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Lectures

March 9, 2001

Nobody enjoys being lectured to, however many enjoy hearing lectures. You must resolve this apparent paradox on your own. I intend to digress.

Professional educators may call me to task, but I’ve observed several preferences among people: learning by reading, learning by hearing, learning by doing. Of course, most of us blend all three, even though we might declare our preferences. I prefer the first two, if only because learning by doing usually means leaving my tea and chair behind.

I just started reading “The Varieties of Religious Experience” by William James, and I was surprised to find that the book is a collection of lectures. The language is a tad archaic, but I think that derives more from the style of lecture than from the style of writing one hundred years ago.

I will mention the usual insight about the James brothers: William was a psychologist who wrote like a novelist, and Henry was a novelist who wrote like a psychologist. There’s some truth in it.

Digressions and parenthetical insertions abound in “Varieties,” but these are easier to pull off in speaking than in writing. A speaker can draw out a comma’s pause or change his tone dramatically.

The reader must be more creative than a listener. I took the approach of reading the lectures as if I were speaking them to myself, and it was much easier to keep track of where I was in a long sentence.

One pleasure in reading older works is learning that, style aside, there’s nothing new under the sun. Then again, even styles return.

But the lectures had been prepared for publication, too. They are full of footnotes, which must have been added after the lectures were delivered. I wondered how a professional reader would choose to record this book for listeners. The footnotes are a fairly meaty addition to the lectures. Would the reader pause to insert footnotes or choose to ignore them altogether?

I asked Mary Woods, Salida’s own professional reader, and she said, “It depends.” It always does, doesn’t it? The narrative line is most important. Important footnotes are sometimes read during a nearby pause with an appropriate parenthetical voice. Most footnotes are for scholarly purposes and are ignored in the recording. Some are summarized at the end of a chapter, especially if they are informative or otherwise startling in their own right.

I am enjoying the lectures of William James. They are, in fact, outstanding. I wish there were an original recording of them. But you can now enjoy lectures by other notable scientists and professors.

The Teaching Company produces audio and video recordings of selected lecture series, and your library has procured a number of them; specifically, the following:

“Understanding the Universe: An Introduction to Astronomy” by Alex Filippenko of the University of California at Berkeley consists of forty 45-minute lectures. This is in video, as is “Great Principles of Science” by Robert Hazen of George Mason University.

“How to Listen to and Understand Great Music” by Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music is here on both audiocasette and CD. Other audio sets, of various lengths, are “Great Ideas of Philosophy,” “History of the United States,” “Classics of American Literature,” “History of the English Language,” and “Elements of Jazz.”

Most of them have pamphlets of text to accompany them, so you don’t have to listen for important footnotes. Just lean back and learn.

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