A Year of Reading

Still being in my younger and more impressionable years, I came to realization that I wasn't as well-read as I thought. For the past few years, partly inspired by Art Garfunkel, an unlikely bibliophile,  I have been keeping track of the books that I have read. In 2012, I read 53 books -  an average of about a book a week.  Sounds like a lot of reading. Yet, I did not like what I saw - quantity, but not quality. Too much non-fiction, and much of it pop non-fiction consisting of easy-breezy reads. Of all books that I read, only 15 books were what I consider must-read classics. While you may not always get it at first, the classics are classics for a reason. Yet, there is an argument for reading the canon, to remember advice from T.S. Eliot who said this about poems: "the only thing one needs to judge the merit of poems is to read other poems." 
To read better, one needs to read more books.

Where to begin? So, I turned to Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren's excellent "How to Read"; needless to say, 'a classic' itself. Their advice in a nutshell is to read books that expand your mind.  Books that are complex.  Such books change you as a person. They change the way you experience and perceive life. A book that does all that is a 'great' book. The classics are good examples of that. They are hard to read, because they make demands on the reader. Consequently, the rewards are much greater. 

So, in 2013  I tried to change this as consciously is I could.  I looked at lists - GuardianModern Library, including the intimidating Adler-Van Doren list.  But, you could really start anywhere, as long as you start. So based on availability and interest, I set off. 

To make no bones about my ambitions, I started with Ulysses and tried to read it in a day. I had begun and attempted to read it since I was about 18 and never made it past the first few pages. In Joycean vein - I "tightened my scrotum" and got to work trying to read the story of a day in a day. Technically in 24 hours, if not in one sitting. Though, according to Adler and Van Doren, you should try to read all books in one sitting. I surprised myself. It took a little over 12 hours to make it to the end. I thought earlier that I would be more ecstatic than Molly Bloom's final "yes".  Yet, surprisingly I was less concerned with being 'that-person-who-has-read-Ulysses-cover-to-cover' than being the person who had a great experience of reading Ulysses. I enjoyed the humor, the wordplay, the virtuosity, and simply the extraordinary story of an ordinary day in Dublin.  It was indeed the toughest read of the year. Intimidating for sure, but it is puzzling that the book isn't more read. Did I get it all? No. Was it worth it? Yes.

It has been a very, rich and rewarding experience. For a whole year, I was in the company of the greats - Joyce, Faulkner, Kafka, Woolf, Proust, Homer, Tolstoy, Flaubert. It made me aware of the considerable gifts of contemporary authors such as Barnes and Coetzee. The advantage of reading them so closely one after another made them stand out more in relief and despite stylistic differences the greatness of the writing always shines through. It wasn't fast reading. It was delightful, and as Harold Bloom says, "you don't read great books, they read you". Nothing could be truer. And again, it was much more than that. Often, I had to stop to take a breath to take in what I had just read. The profound psychological insight, the lovely turn of phrase, the ring of the perfectly metaphor, and above all the creation of an entire world from brief strokes.

My goal was to read better in 2013. So, did I succeed? Yes, if I was checking off a grocery list of items to be read. But, the funny thing is that books change you, they refine you. The process changed my definition of what 'reading better' was.  The chief one was what it meant to have 'read a book'. I wasn't sure any more. It certainly was not making a collection of feathers to stick in my cap. That was to miss the point, not to mention the waste of all that time.

Over the years, I have been somewhat proud that I never re-read books. I have a good memory. But, I have been again missing the point. A timely correction was provided by a certain V. Nabokov, who, by the prevailing academic wisdom at the time, was not allowed to lecture an American literature because he lacked a PhD, but allowed to lecture on European literature.  He writes in the 'Introduction' to the excellent and bizarrely hard-to-obtain Lectures on Literature that books can never be read, only re-read. Great books are a work of art and have to be approached in the manner of a painting. So, the first reading is only an initial glimpse. It's only in the second, or third reading that one can appreciate the full beauty. It's like the eye darting from aspect of the picture to another after we make our first glance at it. We have to look at it closely and from afar.

So, what's in store for 2014? Not to let go of the ambitious side of me, but one aim would be to finish Proust's In Search of Lost Time. To call it a goal makes it sound like getting through something unpleasant. If you take to it, Proust is very addicting. The Way by Swann's was so delicious and enjoyable that I cannot wait to get started on Vol II. There is no dearth of other classics that I wish to explore - Dostoevsky, Conrad, Beckett, Bellow, James, Ellison. The other would be to simply re-read some books. As Flaubert wrote: "What a scholar one might be if one knew well some half a dozen books."
Books from 2012-2013 to re-read:

2013
Beloved - Toni Morrison
The Way by Swann's - Marcel Proust; Lydia Davis (trans)
A Room of One's Own - Virginia Woolf
Disgrace - J.M. Coetzee
To The Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf
Light in August - William Faulkner
Ficciones - Jorge Luis Borges
Anna Karenina / Leo Tolstoy
Stories / Kafka
Lectures On Literature / Vladimir Nabokov
Madame Bovary / Gustave Flaubert
The Periodic Table / Primo Levi
The Odyssey / Homer; Richard Lattimore (trans)
Ulysses / James Joyce

2012
The Story of Art / Ernst Gombrich
The Inferno / Dante Alighieri; John Ciardi (trans)
The Complete Poems / Philip Larkin; Archie Burnett (ed)
Half-Finished Heaven / Tomas Transtromer
Poor Economics : a radical rethinking of the way to fight global poverty / Banerjee, Abhijit V.
Thinking, Fast and Slow / Kahneman, Daniel


On Calvino

Post on Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night a Traveler.

On Joseph Anton and Salman Rushdie

The lit blog has been update with a post that took longer and grew longer that expected. An extraordinary life.
Link: lit blog

'Ulysses - Story of a Day' In a Day?

Ulysses takes place over the course of one day - 16th June, in roughly 18 hours. It should be possible to read it in one day, right? One can read faster than people can walk, right?That's going to be my weekend project - does the math add up?

I have had the book since I was 16 and I have not made it past the first few pages after numerous attempts. It has, in one form or the another, been on my reading list, but always for 'next year'. I am sick of doing that. A nice week-long break is coming up and "why put off  for tomorrow what you can today? or do this year, instead of next year, right?" 

Any serious reader, or more correctly in my case, a reader pretending seriousness, cannot claim to be one if he/she has not tackled the eight-thousander Himalayan peaks of: 
  • Joyce's Ulysses,
  • Proust's In Search of Lost Time (or Remembrance Of Things Past),
  • Tolstoy's War and Peace, or
  • Eliot's Middlemarch
The above are on any great reading list, and if not included, then the compiler has to justify why not. It must be said that I have read none of the above. Partly, because of their daunting length and difficulty, but mainly because of their fabled complexity and literary weight. There are many in the camp of the Ulysses 'also rans' - those who have wanted to read it, have made numerous attempts and have failed, or have given up.

Mortimer Adler in How To Read a Book writes that most people read books slower than they need to, and that reading too slowly can make you lose the forest for the trees. He writes that the first reading should be quick and "not to worry if you don't understand every word". Get the main idea. My idea in past years was to attack the text in a scholarly and leisurely fashion. Read the Odyssey, then other commentaries, consult the Linati and Gilbert schema, so that I can appreciate what I read. That did not get too far. 

Adler believes that books like Ulysses are 'above the heads of most readers' anyways. They are great because they demand a lot of the reader and you will never really understand it in one reading. They need to be read again and again, some parts faster than others. The book will grow with you. Though it will not be possible if you haven't read it even once. 

With that sage advice, I feel well-armed and the plan of reading it so quickly does not seem that hair-brained either.

Personal Rules for reading Ulysses in a Day

1) It has to be done in 24 hours. Not, necessarily in one calendar day, for practical, logistical reasons and so that I don't lose my mind as I wander around Dublin.
2) No reading commentaries, guides or keys such as the Stuart or Linati schema. That would slow things down and affect the pure, naked effect of the text. 
3) Fail as I may, it's still not Finnegan's Wake (Chabon on Finnegan's Wake) and progress has been made  THIS year.

Update:

Made it to the end last night (Jan 10) - all 783 pages from "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan" to Molly Bloom's final  "... yes."
It took a total of 12 hours and 11 mins. Much less total time than I initially thought, but many more total days (There were other digressions, like reading other books). More on the book later. I am currently overwhelmed with the sheer mastery of Mr. Joyce. He is a real Colossus.

----------------------------------

If Marilyn can do it, so can you!

Frozen credit

The AMEX card being thawed after being in the freezer for a month.  One may think that there was no need to do this, but it did help in the no-credit card month to have this in the deep-freezer to avoid any temptations. It was a bit of a pain to keep track of the cash spending, but after a while you get used to it. The   experiment was overall a success with the added 'mindfulness' of spending money. A useful exercise in showing that,  far from being rational, impulses take hold of us.


The card had a nice washed look after the thawing and was promptly put to use!

The poetry of equations: The 'Alice approach'

“And what is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversation?”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
In No Small Matter, a book on the 'science on the nanoscale', famous chemist George Whitesides and photographer Felice Frankel achieve to convey the poetry and beauty of science with elegance and erudition. Their unique manner of presentation - saying much, by saying less - is more effective than most other books on science written for the lay audience. There is no surfeit of words, no clamour of explanations, and no riot of reasons.

Felice Frankel’s photos (or visualizations) show  bits - 1s and 0s - using wine glasses with red Shiraz, a prism on Venetian blinds, and a 'faked' quantum apple (to make the point that quantum mechanics confounds our ‘normal’ intuitions) and quantum dots, that are simultaneously beautiful art and beautiful science. George Whitesides’s prose is the 'second voice' in this lovely duet of images and words and strikes a wonderful balance between explaining and making us ponder.  He asks to reconsider what we take for granted - the magic of listening to music, for instance, is the ‘magic of transformation’. Using the LP track of Eleanor Rigby, Whitesides makes us rethink this amazing feat of alchemy. The the voices of the Beatles were recorded (copied) in the variations of grooves in vinyl, transmuted to electrical impulses by the needle, transduced by the vibrating speaker diaphragm into vibrations that are carried in the air, through our outer ear, and then via tiny bones and fluid in our inner ears back into sound, back into the emotion of Eleanor Rigby and all the lonely people. With the well-crafted images and sparse sentences the book has the economy and power of poetry. Saying much, by saying little. 
 Curiosity is an itch, that understanding scratches
From the dawn of time, humans have had that itch and that need to scratch won’t ever go away. That’s what we humans do. Whitesides, for all his accomplishments, shows no trace of arrogance in what we now know; showing, that with greater understanding comes greater humility. For there is still lots we cannot explain. It’s not just arcane quantum or cosmological phenomena. We have the DNA code, but we don’t know how proteins ‘do what they do’ from messages in the code. As he writes, its like constructing the lives of people by looking at a telephone book. We don't understand how water molecules work in the cell.  Even the the everyday, plain and mundane confounds us. We don't understand cracks - how a crack actually ends. We don't understand bubble formation. We don’t understand colliding water jets.

Maybe someday we will get to a more complete explanation, or it may elude us, but the strange beauty of the water jets and the rest will continue to enchant us forever.
What really got me was the piece titled 'Duality': 
We're burdened by a curious conditioning that blinds us to one of the greatest - perhaps the greatest - of art forms. We live for poetry; we live in terror of equations.

We see a poem, and we try it on for size: we read a line or two; we roll it around in our mind; we see how it fits and tastes and sounds. We may not like it, and let it drop, but we enjoy the encounter and look forward to the next. We see an equation, and it is as if we’d glimpsed a tarantula in the baby's crib. We panic.
An equation can be thing of such beauty and subtlety that only a poem can equal it....
It's an idea worth trying on for size. Poetry describes humanity with a human voice; equations describe a  reality beyond the reach of words. 
He quotes De Broglie’s equation:
 λ = h / mv
In a compact and precise way it says, “A moving object is a wave”. That is poetry of the highest order, he says, and I agree. Even haikus seem long in comparison.

There no end to technological reductionism, but Whitesides urges us to write that love letter from Indiana in long hand. Science will only scratch that itch. It’s up to us to use our judgement as well. As we delve deeper there is more need of caution. As he admits, even in the case of equations, not all equations are alike and ann do not lead us to delight in their beauty, “Some are porcupines, some are plumber's helpers, and some are tarantulas.”

At the end of the book, scientist and non-scientist will have gained some understanding of science works. That is secondary. What is more important in my opinion, is that it shows how fascinating all this really is, and how we go about finding and exploring things that we cannot see, or hold, or smell. I call this the ‘Alice approach’ - create wonder. Draw attention to that itch, and the scratching will take care of itself. Drawing people into the beauty that nature is.

My issue with the polemics and arguments offered by science apologists is that they are written to appeal to the already convinced choir, who silently smile and cannot but nod in approval, but they do little to draw the ‘others’ in, and often achieve the opposite effect of turning them away. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins was wonderfully written, but I cannot think it actually convinced anyone (barring a few fence-sitters) to actually change what they already believed in. It was divisive and that does not help. This is not the ‘Alice approach’.

Jonathan Haidt’s recent book, Why Politics and Religion Divide Good People, talks about ways to end the partisan politics of the Right vs. the Left, but this can be also applied elsewhere. In a twist of the Western adage - 'shoot first, questions later', his work as a moral psychologist has shown that ‘we are emotional first, and rational later' and when reason is brought into play it’s in support of the initial emotion. We make up reasoning post-hoc to bolster what ever was our initial emotional response. Reasoning and reflection can cause us to change our opinions but it is rare (We are less in this mode than we would like to believe). The approach to begin to gain any traction in an opponent’s mind is to use methods that ‘talk to their intuitions, and not to their reason’. Keep the reasons for later.

There is a similar problem in Science v. Faith/Religion debates. It’s not that the reasoning of the science boosters is not sound, but that the tone is wrong and reason alone is inadequate. You need to appeal to the intuitions that believers have. Richard Dawkins in his recent book, The Magic of Reality written for children and ‘curious’ adults, has tried really hard to create that ‘Alice approach’. It contains beautiful expositions of scientific experiments and phenomena with a preamble of folkloric and mythical explanations. It works, but only somewhat as they serve as ‘foil’ and straw-men to be knocked down later. What then remains of wonder when it really an argument, a quarrel in another guise? 

In a less intrusive way and with greater effectiveness, Whitesides/Frankel give us a tour of this Wonderland of the nanoscale and quantum phenomena that any one of any stripe cannot fail to be moved.

Alice would’ve  heartily approved.

Post on Mortality up

What could have been a result of fat fingers, a DVORAK-QWERTY key confusion: ironically, the post on Mortality died and had to be revived.

The post has risen Phoenix-like, a week past due.
On the lit blog:
Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

Lit blog revival

Another attempt at reviving the lit blog that has been dormant for a long time. Reviewing Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis.

November is "No-Credit Card" month

I have a long-standing argument with J. about using credit cards or cash for local merchants. She pointed out to me that Espresso Royale has signs asking customers to pay in cash for small orders as they paid thousand of dollars in credit cards fees last year. Many places in Ann Arbor still don't accept American Express because of their higher fees compared to VISA or Mastercard.  The opposing view is that when businesses accept credit cards people tend to spend more, so what they may lose in fees, they gain in sales volume. So, my argument with J. has been that it's also necessary to know how much Espresso Royale's sales went up after they switched to credit cards. And who carries a fat wallet of cash anymore?

My reason for using credit cards has been less lofty - it's easier to keep accounts of what went where. The opposite reason of why you use cash not to have a 'paper trail'. The other advantage of using credit cards is that you are not spending your money, but rather the bank's money and in case of fraud or wrong charges, you are safe as long as you complain within 30 days. I have used this to get wrong charges taken off (somehow the fraudsters are always magazine subscriptions departments).


On the flip side, it has been shown that people who use credit cards tend to spend more being more indifferent to pricing. Different areas of the brain light up when you have to dish out cash, as opposed to paying for it in the future using a credit card. The mind also automatically discounts costs that are far away in the future as opposed to immediate enjoyments. I happen to be in the 'dead beat' category - people who pay their credit cards on time, who don't overspend  and are almost never late. Though even the most on top-of-the-game person, as the credit card industry has shown, will also miss on a few payments, or be late and tends to be charged about $30-45 dollars (my recollection of an NPR story) a year in fees/fines.

Then there are my German friends who refuse to use credit cards in general,because they did not want the government to know how they were spending their money.  Big Brother is surely watching and the credit card companies certainly track every single expense. In fact, AMEX makes no real bones of the fact - they provide you summaries of what you spent in the whole year and MINT (not a credit card company, but an aggregator of the information) offers comparisons to what amounts others spent. They don't wholly make clear, or obfuscate how this data is shared and/or sold to interested parties. (Note to self: turn up privacy settings to maximum for credit cards and Mint). 



So, November has been decided as  "Credit-Card Free Month" to empirically find answers to the following:

  • Is it possible to actually live in today's world without a credit card?
  • Does it make it easier to save? by way of making us more conscious of spending ?
  • ... or just by spending less to begin with.

Based on my analysis of past purchases on the credit card the things that I will have to give up for  the next month will be:


  • Amazon purchases
  • Groupon or Living Social purchases
  • Online purchases of any sort - REI, Adorama, etc.

Having to not use a credit card means that we will be forced to shop locally and we will have to use the long-lost art of writing checks at the grocery store.

On Vocabulary - Jason Schneiderman

Today's poem on Poets.org is a a wonderful meditation on words lost, found and discovered

I used to love words,
but not looking them up.

Now I love both,
the knowing,

and the looking up,
the absurdity ....

Discovery is always tinged
with sorrow, the knowledge

that you have been living
without something,

so we try to make learning
the province of the young,

who have less time to regret
having lived in ignorance.


Link to full poem

A great observation that we often make learning chiefly the "province of the young". Why? Perhaps we hate admitting ignorance.

I disagree (as he says "This may surprise you") with his conclusion of notliking the author who ended his book on a obscure word. Picking up dictionaries is good.

It's never to late...

It's never too late to be who you might have been.
George Eliot

The Mother of all Puzzles

From a reader submitted puzzler on Car Talk (Aug. 23, 2008) which I first read about in William Poundstone's book "Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google". Hilarious reactions by readers on Peter Norvig's post on G+!

So, either you can laugh about it, or start solving this mother of all puzzles!!
A hundred prisoners are each locked in a room with three pirates, one of whom will walk the plank in the morning. Each prisoner has 10 bottles of wine, one of which has been poisoned; and each pirate has 12 coins, one of which is counterfeit and weighs either more or less than a genuine coin. In the room is a single switch, which the prisoner may either leave as it is, or flip. Before being led into the rooms, the prisoners are all made to wear either a red hat or a blue hat; they can see all the other prisoners' hats, but not their own. Meanwhile, a six-digit prime number of monkeys multiply until their digits reverse, then all have to get across a river using a canoe that can hold at most two monkeys at a time. But half the monkeys always lie and the other half always tell the truth. Given that the Nth prisoner knows that one of the monkeys doesn't know that a pirate doesn't know the product of two numbers between 1 and 100 without knowing that the N+1th prisoner has flipped the switch in his room or not after having determined which bottle of wine was poisoned and what colour his hat is, what is the solution to this puzzle?

Update:
 On second thought this should be called "The deranged offspring of all puzzles" instead of the title above. 

Andre Kertesz - On Reading

Robert Gurbo in the introduction to Andre Kertesz's book On Reading writes that the famous series is reissued at a time when digital media, ebooks and computers are threatening to eliminate the reader of the printed word.  The timeless image of a person head-down poring over a book is now being replaced with people transfixed in similar ways to their cell phones, laptops, e-readers.

The New York Times ran a photo spread on the impossibility of capturing street images of people without anyone head down checking their devices (Misha Erwitt's: Cellphone pre-occupation). The series of pictures shows people in states of preoccupation talking, texting, checking email. (My favorite is the the woman talking next to the Giacommeti statue). In comparison, as Gurbo notes in the preface, "... Kertesz's timeless images of people transported to another world by the intimate process of opening a book or newspaper ... "

Is there an essential difference? Is there a difference between a person texting on a bench versus a person reading a book? Is it more of a disconnection from reality and your surroundings to be staring into a computer screen into the vastness of the internet versus fingers curled around a folded newspaper?

I went back and forth between the collections and I tried to reach a conclusion - is one better than the other? or is is just a symptom of conditioning?

Sounds like a beaten down trope - "digital bad, analog good"


To me, there is an appropriate choice of words for  Erwitt's series versus Kertesz's.

Preoccupied vs. absorbed
Distracted vs. transported
Disconnected vs. immersed

It's hard for me to believe that anyone can actually read anything on the internet with it's easy-to-navigate HTML links. Add to that the numerous distractions of messages, tweets, and emails. You don't really travel anywhere on the internet, you simply bounce around.

This is one my favorite images from Andre Kertesz's collection of photographs - On Reading.  A boy eating an ice-cream reading the comics section from a scattered bunch of newspapers. Andre Kertesz captures the essence of reading: the solitary, self-absorbed pleasure that transports you to a different place. The only thing that would mar that image would the silhouette of a person talking on the cellphone. Of course, the boy would not notice.

Acceptance

A student once asked his Zen master,  "Why did you not ever marry?"

The Zen master replied, "Well, I was looking for the perfect woman".

The student eagerly asked, " Did you not find the perfect woman?"

"Oh, I did", replied the Zen master with a smile.

"Then...what happened.. why did you not marry her?"

The Zen master paused and with a twinkle in his eye said, "Well, she was looking for the perfect man."

(paraphrased from  John Gottman)

Ralph Williams on Shakespeare

Ralph Williams who lectured on Shakespeare is one of the best-loved professors at Michigan. He has now retired but thankfully is still around in an emeritus capacity. Link to this short series of meditations on Shakespeare, passages and language.
LSA video: Part I