Monthly Reading

February 2018

Books Bought:

  • The Emerging Mind: The Reith Lectures – Vilayanur Ramachandran
  • Get in Trouble: Stories – Kelly Link
  • A History of Japan – H.R.P. Mason & J.G. Cainer
  • Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore – Lance Parkin

Books Read:

  • Later Essays – Susan Sontag (unfinished)
  • Head Strong – Dave Asprey (unfinished)
  • On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century – Timothy Snyder
  • Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil DeGrasse Tyson
  • American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For – David McCullough
  • Origin – Dan Brown

“Working 9 to 5, what a way to make a livin’ barely gettin’ by.” But, I’m usually at work at 8, which means leaving the house by 7. Hopefully I get home by 6 in the evening. Then rehearsals typically start at 7, though when the show started tech week on the 19th last month we were expected at 6:30. That means for the first couple of weeks of February, I didn’t get much reading time.

Tried to make up for it though! Went through a lot of essays this month, purely by accident. Had picked up the Sontag in January purely by happenstance. Have only read three essays in the book, the first three from Under the Sign of Saturn, originally published in 1980 and collected in Later Essays. The three are “On Paul Goodman”, “Approaching Artaud”, & “Fascinating Fascism”.

A week or so ago, I wrote in my journal: “…her seeming mastery of language and the written word is staggering. As I read (or try to read) her essays, the sheer polysyllabic content is overwhelming. I’ve never seen [contemporary] writing (that I can recall) of such eloquence and yet so confusing.”

I say this with respect and admiration, for as many times as I may have to reread a sentence, I know I’m getting something from it. I’m thinking. I need to read her with a notebook nearby, because ideas flow from her writings and I can’t help but grab them and get them onto paper.

Interestingly enough I purchased a secondhand copy of Antonin Artaud’s The Theater and its Double (still unread) several years ago, and while reading Sontag’s critique of Artaud I think I’ve decided to leave it unread, at least for the time being.

So as I delve into Sontag, I seem to be neglecting the prose that I’ve been accumulating (Resurrection BluesTo Kill a MockingbirdA Darker Shade of Magic). The only fiction I managed to consume this month was Dan Brown’s Origin, a novel of the ever-vigilant symbologist Robert Langdon. (Cue Willem Dafoe’s, “Symbolism, symbolism…”)

The book had its triteness, certainly. But parts of it kept me guessing, and I love the research that goes into Brown’s novels. Also, a part of the story takes place in Budapest, which I visited last year for the first time, so it was enjoyable to hear about things that I recall seeing. (Just watched Red Sparrow as well, and it too had scenes in Budapest. I did very much like my time in Hungary.)

The technological futurism and physics-based universal beginnings had a through-line in my reading to Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics. This man is highly informative, fun, and I greatly enjoyed reading this book. My favorite part was in his describing of English astronomer William Herschel, who in 1781 discovered the planet Uranus. Herschel wanted to measure the temperature of light, and using a prism split a sunbeam into its component parts – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet. (Tyson: “Yes, the colors do indeed spell Roy G. Biv.”)

Placing a thermometer in each strand of colored light, and one for control just adjacent to the red, which he assumed would be room temperature, he took his readings. Yet, the “control” thermometer ended up rising higher than the red light. Again, Tyson:

“Herschel wrote:

‘[I] conclude, that the full red falls still short of the maximum of heat; which perhaps lies even a little beyond visible refraction. In this case, radiant heat will at least partly, if not chiefly, consist, is I may be permitted the expression, of invisible light; that is to say, of rays coming from the sun, that have such a momentum as to be unfit for vision.’

Holy s#%t!”

I had the pleasure of the audio book the first time through, so hearing Tyson saying, “Holy shit!” was worth the listen alone. But even prior to that, knowing that in the 18th Century this astronomer discovered basically the farthest planet from us in our solar system was attention-grabbing. Tyson loves this material, and it comes through in how he writes it, and how he speaks about it. And it makes the reader just a little more interested in the science, I believe.

Two more books of essays, On Tyranny and American Spirit had to do with what it means to be American, ranging from the beginning of our Nation to today. Enthralling, overall. From McCullough I learned about the founding fathers. About the feud between Jefferson and Adams and how they reconciled (I believe aided by Benjamin Rush), and that they both died on July 4th, 1826. Adams’s last words were, “Jefferson still survives,” yet Jefferson had just five hours preceding Adams.

Some of McCullough’s speeches, collected in American Voices, reverberate with hope, and love for the history of this Country. He shows great admiration for our founding fathers, and in reading his works I’ve found a renewed interest in the early American experiment (also owing to the successful Broadway hit Hamilton.) McCullough writes of history as Tyson writes of physics: with unbridled affection.

For all the optimism that Voices espouses, On Tyranny presents a more pragmatic and cautionary view of the state of our Nation. Snyder writes in his prologue:

“History does not repeat, but it does instruct. As the Founding Fathers debated our Constitution, they took instruction from the history they knew. Concerned that the democratic republic they envisioned would collapse, they contemplated the descent of ancient democracies and republics into oligarchies and empire… In founding a democratic republic upon law and establishing a system of checks and balances, the Founding Fathers sought to avoid the evil that they, like the ancient philosophers, called tyranny.”

What follows are twenty warnings, nineteen of which are accompanied by short essay, cautioning the reader that much of the divisiveness of the past two years looks frighteningly similar to the rise of fascism in Europe during the thirties and forties. The author, Levin Professor of History at Yale University Timothy Snyder, makes convincing arguments, and uses case study and rhetoric to show the potential danger. Yet he advises that the citizenry can make a difference, not to rely on populist sentiment, and be careful  as to avoid complacency.

Some might argue that On Tyranny is a thinly veiled criticism of President Trump and the way in which he ascended to the presidency. My response would be, we need more criticism, lest democracy itself die.

In my *cough* *cough* free time, I listen to a lot of podcasts. Some of my favorites are Marketplace, Echoes, On Being, and Bulletproof Radio. Occasionally I will drink my morning coffee bulletproof, meaning with butter and MCT oil (or coconut oil). Having been diagnosed with RA back in 2012, I recently decided that I wanted to see how far I could hack my system.

I’ve barely gotten into chapter one on Head Strong, so no progress to report yet.

The Alan Moore bio and Kelly Link book were remanded purchases. Any time I walk by those bins, I find myself fishing for at least ten minutes through the titles that they have available. A History of Japan was a purchase prompted by my brother asking me a simple question about imperial history, and I couldn’t recall. For years I was hypnotized by Japanese culture and history. I picked it up for reference, and have been begun Japanese language lessons to refresh my dismal vocabulary.

Emerging Mind is part of a larger collection of books on thought I’m acquiring, for something I intend to write later this year. One part philosophy, one part science. For the rest of March, I think I’m focusing on Sontag.

Until next time…