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The Radicalism of Reading – Article by Eileen L. Wittig

The Radicalism of Reading – Article by Eileen L. Wittig

The New Renaissance Hat
Eileen L. Wittig
July 13, 2017

It’s Peak Reading Season: too hot to go outside, too lethargic to do much inside, no holidays coming up for a while. Polls and anecdotes are probably telling you that reading is on the decline – people just don’t read like they used to! – but it turns out that depends on what demographic you’re looking at, and it’s a bit embarrassing for the old people shaking their heads over “kids these days.”

If you’re looking at people over the age of 65, your thought is right. Only 67 percent have read a book in the past year, regardless of format. But if you look at people age 18-29, a.k.a. the ones who supposedly do nothing but scroll through the internet all day, that number jumps up to 80 percent. Awkward.

Granted, that’s only talking about people who have read an actual book, and I’d argue that reading educational articles counts. If we include that, the reading statistic would jump even higher.

And that would’ve been horrible a century ago. And in the century before that. And all the way back to ancient Greece.

The modern obsession with reading is just that: a modern obsession, created by technology, new genres of literature, and advances in class, gender, and socioeconomic equality. It took about 2,500 years, but we made it.

Technological Advance, Copyrighted

You’d think the ancient Greeks would’ve been all about writing things down, but there was resistance from Socrates. He was a huge supporter of the previous technology: oral tradition, when knowledge was passed down through the generations by talking.

Thankfully Plato ignored him and recorded, for the millennia, that Socrates said writing would be terrible for society, causing “forgetfulness,” giving “not truth, but only the semblance of truth,” making everyone “appear to be omniscient, but knowing nothing,” creating nothing but “tiresome company.” Thus did literature have its first great irony.

For hundreds of years, we wrote things down. Most books were either religious or historical, regardless of country, culture, or religion of origin, and as the times changed, this general rule became alternately stricter and looser. Strict class structure, long work days, and the lack of publishing technology resulted in relatively low literacy rates.

The next big step forward was Gutenberg’s printing press. No more hand-writing everything! Suddenly books could be mass-produced, and with that ability came books in many different genres: poetry, technical knowledge, morality stories, and even sheet music. It took a while for people to realize they could start printing books in their own native languages and not only in the then-universal literary language of Latin, but it got there eventually.

Unfortunately, as happens now, with this new technology came new laws, particularly the Ordinance for the Regulation of Printing, issued in England in 1643. The Ordinance proclaimed that

Nor other Book, Pamphlet, paper, nor part of any such Book, Pamphlet, or paper shall from henceforth be printed, bound, stitched or put to sale by any person or persons whatsoever, unless the same be first approved of and licensed under the hands of such person or persons as both, or either of the said Houses shall appoint for the licensing of the same, and entred in the Register Book of the Company of Stationers, according to ancient custom, and the Printer thereof to put his name thereto.

In other words, you couldn’t print anything unless you had express permission from a government-appointed person. You couldn’t submit your book to the registry without government permission, either.

Needless to say, this didn’t help publishing progress. However, after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 created the Declaration of Rights, which included the right to free speech, England’s society opened up, and the Ordinance was allowed to lapse in 1694. Free speech combined with less regulation resulted in many more printing presses and publication houses in both England and the American colonies, and publication of books, newspapers, and pamphlets started going up. With more things available, more people could start reading, and the literacy rate in the West went up.

And then a brand new literary genre was invented, and the literary world changed forever (not even hyperbolically).

But the Women!

Up to this point, “the literacy rate went up” has referred more to men than to women. Some women could read, of course, but it was a male-dominated sphere until the end of the 19th century. Women didn’t work outside the home as much, and they were still considered to be inferior to men, so they often did not have comparable educations. The rise of female literacy came when the novel was spreading across the world, but the genre was not welcomed like it is today.

There’s disagreement over what the first novel was – most people say it’s Don Quixote, published all the way back in 1605, but others say it’s Pamela, published in 1740 – no matter which author was responsible for it, there was a lot of antagonism, even from the medical world. Novels were considered to be evil, destroying not only the morality but also the physical health of their “susceptible” female readers. Even in 1899, people were still warning against the “evils of reading” for women.

The problem was that they couldn’t actually agree on the details. One doctor wrote that novels would detrimentally accelerate a girl’s physical maturity, while another wrote that reading, and education in general, would cause of the opposite problem by preventing women from being able to have children. Reading novels could even make a woman uppity and encourage her to disrupt the status quo – the horror! Some went even further, warning that reading novels would cause insanity and even death.

Other people were more subtle in their predictions, believing novels would merely blur the line between fact and fiction. Authors themselves were torn: Gustave Flaubert ironically wrote a novel about this idea in Madame Bovary, while Jane Austen sensibly wrote against it in Northanger Abbey.

As more and more novels were written, and as women themselves entered the writing world, the hostility and sexism eventually died away. Today, we’ve progressed far beyond the old sexism: women now read more books than men, and the best-selling book series in history is a set of novels written by a woman: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.

Lowering the Threshold

Even with the lapsing copyright laws and the increased demand for books thanks to women’s literacy, publication was expensive, so books were expensive too. Reading was generally reserved for the higher classes who were, first off, educated, but could actually afford the money and time to read. Even Benjamin Franklin’s library required a subscription only a few tradesmen could afford. But that trend started changing when Charles Dickens and New York entered the sphere, thanks to the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment.

New York’s publishing houses – including Harper Bros. – were big enough to afford both large-scale publications, which made the books cheaper to publish and buy, and the vast expanse of the American West opened by the creation of the Erie Canal in 1825. The invention of the paperback book lowered the cost of books even further, giving people the “dime novel.” Publishers also took advantage of the lax international copyright laws and published whatever they wanted, including the works of one of the world’s first celebrity authors, Charles Dickens.

Over in England, Dickens was doing a strange thing and successfully writing about the poor. Taking from his own experiences growing up, Dickens used his talents and popularity to promote equality among the classes, greater education, and sympathy for people historically ignored. But he was also creating a new medium of publication: the magazine serialization, which ultimately became the standard form of novel-printing for the era all over the world. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Alexandre Dumas, Henry James, Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, and Harriet Beecher Stowe all published serial works. Printing in magazines allowed a greater audience to enjoy literature that would otherwise be reserved only for the people who could afford the time and money to read them in book format.

Speaking of Stowe, the literacy gap in America between whites and all minorities was huge for the first 200 years of our history. Just after the Civil War, in 1870, 79.9 percent of blacks and minorities were illiterate. That rate dropped steadily until 1910, at which point the illiteracy rate among minorities was 30.5 percent. The literacy rate continued growing, albeit slower than before, until the race gap was finally closed in 1980.

21st-Century Reading

All the technological, social, and economic advances made during the explosive 18th and 19th centuries carried through into the modern era, spreading literacy and dispelling weird rumors until the world literacy rate went from 12% in 1800 to 85% in 2014. With the internet, e-readers, and all our smart devices, people are reading more now than ever; and the availability and variety of content is unlike anything even imagined just a century ago.

So when a relative or stranger tells you to put your phone down, ask them when they last read a book, and then quote something smart from the article you’re reading on your phone.

Eileen Wittig is an Associate Editor and author of the Lazy Millennial column at FEE. You can follow the Lazy Millennial Twitter here.

This article was originally published on Read the original article.

It’s Time to Postpone Your Appointment with the Grim Reaper – Article by Gerrard Jayaratnam

It’s Time to Postpone Your Appointment with the Grim Reaper – Article by Gerrard Jayaratnam

The New Renaissance HatGerrard Jayaratnam

How long would you like to live for? Is there a limit to how long we can live for? These are not questions you hear often, but do not be surprised if they are repeated more frequently in the future. The reason? Life extension. It is the concept of living well beyond the average lifespan. [1]

Humans are already living longer due to vaccines and improvements in sanitation. [2] The World Health Organization reported that the average life expectancy at birth increased from 48 years in 1955 to 65 years in 1995, and is projected to rise to 73 years by 2025. [3] As medical techniques continue to improve, we are more inclined than ever to pursue life extension. [1] Indeed, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to China’s First Emperor, prolonging life has been an ever-present thought in society. [4, 5] Both individuals failed to escape death, but the idea of life extension ironically lives on. Even so, is it truly possible and what should upcoming doctors and scientists consider if they are to join the most ambitious of quests?

The “Horcruxes” of reality 

In the fictional Harry Potter series, “Horcruxes” were objects where people could hide a fragment of their soul in an attempt to take one step towards immortality. [6] Of course, humans cannot split their souls and hide them in objects, but there are several proposed means by which life extension may be achieved. [1] This is a testimony to the progress within the life extension field, but there remains much room for improvement.

Eat less, live more

Caloric restriction (CR) is one proposed method for life extension. [1] In the CALERIE (Comprehensive Assessment of Long term Effects of Reducing Intake of Energy) trial, 218 non-obese humans were randomised to either a control group or an intervention group. The latter aimed for a 25% reduction from baseline energy intake. At the end of the 2-year study period, the intervention group had significantly greater reductions in circulating levels of TNF-α – an inflammatory marker involved in many age-related diseases. [7] Dr Alexander Miras, winner of the 2014 Nutrition Society Cuthbertson Medal for his research on bariatric surgery, acknowledges that the study was a “good first step,” but argues that “the evidence in humans is lacking.” “A definitive RCT (randomised controlled trial),” Dr Miras continues, “would be very hard, if not impossible.” He also spots a glaring consequence of CR. “My personal approach is to avoid caloric restriction as this leads to hunger which is an unpleasant feeling. I would rather live a shorter life, but enjoy my food.”

Manipulating telomerase

One alternative is modulating telomerase activity – as attempted with the anti-ageing TA-65MD® supplement. [8] Telomeres protect the ends of chromosomes [9]; they resemble the aglets on the ends of shoelaces. Just as shoelaces would unravel without the aglet, chromosomes would lose vital DNA sequences in the absence of telomeres. [9] Our cells divide over time, causing telomeres to shorten. Once the telomere becomes too short, cell division ceases, and short telomeres correlate with cellular ageing. [10] Telomerase is an enzyme that can oppose telomere shortening [10] – it was what Hamlet was to King Claudius; what exercise is to obesity; and what junior doctors, in England, will be to Jeremy Hunt.

Reactivating telomerase in telomerase-deficient mice reversed both neurodegeneration and degeneration of other organs. [11] This proved the concept that boosting telomerase activity could have anti-ageing effects, but there is little proof that this occurs in humans. While the mice were telomerase-deficient, humans normally have some telomerase activity. It is like giving food to someone who has been fasting for hours and to someone who has just eaten a three-course meal – the starved individual would unquestionably benefit more. A 12-month long RCT, involving 117 relatively healthy individuals (age range: 53-87), found that low-dose TA-65 significantly increased telomere length when compared to placebo. High-dose TA-65, however, failed to do so. [12]

Dancing with the devil

What is more worrying than treatments that may be ineffective? Side effects. Telomerase is a double-edged sword and by reducing telomere attrition, it can promote unlimited cell division and cancer. [9] Elizabeth Blackburn, co-winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her role in the discovery of telomerase, has doubts about exploiting the enzyme. Speaking to TIME magazine, she said, “Cancers love telomerase, and a number of cancers up-regulate it like crazy. . . . My feeling would be that if I take anything that would push my telomerase up, I’m playing with fire.” [13]

A cauldron of rewards

CR and boosting telomerase activity are just a small sample of life extending techniques, yet there is the notion that such techniques will be intertwined with risks. However, risks are always weighed against rewards, and Gennady Stolyarov, editor-in-chief of The Rational Argumentator and Chief Executive of the Nevada Transhumanist Party, believes life extension would bring “immense and multifaceted” rewards. “The greatest benefit is the continued existence of the individual who remains alive. Each individual has incalculable moral value and is a universe of ideas, experiences, emotions, and memories. When a person dies, that entire universe is extinguished . . . This is the greatest possible loss, and should be averted if at all possible.” Stolyarov also envisages “major savings to healthcare systems” and that “the achievement of significant life extension would inspire many intelligent people to try to solve other age-old problems.”

Former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, Leon Kass, disagrees with this view and argues that mortality is necessary for “treasuring and appreciating all that life brings.” [14] Hence, increased longevity could lead to an overall reduction in productivity over one’s lifetime. Perhaps Kass is correct, but the array of potential benefits makes it seem unwise to prematurely dismiss life extension. In fact, a survey, which examined the opinions of 605 Australians on life extension, highlighted further benefits – 23% of participants said they could “spend more time with family” and 4% cited the opportunity to experience future societies. [15]

Learning from our mistakes

Conversely, life extension may result in people enduring poor health for longer periods. 28% of participants in the Australian survey highlighted this concern. [15] Current trends in life expectancy reinforce their fears. Professor Janet Lord, director of the Institute of Inflammation and Ageing at the University of Birmingham, explains, “Currently, in most countries in the developed world, life expectancy is increasing at approximately 2 years per decade, but healthspan (the years spent in good health) is only increasing at 1.7 years. This has major consequences . . . as more of later life is spent in poor health.” This is a consequence of treating “killer diseases” – according to Dr Felipe Sierra, director of the Division of Aging Biology at the National Institute on Aging. “The current model in biomedicine,” says Dr Sierra, “is to treat one disease at a time. Let’s imagine you have arthritis; cancer; and are starting to develop Alzheimer’s disease. So what do we do? We treat you for cancer. You now live longer with Alzheimer’s disease and arthritis.” A better approach is clear to Dr Sierra who stresses the importance of compression of morbidity – “the goal is to live longer with less time spent being sick.”

Learning from our successes

Even with Dr Sierra’s approach, individual boredom and social implications, including overpopulation, would still be problems.[16] According to Stolyarov, the boredom argument does not hold up when facing “human creativity and discovery.” He believes humans could never truly be bored as “the number of possible pursuits increases far faster than the ability of any individual to pursue.”

In his novel Death is Wrong, Stolyarov explained that the idea that society could not cope with a rapidly expanding population was historically inaccurate. The current population “is the highest it has ever been, and most people live far longer, healthier, prosperous lives than their ancestors did when the Earth’s population was hundreds of times smaller.” [16] If it has been achieved in the past, who is to say our own society – one far more advanced than any before it – cannot adapt?

The verdict

Life extension research is quietly progressing, and there is a good chance that it will eventually come to fruition. Although there are doubts about current techniques, Dr Sierra draws attention to novel interventions, such as rapamycin, which “delay ageing in mice.” He concludes that the next challenge is to “develop measures than can predict whether an intervention works in a short-term assay.” Such measures would provide the scaffolding for future clinical trials that test life extension techniques.

Given what may be gained, it is no surprise that artificially prolonging life is exciting some in the same way the Tree of Knowledge tempted Eve. The impact on society? Impossible to predict. It would undoubtedly be a big risk, but perhaps in this complex and uncertain scenario, we ought to remember the words of the poet Thomas Stearns Eliot: “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” [17]

Gerrard Jayaratnam is a student of Biomedical Science at Imperial College London.


  1. Stambler I. A History of Life-Extensionism in the Twentieth Century. Ramat Gan: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 2014.
  2. National Institute on Aging. Living Longer. 2011.
  3. World Health Organization. 50 Facts: Global Health situation and trends 1955-2025. 2013.
  4. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Epic of Gilgamesh. 2016.
  5. Lloyd DF. The Man Who Would Cheat Death and Rule the Universe. Vision. 2008.
  6. Rowling JK. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. London: Bloomsbury Publishing; 2005.
  7. Ravussin E, Redman LM, Rochon J, et al. A 2-Year Randomized Controlled Trial of Human Caloric Restriction: Feasibility and Effects on Predictors of Health Span and Longevity. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 2015;70:1097-1104.
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  9. De Jesus BB, Blasco MA. Telomerase at the intersection of cancer and aging. Trends Genet 2013;29:513-520.
  10. A. Sciences. Telomeres and Cellular Aging. (n.d.) [Accessed 3rd April 2016].
  11. Jaskelioff M, Muller FL, Paik JH, et al. Telomerase reactivation reverses tissue degeneration in aged telomerase deficient mice. Nature 2011;469:102-106.
  12. Salvador L, Singaravelu G, Harley CB, et al. A Natural Product Telomerase Activator Lengthens Telomeres in Humans: A Randomized, Double Blind, and Placebo Controlled Study. Rejuvenation Res 2016; ahead of print. doi:10.1089/rej.2015.1793.
  13. Kluger J. The antiaging power of a positive attitude. TIME. 2015.
  14. Than K. The Psychological Strain of Living Forever. Live Science. 2006.
  15. Partridge B, Lucke J, Bartlett H, et al. Ethical, social, and personal implications of extended human lifespan identified by members of the public. Rejuvenation Res 2009;12:351-357.
  16. Stolyarov II G. Death is Wrong. 2nd ed. Carson City, Nevada: Rational Argumentator Press; 2013.
  17. The Huffington Post. 11 Beautiful T.S. Eliot Quotes. 2013.