When I first went about revitalizing my intellectual life—the life of my mind—I set a modest target of reading five books a month. With two young children, the responsibilities of homeschooling and planning all of their lessons (a full day’s work, plus some), taking care of my health and training to do a half marathon well (in addition to other races), a fairly busy social and extra-curricular calendar for my kiddos, and running the household, I figured I would be working my tail off to read five books at the most. It would be a far cry from the luxury of five books a week plus course reader material that I savored in college, but it would be a start.

I looked for extra time anywhere I could, mainly reducing Internet time since I don’t usually watch any TV to cut…and getting up a little extra earlier in the mornings. In the interest of full disclosure, though, the kiddos and I have started streaming Once Upon a Time episodes now and then. I normally don’t invest my time in serials, but this began one weekend when all four of us had a cold—and now we’re hooked. Although the “hooking” factor is something I don’t like about television, we’re making this series work for us with respect to some of our genre studies in English, and Katie has already had to write an essay on the main theme of the program: “Magic always comes with a price.” We chuckle over how much the characters say this, and she had to extract examples. It has been a fun watching experience in the early evening while making Katie’s Halloween costume, and it has reminded me that television can sometimes be a convenient way to share a sort of visual literary experience.

1503945_10101340706839543_8538495317978779177_n

Katie’s swan costume for Halloween this year: many hours went into the skirt, which, along with sequins, has a few real swan feathers on it collected in the Newport Beach bay from two real swans, who were the inspiration for this costume last August. I am always going to remember those cozy October evenings working on it while watching Once Upon a Time with Katie and Eric, our orange twinkle lights glowing around the couch. It’s not that I am fully against television as an aesthetic form; I just think the key is to subject television to the same rigorous time management strategies that I use elsewhere in my life and to use what we watch as a way to have conversations of value. I know from experience that television can be a trap in which I fritter away time, and time is extremely precious to me right now. I did not watch television for four years in college (except if I happened to be in a setting in which there was one), and I didn’t miss it; I find myself in a similar period right at the moment. I have to choose how to allocate my time; if I had infinite time to spend, there are many programs that sound intriguing right now!

10428695_10101340706929363_9070364231367825715_n

Peter Pan and Swan

The funny part is, even though this month has been far busier than the last two combined, I am finding myself now in the mental swing of reading again. Some of my speed is returning in full force, as is the voracious desire to consume. I probably stayed up a bit too late and got up a bit too early this month, but I try to do as much reading and exercising when the kiddos are asleep as possible. There are occasions when I cut into their time but hopefully not many. I live quite a bit of life in the darkness, either exercising or with my books; nighttime always was my favorite and most passionate time of day. There are other times to sneak in reading here or there, but most of it is done on my own time.

I was able to read ten (!!!) texts this month, though a couple are novella length and one is a short story. I chose from a range of genres and disciplines, and again, found surprises in the connections all ten texts seem to make with one another.

1. Anti-Intellectualism and the Education of High Ability Learners (Thomas S. Hays, 2010, nonfiction, education, history)

“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” (Isaac Asimov) 

“By the time the average American turns 65, he or she will have spent 9 years watching television.” (Thomas Hays)

In this nonfiction text, Hays compiles more than generates: he looks to several other studies and synthesizes their results in a sort of historical treatment of the rise of American anti-intellectualism. His basic thesis is that we are in a period of celebrating folkish wisdom over literacy and that we are part of a culture that tends to view formal learning as worthless unless it leads directly to material gain. He argues that our culture promotes academic underachievement in this generation of learners and proposes several reforms to education. The best reform he proposes, in my opinion, is a return to the art of hard work: “…part of being smart is working hard.” He suggests ways in which to change school culture so that we value hard work in students and peers, without viewing it as a threat. He condemns the rise of punditry, the promotion of celebrity culture, and the “enthusiasm for entertainment of distraction,” and he calls for the glorification of the nerd. A “nerd,” he explains, is one who is “passionate about some technically sophisticated activity that does not revolve around emotion, confrontation, sex, food, or beauty.”

In short: he doesn’t say anything with which we nerds don’t already have firsthand experience. 🙂

The most compelling part of his treatment was a too-short analysis of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Irving, and always apropos at this time of year), in which he argues that this old American text prefigured the current nerd vs. jock stereotype and showed the early American disdain for the pedagogue. I found myself eager to start my own analysis of Irving’s short story with some of these assertions in mind.

I am not sure this book is totally worth a read, though, if one has limited time. Much of it seems to be preaching to the choir, and we all know how laborious a process it is to change a whole culture. Intellectualism and the celebration of learning/knowledge has to begin at home, anyway. However, he is correct that we need to take steps as a voting society to allow knowledge to inform political decisions, such as decisions involving science. Something to whittle away at, no doubt…

2. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Elizabeth Kolbert, 2014, nonfiction, science, environmentalism)

“Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it is not clear he ever really did.” (Kolbert)

Except that man IS part of nature, and there starts my critique of the rhetoric in this book. If humans are indeed the worst instance of life on this planet, as she argues—and surely, we are capable of making decisions that annihilate biodiversity—then we have to go a step further than Kolbert does. What makes us assume that we are the last and greatest in the chain of evolution? Or, what makes us assume that there will not be many more instances of life evolving again on this planet, if mass extinctions seem bound to occur in cycles? How do we harness the cycle of evolution and extinction to be better caretakers of Earth? Wherever we start in addressing the problem of a besieged Earth—and we do NEED to address it with the greatest scientific minds of our time—we have to start by looking at humans as part of nature, not an entity apart. Perhaps because we have consciousness, we now have a greater responsibility to caretake this planet than any other life form here. Bumps in the construction of her argument aside (and I don’t think it is productive or helpful to launch a counterargument against her facts anyway), Kolbert does succeed in quickly educating the reader about the trouble we are in as part of the Anthropocene era. In fact, I felt so depressed and distraught after reading this book (and the one before it) that I had to soothe myself with some familiar fiction. Although her rhetoric is a tad obsequious and her approach heavy-handed, it is hard to argue with the oncoming extinction of the golden frog in Panama, the decline of the Great Barrier Reef, the biotic attrition in the Peruvian jungle, and the evidence of ocean acidification. Her intention is to raise the alarm, and she sure does. In fact, her rhetoric may be a bit too alarmist; I would prefer a more scientific and detached rhetor here, but that’s just me. I think her intention is to rile emotion. For a person like me who acknowledges many of these issues but then tends to put them out of my mind in favor of a day-to-day mantra that “everything is going to be fine,” this book is probably a crucial read. Certain topics need to stay in the forefront of our minds. The question is, though, “What can I do??” The alarm she raises is almost bigger than my comprehension. At any rate, I learned a TON from this book, and I think its real value is in the mini biology lesson I got in each chapter. I would recommend this book, though be prepared to be defensive if you don’t acknowledge things like global warming.

3. The Old Man and the Sea (Ernest Hemingway, 1952, fiction, novella)

“Every day is a new day. It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.”

“But man is not made for defeat.”

Inspired by recent fishing trips with my parents and children in the wide Pacific Ocean and in need of some release after two somewhat Debbie-Downer books, I sought refuge in Hemingway. Okay, so Hemingway himself is not known for being real chipper, either, but somehow his expression of human nature often revives me. He is one of my favorite authors, if not the favorite.

I let the beautiful imagery of the lavender striped Marlin wash over me, as I read anew the quest of Santiago to defeat the sharks and bring purpose to his life’s work. There is honor in struggle, but too much hubris will be everyone’s undoing. Ah, familiar territory with Hemingway!

IMG_6023

The magic with this rereading came when Eric woke up before Katie and joined me as I was finishing a section. He wanted to know what this book was about, and so I summarized part of it for him and then read some passages. His brain and ears got to bask in the rich and vivid and beautiful prose of Hemingway, and he kept asking for more. We connected the story to his fishing experiences, and he begged me to look up marlins and mako sharks on my iPhone to show him what they looked like. A four-year-old who appreciates Hemingway? Okay! It is a testament to the timeless beauty of his writing, his utter skill and craft, his economy of language… ah, I sing too many praises.

This reread happened for sheer pleasure, and it was. Hemingway is a master.

4. Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness (Susannah Cahalan, 2012, nonfiction, autobiography)

“We are, in the end, a sum of our parts, and when the body fails, all virtues we hold dear go with it.”

This is a must-read, in my opinion. In a month where I sought to grapple with the questions “What makes us human? What will the next step in our evolution be? How do we martial technology and science to make forward leaps? What is the role of narrative-making in the human experience?” this book fit perfectly. Cahalan is a journalist who starts experiencing symptoms of psychosis while living and working in New York. After she is admitted to a hospital, doctors spend a month trying to figure out what is wrong with her. Several begin to give up, and she seems destined for a spot in a psychiatric ward. Then a new doctor, tenacious in spirt and logical in mind, looks at her case in a new way and realizes she has a treatable auto-immune disease that has caused inflammation in her brain, and that this inflammation is causing her psychotic symptoms.

After she recovered, Cahalan watches video of herself while in the hospital, conducts interviews, and reads medical documentation to try to reconstruct a month of her life of which she has largely no memory.

This book invites the reader to think about how our brains make our stories. What is the nature of forgetting? What happens when we make false memories? How do we come by our sense of virtue/morality/ethics? What is the relationship between the self and the rest of the body, or between the self and the other living organisms (i.e. viruses, bacteria) that enter the body? Where do “we” stop and other living entities begin?

5. The Meaning of Human Existence (Edward O. Wilson, 2014, nonfiction, science)

“Earth relates to the universe as the second segment of the left antenna of an aphid sitting on a flower petal in a garden in Teaneck, NJ, for a few hours this afternoon.”

E.O. Wilson, the celebrated Harvard biologist, offers this most recent publication as an exploration of what it means to be human. His text tries to accomplish several different tasks along the way, including making an appeal for the humanities and the sciences to rejoin. As he says, “The most successful scientist thinks like a poet and works like a bookkeeper.”

Although he shares Kolbert’s concerns about the Anthropocene era, Wilson is a bit more celebratory of Homo Sapiens: “…we are self-made, independent, alone, and fragile, a biological species adapted to live in a biological world.” Most of his book discusses those adaptations (volitional vs. natural selection), and he teaches the reader about eusociality, superorganisms, and, to my utter horror, describes the activities of driver ants. (That species is the stuff of nightmares)!

The most intriguing argument he made, I thought, was the idea that the conflict we have between individual and group needs is itself the impetus for our intelligence, organizational structures, and creativity. One of my intellectual interests is, in fact, creativity: From whence does it generate? How do we train it? What defines it? Etc.

I can’t think of a reason not to read Wilson, the father of sociobiology—a very favorite class of mine at Stanford, taught by the amazing Professor Sapolsky. This particular effort from Wilson, though, seemed to be a bit in need of an editor; parts were redundant, even down to phrasing. It reads a bit as a swan song, or nearly so. Many of his earlier works may be more worth the investment.

6. The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupery, 1943, fiction, parable)

“If someone loves a flower of which just one example exists among all the millions and millions of stars, that’s enough to make him happy when he looks at the stars. He tells himself, ‘My flower’s up there somewhere…'”

I first read The Little Prince in 7th grade and have spent my whole life wondering if the reason I didn’t love it more was perhaps because I had not fully understood it. I’ve certainly seen that happen many times as a teacher. On a lark and realizing we did not have this canonical work in our home library, I picked up a copy from Powell’s this summer while in Portland. So many books deepen with age and maturity—perhaps this one, for me?

As an adult, while there is certainly more I appreciate about this text, there is not more that I had missed originally. It is just that the text makes several points with which I disagree; or rather, it makes several points that I feel need to be qualified.

There is no doubt that Saint-Exupery is a master of his craft. I have read enough to know this parable took its root in the realities of his life. There is also a fantastic essay in The New Yorker called “The Strange Triumph of the Little Prince” by Adam Gropnik. No one can argue that this book doesn’t have a place in the canon; it is lovely, and its treatment of the introspective self is to be savored.  The prince’s constant questioning celebrates the need to search ever for one’s own answers to deep and important questions. The triumph of the childlike heart, finding wonder in all the world, is beautiful. Yes, yes, and yes. None of this is to be dismissed summarily.

One always feels strange and a bit out of depth when one questions any part of the canon. Especially when one questions themes that are meant to inspire and warm the weary soul. But what my 13-year-old self saw, and what my 34-year-old self continues to see, is that The Little Prince is a book that glorifies the asking of questions, yes, but that also glorifies that contentment of never knowing—or caring to know—the answers to those questions.

That’s just not me.

While we may accept that there are answers we do not have yet, nonetheless we should not be content either with agnosticism or belief. It is the search that is important, the joining of mind to heart to body.

Fox says, “Anything essential is invisible to the eye,” and we are then advised, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly…” and “The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched, they are felt with the heart…”

The invisible might be a good place to start, but by no means should we stop there. Being content not to know? At what point does introspection become a form of inertia? While Saint-Exupery might claim that full knowledge would lead to loss of life’s meaning, I disagree: it is the hunt for meaning and the quest of knowledge that gives our lives a purpose, a function. The heart and mind can inform each other, but we do not have to give up one in order to apprehend beauty or the sublime. I think often of mathematics, out of which we emerge. Numbers and “math” exist on a Platonic level, but we find if we look closely that we can touch and feel them—indeed, we ARE the numbers as an emergent property. I will never be content to stop searching for the axioms of the natural universe. It seems like Saint-Exupery would ask me to give up my quest. I would entreat him to understand that wonder only deepens with knowing more. The intricate universe is meant to be known.

This was a counterbalance read, for sure, to some of the nonfiction science texts I read this month. I think as readers we are at our best when we search out texts that contradict each other, or challenge each other. We cannot base our whole intellectual life on reading just the material that confirms us to ourselves. We must look for the tension in the words, the way ideas form a dialectic. If we base our whole outlook and philosophy on just a few texts, we are limiting ourselves.

7. “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” (Ted Chiang, Fall 2013, short story published in Subterranean Press Magazine)

“We don’t normally think of it as such, but writing is a technology, which means that a literate person is someone whose thought processes are technologically mediated.”

This short story involves two complementary plot lines, one featuring the narrator and one featuring the 13-year-old boy Jijngi, who is the first among his tribe to learn to read and write. Set in the near future, the new technology is Remem, a search tool that allows video lifelogs to be called up in a moment.

A more perfect companion piece to Brain on Fire, I cannot imagine.

This rich short story made me ponder:

* What is it like to have a perfect memory?
* Do we need to be able to forget in order to forgive? Are softened lines of narrative essential to this process?
*  What if imagery was perfect in our memory? Do faulty memories allow us the authorship of our lives that we crave?
* How does writing help us to think?
* How do these topics relate to our sense of self?

I highly recommend spending half an hour with this one.

8. Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials the Shape Our Man-Made World (Mark Miodownik, 2014, nonfiction, science)

“There is a continual reflection, absorption, and expression going on in the material world around that constantly remaps the meanings of materials around us.”

Miodownik is a materials science professor at the University College of London, and this book is a paean to the materials around us that we use every day but seldom appreciate. His basic thesis is that our materials both arise from, but also create, meaning in our lives, and his purpose in writing is to create a sense of wonder in the reader. He was completely successful, and this was one of my favorite books this month.

He talks about steel, concrete, paper, foam, chocolate, diamonds/graphite, and glass. Using a combination of chemistry, history, and psychology, Miodownik writes for those who find joy in the details…and for those who are not content not to know. The most beautiful things to Miodownik are those that are visible and in constant use.

Read this.

One of my favorite passages involved the innovation of the Samurai swords and why they worked so well. He then explains about the myth of Excalibur: “At a time when swords regularly snapped in battle…a high quality sword…came to represent the rule of civilization over chaos. The fact that the process of making steel was, necessarily, highly ritualized, also helps explain why this material came to be associated with magic.”

1376392_10101340705477273_6994665873739328455_n

The myth of Excalibur and Queen Guinevere (my Halloween character this year)

He does not shy away from some of the chemistry, either, making this book fabulous. I intentionally played with my sense of perspective this month. The Kolbert and Wilson books coaxed my perspective out several billions of years; Miodownik brought me back down to the microscopic level. One thing for sure? What’s going on right now, here, in the present, in my limited visible field (per the electromagnetic spectrum)??? So very much NOT the whole story. We’ve got to challenge ourselves to see beyond the time period, size, and fallible interpretive brain structures to which we are bound.

9. The Art of Living (Epictetus, philosophical text, AD 55-135)

Epictetus was one of the Greek stoics, and this work was compiled by his pupil Arrian. I am taken with the stoics again lately. I don’t have too much to say about this one other than to share a few of my favorite quotes to think about:

* “Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions they form concerning things.” (Interesting to think about along with Stuff Matters).

* “If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in handing over your own mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who happens to verbally attack you?”

* “If anyone tells you that such a person speaks ill of you, don’t make excuses about what is said of you, but answer: ‘He does not know my other faults, else he would not have mentioned only these.'”

“If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid with regard to external things. Don’t wish to be thought to know anything; and even if you appear to be somebody important to others, distrust yourself.” (I think of this one every time I go to the pool in the mornings)!

The stoics are all about rigorous self-discipline, and the idea that “the conviction of our ignorance should be our first study.” Very much relating to this philosophy right now…

10.  This Will Make You Smarter (ed. John Brockman, 2011)

“What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”

So goes The Edge Question from 2011. The Edge is an online organization of scientists, primarily, and thinkers from a variety of fields led by John Brockman. The Edge is designed to be a continuing conversation among the world’s thinkers, most notably some of my favorites like Steven Pinker, Martin Rees, Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, Daniel Dennett, Robert Sapolsky, etc. Every year, The Edge asks a question of its community and compiles the essay answers into a large book. In 2011, the question was proposed and seconded by Steven Pinker and Daniel Kahneman. There are many, many, many essays in here about the “shorthand abstractions” we should keep in our mental toolkit, but here are some of my favorites:

* The Mediocrity Principle: “…you aren’t special. The universe does not revolve around you; this planet isn’t privileged in any unique way; your country is not the perfect product of divine destiny… The universe lacks both malice and benevolence, but…everything does follow rules—and grasping those rules should be the goal of science.” (P.Z. Myers, biologist at the University of Minnesota)

* The Double-Blind Control Experiment (Dawkins)

* Data-Driven Self-Discovery (Rowan)

* Pessimistic Meta-Induction: “If, by contrast, you think that uncovering your mistakes is one of the best ways to revise and improve your understanding of the world, then this is actually a highly optimistic insight.” (Kathryn Schulz, journalist)

* Self-Serving Bias: the idea of accepting more responsibility for success than for failure, for good deeds than for bad… “Being mindful of self-serving bias beckons us not to false modesty but to a humility that affirms our genuine talents and virtues and likewise those of others.” (David Myers, social psychologist, Hope College)

* Probabilistic Knowledge: “Knowledge itself is probabilistic in nature, a notion emphasized by some currents of philosophical pragmatism. A better understanding of the meaning of “probability”—and especially realizing that we don’t need (and never possess) “scientifically proved” facts but only a sufficiently high degree of probability in order to make decisions…” (Carlo Rovelli, physicist at Centre de Physique Theorique)

* Nominal Fallacy: the error of believing that a label alone carries explanatory information (Stuart Firestein, Neuroscientist at Columbia University)

* Force Things to Fail: “Wrapped up in the idea of embracing failure is the related notion of breaking things to make them better—particularly complex things. Often the only way to improve a complex system is to probe its limits by forcing it to fail in various ways…” (Kevin Kelly, Ed. at Large, WIRED)

* Homo Dilatus: We seem to have evolved to the mindset of “Why act now, when the future is far off?” (Alun Anderson, author)—To be thought about in conjunction with The Sixth Extinction.

* Nothing Unexplained: “Nothing unexplained these days should go without a hunt.” (Eric Topol, Professor of translational genomics and cardiologist, Scripps)—Compare this to the argument in The Little Prince.

* Olber’s Paradox (Anthony Aguirre, physics professor, UCSC)

* Symmetric Information Flow (David Dalrymple, MIT)

* Selves as Permeable and Interwoven: “…selves within larger selves, including the species self (humanity) and the biospheric self (life).” (Scott Samson, paleontologist and evolutionary biologist)—Think about with Brain on Fire.

And there are dozens more… Every essay gave me something to ponder for awhile. There are also several more collections in this series that I yearn to read. I have started What are You Optimistic About? which answers the 2007 question. That is currently my purse book. I have also started Isaacson’s new book about the history of computing and the innovators essential to that history. Those are both books I hope to have finished in November.

Katie and I also finished Hatchet (Gary Paulson) together this month, and we loved it together. We had talks about survival and what it means to be independent; plus we laughed together at several of the lighter moments in the novel. We’ve been reading up a storm with Eric, too, of course; and Katie finished seven chapter books of her own in addition to all other kinds of her personal reading. The kiddos and I together are doing a Chris Van Allsburg author study unit and are LOVING it. We are making a huge book out of all of our work, and of course we’re doing interdisciplinary work with each text and pulling in as much nonfiction as we can. The genre of magical realism captivates them both, and we’ve pulled in David Wiesner, too. We have talked about whether or not Once Upon a Time might fit into the magical realist genre, as well, and we have an argument made that it does. Bill has always more than one book going, and we’ve been cross-pollinating our libraries and having engaging discussions about all the ideas swirling around in our texts.

IMG_5877

For Halloween yesterday, the kiddos got to watch the 1929 silent film Nosferatu (we don’t mess around here, ha ha!). But it had a larger purpose than just to scare and to be a sample of a classic. We talked about how many of the typical “scary” Halloween characters—vampires, witches, zombies, Frankenstein’s monster, mummies—have either or both an historical AND literary basis. I have summarized Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for the kids. The thing is, these characters are not just about being scary on the outside: each one represents something about the human experience that we fear. A vampire represents, much like Odysseus’ Sirens, a fear of not being able to resist temptation; witches are the fear of an educated, noncomformist woman; zombies takes their root in Haitian slavery and the fear of watching people be oppressed and controlled by others; mummies and ghosts evoke the fear of death and uncertainty; and Frankenstein’s monster, who did not start out evil at all but became so after society failed to accept him, represents our fear of responsibility for the way we are connected to the behavior and circumstances of others.

It’s always about the ideas under the surface, no?

IMG_6138

It can be tricky to fit in my reading, and there are mornings when I get up at 4 AM, run mid-distance, swim a swimmer’s mile or more, and then take 20 minutes with a hot beverage at Starbucks to read and recenter before the day starts. I cannot wait for the time change tomorrow, so some of my day can begin with the sunrise again!

IMG_5568

I had a couple of reading hours at Katie’s soccer practices last month (Eric was sick once, and another time he hung out with my dad), but for the most part I cannot bear to leave him home. It’s our play time. As much as I love to read, I would rather play airplane with this little happy boy! So this picture above? No matter where my mind may frolic sometimes, my heart loves to be with these little people. I just have learned how much more I have to give when I attend to my own mind-body health. I have more to talk about with them at dinner, too!

Advertisements