Archive for the ‘books & reading’ Category

Promiscuous kindling

January 8, 2013

One of the best things about an extended holiday (like the one I’m trying with just-partial success to shake off) is the opportunity it affords a reader like me to read with even more promiscuity and less accountability than normal. I know there are those who delight in drawing up and plowing systematically through precise reading lists, seriatim. Good for them. Doesn’t work for me, usually.

No, I prefer to bounce from title to title when “reading for pleasure” and not prepping for a particular class. Though compulsive about many other things I’ve never been one to insist on finishing a book I’m not loving, just on principle. Can’t blame Kindle for that, I was title-surfing back before it was simple to sample with just one click. But Kindle’s definitely made it easier for people like me to bounce around without commitment, complaint, or notable consequence.

A quick slide backward reveals these free excerpts I’ve downloaded and devoured in just the last few days:

  • Katie Roiphe, In Praise of Messy Lives
  • George Saunders, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil
  • George Takei, Oh Myyy!
  • Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
  • David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
  • Randal Keynes, Darwin, His Daughter, & Human Evolution
  • Robert Gottlieb, Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens
  • Malcolm Gladwell’s foreword to The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs
  • Alain de Botton, How to Think More About Sex
  • Stephen Colbert, America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t
  • Sean Carroll, The Particle at the End of the Universe
  • John Powell, How Music Works
  • David Niose, Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans
  • Massimo Pigliucci, Blogging as a Path to Self Knowledge
  • Chrisoula Andreou and Mark White, The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination

I don’t apologize for the catholicity of my freebie list, but I do apologize to my friends in the shrinking and vulnerable world of independent bookselling. They really need my dime and my commitment. To that end, I’ve borrowed a New Year’s resolution (I forget from whom) to buy at least one bound physical book at Parnassus every month in 2013, books I discover there without premeditation.

But I’m keeping my Kindle.

True Blue

August 25, 2012

Two faculty meetings in one day: that’s sure to be the most fun I’ll have all year!

The first was our annual gathering of the entire university faculty, when new hires are introduced, old faculty are “reco’nized” (our leader is one of those who drops his “g”s) and awarded, and we all get a pep talk. They’re pushing us to be “True Blue,” we Blue Raiders of Murfreesboro. But that’s not a marketing slogan, “they” insist, it’s an affirmation of our commitment to being “student-centered”… and that means “graduate ’em!” We got out of Tucker well before noon this year, and on to the only free lunch we can expect. That was good for my morale.

Then, the first departmental staff meeting of many… despite my motion to meet with slightly less frequency. Seems to me we’re no more decisive in our weekly sessions than we ever were, even back when meetings tended to be impromptu hall-collarings. But I’m not The Decider.

I shouldn’t complain, I’m no longer a Senator and my other committee responsibilities are perfectly intermittent. But the meetings I really signed on for are the ones beginning Monday, the ones where I’m the oldest guy in the room without a close second.

I usually begin, once we’re past preliminaries about office hours and exam dates et al, by noting the summer reading assignment that most haven’t completed. Like many schools now, we seek to “provide a unifying experience” and “encourage intellectual interaction among students” (ahem) by designating a book all (or at least all freshpersons) are encouraged to have read by Opening Day.

Faculty are also encouraged to read and incorporate the summer selection into early lesson plans. In the past I’ve enjoyed doing that, with philosophically-suggestive titles like Listening Is An Act of Love (the StoryCorps book) and Three Cups of Tea (before Greg Mortenson became infamous).

But this time I’m kinda stumped. A Peal in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean just doesn’t resonate with me. I suppose students are expected to identify with the metaphor of being tossed about by stormy weather, far from shore. I just can’t get past the puzzle: why would any sane person try to row the ocean, in the 21st century? “Just because it’s there” does not strike me as an intelligent answer.

But I’ll ask the kids. They know more than we tend to give them credit for.

Against the grain

August 21, 2012

One good Birkerts quote leads to another. Here he describes how useful and enlightening it can be to reverse a familiar walk. Turn around. Go the other way. See how things look from the other perspective.

…going against the grain of my usual track, seeing every single thing from the other side, was suddenly welcome… the waft of that elusive something added to the usual air. Habit and repetition. It’s not as if I don’t know this other walk intimately too– not as if I haven’t taken it  hundreds of times over what are now becoming these years of walking. How is it I haven’t written more on this topic? It’s been a big part of the day’s business for years. I don’t remember when I started.The Other Walk

I started in college. I’m still circling, still trying to enclose something amorphous but important. Or maybe it’s just become important to me that I keep circling, to occupy myself with something rather than nothing. I like to think of myself as sleuthing a mystery, following a trail to some unforeseen revelation. Or to nothing at all. But I’ll keep tracking ’til I can’t, and like Sven I’ll turn around when the trail goes cold.

It’s nice to know I’m not the only one out there. But Sven’s in Minnesota, I think. We probably won’t cross paths, except in words. Good reason to read, indeed.

Why read

August 20, 2012

Another sure sign that the Fall semester’s about to begin: awoke at about 3:30 in the middle of an impassioned lecture/harangue/dream, in which I was reprimanding students who’d shrugged off a class assignment and announced that “we don’t read.” Almost fumbled around in the dark for a pad & pencil to write it down, it felt insightful and elusive, as mid-night thoughts so often deceptively do. But I didn’t, so I’ll never know how instructive my dreamspeech really was. Others, though, have addressed this subject with conscious eloquence. Sven Birkerts, for instance:

The reading imagination further opens onto history, the understanding that every culture is deeply layered and does not become relevant only with the latest app. Understanding the lives of others as embedded in time and place, however remote or recent, reinforces that awareness of our own situation. We aren’t privileged beings suspended in the bubble of the now, and our experience is not unique.

Or as C.S. Lewis was made to say in Shadowlands: we read to know we are not alone.

Just ride

June 25, 2012

I don’t often stay up after midnight reading things I don’t have to, but State of Wonder left me no choice last night. I read it in the pool, in the hammock, and finally in the house. I read it on paper, in pixels, on the iPod, on the Kindle, every which way. I had to finish it.

My fellow Nashvillian Ann Patchett is a wonderful storyteller. She didn’t make me want to go the Amazon jungle,  she made me feel like I’d been there already. And she made malaria fun.

She’s a wonderful bookseller too. Her Parnassus hosted an event yesterday for the cycling enthusiast & author of Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your BikeGrant Petersen reminds us that a bike is a toy and we’re supposed to enjoy it. Don’t count the miles, he says. Count the minutes if you must; but it’s far better to count the days, if you want to make them really count.

“When you count a day, you check it off whether you ride five minutes or five hours. I rode my bike today! Count things that add up fast, come easy, and encourage you.”

The days aren’t all easy but they do keep coming (until they don’t). I’m much encouraged by Petersen’s simple message: forget the racer-wannabe culture of spandex and BORAF (the Big Old Race Around France) and, well, just ride. As I’ve said: for me philosophy walks, but it rolls too.

The art of being wise

June 21, 2012

The summer reading list continues to grow, as it tends in June to do. Time still seems long. That’s an illusion, of course, but for now a nurturing one. So I’m going to add a couple more titles that came to me just yesterday.

First, to allay my guilt at spending more time browsing cheap old McKay’s than Ann Patchett’s rich new Parnassus, her State of Wonder. There’s a practical point to this one, for me, aside from its blurbed promise to be “perfect from first page to last.” It also addresses issues in bioethics, as I’ll be doing in the coming Spring semester. So this one’s class prep.

Second, speaking of the Amazon (and again, offending Independent Booksellers everywhere): all of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books have now been made available for free, for Amazon Prime members. Older Daughter’s long been pestering me to read them, so Sorcerer’s Stone [Philosopher’s Stone, it should be] now awaits my selective attention on the Kindle.

Plate’s full, I must stop visiting the buffet. James’s analogy in Principles of Psychology may be helpful:

As the art of reading (after a certain stage in one’s education) is the art of skipping, so the art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook. (Volume 2, “Reasoning”)

That applies to personal foibles as much as to books and reading, of course. We all have much to overlook.

“At sunrise, I’m out again”

June 7, 2012

We’ve lost one of our great autodidacts. Ray Bradbury educated himself (“found myself”) in libraries, where he developed a Whitman-like regard for the personalities embedded in books, and became a great non-academic teacher of writing and of life. He said we should “give the gift of life with our books. Say to a girl or boy at age ten, Hey, life is fun! Grow tall!”

And, he said, “if you enjoy living, it is not difficult to keep the sense of wonder.” And vice versa.

His greatest writerly advice:

Stuff your head. A course of bedtime reading: one short story, one poem (but Pope, Shakespeare, and Frost, not modern “crap”), and one essay. These essays should come from a diversity of fields, including archaeology, zoology, biology, philosophy, politics, and literature. “At the end of a thousand nights,” so he sums it up, “Jesus God, you’ll be full of stuff!”

Write with joy. In his mind, “writing is not a serious business.” If a story starts to feel like work, scrap it and start one that doesn’t. “I want you to envy me my joy,” he tells his audience.

List ten things you love, and ten things you hate. Then write about the former, and “kill” the later — also by writing about them. Do the same with your fears.

Just type any old thing that comes into your head. He recommends “word association” to break down any creative blockages, since “you don’t know what’s in you until you test it.”

Bradbury was hopeful and positive but wary, urgently warning us of all we’ve got to lose if we don’t value and preserve our inheritance. He recoiled from cynics and misanthropes, imagining a wondrous future built around great transformative ideas. “But,” he told Paris Review, “I don’t think I’m too overoptimistic.” In fact,

I don’t believe in optimism. I believe in optimal behavior. That’s a different thing. If you behave every day of your life to the top of your genetics, what can you do? Test it. Find out. You don’t know—you haven’t done it yet. You must live life at the top of your voice!”

Living at the top of his voice meant to him a kind of transcendence. When Ray was a little boy he saw a circus performer called “Mr. Electrico,” who touched him with a sizzling sword and said Live forever! “And I decided to.”

He wrote his own perfect coda, at the beginning of his novel-writing career, with a great testament to books and living called Fahrenheit 451. It concludes:

At sunset I’ve won or lost. At sunrise, I’m out again, giving it the old try.

It’s not game over with sunset. For optimalists like Ray Bradbury, the sun is after all still a morning star. Light is metaphor, light is life. “More light.”

“The Art of Fielding”

December 22, 2011

Chad Harbach’s first novel was a perfect change of pace at semester’s end, so compelling I wasn’t tempted to check twitter or email or the Times even once yesterday. I’ll never again commence winter break without immersing in a cool fiction. But I do feel about closing it as Harbach’s legendary ur-Cards shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez felt about leaving the field after the last out:

It always saddens me to leave the field. Even fielding the final out to win the World Series, deep in the truest part of me, felt like death.

But I’ll return to this book and its truly novel combination of elements: baseball, the pursuit of perfection, the vicissitudes of fortune, literature (especially Melville), philosophy (especially the Stoicism of Aurelius and Epctetus). Harbach is one of my people: captivated by words but all too aware of their limitations, and ours.

Talking was like throwing a baseball… You had to throw out words without knowing whether anyone would catch them — you had to throw out words you knew no one would catch. You had to send your words out where they weren’t yours anymore. It felt better to talk with a ball in your hand, it felt better to let the ball do the talking. But the world, the nonbaseball world, the world of love and sex and jobs and friends, was made of words.

Words have never expressed our common plight more succinctly, “The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and  will not.”

One of Harbach’s characters loves the work of Whitman, which he intends to read to an injured and convalescing young friend & lover. But “he should have brought Tocqueville. Or William James.”

Yes, bring it. A sequel would be great.


A 1st world biblio-“problem”

December 5, 2011

I have a First World Problem. Most of my problems are FWPs, actually. I’ve really got very little to complain about. Supportive and loving family, gratifying work (though I’ll soon be complaining again about grading!), good health… plenty of reasons to be a “happy pragmatist,” indeed.

But who wants to hear about that? So, the problem: I’m torn between the classy new Independent bookstore in town, the grungy old bargain barn bookseller, and Kindle.

I used to work in bookstores, before I became a credentialed and tenured academic. I loved it, loved the atmosphere of books and readers, loved helping readers find books, loved the whole idea of supporting myself by propagating ideas. And I loved being a local Independent, not part of a sprawling corporate chain.

Then, I left. A little later my bookstore moved to the mall. Bad move.

Then, Amazon and e-readers swallowed the Independents and most of the chains.

Then, last year, my old store liquidated. For a while “The Athens of the South” was a relative biblio-desert.

Then, just a couple of weeks ago, Ann Patchett bankrolled Parnassus. I spent a glorious hour there Friday evening, sitting in one of the comfy chairs and leafing through Christopher Hitchens’ Arguably and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.

And then my wife arrived, I abandoned Hitch and Kahneman, and we headed next door for sushi. We made no purchases. (On a previous visit, though, she’d bought Patchett’s State of Wonder for her Mom.)

On Saturday, after finishing Driver’s Ed, Older Daughter requested a trip to the Used Books emporium. I found a brand-new, sparkling copy of A.C. Grayling’s Mystery of Things for 75 cents.

Yesterday I downloaded Kindle samples of several New York Times “notables” for no cents at all.

The problem: I’m cheap, I love books, I don’t want Parnassus to go away.

There’s an obvious easy solution here, if I can just overcome my akrasia. I will work on it.

Cure my biblio addiction? No no no

August 3, 2011

Summertime is seductive, for addictive personalities like mine. All the ordinary obstacles between me and my compulsions are gone, and I’m dreadfully free (as Sartre might have put it) to choose just how excessively I’ll overindulge them. Reading, tweeting, hammocking, biking, staying up late with extra-inning MLB broadcasts… It’s glorious. Or pathetic. No, I’m sticking with glorious.

It all goes back to baseball-card collecting in childhood, is my untestable theory, and to whatever complex of genetic predispositions and acquired psychological yearnings can make a kid want to fill empty hours with stuff and nonsense. But who cares? Not me this morning. “People who become addicted are wired differently from those who do not,” writes Richard Friedman in the Times. But I’m not blaming my D2 receptors. I accept full responsibility.

This summer’s unshakable new addiction, I realized yesterday, is to the big Used Books emporium down the street. (I should say, the new venue for my ancient addiction.) Once again I found myself rounding up neglected, dusty, forgotten old books and CDs, stuffing them in a canvas bag, and heading out in hopes of a fresh haul of unknown treasures. Once again I was rewarded for the effort.

(For the record: the girls were invited to come along but declined. Too bad for them. Discretionary disposition of the store credit in my wallet would be mine, all mine.)

This time I unloaded several classical CDs I had not listened to (or even really thought about) since about 1989. Ravel? Saint-Saens? Really? I was addicted back then to Tower Records, across from Vanderbilt’s Carmichael Towers, and to the revolutionary new medium that would make us all forget LPs and cassettes once and for all. (Don’t forget to forget 8-tracks.) The shiny disks in their “jewel boxes” were irresistible. That’s how I came to possess a cardboard box of them, in a lonely corner of my Little House out back.

The haul? Three by Updike (trying to fill out my collection, now that the prolific author is no longer cranking out titles faster than I could keep up with during his indefatigable working lifetime), two on cycling (Pedaling Revolution kept me up last night, along with the Cards’ extra-inning win in Milwaukee), a bio of Shakespeare, a breezy collection of literary biographies from, The Beak of the Finch (a terrific study of evolution by Jonathan Weiner), Al Gore’s Our Choice, The End of Food in pristine hardcover (still wearing its mocking Borders sticker), a beautiful compendium of the works of Josiah Royce, the latest & best Willie Mays bio (for $1!)… and more.

I went in with a bag full of unwanted CDs. I came out with more than a bag full of prospective, eagerly-anticipated moments of pleasure and insight, and with a store credit promising further gratification to come. If this is not a positive addiction I don’t want to know. Send me to rehab? No no no!