Meditations (review)

Meditations

Your mind will take on the character of your most frequent thoughts: souls are dyed by thoughts.

Funny to think how I am still very much myself. Same Mark, more detail. If you overlapped all my pattern-stereotypes I had around 1992, you’d get a pretty good picture of me today of what 2012 Mark is like.

Summer of last year, I started reading more works of and about Stoicism, and that led to tumbling a lot of stoicism quotes. This was not a new interest by any means. I remember thinking Stoics were cool back in childhood, when I first learned about them. I think my interest then was more of a tough-guy, counter-culture, I-am-a-rock/island sort of thing. Maybe a way of validating introversion, independence, self-protection.

Men seek retreats for themselves–in the country, by the sea, in the hills–and you yourself are particularly prone to this yearning. But all this is quite unphilosophic, when it is open to you, at any time you want, to retreat into yourself. No retreat offers someone more quiet and relaxation than that into his own mind, especially if he can dip into thoughts there which put him at immediate and complete ease: and by ease I simply mean a well-ordered life. (4.3)

I remember picking up Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations on at least three different occasions, but never finishing. In fact, barely starting each time. Some lessons can’t be learned early, I guess. I still like the independent-minded ideas, but I think now a lot of what gets me are the ideas of acceptance, attitude, gratitude (which is the focus of the entire amazing first chapter). And, yeah, being hard on myself….

They cannot admire you for intellect. Granted–but there are many other qualities of which you cannot say, “but that is not the way I am made”. So display those virtues which are wholly in your own power–integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity. Do you not see how many virtues you can already display without any excuse of lack of talent or aptitude? And yet you are still content to lag behind. (5.5)

I bookmarked the hell out of it when I was reading and made a bunch of notes to myself (hypomnema!). I’ll probably be turning back to this one for a long time to come. All the quotes below come from Martin Hammond’s translation. The numbers refer to chapter and sub-section, should you decide to pick up this book. Which you should do.


On gossip. (3.4)

Do not waste the remaining part of your life in thoughts about other people, when you are not thinking with reference to some aspect of the common good. Why deprive yourself of the time for some other task? I mean, thinking about what so-and-so is doing, and why, what he is saying or contemplating or plotting, and all that line of thought, makes you stray from the close watch on your directing mind.

On hurt and its source, our compulsion to draw conclusions and render judgement on what has befallen us. (4.7)

Remove the judgement, and you have removed the thought “I am hurt”: removed the thought “I am hurt”, and the hurt itself is removed.

On revenge. (6.6)

The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.

On transience. There were several moments of this kind of beautiful writing that makes you slow down or rest the book and think it over. (6.15)

Some things are hurrying to come into being, others are hurrying to be gone, and part of that which is being born is already extinguished. Flows and changes are constantly renewing the world, just as the ceaseless passage of time makes eternity ever young. In this river, then, where there can be no foothold, what should anyone prize of all that races past him? It is as if he were to begin to fancy one of the little sparrows that fly past–but already it is gone from his sight.

On history repeating and our shared universal experience. (6.37)

He who sees the present has seen all things, both all that has come to pass from everlasting and all that will be for eternity: all things are related and the same.

On adapting to and embracing what is, caring. (6.39)

Fit yourself for the matters which have fallen to your lot, and love these people among whom destiny has cast you–but your love must be genuine.

On composure, comportment, grace, style. (7.60)

The body, too, should stay firmly composed, and not fling itself about either in motion or at rest. Just as the mind displays qualities in the face, keeping it intelligent and attractive, something similar should be required of the whole body. But all this should be secured without making an obvious point of it.

On vice and keeping good company. (7.71)

It is ridiculous not to escape from one’s own vices, which is possible, while trying to escape the vices of others, which is impossible.

On change, being wrong, graciousness. (8.16)

Remember that to change course or accept correction leaves you just as free as you were. The action is your own, driven by your own impulse or judgement, indeed your own intelligence.

On looking back, looking forward, being present, letting go. (8.36)

Do not let the panorama of your life oppress you, do not dwell on all the various troubles which may have occurred in the past or may occur in the future. Just ask yourself in each instance of the present: “What is there in this work which I cannot endure or support?” You will be ashamed to make any such confession. Then remind yourself that it is neither the future nor the past which weighs on you, but always the present: and the present burden reduces, if only you can isolate it and accuse your mind of weakness if it cannot hold against something thus stripped bare.

On simplicity, kindness, perseverance, virtue. Like water off a duck’s back. (8.51)

If a man were to come up to a spring of clear, sweet water and curse it–it would still continue to bubble up water good to drink. He could throw in mud or dung: in no time the spring will break it down, wash it away, and take no color from it. How then can you secure an everlasting spring and not a cistern? By keeping yourself at all times intent on freedom–and staying kind, simple, and decent.

On fame, attention, transience, obsessions, Facebook, death. (10.34)

All things are short-lived–this is their common lot–but you pursue likes and dislikes as if all was fixed for eternity. In a little while you too will close your eyes, and soon there will be others mourning the man who buries you.

On duty, openness, constancy, honesty. (11.27)

The Pythagoreans say, “Look at the sky at dawn”–to remind ourselves of the constancy of those heavenly bodies, their perpetual round of their own duty, their order, their purity, and their nakedness. No star wears a veil.

On dying. (12.36)

It is like the officer who engaged a comic actor dismissing him from the stage. “But I have not played my five acts, only three.” “True, but in life three acts can be the whole play.” Completion is determined by that being who caused first your composition and now your dissolution. You have no part in either causation. Go then in peace: the god who lets you go is at peace with you.

The Age of the Infovore (review)

One overriding sense that I get from Tyler Cowen’s books (and the blog he co-writes) is that he could explain a lot more in more exhaustive depth and detail, but prefers not to do so. The brainpower is there, for sure, and the writing is clear, but the feeling is that he wants me to think rather than be spoonfed. I appreciate this.

You might have heard of The Age of the Infovore under its earlier name, Create Your Own Economy, which maybe explains the contents a bit better (his own summary). Here’s the idea: we live in a crazy modern world etc. etc. information overload etc. etc. BUT the optimistic take is that this cultural explosion coupled with technological advancement means it’s easier and easier for us to assemble these cultural pieces in ways that are meaningful for each of us as individuals.

One result of the internet, I think, is that it makes almost everyone smart more eclectic, whether in terms of substance or presentation.

Which ties in with a later argument…

The mixing of populations lowers the cost of being unusual.

And similarly…

As cultural production becomes more diverse, more and more art forms will be directed at pleasing people with unusual neurologies. More and more of the aesthetic beauty of the world will be hidden to most observers, or at least those who don’t invest in learning.

And luckily, that applies not just to the consumers of art but the art itself. The neurology thing comes up again and again, because one of the continuing threads throughout the book is autism/Asperger’s. He tries, successfully I think, to show the advantages that these conditions can have. Above-average strengths often appear in the autistic cognitive profile (in sorting/ordering, perception of detail, specialization, pattern detection, accurate recall, etc.) and you could say we’ve begun to use things like the internet to order our lives and pursue our interests in ways that more closely mimic autistic traits. Unfortunately, our culture seems to sweep autistics aside because it’s more stereotypically associated with more observable, less desirable personality/behavioral traits. Much of the book tries to set this straight, and in a typically Cowen-esque approach, see the other side.

So back to maybe the greatest joy of modern life: the way we can delve into so many different interests (social, intellectual, cultural, spiritual, etc.) and media (books, blogs, movies, music, etc.) at the same time. And at this point I realize I’m writing this while listening to Mbalax music and texting with a couple friends. While the immediate outside impression-at-a-glance is of overwhelm or disorder, this stuff usually relates to our long-term interests:

While it is easy to observe apparent overload in our busy lives, the underlying reality is subtler. The common word is “multitasking” but I would sooner point to the coherence in your mind than regard it as a jumbled or chaotic blend. The coherence lies in the fact that you are getting a steady stream of information to feed your long-run attention. No matter how disparate the topics may appear to an outside viewer, most parts of the stream relate to your passions, your interests, your affiliations, and how it all hangs together. […] The emotional power of our personal blends is potent, and they make work, and learning, a lot more fun. Multitasking is, in part, a strategy to keep ourselves interested. […] The self-assembly of small cultural bits is sometimes addictive in the sense that the more of it you do, the more of it you want to do. But that kind of addiction doesn’t have to be bad. Anything good in your life is probably going to have an addictive quality to it, as many people find with classical music or an appreciation of the Western classics, or for that matter a happy marriage. Shouldn’t some of the best things in life get better the more you do them?

Cowen has a definite anti-snob bent. Not a cultural relativist per se, but a similar word to the title, “omnivore”, definitely fits. One chapter analogizes modern culture and marriage:

Many critics of contemporary life want our culture to remain like a long-distance relationship, with thrilling peaks, when most of us are growing into something more mature. We are treating culture like a self-assembly of small bits, and we are creating and committing ourselves to a fascinating daily brocade, much as we can make a marriage into a rich and satisfying life. We are better off for this change and it is part of a broader trend of how the production of value—including beauty, suspense, and education—is becoming increasingly interior to our minds.

I love that idea of a “daily brocade”. Speaking of texting and such, here’s a bit on phone calls:

When you make a cellphone call, you open yourself up to being asked questions. You have to commit yourself on matters of tone and also on key information, such as telling your mother where you are and what you are doing and why you didn’t call earlier. A phone call is actually a pretty complicated emotional event and that is one reason why so many people remained “cellphone holdouts” for so long. […] A phone call is a demand on you. A phone call is a chance to be rejected. And a phone call is a chance to flub your lines or overplay your hand.

On the internet’s potential to open your mind politically-speaking:

Being a Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, etc. doesn’t many any single thing for what we are actually like as human beings. One thing we do on the web is seek out others who are like us in non-political ways and then we cement those alliances and friendships. Over time, we will discover that many of these truly similar people do not in fact share our political views. Then we realize that politics isn’t as important as we used to think.

Here’s a nice/terrifying bit on education that I first read on Ben Casnocha’s blog. Comparing high-school-only grads to college grads is common, but if you really want to control, you have to compare college grads to people who think they’re being college-educated to find out if it’s actually working…

It’s now well-known in the medical literature that a medicine needs to be compared to a placebo, rather than to simply doing nothing. Placebo effects can be very powerful and many supposedly effective medicines do not in fact outperform the placebo. The sorry truth is that no one has compared modern education to a placebo. What if we just gave people lots of face-to-face contact and told them they were being educated? I’m not sure I want to know the answer to that question. Maybe that’s what current methods of education already consist of.

I really liked his chapter on “The New Economy of Stories”. You’ll get a good idea of what he has to say if you watch his awesome TEDxMidAtlantic talk on stories.

Some of this branches off from economist Thomas C. Schelling’s essay, The Mind As a Consuming Organ.

Schelling emphasizes that we “consume” stories through memories, anticipations, fantasies, and daydreams. Concrete goods and services, such as Lassie programs, help impose order and discipline on our fantasies and give us stronger and more coherent mental lives. Of course consuming stories is not just about watching television, even though the average American does that for several hours in a typical day. If the tube bores us, we play computer games, read novels, reimagine central events in our lives, spin fantasies, or listen to the narratives of friends.

One way we tell ourselves stories is in how we use our money. (A book that’s become a sort of touchstone for me, Geoffrey Miller’s Spent, comes at these ideas from a similar angle):

You’re not just buying a sneaker, you’re buying an image of athleticism and an associated story about yourself. It’s not just an indie pop song, it is your sense of identity as the listener and owner of the music. If you give to Oxfam, yes you want to help people, but you also are constructing a narrative about your place in the broader world and the responsibilities you have chosen to assume. The Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa wrote: “The buyers of useless things are wiser than is commonly supposed—the buy little dreams.” That is a big part of what markets are about. Whether you are buying cosmetics, a lottery ticket, or an oil painting, you are constructing, defining, and memorializing your dreams into vivid and physically real forms.

And it’s important to keep in mind that these dreams, the stories we tell ourselves, may not be so special or unique to us:

Hollywood blockbusters… end up drained of vitality and risk-taking in an effort to appeal to the least common denominator in a large group of people. We’re less likely to see that the same logic applies not just to the Hollywood studios but also to ourselves. In this way I am pretty typical. Some of the inputs behind my deepest personal narratives suffer from the least-common-denominator effect. The logic applies to my dream. To my fantasies. To my deepest visions of what I can be. I treasure those thoughts and feelings so much but in reality I pull a lot of them from a social context and I pull them from points that are socially salient. That means I pull them from celebrities, from ads, from popular culture, and most generally from ideas that are easy to communicate and disseminate to large numbers of people. We all dream in pop culture language to some degree.

This next quote is all Pessoa, writing perhaps too stridently about the dangers of novelty, but it’s worth considering:

Wise is the man who monotonizes his existence, for then each minor incident seems a marvel. A hunter of lions feels no adventure after the third lion. Fro my monotonous cook, a fist-fight on the street always has something of a modest apocalypse… The man who has journeyed all over the world can’t find any novelty in five thousand miles, for he finds only new things—yet another novelty, the old routine of the forever new—while his abstract concept of novelty got lost at sea after the second new thing he saw.

A later chapter goes into art and culture and aesthetics. Branching off some ideas from neurology and from David Hume’s “Of the Standard of Taste”:

Sociological approaches to cultural taste often imply that taste differences are contrived, artificial, or reflect wasteful status-seeking. The result is that we appreciate taste differences less than we might and we become less curious. Neurological approaches imply that different individuals perceive different cultural mysteries and beauties. You can’t always cross the gap to understand the other person’s point of view, but at the very least you know something is there worth pursuing.

I liked the argument here about musical complexity, but surely the argument applies anywhere else you have cultural competence:

An issue arises if you get “too good” at finding the order in music. You must resort of bigger and bigger doses of informational complexity to achieve the prior effects that were so enjoyable. It’s a bit like needing successively stronger doses of heroin, wanting to move beyond Vivaldi, or more prosaically having to switch from one pop song to the next. Don’t we all do that? But the metric for the right amount of complexity differs across listeners, even across listeners with the same degree of musical experience and education.

And this ties in with how we evaluate cultural works…

The most common reaction is simply to evaluate the aesthetic perspective through the taste of either the public or the educated critics. We privilege those perspectives either because they have social status or because, in the case of the consumers, they have buying power and thus they command the attention of the media. So if it is serial killer stories, maybe the critics call it too lowbrow and talk about the decline of our society. If it is atonal music, it gets labeled as too inaccessible or too highbrow or it is claimed that the academic composers are perverse and self-indulgent. Most cultural criticism is staggering in how much it begs the question of what is the appropriate middle ground.

Boom. Read this book.

On Being Ill (review)

I don’t have much to say about On Being Ill other than it’s incredibly short and its meanderings in that space cover the spectrum from silly to sentimental. You will spend perhaps 30 minutes reading this book. I heard of it via Tyler Cowen’s breathless recommendation.
It’s hard to block quote such a short flowing text, but I like these next couple passages. Here’s one at the heart of the book: people don’t write about pain much. It’s overlooked by the great writers, and thus we have no words to steal or clichés to rely on:

The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry. There is nothing ready made for him. He is forced to coin words himself, and, taking his pain in one hand, and a lump of pure sound in the other (as perhaps the people of Babel did in the beginning), so to crush them together that a brand new word in the end drops out.

And I think most can relate to the the perverse sort of joy we take in being sick, reclining, casting off social graces, embracing our misery:

There is, let us confess it (and illness is the great confessional), a childish outspokenness in illness; things are said, truths blurted out, which the cautious respectability of health conceals. About sympathy for example—we can do without it. That illusion of a world so shaped that it echoes every groan, of human beings so tied together by common needs and fears that a twitch at one wrist jerks another, where however strange your experience other people have had it too, where however far you travel in your own mind someone has been there before you—is all an illusion. We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others. Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest in each; a snowfield where even the print of birds’ feet is unknown. Here we go alone, and like it better so. Always to have sympathy, always to be accompanied, always to be understood would be intolerable. But in health the genial pretense must be kept up and the effort renewed—to communicate, to civilise, to share, to cultivate the desert, educate the native, to work together by day and by night to sport. In illness this make-believe ceases.

Decoded (review)

Decoded
Jay-Z’s Decoded is a wonderful book. Read it. I’d love to read more nonfiction like this. So conversational, relaxed, super-smart. And it’s just a really beautiful book. Lots of photos, lyrics and footnoes, pull-quotes. I started off a little skeptical, just skimming for pictures and quotes and anecdotes, but then I just had to start over and read it straight through. Highly recommended. Here’s some favorite parts…

An important lesson from “Coming of Age”:

Ten thou’ or a hundred G keep yo’ shit the same

Next up is maybe my favorite line from the whole book. The context is the music business, but the wisdom applies well beyond. Emphasis mine:

In the streets there aren’t written contracts. Instead, you live by certain codes. There are no codes and ethics in music because there are lawyers. People can hide behind their lawyers and contracts and then rob you blind. A lot of street cats come into the music game and expect a certain kind of honor and ethics, even outside of contracts. But in business, like they say, you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate. So I mind my business and I don’t apologize for it.

Speaking of business, when he was just getting started, he knew to put the plans on paper…

We didn’t know the business yet, but we knew how to hustle. Like a lot of underground crews on a mission, we were on some real trunk-of-the-car shit. The difference with us was that we didn’t want to get stalled at low-level hustling. We had a plan. We did more than talk about it, we wrote it down. Coming up with a business plan was the first thing the three of us did. We made short and long-term projections, we kept it realistic, but the key thing is that we wrote it down, which is as important as visualization in realizing success.

I think this next bit is a pretty incisive take on poverty. Cuts right to the heart of it. Emphasis mine:

One of the reasons inequality gets so deep in this country is that everyone wants to be rich. That’s the American ideal. Poor people don’t like talking about poverty because even though they might live in the projects surrounded by other poor people and have, like, ten dollars in the bank, they don’t like to think of themselves as poor. It’s embarrassing. […] The burden of poverty isn’t just that you don’t always have the things you need, it’s the feeling of being embarrassed every day of your life, and you’d do anything to lift that burden.

Yep.

Later in the book he talks about the tension between being a ridiculously wealthy businessman with lingering remnants of street thug…

Having a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other is the most common thing in the world. The real bullshit is when you act like you don’t have contradictions inside you, that you’re so dull and unimaginative that your mind never changes or wanders into strange, unexpected places.

Which reminds me of a quote I already tumbled:

I was on the streets for more than half of my life from the time I was thirteen years old. People sometimes say that now I’m so far away from that life—now that I’ve got businesses and Grammys and magazine covers—that I have no right to rap about it. But how distant is the story of your own life ever going to be?

I first read this bit in The Millions (thanks, Austin!). It’s about piecing together your influences:

The seventies were a strange time, especially in black America. The music was beautiful in part because it was keeping a kind of torch lit in a dark time. I feel like we–rappers, DJs, producers–were able to smuggle some of the magic of that dying civilization in our music and use it to build a new world. We were kids without fathers, so we found our fathers on wax and on the streets and in history, and in a way, that was a gift: We got to pick and choose the ancestors who would inspire the world we were going to make for ourselves. That was part of the ethos of that time and place, and it got built in to the culture we created. Rap took the remnants of a dying society and created something new. Our fathers were gone, usually because they just bounced, but we took their old records and used them to build something fresh.

And speaking of fathers, one of the wisest bits come in his footnotes for the song “Moment of Clarity”:

My father and I didn’t have a lot of deep conversations before he died, but we did have one important one. When I first reconnected with him, I hit him with questions and he came back with answers until I realized nothing he could ever say would satisfy me or make sense of all the feelings I’d had since he turned his back on us. In the end, he broke down and apologized. And, somewhat to my surprise, I forgave him. […] Although this verse starts off on a cold note–I seem indifferent and even smirking about his death–that’s only me being honest. I didn’t cry. I didn’t know him that well. But at the same time, it was so important that we did meet up before he died. It was important for me to hear him say he was sorry and for me to hear myself say, “I forgive you.” It changed my life, really. I wish every kid who grew up like me could have the same chance to confront the fathers who left them, not just so they can lay out their anger, but so they can, in the end, let that anger go.

In Pursuit of Happiness (review)

In Pursuit of Happiness
I heard about this Mark Kingwell character from Justin Wehr, who won’t (can’t?) stop blogging stuff from his books. General rule: if smart people keep talking about something, you investigate. Glad I did. Kingwell has a mix of attentive observation, earnest thinkiness, mild cynicism and wry humor that goes over really well with me.

I’ve learned recently—in this book, for example, and Alain de Botton’s tweets, and that book on kindness by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, or a Borges story—that a lot of times when I’m reading deep-thinker types I get the most joy from the shrewd observations, the asides that hint at entire essays, more so than the actual topic of the work. So it is here. The book is about our culture of happiness, but a lot of the stuff I most enjoyed is further afield.

The book took a little while to take off. The first chapter was the expected “What is happiness, though, really?”-type preamble, the second chapter was a funny stretch written around a trip to the (somewhat terrifying) Happiness Institute. Then about 90 pages in I went on a dog-earing streak. Here’s some bits I liked, starting with the first dog-ear that really stopped me in my tracks:

Like a lot of people, I have bouts of mild depression, in my case sometimes associated with insomnia, hangovers, or other forms of physical depletion, in which color drains from the world, joy fades from the achievements obsessively detailed in my C.V., and friendships resolve themselves temporarily into desperate utilitarian or drug-based pacts.

Friendship as “utilitarian or drug-based pacts”—that gives me chills. On two varieties of happiness:

Hedonistic happiness is happiness as contented feeling, sometimes but not always identifiable with simple pleasure, usually of the bodily kind. Hence the hedonist is someone devoted to the pursuit of pleasurable physical sensations, whether in gastronomic, aesthetic, sexual, or other forms. Eudaimonistic happiness, by contrast, is happiness understood the way Aristotle saw it, namely as a kind of rational satisfaction with one’s character and actions: a form of reflective rationality that looks back on a life and—always in a provisional way of course, for things may change, luck may turn—pronounces it worth living.

And of course, there’s incredible tension when we only use one word to describe both ends of the spectrum and everything in between. And then there’s “fun”:

The idea of fun is hardly ever examined, common though it is. We take for granted that, other things being equal, fun things are preferable to non-fun things. And why not? We even created the idea of leisure time for the sake of fun and erected one of the great cultural constructions of our times, the weekend, to make fun more culturally and institutionally available.

Further on the topic of fun, paraphrasing some ideas from a new book on my to-read list, The Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch, who noted

The American tendency for “the invasion of play by the rhetoric of achievement”—a kind of cultural infection in which the virus of the Protestant work ethic steals into the otherwise un-self-conscious body of fun. Hence the aggressive, goal-oriented forms of play so much favored by weekend warriors of various kinds: mountain climbing, triathlon racing, extreme or high-risk sports, but also the slightly crazed Saturday-afternoon attempts to get through all the enjoyable leisure-time activities of gardening, decorating, cooking, eating, and socializing before sun-down. Even the standard forms of urban dissolution—drinking and doing drugs, say, or staying up late—are annexed to the peculiar rhetoric of achievement, creating the odd spectacle of apparently nonconformist or antiestablishment hipsters bragging to each other about how drunk, how stoned, or how tired they are, just like plaid-sporting businessmen comparing golf handicaps.

In a section on cool, he quotes Marshall McLuhan on sunglasses:

Dark glasses… created the inscrutable and inaccessible image that invites a great deal of participation and completion.

And Kingwell on the funny fat guy:

The funny fat guy functions, too, as a form of cultural reassurance, a bulky sign that we can, in a sense, safely ignore the shrieking exercise wingnuts on the Home Shopping Channel and get down to the happy business of drinking beer, eating doughnuts, and cracking wise. He is a benign jolly presence, hailing almost exclusively from the trailer park or bungalow subdivision, a kind of ubiquitous Santa-analogue, dishing out the good cheer year-round.

On our existential blinders about really important things:

What is alarming is the way our imaginations can often seem so limited when it comes to thinking about what happiness means to us.

At one point in the book, Kingwell writes about trying various medications for depression, and has a wonderful bit about relationships:

I kept waiting, while on Prozac and St. John’s Wort, for some isolated experience or episode in which the elevated neurotransmitter levels would make me feel like someone else, make me sense that I was no longer myself. It never really arrived. In fact, the strangest feature of these periods of waiting, at least as I experienced hem at the time, was realizing, with an awareness more physical than intellectual, that there was a fine-spun intricacy to my web of social relations, a complex equilibrium in the ordinary life of friends, coworkers, acquaintances, family and wife, in which my behavior was deeply embedded and, more than that, constantly adjudicated in countless tiny ways. It wasn’t as though I actually felt myself to be different, it was more that other people experienced me as being so—-and therefore forced me to bring those differences (edginess, melancholy, antisocial behavior) on board as part of myself. It was a lesson in the collective hallucination of personality.

In another section, he talks about the Edvard Munch painting The Scream, and its commodification: shirts, mugs, commercials, etc. Besides the problem of artistic aura and authenticity,

The complementary problem is that, at the same time as the aesthetic image is divorced from its original and authentic setting and made into a cheap commodity, the experience of viewing the work of art itself becomes all the more closed into the regimented, bourgeois, culturally safe context of the gallery experience. The gallery and the gallery shop exist side by side, two features of the same process of commercialization. Thus the work, which we might by rights expect to be jarring or arresting, is instead enveloped in the deadening self-improvement aura of the modern art gallery, which people visit not so much to view art as to feel better about themselves. […] We sell dread, now in debased forms like fridge magnets and inflatables. We also sell safety, now in the odd form of viewing art that should, by rights, be shocking, with the same deadened gaze we nightly direct toward the television screen.

And later he touches on one of my favorite topics, the big nexus of narcissism/storytelling/personal narrative/self-serving bias/emotive conjugation, etc.:

When we each construct our narrative tales, we are inevitably the stars of the show. And if we have unpleasant emotions to explain, it is natural to construct the tale in such a way that the fault lies elsewhere. More precisely, psychological evidence suggests that we each tend to view our own lives as very much in flux—stories still under construction—even as we regard others’ characters as more fixed and determinate. Whereas I see in you something I regard as a character flaw, a permanent (if perhaps forgiveable) aspect of who you are, you may see in yourself merely an aberrant act or unseemly adventure, something that demonstrates not a pattern of behavior or, still less, a feature of your personality, but only a rather unfortunate and atypical lapse. Or you might admit a pattern of behavior but think of it as “something you are working on”—not a permanent or established character trait, as an outsider might see it, but part of an internal struggle that could go either way. It is not that we view others as entirely non-narrative beings, simple props and furniture in our own solipsistic dramas; it’s just that we tend to be more determinate with them than with ourselves, holding them in place more rigidly even as we grant ourselves all kinds of poetic license.

I may have done a disservice here. I realized in typing out all of these quotes that none of them are very funny, though Kingwell often is. But it’s hard to share that out of the rhythm and context of the page. The book is definitely worth your time, especially pages 90-260 or so.

What I’ve been reading, vol. iv

Gotta say, these past two months have been pretty good for reading. From the most recent to the more distant in time:
1. Why Mahler?. This might be better for people who already care at least a little bit about Mahler, one of those characters that lends to incompleteness. Like talking about his music. Too vast, too contradictory, too universal, too personal. Still, it’s a breezy, rangy biography mixed with some memoir, and it’s a good read.

2. Listen to This. Alex Ross is one of my favorite writers. This book is mostly a collection of stuff he’s written for The New Yorker. The essays I dog-eared most heavily were Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues, Infernal Machines, The Storm of Style, Song of the Earth, Verdi’s Grip, and his writings on tour with Radiohead and Bob Dylan were interesting, too. He’s also got a great audio guide for Listen to This like the one for The Rest is Noise (which is awesome).

3. The Art of Non-Conformity. Got curious about this one because I recognized the brand. The blog is better.

4. The Music Instinct. Author Philip Ball struck me first and foremost as a very fair writer. It seems like he doesn’t have very many bones to pick, aside from the fact that we should stay open-minded and open-eared. The first 60-70% of the book, the best part, is nerdy stuff about music theory—the science of pitch, scales, harmony, timbre, rhythm, etc. He’s glad to branch out across the world and not just focus on Western tradition. I found it quite good.

5. The Substance of Style. Couldn’t finish. Seemed sort of argument-by-anecdote-y, which is fine, but not what I wanted at the time.

6. The Art of Travel. This is mostly worthwhile, the first half in particular. Each section centers around a topic (Anticipation, Curiosity, the Exotic, the Sublime, etc.), a tour guide of sorts (e.g. Huysmans, Humboldt, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Van Gogh), and de Botton’s own observations and musings. It’s a good, quick read.

7. The Book of Basketball. I thought it was awesome. Rare to find any book, nonfiction or otherwise, that keeps you up late a few nights in a row.

8. On Kindness. Another one that I really, really liked and shared a bunch of quotes from. Great brain food here.

9. Steppenwolf. I read this one right after “The Moviegoer”, below. They both deal with existential angst, but this one is much more over-the-top, orotund, and, um, German. I think you could get your time’s worth just reading the first 40 pages or so.

10. The Moviegoer. I liked this one alright. Nothing much happens in the story, but the narrator’s struggles—with his own ambivalence, with relating to people, with finding satisfaction outside of passive distractions, etc.—were good food for thought.

11. Jane Eyre. This was a bit of a drag. Either I’m a curmudgeon with no heart or it’s kind of boring. This was, however, the first book I read mostly on my iPad, so it was nice to have that experience. I would have shared a bunch of quotes and bon mots, but, alas, as of now there’s no way to export highlights from iBooks other than tedious cut and paste. Maybe get to that later…

I think I’m due for some more fiction soon. More of what I’ve read lately can be found in volumes one, two, and three.

The Book of Basketball (review: 5/5)

The Book of Basketball
It’s a great book, let’s get that out of the way before we proceed. Just know that Bill Simmons is a carefree, garrulous writer and it is obsessively focused on basketball. It might not be your thing. One of the best practices when I was reading this one was to keep the iPad nearby so I could do a little backgrounder on legendary players I’d never heard of, and, more importantly, keeping YouTube handy to look up amazing dunks, passes, etc. If you haven’t followed basketball, there is a learning curve. On the upside, like I told Justin, reading this book after the recent playoffs, finals, The Decision, etc. has me more interested in basketball than I’ve ever been.

The biggest parts of the book cover Larry Bird, Russell vs. Wilt, The Secret (e.g. TEAMWORK), ranking the best players ever, and ranking the best teams ever. All in obsessive detail. You can open a page anywhere in the book, and in short order stumble on a really good argument about something. In a 3-page section on Elvin Hayes, Simmons lists 5 reasons that Hayes stands out. In item #5, there’s a little mini-essay on the fall-away/turnaround shot:

My theory on the fall-away: it’s a passive-aggressive shot that says more about a player than you think. For instance, Jordan, McHale and Hakeem all had tremendous fall-aways—in fact, MJ developed the shot to save his body from undue punishment driving to the basket—but it was one piece of their offensive arsenal, a weapon used to complement the other weapons already in place. Well, five basketball stars in the past sixty years have been famous for either failing miserably in the clutch or lacking the ability to rise to the occasion: Wilt, Hayes, Malone, Ewing and Garnett. All five were famous for their fall-away/turnaround jumpers and took heat because their fall-aways pulled them out of rebounding position. If it missed, almost always it was a one-shot possession. On top of that, it never leads to free throws—either the shot falls or the other team gets it. Could you make the case that the fall-away, fundamentally, is a loser’s shot? For a big man, it’s the dumbest shot you can take—only one good thing can happen and that’s it—as well as a symbol of a larger problem, namely, that a team’s best big man would rather move away from the basket than toward it. […] So here’s my take: the fall-away says, “I’d rather stay out here.” It says, “I’m afraid to fail.” It says, “I want to win this game, but only on my terms.”

Woah, right? Coming up organically in a discussion about a specific player we get a really interesting observation on the game itself, couched in a super-fan/nerd’s historical mastery, with some speculative psychology delivered in the kind of friendly/authoritative tone you’d hear at a bar. A later section on Kobe Bryant looks at his career through the lens of Teen Wolf, vacillating between the team-player (Michael J. Fox) and the devastating ball hog/alpha dog (Wolf). Maybe the better movie analogy is thinking of Tim Duncan like Harrison Ford:

If you keep banging out first-class seasons with none standing out more than any other, who’s going to notice after a while? There’s a precedent: once upon a time, Harrison Ford pumped out monster hits for fifteen solid years before everyone suddenly noticed, “Wait a second—Harrison Ford is unquestionably the biggest movie star of his generation!” From 1977 to 1992, Ford starred in three Star Wars movies, three Indiana Jones movies, Blade Runner, Working Girl, Witness, Presumed Innocent and Patriot Games, but it wasn’t until he carried The Fugitive that everyone realized he was consistently more bankable than Stallone, Reynolds, Eastwood, Cruise, Costner, Schwarzenegger and every other peer. As with Duncan, we knew little about Ford outside of his work. As with Duncan, there wasn’t anything inherently compelling about him. Ford only worried about delivering the goods, and we eventually appreciated him for it. Will the same happen for Duncan one day?

If there is a weakness, it’s that the occasional jokey celeb-bashing comes up really lame and unnecessary. But that’s a small price to pay for 700+ quality pages and a comparable number of entertaining footnotes. Worth a read!

On Kindness (review: 4/5)

On Kindness
While it didn’t finish as awesomely as when I first tweeted my excitement half-way through, On Kindness still ended up being very good, and still among the top nonfiction of the year for me. The goal here is to figure out what happened to kindness: why we have an instinct for it, why religions encourage it, how the ideas of fellow-feeling and sympathy went from being a celebrated part of a well-balanced life to something we see as either suspicious or weak nowadays. Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor put special focus on the experience of kindness as we move from childhood to adulthood. Rousseau (e.g. Émile) and of course Freud receive special attention. The idea of the “riskiness” of kindness was really, really novel for me. Here are some favorite quotes, starting with a good summary:

Acts of kindness demonstrate, in the clearest possible way, that we are vulnerable and dependent animals who have no better resource than each other. If kindness previously had to be legitimized by a God or by gods, or located in women and children, it is because it has had to be delegated—and sanctioned, and sacralized, and idealized, and sentimentalized—because it comes from the part of ourselves that we are most disturbed by; the part that knows how much assurance and (genuine) reassurance is required to sustain our sense of viability. Our resistance to kindness is our resistance to encountering what kindness meets in us, and what we meet in other people by being kind to them. And, of course, our resistance to seeing the limits of what kindness can do for us.

Real kindness is an exchange with essentially unpredictable consequences. It is a risk precisely because it mingles our needs and desires with the needs and desires of others, in a way that so-called self-interest never can.

Freud: We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love.

Childhood has become the last bastion of kindness, the last place where we may find more love in the world than there appears to be. Indeed, the modern obsession with child-rearing may be no more and no less than an obsession about the possibility of kindness in a society that makes it harder and harder to believe in kindness. Talking about child development and about parenting may be one of the only ways we have now of talking about fellow feeling.

Growing up, if anything, is the imaginative elaboration of fellow feeling: the acknowledgment that other people have what we need and that their well-being matters to us.

When it comes to appetite, all exposure is experienced as overexposure.

If people are too kind–too thoughtful, too considerate, too sensitive–sex can be insufficiently exciting; if they are not kind enough, it can be too frightening too enjoy.

Kindness is a continual temptation in everyday life that we resist. Not a temptation to sacrifice ourselves, but to include ourselves with others. Not a temptation to renounce or ignore the aggressive aspects of ourselves, but to see kindness as being in solidarity with human need, and with the very paradoxical sense of powerlessness and power that human need induces. Acts of kindness involve us in different kinds of conversations; our resistance to these conversations suggest that we may be more interested in them, may in fact want much more from them, than we let ourselves know.

What I’ve been reading, vol. iii

Man, my reading of books has taken a nosedive since I got an iPad + Instapaper. But I’m not sure if I mind that much. The best of that stuff ends up on my tumblr, anyway. Here’s a rundown of bound volumes:
1. A Certain “Je Ne Sais Quoi”. It’s basically a long list of phrases and where they came from. It’s really good if you care about words and where they come from.

2. Coltrane on Coltrane. What comes up again and again in these profiles and interviews is how kind, humble, and reticent Coltrane is. He seems like a genuinely nice guy. Which makes it not nearly as interesting as Miles on Miles. Miles Davis is not known for being kind, humble or reticent. He’ll speechify and declaim and accuse and he’s got giant chips on his shoulder. In many of the Coltrane interviews, you see the interviewer’s paragraphs of speech balanced with just a few words from Coltrane. Too bad.

3. The Broom of the System. I couldn’t finish this one. Wallace’s nonfiction is where it’s at for me, though I’m still holding out hope for “Infinite Jest”.

4. The Happiness Hypothesis. Did I mention that you have to read this book? Yes I did. Still standing as my favorite nonfiction of 2010.

5. I Love Led Zeppelin. Some of it is funny.

6. Exit Wounds. Skip.

7. The Elegant Man was a nice style guide, if only for reasons of vocabulary and attention to detail. The nice thing about being a guy is that if you learn the classics, you’re set for life.

8. Mrs. Bridge. This is a day-to-day chronicle of suburban broken dreams, etc. Eh.

9. Finite & Infinite Games. Skip.

10. Then We Came to the End. I thought it was a nice chronicle of life in an office.

11. Once a Runner. It’s one of the classics about running, and true to its reputation, the best passages are about running and how exhilarating and exhausting it is to take it seriously. The overall plot was merely okay.

12. Ghost Wars. I really liked another book of his, but I didn’t get chance to finish this. What I read was really good.

13. The Places in Between. It’s a great travelogue and has a nice balance with explaining the history and complicated social intricacies of Afghan culture. Great read. I hear author Rory Stewart is a potential Prime Minister.

Here are my first and second reading round-ups.

The Happiness Hypothesis (review: 5/5)

The Happiness Hypothesis
Awesome book. I thank Justin for the recommendation. What you have in The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom is a perfect balance between nerdy science/philosophy and distilled layman’s explanations. Jonathan Haidt is so efficient with this book. It’s an impressive balance of general theory and immediately useful information. Below lie a bunch of quotes or scraps I found particularly worthwhile. You can find a lot more in Derek Sivers’ notes for the book, which I recommend very much for a solid overview. Read this book, y’all.

Scandal is great entertainment because it allows people to feel contempt, a moral emotion that gives feelings of moral superiority while asking nothing in return. With contempt you don’t need to right the wrong (as with anger) or flee the scene (as with fear or disgust). And best of all, contempt is made to share. Stories about the moral failings of others are among the most common kinds of gossip.

Set for yourself any goal you want. Most of the pleasure will be had along the way, with every step that takes you closer. The final moment of success is often no more thrilling than the relief of taking off a heavy backpack at the end of a long hike. If you went on the hike only to feel that pleasure, you are a fool.***

“Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing.” -Shakespeare

The human mind is extraordinarily sensitive to changes in conditions, but not so sensitive to absolute levels.

Conditions include facts about your life that you can’t change (race, sex, age, disability) as well as things that you can (wealth, marital status, where you live). Conditions are constant over time, at least during a period in your life, and so they are the sorts of things that you are likely to adapt to. Voluntary activities, on the other hand, are the things that you choose to do, such as meditation, exercise, learning a new skill, or taking a vacation. Because such activities must be chosen, and because most of them take effort and attention, they can’t just disappear from your awareness the way conditions can. Voluntary activities, therefore, offer much greater promise for increasing happiness while avoiding adaptation effects.

“Happiness formula”: H = S + C + V (set point, conditions, voluntary activities)

External conditions with significant impact on your happiness, that you can never fully adapt to: Noise. Commuting. Lack of control. Shame. Interpersonal conflict.

Variety is the spice of life because it is the natural enemy of adaptation.

The extensive regulation of sex in many cultures, the attempt to link love to God and then to cut away the sex, is part of an elaborate defense against the gnawing fear of mortality.

Our life is the creation of our minds, and we do much of that creating with metaphor. We see new things in terms of things we already understand: Life is a journey, an argument is a war, the mind is a rider on an elephant. With the wrong metaphor we are deluded; with no metaphor we are blind.

Religious experiences are real and common, whether or not God exists, and these experiences often make people feel whole and at peace.

Life is much like a movie we walk into well after its opening scene, and we will have to step out long before most of the story lines reach their conclusions.


***This reminds me of one of Chris Willett’s rules for long-distance hiking. #1: If you’re not enjoying yourself, you’re doing something wrong. [I construe broadly the term “enjoying” here]. To round out the list, Rule #2: Never leave good trail for bad. Rule #3: Only a great fool leaves a dry place.

Then We Came to the End (review: 3.5/5)

Then We Came to the End

We were delighted to have jobs. We bitched about them constantly. We walked around our new offices with our two minds.

Then We Came to the End was Joshua Ferris’ first novel. I knew about it before I read it mostly because it was written in the first-person plural. We did this, then we did that, so-and-so told us about that guy. The cast is a group of employees in an advertising agency on the down-and-out. I think this one could have been chopped down a bit, but what’s there is still pretty good. And it reads so quickly, it’s not a big deal. The setting and tone reminded me a lot of Matt Beaumont’s book, “E”. The employees gossip, connive, overreact, speculate. Ferris has a great ear and eye for the office, a great observer of office life:

He came by each one of our individual offices, he visited the cubicles and the receptionists. We even saw him talking to one of the building guys. They hardly said anything to anyone, the building guys. Just stood on their ladders handing things up and down to one another, speaking in hushed tones.

And body language:

You didn’t talk about money or job security during a time of layoffs, not in the tone she had taken, and not when you were friends. The silence extended into awkward territory.

[…]

“I wasn’t trying to be snide just then,” she said, finally sitting down, reaching out to touch the edge of his desk as if it were a surrogate for his hand.

And this bit about cuts and promotions:

The point was we took this shit very seriously. They had taken away our flowers, our summer days, and our bonuses, we were on a wage freeze and a hiring freeze, and people were flying out the door like so many dismantled dummies. We had one thing still going for us: the prospect of a promotion. A new title: true, it came with no money, the power was almost always illusory, the bestowal a cheap shrewd device concocted by management to keep us from mutiny, but when word circulated that one of us had jumped up an acronym, that person was just a little quieter that day, took a longer lunch than usual, came back with shopping bags, spent the afternoon speaking softly into the telephone, and left whenever they wanted that night, while the rest of us sent e-mails flying back and forth on the lofty topics of Injustice and Uncertainty.

They all have the ring of truth. Sandwiched between the sillier bits, there’s a pretty amazing little intermezzo chapter, “The Thing to Do and the Place to Be”. That one focuses on one of the characters, a manager, who’s struggling to face an upcoming surgery. It’s quite touching.

As the book carries on, the loose, manic tone can start to wear a bit thin. But then, the mood does change. Employees are fired or move on. This “we” that you’ve been a part of breaks up. Former co-workers reunite, have a few drinks, and move on. In the end, the most clever part about that narration is that I really related to it, as corny as it might sound. What makes this book worthwhile is not that it pokes fun at office life, but it helps you to value it.

There is plenty of good discussion of the book elsewhere. I also thought this comparison of “Then We Came to the End” with Tim O’Brien’s “The Things We Carried” was really interesting.

The Unlikely Disciple (review: 4/5)

The Unlikely Disciple
The Unlikely Disciple chronicles Kevin Roose’s semester “abroad”–he transfers colleges for a semester, from Brown University to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. This is exactly the kind of nonfiction I like: adventurous, curious, open-minded, respectful. You get a sense of his attitude in the Acknowledgements section, where Roose’s final thank-you is to the students, faculty and administration at Liberty: “By experiencing your warmth, your vigorous generosity of spirit, and your deep complexity, I was ultimately convinced—not that you were right, necessarily, but that I had been wrong.” I love that attitude. LOVE.

Why did he do it? Unfamiliarity, mostly:

One recent study showed that 51 percent of Americans don’t know any evangelical Christians, even casually. And until I visited Thomas Road, that was me. My social circle at Brown included atheists, agnostics, lapsed Catholics, Buddhists, Wiccans, and more non-observant Jews than you can shake a shofar at, but exactly zero born-again Christians. The evangelical world, in my mind, was a cloistered, slightly frightening community whose values and customs I wasn’t supposed to understand. So I ignored it.

I’m in the half that knows quite a few evangelicals, so it was really refreshing to see them treated sympathetically. It is so easy to dismiss crowds you might not agree with, or that you only know by association with FOX News (shudder). Roose offers a bunch of anthropological observations, which I found to be the best part, because many of them ring so true:

Outside of Jane Austen novels, nowhere is marriage a more frequent topic of conversation than at Christian college.

He also talks a bit about how, even at an evangelical college, everybody doubts… There’s a sort of paranoia about yourself and a concern for others that animates social life. What he first perceives as prying (“Are you saved?”) is actually an expression of genuine concern. And at the same time, this paranoia is balanced with a kind of self-help/empowerment vibe. Sin and salvation are two sides of the same coin:

Of all the people I expected to have a moral awakening this semester, Joey was at the bottom of the list. Liberty does this to you, though. It tempts you with the constant possibility of personal realignment.

Later in the book he joins a group for a spring break evangelism trip, down at the wild, sinful beaches of Florida. No success. Part of what cripples this crowd is a language barrier:

Claire’s other problem is total linguistic isolation. She, like many other Liberty students, speaks in long, flowery strings of opaque Christian speak. When a twenty-something guy named Rick tells Claire he doesn’t believe in God, Claire sighs and says, “Listen, Rick. There’s a man named Jesus Christ, and he came into my heart and changed me radically. And there is a God who loves you, and who sent his son to die on the cross for you, to take away your sins and my sins, and God shows himself to me every day. When I don’t have hope for tomorrow, Jesus never fails. His love is never ending.”

It’s no surprise that language is one thing that separates particular communities, but I’d never thought about it in a religious context before. Later in the book, when he’s talking about conversion, he echoes the bit about language and community:

Maybe the transition isn’t so smooth when the foreign experiences deal with God. The anthropologist Susan Harding defines a religious conversion as the acquisition of a form of religious language, which happens the same way we acquire any other language–through exposure and repetition. In other words, we don’t necessarily know when we’ve crossed the line into belief.

If there’s a weakness in this book, it’s that I would have liked to read more about the culture that is Liberty University. He says he peppers other people about their history, beliefs, reasons for being at Liberty, etc. (sometimes to the point of raising suspicions of his true purpose there), but it’s mostly about his own experience. This is a fair approach, but there’s still a voyeuristic side of me that would like to dig more into the sociology of the college itself. Anyway, great book. Recommended.

Up in the Air (review: 3/5)

Up in the Air
I saw the movie, liked it a lot, heard good things about the book and figured I might as well. I liked this one just fine. I don’t think it’s quite great enough to recommend, but most good fiction has some oh-yes-that’s-just-like-real-life moments and general snippets of good writing worth sharing. Surely everyone knows a couple like this:

Her husband makes it all possible, a software writer flush with some of the fastest money ever generated by our economy. He hangs pleasantly in the background of Kara’s life, demanding nothing, offering everything. They’re a bountiful, gracious people, here to help, who seem to have sealed some deal with the Creator to spread his balm in return for perfect sanity.

A nice bit of airline paranoia:

I turn on my HandStar and dial up Great West’s customer information site, according to which our flight is still on time. How do they keep their lies straight in this business? They must use deception software, some suite of programs that synchronizes their falsehoods system-wide.

After a disagreement with his sister during a road-side stop, she walks away and he philosophizes on male-female argument dynamics:

My sister is dwindling. It’s flat and vast here and it takes time to dwindle, but she’s managing to and soon I’ll have to catch her. There are rules for when women desert your car and walk. The man should allow them to dwindle, as is their right, but not beyond the point where if they turn the car is just a speck to them.

On childish yet important body-language politics during a business lunch:

He chooses a two-setting table on a platform and takes the wall seat. From his perspective, I’ll blend with the lunch crowd behind me, but from mine he’s all there is, a looming individual. Fine, I’ll play jujitsu. I angle my chair so as to show him the slimmest, one-eyed profile. The look in my other eye he’ll have to guess at.

On Denver and arts scenes:

I’ve been told my old city possesses a “thriving arts scene,” whatever that is; personally, I think artists should lie low and stick to their work, not line-dance through the parks.

The Happiness Project (review: 3/5)

The Happiness Project
I felt pretty torn about this one. I’d been following Gretchen Rubin’s blog about the Happiness Project for a while and wondered what extra stuff would be in the book. I got it from the library, so I’m not sure that it matters as the only cost to me was time. Luckily she’s a really fluid writer and it’s a quick read, so it’s not in the “waste of time” category. Good parts:

If there’s a downside, it’s that I wish she’d shared more of the studies she read up on (surely a ton), and less of the personal anecdotes of how she applied them. But then again, I wonder if I’d say the opposite if the reverse were true? Either way, you can probably get the most bang for your buck by ripping through the best-of section over on her site. Tyler Cowen says “On net, Gretchen’s tips will enhance your happiness.” I suspect this is true.

Bicycle Diaries (review: 3/5)

Bicycle Diaries
I like David Byrne, but I feel really ambivalent about this book. On the one hand, there are some great gems and little thought-bits that come out of a curious mind. On the other hand, as the title so clearly points out, it’s diaristic. There’s a good amount of day-to-day humdrum “this is what I did here, this is what I did there” stuff to wade through. With that said, here are some parts I especially liked:

On the meta-ness of ringtones:

Ring tones are “signs” for “real” music. This is music not meant to be actually listened to as music, but to remind you of and refer to other, real music… A modern symphony of music that is not music but asks that you remember music.

Although he praises Europe’s cultivated, park-like landscape, in particular the “manicured” blend of man and nature in Berlin, he finds it

a bit sad, I think, that my visual reference for an unmediated forest derives from images in fiction and movies. Sad too that the forest in this preserved area was once quite common, but now lives on mainly in our collective imaginations.

Early in the book he talks about a number of American cities in brief. On the town of Sweetwater, Texas:

I enjoy not being in New York. I am under no illusion that my world is in any better than this world, but still I wonder at how some of the Puritanical restrictions have lingered—the encouragement to go to bed early and the injunction against enjoying a drink with one’s meal. I suspect that drinking, even a glass of wine or two with dinner, is, like drug use, probably considered a sign of moral weakness. The assumption is that there lurks within us a secret desire for pure, sensuous, all-hell-breaking-loose pleasure, which is something to be nipped in the bud, for pragmatic reasons.

And I liked this back-of-the-envelope theory on mating and signaling in Los Angeles:

I don’t know what the male-female balance is in L.A., but I suspect that because people in that town come into close contact with one another relatively infrequently—they are usually physicall isolated at work, at home, or in their cars—they have to make an immediate and profound impression on the opposite sex and on their rivals whenever a chance presents itself. Subtlety will get you nowhere in this context.

This applies particularly in L.A. but also in much of the United States, where chances and opportunities to be seen and noticed by the oppsite sex sometimes occur not just infrequently but also at some distance—across a parking lot, as one walks from car to building, or in a crowded mall. Therefore the signal that I am sexy, powerful, and desirable has to be broadcast at a slightly “louder” volume than in other towns where people actually come into closer contact and don’t need to “shout”. In L.A. one has to be one’s own billboard.

Consequently in L.A. the women, on the face of it, must feel a greater need to get physically augmented, tanned, and have flowing manes of hair that can be seen from a considerable distance.

Summarizing a conversation he had about the creative impulse:

People tend to think that creative work is an expression of a preexisting desire or passion, a feeling made manifest, and in a way it is. As if an overwhelming anger, love, pain, or longing fills the artist or composer, as it might with any of us—the difference being that the creative artist then has no choice but to express those feelings through his or her given creative medium. I proposed that more often the work is a kind of tool that discovers and brings to light that emotional muck. Singers (and possibly listeners of music too) when they write or perform a song don’t so much bring to the work already formed emotions, ideas, and feelings as much as they use the act of singing as a device that reproduces and dredges them up.

In a later part, in the London section, he talks about a new wave of appreciation for the late artist Alice Neel, and touches on the convoluted ways we evaluate and reflect on creative works new and old:

Maybe the work looks prescient? Maybe it looks prescient every decade or so, whenever a slew of younger artists do work that is vaguely similar to hers? In that way maybe she’s being used to validate the present, and in turn the present is being used to validate the past?

And lastly, on PowerPoint:

A slide talk, the context in which this software is used, is a form of contemporary theater—a kind of ritual theater that has developed in boardrooms and academia rather than on the Broadway stage. No one can deny that a talk is a performance, but again there is a pervasive myth of objectivity and neutrality to deal with. There is an unspoken prejudice at work in those corporate and academic “performance spaces”—that performing is acting and therefore it’s not “real”. Acknowledging a talk as a performance is therefore anathema.