Category: Reading – Books and Magazines
Susan Cain is an introvert in a world dominated by extroverts who insist that introverts should act like extroverts. She recently wrote a book titled, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. I took special interest in Cain’s talk because I am an off-the-charts introvert.
The world constantly dominated by extroverts is a great loss, Cain asserts, because introverts, who avoid great amounts of stimulation, often “feel their most alive, their most switched on and their most capable when they are in quieter, more low key, environments. Unfortunately, our most important institutions (schools and work places) “are designed for extroverts, and extroverts’ need for lots of stimulation.”
Society has a prejudice that creativity comes from gregarious gatherings. Schools and workplaces typically assemble students and workers into groups and ask them to work “together,” even in activities such as writing. Kids that seek to work alone are seen as outliers and problems. Most teachers think of extroverts as superior students even though research shows that “introverts get better grades and are more knowledgeable.” Introverts are often passed over for leadership positions, even though they tend to be careful and avoid unnecessary risks. Research shows that introverted leaders tend to let proactive workers run with their ideas, whereas extroverted leaders tend to interfere with the process (min 6:45). At min 8:00, Cain suggests that “ambiverts” probably have the best of both worlds.
I recently finished reading The Gay Science, by Friedrich Nietzsche. In many ways, it is a profound work. For me it was a formative book–I encountered it in a philosophy class in college. As to the meaning of the title, see paragraph 327 (below). The numbers refer to paragraph numbers rather than page numbers. These quotes are taken from the 2001 translation by Josefine Nauckhoff. As far as why I chose the following excerpts rather than others? They “spoke” to me more than the others. Having written this, I would also note that The Gay Science is loaded with far more thoughtful passages than I have presented here. I did also enjoy this newer translation (I also have the translation by Walter Kaufmann, which is also excellent). For those not familiar with Nietzsche, many of his works, including this one, are written in numbered paragraphs.
Preface, Paragraph 3 Life–to us, that means constantly transforming all that we are into light and flame and also all that wounds us; we simply can do no other. And as for illness: are we not almost tempted to ask whether we can do without it at all? Only great pain is the liberator of the spirit, as the future of the great suspicion that turns every U into an X, a real, proper X, that is the penultimate one before the final one. Only great pain, that long slow pain that takes its time and in which we are burned, as it were, over green wood, forces us philosophers to descend into our ultimate depths and put aside all trust, everything good-natured, veiling, mild, average–things in which formerly we may have found our humanity. I doubt that such a pain makes us “better”–but I know that it makes us deeper.
Evil. Examine the lives of the best and the most fruitful people and peoples and ask yourself whether a tree which is supposed to grow to a proud height could do without bad weather and storms: whether misfortune and external resistance, whether any kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, greed and violence do not belong to the favorable conditions without which any great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible? The poison from which the weaker nature perishes strengthens the strong man–and he does not call it poison.
Origin of knowledge. Through immense periods of time the intellect produce nothing but errors; some of them turned out to be useful and species-preserving; those who hit upon or inherited them fought their fight for themselves and their progeny with greater luck. Such erroneous articles of faith, which were passed on by inheritance further and further, and finally almost became part of the basic endowment of the species, are for example: that there are enduring things; that there are identical things; that there are things, kinds of material, bodies; that a thing is what it appears to be; that our will is free; that what is good for me is also good in and of itself. Only very late did the deniers and doubters of such propositions emerge; only very late did truth emerge as the weakest form of knowledge. It seemed that one was unable to live with it; that our organism was cured for its opposite: all its higher functions, the perceptions of sense and generally every kind of sensation, worked with those basic errors that have been incorporated since time immemorial. Further, even in the realm of knowledge those propositions became the norms according to which one determined “true” and “untrue”–down to the most remote areas of pure logic. Thus the strength of knowledge lies not in its degree of truth, but in its age, its embeddedness, its character as a condition of life. Where life and knowledge seem to contradict each other there was never any serious fight to begin with; denial and doubt were simply considered madness.
I am often asked whether I’ve read a particular book, and I usually haven’t because there are a gazillion new books published every year. Here’s what I say: “No, I haven’t read THAT book. Thank you for your suggestion.” Here’s what I think: Please quit acting as though I haven’t been doing any serious reading just because I haven’t read the book that YOU just told me to read.
For the past 20 years, I have been on a quest to grasp a somewhat detailed understanding of human animals. This has been a rather intense pursuit, jump-started (for about 5 years beginning in 2006) by my auditing of more than 30 hours of graduate level cognitive science courses at nearby Washington University in St. Louis. During the past 20 years, I have read almost entirely non-fiction, and I’ve been rather careful to limit my topics mostly to the topics represented by the books below. Recently, I decided to inventory what I have been reading. I’m not entirely sure why I did this. Perhaps it is because the end of the year is approaching, which tends to be a time for reflection regarding who we are and where we are headed. What better way for a writer to determine his direction based upon the books he has especially admired for the past two decades?
Thus I took an inventory of the non-fiction books I have read that have significantly influenced me. I tend to make many notes on the books I own (I haven’t started into electronic books yet), and I retain them in my “library,” which is actually a storage room that contain lots of other household items. Yesterday, I ventured into my library with the intent of documenting the books that have especially impressed and challenged me. I ended up selecting less than 20% of the books I own for this honor. What follows below is a list of such books, all of which I have read over the past 20 years.
It is not a perfect list. I am sure that there are many dozens of other books that I have overlooked. I probably own 500 books that I have only browsed so far, or not even begun, yet look promising. I’m more and more convinced that I will never read most of my unread books unless I win the lottery and retire. I try to not keep a steady course, though my quest seems hopeless. I’m reminded of this hopelessness every time I stumble on a pile of 30 unread and partially read books by the side of my bed.
In my list below, I have only included those books that I have actually read. I would highly recommend any of them. I have not included in many other books I have read that I would consider merely been useful or “good.” As I made my list, it occurred to me that I have been greatly influenced by more than books. I have read far more pages of online or in paper magazine articles than book pages. More recently, I’ve been impressed by many video and in-person presentations/lectures. I have also corresponded with many people over the years on these topics, including many of the authors of the books in my list. I’ve poured immense time into my reading and writing. It surprised me how much material I have reviewed in 20 years, considering that I also have a day job as a consumer lawyer and also try to spend time with my family.
It occurs to me that I am extremely lucky to be living in a time and place where I can benefit from so many incredible ideas developed be others. Each of these authors spends his or her entire life working hard, and then I simply scoop up the their life’s work by investing a mere day or two or reading. I have mentioned many of these books and authors in the five years that I’ve been writing at this website; I find that writing comments about these book helps me to absorb the material better.
It also occurs to me that I would not be at all who I am had I not seriously read the books in my list. I make reference to many of these ideas many times each day. To the extent that I have been able to come up with interesting ideas, it is quite likely that “my” ideas came, directly or indirectly, from these books, and that I am thus standing on the shoulders of giants (there I go again with the borrowing). Without further ado, here many of my favorite non-fiction books, broken into a few general categories:
[More . . . ]
I read an interesting article today by Salon contributor Paul Lafarge on Why the book’s future never happened. Lafarge was referring to hypertext fiction, a non-linear “literature” that apparently was ahead of its time. When technology caught up, the genre was OBE (overcome by events ) and made obsolete like a four track tape (my father had a player and about 15 tape…superseded almost immediately by the eight track) by the Internet. Or maybe not. Read the article and decide for yourself.
I investigated a little hypertext fiction and found it to be quite irritating. Perhaps it was only the non-linearity … when I read fiction, I like it to flow (do not confuse “flow” with “stream of consciousness”). But I don’t think so. The links in the examples I saw seemed to be only links for the sake of linking…adding no value to the story, no continuation of the context. Bizarre plot devices are usually not received well anyway, so my annoyance with the hypertext genre of fiction is not surprising. I did find some of the comments to Lafarge’s article informative, so I encourage you to drill down.
I don’t know if hypertext is the future of fiction, but electronic books seem to be. I love printed books – clearly, as I/we own more than 5500 of them. But I recently (late to the game as always) inherited my wife’s iPad after she bought an iPad 2 and have discovered the convenience of electronic books. I read a few on my iPhone, but the seven or so page flicks to read a single page of printed text tends to tedium. A few folks I know have Kindles or Nooks that they like (my wife uses the Kindle app on her iPad), but I’m pleased to have an ebook reader and the other features of the tablet. I can take a few moments at any point of the day to read a couple of pages or sit down and read an entire book without having to carry the hard copy…unless I want to. I miss Borders, and hope other chains don’t die, but I’m liking the technological alternative.
I find one feature of the ebook reader I’ve settled on particularly useful. When I read a book to learn something, I like to make notes but too often never go back to them, as I’m reading new books and making more notes. With the electronic version, I can highlight the text or drop a bookmark and the reader keeps track of them for me. I’ve reloaded a couple of books I deleted after reading when I discovered that…embarrassing, as I’m usually pretty savvy with those things, but it hadn’t occurred to me that I could use the technology to even more of my advantage.
So, I’m not going to call myself a convert because I will always treasure the feel of paper in hand, but I foresee continuing to enjoy the benefits of electronic versions of books. I just wish my various apps I like to use could each see the others’ books. I like the some of the features of one, some of another, but iTunes and the brilliance (snort) of the iOS folks forces me to load multiple copies of a book to each app if I want to read it in more than one. Not the only flaw that annoys me, but one that pertains to this post…
Happy reading. However you manage it.
The First Amendment isn’t worth a damn unless it is actually being used. If it is not being used, then politicians and their rich and powerful keepers will continue to utter long and loud streams of nonsense to financially screw the ordinary working people of America in dozens of ways. They will continue to feed us unending misinformation in order to justify their urges to wage unnecessary wars to help them retain their power. They will continue invading our houses and and minds thanks to their many stenographers in the commercial media.
Those of us who have resisted drinking much of this country’s spiked elixir of Judeo-Christian-consumerist-warmongering-bigotry know that most of what we hear our authority figures uttering, even those authority figures who we want to believe to be on our side, is flawed. Much of it substantially untrue and quite a bit of it is absolute bullshit. I hate to be writing these words, but I’ve lost a lot of faith in the United States in the past ten years. Misinformation pours into the living rooms and cars of Americans every day, where it too often takes root, perhaps because it is uttered by people wearing fancy suits and flag pins.
Americans need an antidote to this unending poison. They need the kinds of people who can effectively challenge these messages and messengers–someone who not only can challenge this propaganda but can do it with sharp fast pinpricks that deflate this bloviation on the spot. They need much more than “news” reporters who don’t have the tools, courage or motivation to challenge all the BS. They need someone who is old enough and thick-skinned enough that he/she doesn’t give a shit about being criticized for being unpatriotic. In fact, this type of person, of whom we actually need many, feeds on the criticism aimed at them by the powers-that-be and even gets even better under attack; he/she feels compelled to speak truth to power because it is the right thing to do, it’s in the blood and it’s the patriotic thing. The types of patriotic people we need to deliver this blitzkrieg criticism also need to be excellent entertainers in order to maintain the attention of large numbers of Americans. As comedians, they can hone their messages into comical memes that their audience members will pass around in viral fashion long after the original message was delivered. To the extent that these funny social critics portray themselves as jesters, they will have more access to the mass media, enabling them more effectively put their verbal swords in and out of those who own and run this country. Many conservatives consider this iconoclastic feedback to be unpatriotic.
[More . . . ]
From time to time, here and there, someone brings Ayn Rand up as some kind of role model. Lately it’s even in the national news, thanks to the Tea Party and an apparently not very good film of Rand’s seminal masterwork, Atlas Shrugged. The uber conservatives now crowding reason out of the halls of congress with their bizarro legislation and their lectures from the floor and on committees about how their toilets don’t flush right so why should regulations on light bulbs be passed are the children of the Dragon’s Teeth cast randomly by Ms. Rand and her philosophical cult followers. It amazes how people who profess to believe in a philosophy of independent thought can sublimate themselves so thoroughly to the dogmas of that philosophy and claim with a straight face that they are free thinkers on any level. The phrase “more Catholic than the pope” comes to mind sometimes when crossing verbal swords with these folks, who seem perfectly blind to the contradictions inherent in their own efforts. Rand laid out a My Way or the Highway ethic that demanded of her followers that they be true to themselves—as long as they did as she directed.
Ayn Rand’s novels, of which there were three (plus a novella/parable I don’t intend to discuss here), moved by giant leaps from promising to fanciful to pathetic. There are some paragraphs in any one of them that are just fine. Occasionally a secondary character is nicely drawn (Eddie Willers is possibly her most sympathetic and true-to-life creation) and from time to time there is even a moment of genuine drama. But such bits are embedded in tar pits of philosophically over-determined panegyric that drowns any art there might be.
But then, her devoted fans never read them for the art.
What Rand delivers in both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged is a balm to the misunderstood and underappreciated Great Man buried in the shambling, inarticulate assemblage that is disaffected high I.Q. youth.
The give-aways in both novels involve laughter. The opening scene in The Fountainhead characterizes Howard Roark for the entire novel, prefiguring the final scene in the novel, which translated to film perfectly in the weird 1947 Gary Cooper thing.
Howard Roark laughed.
He stood naked at the edge of a cliff….He laughed at the thing which had happened to him that morning and at the things which now lay ahead.
Of course, the thing that had happened to him that morning was his expulsion from university for not completing his assignments. You can pretty it up with philosophical dross, but basically he didn’t do what he was required to do, instead opting for self-expression in the face of everything else. Hence the misunderstood genius aspect, the wholly-formed sense of mission, the conviction of personal rightness, and the adolescent disdain for authority no matter what.
But his reaction? To laugh.
[More . . . ]
In one of the episodes of the original Twilight Zone television series, an introverted fellow is desperate to be left alone so that he can read books. He loved reading, but he was driven to desperation because other people constantly interrupted his reading. In that TV episode, the introverted fellow got his wish, more or less. Today I was reminded that hundreds of people can read quietly together. I witnessed this every day event at the main branch of the New York City Public Library. More specifically, I witnessed this phenomenon at the Deborah, Jonathan F. P., Samuel Priest, and Adam R. Rose Main Reading Room.
Here’s how the room is described at the library’s website:
[The reading room] is a majestic public space, measuring 78 feet by 297 feet—roughly the length of two city blocks—and weaving together Old World architectural elegance with modern technology. The award-wining restoration of this room was completed in 1998, thanks to a fifteen million-dollar gift from Library trustee Sandra Priest Rose and Frederick Phineas Rose, who renamed the room in honor of their children.
Here, patrons can read or study at long oak tables lit by elegant bronze lamps, beneath fifty-two foot tall ceilings decorated by dramatic murals of vibrant skies and billowing clouds. Since the General Research Division’s opening day on May 23, 1911, vast numbers of people have entered the main reading room. . . . In one of his memoirs, New York Jew, Kazin described his youthful impression of the reading room: “There was something about the. . .light falling through the great tall windows, the sun burning smooth the tops of the golden tables as if they had been freshly painted—that made me restless with the need to grab up every book, press into every single mind right there on the open shelves.”
A few years ago, a friend urged me to visit this reading room, but it always seemed that when I happened to be in New York and when I happened to be walking by the main branch, it was after closing time. This week I found myself in New York for an extended stay thanks to a massive snow storm. Thus, there were no excuses. I was stunned by this spectacularly beautiful room filled with traditional table lamps and a most unusual collection of people. They were unusual because they were so absolutely quiet.
[More . . . ]