Sunday, June 16, 2019

Books Worth Reading

Occasionally I post on this blog a list of books I’ve been reading. It’s a way of sharing what I’ve learned, and that process of reviewing what I’ve read helps me to deepen my memory.

This post will be a little different. At the end I’ll share some new books I’ve been reading recently, but I’m going to start with some older books.

Three Older Books

China in Ten Words (Yu Hua, 2012; Allan H. Barr, translator) This is not very old, but it gives a history of some of the ideas that shape modern China. Each chapter considers one word and the way it exemplifies or illustrates something important about Chinese culture, especially since the cultural revolution. This has helped me to understand my Chinese students better, and it gives me more insight into Chinese politics, international policy, and economics. Yu Hua is a novelist, and his stories make for smooth, inviting reading. This spring I was teaching a class with students from ten different countries. At one point, one of my students from another country asked me why American schools are so concerned with plagiarism. Most of the other international students nodded in agreement. It was a helpful reminder that our American notions of intellectual property and academic integrity are tied to our idea that we are first and foremost individual agents, and it is individuals who bear responsibility for their actions and who gain the rewards for their achievements. Whether that’s true or not is debatable, but we don’t seem to have escaped from the Cartesian notion of the radical individual, the Protestant pietism that emphasizes the fall and redemption of the individual soul, or the Jeffersonian idea that rights and happiness are expressed in the individual. Over the last fifty years, China has shifted in that direction, to be sure, but China is still deeply in touch with both its Confucian sense of community and the aftereffects of its century of revolutions.

Out of the Silent Planet (C.S. Lewis, 1938) This is Lewis’ sci-fi novel about Mars. But of course no novel is ever about Mars; mostly, novels about Mars are about this planet and its inhabitants. Along with Lewis’ essay “Religion and Rocketry” (originally published as “Will We Lose God In Outer Space?”) this novel is important because it is a subtle invitation to examination of why we want to go to Mars in the first place. For me, it is one of the most important works of the ethics of space exploration, for a number of reasons. If you want all my reasons, feel free to buy my book on C.S. Lewis. Here’s one reason: most alien-encounter stories we write begin with the assumption that the aliens are the bad guys. Lewis wants us to consider that if we find our planet has gotten too uncomfortable for us, maybe we’re not the protagonists of this story.

The Way We Live Now (Anthony Trollope, 1875) This is about the 2016 election in the U.S. — but it was written in the middle of the 19th century in the U.K. I read this back in the summer of 2016, and I thought, “Oh, D.T. is going to win the election.” I won’t say it’s prescient, because it’s not explicitly about any future event, but Trollope does a good job of showing us what motivates us, how shallow those motives can be, what we will sacrifice to achieve them, and other perils of modern political life.

I’ll end this section with three unrelated books that nevertheless seem related to me: Charles Dickens’s Bleak House; Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener; and William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses. Two things tie these books together for me: all were recommended by friends, and all have something to do with chancery courts. I have liked Melville for a long time, and I rarely regard time spent in his prose as time wasted. Dickens and Faulkner I like far less. I read Dickens as a portrait of his time, and time in his pages is like cultural archaeology. But it’s also like listening to someone make a short story into a long one while you’re trying to get to your next appointment. Faulkner is not at all like Dickens in that regard. He condenses his ideas so much that everything needs to be unpacked. Reading Faulkner quickly is unsatisfying; reading Faulkner slowly is tiring. For different reasons, Faulkner and Dickens are both tedious reads for me. Both of them make me lose the plot, one because he’s too fast, the other because he’s too slow. But in neither case is this a flaw in the author; I’m just highlighting a difference between the way they think and the way I think. Good friends recommended them, and that matters: reading what others care about can be a work of love and of fostering mutual understanding.

Should We Still Be Reading Books?

I read a lot of books each year. Usually when I tell people how many books I read, I am met with wide-eyed disbelief, so I won’t bother to tell you how many I read in a year. Instead, I will invite you to consider the importance of books. Recently I asked a group of graduate students about their reading habits. Some said they read about a dozen books a year in addition to required reading for their classes. I thought that was pretty good, considering how busy they are. But a few told me they get all their information online, mostly in condensed form through synopses and through Twitter. I don’t disparage the value of reading quickly and of foraging in the rich banquet hall of small parcels of always-ready information that our new technologies afford us. We live in rich times, indeed. I only hope that those graduate students will supplement their diet of fast reading with some slow reading and even with some fasting for contemplation and digestion.

There are some problems with books, to be sure. For one thing, they take a long time to read, and some of that reading (as with Dickens) can be slow going. For another: they take a long time to write. A third thing: the barriers to publication mean it’s easier to find books by people with connections to publishers than books by rural writers, non-English writers, etc.

But books are durable. I started writing this blog post on my tablet, and then the battery died. That never happens with books. Books are resilient, or super-resilient. Consider the way John Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down spread across Europe during the Second World War. We think social media are fast today, but Steinbeck’s propaganda novel spread rapidly because each time someone read it they made the decision whether to copy it, and many people copied and translated it. Decisions like that are much costlier than retweeting something you glanced at, and so they carry much more weight and value. And once a book like that is copied, it’s very hard to delete it. How many books have been written about both the danger books pose to people clinging to power? And then there’s that old question about which books you’d bring to a desert island; how many of you would choose to bring a laptop or a tablet? The salt air and heat would kill it quickly even if you had solar panels to recharge it. Books are hard to beat.

Some of my recent reads.

A Few Recent and Current Reads

I’ll wrap up with a few recent reads, all of which I recommend, and all of which I’ll post here with minimal commentary:

Edward F. Mooney, Excursions with Thoreau: Philosophy, Poetry, Religion. (2015) Someday I would like to write like Ed Mooney. His book on Henry Bugbee was a confirmation that it’s acceptable to write academic philosophy in a way that is both clear and readable. (James Hatley did this for me in some of his articles, too. I’m grateful to both of them for that.) Now I’m very much looking forward to Mooney’s next book, Living Philosophy in Kierkegaard, Melville, and Others: Intersections of Literature, Philosophy, and Religion.

Patrick Hicks, Library of the Mind: New & Selected Poems. If you’re not reading poetry, what has gone wrong with your life? Never mind, don’t try to answer that. Instead, just read good poetry. Here’s an excellent place to start. Each page makes me slow down and collect myself again.

Malin Grahn-Wilder, Gender and Sexuality in Stoic Philosophy. I teach ancient and medieval philosophy, and I find books like this keep me sharp. The organization of the book is excellent, and so is the content. This is a nicely written history of ideas, and a useful resource for scholars.

Jacob Goodson, Strength of Mind: Courage, Hope, Freedom, Knowledge. I’ve known Jacob for a few years, and I like everything he writes. This is no exception. Jacob’s an excellent teacher with an encyclopedic mind. I have the good fortune of spending time with him in person each year, and those conversations become miniature seminars that leave me feeling refreshed and energized; he tills the soil of the mind. So you should buy this book and enjoy it. But I’m especially looking forward to his next collaboration with Brad Elliott Stone, Introducing Prophetic Pragmatism: A Dialogue on Hope, the Philosophy of Race, and the Spiritual Blues. That will be out later this year.

Evan Selinger and Brett Frischmann, Re-Engineering Humanity. This is one of a small number of books that I’ve gone back to multiple times. Selinger is worth following on Twitter for a daily dose of sharp observations on how we are letting technology race ahead of ethics. Once you’ve looked at what he posts there, you’ll find you’re either ready to check out of digital life altogether, or to go into the deep dive of this book so you can get a better handle on what to do next.

Yvon Chouinard, Craig Mathews, and Mauro Mazzo, Simple Fly Fishing: Techniques for Tenkara and Rod & Reel. Revised second edition, with paintings by James Prosek. Come for the zen-like techniques, stay for the beauty of each page, and take the time to read those small things like why Chouinard mapped several unmapped mountain routes, then burned the maps. “But standing around the campfire one day, we decided to burn our notes…There need to be a few places left on this crowded planet where ‘here be dragons’ still defines the unknown regions of maps. Then I went fishing.” If you follow me on social media, you know I write about trout and salmon. You might also know, if you pay close attention, that I love the places that the fish live, I love swimming with the fish, and I love the things and people they’re connected to. But the more I fish, the less I feel the need to fish, and the happier I am being near the fish. Tenkara rods are a very old way of being still with the fish.

David C. Krakauer, ed. Worlds Hidden In Plain Sight: The Evolving Idea of Complexity at the Santa Fe Institute 1984-2019. This is one I’m working through slowly, and I’m not reading it cover-to-cover. The organization of this book makes it one that invites a bit of flaneurism, reading deeply and thoughtfully, but in the manner of what Thoreau calls “sauntering”: not a linear, business-like drive to the finish line, but a walk without purpose other than to see what is there. This is one of the best kinds of learning. The book is, indirectly, about the importance of cross-disciplinary reading; the importance of philosophy of science for everything from understanding markets to climate change; and the helpful and constant reminder we don’t know enough about the things we quantify, even though we talk about the quantification with such authority. The book is priced at about ten bucks, but it's worth far more than that.

Is there something better than reading well-considered words? Perhaps, but all of these books have so far been well worth my while. I hope you have good books in your life as well.


In the interest of full disclosure: I know a number of these authors, and I'm glad to know them, and I'm glad to tell you about their books. And I'm not paid a thing to tell you about their books; I just get the satisfaction of sharing good things with others.