said and read

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My goal, as stated, was to read 26 non-English-language books in 2018. I am on track, but I didn’t really intend to keep reading other books like a total fiend.  I suppose it’s like when you avoid something over which you have no self-control. (My grandmother might have called this lamentable lack of discipline ‘a potato-chip effect’. She could entirely avoid potato chips, but if she ate just one, she was not able to stop. Then again, my grandmother would also have found this kind of obsessive reading to be intoxicating and its own form of discipline, so I doubt she would have faulted me for it. Books are not, after all, potato chips.)

For nearly a decade I didn’t read much of anything. But crack open a book (or a screen in the case of an e-reader), and I’m done. You can’t pry me away from it. That’s not to say I don’t do anything else. It’s just that I never go anywhere without the Kindle. Every spare moment waiting or riding a train or plane or lying in bed trying to fall asleep is occupied with reading.

To achieve my actual goal I need to read two non-English-language books per month, and I am well into the second of the two. But I guess there must be about 18 other (English-language) books on the go at the same time. I really didn’t anticipate this.

And my one unequivocal recommendation is Masha Gessen’s The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. Sure, you kind of have to be interested in Russia, Russian history and non-fiction for this to appeal to you (although she has used several people’s journeys as ways into the story, making it feel more visceral and urgent than a lot of fiction). Several other books have been noteworthy: Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age (Bohumil Hrabal)… because it’s Hrabal. There’s no way to explain why it’s good or worth your time (and it might not be if this style doesn’t appeal to you); The Best We Could Do (Thi Bui), which is not my normal style. I don’t care for graphic/illustrated novels (this is more an autobio than a novel), but this was a moving exception. If you have interest in Vietnam, the refugees who left Vietnam after the long conflict and the way these people adapted in their new surroundings and how their children then adapted, this is a fresh and deeply humanizing take on a familiar story (familiar, perhaps, in a firsthand way to Vietnamese and American people at least).

So far I have not read anything I considered truly bad, but there were a few repetitive time wasters (e.g. a handful of books by comedian Frankie Boyle – not time-wasting per se… more just semi-lazy rehashing of his comedy material mixed with some semi-thoughtful left-wing opinions, and the inane autobio of Lauren Graham, whom I dislike anyway, so I can’t explain why I read it. It may just be an extension of my “hate watching” of certain TV shows, notably and related in this case, Gilmore Girls and Parenthood). It could be that I read these because they were readily available as e-books from the library. Yeah, sometimes this potent mix of lukewarm curiosity and convenience/availability will do it. Not just when it comes to books.

in the hundreds

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When 2017 began I set out to read 26 books. I thought this was ambitious because I had essentially abandoned reading for most of the previous ten years. It must have been sometime in the spring, after topping well over 100 books, that I realized I would certainly read a record number of books (record for me, that is). I didn’t consciously set out until later in the year to finish 365 books but crossed that threshold in early-mid December, meaning that I did in the end get to read somewhere between 393 and 400 books (Goodreads, which I used to keep track of the reading, was a bit fidgety and unreliable in recording dates).

I’m a bit stunned by having read so much – feeling some of the material branded on my brain permanently, fresh in my mind since early in the year, while some things were almost forgettable. But it was, as I told a former colleague, enriching. It might not be the greatest accomplishment of the year, and it is certainly the quietest, but it gave each day a new meaning, a fresh story, a new palette on which language was painted in wholly different ways, and of course made, as Firewall likes to say, every day into a school day. In a good way, of course.

I was asked to select my favorite from among these books, but this is impossible. I read from such a wide breadth of topics and disciplines, from literary and scientific materials from around the world, that it could not even be done to say that one single book stood above the others. But among those that I loved, those that I didn’t want to end, those that I learned the most from, those that confounded or stayed with me the longest – making me turn my thoughts to them again and again – here is the rough list in no particular order:

*Advice for a Young Investigator – Santiago Ramón y Cajal

*The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell
Was not sure I would include this because I had mixed feelings, although by the end I was convinced/moved.

*The Master Butchers Singing Club – Louise Erdrich
Another one I was not sure I would include. I read most of Erdrich’s books this year and most were middle of the road, but this one stood out for some reason.

*The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon
I read a bunch of Chabon and just like his style (even though it can be quite different in all his writing) and could recommend anything he has written, but this was somehow… the one I liked most.

*Time and Materials – Robert Hass
Poetry, which is not for everyone. This was superlative

*Edwin Morgan: Collected Poems – Edwin Morgan
More poetry; discovered Glaswegian Edwin Morgan this year and loved

*Reality is Not What It Seems: The Elusive Structure of the Universe and the Journey to Quantum Gravity – Carlo Rovelli

*Seven Brief Lessons on Physics – Carlo Rovelli

*Go, Went, Gone – Jenny Erpenbeck
Possibly overlooked by many; reminds me slightly of the film The Visitor. Deals with refugee crisis/asylum seekers in Germany with some interesting looks back at how things changed when Germany reunified

*Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
An old one I should have read ages ago but only got around to now. Enjoyed the hilarious absurdity

*The Noonday Demon – Andrew Solomon
A long book on depression – not sure why I started reading it but it was engrossing

*Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins – Peter S Ungar
Part of my obsession with teeth this year

*Angle of Repose – Wallace Stegner
A surprising and moving book

*If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler – Italo Calvino
A strange one – but the complexity of Calvino’s style makes me want to read everything he writes (he is listed again later/below)

*Broken April – Ismail Kadare
Albanian book that deals with the Kanun/blood feuds, etc.

*Secondhand Time: An Oral history of the Fall of the Soviet Union – Svetlana Alexievich

*The Solitude of Prime Numbers – Paolo Giordano
Surprising – not sure why this book (fiction, Italian) stuck with me – perhaps the descriptions of how people fool others and themselves living a version of themselves that cannot possibly be true

*Pretty much anything by Naomi Klein, of which I read all – very timely and important

*A General Theory of Oblivion – Jose Eduardo Agualusa
An unusual one from Angola

*Tram 83 – Fiston Mwanza Mujila
An interesting one from Congo

*The Sellout – Paul Beatty
Probably one of my very favorite ones this year

*A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara
Engrossing – just when you think things cannot get worse or more heartbreaking, they do. As my colleague put it “emotional porn” – a form of blackmail

*The Revolution of Everyday Life – Raoul Vaneigem
Abstract-ish philosophy but somehow resonated when I read it

*All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
Fiction

*Before the Fall – Noah Hawley
Fiction from the guy who brought us the TV version of Fargo

*The Emperor of All Maladies – Siddhartha Mukherjee
A book on cancer – not uplifting but fascinating

*Karaoke Culture – Dubravka Ugresic
Because I pretty much love all of Ugresic’s observational essay work

*Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America – Mary Otto
More teeth!

*Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino
More Calvino, whom I have quoted to death this year

*Pretty much any poetry book of works by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer

*The Book of Disquiet – Fernando Pessoa
This is one that kept me thinking all year long and to which I will return repeatedly

*A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America – Bruce Cannon Gibney
Brewing the Baby Boomer hate…

*The Sympathizer – Viet Thanh Nguyen
Another of my favorite works of fiction this year

2018…

My goal, again, is to read 26 books. The trick this time, though, is that none of them can be in English. I can read books in English, but they won’t count toward the goal.

Free for a storytelling spree

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Another one of those aimless, sprawling collections of thoughts, quotations, snippets floating freely in my brain … all on the vast topic of writing and reading. Thinking about how ideas come to fruition and lead to a story or a storytelling spree of some kind. I know I am doing little more than collecting a bunch of random quotations and thoughts – not doing anything particularly creative myself, and certainly not weaving together a story. But I am, as I write about below, creating new links and networks in my brain… which I guess is part of my process (also noted below).

The ability to tell your own story, in words or images, is already a victory, already a revolt.” Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

“In the place of the ever-changing cloud that we carried in our heads until the other day, the condensing and dispersal of which we attempted to understand by describing impalpable psychological states and shadowy landscapes of the soul—in the place of all this we now feel the rapid passage of signals on the intricate circuits that connect the relays, the diodes, the transistors with which our skulls are crammed. Just as no chess player will ever live long enough to exhaust all the combinations of possible moves for the thirty-two pieces on the chessboard, so we know (given the fact that our minds are chessboards with hundreds of billions of pieces) that not even in a lifetime lasting as long as the universe would one ever manage to make all possible plays.” –The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino

To write is to embrace a certain freedom and break free from constraints you did not even know were there. Sometimes to write is to buckle down and find your way. Free to write our stories, or some story, we have to find the way to do it – and seize the freedom that allows us to… even if, as Calvino cautions, we shall never live long enough to make ‘all possible plays’.

This can be a considerable enterprise, depending on how you experience writing, the process of writing and creativity. And the how you do it does not even begin to touch the why.

The write way

For some, writing is like giving difficult birth, laborious, long and painful. Or like a marathon, tapping into the reserves of the entire being while also still being a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other exercise.

“Writing novels, to me, is basically a kind of manual labor. Writing itself is mental labor, but finishing an entire book is closer to manual labor. It doesn’t involve heavy lifting, running fast, or leaping high. Most people, though, only see the surface reality of writing and think of writers as involved in quiet, intellectual work done in their study. If you have the strength to lift a coffee cup, they figure, you can write a novel. But once you try your hand at it, you soon find that it isn’t as peaceful a job as it seems. The whole process—sitting at your desk, focusing your mind like a laser beam, imagining something out of a blank horizon, creating a story, selecting the right words, one by one, keeping the whole flow of the story on track—requires far more energy, over a long period, than most people ever imagine. You might not move your body around, but there’s grueling, dynamic labor going on inside you. Everybody uses their mind when they think. But a writer puts on an outfit called narrative and thinks with his entire being; and for the novelist that process requires putting into play all your physical reserve, often to the point of overexertion.” –What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami

For others, it’s almost dissociative, but still subject to much self-doubt and criticism as well as somewhat cynical self-reflection.

“…there is always a point in the writing of a piece when I sit in a room literally papered with false starts and cannot put one word after another and imagine that I have suffered a small stroke, leaving me apparently undamaged but actually aphasic.” –Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion

“My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.” –Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion

For others, it’s casual and easy. (I tend to fall into this category but only because most of what I write is not ‘personal’ and I am not personally invested in it.)

No matter what the process is like, or what the results, it’s still a process. Entirely unique to the storyteller. This is true whether the story is a work of fiction that many will read or a technical manual that only a handful will read. Being able to delve into and engage in this process is a kind of privilege, necessarily implying that the abilities and time exist to produce – something.

The process

When I think of the “process” I think of two different things. One is the literal process of sitting down and being surrounded by certain comforts or habits, which many writers discuss. I suppose mine is closest to that offered by Gary Shteyngart: “I write in bed next to a coffee machine.” There are so many other well-thought-out and explained processes (or non-processes), when for some, it’s literally, in the end, just rolling over, grabbing the computer and putting the coffee machine to work. (Admittedly I don’t have a coffee machine next to my bed, but I make cafetiere after cafetiere and bring them with me to the bedside table where I think, read, work and write most of the time.) Each person has his or her routine, largely, I assume, governed by the impulses that inspire or force one to write and by the aforementioned way a writer experiences writing (hard work, escape, etc.).

The second part of the “process” relates to everything that leads up actual creation and development. How do ideas form – how do they grow from embryonic seeds into a multicellular life?

The eyes and ears have it

“There are days when everything I see seems to me charged with meaning: messages it would be difficult for me to communicate to others, define, translate into words, but which for this very reason appear to me decisive.” –If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino

This stage can start out in the vaguest of ways. For example, I see something or hear something and jot it down, whether it’s the URL on the side of a van: eloped.se (which I figured would not be about eloping but about an electric moped), or a much fuller vignette. In the case of the URL, it is not that I will write about the URL, the van, or even the misunderstanding/difference in the language but only the fact that some piece of cognitive dissonance jolted me out of the moment, stuck in traffic, to think about other connections and linguistic associations. It’s about keeping the brain working and linking seemingly disconnected concepts together.

The ‘sprout’ of a fuller idea might be planted by a conversation. For example, when someone told me that he ended up with a copy of Pink Floyd‘s Dark Side of the Moon album in every breakup he ever had, without ever having had the album himself in the first place. Now the proud owner of six copies, all of which were relics of relationships gone by, existing on media ranging from vinyl to cassette to CD, representative of the eras of which they – and the failed relationships – were a part. Perhaps a flimsy premise for anything, but certainly a human anecdote to fill in the flesh of a skeletal character.

The read way

Every writer is a reader first.”

The other part of this ‘germinating ideas’ is preparation, however unconscious. It’s sparking the brain constantly to think in different ways, walking down new paths. This is largely done with (excessive) reading. It doesn’t matter if you remember everything you read: “Books also change, via our mental models, the very reality that we perceive.

And this is the whole point. Changing the perception of the world around you, the people around you, taking on understandings you did not have before… and applying this newfound understanding to your own creativity – freely.

Reading is a form of forgetting – and remembering:

“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” -“When we read a book for the first time”, Vladimir Nabokov

It is a process, according to Nabokov: you may know how to read, but are you a careful reader – have you read and reread and viewed it through the aforementioned microscope? Have you asked the right questions of it? In this way, the reading and examining process, too, is like writing. And it’s through this other level of understanding, of seeing the written word presented in many unexpected and unusual ways, defying expectation, that the freedom of creativity is cultivated.

The freedom of creativity

“No one, no matter how alienated, is without (or unaware of) an irreducible core of creativity, a camera obscura safe from intrusion by lies and constraints.”The Revolution of Everyday Life, Raoul Vaneigem

Regardless of what hard work it can be, the ability to create at all confers a form of freedom.

That is, when I reach a stage in my mind when I am ready to finally throw my hands up in the air at the powerlessness of having to tow the line, speak the party line full of marketing gobbledygook and corporate branding BS, of feeling rendered inert by the anodyne ‘voice’ of large corporations – either silencing me from within (restraint at being able to only say so much) or outside (as academics and journalists experience when entities like Google have outsized influence on what they can publish. Don’t be evil, my ass),  I am asking ‘what for’? To go on, continuing down this path of non-creativity forever until self-respect shrivels up and dies a merciful but none-too-early death? No. This is not what I was made for. I was, like many others, made to tell stories. I was not made to censor. I was made to create characters. I was not made to sit silently in offices and nod while someone describes another ‘campaign’ that will lead nowhere.

“Is there a limit to the imagination of a writer who takes real facts and uses them to construct a world where truth and fiction coexist? What right does one have to play around with collective memory? Is there any credibility in getting these sometimes-disparate characters in tune? The starting point for all these characters was the thirst in them.” –Tram 83, Fiston Mwanza Mujila

Yes, I live in the real world, and for now, my creativity has to be partly channeled into this environment. And sometimes, strangely enough, reaching this stage of frustration, as described, opens the door to new clarity, a new approach to communicating in different terms, circumventing the “rules” imposed in these narrow frameworks. And isn’t that what true creativity is? Being able to find a completely fresh way to describe or communicate about something?

I’m producing too many stories at once because what I want is for you to feel, around the story, a saturation of other stories that I could tell and maybe will tell or who knows may already have told on some other occasion, a space full of stories that perhaps is simply my lifetime, where you can move in all directions, as in space, always finding stories that cannot be told until other stories are told first, and so, setting out from any moment or place, you encounter always the same density of material to be told.” –If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino

Reading

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“There are many sages, but on the other hand, not one stupid tree.

After writing the most difficult thing is reading.” -from “The Short Year”, Paavo Haavikko

“History is written by the victors. Traditions are woven by the people. Writers fantasize. Only death is certain.” –The Encyclopedia of the Dead, Danilo Kiš

“A knowledge of different literatures is the best way to free one’s self from the tyranny of any of them.” -from On Oscar Wilde, José Martí

…I often claim not to understand addiction (and it’s a subject, much like – inexplicably – teeth – that I am abnormally interested in), but extreme behavior, even of the sort that is not self-destructive, is a kind of addiction. This year, my extreme has found its niche in reading. As I’ve written about numerous times, I dropped reading for many years. When I did not want to think or feel, or manage the fatigue that comes from either, I pushed my passion for reading into dormancy, letting other obsessions take hold (incessant television droning around me, baking industrial amounts of cakes and cookies, working to the point of excessive exhaustion). It’s odd that one can just ignore a passion, pushing it aside as though it were never there, as though it were never something that clutched at the heart and pushed at the back to make one continue to indulge. But it can happen.

As 2016 was coming to a close, many things converged – feeling the new, if deceptive, bloom of love, the influence of accidents, injuries, near or sudden death, the letting go of the grip of all-consuming grief – that made me feel less afraid of feeling again. (Perhaps counterintuitively, it took a handful of new ‘bad’ things to sweep away the persistent influence of old ‘bad’ things, as if the new and old could balance each other out.)

“Sometimes it takes a book to jolt you out of where you are. It doesn’t have to be a great book. Just the right book at the right moment, one that opens something up or exposes you to something new or somehow forces you to reexamine your life.” –My Life with Bob, Pamela Paul

And so the books re-opened. And none too soon. Reading does, after all, inform how we see and interpret the world we live in – seeing the patterns repeat, and new patterns form, we can almost feel hope even in the darkest of circumstances. It feels, in fact, as though the literature of the world chronicles the darkness in order to shine a light, however dim. It sounds glib – I don’t much feel like delving more deeply into it than that. But it’s powerful and moving to the degree that I can see every single day why I stopped reading for such a long time (even if I kick myself in regret over all that wasted, lost time). Looking at the world in late 2016, it would be easy to fall into a sense of complete despair: only literature, recounting past tragedies and triumphs, seems to keep despair at bay and illustrate the way toward sanity.

We live in times when, for example, we can see reflections of the kinds of mania and near-repression Azar Nafisi describes in Reading Lolita in Tehran:

“We lived in a culture that denied any merit to literary works, considering them important only when they were handmaidens to something seemingly more urgent—namely ideology.”

We live in times in which we should feel protective of books and the freedom of consuming information and diverse viewpoints, stories and narratives. We cannot take for granted the availability of this abundance:

“You can’t guarantee things like that! After all, when we had all the books we needed, we still insisted on finding the highest cliff to jump off.” –Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

After all, these riches could be taken from us, lost to our own indifference, confidence in broken systems or traditions and lack of care.

“This is the paradox of the power of literature: it seems that only when it is persecuted does it show its true powers, challenging authority, whereas in our permissive society it feels that it is being used merely to create the occasional pleasing contrast to the general ballooning of verbiage. (And yet, should we be so mad as to complain about it?” –The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino

“Literature is one of a society’s instruments of self-awareness—certainly not the only one, but nonetheless an essential instrument, because its origins are connected with the origins of various types of knowledge, various codes, various forms of critical thought.” –The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino

And yet books are often the only way most of us will experience so much of the world and the only way we can experience history:

“Most of us can’t rush around, talk to everyone, know all the cities of the world, we haven’t time, money or that many friends. The things you’re looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine percent of them is in a book.”-Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

Even if we had endless disposable means and could travel to every place in the entire world, we cannot experience life through the eyes of someone else. The way a writer has perceived, lived and described something is necessarily, forcefully, different from our own experience, even if at the same time as being eye-opening, the experiences s/he describes is relatable to us as individuals in some way. I cannot feel the same outrage as someone experiencing the injustice of another time in history any more than I can feel the same outrage as someone experiencing an injustice that is not perpetrated on me today. As a human I can feel it, feel some form of associated pain, hurt, confusion and anger, but I am not a black man in America; I am not a Jew in 1940 in Europe (or any time); I am not a woman of color or even a woman who lives in most of the places of the world where being a woman is perilous (sure, it’s kind of perilous everywhere, but least of all in Scandinavia); I am not a Native American or First Nations person; I am not yet elderly; I do not have any debilitating handicaps… you get the picture.

Whether visible or not, there are so many ways of being in the world that I cannot – you cannot – no one but the individual can – understand from the inside. No matter how sensitive or tuned in or intellectually astute we are, we cannot experience anything beyond the projection of empathy.

And even empathy seems in short supply. Almost everything I read is an evidentiary chronicle of all the ways in which we are terrible to each other and ourselves. Whether it’s the grinding poverty that kills, mass discrimination, hidden prejudice, self-abuse… it’s brutal to be human.

To read offers the beauty of the big picture, to know all the details as they unfold, to reflect on from a distance. And yet reading offers the opportunity to dissect, to examine, to analyze – and revisit and do it all again later. Books are a window on the world in a macroscopic, cultural and linguistic way but also microscopically, almost scientifically:

“It was beyond that screen of fickle humors that his gaze wished to arrive: the form of things can be discerned better at a distance.” –Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

“As with many beauties of nature, the enchantment of human works can only be retained when viewed from a distance. Analysis is the microscope that brings objects close to us and reveals the coarse weave of their tapestry. The illusion dissolves when the artificial nature of the embroidery and presence of design flaws become apparent to the eyes.” –Advice for a Young Investigator, Santiago Ramón y Cajal

“This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more ‘literary’ you are. That’s my definition, anyway. Telling detail. Fresh detail. The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies. “So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life.” –Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

Reading can be a form of resistance. It can also be a form of acceptance.

Reading is a form of forgetting – and remembering:

“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” -from “When we read a book for the first time”, Vladimir Nabokov

It is a process, according to Nabokov: you may know how to read, but are you a careful reader – have you read and reread and viewed it through the aforementioned microscope? Have you asked the right questions of it?

Italo Calvino posits something similar – less about the rigors of reading and rereading and more about the need to read backed by age and experience:

“In fact, reading in youth can be rather unfruitful, due to impatience, distraction, inexperience with the product’s “instructions for use,” and inexperience in life itself. Books read then can be (possibly at one and the same time) formative, in the sense that they give a form to future experiences, providing models, terms of comparison, schemes for classification, scales of value, exemplars of beauty—all things that continue to operate even if a book read in one’s youth is almost or totally forgotten. If we reread the book at a mature age, we are likely to rediscover these constants, which by this time are part of our inner mechanisms, but whose origins we have long forgotten.” –The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino

Informed, careful reading is rarely done in a vacuum – brought to bear is the human experience, emotion and individual history and perspective. Also, there is the triangle Calvino describes, and which other disciplines, particularly the sciences, confirm/highlight.

“What I have described in terms of a twin-bed marriage must be seen as a ménage à trois: philosophy, literature, and science. Science is faced with problems not too dissimilar from those of literature. It makes patterns of the world that are immediately called in question, it swings between the inductive and the deductive methods, and it must always be on its guard lest it mistake its own linguistic conventions for objective laws. We will not have a culture equal to the challenge until we compare against one another the basic problematics of science, philosophy, and literature, in order to call them all into question.” –The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino

Scientific investigation, too, is its own form of storytelling, which relies on finding data and then interpreting it, which is not always well understood.

“The confusion between these two diverse human activities — inventing stories and following traces in order to find something — is the origin of the incomprehension and distrust of science shown by a significant part of our contemporary culture.”  “The border is porous. Myths nourish science, and science nourishes myth. But the value of knowledge remains.” -from Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Rovelli

These disorganized ramblings do not begin to cover everything. In fact, they cover nothing. They touch microscopically on the everything that is reading. The everything that has taken up residence and occupied my every waking moment this year. It can no more be contained in the confines of a blog post than a series of evocative or mind-altering sentences can truly be contained within just one book. Just ramblings, random thoughts, on my revived and enthusiastic appreciation of reading.

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

Angle of Repose

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“You yearned backward a good part of your life, and that produced another sort of Doppler Effect. Even while you paid attention to what you must do today and tomorrow, you heard the receding sound of what you had relinquished.”

“Routine work, that best of all anodynes which the twentieth century has tried its best to deprive itself of—that is what I most want.”

Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner

I have no idea why I started reading Angle of Repose, but I am not sure that any book I’ve read recently captured so perfectly that sense of wishing I could breathe life into my own late grandparents’ stories (or the stories of anyone who has left this life)… longing to bring all the details I never thought to ask to life again, to recreate their individual histories and the story they built together. To have, or at least imagine, all the answers to questions I never thought to ask. This history lost to time, as it is in all families. I was quite unexpectedly moved by this quite long book.

“My grandparents had to live their way out of one world and into another, or into several others, making new out of old the way corals live their reef upward. I am on my grandparents’ side. I believe in Time, as they did, and in the life chronological rather than in the life existential. We live in time and through it, we build our huts in its ruins, or used to, and we cannot afford all these abandonings.”

Perhaps the best of books do this to us – we don’t know what to expect going in, and we are constantly surprised, even when what we are confronted with is quite simple, but beautiful. Angle of Repose is certainly both, the richly historical fiction of the American West coupled with two rather tragic but unsentimental stories (one from the past, one in the present, which was, at the time of the book’s publication, the early 1970s.

slowpoke

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I, ever the nagging tooth infection, am abnormally obsessed with teeth.

Not in quite the same way as my old friend, Mike, who became obsessed with his own tooth care so as not to leave behind a toothless skeleton.

Also not in the way that most Americans obsess about the cosmetics and perfection of their teeth and smile. But in an all-encompassing way. Months ago, I stumbled on a book, Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America by Mary Otto, which actually made me cry, and also, more importantly of course, chronicled the American love affair with cosmetic dentistry (and its accompanying expense) and the relation between tooth care, oral health and poverty. But this was not enough. But I was not sure how to drill down (ha – I know – not funny) further.

Last week I read some books on teeth, Teeth: A Very Short Introduction and Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins – both by Peter S Ungar – that delve into evolutionary theory and how teeth have developed – in humans and other species. As I read, particularly as one book went into detail about the types of teeth in other species, I wondered to myself, “What am I doing? Why am I reading this?” Yes, I was fascinated – riveted even – but it still seemed so far off course from what I would normally read or be interested in. I thought for a moment that it might just be deep-rooted (ha – again, not funny) respect for the level of obsessive detail scholars (in any field) bring to their work. I would not have the patience or depth of interest in any field to carry out the kind of painstaking attention and focus that these researchers in archaeology, paleontology, biology, anthropology (and various other sciences) dedicated to their ongoing work.

But it was certainly more than that because I don’t read multiple books on other topics just because I admire the compulsive need of the scientist to chronicle his/her work and hit upon discoveries no one has made before (or broaden, deepen, confirm, refute or upend the existing scholarship). No, it’s just a weird fascination with teeth. In Ungar’s Teeth, as I happily read along in delight, this was confirmed in a long passage about the teeth of snails, slugs and other molluscs, confirming my answers to this internal self-questioning.

Then there are the mollusks. Tens of thousands of species, from slug to snail to squid, have ‘teeth’. These form in rows on ribbons of chitin in the mouth called radulae. Many mollusks use these structures as a comb to rake up microorganisms, or as a rasp to scrape food from rock or shell. Radulae typically move back and forth like a handsaw. While radular ‘teeth’ tend to be small and recurved, shapes and sizes can vary with species and function in feeding. They can even vary within individuals. In fact, a change in diet can trigger a change in shape for new ‘teeth’ formed to replace old, worn ones. Also, some radulae are extremely specialized. Whelks, for example, commonly have three long, sabre-like ‘teeth’ in each row. These are used to drill through barnacle and clam shells with the help of secretions that break down calcium carbonate. And cone snails have radulae modified into hypodermic needles to inject venom. These have barb at their ends, and can be extended from the mouth like harpoons to attack and paralyse prey.

I had to laugh at my own oddity.

Photo (c) 2017 S Donaghy

Contextual past and eventual becoming

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“I am writing for the person I used to be. Perhaps the person I once left behind persists, standing there, still and grim, in some attic of time – on a bend, on a crossroads – and in some mysterious way she is able to read the lines I am setting out here, without seeing them.” –A General Theory of Oblivion, José Eduardo Agualusa

In If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino hints gently at context, and by envisioning parallel, fictional realities, we may be ripping some gem from its intended context and stuffing it into another to serve another purpose, to enhance another context. These are not even close to his words, and in fact, in my own paraphrasing I have moved his original words (in translation no less) quite far from their origin and intended context to justify my own. It is the intent, perhaps, that a reader should interpret and ‘steal’ concepts (I know that in one of the multitudes of books I have read this week, there was a passage somewhere about stealing and refashioning good ideas – but I don’t know if I saved the quote. A shame).

But this is my pattern. I read aggressively, voraciously, feverishly highlighting meaningful passages (stopping briefly to wonder if I might highlight different passages and quotes if I were in another frame of mind, or context). And later I find some application – or context – for those passages that meant most to me in some way.

Behavior eventually shows its hand and establishes a pattern if you wait long enough. I can change these patterns to change behaviors, but the underlying drive comes out the same. I shifted from television addiction to a reading addiction, which I would argue is the better of the two addictions. But both are addictive and almost compulsive behaviors. To compensate, I seek and find some balance, and my constant underlying drive is not just the search for balance but the search for change. And for me, change is always about the future and ensuring some otherness or difference from the now and the past. It is not about dragging vestiges of the past with me into new scenery; it is likewise not about erasing that past or its experience. It does not mean cast off the you who was, but does mean give careful consideration to the you who will be.

“This is what I mean when I say I would like to swim against the stream of time: I would like to erase the consequences of certain events and restore an initial condition. But every moment of my life brings with it an accumulation of new facts, and each of these new facts brings with it its consequences; so the more I seek to return to the zero moment from which I set out, the further I move away from it: though all my actions are bent on erasing the consequences of previous actions and though I manage to achieve appreciable results in this erasure, enough to open my heart to hopes of immediate relief, I must, however, bear in mind that my every move to erase previous events provokes a rain of new events, which complicate the situation worse than before and which I will then, in their turn, have to try to erase. Therefore I must calculate carefully every move so as to achieve the maximum of erasure with the minimum of recomplication.” If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino

While many recognize and complain about their patterns, they do nothing to alter them. Change, after all, is what we most avoid. Because of this aversion to change, at least some kinds of change, the complaints are idle and the angst projected about them contrived. But we all have our blind spots, especially when it comes to other, unpredictable, people.

“…but at that moment it was as if an undigested bit of the past had come back up his throat.” –The Solitude of Prime Numbers, Paolo Giordano

Yes, people. Unpredictable people who jump around in the timeline of our lives. Almost dead within our archives, yet somehow we live on, almost as living, breathing people in the daily existences, of which we are (almost) no longer a part. I can control my books or tv viewing or the lengths of walks in the rain (though I cannot yet control the rain). I can control how much I sleep and how deeply involved I become in my mad dreams (how I love these). But people… and how much the past wears on and continues to affect (and infect) people.

Someone told me recently that “the past is a foreign country”, which sounds, not unlike my allusions and references to Calvino, like something lifted from a literary source (with which I am not familiar). This is poetic, but Calvino himself manages to describe the pernicious nature of the past with a far more apt simile:

“The past is like a tapeworm, constantly growing, which I carry curled up inside me”.

The past, and the people who populate it, has a voracious appetite and will eat away at one from the inside, if one lets it.

The interesting part is that the phantoms, those living in the past as though it were yesterday: they are often the most honest ones. Maybe not about how the past was (they can in fact be quite blind and/or deluded), but they aren’t hiding their intentions or papering over their defects. And the people laboring along in the firm belief that they are living in the present and looking toward the future? The veneer of calm does not hide the high-strung individual underneath, paddling away from reminders of the past like poor swimmers with no instinct for floating – there is no actual serenity in those who so desperately seek it. Maybe, like Daniel Hall writes in “Love Letter Burning”: “The past will shed some light/but never keep us warm”.

“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.”Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion