Seventeen minutes

Seventeen minutes. That’s what it takes to write something good. The something can always be made better, and it’ll take as much time as a writer is willing to give it, but it takes seventeen minutes at least.

This is not a lot of time. It’s less than the length of one episode of comedic television.

Seventeen minutes is keyboard time though. It’s sitting at the keyboard and typing rather furiously for seventeen minutes. But it’s not seventeen minutes of blathering onto the screen; it’s seventeen minutes of hyperintensity, where your body is almost completely still except for its unconscious twitches and shakes and your mind’s eye is so far inward it’s almost up your asshole, and then, almost like when a fish tries to dart back into the dark waters and you reach out to snatch it by its tail, you discover the phrase, and depending on how fast you are, its yours to catch or release.

It’s the buildup to the keyboard time that can get you. It takes a lot of energy to sit down and write. It’s a lazy man’s game, I know, but there isn’t any laziness to it. Not when it’s done right.

It’s like exercise. You just have to do it. Maybe someday you’ll feel like you’re a real part of “the game,” but for now, it’s just exercise.

I have friends that run in marathons; some are even Ironmen and women. I don’t think one of them has entered a race expecting they would win it. They expect zero accolades for their performance. They wouldn’t mind if they received some, but accolades aren’t for a moment a reason for them to run, or to swim, or to bike.

Before race day, they prepare — some more than others, but all of them prepare.

In writing, though, there is no race day. There is no single day that it’s all leading up to. It’s never “the day.”

When I see my friends at the starting line of their races (which isn’t very often), they often seem serious. Those who can laugh, laugh, but not all of them; some take the time to focus. Sometimes they bounce on their legs to get the energy flowing, or they sway back and forth, trying to stay loose.

There is that in writing too. Some writers are able to roll right out of bed and get going, but I think most of us have to psyche ourselves up a little bit. Some even pop performance enhancing drugs like marijuana or alcohol (Hunter S. Thompson popped a pharmacy). But then, clean or not, feeling the moment, we sit down, place our fingers on the keys, put them in their rested but ready position, and wait, wait…wait…and bang, the phrase hits, and we’re off.

Most people don’t run marathons though. You know what they do? They run 5Ks. A lot of them, sometimes more than once a day.

How long do you think that takes, a 5K?

I don’t know. I’m not a runner. But I think to run a pretty good 5K, seventeen minutes sounds about right to me.

I shit you not. I started this post a little more than twenty minutes ago. I’m sorry it’s taken this long. I’m still a little off my game.

And for the record (just because I finished watching it about twenty minutes ago) tonight’s “Spoils of War” episode has to be in the running not just as the best episode of Game of Thrones, but as possibly the best episode of television ever. It demonstrated the narrative moment that comes just before the apotheosis as well as I’ve ever seen it done. I can’t wait to read George R.R. Martin’s version of it.

And also for the record, it’s taking Mr. Martin longer than seventeen minutes to write A Song of Ice & Fire; in fact, it’s taking him longer than seventeen years.

Name one project you’ve worked on for longer than seventeen years (children don’t count).

Give Mr. Martin a break. He’s creating a true masterpiece.

And for those of you going after David Benioff and D.B. White for their desire to wrangle whatever stories they can out of the notion that the South won the Civil War and slavery still exists the way capitalism still exists, as a bona-fide economic theory — how dare you try to censor an artist before he or she can begin her work?

Game of Thrones has to be ranked as one of the best series of television ever. You can argue the point all you like, but no one would denounce you as crazy for suggesting it at least deserves some kind of honorable mention in the discussion.

The world makes a lot of television. To do it as well as Beniof and White have done it for as long as they’ve done it, and to do it at such a massive scale, with millions of person hours dedicated to its creation, production, and distribution, and done in what seems to be a genuine manner, allowing the dirtiness of Martin’s novels to titillate and shock the viewer while also striving to touch their hearts… Beniof and White have been as successful on screen as Martin has been on the page — differently successful, but successful nonetheless.

Haven’t they shown themselves to be twenty-first century artists of the first stripe, capable of manipulating the capitalist system in such a way as to dedicate millions upon millions of dollars to the creation of quality works of art? You think the Vatican doesn’t benefit from housing such high quality artwork behind its doors?

Yes, there’s money to be made in art. Ask Shakespeare and Michelangelo.

I’m not trying to go out on a limb here. In their official announcement about the series, Benioff and White used the language of art to frame what they’re trying to do, saying, “Our experience on Thrones has convinced us that no one provides a bigger, better storytelling canvas than HBO.” Given any urge to create art, what artist worth her salt would turn down the biggest canvas she could find?

The announced concept behind “Confederacy” is problematic, true, and I applaud those who want to ensure that the artists understand the problems before they try to tackle them, but how dare anyone forbid their attempt of it?

With tonight’s episode of Game of Thrones, which, by the way, they wrote before George R.R. Martin was able to write it, they proved themselves due for so much respect as artists that I’m willing to support whatever endeavor they choose next.

Yes, critique their idea. Yes, call into question the real political and cultural issues that arise from their idea, but for the love of all that is sacred in art, don’t denounce their right to attempt it.

Okay. That was about twenty more minutes. Sorry, but that was a great episode of television and I just needed to say all that.

Forty-five minutes of writing. Thirteen minutes of editing. That’s almost an hour-long drama. That’s not much at all.

The Comedy Contest

To conclude his well-written review of Dave Chappelle’s latest performance at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, Jason Zinoman of the NY Times writes:

At his best, Mr. Chappelle’s [sic] proves that thoughtfulness can make a joke funnier. Making smart comedy that is argumentative and funny is not a zero sum game, but his first performance of a long residency at Radio City does occasionally makes you wonder if it is.

That is not a well-written conclusion, but there’s an interesting idea at the heart of it. I think what Mr. Zinoman is trying to say (and I could be wrong) is that Dave Chappelle might be the smartest comedian alive, but only if you think comedy is a contest.

In any sane person’s mind, the top three comedians in the world right now have to be Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, and Louis C.K. There are hundreds of worthy stand-up comedians in the industry, but those three have to be at the top.

If our criteria remains Zinoman’s — smart, argumentative, and funny — I’d be willing to let Jon Stewart be part of the conversation, but if he really wants a shot, he’ll have to release a stand-up special sometime this century (which, apparently, he will be doing…soon?).

Additionally, I’d be willing to discuss Bo Burnham. I know that’s a controversial entry because, for many, Burnham’s comedy is still a bit too gimmicky, but he’s doing innovative material with a young man’s energy and a hyper self-awareness that speaks to the people of his generation. He’s able to argue with an audience if he feels they need it, and he’s willing to call into question some of the fundamental beliefs that they hold dear. At the same time, his hyperkinetic energy and his reliance on his musical talent have kept him, I suspect, from reaching a multi-generational audience.

Bill Burr also has to be part of the conversation. Bill Burr brings an unironic and uncynical anger to the stage, knowing at all points that he must be a psycho because he gets angry about things that regular people don’t angry about, like the idea that there’s no reason to hit a woman. That anger, however, is his talent. It allows him to notice things that all of us feel or suspect but that we don’t know how to articulate — for example, see his continued ability to get an audience to clap for the idea that mass genocide is necessary for our overpopulated species to continue.

Over the past six or seven years, Burr’s stage presence has benefitted from his increased acting experience. He’s developed the confidence to examine the narrative elements of a joke and a storyteller’s recognition that narrative alone can carry the tension, and not just the audience’s expectation of a laugh.

Playing with audience expectations might be his strongest skill. While all great comedians are willing to challenge their audiences, Burr is unabashed in his contempt for any audience trying to punch above its weight class. The prime example of this is when he berated, for a full twelve minutes, an unruly audience in Philadelphia (if that’s not redundant). The audience had booed almost every other comedian off stage during a festival, but, for twelve minutes, Burr attacked them head on, targeting everything that is wrong with Philadelphia, taking each boo as a badge of honor, and challenging them not to laugh as he tore them a new one.

With that being said, Burr’s comedy specials have also felt a bit insular. It’s a Bostonian’s insurality, to be sure — insightful, aware, proud, shamefully honest, and deeply insecure — but it’s an insularity that prevents him from going deeper than he already has. That insularity might be why he keeps returning to the well of overpopulation and political conspiracy.

Burr’s last few specials have all been fantastic. His skills as a joke teller, storyteller, tactical observer, and stage performer have increased with each one. But the philosophical depth of his targets remains limited, as if he’s blind to some significant element in the field of comedic possibility.

It might be that Burr doesn’t often talk about his family. He isn’t shy about it — you can track the growth of the man with the growth of his relationship to his partner (first his girlfriend, now his wife) — but he doesn’t dwell on family the way Rock, Chappelle, and C.K. do. It’s probably because Burr only had his first child in January of this year, and so his perspective on the family has been lacking that crucial parental angle. I’m intrigued to see how being a dad enriches his material in the next special.

There are other great comedians of course: Norm Macdonald, Kevin Hart, Jim Gaffigan, Jerry Seinfeld, Patton Oswalt, Hannibal Burress, Tig Notaro, Ellen Degeneres, etc. But if comedy is a zero-sum game, there’s only room at the top for one.

Unfortunately, trying to choose between Chappelle, Rock, and C.K. is like trying to choose between Jordan, Lebron, and Bird, with no clear indication as to which comedian transfers into which basketball player. And with no clear answer, all you can do is sit back, relax, and enjoy their greatness.

Done Made Said Thought

I listen to a lot of music. I listen to jazz, rap, rock and roll, big band, reggae, 80s hair metal, 70s funk, 50s pop, etc. Over the past few months I’ve listened to albums from a country-tinged folk singer name Todd Snider, as well as to Jay Z’s newest album, 4:44, as well as to some of this year’s Phish tour, to a Grateful Dead concert from May, 1977, and to a Dead & Company concert from June, 2017. I eagerly pressed play on a pre-released single from Iron & Wine’s next album and tried to revisit my somewhat-meh opinion of Tupac Shakur’s rhythm and flow.

But the only real piece of music I’ve been excited by in the past six months is the latest album from the Canadian band, Do Make Say Think.

I shouldn’t say I’m excited by the actual music yet. I’ve had the album for maybe five days, and I’ve only listened to it maybe twice (maybe three times) all the way through, so I’m not quite capable of rendering a true song by song evaluation.

What excites me is that there’s any music from Do Make Say Think at all. They haven’t made an album in eight years, and they are, without a doubt, my favorite band.

~~

Here’s how I listen to music (when I’m alone enough to really listen to it anyway).

First, music is almost always on when I’m driving. Sometimes I listen to Vermont Public Radio, but less and less so now that Donald Trump is President. Once in a great-great while, I’ll listen to a podcast. But for the most part, if I’m in the car, I have music playing.

Unfortunately, now that I’m the father of a very chatty four-year-old, the car is no longer the best place to listen to music.

I listen to music if I have to walk to work. I live about a half mile from the school where I teach. Depending on the transportation needs of the day, sometimes I have to walk to work and sometimes I have to drive. If I walk, I’ll often put on my headphones and try to zero in on two or three songs from a single album by whatever artist. The walk gives me about eight to ten minutes of solid listening time. I can focus on the music, listen to the lyrics (if there are any), all while subconsciously hoping that, at some point, the songs will make me move to the beat.

I also listen to music when I’m mowing the lawn. I do this (if I’m being good) about once every five or six days. With the size and shape of my lawn, the amount of lawn furniture I have to remove, and the number of toys I have to throw back onto my neighbor’s lawn, this activity, without fail, takes me roughly 45 minutes to accomplish. That is the length of most studio albums, and one half of a live set, so I can lock in, fade my mind into the music, and mow on.

Lastly, I listen to music when I’m writing.

Here’s the thing though. When I’m doing any of those other things — driving, walking, mowing — I can listen to virtually anything: rap, rock, jazz, jam, whatever. But when I’m writing, I can only listen to one thing. And that’s Do Make Say Think.

I don’t write to Do Make Say Think exclusively. But the music I write to exclusively came to me by way of Do Make Say Think.

(That’s not exactly true; I sometimes listen to music by Frank Zappa, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Jerry Garcia, Blind Faith, Charles Mingus, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Fela Kuti, Herbie Hancock, The Jazz Mandolin Project, Jimmy McGriff, Trey Anastasio, and others; but it also is true in that Do Make Say Think [and its ilk] is the only music who ever makes it exclusively into a writing session — if Jimmy McGriff is there, Miles Davis is too, but if Do Make Say Think is there, everyone else often is not; regardless…)

I don’t know how to describe the music of Do Make Say Think, but the first thing I’ll say is that it is music without lyrics. When I am writing, the last thing I want is someone else’s words in my head, and so all of my writing is done to music without lyrics.

But “music without lyrics” is a broad description. It contains most of the movements to most of the symphonies, almost all of jazz, a good percentage of funk, a large portion of Jerry Garcia’s ouvre, and whatever kind of high-quality 70s porn music that Jimmy McGriff plays.

So the second thing I would say about Do Make Say Think’s music is that, despite the lack of lyrics, the music fits perfectly with the song titles. For example, the song I’m listening to right now is “Her Eyes on the Horizon,” and it contains a soft yet hopeful melody that later dissolves into the sad, tender combination of keyboards and horns. It then fades back, through a beautiful sunrise of a bass tone, into an energetic and yet still early daylight seeming kind of rock melody, supported by a fast-paced set of jazz influenced double drums, dual guitars, and a beautiful, absolutely beautiful sounding electric bass. The melody rises into a set of exclamatory punction marks that repeat over and over before descending into a fading acoustic guitar and bass. The whole movement takes eight minutes and 20 seconds.

A statue from Grand Bank, Newfoundland

The music provides a narrative arc that fits nicely with the thematic possiblities of its title (“Her Eyes on the Horizon”). As you listen to it, you can imagine a sad and forlorn woman in a coastal seatown standing atop a widow’s walk, watching the watery horizon for her son to come home. You can imagine her standing high in the night, leaning over, her arms resting on the metal railing jutting over her bedroom window. Clouds block the starlight above her, casting the night in somber dark.

In time with the music, with her eyes on the horizon, the woman thinks about the way she raised her son, about the love she has for him. Then, with the shift in the music, the sadness of his absence overcomes her, and she can no longer look for him. She turns, wraps her long warm nightgown tighter, and begins her long cold walk back to the attic door, but then something in the music causes her to turn around, to look one more time, and there it is, coming over the horizon like a sunbeam, a sail! a sail!.

She races to the railing to see it better, to prove to herself that she’s not mistaken, and as she runs, she sees herself running to him on the dock, sweeping him into her arms, collapsing them both to their knees, hugging him so tight that all of his hard-nosed sailor friends search the docks for the all-encompassing love of their own mothers.

The boat comes closer, comes closer, and with a break in the clouds, the starlight confirms it: he’s home!

She leaps down the stairs, each bouncing step like an exclamatory punctuation mark on the sentence repeating in her head, “He’s home! He’s home! He’s home!”

But then…she reaches the downstairs floor. The door is just a few feet in front of her. She stops herself, the sentence slowly changing from He’s home! He’s home!” to “He’s home? He’s home.”

She remembers how difficult he can be when he first comes off the sea, how inside of himself he seems, detached from the love they once shared, happy to be home but still distant. It won’t be like she imagined it. It never is. She takes a breath, opens the door, and steps out.

The next song on the album is called “As Far As The Eye Can See.” It starts with nature sounds, a heat bug drone, crickets and birds, an electric guitar, a light metallic rattle like the links on a dog leash, a dominant bass line, and now drums, steady and light, a second guitar, a second set of drums, all of it adding to itself, no instrument repeating another yet all of them meeting at exactly the right points, a quiet dialogue consisting of many minds moving in the same direction and coming at it from different angles, covering all the possibilities in a sweeping democratic crowd as far as the eye can see before collapsing into a single point out of which all of them explode and from which we are introduced almost one by one back to all of the interested parties.

It’s amazing music. When I put it on for my brother, he called it “movie music.” I think he meant it in a derogatory way, but I also think he’s right: like a well-made movie, every song by Do Make Say Think is capable of taking its listener on a journey.

But what I love about it is that, when it comes to writing, when it comes to focusing on how to manipulate the words on the screen rather than the words in my head, it maintains — across every song and within every moment — the sense of a connected narrative, keeping the sensations I depend on for writing moving in the same direction and in the same way: forward, with meaning. You don’t have to be listening to it for this to happen. It just needs to be there, playing, moving you ever on, like the verb you always am.

Do Make Say Think is the only band I’ve listened to that is capable of making me feel this way each and every time I listen to it. It may not be for everyone, but I truly do feel that it is for me.

So to them, I just want to say: thank you. Thank you for helping me do, make, say, and think better than I could on my own.

Losing the Soul

I’m currently reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. I haven’t finished it yet, but I came across an argument in it the other night and I want to make sure I understand it.

Harari argues that there are three elements that universalize all of human culture. The first is money; the second is empire; and the third is the belief in a superhuman order:

Merchants, conquerors and prophets were the first people who managed to transcend the binary evolutionary division, ‘us vs. them’, and to foresee the potential unity of humankind. For the merchants, the entire world was a single market and all humans were potential customers. They tried to establish an economic order that would apply to all, everywhere. For the conquerors, the entire world was a single empire and all humans were potential subjects, and for the prophets, the entire world held a single truth and all humans were potential believers.

He then devotes the next three chapters to the elucidation of these assertions, and I highly recommend that you read them, but that’s not the part of his argument I want to explore.

In the chapter on the universal belief in a superhuman order, Harari categorizes natural-law ideologies as forms of religion, putting humanism  in the same category as Christianity and Zoroastrianism. He argues that humanism is the worship of humanity, much as Islam is the worship of God. According to Harari, humanists believe there is a “unique and sacred nature” to our humanity, and that this is the most important thing in the world, and that therefore, “the supreme good is the good of Homo Sapiens.”

He goes on to divide humanism into three main sects: liberal humanism, socialist humanism, and evolutionary humanism, with each sect differing on its definition of humanity.

For liberals, “humanity is a quality of individual humans, and that the liberty of humans is therefore sacrosanct.” For socialists, “humanity is collective rather than individualistic…[and therefore it] seeks equality between all humans.”

Both of these interpretations spring from faith in a kind of secular soul, with liberals defending the unique liberty of each soul and socialists defending the common essence shared by all souls.

But I want to explore Harari’s characterization of the third sect: evolutionary humanism. He writes that evolutionary humanism is “the only humanist sect that has actually broken loose from traditional monotheism.” He then concludes this assertion by writing that evolutionary humanism’s “most famous representatives are the Nazis.”

What distinguished the Nazis from other humanist sects was a different definition of ‘humanity’, one deeply influenced by the theory of evolution. In contrast to other humanists, the Nazis believed that humankind is not something universal and eternal, but rather a mutable species that can evolve or degenerate. Man can evolve into superman, or degenerate into a subhuman.

What’s interesting is that Harari seems most persuasive when he’s discussing this particular dogma. He goes on to characterize the Nazis’ arguments and actions as an attempt “to protect humankind from degeneration and encourage its progressive evolution.” He then shows that this mission was not outside of the mainstream in the early twentieth century, with white supremacy playing a significant and proudly proclaimed role in the governments of both the United States and Australia well into the 1960s and 70s.

“The Nazis,” Harari writes, “did not loathe humanity.” They just defined it differently from liberals and socialists. According to the Nazis, if the fates of the fittest examples of humanity were not defended and promoted, they “would inevitably drown in a sea of unfit degenerates.”

With the lessons of evolution guiding their way, the Nazis proclaimed that “the supreme law of nature is that all beings are locked in a remorseless struggle for survival,” which is why they educated their people to “steel [their] wills to live and fight according to these laws.”

Harari ends the chapter by making what I find to be a persuasive argument in favor of evolutionary humanism. If liberalism and communism require the sanctity of the human soul, and science continues to find no evidence of said soul, it seems clear that the only true laws are the ones we find in nature, the ones that show us more and more that what we think of as consciousness and free will can better be defined in terms of “hormones, genes, and synapses.” Homo Sapiens are no more immune to these laws than any other species evolving on Earth.

And if all of that is true, then, indeed, evolutionary humanism makes the most sense, and we must acknowledge that humans too are subjects to the laws of nature. This does not mean that we must all become Nazis. The science of genetics, which did not really exist when the Nazis formed their racist theories, debunks much of what they believed about the evolution of the species.

But that also doesn’t mean that people in the vanguard aren’t already using the science of genetics and the theory of evolution to improve the fitness of their offspring. People choose sperm donors based on their intelligence. They abort fetuses based on the clinical detection of a birth defect. They choose the sex of their baby to prevent the spread of a sex-linked genetic disorder. In addition, hundreds (if not thousands) of scientists are, at this very moment, developing lines of research that could lead to the creation of a species whose fitness for future environments may very well exceed our own.

In a world where all of this is true, evolutionary humanism does make the most sense, but agreeing to evolutionary humanism erases the human soul from existence and denies sanctity to pretty much everything.

This follows from what Harari argues about money and empires as well. The universalizing aspect of money denies sanctity to other systems of value — if something can’t be converted to money, its value will always remain suspect. The universalizing aspect of empires, meanwhile, denies sanctity to cultural difference, bridging the gap between “us” and “them” through military, economic, and cultural conquest, followed by years of subjugation, and concluding in a syncretic assimilation that channels parts of the conquered culture back into the culture of the conqueror, until even their myths entangle and encompass each other and the truth of what they might have been slips forever into the darkness of their history.

In the story of Homo Sapiens as told by Harari, our distinct values are denied, our distinct cultures are denied, and finally our distinct souls are denied. Until all we are left with is…

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer to that one yet. As I said, I’m still reading the book.

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.