Category Archives: Books

Reading in 2016

Last December during a conversation with my sister Rebecca, she mentioned being intentional about reading in a busy season of life. The thought stuck with me as 2016 began; I decided to target reading a book per month in 2016.

I’ve always loved to read. Book sales and book stores fill me with happiness and sadness. Happiness that so much information, opportunity, and entertainment lie before me. Sadness because I can’t read them all. At one point in my life the idea of reading one book per month would have been appalling. How can one book last an entire month? Right now that’s about all I can handle.

A recent study (media summary  link or actual study link) conducted by researchers at Yale showed a correlation between book reading and survival. While cognitive engagement may promote life, I suspect there are other variables at play as well. Regardless, I fully believe a life with books is fuller and richer.

I’m planning to post short reviews or thoughts on the books I’m reading this year. Just in case that never happens, I thought I’d start with my list so far. It’s not an elitist list, just books that I’ve wanted to read or have been recommended. As mid-August approaches I have fallen a little behind, I’m just finishing my July book:

January: David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (Malcolm Gladwell)

February: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (Daniel James Brown)

March: The Martian (Andy Weir)

April: Seeds of Change: Six Plants That Transformed Mankind (Henry Hobhouse)

May: Silent Spring (Rachel Carson)

June: Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (Michael Lewis)

July: The Black Tulip (Alexandre Dumas)

Here’s to savoring words and turning pages. . .

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Jerome K. Jerome: Humor, Wisdom, and Folly

I picked up two books written by the 19th century humorist Jerome K. Jerome, Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow and Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). The title page of my copy of Idle Thoughts contains a disclaimer printed by the publisher in 2008: “This book is a product of its time and does not reflect the same values as it would if it were written today. Parents might wish to discuss with their children how views on race have changed before allowing them to read this classic work.” I have not encountered another book with a similar warning–though I’ve read many that fall into the same category.

Some of the humor in Idle Thoughts is very dated. In the sections addressing men and women I found myself unable to decide where the line of satire fell (considering the book was a product of its time).

The topics for the chapters are a delightful mix including the weather, being in love, babies, furnished apartments, and dress and deportment. Most chapters meander through a collection of rabbit trail rants. In some cases they are lighthearted and facetious, such as this passage about babies:

There are various methods by which you may achieve ignominy and shame. By murdering a large and respected family in cold blood and afterward depositing their bodies in the water companies’ reservoir, you will gain much unpopularity in the neighborhood of your crime, and even robbing a church will get you cordially disliked, especially by the vicar. But if you desire to drain to the dregs the fullest cup of scorn and hatred that a fellow human creature can pour out for you, let a young mother hear you call dear baby “it.”

Jerome recommends calling all babies “little angel” (because it’s gender neutral and flattering), claiming the baby resembles the parents regardless of whether or not this is true, and most definitely do not say” “it hasn’t got much hair, has it?”

In the midst of the lightness Jerome pulls out passages like this while discussing memory:

There is no returning on the road of life. The frail bridge of time on which we tread sinks back into eternity at every step we take. The past is gone from us forever. It is gathered in and garnered. It belongs to us no more. No single word can ever be unspoken; no single step retraced. Therefore it beseems us as true knights to prick on bravely, not idly weep because we cannot now recall.

A new life begins for us with every second. Let us go forward joyously to meet it. We must press on whether we will or no, and we shall walk better with our eyes before us than with them ever cast behind.

Three Men in a Boat is the story of a boating excursion on the River Thames. Some parts of this book were tedious to read, but there were glimmers that caught my eye. Here are some excerpts:

The narrator decides he’ll take care of the packing:

I rather pride myself on my packing. Packing is one of those many things that I feel I know more about than any other person living. (It surprises me myself, sometimes, how many of these subjects there are.)

Idleness comes up in this book too:

I can’t sit still and see another man slaving and working. I want to get up and superintend, and walk around with my hands in my pockets, and tell him what to do. It is my energetic nature. I can’t help it.

One of the joys of reading is the great diversity in books. Jerome provided a dash of 19th century British humor into my 21st century American life.

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Summer Reading: Gladwell and Larson

blink1Now that summer is here I have resumed reading from my books-to-be-read list. Earlier this year I read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. I really enjoyed the book, so I picked up another of Gladwell’s works, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. While I found Gladwell’s discussion of perceptions and fast judgement interesting, I did not enjoy it as much as Outliers. Much of Blink deals with thin slicing, the ability to make determinations with very small sample sizes. I’ve wondered about my own thin slicing ability in different aspects of life. I like logic and developed arguments, yet I have made good decisions with little supporting data. Some of the science and analyses discussed in the book, predominantly reading human emotions, make me very skeptical. The three predominant things that stick with me from the examples and stories in this book are:

1). The danger of contempt and lack of validation between partners in a marriage. Seeing a seemingly playful conversation exposed as a hostile and demeaning conversation was striking to me (and made me realize I have heard and experienced conversations like this). This concept applies to relationships outside of marriage–the researcher studying it just happened to study it in the context of marriages.

2). First impressions may be heavily skewed by what is normal. New and novel approaches may face a difficult task in overcoming a negative first impression based upon what is accepted or comfortable. Gladwell used the Aeron chair prototype to make this point.

3). Associations in our minds are often misguided. The blatantly racist responses common in America that Gladwell discusses are troubling.

One last thing about Blink. Gladwell talks about the damage that can be done in war when too much information is present. In the afterword he talks about Robert E. Lee defeating Joe Hooker at Chancellorsville. Lee has less information than Hooker, is outnumbered and in a bad position, yet he attacks and wins. In the book this makes a nice, crisp point. Lee is lauded for this decision. What is not mentioned in the book is how similar this situation is to Gettysburg, where Lee faces a similar situation and makes similar moves which result in defeat. (A recent interesting article in the Smithsonian discusses how limitations in the intelligence presented to Lee might have shaped the Battle of Gettysburg.)

whitecityDuring my travels last summer I spent some time in Illinois. Right around the time we were exploring Chicago my friend Ryan recommended The Devil in the White City  by Eric Larson. The book contains the stories of the planning and construction of the 1893 World’s Fair and the life of H. H. Holmes. Larson did copious amounts of research to write the book, and he does an excellent job of adhering closely to facts while responsibly interspersing things like thoughts, emotions, and mundane details that have not been preserved. I enjoyed the book very much, though unsurprisingly it is very disturbing at times (I don’t think a book that dwells on the life of a serial killer can be a feel-good story). I enjoyed all the content about Frederick Law Olmstead because I studied his work years ago at Temple during a Community and Regional Planning class. Reading the book makes me want to visit Chicago again.

Right now I have three books in progress. Hooray for summer!

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A Grief Observed (C.S. Lewis)

Several years ago I picked up an old copy of A Grief Observed at a book sale. C.S. Lewis wrote the book as a journal following the death of Joy Davidman, his wife [1]. It is interesting to read words that are not written from comfort, amusement, or ease. Lewis writes raw reflections. The pain he is facing is very evident. He acknowledges truth, yet claims to feel broken.

Early in the book Lewis writes of this brokenness. In the midst of loss he talks of losing motivation, and then, the loneliness:

Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be–or so it feels–welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?

Lewis does not conclude that God does not exist, instead he concludes that he (Lewis) hurts and is grappling with things that he is trying to understand. That vein continues:

You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it?

One of the things I admire about Lewis is his refusal to believe things solely for comfort. He rejects the notion that he will experience a reunion with Joy ‘on the further shore’ and regain the happiness and fulfillment he had for a time on earth. He insists that the future is more than a repeat of a happy past–there must be more.

Some of the strongest words are found in Lewis responding to people telling him Joy was “in God’s hands.” The rawness of his responses are felt. He points out that she was in his hands before she died and terrible things happened to her–why should God be any gentler after she departed this world? He also mentions that this same God sentenced his only Son to death. In another part of the book he questions people who do not fear God because He is good. Lewis asks: “Have they never even been to a dentist?” His point is that terrible pain may be inflicted to bring about good.

Lewis talks about his faith as a house of cards. He speaks of his intellectual knowledge of pain, suffering, and the temporal nature of earthly happiness. As he compares what he knows and what he feels Lewis acknowledges a disconnect. He should not feel so shattered. Is knowing of the suffering of others and living out suffering different? He states:

 Yes; but should it, for a sane man, make quite such a difference as this? No. And it wouldn’t for a man whose faith had been real faith and whose concern for other people’s sorrows had been real concern. The case is too plain. If my house has collapsed at one blow, that is because it was a house of cards. The faith which ‘took these things into account’ was not faith but imagination. The taking them into account was not real sympathy. If I had really cared, as I thought I did, about the sorrows of the world, I should not have been so overwhelmed when my own sorrow came. It has been an imaginary faith playing with innocuous counters labelled ‘Illness’, ‘Pain’, ‘Death’ and ‘Loneliness’. I thought I trusted the rope until it mattered to me whether it would bear me. Now it matters, and I find I didn’t.

And a very challenging point follows shortly after:

Indeed it’s likely enough that what I shall call, if it happens, a ‘restoration of faith’ will turn out to be only one more house of cards. And I shan’t know whether it is or not until the next blow comes . . .

One of the things that seems to be haunting Lewis is his future interaction with Joy. He seems to intellectually know he will never get the past back again, yet struggle with being at peace with the issue. His conclusion is that he does not understand. He points out that humans are good at asking questions God finds unanswerable. Things like” “How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow square or round?” So with unanswered question plaguing him, Lewis concludes:

  And now that I think of it, there’s no practical problem before me at all. I know the two great commandments, and I’d better get on with them.

I’d like to have a beer with C.S. Lewis and talk about life.

[1] The story of Lewis and Davidman intrigued me. Based upon the book I thought they must have had a long marriage and full life together. When I investigated I was surprised to find out they met late in life and were only married four years (from the time Lewis was 56-60). Davidman was diagnosed with cancer before their wedding.

 

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Confessions (Saint Augustine)

I like book shops. During my time in Avalon last week I stopped by The Paper Peddler to do a little browsing.  I picked up a copy of Saint Augustine’s Confessions. I had encountered excerpts from Confessions in other books and in conversations, but I had not read it yet for myself.

Augustine wrote the series of books contained in Confessions in 397 and 398. That’s about 1,615 years ago. Most of his words have aged well.

I enjoyed the conflict more than the resolution in Confessions. Early on, speaking of humans relating to God, Augustine states: “The thought of you [God] stirs him [man] so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.” It is lack of peace that Augustine addresses in the first several books. He tells of his entanglement in temporal loves and pleasures, which is part of the authentic human experience. Looking back at that time when he was unaware of a more noble love, Augustine says: “Because of this my soul fell sick.”

In loss Augustine writes words that ring true: “I lived in misery, like every man whose soul is tethered by the love of things that cannot last and then is agonized to lose them.” When Augustine moves from conflict to resolution my perception of his words changes. Suddenly authentic and gritty words of struggle become theoretical and polished words of victory. I found myself wondering: So how did you just let things go? How did people mean less to you and God more? What did this look like? Do you view walking away from the woman you were engaged to as a form of betrayal? Do you have relapses? How is the will torn between the higher and lower interests convinced to focus solely on the higher? And many, many more questions.

Other notes:

  • A sentence in Augustine’s discussion of pain and pleasure made me think: “It is always the case that the greater the joy, the greater is the pain which precedes it.” I’m not sure I agree with this statement.
  • The discussion of distractions caught my attention. If being amused by a lizard catching flies is sinful I might be in trouble.
  • Some of Augustine’s points about intention and sin made me curious. It reminds me of what I recently read about Bonhoeffer’s writing in Ethics, which makes me even more determined to read that book soon.

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