A Journal of Life Pursued

Posts Tagged ‘Reading’

On My Mind

In Books, Life, Memoir, Reading, The Examined Life on February 15, 2013 at 6:00 am

A few odds & ends, things I’ve been contemplating recently:

I read about 50 books a year. I am 57. Let’s say I live another 30 years. That’s: 30 x 50 = 1500. Fifteen hundred books in front of me, given the assumptions. That’s a focus I need to get my head around.

* * *

There are 196 countries in the world. To the best of my recollection, I’ve been to about thirty-five of them. That’s about 18%. I would like more, but am satisfied. Fifty seems a nice round number, though. If wanderlust is your thing, you might want to check out The Art of Non-Conformity, Unconventional Strategies for Life, Work, and Travel. I met Chris, the unassuming force behind The Art of Non-Conformity, here in Portland a year or two ago as he was passing through on a book tour. He’s on country 193.

* * *

I’m a baby boomer. I was raised in a Mad Men world of: More, Bigger, Faster. That hasn’t worked out all that well. The future is: Less, Smaller, Slower. Not everyone agrees with my assessment and that’s fine. Eventually, however, more people rather than less must embrace the future mantra, Less, Smaller, Slower, or there will be no future to experience–or rather, no species to experience it. This is a hard thing and I worry we’ll not pull it off.  Wm. James:

“The world may be saved, on condition that its parts shall do their best. But shipwreck in detail, or even on the whole, is among the open possibilities.”

There is a blog I follow, Zen Habits, that might be of interest if you want to think more on a Less, Smaller, Slower lifestyle.

* * *

Alan Watts writes that the Zen mind is like a mirror: it reflects everything but absorbs nothing. This image has dogged me since I first encountered it. It seems much of what remains difficult, in politics, in business, in life, is the result of that which has been absorbed–what the Buddha called attachment. What is the cost-value ratio of that which we have “absorbed?”

* * *

Dostoyevsky wrote: “You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home…” Our recent snow storm prompted memories of my fondest childhood experiences: towering snow drifts, King of the Hill battles atop snow mountains, bundled neighborhood friends. I said recently that, as a species, we have no calling to a natal stream, no return to a territory; yet, perhaps the territory of memory is our blessing-curse natal shadowland. There is comfort there, but like a strong drug, memory over-use is addictive and ultimately debilitating.

* * *

The world remains a wonderful–and wonderous–place. There is not so much effort required to make this observation, though it does not come freely. I subscribe to a modest discipline to maintain this perspective: “Develop your legitimate strangeness,” said poet, René Char. The world would rather we not take this course and remain with the herd. You know my thoughts on this.

Thanks for reading and your continued interest in “…the house I live in….”

Would Nabokov think you a “good” reader?

In Books, Creativity, Literature, Writers, Writing on January 25, 2013 at 6:00 am

“A hundred years ago,” wrote Vladimir Nabokov, “Gustave Flaubert in a letter to his mistress made the following remark: ‘What a scholar one might be if one knew well only some half dozen books.'”

Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov

My sophomore year in college found me in a comparative literature class. I didn’t know what comparative literature was, but it sounded up my alley. My introduction to the discipline was ill-fated, learning quickly that the serious student was the one reading the texts in the original language. That makes sense. I was fated with the knowledge that with my genetic indifference to languages not womb-embedded, I would be better served building on my tenuous hold of the known, and forsake aspirations foreign. The course, however, instilled in me a keen interest in world literature that continues to this day. For that I am grateful.

The comp-lit class was taught by an associate professor. He was young and enthusiastic and brimming with energy. It did not take him long to introduce us to Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), the reclusive writer, whom our young professor had once interviewed in Montreux, Switzerland, where the master was spending his autumnal days. I did not know of this Nabokov, but my curiosity was aroused. I soon consumed all things Nabokovian.

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A half-dozen years later Nabokov published his Lectures on Literature. The writer had, for nearly twenty years, flexed his substantial literary muscle in the classroom, first at Wellesley then Cornell–and here were his lectures. According to Lectures, this is how “the course” opens:

“With a pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual, we shall watch the artist build the castle of cards and watch the castle of cards become a castle of beautiful steel and glass.”

With that, Nabokov launches into his lectures. One former student of the course, Ross Wetzsteon, recalls Nabokov the teacher advising, “‘Caress the details,’ Nabokov would utter, rolling the r, his voice the rough caress of a cat’s tongue, ‘the divine details.'”

Here is the syllabus:

I’ve read several of these books with Nabokov’s notes at my elbow. It is not unlike, I bet, sitting in a masterclass with Yo-Yo Ma.

Let me share with you an extended passage by the master from the introduction, Good Readers and Good Writers:

“One evening at a remote provincial college through which I happened to be jogging on a protracted lecture tour, I suggested a little quiz–ten definitions of a reader, and from these ten the students had to choose four definitions that would combine to make a good reader. I have mislaid the list, but as far as I remember the definitions went something like this. Select four answers to the question what should a reader be to be a good reader:

  1. The reader should belong to a book club.
  2. The reader should identify himself or herself with the hero or heroine.
  3. The reader should concentrate on the social-economic angle.
  4. The reader should prefer a story with action and dialogue to one with none.
  5. The reader should have seen the book in a movie.
  6. The reader should be a budding author.
  7. The reader should have imagination.
  8. The reader should have memory.
  9. The reader should have a dictionary.
  10. The reader should have some artistic sense.

The students leaned heavily on emotional identification, action, and the social-economic or historical angle. Of course, as you have guessed, the good reader is one who has imagination, memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense–which sense I propose to develop in myself and in others whenever I have the chance.”

Nabokov’s approach was sailing against the winds of the popular literary criticism movement of the time, deconstructionism. We won’t wade into that pool here, but suffice it to

Nabokov's notes on Kafka, with bug.

Nabokov’s notes on Kafka, with bug.

say, his approach to literature was not de jour–but it was lasting, thankfully. A quick perusal of Lectures on Literature reveals one major tenant of Nabokov’s appreciation and understanding of literature: the visual. He teaches to sketch major ideas. Draw Kafka’s bug, or map Leopold Bloom‘s perambulations through Dublin.

Nabokov's copy of Madam Bovary

Nabokov’s copy of Madam Bovary

Also, read with a writing instrument. And use it:

I’ll leave you with this thought, also from the introduction:

“Incidentally, I used the word ‘reader’ very loosely. Curiously enough, one cannot ‘read’ a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why…”

I think, with that, I will be obnoxious and make you seek out the master’s answer as to why a good reader is a rereader.

I only wish he had taught Moby Dick. Class dismissed.

Thanks for reading,

d

Tell me a story.

In Books, Writers, Writing on January 15, 2013 at 6:00 am

421“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” That is the declaration by which Joan Didion begins her now-classic, The White Album (1979). The book is a highly literary, essay-slash-memoir collection exploring the 1960s and 70s in California. Martin Amis, in reviewing the book, called Ms. Didion, a “poet of the Great Californian Emptiness.” It was a time of personal challenge for Didion, chiefly of the mental-stability order, and the expanse of California as metaphor agitates as a perfect harmonic.  Central to the book is the unease of the era as exemplified by the Charles Manson Helter Skelter murder of Sharon Tate and friends. Tate was a friend of Didion‘s. (As a side note, if you pick up The White Album I strongly suggest–no, demand–you then read Battleborn, by Claire Vaye Watkins. Watkins is the daughter of Charles “Tex” Watkins,  Manson’s righthand-man. Battleborn is starkly, and breathtakingly, original.)

So as to not drop Ms. Didion’s quote out of context, here is the full paragraph for your reading pleasure:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accident, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be ‘interesting’ to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be, the Aristophanic view, snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest’s clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely… by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria — which is our actual experience.”

I am unabashedly smitten by: “We live entirely…by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images….”

(Aside: I drifted to this shore while reading an article about the current line-up of new TV shows, in particular shows that qualify my loose definition of being narrative-driven. You know the shows: Downton Abbey, Shameless, Breaking Bad, Homeland and a few others. (Full disclosure, I watch–no, I drink thirstily–the mentioned shows.) Are these the stories we are telling ourselves in order to live? What does that mean?)

I have another quote from The White Album in my moleskine: “I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read me, who I am and where I am and what is on my mind.” That is as beautiful an explanation of why a writer writes as ever I’ve encountered. I trust Vonnegut‘s “ink-stained wretches” are applauding furiously. This is the quote that comes foremost to mind when reflecting on that which is attempted here at …the house…. My personal bookend to Ms. Didion’s observation is that I read in the hope, maybe even in the faith, that I will find a writer who will not necessarily explain my life, but share it. That, my friends, is why we tell stories–which is to say, the declaration of our very existence.

Sunday repost: “Two truths approach each other…”

In Creativity, Life, Reading, The Examined Life, Wisdom, Writing on January 13, 2013 at 6:00 am

Books at Tempo De Lari, Peru, D. Bruns, 2006

I recently read of a woman who spends her entire waking hours reading. Apparently she is a woman of means, or perhaps a woman of no means, like my homeless friend Lonnie. Her’s is a case of the extreme in one direction or the other. Regardless, she apparently indulges her singular obsession to the fullest. I am reminded of Einstein who said, “Any man [or woman] who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.”

* * *

I’ve been gripped by obsessions all my life. I seek them out. It’s not worth doing a thing if not to do it obsessively–that is a tag line hung on my life by an observant friend. Yet this woman’s reading obsession troubles me.

A passage from a Tomas Tranströmer poem might illuminate my concern:

Two truths approach each other / One comes from without–and where they meet you have the chance / To catch a look at yourself.

Reading is the richest supplement to life I know. Yet it does not replace life. It can be the truth which “comes from without” but the magic of catching that “look at yourself” comes at the intersection with the second truth, life. That is, of course, the trouble with obsession. It crowds life. I know this to be true.

* * *

Yet, how is a worthy thing to be accomplished without it?

Habits of a blogger

In Books, Creativity, Reading, Writing on January 12, 2013 at 6:00 am

I am a rigid and determined creature of habit. I wish it were otherwise. It would be nice to go dancing through life on a whim, bending to curiosity, twisting to spontaneity. I admire the carefree force, that personality moving through existence on the juice of life alone. (Undoubtedly the French have a name for it.) But no, my ancestors were too Germanic for that. I have habits, routines to keep. This is stuff of my twisted double helix. Too, I am a mid-westerner by up-bringing. Mid-westerners are notorious for stoic productivity. As I’ve said, you cannot escape your biography.

When I retired a few years ago the form of my existence became fluid, like water, filling the shape of any containing vessel. It didn’t take me long to construct a new vessel, filling the hours with projects and schedules. So, to finish off our three-part conversation about habit, here is how I filled the vessel specific to my so-called creative thinking life.

It begins with a short walk at sunrise–and the hope that my muse is out and about. Wrestling your muse to the deck is a bit like catching trout: you can trick her or seduce her, but if you go straight for the kiss, she’ll slip away, a watery sprite at once beautiful yet invisible. If I’ve been successful, the walk ends with a notion of what the day’s creative output is going to look like. That is a thing akin to grace, I suspect.

The production side of the creative ledger finds me at my desk every afternoon. The routine is 1:00 to 4:00, three hours of pecking away. But often, like now, it starts at the breakfast table, trying to tie down a thought or two before the sun vaporizes them. Two years ago I stopped writing …the house… in an effort to collect my thoughts on a larger canvas. I thought I’d write a book, the working title of which was, appropriately, Notes of an Autodidact. Sounds like a yawner, doesn’t it? That did not work out but in the attempt, I discovered my daily rule of 500. That is, write five hundred words a day, minimum. Three hours, five hundred words–whichever comes first. That is the writer-blogger at work.

On the intake side of the creative ledger is the reading. Books are the oxygen by which we fill our lungs. Reading is counting pages for me. Fifty pages a day is the minimum tempo, the metronome of my reading day. That is, fifty pages of the current book. Periodical reading, though entertaining, is too often a time-consuming distraction (much like computer time, a sin factored slightly less grave than tv watching (though I commit that sin, guiltily, too frequently)). The New Yorker, The Paris Review (a quarterly, read for the interviews!) and The New York Review of Books are the extent of the periodicals. The morning paper too and a handful of blogs on my RSS reader round out my reading day.

That’s it. Reading and writing, putting in the time, day after day. Breath in, breath out.

__________

…and, in the news flash department, philosopher Gary Gutting takes a look at Zadie Smith’s thoughts on Joy over at the New York Times’ Opinionator page. Gutting’s piece, The Joy of Zadie Smith and Thomas Aquinas, is artless, but well structured and precise–exactly what one would expect, sadly, of a philosopher. It is, however, thought provoking. It makes for chewy reading.

Here we have a nice, serendipitous, wrinkle demonstrating how a well-articulated notion, Zadie’s essay, starts a thinking process, the birth of an idea’s history–like a Big Bang of  thought it expands and washes over spectator and participant alike. In this instance, as a bonus, because it is rendered artistically, there is pleasure involved (to walk the edge of Smith’s arguement). I read it and send it to you; you absorb it; Gutting writes about it; we visit and entertain his thoughts, her thoughts, and so forth; layered, and inclusive, all of us suddenly part of a larger conversation. That is a function of art, indeed.

Thanks for reading and have a terrific weekend.

d

Habits of learning.

In Books, Curiosity, Life, Reading, Science, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas on January 11, 2013 at 6:00 am

There are many subjects discussed here at “…the house…” It’s an eclectic place. Commenting on this, a friend recently asked about my habits of learning. I thought I’d take a moment and talk about that. I wrote about the habits of reader-writers yesterday. This makes for a natural, albeit tangential, elaboration.

As I’ve said previously, I’m an autodidact. That is, I learn best on my own and without specific direction from others. (Ray Bradbury is a best-case example of an autodidact. A recent post on Bradbury, among other things, can be found here.) College showed me what to be interested in, pointed me in a direction. I took over from there. Through the years I have wished for a mentor, a guide, someone to help me in my intellectual pursuits; but that never happened and is not likely to happen now. Consequently, an evolution of learning resulted, a fashion of making my own way. It is simple and boils down to this: biography and original sources.

Let’s start with biography, and since we recently talked a bit about quantum physics, perhaps we will begin there.

Many years ago I came to better appreciate how modern physics was redefining our understanding of the physical world, but I had little understanding of the work being done. Where to begin? Abstraction is booksdifficult for me. I need the hook of personality to guide my quest. Ergo, biography. Want to learn something? Begin with the lives of those who discovered/practiced/exercised the discipline. I began learning about physics by reading Denis Brian’s biography, Einstein: A Life. More properly, I began learning about the life of Einstein.

The book set the stage, but it was only the beginning. I came to learn from my reading that the good professor was at the sunset of work being done in traditional Newtonian physics. With that (new)98685 knowledge, I moved to modern physics with the brilliant award-winning biography, Genius, The Life and Times of Richard Feynman, by James Gleick. I was starting to settle in, getting traction, and knew that one life still had to be explored: Robert Oppenheimer. I turned to the definitive book, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

71JUG2TW19LI will resist the urge to riff on these books. They get me excited. I cannot over recommend them. (Though Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein is the one to read now.)

With this work done, I was equipped to move to the next phase: original sources. However, I could not read original sources. I am mathematically illiterate. So, where to turn? I read books for the lay person. (Fortunately, too, I have a physicist in the family. Advice: find an expert.) But still, I gave a selection of the original sources a go and found the good Doctor Einstein’s book, Relativity, The Special and General Theory, to be surprisingly accessible (if you ignore the math). File:The_pleasure_of_finding_things_outMany of Feynman’s books are written for the layperson. (Start with The Pleasure of Finding Things Out–not physics, per se, but wonderful thoughts on leaning and curiosity.) The point being, without the biographies I would not have asked the right questions, read the right supplemental books, discovered the correct sources. By the end of the process–I probably invested two year’s reading–I was confident that I knew what I needed and wanted to know.

____________________________

I share this to perhaps help you on your quest, whatever that might be. I’ve read a lot of books and hope to read many more. If you’re a life-long learner perhaps you’ve got your own technique. I share mine to show how one person does it. Maybe you have a technique you think I would appreciate. Please share. We’re all pilgrims on this journey.

_____________________________

Lastly:

Our schools teach from secondary and tertiary sources. This is a pity. Original thinkers shared. They wrote books to be read. My personal admonition: Do the homework, go to the source–and, for me, prepare for the source material; that is, read the biographies.

Thanks for reading,

d