Sunday, November 17, 2013

Shut the Front Door

photo by Anna Reavis

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." Thoreau

This morning I heard a woodpecker, which, as I was in the woods at the time, should come as no surprise. What was surprising was that I had been in the woods for 30 minutes with him pecking at the periphery of my hearing before I shut up long enough to truly hear him. And by shut up, I don't mean I stopped talking. I was alone with only my dog, and except for saying, "stop, stay, slow down" to her, I hadn't spoken.   What wasn't quiet was my mind. It was churning, contemplating things done and not done and things yet to do: analyzing, understanding, interpreting, predicting all kinds of things. I was thinking about the books I'm reading, the people I'm around in my life, where a bathroom might be, what I could eat, and yes, beer.  It took me 30 minutes alone in the woods to shut myself up enough to hear that lovely woodpecker.

Most of our lives, including our reading lives, are like this. Overwhelmed with the urge to comprehend, analyze, and thus control, our environments, including what we read, we often forget how to be quiet, let go, and just let things and people be who and what they are and listen for the beauty surrounding us, quietly insistent, in the background of our everyday lives.  The  next time you come across a work of art, a poem, or a book that you just "don't get,"  be quiet, and  let it be. And what it will be is beautiful.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Mid-Point of Calvino Read

"...putting behind you pages lacerated by intellectual analyses, you dream of rediscovering a condition of natural reading, innocent, primitive..."

I'm participating in a group read of If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino, in which we were to have half the book read by 11/15.  I'm not quite to the end of the first five/ten chapters, but I'm only lacking a couple of pages. 

This is an oddity of a novel.  It's the kind of experimental fiction (somewhat similar to Cloud Atlas) which would have completely intimidated me as a younger person.  Now I'm old, and I tend to think,  "If other people can read this, so can I."  Wonder if that means I can get through Ulysses yet?  Hmm...bettah not.

So, Calvino.  This book reminds me of a boyfriend.  You know, fantastic for brief periods but boring and annoying for the most part.  Although, in fairness to the book, I'd say the ratio of good to hum drum is closer to 50/50.  I do feel like Calvino purposefully manipulates his reader:  giving slack in the line, then jerking the hook and reeling you back in.  The book isn't a struggle to read, and I do find myself getting caught up in each little story, just as it ends, like the reader narrator.  I'm looking forward to seeing where this one goes.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Stranger Than Fiction

photo by amy

"Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known."  Carl Sagan

As recently as a couple years ago, I almost never read nonfiction.  I don't know exactly why, but I suspect it relates to my use of reading as a means of escape.  Over the last few years, however, I've discovered that nonfiction is often precisely what I need.  With that in mind, and following this month's theme of Nonfiction November, here are some of the nonfiction books I've read over the last couple years that I would recommend. 

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond:   An engaging book providing Diamond's hypothesis for why Western Civilization evolved as it did.  This book is so full of interesting facts that I spent almost as much time making notes as I did reading.  I loved the PBS series from this book.  I've bought Collapse by Diamond to read but haven't yet gotten to it.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion:  A memoir of the year directly following the sudden deaths of her husband and concurrent serious illness (and later death) of her daughter.  So much of what Didion describes resonates with me because of my experience of my brother's sudden death in an auto accident when he was 16 and I was 21.  I also read her later memoir Blue Nights.

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow:  An interesting, approachable, understandable description of different theories about the origin and nature of the universe and humanity's differing historical views of it.  I would assume this book might be too basic for most scientists but is a good overview for the rest of us. 

Wild and Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed:  While both of these books are quite different, I loved the author's voice and points of view in both.  Wild is a memoir of the author's ill-planned hike on the Pacific Coast Trail in the wake of her mother's death and her own divorce.  Dear Sugar is a collection of question and answer advice columns on pretty much everything involved in being human.

The Violinist's Thumb by Sam Kean:  My most recently finished nonfiction work is an explanation and history of genetics.  While some of the book was a little dry, for the most part, I loved it.  Lots of interesting tidbits of info on the underlying stuff of life on this planet.  My favorite part was on epigenetics. I have Kean's Disappearing Spoon, which explores chemistry, to read soon.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames and Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris:  I listen to all of Sedaris's books on audio, narrated by him on my iPhone on long car trips.  The vignettes move from the hilarious, to the disturbing, to occasionally ho-hum, but are very often emotionally moving.  As I have lived in North Carolina my entire life, I feel like I'm hearing stories from an eccentric neighbor when I listen to him.  My favorite of his collections has been Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.

My current nonfiction read is Spillover:  Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen, which explores the history and reflects on the future of zoonotic diseases.  I'm enjoying this one a lot and have his earlier work, The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions to read soon.

Now that I've discovered the joy of nonfiction and the limitless, free education available to those who choose to pursue it, I try to keep a work of nonfiction underway concurrently with the novels I read.  I find these works a nice change of pace perfectly complementing my fiction reading.  Happy Nonfiction November!

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