Fluid Imagination

written and curated by Kyle Callahan

Meet Wrenn Timbers

This quarter at the school where I teach, I’m participating in a Dungeons & Dragons “class,” where the students and I are creating adventurers and embarking on quests using the Dungeons & Dragons rule-set (5th edition).

If you don’t know Dungeons & Dragons, it is a role-playing game where the players use their imagination to succeed in encounters with various creatures, some friendly and some not. It involves a lot of dice-rolling to determine the success of certain actions, but it also involves a lot of conversation about what to do next, since the game doesn’t necessarily tell you what you should do at any given moment. The educational goals of the class are for the students to develop their communication, collaboration, and problem-solving skills, as well as practice their writing and storytelling skills.

It’s that latter goal I’d like to discuss now. One of the ways the students are supposed to be working on their writing skills is by putting together an introduction to the adventurers they’ve created. Thus far, I’ve been less than successful in getting them to actually do that, and so I thought I’d write one for the character I  created to provide them with a model of what I’m looking for.

And so, without further adieu, I’d like to introduce you to Wrenn Timbers.

Standing three feet, ten inches tall, weighing in at thirty-six pounds, and having dark, wispy hair and neatly kept beard, Wrenn Timbers is a rock gnome who grew up in a small community on the coast of the Shining Sea. As a young gnome, Wrenn had a natural talent for acrobatics and performance, charming friends and family during community festivals and fairs.

When Wrenn was in his adolescent years, an elvish entertainer, the famous Peren the Bard, visited Wrenn’s village during a tour of the seacoast. Peren put on a wonderful performance, playing songs on his lute, telling tales of greater Faerûn, and demonstrating his mastery of the Weave through magical tunes and inspiring songs. Young Wrenn was captivated, and that evening, after a serious discussion with Wrenn’s father, the elf agreed to take on Wrenn as an apprentice, and the next day, the young gnome left his family and community behind to discover the magic hidden in the music of the bards.

Years have passed, and Wrenn has risen from an apprentice to a first-level bard. He is a gifted storyteller, instrumentalist, and singer, and his songs inspire his allies to dig deep within themselves to discover their strength when they need it most.

Peren has taught him the beginning elements of arcane magic, which allows Wrenn to pluck directly at the strands of the Weave to create magical effects. For example, Wrenn has memorized the simple spell, True Strike, to gain insight into his target’s defenses and then use that insight to gain advantage on his next attack. He has also memorized Vicious Mockery, which plays on his gift of words to unleash a string of insults laced with subtle enchantments and deal acute psychic damage to his opponents.

But more than a simple conjurer, Wrenn has also learned a few slightly more complex spells, giving him the ability to Cure Wounds for his allies, Detect Magic whenever it’s present, and sing a discordant barrage of Dissonant Whispers that wrack his opponents with terrible pain and send them running. Wrenn can also evoke a Thunderwave that sweeps out from him in a 15-foot cube, emitting a thunderous boom and slamming everything in its range.

Of course, as a rock gnome, he has the special cunning that is unique to his race, which helps him defend against any magical spells that attempt to attack his intelligence, wisdom, or charisma. He also has the special knowledge that every rock gnome learns as a child, giving him twice as much proficiency as anyone else when it comes to the history of magical items, alchemical objects, and technical devices. And as a rock gnome, he is a master tinker, capable of using his artisan’s tools to construct tiny clockwork devices that can serve as distractions in battle, expendable explorers of mysterious places, or miniature flamethrowers capable of lighting a candle, torch, or campfire.

When it comes to a more traditional style of fighting, Wrenn has a master’s finesse with his rapier, his dagger, and his throwing darts. He might be a little fighter, but when he cuts, he cuts deep and quick.

As an individual, the thing that most stands out about Wrenn is that he always gives credit when it is due. He is not shy about letting his compatriots know that he believes in them, and he is always supportive and complimentary of their efforts. He feels that the best thing he can possibly do in any situation is to use his magic and skills to aid and inspire his allies. Unfortunately, he is also charmed by bright and shiny stones, and he sometimes struggles to make the right decision when gems are involved.

Wrenn Timbers is still a young gnome and he’s just getting started on his way to mastering the way of the bard. His immediate goal is to become a jack-of-all-trades, which means he becomes slightly proficient in every skill in the game. He’s also learning a special Song of Rest, a soothing song that has the magical ability to revitalize any wounded allies during a short rest.

In the long-term, he’s beginning to think about participating in one of the Bard Colleges, which is a loose association of bards who gather periodically to share their learning and preserve their traditions. There is the College of Lore, whose alumni know something about most things and whose loyalty lies in the pursuit of beauty and truth, power and authority be damned. His other option is the College of Valor, whose alumni gather in mead halls to sing the songs of the mighty and inspire others, as well as themselves, to reach the same heights.

Regardless of his path, Wrenn stands, lute in hand and rapier by his side, ready for adventure.

A Heckuva Way To Spend Your Days

Sometime in October, I read an article entitled, “How Students Lead the Learning Experience at Democratic Schools,” which introduced me to the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts. At first glance, the Sudbury Valley School sounded similar to the independent school where I work, meaning we each have no tests, no grades, and a deep belief in the idea that if a person isn’t intrinsically interested in something, then that person won’t be able to learn it in any meaningful way. But that’s where the similarities stopped.

Because while my school doesn’t have tests or grades, we do have assigned homework, compulsory classes, grade level expectations, required exhibitions, and narrative evaluations. Sudbury Valley, on the other hand, doesn’t have any of that. Instead, they have…well…democracy.

(A quick caveat: I have yet to visit the Sudbury Valley School. I have, however, read several books and essays about the school, and so while I don’t have any personal experience to draw from, I do have plenty of book lernin. Fair nuff? Good.)

It all starts with the School Meeting. Every student (and at Sudbury, students range from four years old to nineteen years old) has a vote in the School Meeting, as does every staff member (who are far outnumbered by the students). This means that, when it comes to the School Meeting, a four-year-old child has just as much power to decide as a staff member.

And everything is decided at the School Meeting. It creates all the rules for the school, manages the budget (including the hiring and firing of staff members), negotiates contracts with outside vendors, and more.

But here’s the kicker: except for those things explicitly discussed, voted on, and enshrined in the school handbook, there are no other rules at the Sudbury Valley School. And if you peruse the handbook, you won’t find anything about having to take math, science, English, social studies, or anything else. In fact, you won’t find anything about academics whatsoever.

Which means at the Sudbury Valley School, if you want to go to school and just play video games, you are completely free to do so; if you want to focus all of your time on playing music, you are free to do so; if you want to build an entire metropolis out of LEGOS, or go out and explore nature, or bake cookies, or read science fiction until your eyes bleed, or sit on a couch with your friends talking about whatever, or build a tree fort, or play basketball, or hike through town to the pizza shop, or go fishing…well, you are completely free to do so.

And of course, if you want to learn math, science, English, or social studies, you are also completely free to do so.

Because at Sudbury Valley, school is not something you do; it’s the place where you are. It’s the idea of the school as a village, where young people come to practice and participate in real life.

In the adult world, our time is our own. It might not feel that way, with bills, relationships, families, and work (not to mention jury duty), but (excluding the cogent arguments of Marxism and the three waves of Feminism) we choose to live the lives we lead, and hence, we choose to take on the obligations required to support that life. In the adult world, if our time is not our own, it is because we have given it away.

The same goes for life at Sudbury Valley. When the students come to school each morning, they know that their time is their own, and it’s up to them to choose what to do with it (excluding jury duty, which exists at Sudbury Valley in the form of their Judicial Committee, a student-run group tasked with enforcing all of the school’s rules).

Both Sudbury Valley and my school believe that learning is a function of interest: if a person isn’t interested in a given topic or skill, then they probably won’t learn that topic or skill, no matter how hard or how often you drill it into them. The difference between our schools (at the moment) is that Sudbury Valley then builds their entire model without compromising that belief to the needs and desires of the outside world (including the students’ parents), which is a pretty radical decision.

My school, on the other hand, tries to negotiate a middle ground that will express our core belief while also satisfying the requirements for Vermont’s independent schools, the desires of the local supervisory union, the requests of parents, and what the staff members perceive as the academic needs of the specific students currently enrolled in our school.

But over the past few months, it’s become clear to me and my colleagues that we have strayed too far away from our core belief and that we are in danger of becoming a slightly more relaxed version of a traditional public school.

Thankfully, I work with some incredible and brave educators who have a real desire to constantly evaluate and improve the internal workings of our school, and over the last several weeks, we’ve been engaged in a serious (and sometimes contentious) debate about how to proceed.

Even more thankfully, while I’ve been greatly inspired by what I found at Sudbury Valley (not to mention my experiences with the progressive programs at Green Mountain College and Goddard College), my colleagues have come to the table with vast knowledge and experiences of their own, discussing models and educators who have inspired and excited them.

All of this conversation has led us to start making some important changes at the school. For example, we’ll no longer have compulsory classes (excluding Vermont History, Math, and Health, because those are required by the State), and students will now be given even more  freedom to choose how they spend their time. We’ll still retain learning plan meetings with parents, grade level expectations, public exhibitions, and narrative evaluations (i.e., our various modes of assessment), but it will be up to the students to decide how they want to satisfy those requirements.

Second, we’ve empowered the students to take real control of the school through a School Congress and Judicial Committee. This change has already been instituted and the students are currently in the process of developing the first set of rules for their handbook (the first proposal laid on the table was “No dying”). Personally, this is where I think the majority of their education is going to happen, and I’m incredibly excited to participate in and be witness to it.

I suspect there are other changes on the horizon as well, but if we do our jobs correctly, most of those changes will not be coming from me or my colleagues, but from the students.

That’s what’s so inspiring about the idea of a democratic school. It empowers the students to take real control of their lives, and in the process, gives them real practice as they strive to become successful individuals. It will be scary at times, especially for us adults, but it will be incredibly powerful for these kids.

All of which is to say…man, do I love my job.

The Books I Read in 2013

Just as I did in 2012, I set myself a goal in 2013 of reading 30 books over the course of the year. And just like in 2012, I did not meet my goal. I did, however, come damn close: I read 29. I actually would have met my goal if, last week, instead of choosing to start a 500+ page book, I opted for something in the 200-300 page range. But alas, my readerly muse felt the call towards Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, and so I fell one book short this year.

Oh well. There’s always next year.

Here’s the list of books I read in 2013, plus a little blurb of what I thought of each of them. Enjoy.

  • Debt: The First 5,000 Years
    My wife and I started this as an audiobook a couple of years ago during a drive from Chicago back to Vermont, but it’s a long-ass book, so even though the drive took 14 hours, we didn’t get to the end of it. I should have just bought the book as soon as we got back, but I convinced myself that I’d finish the audiobook sometime, plus I didn’t want to pay for the book twice. A couple of years went by, and I didn’t make any progress with it, but so much of the book stuck with me that finally, I said, “Fuck it,” bought the book, and started from the beginning.The gist of Debt is that it’s an anthropologist’s look at the history of money, and because it’s an anthropologist as opposed to an economist, this story of money actually uses such a crazy thing as evidence from actual history to support its theories. I highly recommend this book. It’s filled with fascinating concepts and anecdotes, and it explores everything from how arguments about debt arrange the hierarchies in society to the way it molds our very ideas of right and wrong. Definitely check it out.
  • Habibi
    A beautifully rendered graphic novel that covers the heartbreaking life and love of a girl and her adopted charge in a mythic (and heavily orientalist in the Edward Said sense) Arab country. The artist, Craig Thompson, uses the design of Arabic writing as a visual theme as he weaves his epic plot through the Qur’an and other Arabic texts. It’s also incredibly and visually sexual (the main character becomes a renowned prostitute), so I don’t recommend it for younger readers.
  • The Shores of Tripoli
    This Kindle Single is the product of first-hand reporting by Marc Herman, who covered the Libyan revolution for The Atlantic. It’s an in-depth look at three individuals who joined the revolution and what they went through. I read it because I paid little-to-no attention to the revolution as it was happening, and this seemed like the best way to learn about it.
  • Gilgamesh: A New English Version
    I’d read Gilgamesh before as part of my graduate work, comparing John Gardner’s translation to this one by Stephen Mitchell, so when one of my high school students said she wanted to read an ancient epic — any ancient epic — I suggested Mitchell’s version of Gilgamesh, which tells the story in a colorful (and compared to Gardner’s, complete) way. As before, I thoroughly enjoyed the tale.
  • Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence
    An intellectual history of computers, Darwin Among the Machines was an interesting book that doesn’t quite live up to its title. There wasn’t a whole lot in it that I hadn’t read before, but if you’re new to the concept of artificial intelligence, it’s a good place to go for the big picture view of that art form’s development.
  • Blankets
    Another graphic novel, also created by Craig Thompson, that, frankly, did not come close to matching the expectations set by Habibi. To be fair, Thompson put together Blankets long before Habibi, so it probably doesn’t make sense for me to expect it to be as good as the later work, but even so, Blankets was pretty emo, and that kind of stuff never resonates with me. I just don’t go in for stories about the inner turmoil of teenage drama.
  • Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism
    This was another book that wasn’t quite as good as I’d hoped it’d be, though I did learn a lot about individuals and movements that are basically kept out of our history books. This isn’t a book about how atheist’s shaped America; instead, it’s about how freethinkers ensured that the promise of America would be available to everyone, regardless of their religion or lack thereof.
  • Keys to the Council: Unlocking the Teaching of Vatican II
    The Second Vatican Council is a watershed moment in modern Catholicism — it’s actually the very definition of modern Catholicism — and yet, despite having grown up in a Catholic world shaped by that definition, I realized I knew very little about the actual council itself. Keys to the Council provides a nice blend of journalistic reporting, original documentation, and theological exposition, giving readers an easy pathway into the documents and decisions created by Pope John XXII’s historic council.
  • The Earthsea Cycle
    Comprised of five books, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea, and The Other Wind, the Earthsea Cycle is Ursula K. LeGuin’s entry in the list of the best all-time fantasy cycles (which would have to include Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Dune, and others). The cycle can actually be broken up into two different trilogies (kind of). The first three books follow Ged, a legendary wizard, as he becomes legendary, earns his legend, and leaves it behind. The second three books, written over a decade after the others, are quieter books where the day to day operations of Earthsea take on more focus (while, of course, not leaving behind the need for adventure and plot). Between this cycle and the next group of books on the list, my reading this summer remained light and fun.
  • The Patternmaster Series
    After knocking out LeGuin’s Earthsea, I went looking for another series I could tackle. I’d read Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed many moons ago, and I remembered that it was just one book in a bigger series, so I decided to give the whole series a shot. The four books are now published with numbers attached (i.e., Wild Seed: Patternmaster #1), where the numbers correspond to the chronology of the world, but I decided to read them in the order they were published, which I definitely recommend. The four books I read were (in the order I read them) Patternmaster, Mind of My Mind, Wild Seed (again), and Clay’s Ark. Apparently, there’s a fifth book in the series too, but Butler renounced it later and refused to let it be republished. Since she didn’t dig on it, I decided not to go looking for it.The books themselves tell the story of the next stage of human evolution (which is just one way to put it). The first book (in the order I read them) takes place way in the future when telepaths have conquered the world, but when they are also all subservient to the Patternmaster, who is kind of the king of the telepaths. The second book takes us back to the near-future (from now) when the telepaths are all collected (and bred) by a strange and dangerous immortal; it’s basically the creation story of the first Patternmaster. The third book goes back to colonial times to weave a semi-origin story of the immortal; and the fourth book, Clay’s Ark, which takes place after the second book but before the first book, fills in the remaining gap in Butler’s vision of the future, explaining the origin of the strange race of humanoids who terrorize the telepathic race in the Patternmaster. All in all, it’s a weird but fun series.
  • The Vision Revolution: How the Latest Research Overturns Everything We Thought We Knew About Human Vision
    This was another book that left me slightly disappointed. The book is broken into four chapters that try to cover the latest research in vision. The first chapter, “Color Telepathy,” argues that our ability to see in color evolved because of our skin (“understanding the color powers of skin is crucial to understanding that color vision is meant to see skin…, and in particular is meant for sensing moods, emotions, and other physiological states”). The second chapter, “X-Ray Vision,” explains why most creatures have two (or more) eyes and examines the difference between having eyes on the side of your head versus on the front of your head. The third chapter, “Future Seeing,” uses optical illusions to explain that perception is based on prediction (i.e., what we see is not reality, but what we think reality is about to become). And the final chapter, “Spirit Reading,” argues that “the special trick behind [written language] is that human visual signs have evolved to look like nature. Why? Because nature is what we have evolved over millions of years to be good at seeing.” The book is written well (and can even be funny at times), but after an incredible first chapter and strong second chapter, each of which changed my understanding of one aspect of our vision, the book went off into areas that didn’t really capture my interest. The “Future Seeing” chapter, while somewhat intriguing in the abstract, felt a bit plodding, as if the author was trying to make a point against people who were already arguing against him rather than trying to explain the idea to a new audience; and the final chapter, which should have been right up my alley, just didn’t feel very convincing.
  • Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety
    I read an excerpt of this somewhere on the web, and it totally hooked me, so I decided to read the whole book. Generally speaking, Command and Control, which was written by the same guy who wrote Fast Food Nation, provided a complete history of nuclear weapons in the U.S., and it is as scary as all fuck. After you read this book, you’ll realize how absolutely mind blowing it is that we haven’t had a major accident with a nuclear weapon — like, incredibly absolutely mind blowing. You’ll also learn how ridiculously close we’ve come to blowing up major cities in the continental U.S., how crazy-scary bureaucracy can be, and read about, in heavy detail, one major accident that could have been catastrophic but, for reasons that have nothing to do with how smart we are as a species, simply wasn’t. A heck of a book.
  • Watchmen
    After reading both The Vision Revolution and Command and Control, I wanted something a little bit “lighter,” something I could knock out in just a few days and that would have a story that totally hooked me. I decided to read Watchmen, the classic graphic novel, because a) I enjoyed the movie; b) I’d heard that the book was a ton better; and c) I was in the mood for another graphic novel and Watchmen is generally considered the best of the best in the field. It did not disappoint.
  • Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story
    I wrote a blog post about this one, so I’ll just say that I originally picked up the book because of a conversation with one of my high-school students about the origin of the universe, and that Holt’s book takes a look at various answers conceived by some of the greater thinkers in the West.
  • You
    I wrote a blog post about this one too, so I’ll just say that it’s a book about a video-game designer who is attempting to design the ultimate game, and it was, generally speaking, a fun read.
  • Foundation
    After reading Earthsea and the Patternmaster series, I figured I’d attempt another great series, Isaac Asimov’s classic sci-fi series, Foundation. I started, as you do, with book #1, which is aptly titled, Foundation. The book chronicles the origin and development of a civilization whose mission is to save the future of humanity based on the prophecies of a “psychohistorian,” and while I enjoyed the book, I wasn’t spurred on to continue the whole series. I may come back it in the future, but for now, I felt content to let it lie.
  • Siddhartha
    I read this as part of a book club with my high-school and middle-school students, all of whom were also in the middle of a four-week seminar on the world’s religions. Hesse’s novel imagines the life of a Buddha-like character who goes through many changes on his way to enlightenment, and because it wrestles with many of the same questions that my students were wrestling with in their seminar, I thought it’d be a good fit.
  • The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions
    I used Huston Smith’s survey of the world’s religions as the basis for my lectures during the seminar I mentioned above. Smith comes at each of the religions as a Christian, but he provides a sympathetic reading of each religion, and that was my ultimate goal for the seminar: to arouse a sense of empathy in my students so that they could enter the world with a tolerant and peaceful understanding of the world’s various belief structures.
  • Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years
    This book easily wins the “best subtitle of the year” award. It covers a period in early Christian history (the fourth and fifth centuries) when disputes about the inner nature of Jesus (was he all man, all divine, or half and half) led to deaths, exile, and social upheavals throughout the Roman empire.
  • The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India
    A fantastic book that chronicles an historic meeting between the Dalai Lama and a group of American Jews, written by a Jewish poet who was present at the meeting. Using Buddhism as a contrast, the book examines what it means to be Jewish after the Holocaust and after the creation of Israel. It also reveals the commonalities (and differences) between Jewish mysticism and Buddhist thought. If you’re Jewish in America (or simply have an interest in comparative religion, as I do), then this book is a must read. Not only is it an honest take written by an individual who (prior to the meeting) considered himself a secular Jew, but it’s also a poet’s presentation of deep and mystical concepts as well as human connections. It’s just a wonderful book.

And that’s it. Those are the books I read in 2013. I hope you found something new you might enjoy. As for me, I still have about 100 pages left in The Satanic Verses, so I better get to work.

On Austin Grossman’s “You”

Austin Grossman’s bildungsroman, You, traces the development of a group of friends who promised each other in high school that they would create the ultimate video game. The story starts in 1997, when everyone in the group is in their late twenties. The group’s genius, Simon, has recently died under somewhat mysterious circumstances, and the narrator, Russell, who long since abandoned his friends for a more respectable life as a law student, finally decides that, at heart, he really does just want to make video games, and so takes a job that will reunite him with his friends in their successful game studio, Black Arts.

I won’t get into a complete plot summary here, but the gist is that there’s a deadly “bug” running throughout all of Black Arts’ games, and while trying to track it down, Russell has to go back and play through every game created by his friends, a process that is accompanied by several trips down memory lane, where we learn both the story of these four friends and the story of video games in general.

In other words, it’s not just a bildungsroman for the narrator, but also for video games as an art form. Which is one of the reasons why I liked it.

To be sure, the book does have its flaws; most glaring is Grossman’s attempt to externalize the conflict beyond the confines of Black Arts’ survival to the safety and security of the world’s economy. Through a strange contrivance, it seems Black Arts once sold software to an investment company that used it to automate the buying and selling of stock, and the bug that threatens the studio’s video games now threatens to take down the entire market; there’s even intimations that the bug was the cause of Black Monday, the stock market crash of October 1987.

I don’t know if Grossman was attempting to raise the stakes of the novel through this plot contrivance or using it to show how Simon’s computer-programming brilliance went beyond “mere” video games, but it felt a bit unnecessary. Thankfully, it’s just a small side of the story and not the driver of the main plot.

I do know that I enjoyed the way Grossman used video-game design as a method for characterization. Black Arts develops a fantasy-based role-playing series in the vain of The Elder Scrolls, a first-person shooter series in the vain of 3D Wolfenstein and Doom, and a strategy series similar to Civilization (though set in space). Each of the three series is designed by each of the narrator’s three friends, with their unique personalities coming through not in the dialogues or decisions they make in their real life, but in the way they design their games.

Grossman’s missed opportunity is failing to show us how the game the narrator is hired to design actually ends up being played; in other words, failing to show us the narrator’s “ultimate game.” Now, I say this despite knowing that the book is, to a large extent, supposed to stand in for that game (the book even opens with the line, “So what’s your ultimate game?,” to which the narrator responds, “Right. How would you define that?”), and despite Russell explaining his ideal game to the reader (one where the player  is completely free to do whatever he or she wants and the computer engine would still find a way to generate a story). I say it because, when Russell finally does demo the game he designed, we get sidetracked into the bug-hunting aspect of the plot. There’s never a “clean” version of his game being played.

I guess what I’m saying is that I shared Russell’s vision for an ultimate game and I wanted to see exactly how he would have pulled it off. Instead, the ultimate game gets left behind, and instead we get a traditional video-game plot where a group of four characters have to travel (literally [in the virtual sense]) to the end of the universe (which is also the beginning of the universe) in order to retrieve a magic sword from a big, bad boss.

While it’s not a perfect book by any stretch of the imagination, I enjoyed reading it and can easily recommend it to anyone who enjoys playing, imagining, and reading about the history of video games.


On Jim Holt’s ‘Why Does the World Exist?’

There’s a lot to be disliked in Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story, but I’m giving it four stars because it at least spread the conversation around from scientists to philosophers to novelists to theologians (though it would have been nice to hear from more thinkers from the East).

I enjoyed reading it, but I wouldn’t begrudge someone who was annoyed by Holt’s personal anecdotes and sloppy metaphysical interludes — which he probably included to make the book feel more like a real journey; his interviews, however, are mind-opening and fun to read. The subjects of the interviews, which range from Richard Swinburne to Roger Penrose to John Updike, all have interesting takes on the ultimate question, requiring the reader to think about it from a variety of well-argued perspectives.

Personally, the thinker I agree with most doesn’t appear until the epilogue, a nameless Buddhist monk who appears on a French television show that Holt catches while he’s in Paris.

As a Buddhist, he says, he believes that the universe had no beginning…Nothingness could never give way to being, he says, because it is defined in opposition to that which exists. A billion causes could not make a universe come into existence out of what does not exist. That is why, the monk says, the Buddhist doctrine of a beginning-less universe makes the most physical sense.
The Buddhist genially protests that he is not evading the question of origins. Rather, he is using it to explore the nature of reality. What is the universe after all?…It is not nothingness. Yet it is something very close: an emptiness…Things don’t have the solidity we attribute to them. The world is like a dream, an illusion. But in our thinking, we transform its fluidity into something fixed and solid seeming. This engenders [desire, pride, jealousy]. Buddhism, by correcting our metaphysical error, thus has a therapeutic purpose. It offers…a path to enlightenment. And it also resolves the mystery of being. When Leibniz asked, [Why something rather than nothing?], his question presupposed that something really and truly exists. And that’s an illusion.

But regardless of what I think, if you would like to contemplate why there is something rather than nothing without having to slog through dense original texts from the likes of Leibniz, Heidegger, and Sartre (not to mention the theologies of Aquinas and the mathematics of Stephen Hawking), Holt’s book is a harmless enough survey of the various answers conceived by some of the greater thinkers in the West.

The Poetic Un-Filter

I’m teaching an Introduction to Creative Writing class at Green Mountain College this semester. We just moved into our unit on poetry, and a couple of days ago, during the opening lecture, I was talking to the students about the difference between prose and poetry. I quoted George Santayana, who wrote, “Poetry breaks up the trite concepts designated by current words into the sensuous qualities out of which those conceptions were originally put together.”

This morning, I was reading an article in The Atlantic about Douglas Hofstadter, a thought-leader in the development of artificial intelligence. Hofstadter argues that the core of human intelligence is to “understand the fluid nature of mental categories.”

“Cognition is recognition,” he likes to say. He describes “seeing as” as the essential cognitive act: you see some lines as “an A,” you see a hunk of wood as “a table”…and a young man’s style as “hipsterish” and on and on ceaselessly throughout your day. That’s what it means to understand…“At every moment,” Hofstadter writes, “we are simultaneously faced with an indefinite number of overlapping and intermingling situations.” It is our job, as organisms that want to live, to make sense of that chaos. We do it by having the right concepts come to mind. This happens automatically, all the time.

Now, the question is, how does Santayana’s quote belong with Hofstadter’s theory of cognition?

Both Santayana and Hofstadter agree that the process of cognition is based on recognition. We look at the explosions of colors and lines that are the given world and our mind pairs those sensations with “the right concepts” — that’s how we know a table is a table and not a rhinoceros.

But Santayana is saying that the poet is gifted with the ability to retain the original sensations, the explosions of colors and lines before “the right concepts” (or as Santayana says, the “trite concepts”) force those sensations into a specific category, into a specific box.

It is the the poet who connects us to the unfiltered sensations of the world and uncategorized emotions of the soul. As poets, it is our job to grab hold of those sensations before they can be boxed up into the prepackaged concepts constructed by our cultures, to save them from the inevitable loss that comes from being stuffed into a box.

The Books I Read in 2012

In 2012, I set myself the goal of reading 30 books. But then, in June, I started a 1,700 page book, and that was pretty much the end of that. Instead of 30, I ended up with 26 books. That’s still one more book than last year, which is a good thing, but it’s still six books less than 2010, which is not a good thing. I’d like to say I’ll read 30 books in 2013, but with a new baby in the house, I suspect that’ll be difficult. Even so, I’m setting that as my goal: 30 books in 2013.

Here’s the list of books I read in 2012, plus a little blurb of what I thought of it. Enjoy.

  • Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah
    One of my favorite books from my teenage years, Illusions is semi-new-age philosophy wrapped in a short story about a messiah who is running away from his calling. I read the book with my high-school students as part of our book club, and they loved it just as much as I did when I was their age.
  • The Digital Divide: Arguments for and Against Facebook, Google, Texting, and the Age of Social Networking
    I assigned this collection of essays to one of my college classes. All the students were freshmen, and most of them are outdoorsy/environmentalist, so the essays didn’t exactly speak to them. I had hoped the students would wrestle with their generational reality, but instead, they just argued and reargued and reargued about the ills of technology. I won’t be assigning this one again.
  • The Ethics of Emerging Media: Information, Social Norms, and New Media Technology
    I assigned this collection of essays to another one of my college classes for a course on ethics in media. This was for a class full of upperclassmen, so they were more willing than my freshman to listen to the arguments before reacting to them. Not every essay in this collection was strong, but they all did a good job of sparking conversation in the classroom.
  • The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory
    At the beginning of last year, I had the privilege to engage in a series of deep conversations about religion and atheism with a former professor of mine. During one of our discussions, he recommended this book to me and I quickly sought it out. Unfortunately, I can’t say I enjoyed it. First, it’s a very difficult book, but I’m a decent reader, so I don’t think that was it. Instead, I think it was that I just couldn’t buy any of the author’s original premises, so as the book went on, he just got further and further from anything I could agree with. On the plus side, it gave me plenty to think about and it steered me to the next book on this list, which I loved.
  • The Wake of Imagination
    This book traced the concept of the imagination throughout history. It’s also a kind of history of art and philosophy. It’s long and sprawling and written well. I highly recommend it to anyone who’s interested in philosophy, art, and history.
  • The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media
    I read this one as part of a book club I belong to. It’s a graphic “novel” – but of course, it’s not a novel; instead, it’s an historical look at how the modern media works, how it came to be, and what we need to watch out for as educated consumers of media. I definitely recommend this to anyone with even a cursory interest in the history and theory of modern media.
  • Ghost Pain: Poems
    I read this collection of poems with my high-school students. The poet is the poet laureate of Vermont. I wanted to read poetry that would be less abstract for my students, and I figured a poet from their neck of the woods might write something they could relate to. Luckily, I was right. The students did have difficulty with the poems, but after our classroom discussions, they all seemed to agree that the poems were brilliant.
  • The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure
    Another book I read with my book club. While I’ve seen the movie dozens of times, this was my first reading of the book, and I gotta say, it was even better than the movie — and I love the movie. There’s just so much more depth to the book, plus there’s a whole mythology of where the text came from in the first place. Just a delightful read.
  • Gilead
    This one was strongly recommended to me by one of my friends, and it completely lived up to his recommendation. It’s a quiet book, about a quiet town and a quiet preacher at the end of his quiet life, but there’s just so much heart in it, and so much…reality. A very good book.
  • Waiting for Godot
    I’ve read Beckett’s play a couple times now, but I read it again with my high-school students this year. I had the students read it aloud in the classroom, and that didn’t seem to be doing much for them…so we also watched the classic film version of it, and that’s when they finally realized how funny and yet, how sad it is.
  • Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: A Reference Guide
    I read this short little guide in preparation for teaching the play for the first time. Some decent historical stuff in there, but nothing Wikipedia can’t tell you.
  • Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power
    This is Rachel Maddow’s book about how the United States military-industrial complex came to power and how our politicians have elected to use it. A quick read, but insightful. Basically, it’s like reading a long, well-written magazine article.
  • The Power of Myth
    I read this one with my high-school students as well. I wanted to read Cambell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, but I thought it would be a bit too deep for my students. The Power of Myth is a nice introduction to Campbell’s thought, structured as it is around an interview with Bill Moyers. The kids loved it.
  • Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea
    I picked this one up because the author, Carl Zimmer, is a regular on Radiolab and I heard an interview he did about the book. I’ve read a lot of books on evolution, but I liked the dude and wanted to see how he is as a writer. Well, he’s a good one. If you have any interest in evolution, this book is a great place to start.
  • A Dance with Dragons (A Song of Ice & Fire #5)
    The fifth book in the series better known as “Game of Thrones” (thanks to HBO), A Dance with Dragons picks up where the fourth book left off. I should probably include the Wikipedia pages for the first four books on this list, because before I started Book #5, I spent about two weeks reminding myself of who the characters were, what they want, and where they are now. I loved the first four books, and this one didn’t disappoint. Now he just better not make me wait another five years before the sixth book comes out.
  • Catching Fire (The Hunger Games #2) and Mockingjay (The Hunger Games #3)
    I didn’t read the first book in this series, but I did see the movie, and my wife said it was faithful enough to the book that I didn’t have to read it. The Hunger Games series were the most popular books of the past couple of years, so it was only a matter of time before I picked them up, and I gotta say, I was glad I finally did. What the author does in the second and third books was nothing short of brilliant. While I was slightly disappointed in the second book, when the main character is forced back into the Hunger Games, it ended up being a necessary step in the longer story. What I thought would be a long story about how a woman can be just as warrior-like as a man became, instead, a long story about how every warrior comes out of battle with mental and spiritual injuries that take decades to heal (if they ever do). Essentially, the books give the reader the story of someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and the fact that every one and their mother is reading these books just makes the author’s accomplishment that much greater.
  • And Then There Were None
    Another book I read with my high-school students. I wanted to end our school year with something a little more “fun” than Beckett and Cambell, so I went with Agatha Christie’s classic. It was just as fun this time around as it had been 20 years ago when I first read it.
  • The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Structure of DNA
    I think I came across a reference to this one in Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, something about it being the first science book written for a popular audience, so I decided to give it a read. It’s a decent book, and after reading some of the criticism it received, it’s definitely a momentous one (again, being one of the first science book written for nonscientists), but I can’t say it’s a killer read. Popular science writing has greatly improved over the last 50-odd years.
  • It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the Politics of Extremism
    The authors of this book were on The Daily Show; one of them is a Democrat and the other is a Republican, and this is their book about how the Constitution can’t handle the partisanship of today. Basically, another book-length magazine article. Good enough for an airplane ride, which is where I read it.
  • Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam
    I’m a rather devout atheist, but this guy’s reading of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam seemed a tad shallow. There’s not much argument in the book; just a lot of assertions. On the other hand, the author provides a decent bibliography of atheist works, and it led me to the next book on this list.
  • Ecce Homo; or A Critical Enquiry into the History of Jesus Christ; Being a Rational Analysis of the Gospels
    Written in 1770, this book by Baron d’Holbach is an historical curiosity at best, being one of the earlier outright atheistic books published (anonymously, of course) in Christianized Europe. While the arguments were, I’m sure, radical for their time, too much work has been done on the historicity of the Bible for d’Holbach’s positions to carry weight. But still, a relatively fun read.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
    I didn’t “read” this one as much as listen to it during a drive from Vermont to Chicago. But it held my interest the entire way (my wife, on the other hand, tuned it out rather quickly), and it was much, much better than the movie. Of course, at the end of the day, it’s not much more than an entertaining yarn. I think The Hunger Games has more of a theme than this one.
  • Walden
    I read this one in the Fall with my high-school students (while also building a life-size replica of Thoreau’s cabin; yeah, my high-school class rocks). I’d read selections of it before, but this was my first time reading it all the way through. While there are definitely some boring parts, I do suggest reading it all the way through. The experience Thoreau had is much deeper — and much more realistic — than what the more popular selections imply.
  • James the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls
    This is the 1,700 page behemoth I started in June and finished in November. It’s drier than my parents’ house in December, and it could have used an editor who would have forced the author to remove the 800 pages worth of repetitive material plus the 200 pages worth of less-than-insightful tangents, and then asked him to rewrite the whole thing in chronological order so that the reader wouldn’t have to reorient himself in space and time every fifth paragraph. But besides that, it’s pretty good. It’ll change your entire understanding of the world that Jesus and the first “Christians” lived in, and what early Christianity actually said about the way we should live our lives. Basically, if you’re not a fundamentalist Jew, then you’re not following the religious views of Jesus; instead, you’ve been suckered into following the Greek-influenced ideas of Paul, whom the earliest Christians (i.e., the apostles) considered the enemy. Good luck with that.
  • October Light
    A beautiful book about an elderly brother and sister in Vermont in the late 60s/early 70s, the former of whom is Vermont to the bone and the latter of whom has “liberal” ideas. As with other books by John Gardner, it plays around with structure and philosophy, but its heart is in the struggle of its characters. A beautiful book.

And that was it for the year. Hopefully next year, this list will include at least four more books.