I had a bit of trepidation with respect to how my reading goals would turn out this month when I seemed to be almost one week in without a single finished book and had the core of my racing season to consider. We also had two field trips, a trip to the movies, family visiting time, and basically one of our busier months. Still, the process of goal-setting is not for nothing: to make a commitment to a goal is to know you will follow through no matter what. I am not one for the phrase, “I don’t have time,” which seems to slight other people’s choices and preferences for hobbies/pursuits as being too insignificant to consider in one’s (implied) more robust life. We’re all busy, yet we all have time; for those goals that are important, we must make time. The making of time is a lesson I learn on repeat.

Even so, five of my ten books were children’s chapter books and one was a comprehensive hiking guide. I’ve never been sure where to draw the criteria line for my personal reading challenge. I read scores of poems, picture books, school-related texts, periodical articles, short stories and so on each month, some of which are quite literary indeed or that offer far more insight than some chapter books I’ve read. So: who can define the nature of quality? It shouldn’t merely be length. In setting my goal last June, however, one key feature had to be that the text would be immersive over several sessions/hours; it had to have chapters and some kind of page heft. It’s all very subjective that way, I suppose.

Anyway, here comes the list. These lists are an absolute BEAR to type up, and I generally spend way too long composing them at the end of each month. I might try to be a bit more concise this time; with the way I get into things, however, one never knows.

I began the month with “neuroscience of music” as my theme and intended to devote the month to reading this, as well as more music history, musician bios, and the like. I did depart from this theme eventually, but my first two finished books filled a few holes in my education:

1. This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin (science, nonfiction, 2006)

“Music, then, can be thought of as a type of perceptual illusion in which our brain imposes structure and order on a sequence of sounds. Just how this structure leads us to experience emotional reactions is part of the mystery of music….What is it about the particular order we find in music that moves us so? The structure of scales and chords has something to do with it, as does the structure of our brains….The brain’s computational system combines these into a coherent whole, based in part on what it thinks it ought to be hearing, and in part based on expectations….”

Rarely do I begin by going straight to the credibility of the author, but Levitin bears a bit of explanation. He has studied and taught at Stanford, MIT, Dartmouth, the U of O, and more. He is a musician, a record producer on major albums, a PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience, a friend to several current musicians, and a Fellow with several prominent organizations devoted to thought and science. This is someone who has an unparalleled level of expertise in this field (and evidently several fields). His writing is both technical and clear. He does not shy away from the “hard science” in this book, yet he grounds his topics in a bit of narrative and certainly flowing prose.

A favorite book this month, for sure.

Levitin even takes on Steven Pinker (professor, neuroscientist), who has argued in other texts I’ve read that our love for music is a useless evolutionary spandrel. As a reader of almost all of Pinker’s work, I found Levitin’s argument to be exceptionally well made and cogent, adding fodder to the ongoing discussion my husband, brothers-in-law, and I have been having about music and the construction of reality in general.

I also learned quite a bit of rock history/trivia that I didn’t happen to already know, even though I spent years in college and beyond pursuing music history as a passionate hobby. Levitin draws upon everyone from Mozart to Schoenberg to Metallica to Joni Mitchell to Ella Fitzgerald.

If you are a musician, feel passionate about listening to music, or ever wondered about how the brain creates the psychological phenomenon of both sound (and color), then this book is a MUST read. Good science, too. I am generally not a fan of books that purport to give a scientific treatment of a topic and then treat the science very basically. This text hits the notes perfectly. READ IT for a deepened understanding of how we construct reality…

levitin

2. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks (psychology, nonfiction, 2007).

“For one of my post-encephalitic patients, Francis D., music was as powerful as any drug. One minute I would see her compressed, clenched, and blocked, or else jerking, ticking, and jabbering….The next minute, if we played music for her, all of these explosive-obstructive phenomena would disappear, replaced by a blissful ease and flow of movement…” 

Okay. I am not about to knock Oliver Sacks. OLIVER SACKS. No, one just doesn’t go there. He is legendary.

But honestly? After the Levitin work, this one just paled. I am so sorry to say that. Sacks doesn’t go all the way to the core science in this book, most of the time. Once in awhile he mentions anatomy. On the whole, this book read as case study after case study. That can be enlightening in its own way, but I wanted him to go further for me. What patterns and statistically significant data emerge from these case studies, and what might these patterns tell us objectively about the brain? I am sure he has theories and research. I want it. Anecdote will only go so far, though yes: reading each case study and exploring the range of the human experience (some of which is wild and bizarre and uncommon) does contribute to discussions of reality and how, really, unstable the brain truly can be. Superstitious, obsessive, ritualistic, hallucinatory, etc. Levitin and Sacks are good colleagues and each appears as referenced in the other’s book. Sacks’ forte is weaving compelling tales and narratives out of biochemistry. It is a wonderful talent. Contrary to reviews, though, I felt he stinted on the science.

If you must pick one? Download the Levitin.

3. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (science fiction, 1962)

“Life, with its rules, its obligations, and its freedoms, is like a sonnet: you’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself.”

I missed this one in my time, but I enjoyed reading it with Katie this month. The nature of dimensionality, evil vs. good, turning one’s vulnerabilities into strengths, sibling love, dystopian living… all good.

Parts, I thought, toward to the end skewed a bit more into the fantasy genre than I would have liked (I am a die hard sci fi fan, not so much a fantasy fan), but I don’t think it detracted from the narrative for us. Katie right away noticed that Meg is much like she is, and Eric is almost a dead-on Charles Wallace. We have the other three books in the series, though we have stalled on the second one a bit mainly because we’ve had our hands in several events, books, and hobbies ever since we finished this one.

I am happy that this canonical book is now a part of my thought-life, especially the thought-life I share with my daughter. We’re making connections right and left among its themes and other works we’ve shared over the years.

4. Stuart Little by E.B. White (fiction, 1945)

“Stuart rose from the ditch, climbed into his car, and started up the road that led toward the north…As he peeked ahead into the great land that stretched before him, the way seemed long. But the sky was bright, and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction.”

Ah, this was technically a re-read for me. We’ve been introducing Eric to chapter books more methodically at this point, and Stuart Little is an accessible story with luxurious illustrations by the incomparable Garth Williams. White’s rich language gave us plenty to pause and linger over, and we were able to look at parallels between Stuart’s debonair character and Steig’s Abelard from Abel’s Island (which we all read two months ago). Such cuddly time with my two littles!

5. Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman (science fiction, 2013)

“If the same object from two different times touches itself, one of two things will happen. Either the Universe will cease to exist. Or three remarkable dwarfs will dance through the streets with flowerpots on their heads.”

Gaiman is funny, playful, dark, and at times demanding of his younger readers. In short, a perfect read. We own and have read several of his books. This is short at just over 100 pages, but it is beautifully illustrated by Skottie Young. Eric was HOOKED.

The premise? Dad goes out to the corner store to get some milk, is a bit late returning home, and spins an exceptional yarn about why he was late. This is a study in the making of narrative. Both his children and the reader are asked with a winking eye to interpret various clues, to think about the logical integrity of what has come before in the plot, and above all, to be playful with language, imagery, and imagination. There is a section involving time travel that gets REALLY FUNKY, but the three of us had so much fun teasing it out and using it as a thought-experiment. Katie, especially, found herself primed for travel through space after reading Wrinkle.

We also showed both children Interstellar this month. Black holes and worm holes are all the rage in our house right now!

6. Odd the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman (fiction, mythology, 2008)

“The wise man knows when to keep silent. Only the fool tells all he knows.”

After Fortunately, Katie and and I had to share this re-read with Eric, arguably a new Gaiman fan.

Gaiman reimagines Norse mythology, sending the boy character Odd to take on a never-ending winter with three gods disguised as animals. We love the ripe conflicts in a Gaiman work, and we like to teach the push-pull of lightness and darkness here in our reading. Gaiman is fabulous. Katie and I have even done Coraline. He’s excellent for reader-response and discussion.

7. Best Easy Day Hikes: Eugene, Oregon, pub. by Falcon Guides (nonfiction, instructional, 2011)

“This route, along a 2.0 mile segment of the McKenzie River National Recreation trail, may be the best hike in this entire book…During the first mile, hikers might feel like they could easily run into leprechauns or an Ewok village…”

OMG, I am stoked!!!! This experience quickly moved to the top of my Oregon wish list. We’re headed back to Oregon for another two weeks this summer, and I am so eager. I’ll be racing Butte to Butte, and we’re seeing two plays in Ashland. We are also heading through Portland to Astoria (GOONIES!!!) and spending all kinds of time in Eugene.

Bill has all-event passes to the four days of track and field Nationals in Eugene (at Hayward Field) for part of our trip. We could have gotten them, too, but I just don’t think the kiddos would find that to be much fun. So, while Bill watches the events, I get to explore widely with my children and really make Eugene and its surroundings a part of us. I am going giddily bananas with planning hikes and adventures. I am starting my reading now, since I don’t know all of the good hiking and day-trip spots. Yay!!!! I love showing our children beautiful places and having adventures with them. Bill is always welcome and of course I adore him, but there is something so very empowering about being able to take them hither and yon on my own. And Bill is in for a treat. He loves following track and field and hasn’t seen a proper decathlon in years. This will be part of his birthday present, actually. Very excited for all four of us.

8. This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress, ed. John Brockman (nonfiction, science, essay collection, 2015)

“Science advances by discovering new things and developing new ideas. Few truly new ideas are developed without abandoning old ones first. As theoretical physicist Max Planck noted, ‘A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.’ In other words, science advances by a series of funerals. Why wait that long?…What established scientific idea is ready to be moved aside so that science can advance?” 

So goes the question of the year (most recent) from Edge.org founder and editor John Brockman.

This is not an anti-science book, and since I would never want to be mistaken for that camp, I feel the need to point that out clearly. I feel strongly that only science, in all its glorious honesty and grit and logic, can essentially and properly ask this question of itself in a meaningful way.

The very fact that science is WILLING to ask this question of itself gives it an integrity that I find completely compelling as a thinker and curious explorer of our world and greater universe. Can we think of some lines of thought that would NEVER ask what tenets ought to be retired, evolved, changed, or completely discarded? Yes, we can. Whatever relies on NOT changing in the face of new information ought to be regarded as highly suspect as a foundation of thought, being, or behavior…in my opinion.

These essays are one thought-experiment after the other, treats for tired minds that need a boost or spark for the day. Need fodder for a long run or a long swim? Read one of two of these essays at a time, and then have a meditative go at it. Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Rebecca Goldstein, Max Tegmark, David Deutsche, Michael Shermer, Daniel Dennett, Robert Sapolsky, Sherry Turkle…the authors are a who’s who of modern thinkers/scientists/professors. They take on topics like Plato’s essentialism, mind vs. brain, the continuity of time, human evolutionary exceptionalism, unification, infinity, free will, the self, altruism, and more.

Challenging, in the best way. I recommend all of these essay collections and have been working my way through some back collections this year, as well.

9. The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury (science fiction, short stories, 1951)

“‘I’ll burn, he thought, and be scattered in ashes all over the continental lands. I’ll be put to use. Just a little bit, but ashes are ashes and they’ll add to the land.'”

One of the most significant moments of my teaching career, and of my life, occurred within a few days of getting pregnant with Katie, and that was getting to see Ray Bradbury in person at the Temecula library. I hung on EVERY word he spoke. My copy of Fahrenheit 451, which I taught for many years, contains in the back several of his quotes from that night. I cherish that book.

Still, I had never quite made it to this collection of 18 short stories in my life, not until now. Published two years before F451, these stories foreshadow some of the themes, imagery, and ideas he would take up in that work.

Bradbury, as we know from F451, is completely a VISIONARY when it comes to the technology he describes in his texts. I always wonder at the connection between the sci fi literary giants who conceived of some of the wildest ideas of their time and the later scientists and developers who must have read those works and then worked to create those amazing advances. I am not sure we could have had the technological advancements we have had without some of the imaginative power of the writers before them.

My favorite stories in this collection were “The Veldt,” “Kaleidoscope,” “The Long Rain,” “The Rocket Man,” and “Zero Hour.” All were worth reading, though.

I shared “The Veldt” with Katie and Eric straightaway the morning after I first read it. It’s about a smart house that has a nursery/play room for the kids with walls that are essentially a virtual reality type of set up. You really, really, really need to read this one. Really. The kiddos were engrossed, floored, disturbed in a good way, inquisitive, and ready to discuss at length. Katie even wrote a reader-response on it for our English writing that day, and it kicked some booty. She got it. Perhaps because it is so exceptionally relevant to modern times? Oh my goodness, “The Veldt” is insanely rich for our current generation of tech-loving kiddos. It demanded we address autonomy, purpose, the source of happiness/pleasure, the parent-child relationship, and more.

Bradbury presents technology in a nuanced way: neither all bad, nor all good. He sets up complicated relationships between technology and human beings and certainly does the same in F451. One wonders what he would think of the ubiquity of digital readers.

Some definite highlights this month! I’ve already finished my first book for April, and the kiddos and I are currently reading Ender’s Game. We’re on a sci fi kick mainly, and I have spent time today figuring out what I want to read next.

Happy Reading to All,
Sarah

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