Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Reading’

In the Beginning was the Word

In Books, Creativity, Music, Writers, Writing on January 8, 2013 at 6:00 am

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Since we seem to be leaning toward the literary of late, I thought I would share a piece I wrote a very long time ago, twenty-one years to be precise. It was published in the Baltimore Sun, March 25, 1992. (Hey, it’s my blog, as I auto-plagiarize as I see fit.)

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Words are all we have ~ Samuel Beckett

The mechanics of reading follow roughly along these lines: The cones and rods of the eye are struck by photons of light reflected off the words on the page. This activity, transmitted by way of the optic nerve, is received as a hail of electrical blips somewhere in the lobes of the brain. A neural string of cells explodes, registering and triggering a response. Somehow, understanding, or cognition, results.

That, of course, is an approximate rendering of the process. Very little about it is actually understood.

The event that set me thinking along these lines occurred over a leisurely breakfast recently. It was one of those rare mornings when the children were quietly occupied elsewhere and the coffee in my cup was still warm. My wife sat reading across from me. I heard a sniffle, and, not moving my head, I looked up to see a tear rolling down her cheek. In a moment she was up and searching for a tissue, while I sat pondering the silent triggering of a tear duct.

My wife was reading the popular autobiography of Lewis Puller, Jr., “Fortunate Son.” Puller returned home from Vietnam without his legs, his buttocks, and parts of both hands. That’s enough to make one cry. But his account does more than simply rouse the reader to sympathy. It is artistic beyond imagery. Puller’s voice is both lyrical and humane, a voice speaking to what is best in us all, and to what is not best. That is why my wife cried. That is one of the things good writing does; it affects us.

Music can be just as potent. It is said the young Beethoven could easily discern what it would take to reduce his parlor audience to tears and then proceed to do just that. Afterward, he would mock those in the audience, calling them spoiled children and fools. I suspect he found their response to his music superficial, working as he did at a level of unfathomable artistic understanding.

Later, the Romantics exploited music’s emotive quality. One critic stopped calling it music altogether. It is all emotion now, he claimed.

The written word, however, is more directly related to the intellectual process of the human species than is music. Most of us do not think in musical terms. We think in words. (Fine musicians do both, I am told.) Most of us think in a type of linear verbal progression, almost from left to right. Stop reading this now and try to think in any other way.

It is said that we do not readily store memories until we have language; consequently, we cannot remember a pre-lingual existence with accuracy. If we were a computer we would be functioning without an operating system. The switch is on, but the screen is blank. Words are the difference; the well-written word is altogether different again.

Historically, civilizations arose when organized knowledge encountered adequate methods of writing. This first occurred in Mesopotamia and in Egypt, where business transactions required documentation. Archaeology has discovered the records of ancient traders, but it not the stuff that stirs the emotions or provokes the intellect. I have heard it debated among reasonable and educated adults that civilization, by definition, is not civilization until the poets arrive.

In the beginning was the Word. Scholars debate the intent of the gospel writer in this passage and wonder over the influences at work here. But I venture that the poets understand the meaning. Any of us alive enough as to be provoked by the written word knows the wonderful and mysterious tapestry that is one human spirit alighting on another. That is the core of the artistic experience and is the beginning of everything we value about ourselves as humans. It is rejuvenating to think that with the word we ceased being beasts and became human.

Ernest Hemingway, in a cogent moment, observed that long after the temples have decayed, the written word will survive, even flourish. This is not the word of the daily transaction. He was referring to the word that sparks the neural cells and makes one rise in search of a tissue, the word that sends the telltale tingle down the spine, as Vladimir Nabokov noted.

It would be a shame if the biologists were ever to explain the process.

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Thanks for reading and take care,

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.

What the Hell?

In Books, Reading, Travel on June 22, 2012 at 6:00 am

Another repost, as I’m traveling. This one from summer, 2006. (My god, I’ve been doing this a long time…)

Paris, Under the Tower, D. Bruns

When I die does this blog die with me? Or, rather, does a bit of it, like a clipped toe nail forgotten on the tile floor, remain indefinitely until someone comes along and cleans it up? “Yep, he’s good and gone. Better clean this mess.” I was in Paris only five days and am wading into such depths. Philosophy is in the water there–that is, at least, what they might have you think, as they might think stupid is in American water.
        By “What the hell?” I mean: what the hell have I been doing since February when I last posted to this sorry excuse for a blog. As I said, I’ve been to Paris, also Maine, where I fulfilled a life-long dream to get a little place on the coast, at least until the ice cap melts it gone under, which might be any damn hour. It was E.B. White that set me on this path years ago, writing: “Once in everyone’s life there is apt to be a period when he is fully awake, instead of half asleep. I think of those five years in Maine as the time when this happened to me.”
        Reading too, since I last posted–figuring first I am a reader, then everything else–and getting hooked on a Penguin Editor’s list of Modern Classics, being a big fan of lists and an advocate of self-improvement. [In 2006 I was naive enough to believe that literature could accomplish such a thing–ed.] Twenty books total, only four of which I’d read previously: Heart of Darkness (Conrad), Love in the Time of Cholera (Marquez), A Portrait of…Young Man (Joyce), Women in Love (Lawrence)

        I’ve also knocked off Dellio’s White Noise, which though wonderful and brilliant, seems debatably great, but time will tell. And current?– to the west coast and back again: On the Road, with Jack Kerouac. Also filling the hours at Allie’s graduation with Roth’s new novel, Everyman. Thank god for college book stores open on graduation day.

Also, since February, grinding through 100 Gentlemen of Baltimore, the book project I have set upon, a collection of 100 portraits and interviews with men living on the streets of Baltimore–where it is estimated the homeless population is between 3000 and 5000–a project which keeps a camera at my side and sharpens the tools of this Bodhisattva wanna-be.

And next? Next is this afternoon, sitting quietly with books at my elbow and faithful Maggie snoring as her sun-ray shifts, and working hard to remember that next is now.

Off and running

In Adventure, Books, Travel on May 1, 2012 at 6:00 am

Thorung la pass, Annapurna Circuit

I’m heading out today for a three week trip to Nepal. It will be my second visit to Nepal, but my first into the mountains there. The schedule calls for two days in Kathmandu, then into the western Himalayas. I’m trekking the Annapurna Circuit with son Tim and nephew Scott. Scott and I jump off the trail at day seventeen, spending a day and evening in beautiful Pokhara, followed by a night in Kathmandu, then the long journey home. Tim is staying behind to continue trekking, returning home ten days later.

This will be my sixth long-haul to that part of the world. After the fifth trip in 2009, I vowed never again. But here I go. The logistics are painfully simple: A one-hour flight from Portland to Baltimore, where I will catch up with Tim and Scott. In the evening we head to Dulles, outside of DC. There we board a non-stop flight to Doha, Qatar. That flight is fourteen hours and forty-five minutes. We have ten hours on the ground in Doha, in an airport we are not allowed to leave. Then we catch the shuttle to Kathmandu. Four hours, forty minutes.

The return trip stretches out an additional five hours and change, due to the earth’s rotation and headwinds.

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I’ve queued up a number of posts. Some are new, a few are re-posts, and a smattering are drawn from my Gentlemen of Baltimore project. I hope you enjoy the offerings. I don’t anticipate updating …house… while traveling. However, I do hope to put up an occasional trip report and photo(s) on Facebook. Please feel free to “friend” me (what an odd thing to write), if you want a peek or two from the trail.

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Should you be interested, my travel reading is:

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Lastly, I’m not sure how that post marking the death of Henry David Thoreau popped up Sunday. That is a repost and I had, I thought, scheduled it for publishing on the day of his death, May 6th. Please, let’s all remember Henry on that date. If you feel compelled, whisper moose then Indian and take a moment to remember the zen master of Walden.

Thanks for reading.