Said and read – June 2019

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*It is time now for a short break.*

I am sad to report that there is no book report for June. I just did not have the capacity for it, and before I knew it, it was July. I did some minor reading but don’t even remember what I read. Not enough, and certainly nothing worth writing about.

Said and read – May 2019

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By making one’s reading public, it becomes performative – by default – and that is not to everyone’s taste. We read a book; we tell other people; they infer what they will. What alters the meaning of the transaction is context. There is a substantive difference between recommending a book to a friend in conversation and publishing an illustrated recommendation on the Internet. But why keep that enthusiasm bottled up? Why hoard it?” –Andy Miller, essay, Boundless

I haven’t been bottling up or hoarding my renewed passion for reading, and I have never cared about the reactions. But I had also never really considered that anyone would have a reaction – at least not as strong a reaction as Miller describes. More on that later…

May did not start off by yielding much time for reading, and what reading I did ended up feeling like a chore. I continued on the tear through Joyce Carol Oates territory, as I did last month, and quickly tired of her style, which – prior to this extensive reading – I had somehow believed to be more wide-ranging than it proved to be. But once I started, much like with hated television shows or unpleasant experiences, I could not stop. I just have to complete the mission and see how it turns out (even if I am reasonably sure that it will turn out exactly as badly as the entire journey has gone). I also, for some reason, wasted a lot of time reading works by the Marquis de Sade – something I had thought I would do in high school; having now read them, I think they read as the complete vulgarity that would provoke much-craved shock value… in high school.

I knew that I would have limited time and thus did not want to invest in picking up books I was truly excited about (perhaps these kinds of books can wait for a bit of summer holiday), and instead took e-books from the library that held no meaning or excitement for me at all. And it’s in this way that I thought my reflections from May reading would be as lacklustre as the things I ended up reading.

But toward the latter half of the month, things started to pick up (coinciding, I suppose, with loads of two and three-hour flights I had to take, which always lead to uninterrupted concentration for reading and absolutely no other distractions or things to do instead). May, then, didn’t turn out too badly in terms of reading; I’ve come closing to catching up to the pace I prefer (approximately one book per day) without going overboard.

Anyway, previous Said and Read blog posts to see what I was reading and rambling about in the past can be found here: 2019 – April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for May:

“No matter what the grief, its weight, we are obliged to carry it” –Dorianne Laux

Sometimes reading feels like a distraction in which one can lose herself completely to escape everything else. We may, as Dorianne Laux has written, be obliged to carry our grief, but does that mean we must face it? When one has a world of books to insert oneself into and feed on, one need not face any reality all the time.

Highly recommended

*My Name is Asher LevChaim Potok

*The ChosenChaim Potok

“I am not satisfied with it, either, Reuven. We cannot wait for God. If there is an answer, we must make it ourselves.” I was quiet. “Six million of our people have been slaughtered,” he went on quietly. “It is inconceivable. It will have meaning only if we give it meaning. We cannot wait for God.”

It was a random choice to pick up Potok’s The Chosen, but it inspired me enough to get My Name is Asher Lev. Both are steeped in the unfamiliar but fascinatingly rigid worlds of Hasidic and Orthodox Judaism, and the personal/identity conflicts that come about both within these communities and navigating outside of them.

*Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?Frans de Waal

I don’t really have my own words to describe why I loved this. I like Frans de Waal in general; I love animals – and as naive as these descriptors sound, I don’t think it needs more embellishment.

I don’t think we can deny the intelligence of animals, and we do so only out of some weird need to feel superior. Intelligence, we must recognize, exists in so many different ways that we as humans are too arrogant sometimes to realize or even understand. Indeed there are kinds of cognition that certain animals have that we as humans never needed to develop because they would be irrelevant to our experience and environment (“Cognitive evolution is marked by many peaks of specialization.“)

Every species deals flexibly with the environment and develops solutions to the problems it poses.

But what about skeptics who believe that animals are by definition trapped in the present, and only humans contemplate the future? Are they making a reasonable assumption, or are they blinkered as to what animals are capable of? And why is humanity so prone to downplay animal intelligence?

Again and again, de Waal posits that our ‘tests’ of intelligence, instead of proving that an animal does not understand the problem we want it to solve proves that we do not understand the animal. Reimagining tests often produces very different results (and this is probably true when testing intelligence in people with different kinds of cognitive ability/strength).

Researchers concluded that they just didn’t get the problem. It occurred to no one that perhaps we, the investigators, didn’t get the elephant. Like the six blind men, we keep turning around and poking the big beast, but we need to remember that, as Werner Heisenberg put it, “what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”

This book, too, informed much of what I was doing in my psychology studies, including interesting thoughts on the “theory of mind” concept that dominates much of developmental psychology. As de Waal points out, can we eliminate the idea that animals (or small children) hold a theory about the minds of others? But this terminology, as he argues, makes the whole enterprise entirely scientific and disembodied. Even completely formed adults don’t contemplate that they grasp the mental states of others at an abstract level – so it ends up further questioning and assigning attributes that are meant to conclude that the lack of “rational evaluation” in perceiving something like theory of mind equals a lack of intelligence.

Good – or better than expected

*The Woman in the DunesKobo Abe

Atmospheric, vividly claustrophobic and terrifying.

*Juliet, NakedNick Hornby

I had never read Nick Hornby and mostly got from his writing what I expected – a quick read and a hearty helping of manchild BS. I was ‘rewarded’ with having my expectations met, particularly in the book A Long Way Down, which just felt… sloppy? It had one redeeming thought amidst describing the criss-crossing of the lives of a diverse suicidal group who end up not … ending it.

The guy who jumped had two profound and apparently contradictory effects on us all. Firstly, he made us realize that we weren’t capable of killing ourselves. And secondly, this information made us suicidal again. That isn’t a paradox, if you know anything about the perversity of human nature.” (from A Long Way Down)

Having nothing to compare it to, especially since my Hornby knowledge is mostly based on film and television adaptations, I got exactly what I expected. Which, I guess, was kind of disappointing (because one hopes that their low expectations will be exceeded).

Thus when I read Juliet, Naked, I expected more of the same but was somewhat surprised to find that the book was slightly more engaging and its characters slightly more alive. Am I alone in picturing the single-minded obsessive but otherwise unmotivated Duncan, despite his clearly being English, as some variation of Rainn Wilson? No idea why he came to mind. Side note: I guess I never knew until I just Googled Wilson that he’s from Seattle, which is itself a mecca for a lot of obsessive music types like Duncan. Perhaps because this book was told largely from the point of view of a put-upon, tired, supportive-to-a-fault girlfriend who finally breaks free of the boyfriend’s near-lifelong obsession with a somewhat obscure musician who disappeared into the mythology created by those obsessive fans who try to keep them alive via obsessive internet forums, it was more relatable than much of Hornby’s catalog.

When the girlfriend finds her voice, calling Duncan out on the fact that he wouldn’t have a personality at all were it not for his obsession with this phantom musician, we begin to see some of the pains of the kinds of halfhearted relationships that outlive their efficacy, if not their use (even the dead relationships that live too long – one-third too long, if you believe Ayelet Waldman – have some use to us), and never quite reach one’s aspirations. It hits home in its discussion of the never-had conversations about having children and the suppression of some very strong desires because one partner has put the other to sleep, as Hornby phrases it.

In this book, in fact, Hornby captures best of all the distance we grow to feel from ourselves, our feelings and our own lives – the way things we should feel become symbolic and abstract, whether because we have insulated ourselves or have been self-centered – we end up at the same place:

Anyone can say they haven’t done anything. Today I learned that I am going to be a grandfather. As I don’t really know the pregnant daughter in question—I don’t really know four of my five children, by the way—I was not able to feel joyful. For me, the only real emotional content of the news was the symbolism, what it said about me. I don’t feel bad about that, particularly. There’s no point in pretending to feel joy when someone you don’t know very well tells you she’s pregnant, although I suppose I do feel bad that various decisions I’ve made and avoided have reduced my daughter to the status of a stranger.

*Love and TreasureAyelet Waldman

I have not enjoyed previous meanderings into Waldman’s writing, but this book used aspects of World War II as a backdrop, which is generally a storytelling draw. Here Waldman has woven together a contemporary story with a historical one, and it’s through the historical detail that she pulls you in:

The wealth of the Jews of Hungary, of all of Europe, was to be found not in the laden boxcars of the Gold Train but in the grandmothers and mothers and daughters themselves, in the doctors and lawyers, the grain dealers and psychiatrists, the writers and artists who had created a culture of sophistication, of intellectual and artistic achievement. And that wealth, everything of real value, was all but extinguished.

Waldman does have something of a gift for dialogue that casually casts out nominally philosophical, hard-won, life-experience-style gems:

“I am developing a theory of relationships. Would you like to hear it?” “I would.” “It’s called the Principle of One-Third. Each and every love affair lasts for precisely one-third longer than it should. If you’ve been together for three years, then the last year was a waste of time, more pain than pleasure.” “And if you’ve been together for thirty years?” “Shame about that last decade.” He laughed. “Okay, then. What about a week?” “You should have gotten out midmorning on the fourth day. I’m telling you, the theory works for every relationship. The only problem with the Principle of One-Third is that it’s only once the relationship is over that you know how much time you’ve wasted. You don’t know that the last decade was pointless until you’ve been with someone for the whole thirty years. And you definitely don’t know that your husband will start fucking an ERISA lawyer in year ten until you get to year twelve and realize that the last four were a farce.”

Or:

“Sort of. We lived together, but we went to different schools. He went to Boston University. I went to Harvard.” “You are smarter than he is.” “I got better grades, that’s all.” “This is something so curious to me about women. If it were Daniel who went to Harvard he would say, ‘Yes, I am smarter.’ But because you are a woman, you say only ‘I got better grades.’ ” “You think that’s gender related?” “Men are more confident than women.” “Maybe some men are more confident than some women.” “Maybe most men are more confident than most women.” “Okay,” she said. “I think I can give you that.”

*The Satanic VersesSalman Rushdie

Certain words are ruined for me.

Whether it is the hypochondriac repeating words like “agony” and “excruciating”, stripping them of all meaning, or the overenthusiastic reader who strikes gold in some concept he has never heard of before and therefore overuses. I think here of a guy I met who constantly referred in his own writing to the djinn/jinn, leading me to think, knowing what I knew of this particular guy, that he either just read a bit of Salman Rushdie or read/watched American Gods. I can no longer, in my intolerance, see or hear those words again. Each time the word “djinn” turns up anywhere, I am reminded of this man and how readable were his motives, how transparent his immediate influences. But he is not unusual in this.

We all learn things and come to love them and cannot help ourselves from repeating them to death. Or maybe we latch onto things we never thought we would care about because someone we love loves them. By extension we come to love or care about them. I am trying to figure out where the line is – where does it pivot from someone loving or learning about something sincerely into someone overusing, performing ‘fandom’ or love, showing off? As Andy Miller describes about sharing his passion for reading, it can come across as ‘performative’; he also writes in his book (discussed below), which is the perfect encapsulation of the more charitable interpretation I wish I were always capable of ascribing to repeat offenders: “When we find a painting or a novel or a musical we love, we are briefly connected to the best that human beings are capable of, in ourselves and others, and we are reminded that our path through the world must intersect with others. Whether we like it or not, we are not alone.”

I cannot describe or see the performative pivot, but I can always feel where and when the turn comes.

Awkward pivot

Using the word “pivot”, incidentally, makes me think both of a former colleague who kept pronouncing the word as PIE-vot, as well as a newer (and very young) colleague citing an episode of Friends and Ross’s forceful, impatient instructing, “PIVOT! PIVOT!” when the characters were attempting to move a couch (which is what we were doing in the office – it was a fitting use of the reference).

Strange to think of the enduring – even fervent – popularity of Friends. All these youthful colleagues streaming it obsessively and telling me about it like they’ve discovered something new. I finally understand how my Boomer parents and their ilk felt when kids tried to introduce them to music from the 60s (or newer music that was blatantly mimicking 1960s-era originals). There’s validity in remembering and even enjoying some of Friends, but so much of it is outdated – not in the sense that you look at it and think you’re watching a relic of a bygone era, but so much of the homophobia and archetypal tropes feel insensitive and painful – they did then, too, but it was not as “done” to say so then. I recently read a thoughtful take on this in the award-winning Everywhereist blog – all about Monica’s imperfections, but most of all her history as a ‘fat girl’.

Geraldine (that’s the Everywhereist, don’t you know?) hits the nail on the head:

“The fat girl inside of me really wants to go,” Monica says. “I owe her this. I never let her eat.

The audience laughs, but it is a singularly heartbreaking sentiment. Monica is a chef, constantly surrounded by food she will never touch. It’s a modern-day Greek tragedy. The idea is never said explicitly, but it is there: that no matter how kind and loyal and giving you are, fatness will make you an outsider, fatness will make you weird and flawed. And even if you lose the weight, you can’t get rid of that.

As Naomi Wolf writes in The Beauty Myth, our cultural obsession with female thinness “is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience.” Monica suppressed a part of herself that was never problematic to begin with. And she genuinely seemed less joyous as a result.”

Thank you, Geraldine. Thing is, though… this particular discrimination is just as accepted and encouraged now – as well as being mined for throwaway but cruel laughs – as when the show originally ran. I am sure there are a lot of people who watch Friends reruns and take away the same kind of feelings Geraldine put into words. But there are a whole lot more who never thought about this at all, and still won’t.

“I don’t think it’s going to pivot any more” “You think?

Why am I awkwardly pivoting from how words get ruined to how TV shows get ruined to the complete lack of compassion we feel, how inured we are to the experiences of people we see and judge only based on what is right in front of our faces? Especially when this is ostensibly a description of why The Satanic Verses surprised me by being enjoyable? I wish I had an expert way to weave into words all the threads that connect this in my mind, but it remains a roundabout that can’t be sewn into a wearable garment. Incidentally I dreamt last night that I was going to “fix” a pair of tights and rapidly ran them through a sewing machine, essentially making one of the legs unusable. That’s a bit how I feel about having introduced all this information into what has turned into absolutely nothing about The Satanic Verses.

I know what a ghost is, the old woman affirmed silently. Her name was Rosa Diamond; she was eighty-eight years old; and she was squinting beakily through her salt-caked bedroom windows, watching the full moon’s sea. And I know what it isn’t, too, she nodded further, it isn’t a scarification or a flapping sheet, so pooh and pish to all that bunkum. What’s a ghost? Unfinished business, is what.

I suppose the only real connection I can make is that I have tried to read The Satanic Verses and other Rushdie works many times over the years. I kept coming back but it was never compelling enough. And it has haunted me (i.e., unfinished business).

Finally it stuck this year, and I suppose that’s the pivot here – and ties together all this senseless rambling, if loosely. One can see something, like Friends, or words, or one’s overly enthusiastic/performative way of using them, in one way at one juncture – and in entirely another way – later, with more experience and compassion. That’s how I approach my reading here.

Not being versed in any kind of religious teaching, nor being religious, I don’t really know what I’d consider “offensive” about this book. It’s filled with sex – that’s all I can think of. I cannot reflect analytically about this book, but I found it enjoyable, and a few passages thought-provoking, if only because they reminded me so much of people in my life and their own experiences.

The avalanche of sex in which Gibreel Farishta was trapped managed to bury his greatest talent so deep that it might easily have been lost forever, his talent, that is, for loving genuinely, deeply and without holding back, the rare and delicate gift which he had never been able to employ. By the time of his illness he had all but forgotten the anguish he used to experience owing to his longing for love, which had twisted and turned in him like a sorcerer’s knife. Now, at the end of each gymnastic night, he slept easily and long, as if he had never been plagued by dream-women, as if he had never hoped to lose his heart.

But then, it also seems like a work that garnered a lot of unwarranted attention (certainly more than it would have received without the fatwa issued against Rushdie), exerting an outsized cultural influence and reach to which the actual work can never live up. I wonder if, in that sense, Friends somehow enjoys more cultural currency – well, certainly it does since it’s made for the masses, but even in its undeserved but potentially lasting cross-generational potency and legacy, it outlives the infamy/notoriety of a solid book that misses ‘greatness’.

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Your Brain’s PoliticsGeorge Lakoff

Reading anything by Lakoff always sets my brain on fire. When I think about how intertwined metaphors are with our existence, and how we are producing them unconsciously, I reignite so many intellectual paths never-followed from my youth, but also – at least briefly – consider language on a deeper level. This, too, has informed a great deal of the psychology study I’ve done in the last year.

Today we know that metaphors are by no means a matter of “language and language only”. Metaphors structure our everyday cognition, our perception of reality. They are a matter of thought, they are a matter of language, and they are a matter of actions.

What are ‘metaphors’ (literally)?

Let me tell you, then, what is written across busses in Athens, “metaphoroi”. The word “metaphor” stems from Greek and literally means, “to carry things to another place.” Metaphoric cognition, thus, means that we resort to elements from one cognitive domain—commonly one that we can directly experience in the world—in order to reason about another cognitive domain—commonly one that is more abstract.

I could easily ramble about this, but it’s perhaps better to limit writing on this subject to how little the average person thinks about how linguistic framing and selective metaphoric use shapes the way we think about things (and can thus be manipulated). Lakoff has argued that conservatives/Republicans (whatever you want to call the right) have used this to their advantage, and the left has struggled because they haven’t mastered this framing.

In the US, for instance, conservatives do a great job of implementing their own frames in public debate, while progressives lag behind in terms of proactively framing issues in terms of their worldview. Moreover, progressives often negate the frames that conservatives use. They constantly get caught up in arguing against conservative ideas. And they lack a well-functioning communication infrastructure that ensures adequate, moral framing of issues across progressive groups on a daily basis. Conservatives are just much better organized when it comes to these things.

*Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal Yuval Taylor

Perhaps a bit of a dramatic title, I discovered this book by accident while browsing the online library. Zora Neale Hurston has always been something of a mystery – a staple of American high school reading lists with her classic Their Eyes Were Watching God, undeniably one of the greats to which I can return again and again, Hurston herself feels elusive. Even after reading this book that chronicled the friendship and falling out between two of the Harlem Renaissance‘s central figures, Hurston and Langston Hughes, Hurston feels distant. As much as is made of Hughes’ distance and keeping people at arms’ length, it is still Hurston who feels mysterious. She remains the force one wants to know about; her work endures, both within literature and anthropology. During her lifetime, she fell from favor, perhaps because she refused to embody the anger and resentment her contemporaries exhibited toward white people; because she refused the ‘fight’ without accepting the idea of being ‘lesser than’. She didn’t write about race and discrimination or being black in relation to a predominantly white society – she wrote about life and what she observed, in many cases in all-black communities. This voice was unique, and has finally been recognized as such, even if it didn’t fit the narrative for what black writers were “supposed to” produce. Hurston didn’t do anything according to what anyone expected:

Moreover, what Zora’s black critics failed to grasp was the reason behind Zora’s lifelong practice of minimizing the resentment of African Americans in her work. It was a simple one, really: “Bitterness,” as she put it in Dust Tracks on a Road, “is the graceless acknowledgment of defeat.” Zora recognized that those who are bitter and resentful are seen by themselves and others as victims, and the very existence of victims justifies, in a real way, the acts of the victimizers.”

*HungerKnut Hamsun

It is hard to imagine a time when wealthy, well-heeled, socialist Norway was the hard-up, impoverished farmer/fisherman cousin to Sweden. While not everyone suffered terrible privations, Norway was only ushered into the era of ‘too much’ in recent decades. Hamsun’s chronicle of experiencing hunger – both figurative and literal – is gripping.

A quick but engrossing read – as usual taken in while flying here or there. As the narrator attempts to keep a roof over his head and keep himself fed while making a “living” (you could never really call it that) while submitting articles for a few kroner here, a few kroner there, one gets a sense of how much he will give up for his work – and exactly what phases of delirium and want someone starving will go through. Its vivid characterizations of feelings and perceptions, filtered through this hunger, bring both the mental state and the scene to life.

The word stood out sharply against the darkness before me. I sit with open eyes, amazed at my find and laughing for joy. Then I start whispering: they might be spying on me, and I intended to keep my invention a secret. I had passed over into the sheer madness of hunger; I was empty and without pain and my thoughts were running riot. I debate with myself in silence. With the oddest jumps in my line of thought, I try to ascertain the meaning of my new word. It didn’t have to mean either God or amusement park, and who had said it should mean cattle show?

*The Sorrows of Young WertherJohann Wolfgang von Goethe

Must it be, that what makes for man’s happiness becomes the source of his misery?

I didn’t really enjoy this book, but it was filled with thoughts I found myself nodding along to and wanting to quote. Most notably, which I immediately used elsewhere:

“People would have fewer pains if—God knows why they are made this way—their imaginations were not so busily engaged in recalling past trials rather than bearing an indifferent present.

Or, as I often wonder why people are obsessed with wanting to live forever, particularly when they are obsessed with youth – and the longer they live, the further they get from this mythical youth – and the more poor is quality of life. But does quality of life truly matter to most other than as a slogan?

When I observe the restrictions that lock up a person’s active and probing powers, when I see how all activity is directed toward achieving the satisfaction of needs that in turn have no goal but to prolong our miserable existence, and that all reassurance about certain points of inquiry is only a dreaming resignation, since one paints with colorful figures and airy views the walls within which one sits imprisoned

After all, we are essentially cogs in wheels and not at all aware of the lack of freedom we have – and we would not know what to do if we found it:

I don’t know what it is about me that attracts people; so many like and attach themselves to me, and it pains me when our paths coincide for only a short stretch. If you ask what people are like here, I have to say: like everywhere! The human race is a monotonous thing. Most people work most of the time in order to live, and the little freedom they have left over frightens them so, that they will do anything to get rid of it. Oh, the regimentation of mankind!

Coincidences

*The Year of Reading DangerouslyAndy Miller

“The trick is to keep reading.”

I had pretty much thought I was done with May reading when my friend, Mr Nichols, he of deeply impeccable taste, sent a link to an article (cited above) about one man’s ‘excessive’ reading and how “something so innocuous can provoke such a range of strong responses”. Andy Miller shares in essay form how he feels compelled to redact the number of books he has read because it seems to provoke disbelief, anger, accusations of all kinds, and much more. Mr Nichols said it reminded him of my monthly collection of random thoughts (yes, this very post and its predecessors) on my own excessive reading (which has mostly generated the ‘wow! that’s shocking!’ response from people and very little of the anger or accusatory rhetoric Miller has experienced, although I suspect if I were actually known by anyone and this experiment of mine had more visibility, the negativity could get ugly).

I thanked Miller for sharing his relatable experiences; he thanked me and stated that he is glad not to be alone in this. He definitely isn’t – there are loads of us out here.

But me being me, Miller’s essay was not enough. Reading it through on my phone while waiting for a bus on a sunny but windy Oslo day, I knew I must get the book. Getting into the book was even more of a delight because immediately, Miller starts off sharing that he had modest ambitions in getting back into reading but then could not stop. I could have written this myself: three years ago when I came out of an embarrassingly long non-reading coma, I thought 26 books was a reasonable goal for a year (even if I continue to say that it’s not about quantity – because it isn’t). My own journey is completely devoid of theme or goal, but the non-existent endpoint is… not being able to stop.

I did attempt a kind of theme last year – still limiting myself to 26 books (which I blew through within the first month of the year) – but insisting that they must be in non-English languages. The only reason I note this is because Miller starts off his own journey with Bulgakov‘s The Master and Margarita, which is a book I read in English translation for the first time over 20 years ago and have since reread and gifted copies of to all kinds of people. But the idea that I should attempt it in its original Russian crossed my mind more than once. I abandoned this idea quickly in favor of simpler Solzhenitsyn prose in tackling Russian. (Miller, incidentally, also reads Anna Karenina during this period of reviving his passion for reading, reveling in its “like the real world, only better” quality; it is one of those I am making my way through in the original – it’s just taking a long time.) I am not sure I will ever again have the wherewithal even to even think of Margarita in this way. Miller gets it right: the book is difficult and absurd, very difficult to dive right into and stick with, but with patience is transcendent. When he noted that he didn’t know what “Komsomol” was when he started reading, I realized that there is the additional layer of difficulty if one isn’t already ‘indoctrinated’ to the Soviet/Russian period and its institutions. I luckily had that going in, but would this have proved to be a barrier otherwise? I consider this as I think of all the people on whom I’ve forced this book. But, as Miller writes, those readers who follow through do not need the definitions and minutiae of institutions; this book endures because “words are our transport, our flight and our homecoming in one. Which you don’t get from Dan Brown.” So true.

In fact there are so many strange parallels in this book that it’s as though it’s an alternate version of what I could have written myself. From the travel to East Germany as the teenage human embodiment of the dour nature of the country itself to skipping Bukowski because it was the go-to for a certain type of male reader and, indeed, reading more than one (which I’ve done) would be a waste of time because they are like carbon copies of each other. In my case, strangely, I bought a bunch of Bukowski for an East German guy with whom I had a Russian class in college. Seems like a lot of crossed threads there. I actually ended the school year by buying books for my professor and the other person in my class – I just don’t remember which books I bought for them. It was years before I bothered to read Bukowski myself – I don’t mind being able to say I read him, but it’s still time I am not getting back.

It also delighted me to see that someone else is nerdy enough to write ‘fan mail’ to a writer. Miller wrote to Michel Houellebecq; I did so a couple of times last year, but not to the writers one would expect. I don’t engage much with bestsellers and mainstream/popular fiction (even if there is nothing at all wrong with it); even if I do, I don’t imagine that those writers need more praise piled on. No, instead, I wrote, for example, to a professor who studies teeth through the lens of evolutionary biology (I loved and learned so much from two books he wrote) to profess my fascination for his work/field; he wrote back thanking me because I guess, as he wrote, I made his day. I don’t imagine that such diligent and passionate researchers get much recognition or fan letters from outside their discipline, so I was pleased to contribute that little bit because -seriously- TEETH!

And it further delighted me to read (bold text is mine), despite my own proclivity for the convenience of e-books (I still love the real thing so much more, even if I’ve mostly eschewed collecting them as I move from country to country):

I accept that this story illustrates that it is technically possible to buy a copy of Moby-Dick on what passes for the high street. It might also be advanced as further evidence of the adaptability of the book. But to me it demonstrates how marginal good books might become in the future. Surely Moby-Dick deserves to be something more than just a sliver of content on a screen? I feel much the same when I see books piled up on pallets in big-box stores, like crates of beer or charcoal briquettes, and I am shocked to be reminded that there is nothing intrinsically special about books unless we invest them with values other than ‘value’ and we create spaces in which to do it.

Reading is a broad church. But it is still a church.

Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)

The artificial endures. Living wears out.” –Black Dahlia, White RoseJoyce Carol Oates

I have already stated above that I hated my Joyce Carol Oates and Marquis de Sade readings. I read a lot of things this month that bored me (Bright Lights, Big City, for example), but nothing worth capturing here at any further length. Oh, no… I despised Chuck Palahniuk‘s Beautiful You; not that I expected otherwise. It was beyond stupid – felt like the scribblings of someone who thought maybe he could put one over on everyone. That is, let’s write something outlandish and exaggeratedly sophomoric and see if someone is dumb enough to publish it.

Said and read – April 2019

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April has been restorative – as the onset of springtime usually is. The gradual introduction of more light into every day makes such a difference even though, until the last few years, I never used to be someone who cared about darkness.

I still have not achieved the same reading pace as the past two years, but I hit 100 books read in 2019 as April ended (about 28 in April). I suppose if I were to tally up all the other things I do in my life and in other people’s lives, this would seem more remarkable.

“Insight” (haha) into what I was reading and rambling about in the past can be found here: 2019 – March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for April:

April reading was a strange mix of things – some university related and most things that were available as e-books from the library. This means that I may make a dent in a lot of books that I (or someone) feel(s) I should read, but they might not be anything I’d have jumped at. I’d say April has been defined by Joyce Carol Oates mostly because she has been beyond prolific in her literary output, and most of the oeuvre is available at the library in digital form. I have over the years read an Oates book here or there without plowing through everything she ever wrote – first because there have always been too many of them and too few of me and second because, while I often appreciate her style, I find I need a break and something different before coming back to her. It’s often overwrought, but it depends on the book and on my mood.

When I think of Oates I think of a penfriend I had in my youth, a Hungarian woman whose words and tastes (as expressed in letters so long ago) still echo. Many of her impressions have stayed with me, despite how long it has been since we were in contact. She, like many Hungarians I have known, had a cynical, if not judgmental, disposition and seemed never-quite-satisfied with anything. In her case, I recall her disdain for Dublin when she moved there from Budapest, dismissing it as “provincial”. I had at that time never been to either city, so it seemed a rough assessment. I later realized she was right (and she had certainly been living in Dublin when it was far more provincial than now). I recall some of the more sharp criticisms she wrote about her perceptions of how I came across in letters, as I did take them to heart. She wrote at least once about her admiration for Joyce Carol Oates; this too stuck in my mind even if I did not follow through on exploring Oates’s work until years later.

In the case of another Hungarian woman I know, pretty much everything that came out of her mouth was an untempered, unmitigated negative comment on everything around her, e.g., her fellow Hungarians, the fact that I ate jam on bread at breakfast. In fact, you should have seen her recoil in horror when she realized she was going to have to spend three weeks with me as a roommate. (I know I can be quite negative myself, although I tend to think I temper it with humor at times, and balance it with reason, evidence or the ‘bright side’ as well.)

Both women, though, were wells of intelligence, and once you knew them and were in their confidence, you could not have asked for a dearer friend.

None of this has anything to do with Joyce Carol Oates and nothing to do with writing about reading.

Highly recommended

All by Joyce Carol Oates:

*A Widow’s Story

This nearly broke my heart while on a flight to Glasgow. Maybe because it was a personal story and didn’t feel as detached as Oates’s style can.

But isn’t one’s pain quotient shocking enough without fictional amplification, without giving things an intensity that is ephemeral in life and sometimes even unseen? Not for some. For some very, very few that amplification, evolving uncertainly out of nothing, constitutes their only assurance, and the unlived, the surmise, fully drawn in print on paper, is the life whose meaning comes to matter most.

*Patricide

*Evil Eye

*The Gravedigger’s Daughter

Good

*Walking the Black CatCharles Simic

Poetry, of course.

*Bless Me, UltimaRudolfo Anaya

The rest of the summer was good for me, good in the sense that I was filled with its richness and I made strength from everything that had happened to me, so that in the end even the final tragedy could not defeat me. And that is what Ultima tried to teach me, that the tragic consequences of life can be overcome by the magical strength that resides in the human heart.

Adding this to the to-read list reminded me a lot of being in high school, as I seem to recall that this book was an option on the reading list in a world literature class I hastily joined in my final year. I had already completed more than enough English credits to graduate but had a free hour during my final semester. It turned out to be a big mistake because most of the rest of the people in the class were individuals who had somehow not passed English at some other point in their academic careers. We had an assignment, for example, to write haiku, which most people in the class didn’t understand. And ones who managed wrote about their worship of tanning beds. In any case, why do I recall this book from a list of many? I suppose I remember the things I didn’t read more than the things I did. And reading it, although it had nothing to do with high school, reminded me so much of… what high school English teachers wanting to share “multicultural” literature assigned that I can’t help but to have been transported back to the early 1990s.

*FiguringMaria Popova

We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins. We snatch our freeze-frame of life from the simultaneity of existence by holding on to illusions of permanence, congruence, and linearity; of static selves and lives that unfold in sensical narratives. All the while, we mistake chance for choice, our labels and models of things for the things themselves, our records for our history. History is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance.

What makes a person “the same” person across life’s tectonic upheavals of circumstance and character? Amid the chaos and decay toward which the universe inclines, we grasp for stability and permanence by trying to carve out a solid sense of self in our blink of existence. But there is no solidity. Every quark of every atom of every cell in your body had been replaced since the time of your first conscious memory, your first word, your first kiss. In the act of living, you come to dream different dreams, value different values, love different loves. In a sense, you are reborn with each new experience.

Having read her site, BrainPickings.org, faithfully for many years, I can only express a kind of gratitude. Popova’s style has nudged awake feelings in me when I thought they were numbed forever, I could not help but be inspired and definitely had to get this book. Popova’s singular and thoughtful voice, eloquence and competence in weaving stories from what must only have been a string of dull facts, bringing historical events to life, shine through in this work as well as her incomparable way of putting complex feelings and observations into words.

Are we to despair or rejoice over the fact that even the greatest loves exist only “for a time”? The time scales are elastic, contracting and expanding with the depth and magnitude of each love, but they are always finite—like books, like lives, like the universe itself. The triumph of love is in the courage and integrity with which we inhabit the transcendent transience that binds two people for the time it binds them, before letting go with equal courage and integrity.

Few things are more wounding than the confounding moment of discovering an asymmetry of affections where mutuality had been presumed.”

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*EmbassytownChina Miéville

It felt like being a child again, though it was not. Being a child is like nothing. It’s only being. Later, when we think about it, we make it into youth.

A book of language and science fiction, this book, like much of Miéville, is engrossing and difficult to describe. I won’t say every Miéville hooks me, but they are all interesting regardless of whether I like them or not. In this case, I liked.

“I admit defeat. I’ve been trying to present these events with a structure. I simply don’t know how everything happened. Perhaps because I didn’t pay proper attention, perhaps because it wasn’t a narrative, but for whatever reasons, it doesn’t want to be what I want to make it.”

*The OtherDavid Guterson

“The early leader in a half-mile race rarely finishes first, but he wants to have had the experience of leading—that’s part of it—and he’s perennially hopeful that, this time, things will be different in the home stretch.

I can’t say I actually enjoyed this book, but it was nevertheless interesting. Guterson has an elegant way of creating characters and breathing life into them. I also appreciate the setting here (Washington state scenes), so much so that I’d argue that the Pacific Northwest setting is its own character.

*Naive. SuperErlend Loe

My existence is developing some distance from itself. Perspective. Perspective is one of those things one ought to be able to purchase and administer intravenously.

Caught up in the media whirlwind of the Pete Buttigieg moment, I, like everyone else, heard the story of Buttigieg learning Norwegian simply to be able to read more books by Erlend Loe. I’d never read Loe in English or Norwegian, so I started with this, until now apparently the only one translated into English. I didn’t find anything ‘special’ about it that would cause me to learn Norwegian if I didn’t already know it, nor anything that would necessarily lead me to seek out more Loe works. That said, there is something deceptively simple and direct about Loe’s prose that is probably appealing.

This is a completely different life. People must think I’m a dog owner in New York. That I live here and have an apartment and a dog. That I pick up dog turds like this one every day, before and after work. It’s a staggering thought. Seeing as I’m not a dog owner in New York, that also means everybody else could be something other than what they seem to be. That means it’s impossible to know anything at all.”

I suppose it is fittingly cynical to state as an aside that everything about Buttigieg seems designed to be politically appealing, as though every action he has taken has been a cynically strategic move to position himself as a political leader, but in a robotic, “I followed the handbook” kind of way. It seems as though every story that has been planted in the media has painted him as a hope-driven, anti-Trump, and yet I cannot shake the feeling that so much of what I am seeing is so by design. (We all do things in our lives by design, or think we do, and we all do things to appear a certain way, of course, but this is to an extreme.) The biggest standout is Buttigieg’s having gone into the military when he didn’t need to to be deployed to a conflict that is both supposedly over and has been judged as an unnecessary and destabilizing failure. But the handbook says military service plays well with X part of the base and might mitigate objections to his being gay or being the son of a Maltese immigrant or being relatively inexperienced in national politics. I don’t want to pick it all apart, but it just feels like a packaged cake and frosting mix: too sweet, a little too easy.

Coincidences

*Hag-SeedMargaret Atwood

Not a coincidence per se, but the premise of Hag-Seed is a retelling/take on Shakespeare‘s The Tempest. Why I find it sort of coincidental is more comparative. That is, Helen Oyeyemi has reimagined many fairy tales and symbols in her work, such as Gingerbread and Boy, Snow, Bird, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Atwood’s take on The Tempest is entirely novel, and when I look at both Atwood and Oyeyemi’s attempts, the richness of Atwood’s characters feels lived-in and real; there is something that always feels artificial in Oyeyemi’s characters, and I wonder if this is intentional.

Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)

*GingerbreadHelen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi’s work is always hit or miss for me. In some books, such as Boy, Snow, Bird, I am immediately drawn in, and in others, like Gingerbread, I find that I just wanted it to end. Strangely, reading about the process of the book’s creation in interviews with Oyeyemi is far more interesting than the book itself. Something comes from the experience, but it’s not the book itself providing that experience, making it something of a disappointment.

*The Good EarthPearl S. Buck

I read The Good Earth when I was in high school and remembered it so differently from how I felt about it now. It did indeed still evoke feelings, but mostly angry ones of hating the main (male) character and wondering exactly how Pearl Buck decided to offer such a condescending colonialist take on something she could not possibly have understood as an outsider. It reads now so much as the impressions of someone on the outside projecting their surface-level misconceptions onto an entire people.

Said and read – March 2019

Standard

We know how difficult it is to execute excellence in art (although I am convinced that for the true genius the things that look difficult to us are easy and effortless for him). But while we recognize quality by its rareness, on the other hand we consistently moan about the absence of quality from the hearts and minds of the masses. We talk about a crisis in literacy; we are upset and disquieted about pop art; we talk about airport sculpture; we are unnerved, and legitimately so, about the sensational play as opposed to the sensitive one. Each of us has a group of phrases that identify for us the mediocre in an art form. I sometimes wonder if we really and truly mean it. Do we really mean that the world is the poorer because too few appreciate the finer things? Suppose we did live in a world in which people chatted about Descartes and Kant and Lichtenstein in McDonald’s. Suppose Twelfth Night was on the best-seller list. Would we be happy? Or would we decide that since everybody appreciated it, maybe it wasn’t any good? Or maybe if the artist himself had not begged for his life—begged and struggled through poverty, perhaps on into death—perhaps his art wasn’t any good. There seems to have been an enormous amount of comfort taken in some quarters (in print and in conversation) that when thousands and thousands of people stood in line to see the Picasso show, only 4 or 5 percent of the people who saw it really knew what they were seeing.” – The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches and MeditationsToni Morrison

It may be March, and we have less snow and ice and a little bit more light each day… but it’s still March, so there is still some snow and ice and darkness. As I had hoped, I have managed a bit more reading in March, but that’s mostly because I had to travel more than usual. I set aside travel time (dead time on planes, trains, buses) for reading, even if I have wifi access (thanks, Norwegian!). It still feels very fragmented, though, and it’s disappointing that there aren’t more poetry books available as e-books and even more challenging that I don’t have as much time as usual to seek out poetry in non-English languages, which would probably be the thing I would love most in the world to read now. It did, after all, used to be a major pastime to wander through bookstores in foreign lands seeking original-language poetry books. But bookstores seem fewer and far between, and my time to seek them out seems more limited.

In February and March, I did a whole lot of research to inform and narrow down my next thesis project, but it turns out it was probably all for nothing. Coursework in my current degree program is about to end, but despite my poor attendance, I still feel quite burned out, i.e. “please just end now“. I have kept up with my studies, assignments and readings except for one key class, which required group work that I could not participate in… so I am pretty sure I am going to fail. (Will it surprise you that I don’t include the text “Learning Statistics with R” in this list of good stuff?) And I wish I could say I cared. Truthfully, I do care, but I have been slightly overextended this term, and I have to keep telling myself, “This really does not matter.” After all, I am a middle-aged woman who already has a career and pretty much all the things I want and need; taking on more formal education has been a luxury from the beginning. It has not been something required for career progression and has no bearing on my future. So the strange guilt-trip scolding kind of stuff I get from the administration regarding attendance is misplaced, taking me back to much-hated childhood… but for god’s sake, I am not a child.

Anyway, previous Said and Read blog posts to see what I was reading and rambling about in the past can be found here: 2019 – February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for March:

What strikes me most about my reading in March is that I read a few things I felt excited about, thinking they would be engrossing. But then they just were not quite what I hoped for. Not that they posed no topics for reflection or interesting insights… just that they were not the gripping accounts of … whatever they were about… that I expected. But that is the danger of ever expecting anything, right?

Is it any small wonder, then, that the tactics critics have devised to shake the legacy of close, critical, or useless reading as the sine qua non of literary culture betray a whiff of desperation?” –Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar AmericaMerve Emre

Highly recommended

*Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for MenCaroline Criado Perez

I was beyond excited to read this book. I think and write a lot about women fighting to find the space and oxygen in a male-dominated world just to make their thoughts known, let alone contribute in a significant way (without being ignored, gaslit, demeaned, diminished, interrupted or having credit stolen away). What Criado Perez has done in her much-anticipated book, Invisible Women, is take data – of the absence of it – to illustrate how neglected women really are in pretty much every public sphere. Whether it is in infrastructure and transportation planning, healthcare and medical research, the law and its application, public safety, women are insidiously invisible – and even women have been blind to how little their existence matters in considering, for example, everything from drug development and dosage recommendations to the design of backpacks or seatbelts. In every possible way, society is built around the “norm”, which is the man. The male is the default position, and despite making up more than half of the population, the woman is the outlier, leading to a massive gender-based data gap in almost literally every subject. And even in female-only areas, such as menstruation and pregnancy, research is skewed, non-existent or dismissed as less important.

I read this book and found myself getting angrier and angrier, wanting to scream before wanting to act. But where to start acting? I am running up against some of the challenges of data collection myself at the moment – not so much having to do with gender as it has to do with the limitations of being within a university system. As is pointed out throughout academia and the “replicability crisis” within academia, we are never getting representative results in our work because we use and have access to very limited groups of subjects, particularly as students ourselves, i.e. we have access to other students, who are all relatively affluent, educated to a certain level, generally within a certain age range. This limits not only what results we get but what kinds of questions we can ask. I can’t, for example, ask a group of young master’s degree students how they feel about or experience “geriatric pregnancy”, can I? So very few studies are done on this subject.

Consider (and then read the whole book for yourself, please):

These white men have in common the following opinions: that identity politics is only identity politics when it’s about race or sex; that race and sex have nothing to do with ‘wider’ issues like ‘the economy’; that it is ‘narrow’ to specifically address the concerns of female voters and voters of colour; and that working class means white working-class men. Incidentally, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the coal mining industry, which during the 2016 election became the shibboleth for (implicitly male) working-class jobs, provides 53,420 jobs in total, at a median annual wage of $59,380.89 Compare this to the majority female 924,640-strong cleaning and housekeeper workforce, whose median annual income is $21,820. So who’s the real working class? These white men also have in common that they are white men. And I labour this point because it is exactly their whiteness and maleness that caused them to seriously vocalise the logical absurdity that identities exist only for those who happen not to be white or male. When you have been so used, as a white man, to white and male going without saying, it’s understandable that you might forget that white and male is an identity too. Pierre Bourdieu wrote in 1977 that ‘what is essential goes without saying because it comes without saying: the tradition is silent, not least about itself as a tradition’. Whiteness and maleness are silent precisely because they do not need to be vocalised. Whiteness and maleness are implicit. They are unquestioned. They are the default. And this reality is inescapable for anyone whose identity does not go without saying, for anyone whose needs and perspective are routinely forgotten.

*Anything by Vicki Feaver

A poet I had not previously heard of, but stumbled upon in February. It is not consistently revelatory; I don’t love everything, but Feaver has a few poems that speak to me and has a unique style overall.

Good – really good

*The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches and MeditationsToni Morrison

I had hoped that I would enjoy this Toni Morrison collection more than I did, but that’s not to say that I didn’t get a great deal from reading it. It’s possible that it was just slightly more challenging than what I needed at the time I chose to read it.

Morrison makes some cutting and powerful points (no surprise) that are timely and evergreen simultaneously:

The loudest voices are urging those already living in day-to-day dread to think of the future in military terms—as a cause for and expression of war. We are being bullied into understanding the human project as a manliness contest where women and children are the most dispensable collateral.”

In reading Morrison’s response to the construction of “otherness” and “internal enemies”, which has never been more timely, I think back to last month when I wrote about Erich Fromm’s insistence that “The United States has shown itself resistant against all totalitarian attempts to gain influence.” Morrison describes exactly how Fromm’s “resistance against” erodes, slowly, which we are witnessing day after day right now:

LET US BE REMINDED that before there is a final solution, there must be a first solution, a second one, even a third. The move toward a final solution is not a jump. It takes one step, then another, then another. Something, perhaps, like this: Construct an internal enemy, as both focus and diversion. Isolate and demonize that enemy by unleashing and protecting the utterance of overt and coded name-calling and verbal abuse. Employ ad hominem attacks as legitimate charges against that enemy. Enlist and create sources and distributors of information who are willing to reinforce the demonizing process because it is profitable, because it grants power, and because it works. Palisade all art forms; monitor, discredit, or expel those that challenge or destabilize processes of demonization and deification. Subvert and malign all representatives of and sympathizers with this constructed enemy. Solicit, from among the enemy, collaborators who agree with and can sanitize the dispossession process. Pathologize the enemy in scholarly and popular mediums; recycle, for example, scientific racism and the myths of racial superiority in order to naturalize the pathology.

It is painful because it is searingly true:

Criminalize the enemy. Then prepare, budget for, and rationalize the building of holding arenas for the enemy—especially its males and absolutely its children. Reward mindlessness and apathy with monumentalized entertainments and with little pleasures, tiny seductions: a few minutes on television, a few lines in the press; a little pseudo-success; the illusion of power and influence; a little fun, a little style, a little consequence. Maintain, at all costs, silence.

*Bottled GoodsSophie van Llewyn

A surprising novella about a young married couple in Ceaușescu’s Romania. Once the husband’s brother defects, the couple is scrutinized and harassed by the secret police. This fuels their determination to get out of the country. Part brutal reality and part fantasy, it’s a good reminder of how things used to be. I meet a lot of young people today who have no idea (and certainly no recollection, as they were not alive or conscious of world events) about what Romania once was, what eastern and southern Europe once were and the oppression people lived under.

*The Wordy ShipmatesSarah Vowell

I’m always disappointed when I see the word “Puritan” tossed around as shorthand for a bunch of generic, boring, stupid, judgmental killjoys. Because to me, they are very specific, fascinating, sometimes brilliant, judgmental killjoys who rarely agreed on anything except that Catholics are going to hell.

Who doesn’t love Sarah Vowell? For years I have seen her bringing history to life with humor and insight on various talk shows, but had never managed to read one of her books. Finally I grabbed The Wordy Shipmates from the library and am glad I did. As alive in writing as when Vowell shares historical anecdotes on tv, I can’t recommend this enough. I love how Vowell personifies historical figures and contextualizes with some modern-day framing. What do I mean by this? Take a read:

But really, as a child I learned almost everything I knew about American history in general and British colonials in particular from watching television situation comedies. The first time I realized this, I was attending a wedding in London. A friend of the groom’s, an English novelist, cornered my American friend and me and asked us to name the British general from the Revolutionary War whom Americans hate the most. He needed one of the American characters in the novel he was working on to mention in passing our most loathed Redcoat foe. “Um, maybe Cornwallis?” I said, adding that we don’t really know the names of any of the British except for the American traitor Benedict Arnold. When the novelist asked why that was, my friend answered, “Because The Brady Bunch did an episode about him. Peter Brady had to play Benedict Arnold in a school play.” True, I thought. The Bradys also taught us that the Robin Hood-like Jesse James was actually a serial killer; that the ancient indigenous religious culture of the Hawaiian Islands is not to be messed with; and that the Plymouth Pilgrims had a bleak first winter that was almost as treacherous to live through as that time Marcia got bonked in the face with her brothers’ football and her nose swelled up right before a big date.

Yes, somehow everything Americans need to know about history and culture – and this explains a lot – comes in the form of bite-sized sitcom nonsense à la The Brady Bunch. The Bradys taught us so much.

And further, with a slice of characteristic Vowell interpretation (italicized emphasis mine):

Mostly, sitcom Puritans are rendered in the tone I like to call the Boy, people used to be so stupid school of history. Bewitched produced not one but two time-travel witch trial episodes—one for each Darrin. They’re both diatribes about tolerance straight out of The Crucible, but with cornier dialogue and magical nose crinkles. The housewife/witch Samantha brings a ballpoint pen with her to seventeenth-century Salem and the townspeople think it’s an instrument of black magic. So they try her for witchcraft and want to hang her. Check out those barbarian idiots with their cockamamie farce of a legal system, locking people up for fishy reasons and putting their criminals to death. Good thing Americans put an end to all that nonsense long ago. My point being, the amateur historian’s next stop after Boy, people used to be so stupid is People: still stupid. I could look at that realization as a woeful lack of human progress. But I choose to find it reassuring.

Protestantism’s evolution away from hierarchy and authority has enormous consequences for America and the world. On the one hand, the democratization of religion runs parallel to political democratization. The king of England, questioning the pope, inspires English subjects to question the king and his Anglican bishops. Such dissent is backed up by a Bible full of handy Scripture arguing for arguing with one’s king. This is the root of self-government in the English-speaking world. On the other hand, Protestantism’s shedding away of authority, as evidenced by my mother’s proclamation that I needn’t go to church or listen to a preacher to achieve salvation, inspires self-reliance—along with a dangerous disregard for expertise. So the impulse that leads to democracy can also be the downside of democracy—namely, a suspicion of people who know what they are talking about. It’s why in U.S. presidential elections the American people will elect a wisecracking good ol’ boy who’s fun in a malt shop instead of a serious thinker who actually knows some of the pompous, brainy stuff that might actually get fewer people laid off or killed.

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read ThemElif Batuman

Another book I discovered rather by accident (so many are), whether in the “to-read list” of a friend or in an article I read, The Possessed was a little bit like time-traveling back to my own university years. Nowhere near as ambitious as the writer/narrator, I was digging into literature that most of my contemporaries had no interest in, and I spent a lot of time thinking about rather esoteric angles through which to examine various pieces of Russian literature and its characters’ psyches and motivations. It didn’t lead me anywhere in the end, but during my undergraduate years I felt (briefly) certain that that path would be the one I followed. But I was not cut out to be an academic, and reading Batuman’s memoir (as well as spending time of late with academics from across disciplines who report symptoms from burnout to complete breakdowns), I realize I was not only not cut out for such a life, but I didn’t really have the passion to carry me through some of the more difficult times one would encounter nor the networking and social skills to propel me to where I would need to be to have any success at all.

Batuman’s voice is one I enjoyed immensely; you get a lot of sarcasm, and a tiny dash of impostor syndrome (some reflections feel like she knows she is more than smart enough to be wherever she is, chosen for whatever she’s undertaking, but she is still unsure on some level, which is common for high-achieving, smart, creative people). She brings a dry humor to her retelling of her ‘adventures’, so that each of her interactions feels simultaneously real and absurd.

On these grounds I once became impatient with a colleague at a conference, who was trying to convince me that the Red Cavalry cycle would never be totally accessible to me because of Lyutov’s “specifically Jewish alienation.” “Right,” I finally said. “As a six-foot-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey, I cannot possibly know as much about alienation as you, a short American Jew.” He nodded: “So you see the problem.”

Of course woven between her personal tales is some deft analysis and gripping storytelling about different works of Russian lit, which brings them to life in ways that the lit itself does not.

*Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about OurselvesFrans de Waal

For me, the question has never been whether animals have emotions, but how science could have overlooked them for so long. It didn’t do so originally—remember Darwin’s pioneering book—but it certainly has done so recently. Why did we go out of our way to deny or deride something so obvious? The reason, of course, is that we associate emotions with feelings, a notoriously tricky topic even in our species.

Animals have emotions. Period. Frans de Waal explains how.

Animal consciousness is hard to investigate, but we are getting close by exploring examples of reasoning, such as those given above, that we humans cannot perform unconsciously. We cannot plan a party without consciously thinking about all the things we need; the same must apply when animals plan for the future. The latest neuroscience suggests that consciousness is an adaptive capacity that allows us both to imagine the future and to connect the dots between past events.

Anyone who has spent time with animals of any species would probably argue that they have emotions and a kind of consciousness. These attributes need not be human in their manifestation, and indeed probably won’t be (the tendency to anthropomorphize animal behavior and response through non-scientific observation and human projection doesn’t go very far in explaining animals). There are observable animal emotions at work in nature, as de Waal shares in often very entertaining ways, particularly where he draws parallels between human situational behavior and that of animals:

Even though in our political system women vote and are able to occupy the highest office, thus allowing for a social order quite different from that of many other species, the fighting rules have hardly changed. They evolved over millions of years and are far too ingrained to be thrown out. A male generally curbs his physical power while confronting a female. This is as true for horses and lions as it is for apes and humans. These inhibitions reside so deeply in our psychology that we react strongly to violations. In the movies, for example, it’s not terribly upsetting to see a woman slap a man’s face, but we cringe at the reverse. This was Trump’s dilemma: he was up against an opponent whom he could not defeat the way he could defeat another male. Having watched every presidential debate since Ronald Reagan, I have never seen as odd a spectacle as the second televised debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton on October 9, 2016. Its blatant physicality and hostility made it the debate from hell. Trump’s body language was that of a tormented soul ready to punch out his opponent yet aware that if he laid one finger on her, his candidacy would be over. Like a large balloon, he drifted right behind Clinton, impatiently pacing back and forth or firmly gripping his chair. Concerned television viewers live-tweeted warnings to Clinton like “Look behind you!” Clinton herself later commented that her “skin crawled” when Trump was literally breathing down her neck.

Immediately after the debate, which Trump lost according to most commentators, the British politician Nigel Farage mimicked a feeble version of a chest beat while gushing that Trump had acted like “a silverback gorilla.”

Or

When John McCain ran against Barack Obama in 2008, he selected a relatively young woman, Sarah Palin, as his running mate. Men in the media regarded it as a brilliant move, calling Palin “hot” and a “MILF,” but no one seemed to realize how much male enthusiasm might harm Palin’s standing among women. Obama barely won the male vote (49 to 48 percent), but he ran away with the female vote (56 to 43 percent). Women begin to appeal as leaders only after they have become invisible to the male gaze by leaving their reproductive years behind. Modern female heads of state have all been postmenopausal, such as Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, and Margaret Thatcher. The most powerful woman of our era, Angela Merkel of Germany, doesn’t even like to draw attention to her gender, dressing as neutrally as possible. Merkel is a skilled and shrewd politician who is unimpressed by men. When Vladimir Putin received her at his Russian dacha in 2007, he introduced his large pet Labrador to her, knowing full well that Merkel was scared of dogs. In the end, his tactic failed, because she drew a distinction between Putin and his dog, noting to journalists, “I understand why he has to do this—to prove he’s a man. He’s afraid of his own weakness.”22 Putin’s tactic showed how men always seek the upper hand through intimidation.

And most interestingly, but not having parallels with modern human politics, bonobos versus chimpanzees:

At the Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary near Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it was recently decided to merge two groups of bonobos that had lived separately, just to stimulate some social activity. No one would dare doing such a thing with chimpanzees as the only possible outcome would be a bloodbath. The bonobos produced an orgy instead. Because bonobos freely help strangers to reach a goal, researchers call them xenophilic (attracted to strangers), whereas they consider chimpanzees xenophobic (fearing or disliking strangers). The bonobo brain reflects these differences. Areas involved in the perception of another’s distress, such as the amygdala and anterior insula, are enlarged in the bonobo compared to the chimpanzee. Bonobo brains also contain more developed pathways to control aggressive impulses. The bonobo may well have the most empathic brain of all hominids, including us.

Interesting, you’d think—but science refuses to take bonobos seriously. They are simply too peaceful, too matriarchal, and too gentle to fit the popular storyline of human evolution, which turns on conquest, male dominance, hunting, and warfare. We have a “man the hunter” theory and a “killer ape” theory; we have the idea that intergroup competition made us cooperative, and the proposal that our brains grew so large because women liked smart men. There is no escape: our theories about human evolution always turn around males and what makes them successful. While chimpanzees fit most of these scenarios, no one knows what to do with bonobos. Our hippie cousins are invariably hailed as delightful, then quickly marginalized. Charming species, but let’s stick with the chimpanzee, is the general tone.

Note my italics – this assertion points us back to Criado Perez’s book and its claim that the norm is established by the male existence/experience.

Coincidences

*The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic AgeSven Birkerts

Obviously I like reading about reading.

The interesting part of reading The Gutenberg Elegies is that the bulk of the book was written at the dawn of the internet/digital communications age, so e-readers were unforeseen. In fact Birkerts wrote in the original forward to the now-20-year-old (or thereabouts) book: “The displacement of the page by the screen is not yet total (as evidenced by the book you are holding)—it may never be total—but the large-scale tendency in that direction has to be obvious to anyone who looks.” I read the book on my Kindle, so I was proving the very opposite point to the one he tried to make, and in so doing, I gave a lot of thought while reading to the way we consume information now as opposed to when Birkerts put this book together. He says it best himself in the opening part of the book:

“We are, it seems, most willing to accept a life hurried and fragmented on every front by technology; we are getting past the prior way of things, which could be slow and frustrating, but was also vivid in its material totality.”

Literature and old-style contemplative reading seem enfeebled—almost as if they need to be argued for, helped along by the elbow. Not that people don’t write and read in a thousand different ways; they do. Arguably, they “write” and “read” more than they ever have. But the belief in the gathered weight of literary expression, what we used to consider our cultural ballast, is fading and is likely to fade further.

What is ‘coincidental’ about my reading of this book at this time is that I had returned to Walter Ong‘s Orality and Literacy recently for a paper I was writing on memory. We exalt the written, literary language and tradition, but often forget that it, too, was preceded by something that has faded – oral tradition and storytelling, which relied on memory. A further coincidence was my stumbling onto an article about the “books that wouldn’t die/Undead Books” that form the canon of literary thinking and scholarship, but which live on, despite the argument that such works are no longer created (the article cites Ong’s work among these). These books are not written for the general public but seem to be written for other scholars; they do not hew to the constraints of one single academic discipline, relishing in drawing on scholarship, research and literature from across multiple disciplines (as the article posits, they are “radically antidisciplinary”, which is pretty much how my university was, for which I will always love it):

Yet despite making their authors’ reputations, Undead Texts rarely received their disciplines’ most coveted book prizes. It is easy to see why: Although undeniably scholarly, Undead Texts were also, in their day and ours, radically antidisciplinary. They challenge the diction, scope, and preoccupations that keep branches of knowledge distinct. Their claims encompass continents and centuries, ignore the controversies raging in specialist journals, and are formulated with woodcut-like starkness, minus the hedges and qualifications addressed to other specialists. In contrast to narrowly focused monographs, Undead Texts tackle topics outside the disciplinary mainstream, blithely ignore periodization, and disregard the boundaries separating bodies of knowledge.

Birkerts’ arguments about the “transformations of book culture” can be felt in considering the Undead Texts written about above – but I suspect such books were always written for a limited audience – but can also be refuted to some extent by the work I’ve cited this month by Elif Batuman. Although she writes in a tongue-in-cheek manner about her experiences examining Russian literature, it’s clear that her reading (granted, she is in the academic sphere) and that of others among her contemporaries is still quite careful, close and analytical in ways it seems Birkerts believes are dead.

Birkerts predicted that the nature of reading would shift dramatically, and here I believe he was correct, even if I wonder how much the general public read to begin with (this was undoubtedly always on the decline; Merve Emre’s book – cited below as well – chronicles this decay in how one reads in the postwar era and the commoditization of reading). Birkerts stated:

I see a deep transformation in the nature of reading, a shift from focused, sequential, text-centered engagement to a far more lateral kind of encounter. Chip and screen have at one and the same time inundated us with information—pages to view, links to follow, media supplements to incorporate—and modified our habits. They have put single-track concentration, the discipline of reading, under great pressure. In its place we find the restless, grazing behavior of clicking and scrolling. Attention spans have shrunk and fragmented—the dawning of the age of ADD—and the culture of literary publishing struggles with the implications. Who has the time or will to read books the way people used to? Book sales, when not puffed up by marketed “infotainment,” by “nonbooks,” are stagnant at best. Literature—fiction—is languishing. Indeed, at present, fiction is under assault by nonfiction, by documentary and memoir. I don’t see that a return to the status quo ante is likely.

I believe he is largely right, although his idea that “restless, grazing behavior” with regard to reading is all we will be left with is too limiting. We may consume the written word in new ways (as I did read his book on an e-reader), but we won’t necessarily only consume “infotainment” or fragmented chunks of information. He certainly is right that attention spans seem to have shrunk; there will always, though, be people who want to consume (and, like me, possibly overconsume).

Then again, it is not only about the consumption of the written word. It is about the overall experience of doing so, and there is no doubt that this is changing rapidly and significantly:

The big question, though less grand and encompassing, is the question implicit in the book’s subtitle: What will be the fate of reading? I don’t mean the left-to-right movement of the eyes as we take in information, but the age-old practice of addressing the world by way of this inward faculty of imagination. I mean reading as a filtering of the complexities of the real through artistic narrative, reflection, and orchestration of verbal imagery. Our reconfigured world makes these interactions—this kind of reading—ever harder to accomplish. The electronic impulse works against the durational reverie of reading. And however much other media take up the stack—of storytelling, say—what is lost is the contemplative register. And this, in the chain of consequences, alters subjectivity, dissipates its intensity.

I recall going on holiday for the entire summer of 1999. Packing for this lengthy trip, I had to weigh (literally and figuratively) what books to bring with me because I really could only bring a few. This was a limitation but also required consideration and some investment in, as Birkerts writes, “the durational reverie of reading”. By having less to read and more time to digest, the truly immersive reading experience occurs. Now, of course, I can load my Kindle with 1,000 books and read with abandon. But do I reflect and filter through “the complexities of the real through artistic narrative, reflection, and orchestration of verbal imagery” in the same way? It’s hard to say; I have so completely adapted to and adopted this new form of consuming written text that I cannot accurately compare the experience. I have firmly been swayed by the “more is more” idea when it comes to carrying my books around in digital form.

Birkerts, again accurately, foretold that we were/are living through a period of fundamental change; a paradigm shift. This I mostly agree with:

As I wrote before: the world we have known, the world of our myths and references and shared assumptions, is being changed by a powerful, if often intangible, set of forces. We are living in the midst of a momentous paradigm shift. My classroom experience, which in fact represents hundreds of classroom experiences, can be approached diagnostically. This is not a simple case of students versus Henry James. We are not concerned with an isolated clash of sensibilities, his and theirs. Rather, we are standing in one spot along a ledge—or, better, a fault line—dividing one order from another. In place of James we could as easily put Joyce or Woolf or Shakespeare or Ralph Ellison. It would be the same. The point is that the collective experience of these students, most of whom were born in the early 1970s, has rendered a vast part of our cultural heritage utterly alien. That is the breaking point: it describes where their understandings and aptitudes give out. What is at issue is not diction, not syntax, but everything that diction and syntax serve. Which is to say, an entire system of beliefs, values, and cultural aspirations.

It is more complex and nuanced than I have the stamina or expertise to explore here, but I’d say, yes, the collective cultural understanding that underpins our ability to understand works from a distant past and find basic common humanity in them has eroded. But the question inevitably arises as to how universal these “basic cultural” things ever were. I don’t know where or when the break happened, and I cannot say that it is complete. I suspect there are major commercial and educational policy issues at play beyond just Birkerts’s assertions that technology is constitutive of this paradigm shift (even if it plays a big role in the result and how the shift plays out). When an education system is underfunded, unequal, geared toward the lowest common denominator, fragmented, there is no way to guarantee that everyone within a culture receives the same grounding. On the other side of the coin, I suspect that this “common cultural heritage” to which Birkerts refers is not agreed upon by all racial and cultural groups, who have largely been excluded and whose voices have long been silenced. It is possible that this shift can make the landscape more inclusive, even if it makes the shared pool of knowledge less shared, less accessible (if one could say that these works were ever “accessible” to the level that Birkerts’s arguably elitist approach assumes).

But again, the broader point is well-taken; Birkerts isn’t saying we all need to read and want to read Henry James, for example. It is just that we should be able to find our way into works that have very little to do with us or our time, and this connection to history and even to our own imaginative powers, is waning:

I am not about to suggest that all of this comes of not reading Henry James. But I will say that of all this comes not being able to read James or any other emissary from that recent but rapidly vanishing world. Our historically sudden transition into an electronic culture has thrust us into a place of unknowing.

To enter the work at all we need to put our present-day sense of things in suspension; we have to, in effect, reposition the horizon and reconceive all of our assumptions about the relations between things. Hardy’s twenty miles are not ours. The pedagogue does not pile his belongings into the back of a Jeep Cherokee.

On the whole, Birkerts argues, we are moving – like it or not – away from depth. This is true in the realm of audiobooks, designed to help us “read” more conveniently or to “multitask” while losing the essence of deep thought and consideration and even losing actual parts of books, as audiobooks are often quite condensed. The process of being transported by a book to a different place, to a set of characters, a different time, is short-circuited by not having the experience of having to engage page-by-page in an interaction with the work. It has become, like so much of the world we live in, piecemeal and surface-level. This is what I, and probably Birkerts, lament(s).

That is, from start:

We are experiencing in our times a loss of depth—a loss, that is, of the very paradigm of depth. A sense of the deep and natural connectedness of things is a function of vertical consciousness. Its apotheosis is what was once called wisdom. Wisdom: the knowing not of facts but of truths about human nature and the processes of life. But swamped by data, and in thrall to the technologies that manipulate it, we no longer think in these larger and necessarily more imprecise terms. In our lateral age, living in the bureaucracies of information, we don’t venture a claim to that kind of understanding. Indeed, we tend to act embarrassed around those once-freighted terms—truth, meaning, soul, destiny … We suspect the people who use such words of being soft and nostalgic. We prefer the deflating one-liner that reassures us that nothing need be taken that seriously; we inhale the atmospheres of irony.

To finish:

The shadow life of reading generally continues on for some time after we have finished the last page. If we have been deeply engaged by the book, we carry its resonance as a kind of echo, thinking again and again of a character, an episode, or, less concretely, about some thematic preoccupation of the author’s. After I recently finished V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River*, I found myself brooding for days on the ways in which cultures and value systems come into collision. I brooded abstractly, but I also saw my reading affect my daily perceptions. Riding the subway or walking downtown, I would catch myself monitoring gestures and interchanges between members of different racial and cultural groups. I also read the morning paper differently, looking more closely at reports detailing racial and ethnic frictions. I had absorbed a context which suddenly heightened the “relevance” of this theme.

*As an aside, Birkerts cites Naipaul as an avenue into deep thought into how cultures clash. Interestingly, Criado Perez, too, cites Naipaul in Invisible Women, and makes not only her point – that women’s experiences are downplayed and criticized as not being universal, as being too narrow for broader interest (Naipaul makes this claim about Jane Austen: “V. S. Naipaul criticises Jane Austen’s writing as ‘narrow’, while at the same time no one is expecting The Wolf of Wall Street to address the Gulf War, or Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard to write about anyone but himself (or quote more than a single female writer) to receive praise from the New Yorker for voicing ‘universal anxieties’ in his six-volume autobiography.“), but also makes the case for my point on Birkerts’s failure to demonstrate sensitivity to the wholeness of humanity, in this case the culture clash between men and women and how we perceive the female experience in the world and in the arts.

Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)

*Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Current and Flourishing as We AgeMary Pipher

We don’t become our wisest selves without effort. Our growth requires us to become skilled in perspective taking, in managing our emotions, in crafting positive narratives, and in forming intimate relationships. We develop the skills of building joy, gratitude, and meaning into every day. By learning these lessons, we cultivate emotional resilience. We have the capacity to build happiness into our lives with humor, concern for others, and gratitude. Of course, we can’t do it all of the time. That self-expectation would drive us crazy. However, we can develop habits that make it more likely that we will respond in an upbeat manner. It’s critical to distinguish between choosing to live lovingly and cheerfully and living a life of denial. One leads to joy, the other to emotional death. I have learned from my work as a therapist that secrets, denial, and avoidance invariably cause trouble. To move forward requires seeing clearly.

I wanted Women Rowing North to be amazing and inspiring, and sadly, it just wasn’t Having read an article about this book, it sounded like a timely and fascinating view on women contending with the often unwelcome challenges that come with age (perceived invisibility, not being taken seriously, misogyny coupled with ageism and the inevitability of loss – whether that is personal loss or the experience of losing who one once was). Articles have a way of doing that – extracting the richest parts and keenest points of a book, luring you into buying and reading something that the article has already dissected for you.

In theory it’s a deeply worthwhile topic, and the article I read, at least, made it seem like the book would delve more deeply into these questions. And, in fairness, it does. But it just did not hold my interest. Perhaps it was too much a mix of anecdotal stories about random people that the author relied on to illustrate certain themes that turned me off, but I found it hard to get through the book overall.

Nevertheless, there were some key points I took away; not surprising or new, but good reminders:

Health has a lot to do with our perception of age and how we live: “Developmental psychologist Bernice Neugarten made this distinction between young-old age and old-old age. As long as we can do most of what we want to do, we are young-old age. When our health fundamentally changes the way we live, we have entered old-old age. However, my own experience is that many of us are between those…”

Death, or where we see ourselves in relation to it, has a lot to do with how we live and the choices we make: “Psychologist Laura Carstensen discovered that our perspectives and decisions change greatly depending on our perceptions of how much time we have left. The shorter we think our lives will be, the more likely we are to do things that are meaningful and give us pleasure. Awareness of death catapults us toward joy and reflection.”

*Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar AmericaMerve Emre

It’s hard to characterize Merve Emre’s Paraliterary as a disappointment, or even something that I hated or disliked… neither is true. But it equally doesn’t belong in the other categories I’ve set up for myself (maybe an indication that there shouldn’t be categories?). Nothing is quite an adequate way to describe my response.

I suppose I found this book vaguely disappointing because, once more, I didn’t know what to expect, and when I started reading I realized that whatever it was… was not what I was expecting to see. How we create expectations about things we know very little about is something I could delve further into, but for now, I should say instead that this book was challenging and made a lot of fascinating points.

The premise of Emre’s work – that there is such a thing as a “bad reader”, according to strictures of academia, who reads for enjoyment or distraction (or any number of other reasons that have little to do with critical analysis or placing literature within historical or social contexts in which they are written – and interpreted). Yet in reading the book, it almost felt as though Emre were addressing a different thesis. Not that there are no traces of this premise, but perhaps because Emre comes from academia, I failed to see the clear link between the “bad reader” theme and the way she illustrates the construction of the bad reader. I see a link (or links) – but it felt obscured, particularly at first. That is, the stories she tells to highlight what I’d call a “depreciation of value” assigned to critical literary study seem to describe the systematic departure of American literature from the idea of literature for literature’s sake. (Moreover, assigning value to the arts and framing it in terms of depreciation may well be another dark mark of the pervasive influence of capitalism.) As well, capitalist and commercial concerns are woven into literature, in many cases not at all subtly, across genres and types of writer, as though postwar writing were an extension of America’s “the world is our workshop” foreign policy. (And, truly, wasn’t it? Even if the writers themselves were unaware of how their existence as American writers in the world unwittingly unleashed these ideas and values on an unsuspecting and ever-less-literary world.) Emre seems to argue as well that American ‘culture’ cannot be decoupled from these (sinister?) roots, and maybe this is the point.

Hughes’s attempt to move between the intimate particularities of his relationship with Plath and Plath’s status as a nationalized subject recalls the previous chapter’s argument about the irresolvable tension between individual acts of communication (i.e., contextually specific and embodied) and national representation (i.e., abstract and metonymic) in American readers and writers from Henry James to Mary McCarthy.

“Why have studies of international communication failed to appreciate the relationship between the material foundations of reading and feeling? By proudly touting their status as demystified readers of institutional discourse, many literary critics, historians, and in particular, scholars of American studies have eclipsed the ways in which their own critical discourses sanction certain readerly feelings while skewering others. In this sense, the last decade of scholarly production in American studies strikes me as an invaluable resource, for the feeling rules such work archives. Once the Cold War burned out and critiques of state power became de rigueur in American studies, love presented itself as one of the most powerful justifications for the discipline’s abiding investment in the nation-state as its object of analysis and its organizing episteme. When considered from a more polemical angle, one could say that love is the only compelling reason for the discipline’s continued existence at all.”

This is best illustrated in the examples Emre has selected in the book, including the ubiquity of references to American Express as a brand, as a lifestyle, as an activity, for American writers abroad: their identities tied up not only with an idea of Americanness, but also with the money they could access easily. American Express, like many other American brands and institutions could see the reach of their influence and exploit it.

Reed even grew fond of telling stories at board meetings about how the company had helped to construct families. His favorite romantic tale, which he also had reprinted in “American Express, its origin and growth,” involved a North Carolinian GI and a French piano player. The two had met when the pianist had played the US national anthem for the GI after the Liberation of Paris on August 19, 1944, and when they had fallen out of touch, the American Express had played “matchmaker” by reuniting them.28 In Reed’s whimsical fiction, international communication appeared as a romantic communion that triangulated national, consumer, and sexual identities, which in turn aligned the company’s production of the “serious” traveler with the representative mission of the “ambassador.” This American Express ambassador, like the Fulbright scholar, came bearing the affective gift of “goodwill” in the institution of marriage and the family.

Writers from the Beats, James Baldwin and Erica Jong – all considered subversive at the time of their publication – nevertheless subscribed to this uniquely American convenience of accessing fast cash, mentioning American Express, cash wires and credit cards extensively in their work. How counterculture can you really be when you’re just a few steps away from cash from back home? In the case of Jong in particular, at the intersection of feminism, independence and sexual liberation, the juxtaposition of these issues with her references to money makes one wonder how economic independence (did she have any, or was the money her husband’s?) fits into the story, and thus, how real the independence projected could have been… and thus how authentic or complete the whole feminist theme could be. Yet given the times and the zeitgeist, and the crafty inclusion of Jong’s character’s branded economic advantages, this point isn’t really considered.

“Although there is a puritanical undertone to Theroux’s insistence on no taxation without upstanding sexual representation, he was hardly the only reader to suspect that the “American money” responsible for the novel’s production was partially responsible for how the novel had popularized—and, by many accounts, cheapened—feminism in the Western world. Even the novel’s loudest champion, John Updike, who wrote a glowing review of Fear of Flying in the New Yorker, began by noting how American branded capital had made Isadora’s touristic consumption of sexual experience possible in the first place: “Childless, with an American Express card as escort on her pilgrimage, and with a professional forgiver as a husband, Isadora Wing, for all her terrors, is the heroine of a comedy.””

“What, if anything, to make of literary branding in Fear of Flying, a novel premised on a woman’s simultaneous refusal of sexual propriety and property, yet whose production seems so intimately bound up with the capitalist communication technologies of international tourism? Can brands overrun literary fiction? Can they institute their own conditions of literary reception and their own practices of reading?”

Nevertheless, as well-documented and beautifully described as these themes are, I am not sure that I left the book feeling I’d been convinced of the existence of a “bad reader”. It may, in fact, be a compelling argument for rethinking literature and the role of the reader (of whatever type) in its existence and evolution.

It does indeed stray off Emre’s topic but some assertions her book made brought me back to Toni Morrison. Mostly because Morrison seems uncompromisingly and deliberate in her writing, not concerned about whether or not she places understandable (or mysterious) literary references in places that critics or casual readers can access them. She wants instead to “subvert this traditional comfort”… leading me to wonder about how much literature falls outside of Emre’s analyses. Certainly much of 20th century literature exemplifies the points Emre makes, but for every reference that fits the bill, how many Toni Morrison’s are there, who defy a label?

This deliberate avoidance of literary references has become a firm if boring habit with me, not only because it leads to poses, not only because I refuse the credentials it bestows, but also because it is inappropriate to the kind of literature I wish to write, the aims of that literature, and the discipline of the specific culture that interests me. (Emphasis on me.) Literary references in the hands of writers I love can be extremely revealing, but they can also supply a comfort I don’t want the reader to have because I want him to respond on the same plane an illiterate or preliterature reader would have to. I want to subvert his traditional comfort so that he may experience an unorthodox one: that of being in the company of his own solitary imagination. My beginnings as a novelist were very much focused on creating this discomfort and unease in order to insist that the reader rely on another body of knowledge.” –The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches and MeditationsToni Morrison

Said and read – February 2019

Standard

What is it about options that is so difficult for us? Why do we feel compelled to keep as many doors open as possible, even at great expense? Why can’t we simply commit ourselves?” – Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our DecisionsDan Ariely

Once more I have not managed to read as much as in previous years, and this makes me a bit sad. I hope to pick up more books starting in March.

Previous Said and read blog posts: 2019 – January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for February:

What holds true for a conversation holds equally true for reading, which is—or should be—a conversation between the author and the reader. Of course, in reading (as well as in a personal conversation) whom I read from (or talk with) is important. Reading an artless, cheap novel is a form of daydreaming.” –Fascism, Power, and Individual Rights: Escape from FreedomErich Fromm

Highly recommended

*Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our DecisionsDan Ariely

I was surprised to find that a book I stumbled on accidentally as a part of my psychology studies was quite engaging. Essentially Ariely explores decision-making, and how we think we are being perfectly rational as we make decisions. Many influences come into play, often largely invisible, unconscious forces, and Ariely and colleagues have run a number of experiments to examine some of these influences and the irrational conclusions of our decisions. It’s fascinating stuff looking at how, for example, something is framed, changes our perception of its value or importance, whether it is negative or positive.

Most of all I enjoyed the parts about how humans love to collect more and more options, leaving all options open, but forego in many cases, the truly important or most valuable outcomes, in an effort to never have to make a choice or let go of the endless options before us (stuff like online/app-driven dating presents this dilemma with great immediacy). Strangely, Ariely cites Erich Fromm, the only other thing of significance I finished reading in February, on the topic of too many options, too much opportunity.

Good – really good

*Fascism, Power, and Individual Rights: Escape from FreedomErich Fromm
*To Have or To Be? – Erich Fromm
*The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness – Erich Fromm

On some level, I am disappointed in myself for reading so few books in February, but I do try to remind myself that the Erich Fromm volume I’ve just finished reading is actually several books within one volume.

Fromm has been coming up in my readings on psychology, philosophy and some other more New Age type reading I did over two years ago when I started my mission to read more (I started by reading some books a friend had asked me to read to her and record a very long time ago, which included these “New Age” type books). These antecedents coupled with my own curiosity and the relevance of these theories given the current political and social climate gave me a reason to get through these books, which weren’t always easy. I found it best to read these when I was a captive audience and basically had nothing else to do but focus, i.e. on plane journeys. Most recently I was flying between Frankfurt and Glasgow, and a flight attendant scared the shit out of me by standing very close behind me, staring over my shoulder (without my realizing it) and almost whispering in my ear, “That’s the smallest font! You must have excellent eyes.” But apart from that strange interruption, I was able to read these books in peace.

It was perhaps most interesting to see Fromm’s assertion in Escape from Freedom: “The United States has shown itself resistant against all totalitarian attempts to gain influence.” Perhaps so, at the time of writing. Fromm was not blind enough to think the situation static: “Yet all these reassuring facts must not deceive us into thinking that the dangers of “escape from freedom” are not as great, or even greater today than they were when this book was first published. Does this prove that theoretical insights of social psychology are useless, as far as their effect on human development is concerned? It is hard to answer this question convincingly, and the writer in this field may be unduly optimistic about the social value of his own and his colleagues’ work. But with all due respect to this possibility, my belief in the importance of awareness of individual and social reality has, if anything, grown.

As Fromm examines the societal shifts that came about as a result of the shift from economic systems of the medieval era to what is now capitalism, we see echoes of the kinds of questions being raised in how we live (and in many cases suffer) today:

In one word, capitalism not only freed man from traditional bonds, but it also contributed tremendously to the increasing of positive freedom, to the growth of an active, critical, responsible self. However, while this was one effect capitalism had on the process of growing freedom, at the same time it made the individual more alone and isolated and imbued him with a feeling of insignificance and powerlessness.

He also writes at length about something that is one of my personal annoyances – boredom (or “insufficient inner productivity”). He argues that this belongs to the kind of society we live in, the creation of the need for constant stimulation and the disintegration of man’s place in society (having a role and knowing what he should be doing):

“Chronic boredom—compensated or uncompensated—constitutes one of the major psychopathological phenomena in contemporary technotronic society, although it is only recently that it has found some recognition. Before entering into the discussion of depressive boredom (in the dynamic sense), some remarks on boredom in a behavioral sense seem to be in order. The persons who are capable of responding productively to “activating stimuli” are virtually never bored—but they are the exception in cybernetic society. The vast majority, while not suffering from a grave illness, can be nevertheless considered suffering from a milder form of pathology: insufficient inner productivity. They are bored unless they can provide themselves with ever changing, simple—not activating—stimuli.”

On so many levels, the readings are deep and difficult and range across so many different subjects from history to linguistics, from philosophy to the nature of love or collective versus individual identity; it is hard to summarize here (and is probably not even necessary – if you’re interested in these kinds of things you will seek this out).

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Half-Blood BluesEsi Edugyan

It took a long time to get into this book, but once I did I enjoyed it and was able to reassess the style that made it hard to “crack”. It does not immediately come across as linear and is hard to insert oneself into, but once you do it’s got quite rich language and a wholly new perspective. It is possible one I will need to read a second time to appreciate fully.

Coincidences

No great coincidences this time.

Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)

I don’t think I really read anything disappointing… boring textbooks don’t really count since they are useful and required, even if they don’t ignite creativity or excitement in the way that fiction or poetry might.

Said and read – January 2019

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“I love the idea of reading books as a brotherly, sisterly moral obligation to one’s people.” – Flights, Olga Tokarczuk 

Ah… I drafted and never published this, thinking I might add to it. But I didn’t read much more that was worth writing about in the end. So, here in mid-February, I give you January’s thoughts on what I read.

Previous Said and read blog posts: NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for January:

In December last year, I had a few exams and new projects kicking things off, which hampered my ability to dig right in and read as much as I normally would in December. As I recall, recent Decembers have been much slower than this one, so I can’t say it’s a surprise that reading tapered off a bit. Still, I managed to get over the 365-book hurdle for 2018, so there has been more than one per day – not that that really mattered or that I kept score. No. Just coincidental that I’d find something to completely devour every day.

And January has continued this trend of accomplishing less reading. Actually it’s truer to say that I completed less reading – I am reading as much as ever, but in textbooks, you don’t just sit down and read through the whole thing at once. I am immersed in about 15 different textbooks at the moment, skipping around reading assigned chapters here and there, as well as related journal articles, and that’s consuming most of my attention. So finished books are limited for now.

As usual, over the last two years, people have been flabbergasted to learn how much I read, especially when they learn how many other things I am doing. But apart from having the desire and attention span, which it seems many people are lacking, there are a lot of excuses. But even mathematically, it’s quite possible. I probably don’t even read as much as I could, but I know that I am busy doing other things that enrich my mind, so I don’t feel bad about reading as “little” as I do.

In any case, despite the reduced number (and it really isn’t about quantity), I managed a few books in January, even if I don’t have much to write about them here.

Highly recommended

I didn’t read anything that I thought was good enough to highly recommend it.

Good – really good

I also didn’t read anything that I thought was really good.

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing  – Merve Emre

Although I started reading the book ages ago, and didn’t quite delve into it until I was stuck on a flight down to Copenhagen, it was quite interesting to learn about the history of these questionable personality tests/”types”. It also happens to align well with the work I am doing at uni now, focused on individual differences and personality as well as psychometric testing. I really had no idea about the history of the Myers-Briggs, which is so widely used and has always seemed dodgy at best. Attending job interviews and going through this battery of tests and interpretations with well-meaning HR reps has always seemed, if anything, reductive and possibly even humiliating. And the book starts to illustrate why, with much of the narrative reading like a work of fiction (truth is stranger than, after all…).

Coincidences

Nope, no coincidences this time.

Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)

*Lanark – Alasdair Gray 

I don’t know what I expected of Lanark, but had read such glowing reviews of it, and felt it was a duty and obligation to read it as an adopted Glaswegian. And it’s not that it was bad – but it was disjointed in a way that made it difficult to become invested in, particularly when you leave the Thaw story and enter the Lanark story. Not much I can really say about it, as it took me months to finally get through. It might be one of those that you need to be in the right frame of mind to absorb properly.

 

Said and read – November 2018

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“I love the idea of reading books as a brotherly, sisterly moral obligation to one’s people.” – Flights, Olga Tokarczuk 

Has November spawned a monster? I’m at the threshold of two major submission deadlines (and several smaller ones) in one study program (by the time I publish, all of this will be submitted) and should be polishing off a master’s thesis in another study program – both of which, it should go without saying, have required time, thought and a lot of reading. I will get through all of this but wonder at my own motivations. Why would I believe this was a good idea?

I am tired, possibly dispirited (which I know is temporary and largely tied to the moment in which I write this… update, yes, in fact, it was temporary… by the time I started to finish this, my mindset was completely different), and even though a couple of things will end in December, new things will start. I will not take the luxury of resting. I feel a certain dread about that. (Tomorrow I will probably feel elated about that.) The momentary dread arises because it’s all quite unknown, less because I don’t get a break. It’s still reading I turn to for “breaks”.

I don’t always read something ‘easy’ – in fact, I rarely do. But it makes me happy, regardless of the subject matter. I don’t think it’s the topic that is uplifting necessarily. And I stumbled across an article from 2015 that nods along with this assertion: reading may contribute to your happiness (I had no idea but apparently there’s something called bibliotherapy, but it’s a fascinating discovery for someone who is delving into psychology and therapeutic approaches to mental health. It’s an awful play on words perhaps to say that I found this particular approach novel).

If you find yourself curious about what I was reading, liking, thinking, hating and all the rest throughout 2018… here’s your chance to find out: October, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for November:

In November I found that I read much more than expected, perhaps something like 50 books. A couple of months ago one of my university classmates got in touch to discuss my blog posts on reading/literature and share his thoughts on reading Russian literature (we were in Russian studies courses together), and this brought many memories of that period in my life flooding back. Actually, it’s truer to say that being back at a university and interacting with people who are young (as I was then) started me on this trajectory, but that ended up being the first of the nostalgia triggers that led me to some unsettling news as November ends.

In September after I’d begun studying, a young woman asked me if I am still in touch with friends from my undergraduate years. I don’t think she realized that my undergrad years are almost as far away from us in years as her entire lifespan so far. It dawned on me that, no, in fact, I am friends now with only one woman from college. I formed a few very close but very brief friendships during that time, which, if I am honest, were, in the sum of it all, painful. One such friendship developed during the same time as/in the course of the Russian studies, and it ended with what I can only now call “ghosting” even if I could see the ways she backed off from me.

When I exchanged a few messages with the guy from the class, it opened the door to this distant past. It made me think of the Russian class, of very detailed memories of that whole period – the foods, the characters, the schedules, particular moments and vignettes, and most powerfully, I remember the fragile, vulnerable nature of a classmate/woman/friend, K, who hid beneath her retiring exterior a fierce intellect and emotional abundance. I wrote a few years ago about a few very specific memories – a day that our very small Russian class took a field trip together to Victoria, BC, Canada – and as those flooded back to me, I found myself revisiting some of the Russian readings, the music from our field trip day (Cowboy Junkies), and finally, today I thought that I’d look K up. I had tried once or twice to find her online in the past, but it seems all the friends from my past who disappear tend to be the types who have absolutely no online presence. As such, I never found K in my previous searches.

Until last night when I did just a small amount of digging and found…

She died two years ago.

And I was, to borrow a word from someone with whom I shared this, “floored”.

Worse yet, as I was processing this information, I happened to learn that someone else I had just been talking about had recently passed away. Learning about this kind of death – something about someone who is now distant but who was once a vital, important, daily fixture, someone who was once so meaningful – is like immersing one’s entire head in ice water. I am awake, so aware of my limitations and the limitations of time. But is it changing how I do things? Is it making me any less selfish?

Living’s mostly wasting time/and I waste my share of mine/But it never feels too good/ so let’s not take too long…/I’m soft as glass/and you’re a gentle man/we’ve got the sky to talk about/and the world to lie upon/days up and down they come/like rain on a conga drum/forget most/remember some/but don’t turn none away/everything is not enough/nothing is too much to bear/where you’ve been is good and gone/all you keep’s the getting there” – Cowboy Junkies (covering the late, great Townes van Zandt)… a song that will always make me think of K (1974-2016).

Highly recommended

*Application for Release from DeathTony Hoagland 

I started reading Hoagland last month (and loved that book also). It turns out that I started reading around the same time that he died (October 2018). I’m going to read the rest of his work in in December. Poetry, of course.

*Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World – Suzy Hansen

I can’t say enough about how good this book is for challenging American blindness and brainwashing about the world and the American(‘s) place in it.

*Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs – Johann Hari 

I’d intended to read Chasing the Scream for over a year; I was going through a phase of reading books on addiction and new takes (scientific and otherwise) on the nature of addiction. Somehow I never quite got to this one until now. It’s extraordinarily well-written in a gripping narrative form, and it ties, strangely, to one of the books I read this month and hated (The Culture of Narcissism – see below). I am not drawing a parallel between addicts and narcissists, if that’s what you’re imagining. No, instead, I think of some points Lasch made in The Culture of Narcissism and see their applicability.

From Hari’s book:

Bruce came to believe, as he put it, that “today’s flood of addiction is occurring because our hyperindividualistic, frantic, crisis-ridden society makes most people feel social[ly] or culturally isolated. Chronic isolation causes people to look for relief. They find temporary relief in addiction . . . because [it] allows them to escape their feelings, to deaden their senses—and to experience an addictive lifestyle as a substitute for a full life.”

and

Bruce says that at the moment, when we think about recovery from addiction, we see it through only one lens—the individual. We believe the problem is in the addict and she has to sort it out for herself, or in a circle of her fellow addicts. But this is, he believes, like looking at the rats in the isolated cages and seeing them as morally flawed: it misses the point. He argues we need to refocus our eyes, as if staring at a Magic Eye picture, to see that the problem isn’t in them, it’s in the culture.” 

and

If we think like this, the question we need to answer with our drug policy shifts. It is no longer: How do we stop addiction through threats and force, and scare people away from drugs in the first place? It becomes: How do we start to rebuild a society where we don’t feel so alone and afraid, and where we can form healthier bonds? How do we build a society where we look for happiness in one another rather than in consumption?” 

* Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book – Susan M. Love

I wish I had been able to read this book a long time ago. Detailed but simplified for the layperson. It is also sad to see the part on practical considerations, e.g., about American health insurance and financial constraints. That is, can you afford your treatment, and whether you can or not, are you one day away from being unscrupulously discriminated against for having cancer? Ugh.

*Le sanglot de l’homme noirAlain Mabanckou

A series of essays/reflections on being black, on prejudice, on colonialism.

Tu es né ici, ton destin est ici, et tu ne devras pas le perdre de vue. Demande-toi ce que tu apportes à cette patrie sans pour autant attendre d’elle une quelconque récompense. Parce que le monde est ainsi fait : il y a plus de héros dans l’ombre que dans la lumière.

Good – really good

*Sarajevo MarlboroMiljenko Jergović

There’s no point in not letting a fire swallow up things that human indifference has already destroyed.

Stories of Sarajevo and the diversity of life found there.

Life is only valuable because you know you have it. Death always finds you unprepared, without tangible proof that you ever lived.”

*The Panther and the LashLangston Hughes

*HumJamaal May

*HiveChristina Stoddard

I loved all the references to the Pacific Northwest (Tacoma and surrounding environs!)

*Search Party: Collected PoemsWilliam Matthews

Because poetry, as always. It doesn’t really need much more explanation than that (particularly if you read this blog; I rarely post my own writing on a regular basis, but I post a poem daily).

*This Boy’s Life: A MemoirTobias Wolff

I can’t really say why I read this or why it makes my list of something I really enjoyed. It probably comes down to how characters and scenes are described, which is the only way a piece of writing comes alive.

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Flow: The Cultural Story of MenstruationElissa Stein

*New Blood: Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of MenstruationChris Bobel

Technically I finished both of these right at the end of October, so they didn’t make it into my October write-up. These are not necessarily books suited to everyone but they formed part of my thesis research on period poverty and thus were informative and might be useful for people (particularly men) who have no clue about menstruation and the unequal economic (and other) burdens it places on women. Most surprising to me is how many women know so very little about their own bodies and the economic situations of others (i.e., period products are taxed in many countries as non-essential luxury items, meaning that a lot of women struggle to afford them and are often making choices between tampons or food).

*Communication and Social Change: A Citizen PerspectiveThomas Tufte

This was something that informed my thesis work, but as someone interested in how we communicate about and for social change and justice, this is an essential volume.

*Winter is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be StoppedGarry Kasparov

Kasparov’s work really speaks for itself. The only issue I had was minor and factual; the book made the mistake of confusing Slovakia and Slovenia, which had nothing to do with the overall content of the book. But a basic fact check or proofread should have caught this.

And there are valid, timely warnings for what we’re going through now.

“Despite the attempt to rebrand the method as “engagement,” the smell of appeasement is impossible to mask. The fundamental lesson of Chamberlain and Daladier going to see Hitler in Munich in 1938 is valid today: giving a dictator what he wants never stops him from wanting more; it convinces him you aren’t strong enough to stop him from taking what he wants. Otherwise, goes the dictator’s thought process, you would stand up to him from the start.”

When I am asked if Putin was inevitable, this is why I say you have to start ten years before anyone knew his name. By the time Yeltsin made Putin the heir apparent, Russians were demanding stability and looking for a tough guy to stand up to the criminals and to the Western influences they’d been told were damaging the country and their pensions. To prevent Putin, or a Putin, from coming to power, the 1990s would have required a very different script with less appeasement of Yeltsin and his entourage and stronger support for democratic institutions.”

*BecomingMichelle Obama

I had seen all the publicity around this book and had no intention of reading it. But one Saturday or Sunday morning, tired of reading social psychology papers and even more tired of the embarrassing, frightening circus that is the contemporary political landscape,  I decided to latch onto the bittersweet nostalgia of the Obamas via the former First Lady’s autobio. While it mostly read as expected, the moments around the first Obama presidential victory re-awakened the emotion I felt on election day 2008. I want to scream about our current dilemma/disaster, “How did we get here?” except that I know the answer: we were always here.

Coincidences

*The Culture of Public Problems: Drinking-Driving and the Symbolic OrderJoseph R. Gusfield

This is not exactly a coincidence, but more of a “crossover”. I suppose it’s inevitable that if you’re doing two study programs simultaneously, even if they are in entirely different disciplines, you will stumble across topics and theories that have some applicability (even possibly novel applicability) in the other. I have to say that the vague, esoteric nature of one of my fields has made it more difficult to engage fully with and apply theory adequately, but the much more grounded and detailed nature of psychology studies (and research methods) has helped. I came across Gusfield in some of my psych readings and realized that there are aspects of his work on making private/individual problems public that could be an interesting angle for my other line of inquiry…

I had never really thought about drinking-driving, as he refers to it, in the way he frames it. While I certainly do believe that the individual does have responsibility for drinking-driving as a choice, I can appreciate Gusfield’s analysis that the rest of society has been built in a way that doesn’t offer many choices. (It’s more complex than this, of course, but that’s why the book was worth reading.)

Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)

I read quite a few independently published books of poetry this month, and most of them were pretty disappointing. I won’t call any of them out because they all offered something worthwhile even if, on the whole, I wouldn’t buy these books again.

Also, I was writing a paper about narcissism and democracy, and found a book that seemed like it might be interesting as background information:

*The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing ExpectationsChristopher Lasch

The narcissist has no interest in the future because, in part, he has so little interest in the past. He finds it difficult to internalize happy associations or to create a store of loving memories with which to face the latter part of his life, which under the best of conditions always brings sadness and pain. In a narcissistic society—a society that gives increasing prominence and encouragement to narcissistic traits—the cultural devaluation of the past reflects not only the poverty of the prevailing ideologies, which have lost their grip on reality and abandoned the attempt to master it, but the poverty of the narcissist’s inner life. A society that has made “nostalgia” a marketable commodity on the cultural exchange quickly repudiates the suggestion that life in the past was in any important way better than life today. Having trivialized the past by equating it with outmoded styles of consumption, discarded fashions and attitudes, people today resent anyone who draws on the past in serious discussions of contemporary conditions or attempts to use the past as a standard by which to judge the present.”

I was wrong. It had interesting parts but I suppose I had bigger expectations for it than it could have lived up to and had no applicability to the paper I was trying to write. To find the good points, you’d have to read very carefully and ignore a lot of unsavory moralizing.

It’s my own fault for not looking at anything about Lasch before reading it – he leans heavily conservative on social issues, and many good points are masked by this moralistic tone. For example, he argued that the unshakeable and often unrealistic American clinging to the idea of “Progress” (and its inevitability) makes Americans deaf and resistant to (his) warnings or ideas – but frankly, it, by extension, makes Americans deaf and resistant to all ideas that don’t fit in with this uniquely American and blind construction of the world.

A denial of the past, superficially progressive and optimistic, proves on closer analysis to embody the despair of a society that cannot face the future.”

distance communication

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This time of year always feels sad. Darkness arrives earlier and earlier each evening, with autumn and winter closer each day. Summer is always too short and unreliable in these northern countries.

Then again, what did I do all summer anyway? Mostly read books and write.

Some books that have been widely praised left me cold, such as Exit West. From the get-go I didn’t care for it, and as it went on, it felt more and more like it glossed over important details. But then there were still parts that stuck with me afterwards – the distance-relationship theme and the terror/loneliness of suddenly being cut off were both striking.

In a way – a modern way – this paralleled the themes in Angle of Repose, highlighting what it was like to move west to ‘the frontier’. The pioneer’s view on communication with the past (because where you came from became essentially the past), and even by the late 1800s, was still a matter of possibly waiting a couple of weeks for word, just anticipating replies to letters. This entailed, also, the inevitable and eventual drifting apart as things change: no acrimony, no animosity, just a shifting. How could it be otherwise? Our lives and communications with our peers today are generally pretty homogeneous. If I move from Iceland to Sweden, or from England to France, certain things change, but the standard of living doesn’t end up changing so much that it is life-defining. (I say this, though, knowing the trickiness of connectivity in parts of the Alps and other similar barriers in many modern places to modern communication.)

We are far too used to convenience and immediacy. Today I feel stubbornly opposed to it, like a child, a Luddite and a person who thinks that if you want to talk to me, you will have to make an effort.

Come Away with Me & other randomness

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It’s always a world of tiny coincidences. A few weeks back we were batting about the expression ‘come away with me’, daydreaming of running away and doing things both out of control and outside of our “normal” lives. Eventually we more or less came to substitute ‘Norah Jones with me’ for the expression ‘come away with me’ – for what should be obvious reasons. I had not thought about Norah Jones in years, if ever. Then suddenly, the very next day, I saw that she gave the first performance at the Fox Theatre in Detroit after Soundgarden the night of Chris Cornell’s death. Jones did “Black Hole Sun” (who didn’t, though?) and made it sound more like something Tori Amos than Soundgarden.

In another coincidence, I told some colleagues at lunch the other day (sitting in glorious and rare sun) the story of someone I used to work with who was basically a complete lunatic (I used it as a story to show how difficult it can be to fire federal workers). I had not thought of the crazy co-worker in years, but I got a message from my mom later that same evening telling me he had died.

“The resultant fervor of human belonging”Wole Soyinka

Life is full of these little things – coincidences and things we want in some fiendish fever to connect: the pieces must connect! … I wonder if it is all completely random or if it’s feedback from “energy” we’ve put into the world by conjuring these things up actively that then comes back to us like a boomerang.

Probably it comes down to intent and motivation.

As Pamuk asks in Strangeness in my Mind: “Intentions come in two forms: That which our heart intends and that which our words intend”. And these are indeed different phenomena. The heart will lead us to do the most irrational things (‘come away with me’ and whatnot), intending as it does to make us connect, impervious to the knowledge that it is a bad idea. The head, our words, will instead look for reason and sense, and in some cases, protective gear and weaponry in the form of iron-clad excuses not to do things that maybe we should brave our fears to do.

Are we seeking the missing pieces that link our lives and events together? Are we looking for words to explain coincidental happenstance? Do we intend to share knowledge (“Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.” –Paul Kalinithi, When Breath Becomes Air)? Do we intend to join what Soyinka referred to as the ‘fervor of human belonging’ (which has its duality, light and dark)?

Motivation can be even more tenuous. I find myself succumbing, as Doris Lessing describes in The Golden Notebook, to the pull of acting out multiple personalities, playing different roles, playing off another (like Saul and Anna), driven by the one keenly stupid motivation: “I wanted to see what would happen”. Maybe this is a solid motivation in scientific experimentation. In human relations, not so much. But with curiosity the driver, the one great motivator, you do get adventures; you do get disasters. No one will claim your life was devoid of interesting stuff.

“And yet—an excitement. The unspeakable excitement you feel when a galloping disaster promises to release you from all responsibility for your own life.” -from Hateship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage  Alice Munro

Or is that just the cynic speaking?

“reality is only interaction”

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“Probability does not refer to the evolution of matter in itself. It relates to the evolution of those specific quantities we interact with. Once again, the profoundly relational nature of the concept we use to organize the world emerges.” -from Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Rovelli

Principles of physics come to mind for me frequently when I think of connections with people. It may be illogical, but somehow the way things are described in physics overlaps how things unfold. Do I feel this way because I am older, and I want to see connections where there are none? Physics is bound by rules, and connections between people are not, necessarily. But as Rovelli states in explaining concepts of physics, “the profoundly relational nature of the concept we use to organize the world emerges”. Every concept seems to come back to the principle that everything happens or is real because of how it interacts with other things. “Or does it mean, as it seems to me, that we must accept the idea that reality is only interaction?”

Reality is relational. Relationships, obviously, then are relational, as denoted in the word itself. We choose when, where, with whom, and how often to interact to create our reality and the relationships in that reality. And we make choices in allowing feeling to form or grow. We shut some things down; we slow other things down; we accelerate some things; we destroy others. Our reactions are individual, but also mutual and sometimes collective. And these interactions are sparked, changed, moved, freed by all these other interactions. Nothing much happens without interaction.

“The difference between past and future exists only when there is heat. The fundamental phenomenon that distinguishes the future from the past is the fact that heat passes from things that are hotter to things that are colder.”-from Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Rovelli

And in our immediate moment – the now – in our interaction, skin to skin, we keep each other warm?