Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

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.

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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

We, the readers.

In Books, Creativity, Reading, Writing on January 7, 2013 at 6:00 am

A lot of us at the community of …the house… are readers. Consider, for instance, Susan, a faithful and communicative fellow “house” member. She posted a comment (two actually) after my reading list 2012 post sharing her list for 2012. It’s very impressive, and from her brief and concise notes you can tell she is a close reader. Then there is Pete Denton. Pete is a …house… reader who keeps pace with his own blog, Pete Denton. Pete caught my reading list a couple of years ago (2011 here, and 2010 here–you get the idea.) and this year challenged himself to reading a book in every genre. He called it The Eclectic Reading Challenge. His list for 2012 is here. I applaud his discipline.

My reading isn’t so organized as Pete’s. I’m not good at forcing myself to read a book. I used to be good at it. My shelves are full of books I read because I believed a well-read individual should read that book, or this one, or perhaps the one this one refers to, and so on. I still believe that, and I’m glad I plowed through those books. But, as a more mature reader, most of my reading follows the notion that it is best to read the right book at the right time. That is, read the book that finds you, not necessarily the other way around.

Many years ago while browsing a bookstore in London I picked up Christopher Hitchen‘s Letters to a Young Contrarian. I started it and despite its brevity and marvelous writing, I set it aside. l8agyardok205260521I usually know within fifty pages if the book is going to work for me. Last week, maybe ten years after putting it back on the shelf, I plowed through it in two days. I can’t explain where I am as a reader this year verses ten years past, but the book “worked” for me this time.

Over at The New Psalmanazar, another blog I follow, “bibliophile and scribbler [writing] under the alias Ian Wolcott,” claims to have read over seventy books last year. From following his blog, I do not doubt it. He says “If I read a little less this year I might have time to think a little more.” Obviously a lot of books found Ian last year. Let’s hope he can get to more thinking this year, if that’s what he wishes.

File:ReadinglikeawriterFrancine Prose, in her wonderful book, Reading like a Writer, writes that:

“The more we read, the faster we can perform that magic trick of seeing how the letters have been  combined into words that have meaning. The more we read, the more we comprehend, the more likely we are to discover new ways to read, each one tailored to the reason why we are reading a particular book.”

If for no other reason, you must pick up Prose’s book to see her reading list of “Books to Read Immediately” (page 269).

So that settles it. We will read in 2013 and at the end of the year we get together and share notes. Right now, the next book is Why Does The World Exist? an Existential Dectecitive Story by Jim Holt. I think it is interesting that The New York Review of Books titles their essay about this book, What Can You Really Know?Untitled-5

And if you are not a reader? Change that right now. There is nothing you do, lose weight, be a better spouse, drive a hybrid, stop drinking, start drinking, that will be more important and significant. What to read? There are plenty of lists floating around. I’ve given you a couple. Prose’s list is a great one if fiction is your thing. Drop me a note and I’ll do what I can to steer you in the right direction. But most importantly, get a book on your lap. It makes your brain better and that makes existence better in a fashion faster, and more satisfyingly, than another other method.

By the way, side note, the cover to Why Does the World Exist, sports a most excellent photo by Magnum photographer, Dennis Stock. We love those Magnum folks.

Thanks for reading,

D

Reading list: 2012

In Books, Creativity, Memoir, Reading, The Examined Life, Writing on December 31, 2012 at 6:46 am
Not my book shelf.

Not my book shelf.

Okay, there is tradition. Who I am to swim against the current? Three years of reading lists. Let the tradition continue.

In the year 2012 I read the following: …but before I go there…my reading has slowed. Here are the stats: In 2009 I read 33 books. I was doing a lot of reviewing at the time and books were free. What would you expect? In 2010 I read 27 books. In 2011, 26. And last/this year, 2012, 20. Obviously a trend is at work here. I don’t like the look of diminishing returns and hope to rectify things going forward.

I expressed dismay over this trend to a friend recently, fewer books read every year and so on. Her respond was, “Perhaps you’re doing other things.” This is certainly true. This year has been consumed with a lot of “other things.” Perhaps that warrants further comment. Perhaps not.

Anyway, here are the twenty books I read in 2012. (Perhaps you, like me, walk into a friend’s house and move first to the bookshelf, if there is one. If there is no bookshelf it’s probably gonna be an early evening–drink deep. But a bookshelf is like peeling back the skull to the frontal lobes and seeing what a person is made of.)

So, again, here is what I was made of in 2012, first to last:

Something Urgent I Have to Say to You, , by Leibowitz, Herbert–biography of William Carlos Williams, the great American poet. Lots of potatoes, little meat.

Lines on the Water: A Fly Fisherman’s Life on the Miramichi, by David Richards Adams –beautiful account of life standing in moving water.

The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker–A heartbreaking perfect book.

Examined Lives, from Socrates to Nietzsche, by James Miller–The examined life? What can I say? A life mission.

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes–Barnes is a favorite. To my ear, so British, so proper. So much talent.

Incidents, by Roland Barthes–Observations by a master thinker.

End of the Earth, Voyaging to Antartica, by Peter Mettheissen–Perhaps my favorite living American author–after Jim Harrison, of course. Life rendered in adventure by a writer of the first order.

Why Read Moby Dick, by Nathaniel Philbrick–A good primer to a classic.

Thinking the Twentieth Century: Intellectuals and Politics in the Twentieth Century, by Tony Judt–A tough way to go, a slog, but we own the great late Judt the effort.

At Home in the World, a Memoir, by Joyce Maynard–The voice of an angel. It’s hard to blame Salinger, though one must. (See my post from May here.)

Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation, by Tim Bissell–An essayist to warrant jealousy.

Reading for My Life: Writings 1958-2008, by John Leonard–I grew pubic hair reading and listening to Leonard. So sad to see him gone. So grateful for his direction. It made a difference.

Canada, Richard Ford–Over-rated. I wanted to like it more, wanted to love it. But, alas, like so much we wish to love, it was effort ill spent.

Battleborn, by Watkins, Claire Vaye–Best reading of the year. A new, exciting, heavy, and worthy voice. Frankly amazing to me.

What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, by Jon, Young–wonderful introduction to being one with nature.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard–I read this first a few years ago while traveling in India. It was lost on me–too much distraction for such a quiet book. Now it seems the perfect study in observation rendered by an artist.

Canoe Indians of Down East Maine, by William A. Haviland–A homebound study. (They came to the coast from the woods in winter and lived off clams, in case you’ve wondered.)

Buddhism Is Not What You Think: Finding Freedom Beyond Beliefs, by Steve Hagan–“Not What You Think” is the key to this study. That is, if you can think of it, you’ve missed the point. Perfect zen, of course.

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, by Timothy Egan–Egan has won the National Book Award and Curtis is the wished for life, without the pain, of course.

Stoner, by John Edward, Williams–A perfect novel. No kidding. Perfection in search of a grand(er) scheme.

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Only one book was read electronically, Canada. That is not the reason it fell short; however, it did not help.

I want to apologize for that weird end-of-year summary post of yesterday. That was odd and unexpected. I don’t particularly like the look of that big ugly thing here at the …house…. It is too foreign and boisterious for our little gathering. Regardless, such are the things over which we have no control. There is a lesson in that.

Make it a good year, folks, as best you’re able. But remember a year is nothing but a collection of weeks and days and hours. I don’t want to be a minimalist (or perhaps I can’t help myself), but I think it better to make it a good hour, good minute, a good second even. When you do that the days and years follow naturally.

Best regards, friends.

Doug

We are what we…

In Books, Literature, Reading, Writing on August 3, 2012 at 6:00 am

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Anne Dillard

Schopenhauer famously said that we are what we eat. But for a reader things are a different matter. A reader’s muscle is composed of pages, bones of bindings, blood of ink, thread for sinew. A reader is made of books consumed.

There are armfuls of books that fill my cells, that course through my blood, pound against my temples from the inside. The best I return to, like a favorite meal, a metaphor Schopenhauer would surely understand.

I have returned to one such feast, Annie Dillard‘s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Pilgrim won the Pulitzer in 1974. Dillard was twenty-nine. It is a breath-taking and beautifully written book and fills my current appetite to better understand the physical world I move through. Allow me to share an extended quote:

The world’s spiritual geniuses seem to discover universally that the mind’s muddy river, this ceaseless flow of trivia and trash, cannot be dammed, and that trying to dam it is a waste of effort that might lead to madness. Instead you must allow the muddy river to flow unheeded in the dim channels of consciousness; you raise your sights; you look along it, mildly, acknowledging its presence without interest and gazing beyond it into the realm of the real where subjects and objects act and rest purely, without utterance. “Launch into the deep,” says Jacques Ellul, “and you shall see.”

Not all meals are equally satisfying, of course. Nor is nutrition evenly spread. I like a hearty meal, something that sticks to my ribs. I am not humorless, but have few deserts; nor am I given to starch. The books of my life seem endless in metabolic energy; like nuclear fusion they will burn long after my departure. Walden comes to mind. The essays of Montaigne. The Great White Whale, Moby Dick. And so many others. I eat and am never satisfied. Fortunately.