Where were you when you first read your favorite book?

On a summer lawn with August sunflowers towering above the wooden fence? (J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace)

Swinging in the hammock in your parent’s backyard? (Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the second time)

Resting on the playroom couch with your son growing inside of you? (Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the fourth time)

Bound and riveted to the huge yellow cozy chair in the family room from early morning until past midnight, getting up only to urinate and grab quick portable snacks, many months pregnant with your daughter? (J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the day I heard the delivery drop thud on the doorstep)

On the side of the 1 in a school bus in Big Sur, during a relay marathon with your family? (Steinbeck’s Cannery Row)

In bed, tucked in against the cold December air and the even colder thoughts after a miscarriage, glad you put up the decorations after all, looking for escape into a time and world nowhere here? (Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind)

Reading saves us, shapes us, makes us. Books contain their own narratives, yet how and where we read become narratives of their own. The experience of reading forms a dialectic with the text. We as readers manifest the world of the book around us; the text forever changes us. To what degree may depend upon how well the words connect to us, but even our least favorite books alter us a slight degree. We engage with the thought-life of the author, making it our own through interpretation and questioning. We live whole worlds in hours; we bring the author’s world into our own. I love the experience of reading almost as much as I love the words themselves.

I experienced three page-turners this month, out of eight books for May. Don’t you love that feeling? The call of a book. Nothing like it in the world. Those books might be deep, they might be light, they might be a combination of the two: the call of words to come play, to find out, to submerge. For some, the reading experience became its own story, part of a larger memory and narrative.

Others were informational, and I will start with one of those:

1. Should We Eat Meat?: Evolution and Consequences of Modern Carnivory (Vaclav Smil, nonfiction, 2013)

“In a rational world, consumers in the rich countries should be willing to pay more for a food in order to lower the environmental impacts of its production, especially when that higher cost and the resulting lower consumption would also improve agriculture’s long-term prospects and benefit the health of the affected population.”

The writing style is as dry as an arid desert in Hell, and I paid an arm and a leg to read it (even digitally). BUT! Smil, a polymath prof at U of Manitoba (details in comments), presents a dispassionate offering of statistics and data in order to treat the subject of meat consumption highly rationally. In some ways, as laborious as this text truly is—informational to the extreme, filled with data sets—it is extremely important, I think, as a means of understanding the consequences of decisions we make and taking responsibility for the world as consumers. Punchline: he concludes that we might be best off with a highly vegetarian diet with very occasional and rational meat consumption. That is the conclusion Bill and I have come to on our own, but without the sheer data crunching to back it up.

No matter your view of vegetarianism (I certainly get plenty of flack about it from some of the die-hard carnivores in my life—and I even do eat chicken and fish once in awhile!), this book is worth the read. Shouldn’t we know what we’re doing and why? If we’re eating without taking the time to study, I just don’t think that cuts it in the modern world with the environmental concerns we’re facing and the data to back it up. If you are conservative minded, I am sure even that statement sounds like I am a happy hippy. The fact is, we have an ethical imperative to understand what we do and why (not just with respect to eating), and how our decisions affect everyone else, as well as our planet. We don’t just get to go stomping around acting like kids on benders, taking or doing whatever we want without assessing the ramifications.

The good news is that, as demanding as Smil is as a reading project, this is not an ideological tract: refreshing, since we live in a world where the norm is to make passionate arguments for the sake of arguing  without working toward a reasoned middle ground. This book appeals to the Vulcan in me. And to the numbers girl. My consumption still may not be perfect, but I consider myself an ongoing student—of everything. The more we take the time to learn, the better we can be.

Smil, by the way, is Bill Gates’ favorite author. There was a work-up on him in WIRED a couple of years ago.

2. Thinking, Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahneman, science, neuroscience, psychology, nonfiction, 2013)

“The difficulties of statistical thinking contribute to…a puzzling limitation of our mind: our excessive overconfidence in what we believe we know, and our apparent inability to acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance and the uncertainty of the world we live in. We are prone to overestimate how much we understand about the world and to underestimate the role of chance in events. Overconfidence is fed by the illusory certainty of hindsight.”

Kahneman, Nobel Memorial Prize winner in Economic Sciences, as well as psychologist focuses on human rationality in Thinking, Fast and Slow. This book is on my “If I ran the world, this would be required reading” list. His premise? We all fool ourselves all of the time, and he gives several mechanisms by which we can understand and assess for this. On the chopping block? How we continually construct fallacious narratives. How we make economic decisions. The role of luck in business and how the most successful CEOs look at the long range picture and not the success of individuals. Topics: regression to the mean, prospect theory, endowment effect, risk policies, heuristics and biases, rare events, and so much more. How do we assess what we don’t know? How might training ourselves to view the world and human interaction/events with a more probabilistic eye help us to better understand reality?

This book is for anyone who wants to know herself, especially her limitations as a thinker and free agent. All kinds of mechanisms influence what we think we know. In fact, what’s jolting is how susceptible we are to brain worms.

Makes a person remember: 1) A position of humble fact-finding socratic inquiry is probably the most stable  one to take with respect to any topic; 2) It is possible to use reason to conduct self-assessments of rationalization and delusion, but we have to take even a step beyond that to guard the guardian; 3) A gentler treatment of all human beings, especially when we err, is a high expression of empathy

3. Inferno (Dan Brown, fiction, 2013)

“…consider this. It took the earth’s population thousand of years-from the early dawn of man all the way to the early 1800s-to reach one billion people. Then astoundingly, it took only about a hundred years to double the population to two billion in the 1920s. After that, it took a mere fifty years for the population to double again to four billion in the 1970s. As you can imagine, we’re well on track to reach eight billion very soon. Just today, the human race added another quarter-billion people to planet Earth. A quarter million. And this happens ever day-rain or shine. Currently every year we’re adding the equivalent of the entire country of Germany.”

I don’t read Dan Brown for the mellifluous prose. Brown receives a great deal of heat—deservedly—for his writing style. But hey, he’s a best-selling author, and I’ve written nothing published, so there you go. I do not find any joy or verve in his prose and pretend to myself that I am, essentially, reading a work up of a film script. With that in mind, it all becomes bearable. Even so, Bill had to promise—promise!—that the philosophical pay off would be big enough to justify dealing with the style.

Some of our discussion themes this year (in an ongoing e-mail convo with Bill and two of his brothers) have been extinction, care of the planet, technology, transhumanism, and more. We’re also in the middle of a vaccination debate in California—well, not really a debate but more of a rebellion back toward science as a determiner of public policy. It’s heated, if you judge by Facebook. Interestingly, two of the books I read this month make the argument that, actually, our planet might be better off in the long run if a virus or two DOES reduce the population. That’s pretty wild to read about, being an ardent pro-vaxxer.

And, of course, we had this article a few days ago: Bill Gates warning that we might well face a virus more decimating than Ebola.

Whatever your view, Brown’s book adds to the discussion. I finished this on this cozy, rainy afternoon by the fire.  Much more ethically complex, this one, than I would give Brown credit for normally. Topics: Transhumanism, overpopulation, bioethics…and of course, all that juicy and delicious history/art history/literature business for which Brown is known. I loved reliving my personal travels with his descriptions of Venice and Istanbul. I am left pondering the ethics of the ending, with no resolution soon. 465 pages, and an absolute page turner.

Fiction can be an entry point into complex philosophical topics best augmented with science. Brown’s work accomplishes that, and no doubt he is a master at plot. Worth the pleasure.

4. Holes (Louis Sachar, fiction, 1998)

“When the shoes first fell from the sky,he remembered thinking that destiny had struck him. Now he thought so again. It was more than a coincidence. It had to be destiny.”

I am in love with this book for eternity. One of my favorite books EVER. I read this with Katie and Eric, mostly cuddled in one of their beds. It was a rainy time of month, and we had the warmth of each other and book we could hardly put down.

Though I cannot believe I missed this book for all these years (it came out just as I was about to go to college), I believe that our favorite books find us in their own time. When the time is right. Even  last year, I saw it at the UCLA bookstore and almost bought it for Katie and me to read, but I thought, “No, not yet…it just doesn’t feel right yet.”

And now, it was right. I am not talking about the reading level or topics (she has been grappling with substance for some time). I mean: the book itself. Books come to us. They have a perfect moment.

For us, Holes will always be one of those special memories. Katie can, does, and often does, read chapter books on her own, but goodness, I hope we are still reading together even when she is 17. Those shared reading memories are precious. Eric liked this one, too.

The morning we finished, we made Kissin’ Kate Barlow’s spiced peaches and streamed the (excellent!!!!!!!) film version on Netflix.


5. Meb for Mortals: How to Run, Think, and Eat Like a Champion Marathoner (Meb Keflezighi, nonfiction, 2015)

“After church is social time, with coffee and doughnuts. I’ll look around and see everybody—small, medium, large—having a doughnut. I think, ‘None of these people ran 10 miles this morning. And I still have an ElliptiGO ride this afternoon. But I’m almost the only one here not eating a doughnut. How sad is that?’ When I tell this to my buddy Rich Levy, he’ll say, ‘Well, that’s why you won the Boston Marathon.'”

Meb works HARD. He is one of the most accomplished runners in the world, and he doesn’t let up. He is a technician, one ascertains, and he is all about form and form drills (which I should start incorporating). He says he is not the most talented runner, but he will work it and work it and work it. He embraces the running lifestyle, a lifestyle which, for me, has become a philosophy beyond just the exercise.

I consider myself an eternal student of my sport. I think reading books about our sport is part of becoming a rigorous and accomplished athlete, part of our mental training. Meb’s book was highly readable, very quick. The most useful parts, I felt, were all the graphics and details about his various drills. I have much to discuss with my coach as we revise training plans for next year before October.

Pick it up? Sure, if you run seriously with a dedication to making improvement and full commitment to the runner lifestyle. There are others I would read first (many of which I have mentioned in my booklists), and Meb does often state the obvious (as in the quote above…I totally relate!). Still, it’s a good little read.

My memory with this book remains special: I was up early on Saturday morning in San Francisco a couple weeks ago. I didn’t run Saturday before Bay to Breakers, but my body still woke up at 4:00 AM. So: I read the whole book in nearly one go, starting in our hotel room finishing over Blue Bottle Coffee at the Ferry Building at breakfast. An inspiring read the day before a big race and in an amazing city on a special trip with my husband!

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Picking up a couple of treats for Katie and Eric (who did not come with us on this trip) at Miette; then, settling down to a Blue Bottle capuccino in the Ferry Building in San Francisco to finish up Meb’s book

6. Waiting (Frank M. Robinson, science fiction, 1999)

“You should read your morning paper more often, Artie. Your species is monstrous when it comes to hypocrisy: you keep telling yourselves how much you prize human life when it’s obvious there’s nothing you value less. You love violence, you adore it…”

Could. Not. Put. This. Down.

This one takes place in San Francisco, the home base for Robinson himself. Imagine another species of human beings hiding on the planet for 35,000 years and waiting to take over the planet. This one was recommendation from my husband, who has impeccable taste in reading material. A good summer/beach read, Waiting explores the topic of the 6th extinction and probes themes of illusion and reality. Both suspenseful and intellectual, this page-turner is pure pleasure.

I read a paperback copy, too. As much as I have come to love the Kindle, feeling a book in my hands and smelling its scent are pleasures that I will never want to miss.

Put it on your list? YES. Especially if you are a sci fi fan and know San Francisco. It zips along.

7. The One and Only Ivan (Katherine Applegate, fiction, 2013 Newberry Medal)

“Gorillas are not complainers. We’re dreamers, poets, philosophers, nap takers.” 

“It’s not so bad, I wanted to tell the little boy. With enough time, you can get used to almost anything.”

Read this one with Katie and Eric.

Most of the book, a fictional look at a real silverback kept alone in base captivity at a mall circus for years before rescue, rendered our heart into pieces. It’s narrated by Ivan the gorilla who is also an artist, and discussion opportunities are rich indeed. Eric liked Holes much better, but Katie responded viscerally to the strong elegaic feel of the syntax and structure. It’s a story about how we make art and why, kindness, and selfhood. Definitely recommend for the library.

Find out more about the premise here.

So much wisdom and insight in this book. I could quote it all day. Applegate based this text on a real gorilla (there really was an Ivan!). So compelling, especially as we consider travesties like keeping majestic orcas in too-small spaces just to make a buck. There is a definite agenda with this book—you will like it better if you are more animal-conscious—though it is an agenda with which I very much agree.

Caretakers. We human beings, with our evolved intelligence, have a responsibility to be good stewards here on planet Earth. This has been a theme in much of my reading this year. It’s not just about us, though all through history we have wanted it to be, as a species. (Everything in space revolving around Earth, right? The heresy of Galileo!). We have invented narratives to make us the center of all existence, and we live with the inheritance of this hubris. I think it is time for a new way… To see ourselves as we really are, part of a long chain and not the end of the chain, either. Maybe we will become a gentler species if we do think about this perspective.

8. A Hitchcock Reader (ed. Marshall Deutelbaum and Leland Poague, 1986)

“A central characteristic of Expressionism (as a cinematic movement) is the distortion of the “reality” the camera records or the creation of a world phenomenologically remote from the reality recognized by our senses; a central concept of montage theory is the creation of concepts that have no necessary phenomenological equivalents in what was actually presented before the camera…”

Okay, this one is for the nerdiest nerds. The Hitchcock oeuvre is a pet project of mine. Around the time Katie was born, I had watched most of all of his films (even the old ones, yes). Some are difficult to find. I read as much criticism as I can find, as well, though I recognize Hitchcock is only on the edge of the canon. I am noot sure he, as yet, would command enough heft as a thesis topic at a major university, though I think scholarship has been heading in that direction.

Regardless, he is one of my favorite directors, and through this project I have learned much more about film theory than I once knew. At the same time, I will never be a true film theorist; my fascination with Hitchcock stems much more from his themes and imagery and social commentary.

So this book here. I scoped it out years ago and realized a copy could be obtained at Berkeley—it is a textbook, essentially, of 25 incredibly detailed analysis essays compiled for the first time into one volume. This book was being used for a film class, and at the time, my brother was still finishing up his degree at Cal. My mom and brother coordinated to bring this book home and give it to me for Christmas.

In fact, I did read many parts of it right away, particularly using it as a reference for the films I was involved with at the time. A perfect gift. This month, though, I re-read it, focusing more time on essays I had not covered as thoroughly originally; this book is a way back into my hobby. I don’t prioritize much time for films these days, unfortunately in this case. Still, I got to thinking that I should try to see some of the films I haven’t viewed yet… But whether I do or don’t, or wait until the children are grown and no longer homeschooling, I really loved letting my mind dwell in some old-school critical theory and art analysis. Lots of Freud stuff in this one—very pre-90s!—but that didn’t detract from the sheer pleasure it is to read and write criticism/analysis about any work of art. This was probably the most esoteric and niche-specific of books I read this month. I wouldn’t recommend it at all, unless you have very particular interests.


And that was May! Happy JUNE everybody. A couple different titles being released in June for which I have been eagerly waiting. And I just got a recommendation from a friend for a new Neil Gaiman (a favorite author) release of short stories, which I bought this morning at 4:30 AM before my swim training. (I skipped ahead after reading the introduction to one of her favorites, and it was GOOOOOOOOD)! Also, the kids and I are in the middle of The Mysterious Benedict Society—already on pace to be another favorite of ours this year. June is shaping up to be a good month of reading! Excited, definitely.

Happy reading, everyone!