Image used courtesy of S. Donaghy
“Humankind is deeply ill. The species won’t last long. It was an aberrant experiment. Soon the world will be returned to the healthy intelligences, the collective ones. Colonies and hives.” –The Overstory – Richard Powers
Were we ready when March began for the way the world has changed? How casually and spontaneously we jumped on airplanes and flew from place to place without even thinking about it. How every activity was about time and convenience, nothing to do with whether or not it would be life threatening to leave one’s house. Sure, when March began, we knew the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading – we saw the tragic consequences unfold in more distant parts of the world (depending on where in the world you are, of course). But even now self-isolation orders (and adherence) is piecemeal, fragmented and inconsistently applied and enforced. Until we feel the pain or fear of personal loss, we don’t seem to care very much. We see the death toll rise, but unless it’s touched you, we express a collective, “Oh that’s too bad” kind of semi-indifference. When does that change? It may be an ideal time to reassess who we are in the world and who we want to be.
“I want this not only for artists and writers, but for any person who perceives life to be more than an instrument and therefore something that cannot be optimized. A simple refusal motivates my argument: refusal to believe that the present time and place, and the people who are here with us, are somehow not enough. Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram act like dams that capitalize on our natural interest in others and an ageless need for community, hijacking and frustrating our most innate desires, and profiting from them. Solitude, observation, and simple conviviality should be recognized not only as ends in and of themselves, but inalienable rights belonging to anyone lucky enough to be alive.” –How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy – Jenny Odell
We haven’t seen the extent of the way the world will change. We just don’t know if it gets better or worse from here. And while I go on in my own long-term self-isolation (this is my normal lifestyle), I continue reading. I wish I had the language to discuss reading and books more interactively, but I don’t. I find that many people tell me they “love” reading, only to discover that they are talking about audiobooks (ugh) or scifi/fantasy novels, and then I just don’t have common ground any more. I want people to read; I want to read. I want to share this passion, but then I find I reach a certain point where it becomes private and insular, and no one can reach me on the ground I tread.
Past editions: 2020 – February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.
Thoughts on reading for March:
It’s a narrative work from poet, Ocean Vuong, and you can tell it’s written by a poet. The language is evocative, emotionally resonant and beautiful.
“You once told me that memory is a choice. But if you were god, you’d know it’s a flood.“
“Nothing is harder to do than nothing. In a world where our value is determined by our productivity, many of us find our every last minute captured, optimized, or appropriated as a financial resource by the technologies we use daily. We submit our free time to numerical evaluation, interact with algorithmic versions of each other, and build and maintain personal brands.”
I am not sure that there could have been a better book for this moment in time of “manifest dismantling” than Odell’s How to Do Nothing. While many of us are forced to abandon what we think of as valuable productivity, and face who we are day to day without the trappings of what we think of as “normal life”, we are reflected back at ourselves. Since the various lockdown levels have rolled out globally, friends and colleagues have begun to exhibit signs of minor meltdown, insisting after two days at home, “I’m bored.”
Even with the technologies we insist we rely on at their disposal, which have been so immersive and all-consuming to the detriment of human connection, isolation is unbearable. When these people did have the opportunity to commune face to face with other humans in public spaces, they didn’t – they communed with phones and devices, which now – only now – aren’t enough for them. Who would have thought? And now they demand entertainment. Probably this is more a function of being human – needing connection and validation – than of just being unimaginative and boring (as grandma said, only boring people get bored), yet it’s still perplexing – and mesmerizing. What should you be doing? And if not now, when should you think more deeply on this subject?
“The point of doing nothing, as I define it, isn’t to return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive, but rather to question what we currently perceive as productive.“
I will never run out of things to do. Why are these people so bored? Is the need to socialize and be productive in a collective way so compelling – compulsive?
“If you become interested in the health of the place where you are, whether that’s cultural or biological or both, I have a warning: you will see more destruction than progress.“
What has marked all of my memorable reading this month is how accidentally it has fallen into thematic alignment with the pitting of the momentary against the longevity of the durable and persistent … and what these things mean, and whether those definitions can and do change. That is, in Odell, Powers, and Sinclair we see long-term ecology and culture stretch out over unseen time, beyond this frenzied economic cycle, beyond our envisioned or predicted lifespan, beyond the life of a single tree from one geologic epoch to another…
“Our idea of progress is so bound up with the idea of putting something new in the world that it can feel counterintuitive to equate progress with destruction, removal, and remediation. But this seeming contradiction actually points to a deeper contradiction: of destruction (e.g., of ecosystems) framed as construction (e.g., of dams). Nineteenth-century views of progress, production, and innovation relied on an image of the land as a blank slate where its current inhabitants and systems were like so many weeds in what was destined to become an American lawn. But if we sincerely recognize all that was already here, both culturally and ecologically, we start to understand that anything framed as construction was actually also destruction.”
Good – or better than expected
Powerful poetry from Salvadoran poet, Javier Zamora.
I have no way to describe why I liked this. It just had some beautiful, evocative passages about trees, nature… and chestnuts. Just after I’d discussed chestnuts with someone, stating that I was not sure I’d ever tasted them, I started reading and immediately was struck by the mildly erotic (?) description of the flavor of a chestnut.
“The charred nuts are comforting beyond words: sweet and savory, rich as a honeyed potato, earthy and mysterious all at once. The burred husks prickle, but their No is more of a tease than any real barrier. The nuts want to slip free of their spiny protection. Each one volunteers to be eaten, so others might be spread far afield.”
The “overstory” essentially is like the often lengthy life of a tree. Life’s decisions are not one-dimensional, one-generational, their consequences not immediately felt. They appear later, throughout time, like the rings of a tree.
Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof
“There’s also a difference between extending life and prolonging vitality. We’re capable of both, but simply keeping people alive—decades after their lives have become defined by pain, disease, frailty, and immobility—is no virtue.“
When confronted by propositions about living forever, aging and the disease of aging, scores of questions follow. How do we value life, relationships, commitments if we remove mortality from the equation? Would we reevaluate “old age” if being elderly didn’t inevitably mean infirmity? Would we really want to live forever – or even for hundreds of years? What do things mean when they are no longer finite?
“If the epigenome had evolved to be digital rather than analog, the valley walls would be the equivalent of 100 miles high and vertical, and gravity would be superstrong, so the marbles could never jump over into a new valley. Cells would never lose their identity. If we were built this way, we could be healthy for thousands of years, perhaps longer. But we are not built this way. Evolution shapes both genomes and epigenomes only enough to ensure sufficient survival to ensure replacement—and perhaps, if we are lucky, just a little bit more—but not immortality.“
I read this book in large part because my brother talks obsessively about aging (and why we don’t have to age the way we think of aging now). For now, Sinclair’s impressive book, ostensibly about aging and how we can prevent it, is full of different strategies and avenues medicine, science and research are taking to tackle the problem of aging. It aims to challenge the shared narrative of aging as we know it as a natural phenomenon, and instead of redefine it (i.e., infirm aging) as a disease.
Yet, this book has struck me more for its focus on the ubiquity, totality, danger and promise of data… Sinclair argues that we give away copious amounts of personal data as a form of currency every single day, but we are reticent to do so when it is medical in nature, even if this data might be the most vital we could offer in ‘rejuvenating’ humanity.
“Perhaps there are people out there who’d be happy to drive without any dashboard at all, relying solely on their intuition and experience to tell them how fast they are going, when their car needs fuel or recharging, and what to fix when something goes wrong. The vast majority of us, however, would never drive a car that wasn’t giving us at least some quantitative feedback, and, through our purchasing decisions, we have made it clear to car companies that we want more and more intelligent cars.
Surprisingly, we’ve never demanded the same for our own bodies. Indeed, we know more about the health of our cars than we know about our own health. That’s farcical. And it’s about to change.“
“Thanks to wearables, we already have the technology in place to monitor the body temperature, pulse, and other biometric reactions of more than a hundred million people in real time. The only things separating us from doing so are a recognized need and a cultural response.“
Most of us aren’t “the world’s most connected man” (side note: I had read about this dude, Chris Dancy, online a few times and then a few years later was seated next to him on a plane), but we’re connected enough that any illusion of privacy we cling to is… a fantasy. Why do we not embrace it?
Indeed, most relevant at the moment is Sinclair’s writing (from 2019) on a future pandemic that is poised to wipe out huge swathes of the global population and how data might help. It’s timely right now, but clearly, the pandemic is already here.
Apart from more than three different books I recently read citing the film Gattaca, I didn’t stumble on any great coincidences in March.
Biggest disappointment (or disliked)
This was by no means a bad book; I simply had my expectations built up, so anything would have been disappointing. What I can say about it is… it is dynamic, told from multiple points of view – and that’s a hit or miss proposition for me.