin equates the hedgehog with authoritarianism and totalitarianism, while the fox is deemed liberal and tolerant. The only problem is the questionable reputation it’s earned among the world’s oldest mythologies, fairytales, and legends: whatever it might have going for it in the way of “pluralistic moral values,” the fox has long been accused of “cunning, betrayal, wile, sycophancy, deceit, mendacity, hypocrisy, duplicity, selfishness, sneakiness, arrogance, avarice, corruption, carnality, vindictiveness, and reclusiveness.” That’s quite an indictment—and all the more reason for Ugrešić to select the wily animal as patron saint of her new book.
Fox is subtle, virtuosic, and jarring; it’s also mordantly funny. In light-footed, deceptively playful detours and digressions, the book skips from Stalinist Russia to an American road trip with the Nabokovs, academic conferences and literary festivals to the largely untold story of the Far-East diaspora of persecuted Russian intellectuals on the eve of World War II. Fox is a novel, but its formal structure poses a challenge; some chapters read as essays, some as autonomous short stories, and while many recurrent threads reveal themselves upon closer inspection and reflection, it requires attention to unravel the author’s narrative strategy. Read more »
by Andrea Scrima
Try it: try talking about the subject of reading without drifting off into how the Internet has changed the way we absorb information. I, along with the majority of people I know whose reading habits were formed long before the advent of digital magazines and newspapers, Google Books, blogs, RSS feeds, social media, and Kindle, usually feel I’m only really reading when it’s printed matter, under a reading lamp, with the screen and phone turned off. But the reality is that I do a vast amount of reading online.
Unsurprisingly, my attention span has gotten jumpy: I click from one article to another, suddenly remember a mail I need to write, consult the online dictionary on a browser that has at least thirty-five open tabs, and before I reach my destination, I see that I have several new Facebook notifications and check these first. By the time I click on the dictionary, a half hour has been lost and I can no longer remember the word I intended to look up. The result of all this is the humbling admission to a new handicap: the need for an Internet access-blocker with a Black List.
For my seventeen-year-old son and his growing brain, the potential for relentless distraction is far more pernicious. This is a kid who was read to every night of the first thirteen years of his life for at least an hour at bedtime, more often than not longer, and yet the dominance of smart-phone technology in his young life means that the greater part of his access to the world of ideas now takes place online.
I’m not going to explore the anxiety of parenthood in the digital age or argue the pros and cons of the Internet here; I myself am far too entrenched to ponder a life without it. But what strikes me is the profound change we’ve undergone in our collective ability to think critically. In an era of fake news and AI technology sophisticated enough to produce video footage that looks like the real thing, the conclusion I’ve come to is this: the ability to read is not the only thing we have to salvage for the next generation; we have to save, from oblivion, our ability to read between the lines. Read more »