chrestomathy

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CHRESTOMATHY

[noun]

from the Greek words khrestos, useful, and mathein, to know - a collection of choice literary passages (often selected by one author), used especially as an aid in learning a foreign language. In philology or in the study of literature, it is a type of reader or anthology which presents a sequence of example texts, selected to demonstrate the development of language or literary style.

[Su Blackwell]

[word requested by noahmanskar]

“Where is the graveyard of dead gods? What lingering mourner waters their mounds? There was a time when Jupiter was the king of the gods, and any man who doubted his puissance was ipso facto a barbarian and an ignoramus. But where in all the world is there a man who worships Jupiter today? And who of Huitzilopochtli? In one year - and it is no more than five hundred years ago - 50,000 youths and maidens were slain in sacrifice to him. Today, if he is remembered at all, it is only by some vagrant savage in the depths of the Mexican forest. Huitzilopochtli, like many other gods, had no human father; his mother was a virtuous widow; he was born of an apparently innocent flirtation that she carried out with the sun.“

H.L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy

Another take on the inbox investment

Via the Dish, Paul Ford has another take on the versions of ourselves that we end up saving, for better or worse, in our email inboxes:

It’s overwhelming at times to reach back across a decade-and-change and find so much, so fast (the mairix program, being local, is much faster than the same Google mail search). It brings those years back, quicker than memory. I can’t imagine what it will be like in a decade or two. While right now it’s unusual in general population for a person to have all this history so close, so quickly searchable, obviously the world will go this way. There will be many new forms of art and commerce over time, I think, that allow us to interact with, and share from, our private archives. There is going to be an urgent market need for tiny mechanical historians who can live in our pockets and point out our flaws.

Slicing open my own corpus, I’ve been surprised—and upset—to find that ideas I had then were very similar to the ones I have now. I found that my thinking on things like time, technology, or human behavior hasn’t changed much since I was a 22-year-old studying document markup languages in the dark while writing advertising copy in the daytime.

But the search query, he suggests, can unwittingly make us “fall prey to the historical fallacy” causing us to create narratives about our past selves that may be biased with respect to the search term:

To prove that I was prey to this fallacy I picked a few random days and looked at all the emails I generated. And yes. There was, without the acute knife-edge of a search query slicing my life, a wealth of goofiness, a catalog of wasted flirtations and dumb thoughts and mistakes made, all displayed without consciousness of the future. A conversation organizing a cup of coffee that lasted thirty emails; a boring description of a just-purchased shirt. It was exhausting to read what this banal nerd had to say, except for one thing: The old me was so damned hopeful. I ended up liking him even if he did borrow grieving, even if his ego was a great swollen balloon that he dared the world to pop. (Often the world did. Sometimes he put the balloon in his mouth.) Unlike the portrait of self that emerged from my tightly constrained searching, this fellow was hard to classify. He was alive in his own moment, not mine…

…Reading his old messages, even though they were intended for someone else, I know that he wanted more life, more love, and more space to think, and I’ve given him, imperfectly, not always willingly, but best I could, all three. Still, I hope he would forgive me that I’ve gone exactly this far, but no further, with my life. And he would. He more than anyone would understand how uncertain things can be, how slow progress can come. He would peek in with tremendous, understandable curiosity at my wife as she slept in the other room, at her dark silhouette. “Huh,” he would say, oblivious but always helpful. “That’s good to know.” And soon after he would drift back into the realm of chaos or serendipity where our past selves mill, on his face that sad smile, so familiar from movies with ghosts, of those who fade.“

Ford makes me wonder: to what extent did I fall prey to the historical fallacy when I wrote about my own Gmail search? I buy the possibility that searching for key terms can be misleading, but if he found a "conversation organizing a cup of coffee” to be illuminating then perhaps I wasn’t blinded by a “false chrestomathy.”

To me, the contrast between the self discerned by searching key terms and the self elucidated by searching saved conversations further supports the notion that the selves expressed, without “consciousness of the future,” in archived email correspondence (i.e. electronic letters) are the true inbox investments – the real reason why we care so much about our Gmail accounts.

‘I think, therefore I am’ is the statement of an intellectual who underrates toothaches. 'I feel, therefore I am’ is a truth much more universally valid, and it applies to everything that is alive. My self does not differ substantially from yours in terms of its thought. Many people, few ideas: we all think more or less the same, and we exchange, borrow, steal thoughts from one another. However, when someone steps on my foot, only I feel the pain. The basis of the self is not thought but suffering, which is the most fundamental of all feelings. While it suffers, not even a cat can doubt its unique and uninterchangeable self. In intense suffering the world disappears and each of us is alone with his self. Suffering is the university of egocentrism.
—  Milan Kundera, in Immortality