"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Literature in the News: Reading a Novel Improves the Brain

I came across this article from ABC News that caught my eye and had a nice fit with my blog.

How Reading a Novel Can Improve the Brain
Jan 12, 2014

It's amazing you can read these words.
It took millions of years for humans, and our recent ancestors, to develop the visual and motor and auditory skills that let us function in the complex world we inhabit today. But in less than 5,000 years, a brief span in human history, we learned how to read.
And that skill, or at least our understanding of it, is still evolving.
Scientists are using some of their most sophisticated tools to peer inside the human brain to see what happens when we engage in the process of reading, and they are finding a number of surprises:
-- Reading is a very complex task that requires several different regions of the brain to work together.
-- But surprisingly, we don't use the same neural circuits to read as we grow from infants to adults. So our brains are constantly changing throughout our lives.
-- It appears possible that reading can improve the "connectivity" between the various brain circuits that are essential to understanding the written word.
-- And there is recent evidence that simply reading a good novel can keep that enhanced "connectivity" working for days, and possibly longer, after we have finished the book.
Reading is not just one of the talents we were born with, like seeing and hearing. It is a "recent cultural invention," as one researcher put it. Just a few thousand years ago, some creative human probably carved the first symbol in the wall of a cave, launching his followers on a rich, new adventure -- reading.

And yet we have this ability to read complex words and sentences on a page that we process and recreate in our brains.  Our brains are truly remarkable organs.  It really does separate us from the animals.  Think about it.  According to Wikipedia chimpanzees have  98% similarity in genetic code and yet our ability to think and process is light years beyond.  The amount of process that goes on in just reading one word is startling, given that you have to categorize each letter, organize to phonemes, associate it to grammatical function, and associate it with nouns or actions or concepts.  The article quotes a researcher who claims that reading is a “cultural invention,” which I guess is true, but frankly if it were only that they could teach a chimp to write a paragraph.  I don’t buy that.  There seems to be something special about the human brain.
The article goes on to cite an experiment, where they assess brain development with blood surging to certain sections of the brain. 

Neuroscientists at Emory University in Atlanta have determined that just reading a gripping novel makes changes in the way the brain connects with different circuits, and most importantly, those changes last for at least five days. They may not be permanent, but that at least suggests that the rewards from reading last longer than the act itself.
Emory's Gregory Berns and his colleagues put 21 students (12 females and nine males) through an fMRI for about 30 minutes a day for 19 days to collect their data. During the experiment the participants read the 2003 novel, "Pompeii," by Robert Harris, based on the destruction of that city by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
The students were scanned for five days before reading the book, and five days after they had finished. During the intermittent nine days they read one chapter each evening before the scanning the following morning.
The scanner revealed a sharp spike in two neural networks after the first chapter, and that continued throughout the rest of the experiment, including the five days after the reading was over.
"Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity," Berns said in releasing the study. 

Well, their first mistake was in selecting a Robert Harris novel for the experiment.  Haha, only kidding.  Pompeii is actually a novel I had once planned to read but never got to it and then the desire fell by the wayside.   I still have the book somewhere.  My second thought was I hope they paid those students for that.  MRIs can cause headaches and frankly are not pleasant.  I wouldn’t want to undergo so many over that extended period of time.  But students are dumb and gullible. ;)

Seriously, either the article lacks a key piece of information or the conclusion seems built on a tenuous deduction.  Because blood is shown to be in specific sections of the brain may conclude activity, but I have no idea how that proves there is increased connectivity.  As an engineer who uses controlled experiments to come to design conclusions, I wouldn’t feel comfortable making such a claim based on that data.  Now of course a biological experiment is limited in ways a mechanical experiment of inanimate parts would not be, so perhaps they must make a bit of a leap if they want to come to conclusions.  Perhaps this is an example of why biological “conclusions” often get proven wrong later on. 

The article itself poked a hole in the study. 

The study underscores the difficulty of conducting brain research among healthy subjects when it's impossible to control every aspect of their lives.
They obviously read the book, because they passed a quiz each day before being rolled into the scanner, but what else did they do? Were they still thinking about the book while in the scanner, although they were supposed to be at a "resting state" in which they are mentally unengaged? And it is known now that the human brain is never really "at rest." It remains an active processor, even in our sleep.
The fact that the participants' neural circuits were active while they were reading is not surprising, because some circuits light up whenever we do anything. But the effect lasted beyond the book, and that has intrigued other scientists who must now duplicate, and expand, the findings for them to remain viable. 

How do they prove that the brain activity was related to reading the book or any of the myriad of things we all do in a day?  Do people in illiterate societies have less brain power?  Do illiterate people have more of a likelihood of dementia or Alzheimer’s?  What exactly are they measuring and what does that prove? 

I’m sure there is something to their study.  I am sure that reading stimulates brain function, and that is probably beneficial.  The article ends on this note from a different study. 

Scientists at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that even the seemingly simple act of reading involves 17 regions of the brain, but not all at the same time. They studied 30 persons ranging in age from seven to 35 and found that some regions actually grew less active with age, so even the physical activity in the human brain is not constant.
And that reinforces something our mothers tried to teach us: Start early. Read often. Give your brain a little help.

So the moral of the story is, read a novel.  It will make your brain…uhm…bigger, or is it stronger, or is it faster, or is it…oh who knows.  It makes it something.  

Sunday, February 23, 2014

My Immediate Book Meme

It’s one of those internet things, this one started by DarwinCatholic.  He (or is it she?) says:

There are plenty of memes that want to know all about your book history and your all-time greats and your grand ambitions, but let's focus on something more revealing: the books you're actually reading now, or just read, or are about to read. Let's call it The Immediate Book Meme.

 It’s just six questions with short answers.  No elaboration.  Here goes.

1. What book are you reading now?

Washington Square by Henry James. 
Well, that’s the main one; there are three others, that I’m bouncing around with.  I might as list them too:
Gerard Manly Hopkins: Poems and Prose, Selected and Edited by W. H. Gardner.
Julius Caesar: Life of a Colossus, by Adrian Goldsworthy.
Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity, by Prue Shaw.

2. What book did you just finish?

Life on the Mississippi, by Mark Twain.

3. What do you plan to read next?

The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis.  For Lent.

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo.

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

6. What is your current reading trend?
19th Century American.

Feel free to list your answers here or link here to your blog.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Faith Filled Friday: Blessed are They Who Follow the Law of the Lord!

I thought this passage from this past Sunday’s psalm reading at mass struck me as making a very good prayer. 


Instruct me, O LORD, in the way of your statutes,
that I may exactly observe them.
Give me discernment, that I may observe your law
and keep it with all my heart.

R/ Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!

                                                                        -Psalm 119:33-34

It reminded me of my neighbors, the Orthodox Jews, who live their lives in their efforts to obey everyone of their commandments.  God bless them.  They are my spiritual older brothers.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Purgatorio by Dante Alighieri, Part 2

This is the second part of my survey of Dante’s second cantica of the Divine Comedy, the Purgatorio.  You can find the first part here. 

Perhaps a word should be given to the originality of Dante’s vision of purgatory.  The Roman Catholic understanding of purgatory is based on solely as a staging place for the souls to be purified before entering heaven.  It’s based on tradition which came from the Church Fathers (Saints Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory, Origin, Tertulian, etc) which was derived from Judaism’s praying for the dead, several references in the Old Testament, and Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 10-15), where he states   

10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But each one must be careful how he builds upon it,11for no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ.12If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw,13the work of each will come to light, for the Day* will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire [itself] will test the quality of each one’s work.14If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage.15But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved,* but only as through fire.

That purging fire cleanses the soul who then is made worthy for heaven.  Catholics situate the place which that occurs by the name of purgatory; Eastern Orthodox acknowledges the purgation but do not situate a locale; most Protestants don’t seem to acknowledge either.   So at best, purgatory is an amorphous notion without much detail.  That people have a vision of purgatory as a structured place where various types of sins are healed is solely a result of Dante’s creation.  It is a testament to how influential to its culture the Divine Comedy became. 

Dante’s structure for purgatory in one respect mirrors the structure he gives hell.  Sins increase in severity as one corkscrews downward to the heart of hell; sins in purgatory decrease in gravity as one winds (also in corkscrew) up the mountain.  Purgatorio is located on an island in the southern hemisphere in polar opposition to Jerusalem.  But unlike hell, there is daylight on purgatory, perhaps its most significant difference, where sunshine and shadow metaphorically reflect the complex nature of life.  There is daytime and nighttime here, struggle and dreams of contemplation, song and suffering, acknowledgement of one’s transgressions and desire for refinement, and ultimately a desire for freedom, a freedom from one’s compulsions and disorders.  The journey here is a journey to growth in love, a love that unbinds the soul from human constrictions.  I personally find Purgatorio more interesting than either Inferno or Paradisio.  It’s the most human of the three canticas.

Dante divides the mountain of Purgatorio into three main sections: Ante-Purgatory, the lower ridges where the souls are slowed down based on their earthly apathy toward penitence; Purgatory proper where the seven terraces purify the seven deadly sins; and then Earthly Paradise where the Garden of Eden was situated for Adam and Eve.  Each is further subdivided, each in essence has a portal from which one enters, and each portal has an attendant who invites the soul in.  Contrast the attendants of Purgatorio, who welcome and guide, with the demon sentinels of Inferno, who punish and suppress the condemned. 

Let me discuss Ante-Purgatory in this post, reserving the other sections for their own posts.  The portal of Ante-Purgatory is actually the beachhead of the island, and the attendant is the ancient Roman, Marcus Porcius Cato.  Right there in the very first canto we have an unusual character for purgatory.  Cato was a pagan, born and died prior to Christ, and he committed suicide, a mortal sin.  Purgatory and heaven are reserved for baptized Christians, let alone for those that commit suicide.  There was a realm in hell where Dante situated the virtuous pagans, those who did not have the opportunity to know Christianity but led moral lives.  So as one enters the realm of the saved (all those in Purgatory will undoubtedly after purification be allowed into heaven) we have incongruity, which I think is Dante’s way of showing that God is not fixed by rules.  But why Cato?  Apparently there has been a long debate through the centuries on this.  Cato was a noble citizen of Rome, a man involved in the issues and actions of his day, of the highest moral integrity, and of uncompromising faith in his tradition, all attributes that reflect on the themes of the Commedia.  But in addition, Cato stood on the side of freedom in the Roman Civil Wars that ended the Republic, and purgatory is a realm of liberation.  Cato then is a perfect selection.

Ante-Purgatory is subdivided into the penitents who were excommunicated and those who were late repentant, late by either lack of effort or died suddenly unabsolved.  The lower on the mountain, the more difficult the climb, so that these souls in Ante-Purgatory because they were indolent in life must wait an extraordinary amount of time before they can even get to the gate of purgatory proper.  Unlike hell, where the souls are permanently locked into the circle of their punishment, penitents in Dante’s purgatory must work their way to paradise, experiencing each form of penance on each terrace.  Here’s a passage of a character who was excommunicated, a King Manfred of Sicily who died in battle.  But first Dante and Virgil meet a group of like penitents who suddenly marvel that what they see of Dante is not a soul but a flesh and blood body.  What they observe is that Dante the character casts a shadow since he is a living person while souls have light pass right through them.  When Virgil (Dante’s “Master”) explains to the souls of Dante’s situation, Manfred steps forward and introduces himself.   


When those in front saw that the light on my
right side was broken, so that the shadow extended
from me to the cliff,
they stopped and drew back somewhat, and all
the others that were coming after, without
knowing why, did the same.
“Without your asking, I confess to you that this
is a human body you see, by which the light of the
sun is split upon the ground.
Do not marvel, but believe that not without
power that comes from Heaven does he seek to
surmount this wall.”
So my master; and that worthy folk: “Turn
back,” they said, “walk on ahead of us, therefore,”
making a sign to us with the back of their hands.
And one of them began: “Whoever you are, as
we walk turn your eyes to me: consider if you have
ever seen me back there.”
I turned toward him and looked at him closely:
he was blond and handsome and of noble appearance,
but a sword-blow had divided one of his brows.
When I had humbly denied ever seeing
him, he said: “Now see,” and showed me a wound
high on his breast.
Then smiling, he said: “I am Manfred,
grandson of the Empress Contance; and so I beg
you when you return,
go to my lovely daughter, mother of the honor
of Sicily and Aragon, and tell her the truth, if
something else is being said.
After I had my body broken by two mortal
thrusts, I gave myself up, weeping, to him who
gladly pardons.
Horrible were my sins; but the infinite
Goodness has such open arms that it takes
whatever turns to it.

                        -Canto 3.88-123, Durling translation.

Manfred had been excommunicated, like his father Frederick II who Dante met in hell, both Kings who were quite sinful to put it mildly.  You can read about the historical Manfred, and Frederick II.    But Manfred is different than his father.  He approaches Dante with a smile—there is no smiling in hell—shows him his horrible wounds and asks Dante when he returns to earth to tell his daughter to pray for him as prayers help the people in Purgatory move faster to their goal.  A man with such horrible wounds and yet smiles holds no bitterness.  Prayers and smiles are a sign of a soul with hope, and hope is paramount.  “Horrible were my sins,” Manfred says (admission the first step toward repentance), but the infinite/Goodness has such open arms that it takes whatever turns to it.”

To turn is to convert, and to convert is to appeal to God.  But notice that even though he has been excommunicated—removed from the Church—he is saved, and then contrast that with his father and the several popes Dante situates in hell and realize that though the Church is helpful toward salvation (Manfred still has the longest journey to reach paradise) it is not definitive, either in getting you saved or preventing you from being saved.

Another soul Dante meets in Ante-Purgatory, though further up with those who died unabsolved is the medieval troubadour poet Sordello de Goito.   As I mentioned in the first post on Purgatorio, one of the themes of the Commedia is how beauty stems from God, and the beauty most discussed is that of poetry.  Of the many poets Dante the character meets throughout his journey, the majority of them must be (I haven’t counted to be sure) in Purgatorio.  Why this is, I’m not exactly sure. On the one hand art created to reflect God’s beauty is virtuous, but the act of creation rivals God and inherently inflates pride.  Later when Dante passes through the terrace of pride, he will say that pride is the sin that he most struggles with.  After all he is the greatest poet to have ever lived, and he realized his genius. 

The character and rendition of Sordello provides a excellent example of how integrated the themes of the Commedia are.  Dante and Virgil meet Sordello in Canto Six.  Uncoincidentally canto six in all three canticas, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradisio contain political themes.  Here in Purgatorio Dante and Virgil, unsure of the route forward espy a soul, who turns out to be Sordello, lying down alone.  Virgil comes up to him and asks him what the best path forward is. 

We came up to it: O Lombard soul, how
proudly and disdainfully you were holding
yourself, and how worthy and slow was the
moving of your eyes!
The soul said nothing to us, but was letting us
go by, only gazing, in the manner of a lion when it
Still Virgil drew near to it, begging that it show
us the best upward path; and it did not reply to his
but asked us of our city and our life; and my
sweet leader: “Mantua…” and the shade
all gathered in itself,
rose toward him from the place where it had
been, saying, “O Mantuan, I am Sordello from
your city!” and each embraced each other.

                        -Canto 6.61-73, Durling translation.

This seemingly innocuous scene is followed without a transition by a long digressive, invective, the longest in the entire Commedia, by Dante the author on the political state of his homeland.  Dante goes on to call Italy a slave and a whore, cities filled with tyrants and traitors, self-centered and criminal, a place where laws are meaningless and where neighboring cities fight wars with each other.  The very fact that the two Mantuans feel a sense of community, despite their separation of 1300 years or so contrasts to the dog eat dog world of Dante’s Italy and more specifically Florence.  Remember, Dante is exiled from his city-state, an act of severance, which was a common practice in Dante’s day, while Virgil and Sordello unite, the very opposite of severing.  The digression goes through the end of Canto Six, and finally the narrative returns at the beginning of Canto Seven where Sordello asks about their identity and finds out that one of the two is the famous poet Virgil.  


After the virtuous, glad welcomes had been
repeated three or four times, Sordello drew back
and said, “Who are you?”
“Before souls worthy to rise to God were turned
to this mountain, my bones were buried by
I am Virgil, and for no other crime did I lose
Heaven than for not having faith.”  Thus my
leader replied then.
As one who suddenly sees before him a
thing that makes him marvel, who both believes
and does not, saying “It is, it is not…”:
so did that other appear; and then he bent his
brow and humbly turning toward Virgil,
embraced him where the lesser takes hold.
“O glory of the Italians,” he said, “through
whom our language showed its power, O eternal
honor of the place I was from,
what merit or what grace shows you to me?  If I
 am worthy to hear your words, tell me if you come
from Hell, and from what cloister.”

                         -Canto 7.1-21, Durling translation.

Now take in the complete scene.  When Sordello hears his local accent and learns the soul before him is from his home town he embraces (an iconic image of unity) the fellow citizen without even knowing who he is.  Then when the soul identifies himself as Virgil, the Roman poet, Sordello, who is a poet himself and used the same Latin language to write his works, is stunned, as if he’s seeing a “marvel.”  He becomes humble—bending his brow—and embraces him again and says, “O glory of the Italians…through/whom our language showed its power…”  Here are three poets standing together, two of whom are united in language and in identity and one who laments the fragmentation of his homeland.  What Dante is suggesting is that through the beauty of language people unite and form a more perfect union, which unites a larger circle of people (“the Italians”) as a common community in the glorification of God’s prelapsarian purpose.  The Tower of Babel is a fragmenting event; it is the job of the poet to bind back the people with moral vision and common language. 

Notice how rich that little scene is, so simple and subtle, but with so much meaning.  And I didn’t even probe the intertextuality of that scene with others.  Dante’s Divine Comedy is that deep and complex.  I must give credit to an essay which helped me along in the analysis I just put forth: “Bertran de Born and Sordello: The Poetry ofPolitics in Dante's Comedy,” by Teodolinda Barolini, published in Modern Language Association, May 1979.  You can access it on the web here.  It’s well worth reading.

Finally I want to end this post on Ante-Purgatory with the twilight setting at the beginning of Canto Eight, a famously beautiful passage, perhaps one of the best poetic narrative passages in history.  I’m going to pick the Esolen translation for its poetry, but while Esolen does a fine job in translation, it still pales to Dante’s Italian.  There’s no way for Esolen to reproduce the vowel sounds, and the “l,” “s,” and soft “c” consonant sounds that give the coming evening a lulling and hushed sound.  Try to read it in Italian here.  You can also hear it read on youtube here, you’ll have to go 30 seconds in for the reading to begin and the 33 lines I quote ends at 2:45.  Just to orient you, what’s happening is that Dante hears the Compline bells ring as evening drops and sees a man pray the Te luces ante (Thee Before Nightfall) and then the surrounding souls join him by singing it.   Then suddenly two angels with swords come down to protect the souls from the serpent for the evening.

That hour had fallen when the sailor bends
his yearning and his softened heart toward home,
the day he’s bid farewell to his sweet friends;
The hour that wrings the pilgrim just away
should he hear home’s bells afar
that seem to mourn the dying of the day—
When I began to let all sound slip by
as beheld one spirit rise and ask
attention, with a gesture of his hand.
He joined his palms together, raised them high
as if he prayed, “I have no other care,”
fixing his gaze upon the eastern sky.
Thee Before Nightfall” so devoutly
came from his lips, with notes so sweet, they made
me move beyond my mind in ecstasy,
While all the rest with sweet and pious love
followed the soul in singing the whole hymn,
holding their eyes upon the wheels above.
Reader, my veil is woven now so thin,
sharpen your eyes to look upon the truth
and easily shall your vision pass within.
Silently then I saw that princely host
gazing on high as sentinels on the watch,
waiting, in pallor and humility.
And I saw come from Heaven and descend
two angels brandishing their fiery swords,
but those were cropped and blunted at the end.
Green as the fresh leaves springing on the stem,
so green their garments were, and wings of green
swept them astream behind them in the wind. 

                        -Canto 7.1-33, Esolen translation.

I might add that in Purgatory there are hymns and psalms sung in every scene it’s part of the therapy of transformation toward holiness for the penitents.  In this canto, you’ll have another hymn sung later on, the Salve Regina.  This would make such a great movie scene.  I hope you go on to read the entire passage.

Music Tuesday: "Bye Bye Blackbird" by Sammy Davis Jr.

I love this old American Songbook classic, and in my search to find the perfect rendition, I could not find a better version than Sammy Davis, Jr.'s.  I was listening to a collection from Sammy and when this song came on, it blew me away.  The song actually goes back to 1926, and every major American crooner has recorded it, even as recently as Paul McCartney, who of course is not an American.  What Davis does differently is arrange a standup bass around his vocals and sings it in a lower range.  He trusts his voice with the reduced instrumentation and it doesn't fail.  He's perfect.  I now associate this song with Sammy Davis, Jr.  

I just wished he would go on longer. 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Notable Quote: On Truth and Fiction by Mark Twain

I haven’t had a “Notable Quote” entry in a while.  While reading Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi I researched some of his quotes as I do with every author I read.  There were quite a few gems with Twain, as you can imagine.  There were probably more biting or insightful quotes than this one, but this one launched me into a thought excursion.

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't.

The first half of that supporting statement is rather obvious: “fiction is obligated to stick to possibilities.”  Once you build a fictional world and characters, you have to be consistent.  The second half statement, “truth isn’t,” is profound.  Real life and real people don’t have to be consistent because very often real life is not, and real people are most definitely not.
The quote is also interesting because a reader will not believe an author when he is inconsistent because he feels it violates real life.  But real life violates real life all the time, and we feel comfortable with that.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Lines I Wished I’d Written: My Boyhood's Home by Mark Twain

There are several movements in Twain’s Life on the Mississippi; one of them is a return back to Twain’s boyhood.  As Twain journey's back up the river, he journey's back to his youth.  I gave a little excerpt under “Lines I Wished I’d Written” of Twain’s boyhood ambition of being a steamboat pilot on the grand river, but toward the end of the memoir Twain returns to his boyhood home of Hannibal.  This little vignette provides a nice complement to that boyhood passage.  In this work Twain doesn’t hit you over the head with biting humor, but he does have his tongue in cheek here and there.  Here he returns home after twenty-nine years and anonymously starts enquiring about many of the friends and folk he knew.  Finally he enquires about himself and gets a startling answer.  From chapter LIII, “My Boyhood’s Home.” 

At seven in the morning we reached Hannibal, Missouri, where my boyhood was spent. I had had a glimpse of it fifteen years ago, and another glimpse six years earlier, but both were so brief that they hardly counted.  The only notion of the town that remained in my mind was the memory of it as I had known it when I first quitted it twenty-nine years ago. That picture of it was still as clear and vivid to me as a photograph.  I stepped ashore with the feeling of one who returns out of a dead-and-gone generation. I had a sort of realizing sense of what the Bastille prisoners must have felt when they used to come out and look upon Paris after years of captivity, and note how curiously the familiar and the strange were mixed together before them. I saw the new houses--saw them plainly enough--but they did not affect the older picture in my mind, for through their solid bricks and mortar I saw the vanished houses, which had formerly stood there, with perfect distinctness.
It was Sunday morning, and everybody was abed yet. So I passed through the vacant streets, still seeing the town as it was, and not as it is, and recognizing and metaphorically shaking hands with a hundred familiar objects which no longer exist; and finally climbed Holiday's Hill to get a comprehensive view.  The whole town lay spread out below me then, and I could mark and fix every locality, every detail. Naturally, I was a good deal moved. I said, 'Many of the people I once knew in this tranquil refuge of my childhood are now in heaven; some, I trust, are in the other place.'  The things about me and before me made me feel like a boy again--convinced me that I was a boy again, and that I had simply been dreaming an unusually long dream; but my reflections spoiled all that; for they forced me to say, 'I see fifty old houses down yonder, into each of which I could enter and find either a man or a woman who was a baby or unborn when I noticed those houses last, or a grandmother who was a plump young bride at that time.'
From this vantage ground the extensive view up and down the river, and wide over the wooded expanses of Illinois, is very beautiful-- one of the most beautiful on the Mississippi, I think; which is a hazardous remark to make, for the eight hundred miles of river between St. Louis and St. Paul afford an unbroken succession of lovely pictures. It may be that my affection for the one in question biases my judgment in its favor; I cannot say as to that.  No matter, it was satisfyingly beautiful to me, and it had this advantage over all the other friends whom I was about to greet again: it had suffered no change; it was as young and fresh and comely and gracious as ever it had been; whereas, the faces of the others would be old, and scarred with the campaigns of life, and marked with their griefs and defeats, and would give me no upliftings of spirit.
An old gentleman, out on an early morning walk, came along, and we discussed the weather, and then drifted into other matters. I could not remember his face. He said he had been living here twenty-eight years.  So he had come after my time, and I had never seen him before.  I asked him various questions; first about a mate of mine in Sunday school--what became of him?
'He graduated with honor in an Eastern college, wandered off into the world somewhere, succeeded at nothing, passed out of knowledge and memory years ago, and is supposed to have gone to the dogs.'
'He was bright, and promised well when he was a boy.'
'Yes, but the thing that happened is what became of it all.'
I asked after another lad, altogether the brightest in our village school when I was a boy.
'He, too, was graduated with honors, from an Eastern college; but life whipped him in every battle, straight along, and he died in one of the Territories, years ago, a defeated man.'
I asked after another of the bright boys.
'He is a success, always has been, always will be, I think.'
I inquired after a young fellow who came to the town to study for one of the professions when I was a boy.
'He went at something else before he got through--went from medicine to law, or from law to medicine--then to some other new thing; went away for a year, came back with a young wife; fell to drinking, then to gambling behind the door; finally took his wife and two young children to her father's, and went off to Mexico; went from bad to worse, and finally died there, without a cent to buy a shroud, and without a friend to attend the funeral.'
'Pity, for he was the best-natured, and most cheery and hopeful young fellow that ever was.'
I named another boy.
'Oh, he is all right. Lives here yet; has a wife and children, and is prospering.'
Same verdict concerning other boys.
I named three school-girls.
'The first two live here, are married and have children; the other is long ago dead--never married.'
I named, with emotion, one of my early sweethearts.
'She is all right. Been married three times; buried two husbands, divorced from the third, and I hear she is getting ready to marry an old fellow out in Colorado somewhere. She's got children scattered around here and there, most everywheres.'
The answer to several other inquiries was brief and simple--
'Killed in the war.'
I named another boy.
'Well, now, his case is curious! There wasn't a human being in this town but knew that that boy was a perfect chucklehead; perfect dummy; just a stupid ass, as you may say. Everybody knew it, and everybody said it. Well, if that very boy isn't the first lawyer in the State of Missouri to-day, I'm a Democrat!'
'Is that so?'
'It's actually so. I'm telling you the truth.'
'How do you account for it?'
'Account for it? There ain't any accounting for it, except that if you send a damned fool to St. Louis, and you don't tell them he's a damned fool they'll never find it out.  There's one thing sure--if I had a damned fool I should know what to do with him: ship him to St. Louis--it's the noblest market in the world for that kind of property. Well, when you come to look at it all around, and chew at it and think it over, don't it just bang anything you ever heard of?'
'Well, yes, it does seem to. But don't you think maybe it was the Hannibal people who were mistaken about the boy, and not the St. Louis people'
'Oh, nonsense! The people here have known him from the very cradle--they knew him a hundred times better than the St. Louis idiots could have known him. No, if you have got any damned fools that you want to realize on, take my advice--send them to St. Louis.'
I mentioned a great number of people whom I had formerly known.  Some were dead, some were gone away, some had prospered, some had come to naught; but as regarded a dozen or so of the lot, the answer was comforting:
'Prosperous--live here yet--town littered with their children.'
I asked about Miss ----

Died in the insane asylum three or four years ago--never was out of it from the time she went in; and was always suffering, too; never got a shred of her mind back.'
If he spoke the truth, here was a heavy tragedy, indeed.  Thirty-six years in a madhouse, that some young fools might have some fun!  I was a small boy, at the time; and I saw those giddy young ladies come tiptoeing into the room where Miss ---- sat reading at midnight by a lamp.  The girl at the head of the file wore a shroud and a doughface, she crept behind the victim, touched her on the shoulder, and she looked up and screamed, and then fell into convulsions.  She did not recover from the fright, but went mad. In these days it seems incredible that people believed in ghosts so short a time ago.  But they did.
After asking after such other folk as I could call to mind, I finally inquired about MYSELF:
'Oh, he succeeded well enough--another case of damned fool.  If they'd sent him to St. Louis, he'd have succeeded sooner.'
It was with much satisfaction that I recognized the wisdom of having told this candid gentleman, in the beginning, that my name was Smith.

Excerpted cited from Literature Network. 

The old gentleman that Twain interrogates here is just that perfect crusty character (kind of reminds me of me in my opinionated moments!) who has been at one place so long he knows everyone and has a snippy opinion of them.  Makes for perfect comic layering.