Prose Surfing

There are various forms of surfing available today. I’m not speaking of the water variety of surfing, made famous by the likes of Jan & Dean and The Beach Boys. I’m speaking of the forms associated with the gathering of information or entertainment, as in “surfing the Web” with a computer or PDA or “channel surfing” with a TV remote control. Long before the Web was invented and TVs had remote controls, I exercised a form of surfing I’ll call “Prose Surfing.”

That form of surfing can be done by anyone at anytime during the act of reading. The only stipulation is that you pay attention to what you’re reading, and that you keep your mind open to opportunities.

By opportunities, I mean those references you’ll find in prose (and also in poetry) to other works, other ideas, and other individuals that bear further examination. Any written material can contain such stuff. You just have to watch for it and be ready to act upon it.

For example, I read an article the other day in The New Yorker, titled “Right Again” by Adam Gopnik. The article is about John Stuart Mill and his relationship with his girlfriend (and eventually his wife) Harriet Taylor. I was somewhat familiar with Mill and his place in history as a philosopher, but the article brought up facts and ideas that I had never heard of. I was completely ignorant about Harriet Taylor, the role she played in Mill’s life, and her own remarkable contributions to literature and society.

This article presented a fine opportunity for prose surfing. I discovered references to facts and concepts that I became curious about. I wanted to learn more about the subject at hand. There were references in the article to Thomas Carlyle, Louisa May Alcott, James Mill, Jeremy Bentham, Samuel Johnson, “The Subjection of Women,” “On Liberty,” and Benjamin Disraeli. There were probably hundreds of other references worth looking into, but, you know, a person could get carried away indefinitely if one isn’t careful.

Every unfamiliar word and place and idea and person presents an opportunity to expand the mind. Some of the names with hyperlinks above were familiar to me before I read the article about Mill. One, Jeremy Bentham, was not. At least, I couldn’t remember hearing about him before. Now I had the opportunity to learn about this person who was so influential in the education and development of John Stuart Mill. I also learned that, after his death and according to his wishes, his body was placed in a wooden cabinet with a glass door and was put on display. He called the cabinet an Auto-icon. It can be seen in the photo above. It was kept by a friend of his for some years, then taken over by University College, London. What a strange resting place for the remains of a well-known philosopher. Or for anyone, for that matter.

Bentham left behind written works having approximately 5 million words. He was one wordy fellow, I’d say.

Getting back to Mill. He was very far ahead of his time regarding the status of women in society. It’s hard to imagine how difficult it must have been for a man to have an opinion so utterly opposed to the common thinking of the time. It seems to me that we all owe Mill a debt of gratitude, at least those of us in Western culture who have seen the status of women rise throughout the decades and centuries. John Stuart Mill and his wife Harriet had much to do with this change in thinking about women and their right to have equal rights and equal responsibility in society. That’s really the core concept of the article in The New Yorker.

But the article was ripe with leads to other wonderful stuff, such as Bentham’s life after death as a cute little dead fellow sitting in a chair in an Auto-icon. Without prose surfing, I never would have discovered this curious little fact.

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