Finishing books vs. finishing movies

Over these past few months I’ve been watching more movies than ever before, and Peter’s tweet got me thinking about movie-patience. I DNF books all the time. Movies, I almost always finish. Why is this? A couple theories:

  • Movies last a specific amount of time. Knowing that I will be done with a mediocre movie in 86 minutes makes it easier to bear. Ambiguity around the time investment works against books.
  • Movies require less attention, so I can do other things while I (kinda sorta) watch. Eating, light conversation, light internetting, intermittent texting, etc.
  • Because there are fewer produced, movies make better conversation topics. They have better cultural currency. More people are more likely to have seen or at least be familiar with a given movie. So there’s a higher social cost for not being familiar with it.
  • Movies have a better entertainment/time ratio.
  • My priorities are out of whack.
  • I am subconsciously addressing an innate human need for stories. Most of my reading is nonfiction, so I’m using cinema-fiction to make up for the lack of text-fiction.
  • Eye candy.
  • Movies involve more people, more money, more compromises, more constraints on time and budget, and thus they are less likely to have nonessential bloat. Though I can easily see this argument going the other way, too.

Other possibilities?

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.

What I’ve been reading

Just like it says on the label. I’m going to say a few things about what I read more often. I’ll keep the longer book reviews for the ones I have a bit more to share from or say about.
1. Too Big to Fail. This a great, great book that offers a minute-to-minute, blow-by-blow account of the financial crisis: meetings, phone calls, petty rivalries, bullying, groveling, panic. It’s to be expected that the people at highest levels of any industry will be fairly well-connected to each other. It’s also a little terrifying.

2. We’ll Always Have Paris. I think I need to give up on Ray Bradbury. I really liked Something Wicked This Way Comes and loved The Illustrated Man back in the day. Dandelion Wine and The Martian Chronicles were good, too. But nothing has hit the spot since.

3. Pride and Prejudice. Quite simply one of the best books I’ve ever read. One thing I appreciated was the characterization. When a new character comes in, they usually get some description, a good bit of dialogue to get the shape of their personality, and then the rest of the story assumes you remember that. Like that windbag Mr. Collins. You see his flowery speeches early, but later it’s summarized that Collins praised this and commended that. For all the 19th-century wordiness, it’s a pretty efficient little story. And it’s got all that suspense and miscommunication and false assumptions.

4. The Big Sleep. I expected to enjoy this one a lot, and I did indeed. I didn’t expect Chandler to be such a colorful writer. But there didn’t seem to be many wasted words. It’s all of a certain mood, a certain tone, a certain tightness. Great story.

5. Self-Made Man. Author Norah Vincent spent a year dressing as a man–dating, working, socializing, etc.–and reports on here experience. It’s pretty insightful. Here’s a great bit from when she meets some new guys, on the awesomeness of handshakes:

As he extended his arm to shake my hand, I extended mine, too, in a sweeping motion. Our palms met with a soft pop, and I squeezed assertively the way I’d seen men do at parties when they gathered in someone’s living room to watch a football game. From outside, this ritual had always seemed overdone to me. Why all the macho ceremony? But from the inside it was completely different. There was something so warm and bonded in this handshake. Receiving it was a rush, an instant inclusion in a camaraderie that felt very old and practiced.

Though some of her chosen research venues (bowling team, strip joints, monastery, high-pressure sales team, male retreat) are a little fringe, it’s a pretty sensitive account.

  • “If women are trapped by the whore/Madonna complex, men are equally trapped by this warrior/minstrel complex.”
  • “Every man’s armor is borrowed and ten sizes too big, and beneath it, he’s naked and insecure and hoping you won’t see.”
  • “After he told me the raw story, I said, ‘Ivan, how many women have you slept with?’
    ‘Seventy-four,’ he said without hesitation.
    Again, probably a giant lie, but who knew? Ivan also claimed to have an IQ of 180 and a nine-inch dick. But don’t they all, at least to each other.”

And she’s still plenty aware of the issues of sympathizing with The Man. Very thoughtful.

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.

Manhood for Amateurs (review: 4/5)

Manhood for Amateurs
I became impatient with the few Michael Chabon books I’ve tried, never finished one. And historically I have had little patience with memoir. So what do I do? I go pick up Michael Chabon’s new memoir, Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son. Good decision, it turns out.

On the title page there’s a spinner-type illustration like you’d see on a game board, with possible landing spots marked Hypocrisy, Sexuality, Innocence, Regret, Sincerity, Nostalgia, Experience, and Play. If I could oversimplify, it’s about the awesomeness and awkwardness of being a guy. Not “awesome” as in “cool” but “awesome” in the sense of actual awe, realizing as you grow older that you are part of a tradition that our entire half of the population all experiences. Luckily he’s not too cliché with the whole thing, in one section even going so far as to meditate on the clichédness of feeling like a cliché and turn it into something worthwhile.

Cup size, wires, padding, straps, clasps, the little flowers between the cups: You need a degree, a spec sheet. You need breasts. I don’t know what you need to truly understand brassieres, and what’s more, I don’t want to know. I’m sorry. Go ask your mother.

There you have it: the most flagrant cliché imaginable. As I utter it, I might as well reach for a trout lure, a socket wrench, the switch on my model train transformer. This may be the fundamental truth of parenthood: No matter how enlightened or well prepared you are by theory, principle, and the imperative not to repeat the mistakes of your own parents, you are no better a father or mother than the set of your own limitations permits you to be.

The essays cover things like being a brother, cooking, the man-purse, faking it when you’re in over your head, best friends, Jose Canseco, first love, failed love, fatherhood and more. Here’s a bit on marriage, from the excellent story The Hand on My Shoulder (which link takes you to Chabon reading it on NPR):

The meaning of divorce will elude us as long as we are blind to the meaning of marriage, as I think at the start we must all be. Marriage seems—at least it seemed to an absurdly young man in the summer of 1987, standing on the sun-drenched patio of an elegant house on Lake Washington—to be an activity, like chess or tennis or a rumba contest, that we embark upon in tandem while everyone who loves us stands around and hopes for the best. We have no inkling of the fervor of their hope, nor of the ways in which our marriage, that collective endeavor, will be constructed from and burdened with their love.

Yesterday I tumbled a great quote from his essay on the The Wilderness of Childhood. Here’s another:

We have this idea of armchair traveling, of the reader who seeks in the pages of a ripping yarn or a memoir of polar exploration the kind of heroism and danger, in unknown, half-legendary lands, that he or she could never hope to find in life.

This is a mistaken notion, in my view. People read stories of adventure—and write them—because they have themselves been adventurers. Childhood is, or has been, or ought to be, the great original adventure, a tale of privation, courage, constant vigilance, danger, and sometimes calamity.

In “Cosmodemonic” he talks about being a “little shit” and basically, growing up:

We are accustomed to repeating the cliché, and to believing, that “our most precious resource is our children.” But we have plenty of children to go around, God knows, and as with Doritos, we can always make more. The true scarcity we face is of practicing adults, of people who know how marginal, how fragile, how finite their lives and their stories and their ambitions really are but who find value in this knowledge, even a sense of strange comfort, because they know their condition is universal, is shared.

Tyler Cowen said “This supposed paean to family life collapses quickly into narcissism, but that’s in fact what makes it work.” Much better than I’d expected.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (review: 5/5)

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

This Sotsgorodok was a bare field knee-deep in snow, and for a start you’d be digging holes, knocking in fence posts, and stringing barbed wire around them to stop yourself from running away. After that—get building.

I knew I would love this book when I came across those lines, about five pages in. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writes about a labor-camp worker/political prisoner named Shukhov. It’s only one full day, from just before sunrise until lights-out. I love the restraint to focus on one day, one character, one setting. That aside, I think my favorite part of the book was a sort of underlying optimism. There’s plenty of bold, revolutionary exposé-type stuff about injustice, deprivation, dehumanizing treatment, etc. (It’s probably because I grew up after this devastating period that I can write it off with an “etc”…) But more interesting to me were the little glimmers of endurance and good humor in truly awful conditions.

“Call the gang.”

Gopchik ran off.

The great news was that the gruel was good today, the very best, oatmeal gruel. You don’t often get that. It’s usually magara or grits twice a day. The mushy stuff around the grains of oatmeal is filling, it’s precious.

Shukhov had fed any amount of oats to horses as a youngster and never thought that one day he’d be breaking his heart for a handful of the stuff.

“Bowls! Bowls!” came a shout from the serving hatch.

Another favorite bit is a sort of emotional shift that I found pretty remarkable. The oppression became sort of a background feature for me. With all that given, conscious sympathy sort of fades until you get about 90% finished…

Fetyukov passed down the hut, sobbing. He was bent double. His lips were smeared with blood. He must have been beaten up again for licking out bowls. He walked past the whole team without looking at anybody, not trying to hide his tears, climbed onto his bunk, and buried his face in his mattress.

You felt sorry for him, really. He wouldn’t see his time out. He didn’t know how to look after himself.

Very much a Literary Wow Moment for me. Our hero still manages feelings of pity for his fellow slave-laborer, while the reader has gotten kind of worn out. Just when you’ve gotten numb from reading about a full day of hardship, you feel the pang again because this one guy probably won’t make it. One last cool thing, also evident in the paragraph above, is that the third-person omniscient narration is peppered with asides and reactions from Shukhov himself:

The bosses were afraid the zeks would scatter and waste time in warming sheds. A zek’s day is a long one, though, and he can find time for everything. Every man entering the compound stooped to pick up a wood chip or two. Do nicely for our stove. Then quick as a flash into their shelters.

It’s a fairly short read. Totally worth it.

Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior (review: 4/5)

Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior

By now it should be clear that you’ll be most comfortable with my arguments if you fully accept yourself as a fitness-flaunting consumer narcissist who has been deluded, throughout your whole life, into irrational spending habits by advertising euphemisms and peer pressure. In other words, you’ll probably feel uneasy for much of the time you’re reading it.

That line comes about 100 pages into the book. I stumbled on it when I was flipping through and it’s the passage that convinced me to take it from the library. Geoffrey Miller’s book, Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior turned out to be very good. If I could just block-quote the entire thing right here, I probably would.

You get a sense of the tone from the quote above. It’s fairly conversational. There’s a counter-cultural bent to it that comes across as more detached and bemused, rather than left-wing-ish panic or conservative haughtiness. He picks on both perspectives fairly evenly. Some of it I found genuinely funny, some was awkward funny (“Mobile phones are already becoming too Lilliputian for adult males to use without feeling like a palsy-pawed giant ground sloth.”). Most of it offered plenty of brain-tweaking “I hadn’t thought of it that way” moments. The book got quite a collection of dog-ears by the time I got through with it.

He starts out with a discussion of the “Big Five” personality traits, explaining what they are and how he’ll be using them to guide the discussion. The discussion at hand hinges around the idea of signaling: basically, how we inform others (and exaggerate) our worthy traits and minimize the appearance of less worthy traits. We signal in really primitive ways based on evolutionary learning (e.g. nice, white teeth = healthy) and in really modern ways, such as conspicuous consumption (e.g. nice, white teeth covered with a grill = wealthy).

Anyway, as you make it to page 75, he lists a few reasonable assumptions for the rest of the book:

  • We are social primates who survive and reproduce largely through attracting practical support from kin, friends, and mates.
  • We get that support insofar as others view us as offering desirable traits that fit their needs.
  • Over the past few million years, we have evolved many mental and moral capacities to display those desirable traits.
  • Over the past few thousand years, we have learned that these desirable traits can also be displayed through buying and displaying various goods and services in market economies.

And a few pages later, he brings the connection with consumerism and marketing, and hints and hints at the anti-consumerist arguments that he’ll get into later in the book:

Consumerism depends on forgetting a truth and believing a falsehood. The truth that must be forgotten is that we humans have already spent millions of years evolving awesomely effective ways to display our mental and moral traits to one another through natural social behaviors such as language, art, music, generosity, creativity, and ideology. We can all do so without credentials, careers, credit ratings, or crateloads of product.

The next bit ranges into a really interesting discussion on the three basic ways we signal: conspicuous waste, conspicuous precision, or conspicuous reputation. Conspicuous waste is fairly self-explanatory: gigantic cars, 30oz steaks, liquid-cooled gaming PCs. Conspicuously precise products rely on refinement, intricacy, low tolerances for error: luxury cars, fine sushi, Apple products. Conspicuous reputation is about envy or facade. Miller mentions BMWs and well-regarded postal codes in this category. Those aren’t perfect examples, and the categories can bleed, but you get the idea.

In one great leveling passage, he writes:

Each signaling principle has its distinctive pros and cons from the viewpoint of the signaler, the audience, and the population and ecology at large. These distinctions are significant but often overlooked. For example, socialist and environmentalist critiques of runaway consumerism apply most forcibly to cruder forms of conspicuous waste, which sequester matter and energy for the rich at the expense of the poor, and which impose the largest ecological footprint (resource and energy requirements). It is much harder to raise socioecological objections to an iPod nano than to an H1 Hummer. Aristocrats differ from the nouveaux riches not in their freedom from consumerism, but in their preference for conspicuous precision and reputation (“the finer things in life”) over conspicuous waste (“the crass and the vulgar”).

Later parts brought to mind the idea of social objects: “As a self-display strategy, it is very inefficient to buy new, branded, mass-produced products from stores at the full manufacturer’s suggested retail price. The product comes into one’s life naked and mute, without any social context, memorable circumstances, or narrative value.” It’s not just what you have, but how you earned it and how it brings you closer to those you love.

And I just love this one bit, about 3/4 through the book. He’s spent a couple sentences talking about buying a Toyota Camry or a comparable Lexus. Both are made by the same mother company to similar quality levels:

If you must have the Lexus, that’s OK, as long as you consciously accept two things: (1) apart from its higher mass, you are paying an extra $40,000 for the Lexus badge, and (2) everyone who sees you driving the Lexus, and who has read this book, will assume that you could think of nothing in the world more creative, kind, or conscientious to do with $40,000.

Zing! Boom! That’s something to think on.

The last 10% or so of the book wasn’t as good the beginning. It got more prescriptive than descriptive, and it just wasn’t as interesting. But man, that first 90% was so worth it.

More elsewhere:

Love Is a Mixtape (review: 4/5)

Love Is a Mixtape
If you like love and/or music, I think you will like Love Is a Mixtape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time. Rob Sheffield wrote the book after the unexpected death of his wife of five years, Reneee. He didn’t write it right away—the story came welling up again as he was moving to a new apartment, unpacking some old tapes of theirs. The book’s 15 chapters each touch on a different mixtape and a different time. It explores the music and life and love they shared. It captures part of the Charlottesville music scene (they were both DJs) and the bigger stuff in the ’90s: Nirvana, Pavement, R.E.M., etc.

I liked Sheffield’s writing. The passage of time helps to bring out this sort of humorous self-awareness, like when he describes a moment shortly after they were married:

Now we were alone with each other.

Which meant we had all these neighbors to deal with. The old lady next door dropped by with a plate of muffins one Sunday afternoon, right in the middle of Studs. Renee explained that in the South, this is normal—you just drop in on your married neighbors. I was aghast. I was a husband in the South now. We had married into this alien landscape with its strange customs.

Or when he talks about his love as a supporting role, after a moment when he was driving and singing back-up on “Midnight Train to Georgia”:

When we got to the final fade-out with Gladys on board the train and the Pips choo-chooing their goodbyes, Reneee cocked an eyebrow and said, ‘You make a good Pip.’ That’s all I ever wanted to hear a girl tell me. That’s all I ever dreamed of being. Some of us are born Gladys Knights, and some of us are born Pips. I marveled unto my Pip soul how lucky I was to choo-choo and woo-woo behind a real Gladys girl.

And everywhere it’s saturated with pop-culture references, so the time comes alive. And that’s what makes it (and other good memoirs?) special: that the story is so specific. It’s not just a love story, but a story about what it’s like to be a music-lover in love with a music-lover mostly in Charlottesville in the early and mid-’90s. And when you read his enthusiasm (“how lucky I was to choo-choo”), you can’t help be a bit jealous/understanding of what he has, and you feel the loss more acutely than in a story that seems like it could be set anywhere (The Notebook, maybe, or how about Romeo and Juliet?). I think you should read it.

Oblivion (review: 4/5)


James Tanner’s Growing Sentences with David Foster Wallace is a nice parody of the writer’s style. A little absurd but kind of spot-on. Amusing for a little while, just like it always is when you’re watching someone else work. But if you get a chance to read a bit of Wallace (granted, I’m no expert—I’ve only got maybe 3-400 pages under my belt, but more is on the way), you get a sense of how crazy inventive this guy was, whether you like the stories or not.

In the stories in Oblivion, all these layers of ambiguity or inexactness juxtapose with excessive detail. I like the way the narrators/protagonists/Wallace zip around making associations and adjustments and corrections, sentences accumulating detail as you read. At its best it’s kind of like a mural with words. Everything, large, all at once.

Let me get fetishy with a couple sentences. My favorite bit in recent memory, from The Soul Is Not a Smithy:

I was often the first to register the sound of my father’s key in the front door. It took only four steps and a brief sockslide into the foyer to be able to see him first as he entered on a wave of outside air.

Four steps and a sockslide and a wave of outside air. Lord, that’s perfect. I’m willing to grant that I especially like that one because it makes me think of Dad, but I haven’t read something so compact but evocative in a long time. Here’s a funny bit from the opening story, Mister Squishy, mostly set in a market research office:

Attached to the breast pocket on the same side of his shirt as his nametag was also a large pin or button emblazoned with the familiar Mister Squishy brand icon, which was a plump and childlike cartoon face of indeterminate ethnicity with its eyes squeezed parly shut in an expression that somehow connoted delight, satiation, and rapacious desire all at the same time.

You can certainly read the verbosity as annoying and peacockish, but I can’t help but love seeing the product of a mind at work, like he’s been doing some serious thinking and noticing. Likewise, a couple dozen pages further into the story, some clever meeting room cynicism:

All that ever changed were the jargon and mechanisms and gilt rococo with which everyone in the whole huge blind grinding mechanism conspired to convince each other that they could figure out how to give the paying customer what they could prove he could be persuaded to believe he wanted…

I’d say Good Old Neon was the highlight for me, but the title story Oblivion gives it good competition. The first is imagined reflections before a suicide. The second a husband’s retelling of an ongoing dispute with his wife about his alleged snoring. Neither of those summaries do them justice. Read those two at least.

In which a metaphor is discerned

I’ve just started reading the so-far excellent The Lost City of Z, about exploration in the Amazon jungle. The central character was a member of the Royal Geographic Society, and the author goes to the London headquarters to do some research…

In a corridor of the Royal Geographic Society’s building, I noticed on the wall a gigantic seventeenth-century map of the globe. On the margins were sea monsters and dragons. For ages, cartographers had no means of knowing what existed on most of the earth. And more often than not these gaps were filled in with fantastical kingdoms and beasts, as if the make-believe, no matter how terrifying, were less frightening than the truly unknown.

As in maps, so in life.

In a section later in the book (that I also interpret more broadly to relate to bold striking-forth and unknown futures in Life), another explorer describes the typical reactions he got to his plans:

There were the Prudent, who said: “This is an extraordinarily foolish thing to do.” There were the Wise, who said: “This is an extraordinarily foolish thing to do; but at least you will know better next time.” There were the Very Wise, who said: “This is a foolish thing to do, but not nearly so foolish as it sounds.”

A Theory of Capitalism & Socialism (review: 4.5/5)

A Theory of Socialism & Capitalism: Economics, Politics, and Ethics
The first book by Hans-Hermann Hoppe that I read was the most excellent Democracy: The God That Failed. In the introduction to that book, Hoppe talks about competing social theories and, in face of conflicting arguments about society or politics or economics, how we can decide between them:

The data of history are logically compatible with… rival interpretations, and historians, insofar as they are just historians, have no way of deciding in favor of one or the other. If one is to make a rational choice among such rival and incompatible interpretations, this is only possible if one has a theory at one’s disposal, or at least a theoretical proposition, whose validity does not depend on historical experience but can be established a priori, i.e. once and for all by means of the intellectual apprehension or comprehension of the nature of things.

In other words, disagreements can’t be solved only by appealing to historical data. In the end “a priori theory trumps and corrects experience (and logic overrules observation), and not vice-versa.” A Theory of Capitalism & Socialism: Economics, Politics, Ethics [full text, pdf] takes this deductive approach. Hoppe starts by building a theory of property. We only need property because things are scarce; where there is no scarcity (e.g. ideas) there is no property…

And the rest flows from that. Sorry I don’t remember much more than that off-hand, because I finished the book almost a year ago. This draft has been sitting neglected for months and months. Just wanted to clear out the archives. Highly recommended, though.

American Nerd (review: 3/5)

American Nerd: The Story of My People

In the imagination of the fake nerd, the nerd is attractive because he is unaffected, untrendy to the point of primitivism, a kind of inert noble savage.

American Nerd: The Story of My People covers a pretty good range of history and culture, tying together various forms of the outcast and how this one particular version came together: the unathletic, socially dysfunctional, mathlete type (did I mention I was captain of my HS academic team?). It starts to get really good a few chapters into the book, when Benjamin Nugent dives into historical/literary precedent for today’s nerds and normals, e.g. Mary Bennet vs. Elizabeth in Pride & Prejudice, Tibby in Howard’s End, Victor Frankenstein. He also has a great section on the history of sport and the beginnings of the nerd/jock split, and why it became so important for young men to be strapping and not Jewish (see: Muscular Christianity).

Drawing on T.S. Eliot’s essay, The Metaphysical Poets, he also delves into a split between feeling and thinking, the intellectual and the reflective. The works of Donne and his comrades were a sort of pinnacle of heart/brain unity; later writers like Tennyson, rebelling against the “rationative,” not so much. Eliot:

The difference is not a simple difference of degree between poets… Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.

Quality of the poetry aside, the split between feeling and thinking anticipates a social divide. Nugent:

Since the Romantic era, we have been in an age in which machines have the capacity for some minimal semblance of rational thought, performing tasks that once would have been the exclusive domain of humans. Reason is no longer quintessentially human; spontaneity is. People more inclined toward logical deliberation than spontaneous expression have started to become somehow less totally human…

The pathos of being a nerd is to feel that because you are comfortable with rational thought, you are cut off from the experiences of spontaneous feelings, of romance, of nonrational connection to other people. A nerd is so often self-loathing because he accepts the thinking/feeling rift, and he knows and cares that other people accept it, too. To be a nerd is often to live with a nagging feeling of one’s own incurable heartlessness.

The first half is great, but the book goes astray in the second. The second used more case studies and memoir. It had an anthropological observation sort of bent that doesn’t hold up nearly as well compared with the earlier chapters. I preferred Nugent’s wide reinterpretation of culture and history and literature.

But the second half does have a nice section on hipsters and the contemporary appeal of the nerd aesthetic, where I got the opening quote from. He ties it in with Norman Mailer’s essay The White Negro. There’s a nice connection between hipsterdom and the creative professions…

… a choice on the part of the privileged to identify with the outsider. The outsider in this case is the nerd, because nerds are people incapable of, or at least averse to, riding cultural trends. When your greatest fear is that you will become a loser because your intuition will fail to keep up with tastes, you embrace the nerd…

There’s also a nice bit on the connection between nerdiness and autism:

The idea that having a capacity for empathy, for expressing and understanding emotion, is part of being a normal male is fundamentally contemporary and a way of asking that men learn a traditionally feminine virtue. When men were in an unquestioned position of control in the economy—when the bedrock of the nuclear family was a single male wage, a flow of income largely unavailable to women—there was less force compelling men to make themselves attractive mates through understanding the feelings of others and expressing affection. The Asperger’s population is 90 percent male; it’s likely that one reason Asperger’s got “discovered” and then “boomed” is that the rest of us have slowly been revising our expectations of men.

Miles on Miles (review: 4/5)

You don’t know how to play better just because you’ve suffered. The blues don’t come from picking cotton.

I’ve never read anything quite like Miles on Miles: Interviews and Encounters with Miles Davis. The book collects about four decades’ worth of his life, broken up across a couple dozen interviews that were published in small jazz magazines all the way up to big serials like Newsweek and Rolling Stone. Some were with notable music journalists, a few with overmatched college radio station DJs.

The interviews start up in the late 1950s, about 10 years after he got his start with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and a couple years after he kicked his heroin habit. The general consensus, even back then: he was bleeping brilliant, charismatic, deeply flawed. Behind the gruff, badass facade was a sensitive, needy man. As the book goes on, it’s cool to see how the different interviewers sum up the career to date, through the shifting bands, radical changes in style, divorces, illness, new addictions. At some points in his life, he’s gregarious, absurdly fit from boxing, full of ideas. Later, for several years, he pretty much didn’t do much aside from drugs, rarely even leaving his house.

I don’t like to lay back. I don’t like to relax. Show me a motherfucker that’s relaxed, and I’ll show you a motherfucker that’s afraid of success.

You might have to like Miles to make it through his harangues. There weren’t a whole lot of brilliant comments or analysis of music. He usually avoided commenting on his own music, insistent that the past is dead, and I didn’t see a whole lot of criticism of other artists.

I usually don’t buy jazz records. They make me tired and depressed.

But I loved seeing how he phrased things, how he responds to similar questions over the years, and how he remembers and retells things differently. And there are occasional asides that I never would have expected:

I don’t know where I want to live. But the best time I ever had in my life, other than playing trumpet, was when I was out in the country riding horses.