Essays, Agnotology, and Ignorance

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February 8, 2016 by libroshombre


I’ve been thinking about Michel Montaigne, the 16th century writer, wine grower, and counselor to kings, even more than usual, thanks to the Alaska Guys Read program. Guys Read presents heavily-illustrated, boy-friendly books to fourth grade boys, and then donates copies to their school libraries. One of the books currently being featured is “The Stratford Zoo Midnight Review Presents Macbeth,” in which the animalsact out a hilarious version of Shakespeare’s classic. Shakespeare, who wrote mostly in the late 1500s and early 1600s, was heavily swayed by Montaigne, the father of the personal essay who died in 1592. The 1580 first edition of his collected essays was quickly translated into English and became immediately influential. Montaigne’s impact on Hamlet and other Shakespeare classics is famously evident.

“Essay” comes from the French “essayer,” meaning “to try.” Sarah Bakewell, author of “How To Live,” the excellent biography of Montaigne, described his definition of “essay” as “to test, or taste it, or give it a whirl.” A NYTimes article about Bakewell’s biography said in Montaigne’s hands the essay “melds the intellectual with the personal … This idea – writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity – has not existed forever. It had to be invented.”

            Montaigne wrote about his fascinations and foibles with equal candor and wonder, and subsequent generations have found a relevance and immediacy about the old Frenchman’s musings that continuously makes him come to life. As Montaigne admirer Ralph Waldo Emerson described his Essays, “Cut these words and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive.”

Montaigne was wise, balanced and thoughtful, and drawing upon his 1,000-volume library helped. He relied on the classic writers and thinkers he admired to bolster his thoughts and move them along, saying “I quote others only in order the better to express myself.”

Considering ignorance is difficult in Montaigne’s giant shadow, but consider it we must, for an anonymous reader left me an article from the Canadian Globe and Mail magazine, presumably tocounter my claims that print books are thriving. The article, titled “Mockingbird’s Sequel Is a Golden Egg For a Desperate Publishing Industry,” was written in early 2015 by Elizabeth Renzetti, who exhibited her ignorance by saying the release of “Go Set a Watchman,” a new book Harper Lee, would save the print book publishers from ruin. “Book publishing is in a tailspin,” she wrote, adding “Who is going to begrudge book publishing a success it so desperately needs? Print book sales were down in the U.S. last year.”

Saying someone’s “ignorant” isn’t necessarily a pejorative. defines it as ‘Lack of knowledge or information.” Agnosis, “willful acts to spread confusion and deceit, usually to sale a product or win favor,” is far worse. “Agnotology,” the “study of deliberate propogation of ignorance,” was coined by Stanford University science historian Robert Proctor in 1979 when he began studying the tacticsused by the Big Tobacco companies to sway public opinion about the health risks posed by smoking.

Perhaps Ms Renzetti is guilty of simple ignorance, rather than active agnosis, when she misrepresented the state of the book publishing industry. After some futile googling, I called our public library’s reference librarians who produced the latest publishing statistics from the January 4, 2016 Publisher’s Weekly, That stated that “[u]nit sales of print books from outlets that report to Nielson BookScan increased 2.8% in 2015 over 2014, marking the second consecutive year that print units posted annual gains.”

In “The Plot Twist: E-book Sales Slip, and Print Is Far From Dead,” NY Times writer Alexandra Alter wrote that “Five years ago, the book world was seized by collective panic over the uncertain future of print … But the digital apocalypse never arrived, or at least not on schedule.” Analysts predicted that print book sales would be overtaken by e-book sales by 2015,” however, “digital books accounted last year for around 20 percent of the market, roughly the same as they did a few years ago.”

Print publishers are buying larger warehouses, but lazy, unaware, and self-deluded journalists will probably continue spouting and believing dire projections about the book’s future, because sometimes, as Montaigne noted, “Ignorance is the softest pillow on which a man can rest his head.”


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