Said and read – November 2019

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Think of the way that stories change each time they’re told, the way our brains are literally rewriting our experiences in the moment of recounting them, not calling them up from some established place in our cerebral cortex. It turns out that memory is not a digital file at all, not fixed in form but progressively mutable, evolving in time. Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of MemoryElizabeth Rosner

I picked up the pace a wee bit for November, mostly because I had a bit of time off. That said, I had a succession of big deadlines for the latest degree program and was helping someone else with his uni deadlines, so there was a lot of prescribed reading. As a respite from the required stuff (for example, the entire APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion and Spirituality, which incidentally was one of the best things I read all month), I escaped into quite a bit of poetry. But this is nothing new.

I’ve felt the pull of escapism a lot this month, which sends me in two different directions – one is back to my old television and film addictions and the other is to dive into more projects (online courses, new degree programs, learning more languages – did you know Duolingo finally offers basic Scottish Gaelic?).

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Come on – just look at this wee guy!

I also have a terrible habit of getting sucked into these actor/actress/director/writer roundtable sessions that end up on YouTube around this time of year (awards consideration and nomination season). Oh, also, some bizarre pairings of actors interviewing other actors. I am always surprised – the ones I think will be interesting turn out to be self-centered idiots who start every single statement they make with the words, “For me…”, and those in whom I have no interest at all (e.g., Eddie Murphy) end up being surprising. I end up watching even those in which I have no interest because… well, once I start I can’t stop. And this seems to be the way I operate. All or nothing.

Even gripped by an escapism that makes me want to avoid human contact for days on end, I still want to engage in these stories — or create stories about people, which has driven me to start drafting non-work-related stories and to take part in some online screenwriting and creative writing courses just to refresh my memory. I’ve been too long pent up in the B2B SaaS technical marketing writing world, I guess.

Thanks to a minor injury (oh, merciless early winter ice), I have mostly been able to just stay home, just as I longed for in October. Naturally this lends itself to more reading, at last.

Here’s what you missed in the last year-plus: 2019 – October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for November:

As I pull my thoughts together on November reading, it’s actually Thanksgiving… and another year when I could not pull myself together enough to host a dinner. I say this in such a self-flogging manner, as though I have simply been an unmitigated mess. But the truth is, I have (merely) been selfish. I could have hosted a dinner — I wanted to prioritize my own stuff in addition to being an antisocial hermit. I’m only a cat or two away from being a true cat-lady hermit spinster.

Highly recommended

How does atrocity defy memory and simultaneously demand to be remembered? How do we collectively mark it and honor it—while addressing its inevitably convoluted aftermath? As we examine the inheritance of trauma within the mosaic of human history, is it ever possible to move beyond it?” –Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of MemoryElizabeth Rosner

*Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of MemoryElizabeth Rosner

I’d write more about this book except it makes more sense to encourage you to read it. Writing about intergenerational trauma (trauma being passed down through several generations) and epigenetics, Rosner asks thought-provoking questions through the lens of her own experience with Holocaust-survivor parents, expanding the field of inquiry to include genocide more broadly as well as the role of memory – individual, institutional and historical.

It’s so much more than what I’m writing here, but as usual, the book presents it all with such clarity and is a moving work on its own – and by far the best thing I read this month.

Can you effectively make someone remember what he or she prefers to forget? If memory is a kind of spectrum, how do we delineate the threshold between voluntary and involuntary recollection? How to discern between deliberate denial and inadvertent amnesia? How to proceed with multigenerational café-style conversations in the near future, and beyond? Who will sit at these tables?

*The APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion and Spirituality

I greatly enjoyed reading the aforementioned APA Handbook of Psychology and Religion.  Does that mean I would recommend it to others? No, not necessarily. Not unless you’re interested in religion and spirituality from multifarious psychological perspectives. Sure, I know plenty of people who would love this – but I would not say it’s a page-turner that everyone should go find. Oh, and of course, none of my university-related reading seems to exist or make sense without reference to the Milgram experiment and Zimbardo’s prison experiment… which I wrote about last month because these references pop up constantly across disciplines and in various forms entertainment.

*The Tiny JournalistNaomi Shihab Nye

Poetry. Naomi. Need I say more?

*Dark. Sweet.: New and Selected PoemsLinda Hogan

Not that Linda Hogan. And not that sort of Linda Hogan. Hogan’s poetry speaks for itself:

The Way In
Sometimes the way to milk and honey is through the body.
Sometimes the way in is a song.
But there are three ways in the world: dangerous, wounding,
and beauty.
To enter stone, be water.
To rise through hard earth, be plant
desiring sunlight, believing in water.
To enter fire, be dry.
To enter life, be food.

Good – or better than expected

*The Sociology of ReligionGrace Davie

As with all books that are mostly academic – and theoretical – in origin, this wasn’t exactly scintillating reading for the average leisure reader. But Davie presents fascinating viewpoints on secularization theory and counterarguments to what was once perhaps an accepted, inevitable postulation that modernization would lead to a decline in the prevalence of religion.

Most interesting as an angle on this question is Davie’s discussion on “vicarious religion” and the separation of belief from belonging:

Both constituencies, however, might gain from the concept of vicarious religion and the innovative sources of data that can be used to deploy this concept in sociological enquiry. By vicarious, I mean the notion of religion performed by an active minority but on behalf of a much larger number, who implicitly at least not only understand but quite clearly approve of what the minority is doing. That is the crucial point. In terms of my own thinking, the notion of vicarious religion marks a step forward from my earlier distinction between belief and belonging (Davie, 1994).

Most striking is Davie’s assertions about Nordic participation in the church – it’s more belonging than belief that keeps them affiliated. Actual, active participation varies; I’ve reflected on this quite often, particularly when “confirmation” season rolls around each spring. Everyone with appropriately aged children invests significant time and money into giving their child a lavish confirmation – and this important rite of passage is done largely because it’s what’s done and it is crucial to a sense of belonging. But has very little to do with religious faith or active participation in the church.

The separating out of belief from belonging has undoubtedly offered fruitful ways in which to understand and to organize the material about religion in modern Europe. Ongoing reflection about the current situation, however, has encouraged me to reflect more deeply about the relationship between the two, utilizing, amongst other ideas, the notion of vicarious religion. My thinking in this respect has been prompted by the situation in the Nordic countries. A number of Nordic scholars have responded to the notion of believing without belonging by reversing the formula: in this part of Europe the characteristic stance in terms of religion is to belong without believing.5 Such scholars are entirely right in these observations. Nordic populations, for the most part, remain members of their Lutheran churches; they use them extensively for the occasional offices and regard membership as part of national just as much as religious identity (more so than in Britain). More pertinently for the churches themselves, Nordic people continue to pay appreciable amounts of tax to their churches – resulting amongst other things in large numbers of religious professionals (not least musicians) and beautifully maintained buildings in even the tiniest village. The cultural aspects of religion are well cared for. This does not mean, of course, that Nordic populations attend their churches with any frequency, nor do they necessarily believe in the tenets of Lutheranism. Indeed, they appear on every comparative scale to be among the least believing and least practising populations in the world.6 So how should we understand their continuing membership of and support for their churches? How, in other words, is it possible to get beneath the surface of a Nordic, or indeed any other, society in order to investigate the reflexes of a population that for the most part remain hidden? An answer can be found on pp. 128–30. By paying attention to the place of the institutional churches at the time of personal or collective crises, it is possible to see more clearly the role that religious organizations continue to play in the lives of both individuals and communities. Or, to develop the definition of ‘vicarious’ already offered, it is possible to see how an active religious minority can operate on behalf of a much larger number, who implicitly at least not only understand but quite clearly approve of what the minority is doing. Under pressure, what is implicit becomes explicit.

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can DoDaniel T. Willingham

We think of reading as a silent activity—consider a hushed library—but sound in fact lies at its core. Print is mostly a code for sound.

As part of an ongoing project I’m attached to, I do a lot of research into literacy and what will activate, or excite, kids – or people in general – to read more. What are the barriers to reading? I enjoyed this book because it got into the psychology and some of the linguistic questions that surround how we think about reading, and possibly more importantly, how we learn to read. And from there, what fuels further reading?

Willingham writes about a kind of “tripod” on which a reading habit can stand: the three legs of which are the ability to decode easily, to comprehend what is read, and to be motivated to read. Each is a separate and quite different challenge – and without the decoding ability, which must come first, the other legs become useless. Decoding – being able to put together letters to make sounds, then words, then meanings – is fundamental to reading and a bridge to the level of comprehension required to read fluently and to enjoy it. 

Comprehension requires acquiring a broad knowledge about a lot of different things, which of course only comes with experience – and in many cases – more reading. How does one gain this knowledge? This, coupled with the conundrum of needing to grow a vocabulary, can be barriers. The education system isn’t necessarily built around these educational needs. Instead, they are geared toward scoring on a ‘reading comprehension’ test – but this is tricky.

Reading tests purport to measure a student’s ability to read, and “ability to read” sounds like a general skill. Once I know your ability to read, I ought to be able (roughly) to predict your comprehension of any text I hand you. But I’ve just said that reading comprehension depends heavily on how much you happen to know about the topic of the text, because that determines your ability to make up for the information the writer felt free to omit. Perhaps, then, reading comprehension tests are really knowledge tests in disguise.

Willingham brings up a great number of questions about developing a passion for reading and what is required to get there – well worth the time spent.

Coincidences

I can’t say that there are actual coincidences – once again – so maybe I should discard this ‘category’ (strange how we create categories when they make sense but have such trouble breaking free of them when they no longer serve a purpose).

Biggest disappointment (or disliked)

*Face ItDebbie Harry

Musicians’ memoirs don’t do much for me, and Debbie Harry’s is no exception. It’s almost like we’re better off seeing these musical icons from afar without knowing about the things they go through and think about. The ‘mystique’ or mask is ripped away, and they’re just people. Which we know, of course. But the magic of what their music gives us becomes… just that bit less magical once the curtain is pulled back. I adored Blondie from earliest childhood, and somehow reading about them, and specifically Debbie Harry, in this very personal way was interesting but felt like a scab I shouldn’t be picking at. Apart from the entire book going on a bit too long, it didn’t provide anything I felt I needed to know. Some curiosity could stand to be left alone. I’m also irked that Leibovitz was misspelled as Liebowitz.

Said and read – October 2019

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One way to make a convincing poetic voice is to display the mind in motion, or the mind changing direction as it speaks. We like to say “I changed my mind,” but the human mind alters its direction so rapidly and constantly, we might as well say “My mind changed me.” Tony Hoagland, The Art of Voice

For the first time in a long time, I read a real, physical book. I suddenly felt conspicuous reading while flying, holding a book in my hands, about which everyone could make assumptions just by reading the title. Reading while flying. It was a book on Buddhism, so make of that what you will. Unfortunately for me, I was seated by a very strange man who kept sliding his hand down his trousers while drinking at least five glasses of cranberry juice. I am not sure whether he was pleasuring himself or somehow trying to relieve a bladder infection by touch. Either way, it was a relief to escape him as well as to finish the book in the course of one flight.

Like every autumn in recent memory, this one has been filled with travel, and this won’t taper off until late November. I don’t think I have ever wanted to *just stay home* as much as I do right now.

October wasn’t spectacularly productive in the reading department but here’s my very brief report anyway.

Here’s what you missed in the last year-plus: 2019 – September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for October:

I had good intentions for producing a full blog post on my reading in October, but it didn’t quite work as I wished. I have too many other things going on, so I don’t read quite as many books, and even if I read the same amount, I don’t have the time to reflect and write about them in quite the same way. And there were other things, important things, happening. Like spending time in Prague and meeting with dearest A as well as more adventures with my brother, so I can’t really claim that shortchanging a blog no one reads is going to make any difference.

Highly recommended

The idea that writerly originality appears from nowhere, or exists as something in isolation, a thing to be guarded and protected from influence, is lunacy. Anyone who doesn’t school themselves by deep, wide, and idiosyncratic reading is choosing aesthetic poverty. Such aesthetic cloistering is like protecting your virginity in the belief that it will make you better at sex.” –The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and PracticeTony Hoagland

Sadly I didn’t read anything that I thought was so great I’d need to recommend it. Maybe, at a push, I’d say The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice by Tony Hoagland. I am not normally moved by books that aim to “instruct” one on how to write or develop voice, but this was an exception – probably just because Hoagland’s own voice is unique.

Good – or better than expected

*The New Social Face of BuddhismKen Jones

I don’t know what I would impart about this except that it has been the most interesting among the required texts for the current study program.

*Social Movements for Global Democracy (Themes in Global Social Change)Jackie Smith

Nothing particularly new given all my previous disciplines of study, but nevertheless a good reminder of how very different various groups define “globalization” – and what the consequences of those different definitions can be.

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*The IdiotElif Batuman

I found myself remembering the day in kindergarten when the teachers showed us Dumbo, and I realized for the first time that all the kids in the class, even the bullies, rooted for Dumbo, against Dumbo’s tormentors. Invariably they laughed and cheered, both when Dumbo succeeded and when bad things happened to his enemies. But they’re you, I thought to myself. How did they not know? They didn’t know. It was astounding, an astounding truth. Everyone thought they were Dumbo. Again and again I saw the phenomenon repeated. The meanest girls, the ones who started secret clubs to ostracize the poorly dressed, delighted to see Cinderella triumph over her stepsisters. They rejoiced when the prince kissed her. Evidently, they not only saw themselves as noble and good, but also wanted to love and be loved. Maybe not by anyone and everyone, the way I wanted to be loved. But, for the right person, they were prepared to form a relation based on mutual kindness. This meant that the Disney portrayal of bullies wasn’t accurate, because the Disney bullies realized they were evil, prided themselves on it, and loved nobody.”

I keep thinking I like Batuman but it’s truer to say that I really, really like short passages. She makes keen observations now and then that are lovely.

Katalin, who was seventeen, was beautiful, with waist-length flaxen hair and a perfectly plain face. Why was “plain” a euphemism for “ugly,” when the very hallmark of human beauty was its plainness, the symmetry and simplicity that always seemed so young and so innocent. It was impossible not to think that her beauty was one of the most important things about her—something having to do with who she really was.

But then the rest of it reads like someone’s college diary. And everything I’ve read that she’s written feels like a slightly different version of that very same thing. I related to it to some extent because she’s writing about university in the early 90s, studying Russian/Eastern European stuff and the infancy of email, when we were assigned email addresses by our universities but didn’t really understand how the magic happened when these mysterious digital messages just appeared.

Coincidences

I don’t think I ran into anything exceptionally coincidental in my reading except for the fact that there was a long passage in The New Social Face of Buddhism in which the infamous Milgram and Zimbardo psychological experiments are cited (as they always are when examining ethical missteps). It’s tangentially coincidental because I never remember the name “Milgram” and Mr Firewall, who has never studied psychology, but did see a thinly veiled takeoff on the Milgram story in an old episode of Law & Order: SVU (with the late Robin Williams as guest star), always remembers the name now.

Also, it being a book about Buddhism, there is a whole lot of stuff about mindfulness, which is something that comes up constantly and which Firewall hates.

I was therefore able to tell him that even in this book on Buddhism there were things for him in it.

Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)

I don’t think I read anything I hated or felt great disappointment about.

Said and read – September 2019

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“Every society has some group of people—somewhere between a minuscule amount and half the adults—that read a lot in their leisure time,” says Wendy Griswold, a sociologist at Northwestern University who studies reading. Griswold refers to this group as “the reading class,” The Atlantic

In further news of technology really changing things, I sat down with my Kindle a few weeks ago to read Robert Coles’s The Call of Service – a school book. I made some progress and set it aside. A few days later, when the time came to write an assignment with the aid of the book, I went back to the Kindle and started reading again and wondered how and when the tone had shifted so dramatically. Suddenly, it had moved from people in the segregated south who were compelled, at their own peril, to act against segregation to… a man pondering whether he was still attracted to his flirtatious wife. I kept reading… for 30 minutes wondering when Coles was going to return to the core themes of the text. I might not have persevered as long as I did except that one of my classmates had posed a question in response to one of my papers about whether Coles gave enough attention to gender differences and women in his book. I thought maybe these passages about the attractive, flirtatious, non-compliant wife were what he was referring to.

And then, never reaching a return to the theme of service, I clicked out of the book to discover that I was somehow reading The Winds of War instead. I am not sure how that book got opened on the Kindle and the Coles book closed… but clearly I was reading the wrong book.

Once upon a time, such a mishap would not have been possible, but these are the modern times we live in and the strange form factor with which many of us do the bulk of our reading.

Clearly I’m back, writing again about my reading exploits, but in truth, I am busier than ever and don’t quite have the time to dedicate to the format I had been using in writing about reading. For now I will simply share some impressions and titles and see where it takes me.

Here’s what you missed in the last year-plus: 2019 – May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for September:

I knew I would begin reading a whole lot more this morning, and I did make my way through some lovely books of poetry and a few school texts. But finding the time to comb through my thoughts and observations… not quite as easy. I will take this up, hopefully, in more depth in October.

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.