Reading – Et cetera 2: 2011 - 2014

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A love affair with books


Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg"I feel the same way about solitude as some people feel about the blessings of the church. It's the light of grace for me. I never close my door behind me without the awareness that I am carrying out an act of mercy toward myself."

   "Twice I've made trips to Greenland when I didn't look in a mirror for six months. On the trip home I would carefully avoid mirrors on the plane and in the airports. When I finally stood in front of a mirror in my apartment I clearly saw the physical manifestations of the passage of time. The first gray hairs, the network of wrinkles, the ever deepening and sharpening shadows of the bones beneath my skin.
   "Nothing was more reassuring to me than the knowledge that I would die. In these moments of clarity—and you see yourself clearly only when you see yourself as a stranger—all despair, all gaiety, all depression vanish and are replaced by calm. For me death was not something scary or a state of being or an event that would happen to me. It was a focusing on the now, an aid, an ally in the effort to be mentally present."

– Peter Høeg, Smilla's Sense of Snow (Reviews: 2004, 2000, 1999, Favorites)

Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale

The Ancestor's Tale by Richard DawkinsWonderfully narrated by Richard and Lalla Dawkins

I had intended to stop writing reviews. I had written hundreds over the years in my free time, but such luxurious time has become a precious and unfortunately all too rare treasure in recent years, so I had found myself making a tradeoff between having time to write reviews and enjoying time to read. A few years ago I tried to solve this dilemma by cutting back my reviews to only those books I would've previously rated most highly among the books I read. I also shifted much, though not all, of my reading to listening to audiobooks during my daily commute. Free time continued to become even more rare, until I finally decided I had to give up something from the things I love doing the most: hiking, woodworking, reading, and writing reviews. I had just finished reading my personal touchstone book, Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, and decided that would be my final review. Some months went by, and then I found myself wandering through the The Port William books by Wendell Berry. I was so touched by those stories that I decided I had to share a review. Now, many months later, it has happened again, I am reading a book that is touching me so deeply that I cannot help but share it. Perhaps this is how it should be, that I continue to share a review now and then when I simply can't stand the thought of not sharing the book with others.

I've read or listened to several books by Richard Dawkins over the years. I've also watched one of his lectures. I find him to be an extraordinarily gifted scientist and teacher. This book, The Ancestor's Tale, is the most amazing book of his that I've had the good fortune of getting to know thus far.

I had thought I understood the basics of evolution, this amazing process that has given us the gift of life. I now realize that I had only the murkiest idea about the journey of our ancestors. As I finish listening to each segment of this book I find myself appreciating the gift of life ever more deeply. There simply aren't adjectives to describe the depth, breadth, and height of my wonder. It may take light 90 billion light years to travel across the universe, but I feel like my awe has filled the universe during the short time I've been listening to this book. (Have you seen the interactive The Scale of the Universe by Cary Huang⩘ ? It will give you an idea of the extent of my feelings about this.)

What more can I possibly say?

Related video: Richard Dawkins: The Ancestor's Tale - Meet the author⩘ 

Houghton Mifflin, New York, 2004

Wendell Berry, The Port William books

The Memory of Old Jack by Wendell BerryPerformed by Paul Michael with a depth that matches the stories

Well, I wasn't going to write any more reflections on the books I read and listen to, then I came upon this series by Wendell Berry and feel compelled to add a few more words to these pages of reviews in order to share this gift I've had the good fortune to receive.

Wendell Berry began writing these books in 1955, and has continued to the present day. In addition to his works of fiction—eight novels and 38 short stories about the people of a river town in Kentucky named Port Williams, and of the place itself—he has written scores of books of poetry and essays. A farmer himself, Berry has also taught English and creative writing at University College in the Bronx and the University of Kentucky. He strikes me as a man of carefully considered and deeply held convictions, one of which is of the importance of a connection to and respect for the land.

I didn't care much for the first half of the first book in this series, Nathan Coulter. Then something shifted in his storytelling style, or perhaps something shifted inside of me, maybe a bit both, for I felt myself relax into the pace of the stories, and it was as if I had become a part of the place. These stories have sunk deep inside of me, powerfully enough to be changing me. They have invited me to pause and reflect upon the life I am living, and to step back and ponder this shared life we are all living. I think the wisdom contained in these stories will impart an influence upon the choices I make going forward, and will strengthen my sense of the direction I should travel in my life.

Jayber Crow by Wendell BerryTwo of the books I have read so far have touched me most deeply: The Memory of Old Jack and Jayber Crow. These are the stories of two old men, quite different old men, who have reached a stage in their lives when they can look back and reflect upon pretty much the sum total of their lives. I'm not there myself yet, but that's not so far off, which may be part of the reason I so strongly felt these two stories. Along side that, they are simply quite powerfully told tales of men who have experienced much, who have had the capacity to observe what they were experiencing, and who have been careful to take the time to reflect upon what they have experienced.

Happily, I have a couple more books left in this series, and then, hopefully, the opportunity to revisit them again someday.

   Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told.

Counterpoint, Berkeley, 1974 (The Memory of Old Jack), 2000 (Jayber Crow)

Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

Siddhartha by Hermann HesseTranslated by Joachim Neugroschel, narrated by Firdous Bamji

This story has touched my life more deeply and more often than any other. I first read it when I was quite young, probably in my late teens. Since then I've returned to it every decade or so. This is the first time I've listened to it, and this has been a delightful way to experience the story.

Had I been able to choose only one book to read in my life, this would've been it, and it would've been all I needed. Certainly all the other books I've read over the years have added richness to my life; I've learned from some and been entertained by others, been challenged and soothed, inspired and heartened, but no other has been essential to my life in the way this one has.

   "Listen, my friend! I am a sinner and you are a sinner, but someday the sinner will be Brahma again, will someday attain Nirvana, will someday become a Buddha. Now this 'someday' is illusion; it is only a comparison. The sinner is not on the way to a Buddha-like state; he is not evolving, although our thinking cannot conceive things otherwise. No, the potential Buddha already exists in the sinner; his future is already there. The potential hidden Buddha must be recognized in him, in you, in everybody. Buddha must be recognized in him, in you, in everybody. The world, Govinda, is not imperfect or slowly evolving along a long path to perfection. No, it is perfect at every moment; every sin already carries grace within it, all small children are potential old men, all sucklings have death within them, all dying people—eternal life. It is not possible for one person to see how far another is on the way; the Buddha exists in the robber and dice player; the robber exists in the Brahmin. During deep meditation it is possible to dispel time, to see simultaneously all the the past, present, and future, and then everything is good, everything is perfect, everything is Brahman. Therefore, it seems to me that everything that exists is good—death as well as life, sin as well as holiness, wisdom as well as folly. Everything is necessary, everything needs only my agreement, my assent, my loving understanding; then all is well with me and nothing can harm me. I learned through my body and soul that it was necessary for me to sin, that I needed lust, that I had to strive for property and experience nausea and the depths of despair in order to learn not to resist them, in order to learn to love the world, and no longer compare it with some kind of desired imaginary world, some imaginary vision of perfection, but to leave it as it is, to love it and be glad to belong to it."

   – Siddhartha, sitting beside the river, speaking to Govinda

What a wondrous journey life is.

Recorded Books, LLC, 2006, originally published 1922, translation 1999; the extract is from the New Directions Book edition, New York, 1951, translated by Hilda Rosner

Jonathan Safran Foer, Tree of Codes

Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran FoerIn order to create this story and book, Jonathan Safran Foer took an English edition of a favorite book, Bruno Schulz's The Street of Crocodiles, and crafted his new story from it by cutting its pages, removing words to reveal something at once fresh and derived. "I was in search of a text whose erasure would somehow be a continuation of its creation."

It's difficult to imagine what the experience of creating a story like this was like for the author, but I suppose it might have been something like following a river along a single route through a vast delta, knowing always that the water is flowing with certainty toward the ocean—though not which exact choices each turn will bring—and that for every turn missed, the turn taken will more than make up for what is missed with a richness of surprise.

It's an interesting experience to read the book. The pages have depth, giving a glimpse of what's to come; they're fragile, necessitating a physical care while reading; and the reading itself is a challenge, as you must tease the story's current words, phrases, and sentences off the current page. The novelty of all of this caused me to focus in an extraordinary way as I absorbed the story.

Perhaps this is a last hurrah of the physical book, as the experience of reading can never be recreated in a digital edition—for that alone I appreciate it—and the effort required to read it forces a slow pace, which matches the melancholy of the story itself. The author's afterword left me … quiet.

Detail of page 24:

Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer

   shadows fled sideways along the floors and up the walls – crossing the borders of almost.

Visual Editions, London, 2010

Alan Moorehead, The White Nile and The Blue Nile

The White Nile by Alan MooreheadWritten in a very compelling style, but what a terrible story. The "grand" age of the exploration of the Nile is actually a time of exploitation, brutality, massacres, rape, and pillage.

The great explorers seem to be truly insane, driven by outsized egos or fanatical religiosity … in some cases, both. Willing to endure unthinkable hardships, they are also, unfortunately, willing to subject those who travel with them—their porters, staff, foot soldiers—and those who find themselves unwittingly under their command—the townsfolk of areas they occupy—to the worst possible outcomes.

Although not the focus of a book like this, I could not help but keep thinking about all the regular folk who eked out a subsistence life along the Nile and in the Sudan, only to have their lives devastated by marauding armies seeking glory and fame. Hmm, not unlike the situation today with the big banks so willing to destroy normal folks who only wanted a place to call home. Life is more fragile and fleeting than the typical normalcy of day-to-day existence suggests.

I also couldn't help but reflect on our ignorance of history as we pour our billions and blood into Iraq and Afghanistan today with proclamations of bringing Democracy to the region. Yeah, right.

   Perhaps it is the very austerity of life in these arid wastes that predisposes the people to worship. An immense silence possesses the surrounding desert. The heat is so great it stifles the appetite and induces a feeling of trance-like detachment in which monotony dissolves into a natural timelessness, visions take on the appearance of reality, and asceticism can become a religious object of itself. These are ideal circumstances for fanaticism, and a religious leader can arouse his followers with a devastating effect. All at once the barriers are swept aside, revolt becomes a holy duty, and it can be a shocking and uprooting thing because it makes so sharp a break with the apathy that has gone before. The long silence is broken, the vision is suddenly translated into action, and detachment is replaced by a fierce and violent concentration.

Finally, amongst all the gruesome stories, there were moments of breathtaking beauty, as when Moorehead so eloquently reminded me of what it is like to stand before the Tissisat Falls (also known as the Blue Nile Falls) below Lake Tana in the highlands of central Ethiopia. I experienced a similar time-dissolving moment during my travels there. The vividness of those moments keep them fresh in my mind even today, four decades later.

   Lake Tana and the source of the Blue Nile can be visited without much difficulty. One flies on a little country air-service from Addis Ababa to the village of Bahar Dar on the southern shore of Lake Tana, and thence one can be paddled out on a raft to the place where the river debouches from the lake. With mules and guides one can also follow Bruce's route up to the source of the Little Abbai, where the water still oozes out of a bog precisely as he saw it; and with a little persistence – a mule with a wooden saddle is an uncompromising seat for a novice – one can reach the Tisisat Falls in a day's steady riding from Bahar Dar. It is a rewarding journey. Towards evening one sees in the distance the glimmering cloud of spray rising over the falls, and then, by swimming the mules across to the left bank, once can proceed directly into the wet jungle that lies around the falls themselves. At one vantage point the whole roaring overflow can be seen, and it is pleasant to stand there speculating as to whether or not Father Lobo could really have found a perch beneath the deluge, and knowing that little or nothing has altered here since his or Bruce's time. The spray that falls like gentle rain, wetting one to the skin, falls forever – two centuries and more ago on Lobo and Bruce, now on oneself, and still upon any traveller who chances to be at that beautiful place at this present moment. Sometimes a log, borne along by the current, teeters for a moment at the lip of the vast abyss, and then plunges downward on its long journey to Egypt and the sea.

I have to laugh at Moorehead's casual mention of "a little country air-service." When I was there, that translated into ancient DC-3s that were half passenger, half cargo, with nothing separating the two. In the back, barely contained by an ill-fitting cargo door that banged and rattled as we flew along, was the pile of haphazardly stacked cargo, often with hog-tied goats and chickens fastened to the top. The planes would bounce and hop down the sloped dirt runways, then shutter into the air. Once we took off only to immediately circle and land again. A barefoot mechanic ran out of the shack that was the "terminal" with a beat-up old ladder, clambered up onto the wing, poured a couple quarts of oil into the engine, then sent us on our way again lumbering down the runway, bouncing into the air, straining to climb over the nearby peaks. And yes, the wooden saddles on the mules were certainly uncompromising.


Vintage Books, New York, 1983 (1960, 1962)

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