So I was feeling pretty good about being on top of my intellectual and reading-driven life again, until this past week when a few early mornings and nights went by and I found myself either falling asleep too early, tending to tasks that needed to be done (online shopping for Christmas gifts), or merely indulging in distracted perusals of Pinterest. Ah, well, it has to be a balance. We’re entering the busy season, and I will be lucky to finish my target goal of five books next month.

Also, I have really been chasing after some athletic goals, and that has taken extra time. In addition to the long run exceeding 13.1 and my first 50+ mile week, which I wrote about last week, I went after another couple of targets this week. With Bill home for Thanksgiving Break, I had enough time on Monday morning (it required 1.5 hours and the pool opens at 5:30 AM) to swim a consecutive two miles (140 lengths of the pool). I’d been wanting to conquer that for awhile, but even on my longest swim morning, I cannot make it back in time for Bill to go to work if I were to do that.

I also went after my sub-6:00 minute mile goal this week. Backing off on total mileage (I had a slightly over 40 mile week), I had more pop in my legs for intervals this week. The 50+ miles had taken their toll, and even on Sunday’s long run they felt pretty heavy and plodding. It wasn’t great, but I enjoyed 9.3 (15K) miles of autumn that morning. By Wednesday morning, though, I could feel them back online. I laid my base of 6+ miles Wednesday morning; in the afternoon, I ran the 1.5 miles to the track, and then attacked my track mile. 5:52.00 for a mile. Finally. I’ll never forget how the sunset looked that night, or how I wanted to cry with joy. (The downhill sub-6:00 in Eugene had never counted to me). Hard work and consistency pay off. I was able to increase my swimming mileage to 4.5 miles this week (I usually do 3.5 miles).

So partly my reading has been affected by extra physical exhaustion this week, and I have been drifting off to sleep too early after the kiddos are down.

On Thanksgiving, however, Bill and I were chatting philosophy in the car. I happened to mention the idea of a “generation ship”—and Bill asked me if I had ever read Heinlein’s novella “Universe” (the setting of which is a generation ship). Turns out, “Universe” and its sequel “Common Sense” were compiled together in a book, and I woke up early this morning and devoured all 209 pages of it. Good sci fi always saves the day. I am in the middle of a nonfiction book, too, about a woman who discovers her toddler son is deaf—lots of personal anecdote, science, and social history in that one. I love it and started off with a bang, but found myself newly engaged with it this morning before turning to the Heinlein. Surely that will be a book I finish for next month (about 50% through), so there’s one at least!

I had intended to focus on the guiding question “what is the nature of happiness?” this month. Some books hit the mark, and some deviated. Anyway, here are my November Eight:

1. The Giver (Lois Lowry, 1993, science fiction, dystopian)

“The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It’s the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.” 

Most people know the summary of this book, especially now with the movie out (which I haven’t seen, and which I have heard changes major parts too drastically to be borne). But here are some quick thoughts:

To what extent do we need chaos for happiness? Does order promote contentment or diminish it? Would a society completely free of emotions function more or less progressively than ours? If you do not know that you are unhappy, does unhappiness matter? Why would most of us rebel against the dystopian society in this book? What is the nature of choice and happiness? Does happiness require hardship?

I read this book to Katie, and we talked and talked about it. I love that she is at a place in her development where she can bite off big chunks of philosophy.

2. The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (Walter Isaacson, 2014, history)

“Innovation is most vibrant in the realms where open-source systems compete with proprietary ones.”

Just published, Isaacson’s book is a highly readable history (and gloriously long at 560+ pages) of all of computing. While I knew much of this history, nonetheless I appreciated the conversational refresher and the anecdotes I had not yet heard (why is it called debugging?). I read Isaacson’s bio of Steve Jobs a few years ago, and as biographers/historians go, Isaacson is meticulous, well-researched, and artful at his craft. He does insert value judgments here and there, so read with a critical mind.

While I appreciated his attempts to drive the book toward a thesis merely than a recounting, I did stop many times to assess his argument: essentially, all brilliant work arises from teamwork, and that is the sole reason why computers have evolved so quickly and been so successful a piece of technology. I guess he does go about proving this claim, to an extent; he draws on counterexamples of people like Konrad Zuse, whose work would have been lost altogether if not for other people.

3. Generosity: An Enhancement (Richard Powers, 2009, fiction).

“Does the woman feel real elation, or does she just imagine it? He runs the meaningless question into the ground.”

“Information may travel at light speed. But meaning spreads at the speed of dark.”

“They want to know whether she inherited her bliss, whether it comes from the environment, or whether she’s simply willed herself to be happy. She tells them honestly: she hasn’t a clue.”

“I can make total strangers miserable, just by being well. I never thought this could happen, and I don’t know what to do with it.”

“What exactly is my crime, do you think? I simply enjoy this world. Why do they treat me as some kind of threat to civilization?”

“History is just fluctuations in appetite. Technology changes nothing. Someone, somewhere, sometime will auction off every inclination. When we tire of happiness, someone will make a market in useful despair.”

Okay. This novel is extremely personal to me. Richard Powers—one of my favorite novelists of all time and my favorite currently living novelist—is extremely personal to me. His writing is….everything. To understand what it’s like inside of one of his books, swimming in his words, one has to understand that Powers is a polymath. He has expertise in computer science, math, languages, literature, genetics, music, and more. He takes his knowledge and language from every discipline and weaves it altogether until the words, and puns, and metaphors, and syntax (it is all purposeful and interconnected) absolutely become the most thrilling reading experience. He used to teach at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, and he is now at…ready for it…Stanford. I die. I would give almost anything to be a student there again, enrolled in his class. I’ve read several of his works (The Echo Maker, The Gold Bug Variations, Galatea 2.2, and Plowing the Dark). I have many more to go, but each one actually requires access to a dictionary as well as time spent researching this and that, if I truly want to understand every dimension of his text. He is equally comfortable making puns about Bach’s oeuvre as he is talking about library science, and how both relate to DNA structure. I know when I read one of his novels: I am going to learn.

I am going to bask in his nimble wordsmithing.

I am going to have philosophical fodder for years.

In this case, Generosity hit a completely personal nerve. It’s about many topics, and Powers always deals with the meta. I could give a summary, but it would for sure be lacking. To say it is about a woman who is happy, and genetic modification, and social history…well, that would be true, but that wouldn’t even be the half of it. For this book is also about the writing process, the act of memory as history, and so much more. Sigh.

Because I have had people, even those who have at one time been close to me, criticize me for my natural happy disposition, this book gets to me. I have my moments of all emotions (we all do, the main character in this, too), but overall being happy is more of a process than a constant variable. It’s how a person looks at life, you know? If you are a person who mistakes happy people for people who have easy lives, or who never experience different emotions, then yes, a happy person may seem unreal to you. But happiness is far more layered than that. Happiness comes from challenges, and from liking challenges. It’s a way of sorting and categorizing things, for me. Whether I look at the short term or long term…  I could go on and on. Anyway, it’s not important. For people who aren’t usually happy, or who take more notice of their distress than of their fortune, what I say now does not matter. What does matter, to me, is that I have experienced moments of betrayal for my happiness. People who have accused me of “not being real.” People who have set me up as a nemesis, simply because the way I experience struggle is very different. People who have said that I am a problem because I am both happy and godless at the same time. People who have said it just doesn’t seem fair. Yes, these are nouns that have really been used; I don’t forget. It’s been more than one. It’s been more than three. It’s probably more than I even know.

I used to be at a place in my life where I thought something was wrong with me, as though I had to apologize or hide the way I look at life. I used to sit with people’s comments and think, what can I do to show I am not a problem? Well, it’s been a journey now, and I fully accept myself. To the people who would try to make me feel like less so that they can feel like more: I am interested only in people who view me as a full equal, not someone to be saved, condemned, not a liar who misrepresents herself, not someone on the end of failure’s wish, not someone who must grovel or be jaded in order to earn respect. I am no longer interested in being critiqued or prodded or accused on social media of not being real, human, or reporting the facts. I am a problem. Thank goodness, because everyone deserves to get to such a place of strength. Happiness comes partly from a hard days’ work, and darn if I don’t put in my best and hardest work every day. There are genetic factors, too, a lucky lottery that means nothing if we don’t potentiate it.

Powers writes it all. To say this book is life-changing, though, would not be accurate. I had already gone about changing my life. But this read? It was the reward of someone actually getting it. This was obviously my favorite book this month.

4. The Opposite of Loneliness (Marina Keegan, 2014, essays and short stories)

“Do you wanna leave soon?
No, I want enough time to be in love with everything…
And I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short.”

Keegan had just graduated from Yale to pursue a career in writing (having spent her last year racking up awards and interning for none other than Harold Bloom) when her boyfriend fell asleep at the wheel while driving them home. He survived; Keegan was killed instantly.

Professor Anne Fadiman, Keegan’s mentor, helped her family collect these works in this posthumous publication. Many might remember Keegan for her essay “The Opposite of Loneliness” which she published in the Yale newspaper shortly before her death and which went viral on the Internet.

I am not the target audience of these writings. I am almost 35, happily married, a mother. Long since out of my early 20s. While I did not relate to many of the fiction pieces, the ones I enjoyed, I really enjoyed. Her short story “Ingenue” reads almost with the nuance of Hemingway or Fitzgerald. Her nonfiction pieces spoke much more to me; or rather, they spoke to the young woman I remember being. And that was a beautiful experience: becoming for a moment the version of myself at 19, 20, 21 years old. Her essay about her car (which was her late grandmother’s) reminded me of driving my own late grandmother’s car. Keegan is clever, adroit with language, and earnest. She would have been a tremendous novelist and had dedicated her passion to writing.

If I were a young woman in a different phase of life, I would read this collection of essays and short stories in a heartbeat. I am not sorry I read them now. Several made me think and touched some lingering chord in me. Worth the read, if you are in the mood.

5. Seneca: Letters from a Stoic and Biography (Doma translation, epistle, philosophy)

“What progress, you ask, have I made? I have begun to be a friend to myself….You may be sure that such a man is a friend to all mankind.”

“You must either imitate or loathe the world.”

“The mind must be exercised both day and night.”

“The fool’s life is empty of gratitude and full of fears.”

Following my interest in the Stoics, I picked up this (long, very long) collection of epistles from Seneca. This required some discipline to finish, as he writes to his friend Lucilius.

Most of these read as second-hand lectures; he is forever quoting Epicurus….which several times made me wonder if I ought to be reading Epicurus instead.

I don’t know. I should try to be more erudite here, but these didn’t quite do it for me and I was slogging through the end. Not a favorite this month.

kind

(Reading in the early morning after 7 miles and 80 laps, with my favorite KIND bar and a warm drink—I look forward to mornings like this, restoring for body and mind)

6. What Are You Optimistic About?: Today’s Leading Thinkers on Why Things are Good and Getting Better (ed. John Brockman, 2007, science essays, philosophy)

This compilation is another in the series put out by Edge.org founder Brockman. All of your major scientists and modern thinkers are in here, or most are. Every year, Brockman poses a question and has these thinkers ring in with an answer. I loved this book, so this short summary here is not doing it justice. But dang it, folks, it is almost noon and I am HUNGRY having stayed abed this morning reading, writing, and forgetting to have breakfast. So let’s wrap this up. Blog honesty here.

The basic punchline in this book was, “Well, if you are only thinking short term, we could be happy about______, but humans will never implement the solution necessary to this problem because most of them just don’t care.” About twenty essays in, I was actually laughing.

It’s worth a read, though; I plan to make my way through the whole series. If anything, it might not be the actual essays themselves that grab you, but some little nugget found within each… Some topic you need to explore further. Some way of perceiving the world and meaning… Each essay is a little mind experiment. And so much to discuss with my husband, as we try to keep what we talk about focused on ideas mainly.

7. Bedknob and Broomstick (Mary Norton, 1943-1945, fiction)

I’ve never been able to get into the 1971 Disney film adaptation of these two works, which were compiled into a single book (gee whiz, “compilation” should have been my theme this month, see the final entry, too!!). In fact, I’ve never been able to get through it all the way. So when the kiddos picked it out at the library I thought, this could be depressing.

Shows you what I know! What a wonderful book! This was our first chapter book with Eric, too, and golly we all loved it. We played around on his bed, pretending to unscrew his square knobs. We spent many mornings reading it, too, in Fort Thanksgiving in our living room. This had to be one of our coziest, loveliest reads all month.

This book has become the centerpiece of our November cuddles and for that reason I love it.

8. Orphans of the Sky (Robert Heinlein, science fiction, 1963, short stories published separately as “Universe” and “Common Sense” in 1941)

“Was there nothing more to life than eating and sleeping and finally, the long Trip?”

“He knew, subconsciously, that, having seen the stars, he would never be happy again.”

Since Stranger in a Strange Land is one of my favorite novels (I should give myself the gift of a re-read for December—it’s been since college), it is no surprise that I hung on every word of this book-length allegory about the liberation from religion and from the artificial constructs of society.

The tale takes place on a generation ship, on some kind of (now stalled) trip across space and destined for a distant star. As the generations have gone on, no one remembers why they are there; mythology arises; mutants and crew segregate; there is cannibalism and processes for dealing with death that remind me of The Giver.

I will never, never, never, ever, ever get my fill of dystopian science fiction. It may well be my favorite genre. Bring it.

The startling part? How very much Wall-E owes to parts of this book. And how much this book owes to Plato’s cave.

I would put this pair of novellas, collected now as one, on a must-read list. Make yourself question life; it’s what we are here, in part, to do. See what that process yields, yes?

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