|burn||Burn any copy you find of this book, it is horrific.|
|mock||This book is awful. Don't read this book and mock anyone you see reading this book.|
|don't||Don't read this book.|
|desert||If you're on a desert island and are bored out of your mind, this book is okay to read.|
|fan||If you're a fan of this author / genre, this book is worth reading.|
|worth||This book is interesting, fun, entertaining, and thus worth reading. I would hand this book to a friend who asked for a _____ type book.|
|strongly||I strongly recommend this book|
|amazing||OMG, this book is amazing and/or life-changing, let me buy you a copy.|
I had this book in my hold queue for a long time before I released it and it dropped into my read queue. I'm fairly certain it was on a Book Riot young adult book, but it has zombies in it, so, yeah, I read it.
This was a very fun read. The premise is that a zombie epidemic starts sometime during the Battle of Gettysburg, which lasted three days in our timeline, a different amount in the America of Dread Nation. The Civil War ended as the living now united against the dead. Except the attitudes and idiocy of the times didn't change, the slave owners still believed the slaves weren't people, still believed they were somehow entitled to subjugate another person, still believed in their own collective superiority. In this world, the ex-slaves and Native Americans were forced into combat schools, where they were trained to kill the dead.
Of course. Because once you have entitlement, you can't not have that entitlement until said entitle-ees are dead (typically of old age, tbh).
This was a fun read. Ireland portrays the prejudices well, gives us a heroine we can root for (root for, verb, informal, support or hope for the success of (a person or group entering a contest or undertaking a challenge): the whole of this club is rooting for him), and creates action and mystery at the same time. The letters to and from the heroine and her mother are heartbreaking in a way, but further the plot in a good way.
If you're into zombie fiction, this is a good book to pick up. If you're not into zombie fiction, you might still enjoy the heroine's sass, the book is worth reading.
“What happened then?” I asked, because there’s nothing better than the memories of others when you’re little and have no stories of your own.
I’ve heard enough political speeches to know that letting rich white city folk think that we’ve made even a small part of America safe again is a better stump speech than telling them that we’re still in trouble five years after the Army stopped fighting the dead.
Momma used to tell me, “Deny it until they’ve got you dead to rights, sugar. If they can’t prove it, it never happened.” It’s good advice, and it’s served me well.
But that’s the way life goes most of the time: the thing you least count on comes along and ruins everything else you got planned.
The boy had always been a bully, and the thing about bullies is they never learn how to run like the rest of us do.
In my head the ideas are so clear and make perfect sense, but when the words come out they’re a mess.
I shrug. “Sometimes you have to live down to people’s expectations, Kate. If you can do that, you’ll get much further in life.
That last bit is a lie, but the easiest lie to tell is the one people want to believe.
But when you think of shamblers as things, as mindless creatures who have to be put down so that we might live, ending them gets to be a lot easier. The farmer doesn’t cry over slaughtering a hog.
“Jane, your point is well taken, but heroism means little when it rests on lawlessness."
Yeah, what? No.
Miss Preston was convinced that the best way to correct minor misconduct was a little drudgery, and housework was the pinnacle of drudge.
This amused me.
Still, the thought of them together is enough to make me more than a little stabby. Jealousy is a terrible thing, and I swallow the emotion down hard as I can.
That’s the way it is when you fancy someone. Your heart starts doing the thinking, and your brain? Well, it gets left out of the equation until too late.
There was a big scary world beyond the boundaries of Rose Hill. I was bold, but not so foolhardy as to think there was something worthwhile on the other side of the barrier fence that kept the dead out.
And if folks could overlook the rumors of a white woman birthing a Negro, well, they could forgive just about anything, couldn’t they?
In Rachel’s mind, every ill that befell her was the work of someone else.
One of the other aunties, Auntie Eliza, once told me it was because Rachel was the major’s favorite before he went to war, and she liked the easy life he gave her. Rachel had adjusted to being owned, to being property, and she didn’t like the new situation, where she wasn’t nothing but a house servant with wages, a servant that had to work just as hard as everyone else.
“Surviving can make people right mean,” Auntie Aggie told me.
It’s a question I’ve refused to ask myself. I don’t want to think about what it would do to my world if Momma is dead.
I get an uncomfortable feeling like I’m sliding backward down a slope into a deep hole that I dug my own self.
"... That’s how men like the mayor maintained control. You believe strongly enough in an idea, nothing else much matters.”
I reckon we all have our childhood scars, whether we wear them on the outside or not.
“Look at you, with those pretty manners. Wherever did they find you?”
“At the junction of hard luck and bad times,” I answer. It’s something that my momma says.
But that means backing down from Cora, and I’ve seen her kind. She’ll do everything the people in charge tell her to, even if that means she ends up broken and bloody. She’s one of those people that never learned to breathe, never understood the true meaning of freedom. She’s a dog, happy even with a cruel master. She eats her three squares and takes her bit of pocket change and happily wears the collar around her throat, because that’s enough for her. But it ain’t for me.
"... I ain’t never going down there again if I can help it. But if you want answers, that’s where they are.”
A bark of laughter escapes from her. “Here you are flayed within an inch of your life and you’re asking after me.”
I sigh. “Sometimes it’s easier to think about other folks’ small hurts than your big ones.”
“You shouldn’t jump to conclusions about people, Mr. Gideon. I contain multitudes.”
I laughed at this one, well, because.
But I can’t change the past; I can only push headlong into an uncertain future. “Kate,”
Momma used to say there were lots of ways to survive. Don’t be afraid to pretend to be something you aren’t, Jane. Sometimes a little subterfuge and chicanery is in order and the quickest way to achieve one’s goal. It ain’t hard to imagine Ida pretending to be just another dumb colored girl in order to make it out here. Survival by any means necessary.
I’ve learned a lot in the past few years. Including that a group of panicked people ain’t that different from a herd of sheep. Nip at their heels a little and they’ll go wherever you tell them to.
Here’s a thing about me: I regret most of my actions five minutes after the fact. I’m rash in my decisions and I spend half my time trying to extricate myself from situations of my own making.
Alan’s jaw tightens and he looks straight ahead. “It was mostly the colored folks that fought the shamblers. No surprise there. Government pays to send them to those fancy schools while real men like me are left to fend for ourselves.”
So, in this story, Alan is a white guy. He believe that forced slavery of black people into killing zombies, which included forcing them into a re-education system which enabled them to be effective at killing zombies, was "fancy schools."
The unfortunate thing about this particular quote and thinking is that it is just_so_true. It's like Louis complaining he has to pay taxes, but he drives on the roads those taxes paid for. His kids go to the schools those taxes paid for. His devices use the GPS information that those taxes paid for. But, no, he complains and complains and complains and says everyone else has it better.
“It matters not, my dear. It is God’s wrath for our sins.” The sheriff lights his cigarette and looks out at the horizon. “The dead never walked until brother fought brother. Until we penitent folk betrayed one another.”
I wouldn't be surprised if this happened, too, in a zombie outbreak. It's about power and control in a fear-laden world.
I didn’t like the big girl, I ain’t never been a fan of snitches, but turning shambler is not a fate I’d wish on anyone, not even the girl who got me whipped.
Well, except for the guy she was planning on killing. Not the point.
“See, the problem in this world ain’t sinners, or even the dead. It is men who will step on anyone who stands in the way of their pursuit of power."
This is the next book in the Caltech book club. I, admittedly, skipped over the biological sciences when I was at Caltech, and that skipping is one of my regrets about my time at Caltech: I came in with these just plain wrong notions about science. Those ideas adversely affected my education, but, fortunately, not my love for science in all its (correctly science) forms.
I read this book, finishing before the first week's discussion, mostly because I keep checking these books out from the library, with due dates much sooner than the slower 1-2 chapters a week pace the book club has. Which is fine, I read the book club books quickly. That I subsequently don't participate in the book club discussions is less fine, I guess.
This book was a meandering survey of various studies, current research, and microbe history. I say meandering because the book lacked a compelling narrative arc. I was expecting maybe a history arc, or a current research arc, or even the author's journey arc. Instead, the end of each chapter lead into the beginning of the next chapter, with each chapter a swirl of interesting information and sometimes a self-contained narrative. Mostly though, each chapter was a fascinating, meandering discussion of a new topic about microbes.
And by fascinating, I mean fascinating. My incoming supposition was, given how much influence chemicals have over our mental state and body composition, the idea that microbes could and do produce chemicals to induce a state in their host doesn't seem so farfetched. After reading the book, learning about how much we know about microbes, and seeing how much we don't know about microbes, my supposition is more like a fixed assumption in my world. One of those "but, of course" obvious things only after the fact.
I enjoyed reading the book. This book is very much worth reading.
Now we’ve seen that they can sway the brain too – the organ that, more than any other, makes us who we are. It is a disquieting thought. We put such a premium on our free will that the prospect of losing independence to unseen forces informs many of our deepest societal fears.
Wolbachia can only pass to the next generation of hosts in eggs; sperm are too small to contain it. Females are its ticket to the future; males are an evolutionary dead end. So it has evolved many ways of screwing over male hosts to expand its pool of female ones. It kills them, as in Hurst’s butterflies. It feminises them, as in Rigaud’s woodlice. It eliminates the need for them entirely by allowing females to reproduce asexually, as in Stouthamer’s wasps. None of these manipulations is unique to Wolbachia, but it is the only bacterium to use them all.
Huh. So, gay woodlice.
Here is a strange but critical sentiment to introduce in a book about the benefits of living with microbes: there is no such thing as a “good microbe” or a “bad microbe”. These terms belong in children’s stories. They are ill- suited for describing the messy, fractious, contextual relationships of the natural world.
A cut or a bruise can split some of your cells apart and spill fragments of mitochondria into your blood – fragments that still keep some of their ancient bacterial character. When your immune system spots them, it mistakenly assumes that an infection is under way and mounts a strong defence. If the injury is severe, and enough mitochondria are released, the resulting body-wide inflammation can build into a lethal condition called systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS). SIRS can be worse than the original injury.
Some of these molecules get saddled with negative names, like “virulence factors”, because they were first discovered in the context of disease, but they are inherently neutral. They are just tools, like computers, pens, and knives: they can be used to do wonderful things and terrible things.
Couples might work well together, but if one partner can get the same benefits without spending as much energy or effort, it will do so unless punished or policed.
Well, this one hit home pretty hard.
These principles are easy to forget. We like our black-and-white narratives, with clear heroes and villains.
We do. Some of us more than others.
A well-functioning partnership could easily be seen as a case of reciprocal exploitation. “Both partners may benefit but there’s this inherent tension. Symbiosis is conflict – conflict that can never be totally resolved.”
To allow our first microbes to colonise our newborn bodies, a special class of immune cells suppresses the rest of the body’s defensive ensemble, which is why babies are vulnerable to infections for their first six months of life. It’s not because their immune system is immature, as is commonly believed: it’s because it is deliberately stifled to give microbes a free-for-all window during which they can establish themselves. But without the immune system’s full selective powers, how can a mammalian baby ensure that it gets the right communities?
I find this fascinating.
As humans make our presence felt, we disturb the ancient relationships between corals and their microbes, converting the vivid splendour of fish-filled reefs into bleak algal barrens submerged in a pathogenic soup.
And I find this depressing.
... a Grand Unified Theory of Coral Death. It shows how the largest sharks are connected to the smallest viruses.
The most obvious difference lay in the ratio of the two major groups of gut bacteria: obese people had more Firmicutes and fewer Bacteroidetes than their leaner counterparts.
An important lesson emerged: microbes matter but so do we, their hosts. Our guts, like all ecosystems, aren’t defined just by the species within them but also by the nutrients that flow through them.
Herbert “Skip” Virgin published a case study that beautifully supports this idea. He worked with mice that had a genetic mutation common in people with Crohn’s disease. Those rodents developed inflamed guts, but only if they were infected by a virus that knocked out part of their immune system, and were exposed to an inflammatory toxin, and had a normal set of gut bacteria. If any of these triggers was missing, the mice stayed healthy.
Dogs carry microbes from the outdoors to the indoors, offering us a bigger library of species with which to populate our developing microbiomes. When Lynch fed these dog-associated dust microbes to mice, she found that the rodents became less sensitive to various allergens.
Nonetheless, Burkitt was on the right track. “America is a constipated nation,” he said, indelicately. “If you pass small stools, you have big hospitals.”
Scientists will talk about Occam’s razor – the principle that favours simple, elegant explanations over convoluted ones. I think the truth is that scientists, like everyone else, find simple explanations psychologically soothing.
Still, they provide more questions than answers. Did the microbes set symptoms in motion or just make a bad situation worse? Was one species responsible, or a group of them? Is it the presence of certain microbes that matters, or the absence of others, or both?
But if you looked at these communities in isolation you might conclude that their owners were on the verge of chronic disease, when they were merely on the verge of motherhood.
Ecosystems are complex, varied, ever-changing and context-dependent – qualities that are the enemies of easy categorisation.
Hello, systems thinking!
So, mammalian success was founded on vegetarianism, and that vegetarianism was founded on microbes. Time and again, different groups of mammals swallowed plant-breaking microbes from their environments, and used their enzymes to mount assaults on leaves, shoots, stems, and twigs.
The macrotermites there build enormous mounds. Some can tower for up to 9 metres, scraping the skies with Gothic ensembles of spires and buttresses. The oldest one on record – now abandoned – is 2,200 years old.
I want to see one of these mounds now.
Bacteria offer an alternative. They are masters of biochemistry, and can degrade everything from heavy metals to crude oil.
Beetle outbreaks come and go but the current one, fuelled by a warming climate, is ten times bigger than any other. Since 1999, the beetles and their attendant fungi have killed more than half the mature pines in British Columbia and affect 3.8 million acres in the United States. They have even hopped over the cold Canadian Rockies, which long fenced them into the west coast, and are now spreading east. A continuous belt of lush vulnerable forests lies in front of them.
You can see this on any drive in any West Coast state.
Hornets, hawks, and humans might gradually accumulate beneficial mutations, but that individual hornet, or this specific hawk, or those particular humans can’t pick up beneficial genes for themselves. Except sometimes, they can. They could swap their symbionts, instantly acquiring a new package of microbial genes. They can bring new bacteria into contact with those in their bodies, so that foreign genes migrate into their microbiome, imbuing their native microbes with new abilities.
The genes they left behind, these ghosts of symbionts past, aren’t sitting idly among the mealybug’s DNA. Some make amino acids.
Whatever the case, it is clear that an insect, a bacterium, and a virus have formed an evolutionary alliance against a parasitic wasp that threatens them all.
Which is really, really cool.
This point is worth repeating: taking any fast or instant evolutionary shifts as a refutation of the slow, gradual changes we associate with Darwin’s vision is a fatal mistake because these quick shifts are still powered by gradualism.
That is the power of symbiosis: it allows gradual mutations in microbes to produce instant mutations in hosts. We can let bacteria do the slow work for us, and then quickly change ourselves by associating with them. And if these alliances are beneficial enough, they can spread with blinding speed.
When the parasite arrived, it spread like wildfire, riding through the forests in the bodies of its sterilised hosts. The flies needed a countermeasure and Spiroplasma rose to the occasion. It restored its hosts’ ability to reproduce, and allowed them to outcompete their sterile peers. Since the flies could pass these little saviours to their offspring, the proportion of infected insects grew with each generation. And Jaenike had caught this spread at exactly the right moment. “It made me doubt my sanity,” he says. “What are the chances?”
Say goodbye to dated and dangerous war metaphors, in which we are soldiers hell-bent on eradicating germs at whatever cost. Say hello to a gentler and more nuanced gardening metaphor. Yes, we still have to pull out the weeds, but we also seed and feed the species that bind the soil, freshen the air, and please the eye. This concept can be hard to grasp, and not just because the idea of beneficial microbes is new to many.
To control a microbiome is to sculpt an entire world – which is as hard as it sounds. Remember that communities have a natural resilience: if you hit them, they bounce back. They are also unpredictable; if you tweak them, the consequences ripple outwards in capricious ways. Add a supposedly beneficial microbe, and it might displace competitors that we also rely on. Lose a supposedly harmful microbe, and an even worse opportunist might rise to take its place.
These emerging infectious diseases of wildlife are emerging ever more quickly, and humans are at least partly to blame. On planes, boats, and boots, we carry pathogens around the world with unprecedented speed, overwhelming new hosts before they can acclimatise and adapt.
Yet despite the excessive hype, the concept behind probiotics is still sound. Given all the important roles that bacteria play in our bodies, it should be possible to improve our health by swallowing or applying the right microbes. It’s just that the strains in current use may not be the right ones. They make up just a tiny fraction of the microbes that live with us, and their abilities represent a thin slice of what the microbiome is fully capable of. We met more suitable microbes in earlier chapters. There’s the mucus-loving bacterium, Akkermansia muciniphila, whose presence correlates with a lower risk of obesity and malnutrition. There’s Bacteroides fragilis, which stokes the anti-inflammatory side of the immune system. There’s Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, another anti-inflammatory bug, which is conspicuously rare in the guts of people with IBD, and whose arrival can reverse the symptoms of that disease in mice.
We have already seen that what we eat can substantially change the microbes in our gut, and prebiotics like inulin are in plentiful supply in onions, garlic, artichokes, chicory, bananas and other foods.
Jim Collins is more circumspect. Given how much we still don’t understand about the microbiome, he is unsettled by the prospect of engineering microbes that can permanently establish themselves in our bodies. That’s why he is also focusing on building kill-switches that will force the microbes to self-destruct if something goes wrong, or if they leave their hosts.
Or that so many scientists would study it that they would organise a bi-annual, Wolbachia-devoted conference to share their results?
Of course they would! Humans love their communities, we are social creatures.
I contain multitudes, yes, but only some of them; the rest, I extend into the world like a living aura.
We all have our cloud of microbes! I love this!
Within 24 hours of moving into a new place we overwrite it with our own microbes, turning it into a reflection of ourselves.
We also change the microbes of our housemates. Gilbert’s team found that room-mates share more microbes than people who live apart, and couples are even more microbially similar.
In both settings, sterility is a curse not a goal, and a diverse ecosystem is better than an impoverished one.
In the developing world, around 5 to 10 per cent of people who check into hospitals and other healthcare institutions pick up some kind of infection during their stay, falling ill in the very places that are meant to make them healthier. In the United States alone, this means around 1.7 million infections and 90,000 deaths a year.
By removing harmless bacteria that would otherwise impede the growth of pathogens, perhaps we have inadvertently constructed a more dangerous ecosystem.
Gibbons showed this by studying public toilets. He found that thoroughly scrubbed toilets are first colonised by faecal microbes, which are launched into the air by roiling, flushed water. Those species are eventually outcompeted by a diverse range of skin microbes, but once the toilet gets scrubbed again, the communities go back to square one. So, here’s the irony: toilets that are cleaned too often are more likely to be covered in faecal bacteria.
Jessica Green, an Oregon-based engineer-turned-ecologist, found a similar pattern among the microbes that float inside air-conditioned hospital rooms.7 “I assumed that the microbial community of the indoor air would be a subset of that of outdoor air,” she says. “It really surprised me that we saw little to no overlap between the two.” Outdoors, the air was full of harmless microbes from plants and soils. Indoors, it contained a disproportionate number of potential pathogens, which are normally rare or absent in the outside world, but had been launched from the mouths and skins of hospital residents. The patients were effectively stewing in their own microbial juices. And the best way of fixing that was remarkably simple: open a window.
And I see, in the driver’s seat, a guy who notices those rivers of microscopic life and is enthralled rather than repelled by them. He knows that microbes are mostly not to be feared or destroyed, but to be cherished, admired, and studied.
We see how ubiquitous and vital microbes are. We see how they sculpt our organs, protect us from poisons and disease, break down our food, uphold our health, calibrate our immune system, guide our behaviour, and bombard our genomes with their genes.
A bacterium in your gut might be able to transfer its genes into one of your intestinal cells, but once that cell dies, the bacterial DNA goes with it. The gene might become part of a human genome, but never the human genome.
In 2013, Dunning-Hotopp showed that these short-lived unions are surprisingly common (Riley et al., 2013). She analysed hundreds of human genomes that had been sequenced from body cells – the ones from kidneys or skin or livers, none of which get passed on to offspring. She found traces of bacterial DNA in around a third of them. They were especially common in cancer cells; an intriguing result with unclear implications. It might be that tumours are especially prone to genetic intrusions, or that bacterial genes help to transform healthy cells into cancerous ones.
Written by the same author as The Lady and the Monk, this book was the subject of a "weekend reading" post. Given its author, I chose to download the book from the library (my being fortunate that it was available), and read it.
Iyer writes about "going Nowhere," about just being, and about stillness. The book has a companion TED-something video.
After The Lady and the Monk, I'm a fan of Iyer's style of writing, his voice in the writing, so I willingly read the book. I'm glad I did. The timing of it into my life was perfect - just as I needed to settle, to be still, this book and Iyer's words were with me.
I strongly recommend this book.
“What else would I be doing?” he asked. “Would I be starting a new marriage with a young woman and raising another family? Finding new drugs, buying more expensive wine? I don’t know. This seems to me the most luxurious and sumptuous response to the emptiness of my own existence.”
One could start just by taking a few minutes out of every day to sit quietly and do nothing, letting what moves one rise to the surface.
One could even, as Cohen was doing, try to find a life in which stage sets and performances disappear and one is reminded, at a level deeper than all words, how making a living and making a life sometimes point in opposite directions.
For all the daily excitement, however, something inside me felt that I was racing around so much that I never had a chance to see where I was going, or to check whether I was truly happy.
Going nowhere, as Leonard Cohen would later emphasize for me, isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.
As America’s wisest psychologist, William James, reminded us, “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”
Movement makes richest sense when set within a frame of stillness.
Heaven is the place where you think of nowhere else.
No one I’d met could better explain, for example, how getting caught up in the world and expecting to find happiness there made about as much sense as reaching into a fire and hoping not to get burned.
Clouds and blue sky, of course, are how Buddhists explain the nature of our mind: there may be clouds passing across it, but that doesn’t mean a blue sky isn’t always there behind the obscurations. All you need is the patience to sit still until the blue shows up again.
This is what your mind — your life — looks like when you’re going nowhere. Always full of new colors, sights, and beauties; always, more or less, unaltered.
Whenever I travel to North Korea or Yemen—to any of the world’s closed or impoverished places—I see how almost anyone born to them would long to be anywhere else, and to visit other countries with the freedom that some of the rest of us enjoy.
Nowhere can be scary, even if it’s a destination you’ve chosen; there’s nowhere to hide there.
A life of stillness can sometimes lead not to art but to doubt or dereliction; anyone who longs to see the light is signing on for many long nights alone in the dark.
One of the laws of sitting still, in fact, is that “if you enter it with the set purpose of seeking contemplation, or, worse still, happiness, you will find neither. For neither can be found unless it is first in some sense renounced.”
You don’t get over the shadows inside you simply by walking away from them.
The one thing technology doesn’t provide us with is a sense of how to make the best use of technology. Put another way, the ability to gather information, which used to be so crucial, is now far less important than the ability to sift through it.
The need for an empty space, a pause, is something we have all felt in our bones; it’s the rest in a piece of music that gives it resonance and shape.
Stillness has nothing to do with settledness or stasis.
“One of the strange laws of the contemplative life,” Thomas Merton, one of its sovereign explorers, pointed out, “is that in it you do not sit down and solve problems: you bear with them until they somehow solve themselves. Or until life solves them for you.”
In progress notes:
Cheri on MB started reading this book on 7/7
Cohen ended up sitting still with his elderly friend for more than forty years.
Was Cohen friends with his friend for more than forty years, or did Cohen sit with his friend for more than forty years. I can't tell, and both could be possible depending on how old the two men are and how long they have been sitting, cumulatively, over the years.
As mentioned, I am a fan of The School of Life, their mission, and their products. This book continues that fandom in a strong way. And with this book, I'm well on my way to reading a significantly large number of essays this year.
This is a short book, 96 whole pages divided into six sections: Self-Ignorance, Philosophical Meditation, Emotional Identity, Honesty and Denial, Self-Judgement, Emotional Scepticism. The section that delighted me the most is the Philosophical Mediation section, as it explains the (classical) Stoic process of dealing with the stresses and worries of life by asking (and processing) the questions "What am I anxious about?", "What am I upset about?", and "What am I excited about?".
The last three sections were also particular relevant to me, but, well, your mileage may vary with this book. If you're in a reflective mood, this book is amazing and possibly a life-changer. That life-changing assumes the reader processes the book, and doesn't just read it, shrug, and toss it aside.
Normally, I'd list all the quotes of the book I found meaningful. Here, however, I realize that the parts I find relevant are revealing in a way I find too vulnerable. So instead, here's one note from the Faulty Walnut:
The walnut is extremely bad at understanding why it is having certain thoughts and ideas.
It doesn’t typically notice the role that levels of sleep, sugar, hormones and other physiological factors play upon the formation of ideas. The walnut adheres to an intellectual interpretation of plans and positions that are, at base, frequently merely physiological. Therefore, it can feel certain that the right answer is to divorce or leave the job rather than go back to bed or eat something to raise blood sugar levels.
If you're in a place where you're ready to reflect internally and grow, this book is amazing, let me buy you a copy.
This book was one of two books about writing recommended to me by a group of web developers and web content people.
I am glad I read it.
Clark has lots of advice, and I had to stop highlighting the book because practically the entire book became a highlight for me.
I strongly recommend this book for anyone who writes, not only short form, but also long form. Many of the recommendations are common sense and common writing advice, but the entirety of the recommendations all in one place make this book so great. Half way through reading the book, I went out and bought a hard copy (hooboy, Clark, you were buried, I had to hunt for the last copy in the bookstore!).
So, yeah, if you write, fiction, non-fiction, copy, content, blogs, tweets, any sort of writing, I strongly recommend this book to you.
Consider these historical and cultural documents: The Hippocratic oath The Twenty-Third Psalm The Lord’s Prayer Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 The Preamble to the Constitution The Gettysburg Address The last paragraph of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech
The baseball card, the limerick, the lyric, the ransom note, the fortune in the fortune cookie—each stands as a work with a sharp rhetorical purpose and a clearly imagined audience.
1. Keep a daybook devoted to short writing.
2. Include examples of great short writing collected from other sources.
3. Write short pieces of your own inspired by the ones you’ve collected.
4. Over time, examine your short writing for seeds of longer pieces.
5. Practice writing plain sentences that contain a grace note, one interesting word that stands out, such as Saramago’s chimera.
6. You will run into great short writing in the most surprising places, from restaurant menus to rest room walls. Record these in your daybook or snap a photo with your cell phone.
2. Study short writing wherever it finds you.
It was from these brief texts in small print on the backs of pieces of cardboard [baseball cards] that I learned not just the background of the players but the rules of the game, its history and traditions, and, best of all, its language and slang: A “blue dart” was a line drive. A “can of corn” was an easy pop fly. “Chin music” was a pitch up and in.
1. Imagine that an anti–Valentine’s Day movement swept America. You would still give out little heart candies, but the messages would now reflect disgust, disappointment, disillusion. Write ten that are better than “Eat your heart out.”
4. Write a brief premise for a movie in which something discovered in a pack of baseball cards proves crucial.
5. Write a summary of a fictional story in which a message in a bottle proves to be pivotal.
3. Read for focus.
Deadline writing requires the sharpest focus, and Von Drehle would prepare himself to battle the clock with a set of focusing questions: Why does the story matter? What’s the point? Why is the story being told? What does the story say about life, the world, the times we live in?
2. Whatever you write, ask yourself the key questions: What’s my point? In a sentence, what am I trying to say? What is the work really about?
3. Test your short writing experiments with these additional questions:
Have I taken a detour?
Have I squeezed in extra stuff?
Have I shifted tenses or language styles?
4. Examine earlier entries in your daybook with these questions: What is this bit really about? Can I answer that question in ten words? Five? Three?
4. Practice reading at a glance.
The at-a-glance experience is so valuable that writers and editors must take care not to undermine its effect. In other words, don’t break up a small text into smaller texts. Make sure it is published—in total—on a single page or screen. Online, add links as you must, but don’t clutter the text with so many opportunities to escape that the straight one-two-three meaning is lost.
Consider the lessons we can draw from such an analysis of song lyrics. What practices and language moves can we apply to our own writing? Use simple words to build dramatic ideas. Depend on characters, conflict, scenes, setting, and narrators, no matter how short the story form. In music and writing, use repetition to hold narrative and thematic elements together, as in a chain, and make them memorable. Use a short text to remind readers of other short texts, enriching the experience of narrative. Remember that literal language benefits from its coexistence with figurative words, from metaphors to literary allusions to sound imagery to symbolism and more.
Tap the power of two.
What is the difference, for example, between a report and a story? The purpose of the report, I argued, was to deliver information so that readers could act on it. A story, on the other hand, was a form of vicarious experience. A report might point you there, but a story puts you there.
Report Story Who Character What Scene (what happened) When Chronology (time in motion) Where Setting Why Motive How Process
12. Change your pace.
As a rule of thumb, the more periods there are in a passage, the slower the reader will move, since each period is a stop sign.
And wow was this a problem I had when reading Several Short Sentences, too many breaks and too many periods.
17. Vary hard and soft words.
1. Use the Anglo-Saxon word stock to create a staccato effect or to end a phrase with a snap or punch.
2. Make a random list of English synonyms in which one word in a pair is short and the other long. To get you started: lit/ illuminated; jail/ incarcerate; piss/ urinate.
3. Look through your recent writing to see if you can substitute a long word for a short one, or vice versa. Which feels better to you?
4. Read the passages aloud to check for pace, rhythm, flow, style, and meaning.
18. Join the six-word discipline.
It’s not clear whether Ernest “Old Papa Fuzzy-Face” Hemingway invented this bit of microfiction or merely plucked it out of a newspaper’s classified ads section. Why were the shoes never worn? Most readers assume that the baby died. But what if he was born without feet? Or with feet so big that regular baby shoes would not fit her?
Give yourself five minutes to write five six-word phrases using each of the moves described above. Ready, steady, go!
19. Cut it short.
A good short writer must be a disciplined cutter, not just of clutter, but of language that would be useful if she had more space. How, what, and when to cut in the interest of brevity, focus, and precision must preoccupy the mind of every good short writer.
“Omit needless words” suggests that the writer should begin to cut a text at the word level. I am on the prowl for big things to take out. Omitting or cutting words is nickeling-and-diming a text. I want to cut big pieces if I can—twenty-dollar bills, not dimes and nickels. Remember Donald Murray’s aphorism: “Brevity comes from selection and not compression.” I begin, as I wrote in Writing Tools, by pruning the big limbs before I shake out the dead leaves.
In his book Style, for example, Joseph M. Williams offers his “Five Principles of Concision”: Delete words that mean little or nothing [kind of, really, actually]. Delete words that repeat the meaning of other words [various and sundry]. Delete words implied by other words [terrible tragedy]. Replace a phrase with a word [in the event that becomes if]. Change negatives to affirmatives [not include becomes omit].
20. Add by contraction.
Each of us seeks the level of language (including text slang, abbreviations, and contractions) that best serves our writing purposes, our authentic voices, and the most urgent needs of our audiences.
Gene Weingarten wondered what would have happened if Lincoln had decided to tweet the Gettysburg Address: “87 years ago, our dads made us free. Yay! Still want free, but hard! Fighting, dying, burying! Need more fight tho, so dead be happy.”
I laughed at this!
21. Excerpt—but in context.
The famous writing teacher Donald Murray quotes from the Roman poet Horace: “Nulla dies sine linea,” Latin for “Never a day without a line” (of writing).
Every writer I know has had an editor who, to save space, has cut a passage to the bone. When it’s done well, the meaning can ring clearer with fewer words. When it’s done poorly, something critical to the reader’s understanding is left behind.
22. Surprise with brevity.
This book began with the reflection that the right words in the right order might be worth a thousand pictures. When I hear the famous words of Lincoln, or a recitation of the Twenty-Third Psalm, or the final, climactic litany of Dr. King standing before the crowds at the Lincoln Memorial, I close my eyes and hear and then see images, word pictures that fill my heart and fire up my soul, language that sets my imagination soaring.
The good and responsible writer works from a sense of mission and purpose, no matter how short the text.
25. Sound wise.
Test your efforts against the criteria established by James Geary in The World in a Phrase. His five laws of the aphorism are: “It must be brief. It must be personal. It must be definitive. It must be philosophical. It must have a twist.”
His checklist of persuasive elements includes the following:
A clear product explanation
Technical language for credibility
Clarity and rhythm
Product service (what happens when it breaks?)
How to order now
The best profiles seem to follow a three-part structure:
The Pitch: Where the writer attempts to stand apart from the masses in a sentence or two at the top.
The Lure: Where the writer compiles evidence (anecdotes, preferences, humor) that he is worthy.
The Catch: Where the writer ends with an irresistible call to action.
[Dating website] offers the most thorough advice on how best to take advantage of the form. In summary:
Choose your user name carefully. (It’s the first thing people see.)
Your heading, or catchphrase, is critical. (An enticement to read further.)
The first few lines will make or break you. (I call it the ten-second rule.)
Keep things brief and simple. (No more than 250 words.)
Check spelling and grammar. (Don’t be judged for a lack of intelligence because you did not have the time or energy to check your work.)
Pay attention to the close. (Consider asking a question that invites a response.)
Although the advice in this chapter has focused on the dating profile, the strategies for writing a good one apply across other forms of writing. Reread one of your own essays and evaluate it against these questions: Is my title or headline compelling? Do I begin the text with something irresistibly interesting? Do I reward the reader throughout with incentives to keep reading? Does my ending make the reader glad he or she has arrived? Have I purged the text of distracting and misleading errors? And finally, would a reader of my work discover in my writing voice someone worth talking to over a beer or a cup of coffee? Everything you write is, in essence, a dating profile.
29. Reframe messages as dialogue.
1. Sit in a busy public space and eavesdrop on conversations. In your daybook, capture the most interesting snippets. Imagine a fictional scene in which that dialogue takes place.
30. Marry words with pictures.
In Aim for the Heart, my Poynter colleague Al Tompkins argues that in good television, “pictures and words should not match,” but they should, according to Jill Geisler, “hold hands.”
31. Summarize and define.
In an influential essay titled “Defining Deviancy Down,” former U.S. senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan explored ways in which behaviors once thought deviant (bearing a child out of wedlock) become tolerated, approaching normal. How you define deviancy matters greatly, argued Moynihan. If it is too easy to be marked as deviant, you probably live in an authoritarian country (consider the plight of women in places such as Saudi Arabia, where a woman’s driving a car or not wearing a head covering would be considered deviant).
“Malesuete (adj.) Accustomed to poor habits or customs. A nice, middle-of-the-road word for describing the common flaws that afflict us all. Malesuete does not refer to the catastrophic, hair-pulling, Greek tragedy kinds of flaws, such as being the kind of person who sacrifices his own children. It is more apt for describing things like clipping your toenails in public: the minor flaws that annoy everyone around you.”
33. Report and narrate.
More and more, news is broken not through official channels but through the collective experience of the crowd, as when a 5.9 earthquake surprised the state of Virginia and other locations on the East Coast.
1. After more than two centuries, the basic reporting questions remain the same: who, what, where, when, why, and how. In short forms, the savvy reporter will avoid cramming the Five W’s into a text, focusing instead on one or two.
2. Reports become stories through this conversion table: who = character; what = scene; where = setting; when = chronology; why = motive; and how = how it happened.
35. Protect against the misuses of short writing.
Attachment to a slogan can also become a substitute for healthy skepticism and critical thinking, a problem Jeffrey Scheuer attacks in his book The Sound Bite Society: “A sound bite society is one that is flooded with images and slogans, bits of information and abbreviated or symbolic messages—a culture of instant but shallow communication. It is not just a culture of gratification and consumption, but one of immediacy and superficiality, in which the very notion of ‘news’ erodes in a tide of formulaic mass entertainment. It is a society anesthetized to violence, one that is cynical but uncritical, and indifferent to, if not contemptuous of, the more complex human tasks of cooperation, conceptualization, and serious discourse.”
“So if you are an advocate of ‘less’ government,” writes Luntz, “better to use the language of making Washington accountable or making Washington more effective.”
Here are a few of the word choices promoted by the opinion guru:
When speaking of health care reform, never say privatization; say personalization.
Never say tax reform or tax cuts; instead say tax simplification or tax relief.
Never say capitalism or global economy; say free market economy.
Never say inheritance tax or estate tax; say death tax.
Never say drilling for oil; say exploring for energy.
The move is described in this Orwell critique: “The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”
He writes, “Propaganda in favor of action that is consonant with enlightened self-interest appeals to reason by means of logical arguments based upon the best available evidence fully and honestly set forth.” The triumph of reason over passion would create a utopia.
Instead, writes Huxley, “Propaganda in favor of action dictated by the impulses that are below self-interest offers false, garbled or incomplete evidence, avoids logical argument and seeks to influence its victims by the mere repetition of catchwords, by the furious denunciation of foreign or domestic scapegoats, and by cunningly associating the lowest passions with the highest ideals, so that atrocities come to be perpetrated in the name of God.” (The italics are mine.)
There are many good things to sell in this world, from useful products to progressive ideas. Your soul isn’t one of them.
2. The word propaganda once had a neutral meaning: language or other messages in support of a candidate or cause. By the end of World War II, it took on negative connotations, with associations to Nazi hate speech and literature. As a result, we no longer have a word that stands for positive, rational propaganda. Perhaps advocacy comes close. Keep your eyes open for language—including slogans and other ways of summarizing—that encourages reason over emotions and passions.
I read a blog post recently where the author commented about being in an unmotivated state. He sounded depressed. My suggestion to him was exercise and help someone. Exercise has been shown to relieve depression. Helping another person, even in a small way, has helped relieve depression in everyone I know who struggled with non-severe and non-clinical depression.
My comment received a supportive reply (I really wish I had kept a link to the comment), and further comment that helping others as a way to combat depression was a thought she had read in Hope in the Dark. I put a hold on the book and read it when it dropped into my reading queue.
The book was written about finding hope to keep trying to change the world for the better, during the Bush Jr. administration. Solnit let us know through this book that while, yes, what the administration was doing was bad, citizens were pushing back. Many, many people said no, this is not acceptable, and pushed back on the bad policies and bad laws.
Any glimmer of hope of progress since that administration has certainly turned to despair in this administration, with its obvious greed, corruption, bigotry, racism, and misogyny.
Solnit comments on this many times in the book, about how despair is one part of the activism spectrum; that even during the darkest despair, there is still hope.
The book reminded me of early 2017, when Eric went to a rally protesting Cheetoh's not releasing his tax records. Oh, how innocent we all were then. Brother Chris was looped into a text conversation that Eric, who was doing his part in the protests calling for the returns, started. Chris' responses were just so damn negative and defeated. "Oh, why do that, it won't do any good." and "That's dumb, nothing will change." Rather than doing something (anything), he gave up without trying.
We dropped him from the conversation and kept chatting. That day, we learned that Chris gives up, doesn't believe in change, and doesn't believe that an individual can make a difference.
Solnit addresses that, too, in the book, that some people give up without trying.
This book might not be life-changing, but I strongly recommend it for everyone, especially anyone who is losing hope (or has already lost it) in these ugly times. If nothing else, these ugly times have created a generation that will be politically active.
It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction.
It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative.
Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting.
Making an injury visible and public is often the first step in remedying it, and political change often follows culture, as what was long tolerated is seen to be intolerable, or what was overlooked becomes obvious.
“Memory produces hope in the same way that amnesia produces despair,” the theologian Walter Brueggeman noted.
Amnesia leads to despair in many ways. The status quo would like you to believe it is immutable, inevitable, and invulnerable, and lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces this view. In other words, when you don’t know how much things have changed, you don’t see that they are changing or that they can change.
In that essay, “The Optimism of Uncertainty,” Zinn continues,
The struggle for justice should never be abandoned because of the apparent overwhelming power of those who have the guns and the money and who seem invisible in their determination to hold onto it. That apparent power has, again and again, proved vulnerable to moral fervor, determination, unity, organization, sacrifice, wit, ingenuity, courage, patience—whether by blacks in Alabama and South Africa, peasants in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Vietnam, or workers and intellectuals in Poland, Hungary, and the Soviet Union itself.
Those who doubt that these moments matter should note how terrified the authorities and elites are when they erupt. That fear signifies their recognition that popular power is real enough to overturn regimes and rewrite the social contract.
Paul Goodman famously wrote, “Suppose you had the revolution you are talking and dreaming about. Suppose your side had won, and you had the kind of society that you wanted. How would you live, you personally, in that society? Start living that way now!”
And yet, and of course, everything in the mainstream media suggests that popular resistance is ridiculous, pointless, or criminal, unless it is far away, was long ago, or, ideally, both. These are the forces that prefer the giant remain asleep.
And this is why Chris didn't move.
How do people recognize that they have the power to be storytellers, not just listeners?
What strikes you when you come out of a deep depression or get close to a depressed person is the utter self-absorption of misery.
South America was neoliberalism’s great laboratory, and now it’s the site of the greatest revolts against that pernicious economic doctrine (which might be most tersely defined as the cult of unfettered international capitalism and privatization of goods and services behind what gets called globalization—and might more accurately be called corporate globalization and the commodification of absolutely everything).
The despair that keeps coming up is a loss of belief that the struggle is worthwhile.
In the name of the so-called War on Terror, which seems to inculcate terror at home and enact it abroad, we were encouraged to fear our neighbors, each other, strangers (particularly Middle Eastern, Arab, and Muslim people or people who looked that way), to spy on them, to lock ourselves up, to privatize ourselves.
This is the lasting damage from Bush Dos.
I think of Bush’s constant deployment of false hope—that we were going to win the war in Iraq, that his wars had made US citizens and the world safer, that the domestic economy was doing fine (and that the environment is not even a subject for discussion). Perhaps hope is the wrong word for these assertions, not that another world is possible, but that it is unnecessary, that everything is fine—now go back to sleep. Such speech aims to tranquilize and disempower the populace, to keep us isolated and at home, seduced into helplessness, just as more direct tyrannies seek to terrify citizens into isolation.
Another part of the Puritan legacy is the belief that no one should have joy or abundance until everyone does, a belief that’s austere at one end, in the deprivation it endorses, and fantastical in the other, since it awaits a universal utopia. Joy sneaks in anyway, abundance cascades forth uninvited.
Though oil politics had much to do with what had happened, we were not asked to give up driving or vehicles that gulp huge amounts of fuel; we were asked to go shopping and to spy on our neighbors. It seemed as though the Bush administration recognized this extraordinary possibility of the moment and did everything it could to suppress it, for nothing is more dangerous to them than that sense of citizenship, fearlessness, and communion with the world that is distinct from the blind patriotism driven by fear.
History is like weather, not like checkers. (And you, if you’re lucky and seize the day, are like that butterfly.) Like weather in its complexity, in its shifts, in the way something triggers its opposite, just as a heat wave sucks the fog off the ocean and makes my town gray and clammy after a few days of baking, weather in its moods, in its slowness, in its suddenness. A game of checkers ends. The weather never does. That’s why you can’t save anything. Saving is the wrong word, one invoked over and over again, for almost every cause.
Saving suggests a laying up where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt; it imagines an extraction from the dangerous, unstable, ever-changing process called life on earth. But life is never so tidy and final. Only death is. Environmentalists like to say that defeats are permanent, victories temporary.
If you’re lucky, you carry a torch into that dark of Virginia Woolf’s, and if you’re really lucky you’ll sometimes see to whom you’ve passed it, as I did on that day (and if you’re polite, you’ll remember who handed it to you).
Benjamin’s angel tells us history is what happens, but the Angel of Alternate History tells that our acts count, that we are making history all the time, because of what doesn’t happen as well as what does.
Only that angel can see the atrocities not unfolding, but we could learn to study effects more closely. Instead we don’t look, and a radical change too soon becomes status quo.
The Angel of History says, “Terrible,” but this angel says, “Could be worse.”
They’re both right, but the latter angel gives us grounds to act.
Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible. Perfectionists can find fault with anything, and no one has higher standards in this regard than leftists.
Their grumpiness is often the grumpiness of perfectionists who hold that anything less than total victory is failure, a premise that makes it easy to give up at the start or to disparage the victories that are possible. This is Earth. It will never be heaven. There will always be cruelty, always be violence, always be destruction.
The radical center, as writer and New Mexico land manager William DeBuys defines it, is “a departure from business as usual,” is, he continues, not bigoted. By that I mean that, to do this kind of work, you don’t question where somebody is from or what kind of hat he or she wears, you focus on where that person is willing to go and whether he or she is willing to work constructively on matters of mutual interest.
Nothing is ever so good that it can’t stand a little revision, and nothing is ever so impossible and broken down that a try at fixing it is out of the question.
Velasquez, the founder of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, says, “Number one, I don’t consider anybody opposition. I just consider anyone either misinformed or miseducated or downright wrong-thinking. That’s the way I look at people, and I believe that what we do, getting justice for migrant workers is the good and right thing in life to do and everyone ought to be on our side.”
To be antidoctrinal is to open yourself up to new and unexpected alliances, to new networks of power. It’s to reject the static utopia in favor of the improvisational journey.
We are trying to build a politics of process, where the only certainty is doing what feels right at the right time and in the right place—a politics that doesn’t wait (interesting how wait and hope are the same words in Spanish) but acts in the moment, not to create something in the future but to build in the present, it’s the politics of the here and now. When we are asked how are we going to build a new world, our answer is, “We don’t know, but let’s build it together.”
It’s an enormous challenge, because in a chaotic world people need something to hold onto and something to hold them, if all is uncertain, if uncertainty is the only certainty, then the uprooted, the fragile, those that crave something to give them meaning in their lives, simply get washed away by the flood and flux of an unsure universe.
For them, hope is often found in certainty. Not necessarily certainty rooted in a predictable future, but certainty that they are doing the right thing with their lives .
The philosopher Alphonso Lingus says, “We really have to free the notion of liberation and revolution from the idea of permanently setting up some other kind of society.”
Zapatista scholar John Holloway has a manifesto of a book out called Change the World Without Taking Power, a similar argument that the revolution is an end in itself that fails its spirit and its ideals when it becomes the next institutional power.
There is a vast area of do-it-yourself activity directed towards changing the world that does not have the state as its focus and that does not aim at gaining positions of power. It is an arena in which the old distinctions between reform and revolution no longer seem relevant, simply because the question of who controls the state is not the focus of attention.
The question is about negotiating a viable relationship between the local and the global, not signing up with one and shutting out the other.
The best way to resist a monolithic institution or corporation is not with a monolithic movement but with multiplicity itself.
The United States is the most disproportionate producer of climate change, governed by the most disregardful administration. This country often seems like a train heading for a wreck, with a gullible, apolitical, easily distracted population bloating itself on television’s political distortions and repellent vision of human life, with the runaway rates of consumption, the violent interventions around the world, the malignancy of domestic fundamentalism, the burgeoning prison and impoverished and unhinged populations, the decay of democracy, and on and on. It’s hard to see radical change in the United States, and easy to see how necessary it is. I spend a lot of time looking at my country in horror.
Profound change for the better does occur, even though it can be difficult to see because one of the most common effects of success is to be taken for granted. What looks perfectly ordinary after the fact would often have seemed like a miracle before it.
Few remember that there was no significant US homeless population before the 1980s, that Ronald Reagan’s new society and economy created these swollen ranks of street people.
They were only defeated when their resilience was stolen from them by clichés, by the invisibility of what they accomplished that extraordinary morning, and by the very word “terrorism,” which suggests that they, or we, were all terrified. The distortion, even obliteration, of what actually happened was a necessary precursor to launching the obscene response that culminated in a war on Iraq, a war we lost (even if some of us don’t know that yet), and the loss of civil liberties and democratic principles that went with it.
When the planes became missiles and the towers became torches and then shards and clouds of dust, many were afraid, but few if any panicked, other than the president, who was far away from danger.
Flights 11 and 175 struck the towers. Hundreds of thousands of people rescued each other and themselves, evacuating the buildings and the area, helped in the first minutes, then hours, by those around them.
Adam Mayblum, who walked down from the eighty-seventh floor of the north tower with some of his coworkers, wrote on the Internet immediately afterward:
“They failed in terrorizing us. We were calm. If you want to kill us, leave us alone because we will do it by ourselves. If you want to make us stronger, attack and we unite. This is the ultimate failure of terrorism against the United States.”
We failed, however, when we let our own government and media do what that small band from the other side of the earth could not.
Without stupid, helpless people to save, heroes become unnecessary. Or rather, without them, it turns out that we are all heroes.
Governments like the grim view for a similar reason: it justifies their existence as repressive, controlling, hostile forces, rather than collaborators with brave and powerful citizenries.
Americans are good at the mingled complacency and despair that says things cannot change, will not change, and we do not have power to change them.
Much has changed; much needs to change; being able to celebrate or at least recognize milestones and victories and keep working is what the times require of us. Instead, a lot of people seem to be looking for trouble, the trouble that reinforces their dismal worldview. Everything that’s not perfect is failed, disappointing, a betrayal. There’s idealism in there, but also unrealistic expectations, ones that cannot meet with anything but disappointment. Perfectionists often position themselves on the sidelines, from which they point out that nothing is good enough.
I’ve often seen, say, a landmark piece of climate legislation hailed as a victory and celebrated by people working hardest on the issue, but dismissed and disparaged by those who are doing little or nothing for the cause in question. They don’t actually know what work went into producing the legislation, what it will achieve, and what odds were overcome to get it.
They may fear that celebrating anything means undermining the dissatisfaction that drives us—if dissatisfaction drives us rather than parks us in the parking lot of the disconsolate.
Maybe an underlying problem is that despair isn’t even an ideological position but a habit and a reflex. I have found, during my adventures in squandering time on social media, that a lot of people respond to almost any achievement, positive development, or outright victory with “yes but.” Naysaying becomes a habit. Yes, this completely glorious thing had just happened, but the entity that achieved it had done something bad at another point in history. Yes, the anguish of this group was ended, but somewhere some other perhaps unrelated group was suffering hideously. It boiled down to: we can’t talk about good things until there are no more bad things. Which, given that the supply of bad things is inexhaustible, and more bad things are always arising, means that we can’t talk about good things at all. Ever.
I picked up this book when I was wandering inside the local bookstore. It was on the new releases table, and looked interesting, lots of positive hype, so I bought the book. I read it fairly quickly, so it's not a slow read. It was, however, a frustrating read.
How to explain without giving spoilers?
Okay, this part isn't a spoiler, since it is on the cover of the book, you know what you're getting into with the cover blurb, but let's take note of it. The protagonist has heard a splash in the water outside of her back-of-the-yacht cabin balcony which is close to the engines. She heard the sound after falling asleep shit-faced-drunk (6 known drinks on an empty stomach, more drinks implied), while still asleep and with the boat engines running. Please note that this is a book with "a churning plot worthy of Agatha Christie"? Did Christie have such a gaping plot hole?
Okay, waving off this issue, let's see the protagonist's response.
I saw two things.
The second was a realization, and one that made my stomach clench and shift. Whoever had been standing there -- whoever had thrown that body overboard -- could not have missed my stupid headlong dash to the balcony. In all likelihood they'd been standing on the next-door veranda as I dashed onto mine. They would have heard my door crash back. They would probably even have seen my face.
Consider that for a moment.
The first thing she saw was a physical item. To be parallel in structure, the second item is also a physical item. I am completely unsure what a realization physically looks like.
But the last part of the paragraph, the heroine is worried that the alleged perpetrator has seen her face.
She is on a boat that is out at sea. She has been assigned cabin 9. There are 20 people on the boat all of whom have been assigned cabins and everyone knows who is in what room. OF COURSE THEY KNOW WHO THE WOMAN IN CABIN 9 IS.
How did an editor let this through?
The book has many of these absurdities in it.
Take the home break-in that happens in the first few pages of the book. The heroine's response:
After he'd gone, I made myself a tea and paced the flat. I felt like Delilah after a tomcat broke in through the cat flap and pissed in the hallway -- she had prowled every room for hours, rubbing herself up against bits of furniture, peeing into corners, reclaiming her space.
I didn't go as far as peeing on the bed, but I felt the same sense of space invaded, a nee to reclaim what had been violated. Violated? said a sarcastic little voice in my head. Puh-lease, you drama queen.
But I did feel violated. My little flat felt ruined -- soiled and unsafe.
OF F---ING COURSE she'd feel violated, HER HOME WAS JUST ROBBED. That is one of the prime examples of violations, having a place of safety invaded.
How is Ware considered the next Christie if she doesn't understand this fundamental nature of human fear and stress? Being violated leads to feelings of having been violated, pretty basic that.
Ho-boy, and then there is this:
But even if I'd had full-blown psychosis, that didn't detract from the fact that, pills or no pills, I saw what I saw.
She heard what she heard, and imagined the rest.
Yeah, this book was a rough read for me. The details keep pulling me out, and I'm thinking, "Wait, what?"
Speaking of "What?" Too many of them in recent books I've read. Lo had a number of "What?" questions in the book. "What?" becomes annoying as a speech pattern very quickly.
If you're a fan of Ware's writing, you'll likely enjoy this book. This is the first book that I have read by Ware, so likely the last. I'm not a fan.
"What," I demanded, "you don't believe me? You don't think people can be sucked into doing something out of fear, on inability to see any other way out?"
I am unsure where or when I picked up this book. I've had it in my pile for a while now, and picked it up when the slower, non-fiction I've been reading was starting to disinterest me. The book was a slower read than I expected it to be, but I'm unsure where my expectations came from.
The book is about Charlie, a lawyer in Small Town, Georgia, and daughter of a defense lawyer, Rusty, who believes that all people deserve a defense, especially those found guilty in the court of public opinion and unlikely to receive a fair trial or vigorous defense otherwise - you know, the lawyer who is guaranteed to make enemies.
Said enemies take out their vengeance on Rusty's family, and there we have the set up for the main character's demeanor, struggle, conflict, strengths, and development.
This is the first Karin Slaughter book I've read. Mom's favorable opinion of Slaughter's writing influenced my reading the book. There were a number of places where I nodded in understanding of some of the characters' actions, so Slaughter's writing is believable and understandable, which is great.
I just don't know that I'm a better person for having read this book.
Stay with me.
Many of the fiction books I've read have a moral to them. If they lack a moral, then they might contain some incident that causes reflection, a pondering, something to consider that affects the reader's life. Take the Imperial Radch series, for example. Leckie writes about privilege and power and how they manifest corruption, all in the framework of a space opera. Heinlein books were all social commentary.
This book, however, I don't feel that. I don't know the lesson, the moral, the point of the book. Yes, "telling a good story" is a sufficient point to a book, but this one didn't leave me with "whoa, that was a good story," or similar thought.
Eh, I don't know. I'd rate this worth reading if you're a fan of Slaughter. Maybe a Slaughter fan can recommend another book written by her that might better showcase her writing?
She knew all the questions on Jeopardy. She knew when to use who or whom. She could not abide misinformation. She disdained organized religion. In social situations, she had the strange habit of spouting obscure facts.
I like Gamma already.
"Charlie needs to know that she can depend on you. You have to put that baton firmly in her hand every time, no matter where she is. You find her. Don’t expect her to find you.”
She asked, “Whose side are you on?”
“There’s no such thing as sides. There’s just doing the right thing.”
“I hate to blow apart your philosophy, Horatio, but if there’s a right thing then there’s a wrong thing, and as someone with a law degree, I can tell you that stealing the murder weapon from a double homicide, then lying about it to an FBI agent, can land you on the wrong side of a prison cell for a hell of a long time.”
Horrible things were a hell of a lot easier to digest when you took away the emotion.
“I’m not saying anything about how stupid it is to smoke after having two heart attacks and open-heart surgery.”
“That is called paralipsis, or, from the Greek, apophasis,” Rusty informed her. “A rhetorical device by which you add emphasis to a subject by professing to say little or nothing about it.” He was tapping his foot with glee. “Also, a rhetorical relative of irony, whom I believe you went to school with.”
“Charlotte, let me give you the answer.”
“No, darling. Listen to what I’m saying. Sometimes, even if you know the answer, you’ve got to let the other person take a shot. If they feel wrong all the time, they never get the chance to feel right.”
During the first year of their marriage, one of their biggest arguments had been over Ben’s habit of taking off his socks every night and dropping them on the floor of the bedroom. Charlie had started kicking them under the bed when he wasn’t looking, and one day Ben had realized that he didn’t have any socks left and Charlie had laughed and he had yelled at her and she had yelled back at him and because they were both twenty-five, they had ended up fucking each other on the floor.
I laughed at this. Why? the Underwear Saga, of course.
Charlie washed clothes. Ben folded.
Yep. Good separation of laundry.
Charlie’s shift from supportive spouse to raging harpy had not been gradual. Seemingly overnight, she was no longer capable of compromise. She was no longer able to let things go. Everything Ben did irritated her.
She had always been drawn to people who were delighted by the world, who looked out rather than in.
They had traveled extensively throughout their marriage, Anton taking jobs or Sam attending a conference with the sole purpose of being somewhere new. Dubai. Australia. Brazil. Singapore. Bora Bora.
A massive, reversible toll lane cut through the center of the interstate, catering to all the pickup-driving John Boys who drove down to Atlanta every day to make money, then drove back at night and railed against the godless liberals who lined their pockets and subsidized their utilities, their healthcare, their children’s lunches and their schools.
Sam thought about Melissa, the way she had cried every time she scored less than perfect on a test. That was probably the kind of person you wanted operating on your father.
Rusty remained unmoved. “Death snickers at us all, my dear. The eternal footman will not hold my coat forever.”
She pulled a Ziploc bag from her purse. Her tea sachets were inside. Charlie said, “We have tea here.”
“I like this kind.” Sam dipped the sachet into the water.
I understand this, too.
They might have been magnets, but they were of unequal power. Everything Sam knew, Gamma knew more.
“Do you think I should do it?” Charlie considered her answer before speaking.
“Would the Sam I grew up with do it? Maybe, though not out of any affinity for Rusty. She would be angry the same way I get angry when something isn’t fair."
Charlie lifted her chin. They could be in a western, or a John Hughes movie if John Hughes had ever written about aggrieved, almost middle-aged women.
The Wilsons took the lack of information with a type of resignation that seemed ingrained in their souls. They were clearly part of that forgotten swath of poor, rural people. They were accustomed to waiting for the system to play out, usually not in their favor.
She had so many things wrong with her body that she could not imagine why someone would purposefully damage themselves.
You could only ever see a thing when you were standing outside of it.
“A trial is nothing but a competition to tell the best story. Whoever sways the jury wins the trial."
“I’ve always preferred crazy to stupid. Stupid can break your heart.”
Rusty said, “A father’s job is to love each of his daughters in the way they need to be loved.”
“You’ve always said that everyone deserves a chance.”
“They do, but I don’t have to be the one who gives it to them.”
“What a rapist takes from a woman is her future. The person she is going to become, who she is supposed to be, is gone. In many ways, it’s worse than murder, because he has killed that potential person, eradicated that potential life, yet she still lives and breathes, and has to figure out another way to thrive.” He waved his hand in the air. “Or not, in some cases.”
“Charlotte has always been a pack animal. She doesn’t need to be the leader, but she needs to be in a group. Ben was her group.”
"He’s either involved somehow or he’s an idiot.”
“I told you stupid breaks your heart.”
Her druthers were always to apply logic to a problem, but as with the weather, life existed in a delicate dynamical balance between the fields of mass and motion. In essence, sometimes shit happened.
“I was so relieved when it happened. You don’t realize when you’re that young that you’re going to get older. That there’s going to come a time when you’re not relieved.”
She used the back of her hand to rub her eyes. “I saw Dad do this closing argument once. He talked about how people always obsess about lies. Damn lies. But no one really understands that the real danger is the truth.” She looked up at the white casket. “The truth can rot you from the inside. It doesn’t leave room for anything else.”
“Ben would be happier with someone else.”
“Utter bullshit,” Sam said, her tone clipped. “You have no right to decide on his behalf.”
Of course, she was still pedantic and annoying, but that came with being their mother’s child.
Okay, this is one of the shorter books on my "I have read" list that I don't count as a book, per se. I read it in a dead tree format. It contained words on the pages. The whole object had a cover, title page, copyright, and sections. It qualifies as a book in every legitimate definition of the word.
But it's too short for my book reading count.
This is a printing of David Foster Walace's commencement speech to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College. If I had heard it at my college graduation, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have understood it nearly as well as my current day self does. I'm pretty sure if my 21 year old self had understood his words as well as current day self does, my life would have been significantly different.
I'm also pretty sure my 60 year old self will want to smack my current self upside the head, for STILL not understanding these things.
It's a 20 minute read, available in many places online (and in video format, if that's your thing). Worth reading / watching / experiencing.
The point here is that I think this is one part of what the liberal arts mantra of “teaching me how to think” is really supposed to mean: to be just a little less arrogant, to have some “critical awareness” about myself and my certainties… because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.
It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.
This book was recommended in a slack channel I'm in, along with How to Write Short. The two books together helped her write better copy for a site she was developing. Having recently read Draft No. 4 and How to Write Short, I read this one, too.
The book has two big sections. The first section has a series of short sentences giving writing advice. The second section contains examples of writing, along with a critique of the examples. I enjoyed reading the second section. The first section annoyed me.
A series of short sentences would be fine if each of the lines were actually a complete sentence. Instead, the book is formated with choppy lines that break apart longer sentences.
So, imagine reading a book.
Where each line has a fragment of a sentence.
And you are supposed to know.
That it is actually a single sentence.
One naturally pauses at a period.
Which is not how this book is meant to read.
The pause habit is not breakable.
In a single book.
Yeah, so the first section annoyed me. Despite this annoyance, the advice is good. I was amused at how much of the advice I ignore, especially when it comes to pronouns. I am so bad with my use of pronouns. In particular, I use too many of them.
Anyway, main themes of the book:
1. Use short sentences, you don't need long sentences.
2. Have meaning in each sentence.
3. Trust yourself. Give yourself authority. Write about what interests you.
4. Notice things.
5. Don't use cliches. Question any sentence that appears unconsidered or "naturally."
6. Learn grammar so that you don't annoy the reader with bad grammar that they might not know about but can sense.
7. Writing is hard work, flow is a myth, "naturally" is, too.
8. Don't use an outline. Sure, take notes, use notes, but don't use an outline.
9. Don't talk down to the reader. Trust the reader.
10. Compose and edit at the same time.
I strongly disagree with the "don't use an outline" advise. At the risk of violating the "don't assume what the author meant" advice elsewhere in the book, perhaps Klinkenborg meant don't be a slave to the outline. Organizing a pile of notes into a coherent work is pretty much creating an outline on the fly. Outlines aren't abdicating thinking about one's writing, it's actively thinking about one's writing and creating a giant note about the direction one wants to go. Nothing wrong with that creation.
I'm not sure I recommend the book, despite learning a lot from it. I did remove a lot of pronouns in this review.
The biggest lesson I learned, however, was, "Don't format a prose book in poetry style, it annoys the reader."
Everything in this book is meant to be tested all over again, by you. You decide what works for you. This is perhaps the most important thing I have to say.
Part of the struggle in learning to write is learning to ignore what isn’t useful to you and pay attention to what is.
Here, in short, is what I want to tell you.
Know what each sentence says,
What it doesn’t say,
And what it implies.
Of these, the hardest is knowing what each sentence actually says.
It’s hard to pay attention to what your words are actually saying. As opposed to what you mean to say or what you think they’re saying. Knowing what you’re trying to say is always important. But knowing what you’ve actually said is crucial.
Write these things down—the contents of the noise in your head as you write.
These assumptions and prohibitions and obligations are the imprint of your education and the culture you live in.
What you don’t know and why you don’t know it are information too.
The fact that you’ve included a word in the sentence you’re making Says nothing about its necessity.
Implication is almost nonexistent in the prose that surrounds you,
The prose of law, science, business, journalism, and most academic fields.
That means you don’t know how to use one of a writer’s most important tools:
The ability to suggest more than the words seem to allow,
The ability to speak to the reader in silence.
No two sentences are the same unless they’re exactly the same, word for word.
(And, in a lifetime of writing, it’s unlikely you’ll ever write the same sentence twice.)
I laughed at this one.
The purpose of a sentence is to say what it has to say but also to be itself.
No sentence can afford to be merely transitional.
If you’ve written clearly —
And you know what you’ve said and implied
As surely as you know what you haven’t said —
The reader will never get lost reading your prose
Or have trouble following you without transitions.
In journalism, the equivalent of the topic sentence is the notorious “nut graf,”
A paragraph that tells you the content of the article you’re about to read,
As if you couldn’t proceed without a précis.
I'm delighted to have learned about the nut graf in Draft No. 4.
If you love to read — as surely you must — you love being wherever you find yourself in the book you’re reading,
Happy to be in the presence of every sentence as it passes by,
Not biding your time until the meaning comes along.
They recall the moment, as children, when we came upon the phrase
“And then one day.”
You know exactly how those four words feel.
You know exactly what they do.
I love this. And then one day.
Were you asked to write in order to be heard, to be listened to?
We forget something fundamental as we read:
Every sentence could have been otherwise but isn’t.
We can’t see all the decisions that led to the final shape of the sentence.
But we can see the residue of those decisions.
Imagine the reason behind each sentence.
Why is it shaped just this way and not some other way?
Why that choice of words?
Why that phrasing?
Why that rhythm?
What you write—what you send out into the world to be read—
Is the residue of the choices and decisions you make.
Choices and decisions you are responsible for.
Start by learning to recognize what interests you.
Most people have been taught that what they notice doesn’t matter,
So they never learn how to notice,
Not even what interests them.
Or they assume that the world has been completely pre-noticed,
Already sifted and sorted and categorized
By everyone else, by people with real authority.
There’s always an urge among writers
To turn fleeting observations and momentary glimpses
Into metaphors and “material” as quickly as possible,
As if every perception ended in a trope,
As if the writer were a dynamo
Turning the world into words.
Don’t let the word “years” alarm you.
Think of it as months and months and months and months.
This is surprisingly hard to do at first
Because our reading habits are impatient and extractive.
And no matter how hard you look, you’re almost invisible to yourself,
Camouflaged by familiarity.
Try reading your work aloud.
The ear is much smarter than the eye,
If only because it’s also slower
And because the eye can’t see rhythm or hear unwanted repetition.
How well you read aloud reveals how well you understand the syntax of a sentence.
Do you remember, in school, going around the room,
Each student in turn reading a paragraph out loud?
Remember how well some students read and others, how badly?
It was a difference in comprehension,
Not of the sentence’s meaning,
But of its texture, pace, structure, actuality.
Don’t read straight through without stopping.
Read until your ear detects a problem.
How many sentences begin with the subject?
How many begin with an opening phrase before the subject?
Or with a word like “When” or “Since” or “While” or “Because”?
How many begin with “There” or “It”?
What kinds of nouns do you see?
Are you using “with” as a preposition or as a false conjunction, a false relative pronoun?
You don’t need to be an expert in grammar and syntax to write well.
But you do need to know the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs.
Between active and passive constructions.
The relation between a pronoun and its antecedent.
You need to look up even familiar words every time you have a doubt
And especially when you don’t have a doubt.
That is, very often. That is, every time you write.
You’ve already looked up every word you don’t know.
So why not give up the idea of “flow” and accept the basic truth about writing?
It’s hard work, and it’s been hard work for everyone all along.
The idea of writer’s block, in its ordinary sense,
Exists largely because of the notion that writing should flow.
It’s always worth asking yourself if you can imagine saying a sentence
And adjusting it until you can.
Just as it’s always useful to ask yourself, “What exactly am I trying to say?” The answer to that question is often the sentence you need to write down.
Concentration, attention, excitement, will be part of your working state.
Flow, inspiration—the spontaneous emission of sentences — will not.
That distinction is worth keeping in mind.
Learn to write anywhere, at any time, in any conditions,
With anything, starting from nowhere.
Composing a sentence always involves revision
Unless you write down the words of a sentence exactly as they pop into your head.
And why would you do that?
So, you’ll be revising each sentence as you compose it.
Composing each sentence as you revise it.
What writers fear most is running out of material.
You want to begin the piece, not introduce it, which is the difference between a first sentence already moving at speed and a first sentence that wants to generalize while clearing its throat.
Don’t get trapped by the thought of writing sequentially.
We’re always hastening to be done writing,
But we’re also hastening to get out of the presence of our thoughts.
Everything about thinking makes us nervous.
We don’t believe there’s much of value to be found there.
My thought was, "Who the f--- thinks this?"
The piece you’re writing is simply the one that happens to get written.
How do you decide what works?
What do you do when your sentences seem to waver in quality and value before your eyes?
You read what you’ve written, and it looks good.
You read it again, and it looks bad.
You read it a third time, and now you can’t tell.
You can almost never fix a sentence —
Or find the better sentence within it —
By using only the words it already contains.
If they were the right words already, the sentence probably wouldn’t need fixing.
Accept it: you’ll surely fail again and just as surely succeed.
There’s nothing linear or steady in your growth as a writer.
And yes, you may begin a sentence with “but.”
Use the simple past tense —
Avoiding the layering of several pasts —
And give the reader clear temporal clues when needed.
Our lives are full of endings.
The sun goes down every day.
We ask for the check.
Eventually it comes.
How broad a hint does it take to make a reader who lives on a planet full of endings
Why reproduce the whole scene when only one moment matters?
A reader who’s opened a book to its first page is in a tender predicament,
Whether she’s standing in the aisle of a bookstore or sitting at home.
All the authority belongs to her — the authority to close the book.
And yet she’s willing — yearning — to surrender her authority to the author
And keep reading.
You’ve been told again and again that you have to seduce the reader,
Sell the story in the very first paragraph.
(Nonsense, but it explains a lot of bad writing.)
I laughed at this one, too.
No subject is so good that it can redeem indifferent writing.
But good writing can make almost any subject interesting.
People clamor to tell their stories in words.
This doesn’t make them writers,
Nor does it make their stories matter.
You may be used to denying your perceptions and dismissing your awareness.
You may be caught in a constant state of demurral.
Watch for the chronic language of self-disparagement,
The moments when you say, “My problem is …” Or “It doesn’t matter what I think.”
If you say these kinds of things, you probably say them out of habit, almost unconsciously.
This is a product of your education too, at home and at school.
Pay attention to it.
Recognize how harmful it is.
Its message — subliminal and overt — is that your perceptions are worthless.
Do everything you can to subvert this habit.
Part of the trouble may be this:
You’re afraid your ideas aren’t good enough,
Your sentences not clever or original enough.
It’s surprising how often ideas that seem obvious to you
Are in no way apparent to the reader.
And vice versa.
What seems like common sense to you may come as a revelation to the reader.
Some people think that discipline is imposed from without,
Regular hours, strict containment, rigorous exclusion.
Some people think discipline is revealed from within,
Enlightenment, purity, solidity of intent.
Discipline is nothing more than interest and expectation, a looking forward.
It’s never hard to work when you’re interested in what you’re working on.
But what if you hate what you’re working on?
It helps to examine the content of your loathing.
What is it you hate?
The movement of your ideas?
The nature of your prose?
The obligations and prohibitions you still secretly honor?
It’s surprising how often the trouble with a piece of writing
Has nothing to do with the writing itself.
One of the most powerful feelings a writer experiences while working
Is a sense of obligation, of having to make a sentence or a paragraph
This way or that way, being obliged to write that sentence or that paragraph.
It’s a terrible feeling and always a sign of trouble.
Don’t preconceive the reader’s limitations.
They’ll become your own.
The books that trusted you most may be the ones you love best.
You’re not responsible for your readers’ ignorance,
And they’re not responsible for your erudition.
“Done” isn’t absolute or arbitrary.
Nor is it really about learning your limits as a writer.
It’s a compromise.
“Done enough” sounds too callow to describe the compromise,
So call it “perfection enough,”
As perfect as possible under the circumstances.
The better question now is the more fearful one: “How will I know when to stop revising?”
Let yourself ask the question why.
Why is the author choosing this word, writing that sentence that way?
Don’t expect to find an answer.
Expect to find some possibilities.
This passage has no larger purpose than to exist, to work out, for a moment, the possibilities of some sentences.
Reading these sentences — and my commentary on them — you’ll be tempted to side with the writer, to think, “I know what he means” or “I can see what she’s saying.” But that’s because it feels so normal to try to deduce the meaning of the sentence instead of observing what its words actually say.
We’re so trained to read for meaning — to look through the sentence to what we think is the author’s intention—that in our search for it we’re prepared to disregard the literal significance of the prose itself.
Don’t make time or frequency an attribute of the vehicle. Let the time or frequency indicator stand on its own. Cars flash past us now and then.
He hunched his shoulders, placed one arm on his left leg, and slid into the passenger seat before reaching across his body for his seatbelt.
Can you actually visualize this action? No. Descriptions of physical action require incredible care because we read them with our bodies as well as our brains.
Her clothes were nondescript, a white t-shirt and jean shorts.
And yet the writer can describe them. How about She wore a white T-shirt and jean shorts?
I spotted this book in a Waterstone in Amsterdam, but couldn't find it locally. Public libraries FTW!
I was expecting in this book a list of here are things you can do to increase your intelligence. In an ideal world, it would include variations based on gender, age, and weight - something like "do this, this, and that and you'll be smarter." Of course, one's expectations should be kept to a minimum, as life has a way of being, regardless of expectations.
The first part of the book is about defining intelligence (which isn't that easy to do, and we haven't done it well), and the history of defining intelligence, in all its ugly forms of repression and genocide that resulted. We humans really do like to create an us versus them about everything.
After defining intelligence, there were the ethics of what to do with intelligence, is it morally okay to increase one's intelligence? Atheletes are banned from performance enhancing drugs, is the mental realm any different when attempting to get an advantage?
The book did have three suggestions for increasing intelligence: modafanil, electric brain stimulation, and transcranial magnetic stimulation (which is a different way of getting the same as the electrical stimulation, just with a different electricity-producing mechanism, what with moving magnetic fields creating electric currents and all).
Experiments with increasing intelligence suffer the same fate as pretty much all cutting edge science: the bad results are ignored, the good results are emphasized, no one knows if things really work, there are no control studies, people are all different enough that we'll always have warnings, and it's all the wild west with the experimenting.
The book had a lot of anecdotes, most of which were amusing and interesting. The book was a fun, easy read, if not exactly satisfying in its lack of do this, this, and that to be smarter.
Teachers in these new schools were stunned. Large numbers of their pupils appeared unable or unwilling to learn. These teachers were some of the first to wrestle with a social problem that has split the field of education ever since: how to teach a class of children of mixed ability, while not ignoring the different needs of the children at the top and bottom.
When school is mandatory, you will have people who don't want to learn in the school, making the classes difficult for those who do want to learn.
High IQ is linked to creativity, musical ability, securing patents and winning artistic prizes. The higher a person’s IQ, the less likely they are to hold racist and sexist beliefs. They are less likely to be religious and more likely to be interested in politics. They are less tolerant of authoritarian attitudes.
This could explain the United States really well right now.
It does explain one sibling at least.
It is better to believe intelligence can be increased. Those children who believe the opposite, that intelligence is fixed (called the entity theory), are more anxious about how much intelligence they have, and it not being enough for them to succeed. These children refuse opportunities to learn if they carry a risk of doing poorly. They conceal or lie about their weaknesses, rather than identify and improve them. And they indulge in what psychologists call self-handicapping –procrastination and watching television the night before a test instead of studying. This gives them a ready-made excuse if they score badly.
No idea who this could be describing.
While that might demonstrate that repeated use and practice of a set of mental skills can grow a specific brain region, the conclusion doesn’t really work the other way around: finding an enlarged hippocampus in a plumber from Aberdeen wouldn’t guarantee she could tell you the quickest route to drive from London Bridge to King’s Cross Station.
No, but it does demonstrate that repeated use and practice of a set of mental skills can grow a specific brain region. You might not know what those skills are, but you know they have been developed.
The most reliable group of people to sire intelligent children are, simply, intelligent adults (of all colours and nationalities), just as taller parents (of all colours and nationalities) tend to have taller kids. When it comes to intelligence, nature can be cruel and unsentimental, but it does not pick sides.
The irony is that the smarter a society is, the fewer kids they will have.
Implicit skills are harder to teach, because attention has to be deliberately drawn away from performance. Tennis players, for example, can be taught implicitly to read the direction of an opponent’s serve by being asked to judge the speed and not the direction of the ball. In doing so, they learn to identify and act upon the visual cues that indicate direction, without knowing or being able to explain how they do so.
I find this interesting, that artificially turning off the thinking brain can improve developing sports performance.
That’s a common feature of many forms of synaesthesia; people with the condition are often astonished to discover (and some discover it late in life) not everybody experiences the world the way they do.
Britain was a kinder place then, many said, and less willing to ridicule people who were proud of their talents and abilities.
When people say things like, ‘nearly half of Americans have an IQ of under 100’ as a criticism, they reveal more about their own intelligence than anyone else’s.
This cracked me up.
We have a curious relationship with intelligence these days. Rather than looking down on people with lower IQs, as was common when the feeble-minded were ridiculed, much public scorn is reserved today for those towards the upper end of the scale. Perhaps this is down to envy and jealousy, as the benefits of mental ability become more pronounced, or maybe it’s a reflection of a society that has fallen out of love with expertise.
With the Internet and answers immediately available, people have lost the ability to understand expertise, to understand the passion, to understand the effort involved with becoming an expert. They think oh, I can just look up the answer, instead of understanding the why of things.
Some surveys suggest as many as one in five girls and one in ten boys at secondary schools hide their ability at maths, chiefly to avoid being picked on and bullied.
The tone of the coverage of such cases is almost gloating, as if these young prodigies somehow made claims with their early high achievement that they could not justify; as if their unusual intelligence was a deliberate ploy to annoy the rest of us. Of all the sins of youth, cognitive precociousness seems one of the hardest to forgive.
People do love a fallen hero.
Common sense is typically described as a kind of practical intelligence.† It’s usually measured as a judgement on someone’s decision making, but the verdict on whether someone shows common sense or not seems to come down to whether or not the person doing the judging agrees with the particular decision made.
They simply can’t resist the temptation to continue to deploy their abstract problem-solving skills in even familiar situations, for which the best options have already been approved by the rest of the community. They are driven to find novel solutions, at the expense of the tried and trusted common sense. And many of these ideas are wrong, or worse, ridiculous.
This is the idea that intelligent people don't have common sense. That intelligent people want to improve things even when the rest of the community is okay with sufficient, is a good thing, not something to be scorned. But, hey, stupid people, they mock what they don't have.
‘Common sense,’ Einstein said, ‘is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.’
To think rationally is to act according to one’s goals and beliefs. But it is also to form and hold beliefs supported by available evidence.
Which is why any Republican who supports Cheetoh these days is clearly not thinking rationally.
One of the most important is the myside or confirmation bias –the way people gather and assess evidence tends to be in line with their existing opinions.
Most of us get a single shot at most opportunities to prove ourselves, and we have to live with the results.
Unearned privilege can be uncomfortable to associate with human value, for it carries too many reminders of the straitjacket of social stratification and the entitlement of the aristocracy. We prefer people to work for what they have, and expect rewards and status for those who do so.
Cognitive enhancement offers a new twist on this century-old argument. If intelligence, in whatever form, is something people have to work for, if cognitive ability can be trained and improved and released with effort, then it’s pretty simple to make the case that neuroenhancement undermines this effort and is cheating. If one person has access to a short-cut others do not, then the playing field is tilted in their favour. Yet if intelligence is an immutable quality spread across the population, with some landing more in the heads of a fortunate minority, then the playing field is already biased against the rest. Why shouldn’t those who lose out in the lottery of life have the chance to turn to technology to close the gap? Only when all have the identical chance and the baseline is levelled, can the performance of any human ability be truly said to reflect value, or more accurately, can the difference in performance be said to reflect higher or lower value.
Of all the books to stop a reading binge streak, this was not the one I would have expected.
I wanted to like this book.
I REALLY wanted to like this book.
I really wanted to like this book because I enjoyed Weir's The Martian a lot, what with the solid science and the omg-exactly-mine humour.
I didn't really like this book.
Instead, this book annoyed me. I suspect this book annoyed me because the main character Jazz is annoying. The frequent "What? You were thinking something else?" questions became tiresome very quickly. The self-referrals to her body that Jazz makes could be made only by a guy writing as a girl, thinking that's what we talk about all the time (hint: we don't).
The part that gets me the most, however, is the basic plot: that destroying the moon's source of oxygen could in any way shape or form be a Good Idea™, much less supported by seemingly rational people. Given how utterly perfect The Martian was with its science, this idea just doesn't fit.
So, yeah, if you're a fan of Weir's, which I am, go ahead and read this book. If you aren't, read The Martian, revel in the incredible story-telling and science of that book, and skip this one.
Now to read Rob's review of Artemis, which I haven't read yet... Okay, his review is better. Go read that one instead.
Nothing. He hadn’t noticed me come in and didn’t hear me speak. He’s like that. I smacked him on the back of the head and he jerked away from the microscope.
And let me tell you: there’s no one I hate more than teenage Jazz Bashara. That stupid bitch made every bad decision a stupid bitch could make. She’s responsible for where I am today.
I couldn’t get it completely out of sight, but at least it was partially occluded. I slipped the remote control into a holster I had strapped to my inner thigh.
Okay, if you're on a caper, you don't want until you're on location before you strap a something to the inner thigh. You do that before you leave.
My plan was working! I giggled like a little girl. Hey, I’m a girl, so I’m allowed.
Dad taught me to use a flint sparker because an electric one is “another thing to break.” It was just a piece of flint and steel grooves attached to a springy handle.
My dad also taught me how to use a flint sparker, so I did appreciate this detail.
The droplet trembled along the weld site, then finally seeped upward into the crack above it. My heartbeat returned to somewhere near normal. Thank God for surface tension and capillary action.
He tapped on his Gizmo. “There are no surveillance cameras on airlocks. We’re not a police state. But there is a security camera in the Visitors Center gift shop.”
I woke up the next morning with cramped legs and a sore back. That’s the thing about crying yourself to sleep. When you wake up, the problems are still there.
Food makes you comfortable. It’s how you recenter.
I stood from the bar and downed my Bowmore. I assume everyone in Scotland gasped in psychic pain.
It powered up and showed the familiar wallpaper—a picture of a Cavalier King Charles spaniel puppy. What? I like puppies.
What? I'm annoyed at all the "What?"s.
“Wow,” I said. “You really are all about economics.” “It’s what I do, dear. And in the end, it’s the only thing that matters. People’s happiness, health, safety, and security all rely on it.”
Okay, this is what caught my attention.
I frowned. “I can’t just stop being mad.” “No, but you can stop wallowing in it. And you can talk to me like a normal human being.”
“I’ve never pretended to approve of your choices, Jasmine. I have no obligation to. But I don’t try to control you either. Not since you moved out. Your life is your own.”
Very few people get a chance to quantify how much their father loves them. But I did. The job should have taken forty-five minutes, but Dad spent three and a half hours on it. My father loves me 366 percent more than he loves anything else. Good to know.
“Two cameras on your EVA suit, two on Dale’s, and I need a screen for diagnostics. That’s five screens.”
“Could have been windows on the same screen, though, right?”
“But have I covered every angle?” He shrugged. “No such thing. But for what it’s worth, you got everything I can think of.”
We both stripped down to our underwear. (What? I’m supposed to be demure around the gay guy?)
What? The What?s are annoying.
“Run another line, Jasmine,” he said firmly. “You’re not in any hurry. You’re just impatient.”
I couldn’t see the control room from my vantage point. The smelter was in the way. That wasn’t a coincidence, by the way.
I duct taped both the mask and goggles to my face—I needed an airtight seal this time.
This would be a bitch to remove.
She panted a few times and regained her composure. She was a little older and more weathered than the pictures I’d seen of her. Still, she was spry and healthy-looking for a fifty-year-old.
Okay, for the record, it is not difficult to be spry and healthy at fifty.
I am a fan of The School of Life, their mission, and their products. I've bought a number of their books, and checked a few out from the library.
I was disappointed, however, to realize they publish their books with an aggressive, not-really-enforcable, you-can't-share-this-book license/understanding in the book, which comes shrink-wrapped so you don't know about this license until you've already bought the book. The published license is a "you can't sell, lend, or give away this book without asking us first" policy, which is just strange and off-putting.
That said, their ebook highlight and quote policy is fantastic, 15% instead of the usual 10% that most publishers use.
I am unable to reconcile the disconnect between the two policies.
That said, this book is amazing. I want to give a copy of this book to every person who is marrying. I want to buy a copy for anyone in a relation that could become a long term relationship. I want a copy of this in every eighteen year old's hands. I might feel the same way about The Sorrows of Work if I read it, but I haven't read it yet.
Anyway, this book lists ten aspects of love that one just doesn't consider when one is in an early part of eros / infatuation / hormonal / passionate / physical love. Yet when a relationship matures, it changes and becomes romantic or companionate or fatuous love, it rounds out into less passion and more depth. That change, however, can mean emptiness, loneliness, a misunderstanding about what a relationship should be. We believe the hormones and the fantasy about what long term relationships should be without knowing what a relation really is.
This book does a fantastic job at listing, describing, and explaining the mistakes in the fantasy about what long-term love is, what it looks like, how it feels, what it means.
It tells us that our struggles aren't special, we all feel them in a long term relationshop. It tells us that there is beauty in that long-term relationship, it just looks different than the hormonal relationship.
It tells us we are normal.
Sometimes we need that validation.
This book is potentially life-changing in its revelations. Let me buy you a copy.
If things go to plan, we tend to become something akin to monsters in love. As Romantic Realism attests, we are likely to be significantly less kind to our partner than to almost any other human on the planet.
Asking someone to marry us turns out to be an impossibly demanding and therefore pretty mean thing to suggest to anyone we really want the best for.
A crush represents in pure and perfect form the essential dynamics of Romanticism: the explosive interaction of limited knowledge, outward obstacles to further discovery, and boundless hope.
Love begins with a hope of –at last –being able to tell someone else everything about who we are and what we feel. The relief of honesty is at the heart of the feeling of being in love.
We must all die alone, which really means that many of our pains are for us to endure alone. Others can throw us words of encouragement, but in every life, we will at points be out on the ocean drowning in the swell while others, even the nicest ones, are standing on the shore, waving encouragingly.
Claire recommended this book to me when I was stuck in a mental loop last October. She handed me her copy of her book and recommended it as a fun read when what one needed was a fun read.
She was right. This is a fun read.
It is a space opera of sorts, too short to be an opera per se, more like an operetta, a mini-saga if you will, of a wormhole puncher, a small vessel that punches through space and time to make travel routes for the rest of us.
World building is never an easy task. World building when you're trying to have plausable physics is harder. World building when you're trying to have plausible physics and plausible biology is even harder. Chambers does a great job, even if some of the "here, let me explain this to you" sections are a little forced. Having a new shipmate makes explaining things easier.
Ashby is the captain of the Wayfarer, and was nearly completely what I imagined Corey's Expanse's Holden to look like, really. Which isn't fair, as I think Ashby was supposed to be darker skinned. The rest of the characters had bits of other media parts spliced together for me: Kizzy was Firefly's Kaylee, Jenks was Song of Ice and Fire's Tyrion, Ohan was A Fire Upon the Deep's Tines. The amalgamation worked for me.
The book read like a series of episodes, which was actually nice, as the whole book made for a season arc.
I enjoyed the book. It's worth reading for anyone who enjoys a good science fiction read.
But with the last of her savings running thin and her bridges burned behind her, there was no margin for error. The price of a fresh start was having no one to fall back on.
After a life in her parents’ enormous home, full of furniture and knickknacks and rarities, the knowledge that she didn’t need anything more than what she could carry gave her a remarkable sense of freedom.
Similar to the advice a Lyft driver gave me last October when she said, "All I really need is what I can carry, everything else is nice."
The point of a family, he’d always thought, was to enjoy the experience of bringing something new into the universe, passing on your knowledge and seeing part of yourself live on.
Her [the AI] personality had been shaped by every experience she and the crew had together, every place they’d been, every conversation they’d shared. And honestly, Jenks thought, couldn’t the same be said for organic people? Weren’t they all born running the Basic Human Starter Platform, which was shaped and changed as they went along? In Jenks’s eyes, the only real difference in cognitive development between Humans and AIs was that of speed. He’d had to learn to walk and talk and eat and all the other essentials before he’d begun to have a sense of identity.
He slipped them off and stepped into a pair of sandals that never left the room. He found the idea of walking around in there with grubby, gunky shoes quite rude.
He is clearly not American.
Jenks spent a lot of time in the pit, even though his job didn’t require it, and going in there with boots on felt like kissing somebody in the morning without brushing your teeth.
I giggled at this.
Acting all sanctimonious while spouting bad info was a terrible way to win a debate, but a great way to piss people off.
Seems to be The American Way™ these days.
“That’s kind of hypocritical, isn’t it? We assume organic bodies are so awesome, everybody else must want them, then we go off to get genetweaks to look younger or slimmer or whatever.”
“The fact that you people have been playing this for centuries says a lot about your species.”
“Oh? What’s it say?”
“That Humans make everything needlessly difficult.”
Humans would’ve died out, too, if the Aeluons hadn’t chanced upon the Fleet. Luck’s what saved them. Luck, and discovering humility.
Not a known Human trait.
“I don’t know if I can explain this,” Ashby said. “I wish war didn’t happen, but I don’t judge other species for taking part in it.
“Maybe, but not like us. Humans can’t handle war. Everything I know about our history shows that it brings out the worst in us. We’re just not . . . mature enough for it, or something. Once we start, we can’t stop. And I’ve felt that in me, you know, that inclination toward acting out in anger. Nothing like what you’ve seen. I don’t pretend to know what war is like. But Humans, we’ve got something dangerous in us. We almost destroyed ourselves because of it.”
Honestly, what was it about that concept that was so difficult for others to grasp? She would never, ever understand the idea that a child, especially an infant, was of more value than an adult who had already gained all the skills needed to benefit the community. The death of a new hatchling was so common as to be expected. The death of a child about to feather, yes, that was sad. But a real tragedy was the loss of an adult with friends and lovers and family. The idea that a loss of potential was somehow worse than a loss of achievement and knowledge was something she had never been able to wrap her brain around.
To some Humans, the promise of a patch of land was worth any effort. It was an oddly predictable sort of behavior. Humans had a long, storied history of forcing their way into places where they didn’t belong.
“We have different philosophies, you and I, but I can understand where you’re coming from. Violence is always disconcerting, even if it’s only potential violence."
Nib nodded. “Some people knit, some people play music, I dig through dusty old facts and make sure they’re accurate.” He flopped back into a chair as the pixels in the central projector flickered to life. “I like knowing things.”
“Because people are assholes,” said Bear, dutifully keeping his head down. “Ninety percent of all problems are caused by people being assholes.”
“What causes the other ten percent?” asked Kizzy.
“Natural disasters,” said Nib.
There were few things Dr. Chef enjoyed more than a cup of tea. He made tea for the crew every day at breakfast time, of course, but that involved an impersonal heap of leaves dumped into a clunky dispenser. A solitary cup of tea required more care, a blend carefully chosen to match his day. He found the ritual of it quite calming: heating the water, measuring the crisp leaves and curls of dried fruit into the tiny basket, gently brushing the excess away with his fingerpads, watching color rise through water like smoke as it brewed. Tea was a moody drink.
The thoughts he was drumming up were old and safely kept. Kizzy had accused him once of “bottling up his feelings,” but this was a Human concept, the idea that one could hide their feelings away and pretend that they were not there. Dr. Chef knew exactly where all of his feelings were, every joy, every ache. He didn’t need to visit them all at once to know they were there. Humans’ preoccupation with “being happy” was something he had never been able to figure out. No sapient could sustain happiness all of the time, just as no one could live permanently within anger, or boredom, or grief. Grief. Yes, that was the feeling that Rosemary needed him to find today. He did not run from his grief, nor did he deny its existence. He could study his grief from a distance, like a scientist observing animals. He embraced it, accepted it, acknowledged that it would never go away. It was as much a part of him as any pleasant feeling. Perhaps even more so.
Rosemary’s hand went to her mouth. “I’m sorry,” she said. Such a quintessentially Human thing, to express sorrow through apology.
“We cannot blame ourselves for the wars our parents start. Sometimes the very best thing we can do is walk away.”
Rosemary started to nod, then shook her head. “That’s not the same. What happened to you, to your species, it’s . . . it doesn’t even compare.” “Why? Because it’s worse?” She nodded. “But it still compares. If you have a fractured bone, and I’ve broken every bone in my body, does that make your fracture go away? Does it hurt you any less, knowing that I am in more pain?” “No, but that’s not—” “Yes, it is. Feelings are relative. And at the root, they’re all the same, even if they grow from different experiences and exist on different scales.”
“Your father—the person who raised you, who taught you how the world works—did something unspeakably horrible. And not only did he take part in it, he justified it to himself. When you first learned of what your father had done, did you believe it?”
“I didn’t think he was capable of it.”
“Why not? He obviously was.”
“He didn’t seem like he was. The father I knew never could’ve done such a thing.”
“Aha. But he did. So then you begin wondering how you could’ve been so wrong about him. You start going back through your memories, looking for signs. You begin questioning everything you know, even the good things. You wonder how much of it was a lie. And worst of all, since he had a heavy hand in making you who you are, you begin wondering what you yourself are capable of.”
Rosemary stared at him. “Yes.”
"Given the right push, you, too, could do horrible things. That darkness exists within all of us. You think every soldier who picked up a cutter gun was a bad person? No. She was just doing what the soldier next to her was doing, who was doing what the soldier next to her was doing, and so on and so on."
She handed him the mug. “And I had Dr. Chef make you some of this awful stuff.” The smell hit his nose before he even brought the cup to his face. Coffee.
“I’m not sure that it happens a lot. But more often than for most, perhaps.”
“Enough for you not to be scared of it.”
“I never said that.”
“You did so.”
“I said I was familiar with it. That’s very different.”
"I never thought of fear as something that can go away. It just is. It reminds me that I want to stay alive. That doesn’t strike me as a bad thing.”
“You could’ve adopted.”
“I wanted my own flesh and blood. Proof that someone had loved me enough to create a new life with me.”
"But I’m scared. I’m starting to think maybe I wanted this so bad that I didn’t let myself acknowledge just how fucking dangerous it is.”
“Pairs are not inventors. They are too unfocused, too short-lived. Good for Navigating and discussing theories, but bad at building. Building takes many, many mistakes. Pairs do not like mistakes. They like staring out windows. But Solitary like mistakes. Mistakes mean progress. We make good things. Great things.”
“And for the first time ever, I didn’t want a brother anymore, because I finally had one. And there’s nothing better than brothers. Friends are great, but they come and go. Lovers are fun, but kind of stupid, too. They say stupid things to each other and they ignore all their friends because they’re too busy staring, and they get jealous, and they have fights over dumb shit like who did the dishes last or why they can’t fold their fucking socks, and maybe the sex gets bad, or maybe they stop finding each other interesting, and then somebody bangs someone else, and everyone cries, and they see each other years later, and that person you once shared everything with is a total stranger you don’t even want to be around because it’s awkward. But brothers. Brothers never go away. That’s for life.
Brothers you can’t get rid of. They get who you are, and what you like, and they don’t care who you sleep with or what mistakes you make, because brothers aren’t mixed up in that part of your life. They see you at your worst, and they don’t care. And even when you fight, it doesn’t matter so much, because they still have to say hi to you on your birthday, and by then, everybody’s forgotten about it, and you have cake together.”
Okay, seriously, what brother did Chambers have?
I really don't know why I picked up this book. There's a non-zero chance it was commended to me from Bob Diller, but it is just as likely to have come from one of the Twitter, Slack, or MB communities I'm in. I have no idea where I picked it up. It did, however, sit on my to-read pile for a good three months. Well, it sat in my Hold pile at the library, which is worse, because those I need to actually read in a timely manner when my loan happens.
Right. I did mention that my book reviews are really stories about how I came upon this book? I swear I did mention this at some point.
Okay, A Universe From Nothing. Here's the gist: in our mathematical understanding of the universe, there's a transition point from one state of matter to another state of matter by which two mathematical constructs appear seemingly out of nothing. These two particles then disappear, and we're left with a nicely solved equation at the end.
No one knows what's going on, where we started, where the universe is going. What we do know is that we're special in some way, this universe is special in that way, and that we are also not particularly special, as the only way we could exist is if the universe was this particular way.
Given we don't know where we came from and where we're going, some people need s super special thing, entity, supervisor, being, consciousness, something to keep them from being complete and utter assholes. We call these people Jewish, Muslim, and Christian, among others like, Ancient Roman and Ancient Greek, if we are to name some Western deities, ignoring all the Eastern and other ancient ones such as the Egyptians. These people who need a "God" to be kind and good to one another, to not kill, to not covet, to not be the epitome of a tragedy of the commons, tend to be uncomfortable with the idea that something can come from nothing, that the Big Bang could be a beginning, that the nothingness you had before life is likely the same as the nothingness after life and you didn't complain about that before so why are you complaining about that after, use "because God" is a cop-out for sitting with the discomfort and examining the world in around them in a scientific, repeatable, factful way.
Which is a bit less nice than the way Kraus said it.
Kraus goes into the quantum mechanics and history of astrophysics, with an eye to explaining that the universe came from nothing.
My difficulties with Kraus' writing is its defensive nature and sometimes backwards logic of his statements. A couple times he declares our mathematical models of the universe says this, the evidence supports it, so there if the models are correct. We know this not to be statement one can make, given the nature of quantum physics, the level of what we just don't know, and how physics as evolved over the last hundreds of years. We just don't know. I can, however, understand how saying, "we believe" each time could undercut the strength of his statements, but the backwards logic really annoyed me. While nothing might be unstable, Nature doesn't care one bit about our mathematical models or if they fit.
If you enjoy reading about quantum mechanics, science history, and some levels of philosophy thrown in, this is a good read. If none of those interest you, and you need to read this book for a book club or class, and you grab the audiobook, be sure to look at the diagrams in the books. They are useful. To everyone else, okay to skip this book. I'm glad I read it, I'm not sure I'd recommend it to anyone who doesn't enjoy reading science.
Hubble had earlier made a significant breakthrough in 1925 with the new Mount Wilson 100-inch Hooker telescope, then the world’s largest.
I just love this mountain. You can see it from school, hike it in day, drive up in a couple hours, and see the ocean on a clear day from the top. Just love it.
One of the most poetic facts I know about the universe is that essentially every atom in your body was once inside a star that exploded. Moreover, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than did those in your right.
Science has been effective at furthering our understanding of nature because the scientific ethos is based on three key principles: (1) follow the evidence wherever it leads; (2) if one has a theory, one needs to be willing to try to prove it wrong as much as one tries to prove that it is right; (3) the ultimate arbiter of truth is experiment, not the comfort one derives from one’s a priori beliefs, nor the beauty or elegance one ascribes to one’s theoretical models.
Location 269 (yeah, I hate location instead of pages, too)
I usually never get that far in my discussion, of course, because data rarely impress people who have decided in advance that something is wrong with the picture.
This means that these supernovae are very good “standard candles.” By this we mean that these supernovae can be used to calibrate distances because their intrinsic brightness can be directly ascertained by a measurement that is independent of their distance. If we observe a supernova in a distant galaxy—and we can because they are very bright—then by observing how long it shines, we can infer its intrinsic brightness. Then, by measuring its apparent brightness with our telescopes, we can accurately infer just how far away the supernova and its host galaxy are. Then, by measuring the “redshift” of the light from the stars in the galaxy, we can determine its velocity, and thus can compare velocity with distance and infer the expansion rate of the universe.
Kepler derived his famous three laws of planetary motion early in the seventeenth century: 1. Planets move around the Sun in ellipses. 2. A line connecting a planet and the Sun sweeps out equal areas during equal intervals of time. 3. The square of the orbital period of a planet is directly proportional to the cube (3rd power) of the semi-major axis of its orbit (or, in other words, of the “semi-major axis” of the ellipse, half of the distance across the widest part of the ellipse).
the universe is big and old and, as a result, rare events happen all the time.
There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know. —DONALD RUMSFELD
But how can you measure the three-dimensional geometry of the whole visible universe? It’s easier to start with a simpler question: How would you determine if a two-dimensional object like the Earth’s surface was curved if you couldn’t go around the Earth or couldn’t go above it in a satellite and look down? First, you could ask a high school student, What is the sum of the angles in a triangle? (Choose the high school carefully, however . . . a European one is a good bet.) You would be told 180 degrees, because the student no doubt learned Euclidean geometry—the geometry associated with flat pieces of paper. On a curved two-dimensional surface like a globe, you can draw a triangle, the sum of whose angles is far greater than 180 degrees. For example, consider drawing a line along the equator, then making a right angle, going up to the North Pole, then another right angle back down to the equator, as shown below. Three times 90 is 270, far greater than 180 degrees. Voilà!
Well, whenever experimentalists find a new method to measure something with vastly greater precision than was possible before, that is often sufficient motivation for them to go ahead.
In astronomy, the most recent observations of the cosmic microwave background radiation allow us to compare with theoretical predictions at the level of perhaps 1 part in 100,000, which is remarkable. However, using Dirac’s equation, and the predicted existence of virtual particles, we can calculate the value of atomic parameters and compare them with observations and have remarkable agreement at the level of about 1 part in a billion or better! Virtual particles therefore exist.
The proton is intermittently full of these virtual particles and, in fact, when we try to estimate how much they might contribute to the mass of the proton, we find that the quarks themselves provide very little of the total mass and that the fields created by these particles contribute most of the energy that goes into the proton’s rest energy and, hence, its rest mass.
Indeed, in a strange coincidence, we are living in the only era in the history of the universe when the presence of the dark energy permeating empty space is likely to be detectable. It is true that this era is several hundred billion years long, but in an eternally expanding universe it represents the mere blink of a cosmic eye.
Lemaître’s conclusion that our universe had to begin in a Big Bang was unavoidable, but it was based on an assumption that will not be true for the observable universe of the far future. A
everything we know about the universe today, the future I have sketched out is the most plausible one, and it is fascinating to consider whether logic, reason, and empirical data might still somehow induce future scientists to infer the correct underlying nature of our universe, or whether it will forever remain obscured behind the horizon.
I should point out, nevertheless, that even though incomplete data can lead to a false picture, this is far different from the (false) picture obtained by those who choose to ignore empirical data to invent a picture of creation that would otherwise contradict the evidence of reality (young earthers, for example), or those who instead require the existence of something for which there is no observable evidence whatsoever (like divine intelligence) to reconcile their view of creation with their a priori prejudices, or worse still, those who cling to fairy tales about nature that presume the answers before questions can even be asked. At least the scientists of the future will be basing their estimates on the best evidence available to them, recognizing as we all do, or at least as scientists do, that new evidence may cause us to change our underlying picture of reality.
We are hardwired to think that everything that happens to us is significant and meaningful.
By forgetting that most of the time nothing of note occurs during the day, we then misread the nature of probability when something unusual does occur: among any sufficiently large number of events, something unusual is bound to happen just by accident.
Our universe is so vast that, as I have emphasized, something that is not impossible is virtually guaranteed to occur somewhere within it. Rare events happen all the time.
I want to stress this because, in discussions with those who feel the need for a creator, the existence of a multiverse is viewed as a cop-out conceived by physicists who have run out of answers—or perhaps questions. This may eventually be the case, but it is not so now.
After all, the world of our experience is not ten-dimensional, but rather four-dimensional. Something has to happen to the remaining six spatial dimensions, and the canonical explanation of their invisibility is that they are somehow “compactified”—that is, they are curled up on such small scales that we cannot resolve them on our scales or even on the tiny scales that are probed by our highest energy particle accelerators today.
After all, if one fundamental quantity in nature is actually an environmental accident, why aren’t most or all of the other fundamental parameters? Maybe all of the mysteries of particle theory can be solved by invoking the same mantra: if the universe were any other way, we could not live in it.
I don’t mind not knowing. It doesn’t scare me. —RICHARD FEYNMAN
Isaac Newton, perhaps the greatest physicist of all time, profoundly changed the way we think about the universe in many ways. But perhaps the most important contribution he made was to demonstrate the possibility that the entire universe is explicable. With his universal law of gravity, he demonstrated for the first time that even the heavens might bend to the power of natural laws. A strange, hostile, menacing, and seemingly capricious universe might be nothing of the sort.
We do not know for certain which of them actually describes our universe, and perhaps we shall never know. But the point is, as I emphasized at the very beginning of this book, the final arbiter of this question will not come from hope, desire, revelation, or pure thought. It will come, if it ever does, from an exploration of nature. Dream or nightmare, as Jacob Bronowski said in the opening quote in the book—and one person’s dream in this case can easily be another’s nightmare—we need to live our experience as it is and with our eyes open. The universe is the way it is, whether we like it or not.
Here I want to once again beat what I wish were a dead horse.
Indeed, I have challenged several theologians to provide evidence contradicting the premise that theology has made no contribution to knowledge in the past five hundred years at least, since the dawn of science. So far no one has provided a counterexample. The most I have ever gotten back was the query, “What do you mean by knowledge?”
Newton’s work dramatically reduced the possible domain of God’s actions, whether or not you attribute any inherent rationality to the universe.
While dispensing with this particular use of angels has had little impact on people’s willingness to believe in them (polls suggest far more people believe in angels in the United States than believe in evolution), it is fair to say that progress in science since Newton has even more severely constrained the available opportunities for the hand of God to be manifest in his implied handiwork.
Consider an electron-positron pair that spontaneously pops out of empty space near the nucleus of an atom and affects the property of that atom for the short time the pair exists.
There was potential for their existence, certainly, but that doesn’t define being any more than a potential human being exists because I carry sperm in my testicles near a woman who is ovulating, and she and I might mate. Indeed, the best answer I have ever heard to the question of what it would be like to be dead (i.e., be nonbeing) is to imagine how it felt to be before you were conceived. In any case, if potential to exist were the same as existence, then I am certain that by now masturbation would be as hot button a legal issue as abortion now is.
But plausibility itself, in my view, is a tremendous step forward as we continue to marshal the courage to live meaningful lives in a universe that likely came into existence, and may fade out of existence, without purpose, and certainly without us at its center.
Even well after the theoretical arguments about why the universe should be flat were first proposed, my observational colleagues, during the 1980s and even early 1990s, remained bent on proving otherwise. For, after all, in science one achieves the greatest impact (and often the greatest headlines) not by going along with the herd, but by bucking against it.
I would now like to describe how, if our universe arose from nothing, a flat universe, one with zero total Newtonian gravitational energy of every object, is precisely what we should expect.
This “negative pressure” implies that, as the universe expands, the expansion dumps energy into space rather than vice versa.
Science simply forces us to revise what is sensible to accommodate the universe, rather than vice versa.
These “quantum fluctuations” imply something essential about the quantum world: nothing always produces something, if only for an instant.
As a result, when it falls into the black hole, the net system of the black hole plus the particle actually has less energy than it did before the particle fell in! The black hole therefore actually gets lighter after the particle falls in by an amount that is equivalent to the energy carried away by the radiated particle that escapes. Eventually the black hole may radiate away entirely.
Scientists began to understand in the 1970s, however, that it is possible to begin with equal amounts of matter and antimatter in an early hot, dense Big Bang, and for plausible quantum processes to “create something from nothing” by establishing a small asymmetry, with a slight excess of matter over antimatter in the early universe.
Because once an asymmetry between matter and antimatter was created, nothing could later put it asunder.
These are open questions. However, unless one can come up with a good reason for excluding such configurations from the quantum mechanical sum that determines the properties of the evolving universe, and to date no such good reason exists that I know of, then under the general principle that holds everywhere else I know of in nature—namely that anything that is not proscribed by the laws of physics must actually happen—it seems most reasonable to consider these possibilities.
These issues have been debated and discussed for millennia, by brilliant and not-so-brilliant minds, many of the latter making their current living by debating them.
Either way, what is really useful is not pondering this question, but rather participating in the exciting voyage of discovery that may reveal specifically how the universe in which we live evolved and is evolving and the processes that ultimately operationally govern our existence.
As I have also argued, one person’s dream is another person’s nightmare. A universe without purpose or guidance may seem, for some, to make life itself meaningless. For others, including me, such a universe is invigorating. It makes the fact of our existence even more amazing, and it motivates us to draw meaning from our own actions and to make the most of our brief existence in the sun, simply because we are here, blessed with consciousness and with the opportunity to do so.
Afterword by Richard Dawkins
As Krauss and a colleague wittily put it, “We live at a very special time . . . the only time when we can observationally verify that we live at a very special time!”
If you think that’s bleak and cheerless, too bad. Reality doesn’t owe us comfort.
Virgil Flowers, Book 10, because, sure, why not?
Okay, I planned ahead.
Knowing I would be on a plane for eight hours, knowing that I am incapable of sleeping on a plane unless have the space of an entire row, knowing that once I was done with My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry I wouldn't be in any mood to read something thoroughly brain-engaging, and knowing at that point I would have been up for 20 hours, I chose to bring this book along.
I'd been enjoying the Virgil Flowers series for what it is, a non-difficult, entertaining, quick read. This one did not disappoint. I did enjoy it, but recall my brain was, well, awake for many more hours than it was used to being awake, so grain of salt and all that.
This book lacks the previous books' bantering, only one reference to f---in' Flowers, and it didn't make me laugh out loud. I did enjoy that there were no Prey references, there was little of the girlfriend, and that Flowers seems to be as confused as pretty much anyone else would be, given the murder situation that he encountered.
The book is a quick read. It's not a great read, but if you're a fan of the series, or Sandford as a writer in general, keep reading. If you're not a fan of either, start with the first book to get a feel before getting this far.
“I’m not talking about religion. I’m talking about God,” Virgil said. “I’m a Lutheran minister’s kid, and, believe me, there’s a difference between a religion and God. I sorta cut out the middleman.”
There wasn’t anything in particular, except awkward traces of the dead woman. It wasn’t the first time he’d been struck by the unexpected interruption of murder: you leave the wine bottles by the sink, thinking you’ll put them in the recycling in the morning, and a week later here they still are because you’re dead.
“That’s not the entire point here,” Griffin said. “We don’t only want them to stop, we want people to see that they get punished."
This is the third (and a half) book I've read by Fredrik Backman. With such a long title, I can't say I would have chosen to read it, even with liking Backman, but no, I'm kidding there, I would have read it if I had known about it. Fortunately, my family knew about it and let me know about it, and it's adorable.
Imagine having a cranky old grandmother who is just awful and awesome at the same time. Now imagine being seven, almost eight, and having a mind of your own and the enviornment where you can speak it. Okay, okay, you're considered weird, and are in trouble a lot, and the school kids pick on your ALL THE F'ING TIME, but Granny!
Okay, not really.
Anyway, smart kid, dying grandmother, a mystery to solve, and a life to unfold. As kids, we don't realize that the adults around us have a history before us. Backman writes that clouded view and gives us a child's view of navigating grief and anger and life.
I enjoyed this book. The storytelling slowed me down a few times, I had to reread parts, and skipped over small parts when I was tired and figured the details would come back later when I needed them. It's a cute story, worth reading.
She shouldn’t take any notice of what those muppets think, says Granny. Because all the best people are different—look at superheroes. After all, if superpowers were normal, everyone would have them.
“Stop fussing. You sound like your mother. Do you have a lighter?”
“How long are you going to use that as an excuse?”
“Until I’m not seven anymore?”
Granny has had nine different nurses since she was admitted. Seven of these she refused to cooperate with, and two refused to cooperate with her, one of them because Granny said he had a “nice ass.” Granny insists it was a compliment to his ass, not to him, and he shouldn’t make such a fuss about it. Then Mum told Elsa to put on her headphones, but Elsa still heard their argument about the difference between “sexual harassment” and “basic appreciation of a perfectly splendid ass.”
She sits reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix on the iPad for about the twelfth time. It’s the Harry Potter book she likes the least; that’s why she’s read it so few times.
It’s very difficult not to love someone who can hear you say something as horrible as that and still be on your side.
Having a grandmother is like having an army. This is a grandchild’s ultimate privilege: knowing that someone is on your side, always, whatever the details. Even when you are wrong. Especially then, in fact.
Granny says people who think slowly always accuse quick thinkers of concentration problems. “Idiots can’t understand that non-idiots are done with a thought and already moving on to the next before they themselves have. That’s why idiots are always so scared and aggressive. Because nothing scares idiots more than a smart girl.”
Words I wish my granny had told me, though now that I think about it, I suspect Scott tried.
They sit there in the sort of silent eternity that only mothers and daughters can build up between themselves.
People who have never been hunted always seem to think there’s a reason for it. “They wouldn’t do it without a cause, would they? You must have done something to provoke them.” As if that’s how oppression works.
Like all hunters, shadows have one really significant weakness: they focus all their attention on the one they’re pursuing, rather than seeing their entire surroundings. The one being chased, on the other hand, devotes every scrap of attention to finding an escape route.
“Sometimes the safest place is when you flee to what seems the most dangerous,” said Granny, and then she described how the prince rode right into the darkest forest and the shadows stopped, hissing, at the edge. For not even they were sure what might be lurking inside, on the other side of the trees, and nothing scares anyone more than the unknown, which can only be known by reliance on the imagination. “When it comes to terror, reality’s got nothing on the power of the imagination,” Granny said.
All fairy stories take their life from the fact of being different. “Only different people change the world,” Granny used to say. “No one normal has ever changed a crapping thing.”
Only then does Elsa realize that it actually couldn’t have had a chance to relieve itself for several days, unless it did so inside its flat. Which she rules out because she can’t see how it could have maneuvered itself into using a toilet, and it certainly wouldn’t have crapped on the floor, because this is not the sort of thing a wurse would demean itself by doing. So she assumes that one of the wurse’s superpowers is clenching.
Because not all monsters were monsters in the beginning. Some are monsters born of sorrow.
“Because when you love someone very much, it’s difficult to learn to share her with someone else.”
“I think your grandmother functioned so well in chaotic places because she was herself chaotic. She was always amazing in the midst of a catastrophe. It was just all this, everyday life and normality, that she didn’t quite know how to handle."
The walls of the office are covered in bookshelves. Elsa has never seen so many books outside a library. She wonders if the woman in the black skirt has ever heard of an iPad.
Oh, I love libraries, personal and public.
It’s strange how quickly the significance of a certain smell can change, depending on what path it decides to take through the brain. It’s strange how close love and fear live to each other.
“Never mess with someone who has more spare time than you do,” Granny used to say. Elsa used to translate that as, “Never mess with someone who’s perky for her age.”
It’s easier to get people talking about things they dislike than things they like, Elsa has noticed. And it’s easier not to get frightened of shadows in the dark when someone is talking, whatever they’re talking about.
If you don’t like people, they can’t hurt you.
“It’s hard to help those who don’t want to help themselves.”
“Someone who wants to help himself is possibly not the one who most needs help from others,” Elsa objects.
But she doesn’t want to disappoint him, so she stays quiet. Because you hardly ever disappoint anybody if you just stay quiet.
The mightiest power of death is not that it can make people die, but that it can make the people left behind want to stop living, she thinks, without remembering where she heard that.
Death was Granny’s nemesis. That’s why she never wanted to talk about it. And that was also why she became a surgeon, to cause death as much trouble as she could.
People in the real world always say, when something terrible happens, that the sadness and loss and aching pain of the heart will “lessen as time passes,” but it isn’t true. Sorrow and loss are constant, but if we all had to go through our whole lives carrying them the whole time, we wouldn’t be able to stand it. The sadness would paralyze us. So in the end we just pack it into bags and find somewhere to leave it.
Fears are like cigarettes, said Granny: the hard thing isn’t stopping, it’s not starting.
“Sometimes it’s hard to share one’s sorrow with people one doesn’t know."
“Don’t fight with monsters, for you can become one. If you look into the abyss for long enough, the abyss looks into you.”
“Granny always said: ‘Don’t kick the shit, it’ll go all over the place!’ ”
Looks like dads do when it suddenly dawns on them that something they used to do because it was important to their daughters has now become one of those things their daughters do because it’s important to their dads. It’s a very thin line to cross. Neither dads nor their daughters ever forget when they do cross it.
She hates that Mum has secrets from her. When you know someone is keeping secrets from you it makes you feel like an idiot, and no one likes feeling like an idiot.
“Most likely they told her a whole lot of damned things she wasn’t allowed to do, for a range of different reasons. But she damned well did them all the same. A few years after she was born they were still telling girls they couldn’t vote in the bleeding elections, but now the girls do it all the same. That’s damned well how you stand up to bastards who tell you what you can and can’t do. You bloody do those things all the bloody same.”
“Why are you so horrible to each other if you’re brothers?”
“You don’t get to choose your siblings,” mutters Alf.
Bowled over by this, Elsa looks at him and waits, because she knows that only by waiting will she get him to tell the whole story. You know things like that when you’re almost eight. She waits for as long as she needs to.
It’s snowing again, and Elsa decides that even if people she likes have been shits on earlier occasions, she has to learn to carry on liking them. You’d quickly run out of people if you had to disqualify all those who at some point have been shits.
Now and then Elsa would ask Granny why grown-ups were always doing such idiotic things to each other. Granny usually answered that it was because grown-ups are generally people, and people are generally shits.
Granny then said the real trick of life was that almost no one is entirely a shit and almost no one is entirely not a shit. The hard part of life is keeping as much on the not-a-shit side as one can.
Tell him that sometimes things have to clear a space so something else can take its place.
The problem is this whole issue of heroes at the ends of fairy tales, and how they are supposed to “live happily to the end of their days.” This gets tricky, from a narrative perspective, because the people who reach the end of their days must leave others who have to live out their days without them. It is very, very difficult to be the one who has to stay behind and live without them.
A funeral can go on for weeks, because few events in life are a better opportunity to tell stories. Admittedly on the first day it’s mainly stories about sorrow and loss, but gradually as the days and nights pass, they transform into the sorts of stories that you can’t tell without bursting out laughing.
“So why are you together, then?”
“Because we accept each other as we are, perhaps.”
“And you and Mum tried to change each other?”
Note to self during reading: Why did I start reading this book? My goodness, this book is powerful.
Okay, first up, this book made me cry. It goes in the rare amazing category of "this book is amazing and/or life-changing, let me buy you a copy" books.
I started this book today, and finished this book today. I wanted something slightly different than the yet-another-astrophysics book I was reading, and picked this one up. And didn't put it down.
And I cried. So much of this book is about the unfairness of life, how the good are cut down too soon, how life takes unexpected turns, how much of life is loss, how we all struggle, and how beautiful a life can be when it has a passion, has meaning.
I don't know. In some ways, it was yet another reminder of how much of my life I have done wrong. That makes it a good book, I'd say, a book that causes self-reflection. As Kalanithi asks, "If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?"
I'm not spoiling anything by saying, hey, he dies in the end. We all die in the end. Not all of us go out gracefully, or so soon. Not all of us live as well or as intensely.
I will be rereading this book. It's amazing, let me buy you a copy.
I spent the next year in classrooms in the English countryside, where I found myself increasingly often arguing that direct experience of life-and-death questions was essential to generating substantial moral opinions about them. Words began to feel as weightless as the breath that carried them.
Moral speculation was puny compared to moral action.
The neatness of medical diagrams did nothing to represent Nature, red not only in tooth and claw but in birth as well.
I still had a lot of practical medicine to learn, but would knowledge alone be enough, with life and death hanging in the balance? Surely intelligence wasn’t enough; moral clarity was needed as well. Somehow, I had to believe, I would gain not only knowledge but wisdom, too.
By the end of the conversation, the family was not at ease, but they seemed able to face the future. I had watched the parents’ faces—at first wan, dull, almost otherworldly—sharpen and focus.
At those critical junctures, the question is not simply whether to live or die but what kind of life is worth living.
Because the brain mediates our experience of the world, any neurosurgical problem forces a patient and family, ideally with a doctor as a guide, to answer this question: What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?
Drowning, even in blood, one adapts, learns to float, to swim, even to enjoy life, bonding with the nurses, doctors, and others who are clinging to the same raft, caught in the same tide.
When there’s no place for the scalpel, words are the surgeon’s only tool.
I had to help those families understand that the person they knew—the full, vital independent human—now lived only in the past and that I needed their input to understand what sort of future he or she would want: an easy death or to be strung between bags of fluids going in, others coming out, to persist despite being unable to struggle.
To me, that hardness always seems brittle, unrealistic optimism the only alternative to crushing despair.
Openness to human relationality does not mean revealing grand truths from the apse; it means meeting patients where they are, in the narthex or nave, and bringing them as far as you can.
Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.
While most scientists connived to publish in the most prestigious journals and get their names out there, V maintained that our only obligation was to be authentic to the scientific story and to tell it uncompromisingly.
He paused. “Paul,” he said, “do you think my life has meaning? Did I make the right choices?”
If boredom is, as Heidegger argued, the awareness of time passing, then surgery felt like the opposite: the intense focus made the arms of the clock seem arbitrarily placed.
Doctors in highly charged fields met patients at inflected moments, the most authentic moments, where life and identity were under threat; their duty included learning what made that particular patient’s life worth living, and planning to save those things if possible—or to allow the peace of death if not.
Death comes for all of us. For us, for our patients: it is our fate as living, breathing, metabolizing organisms.
Our patients’ lives and identities may be in our hands, yet death always wins. Even if you are perfect, the world isn’t. The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients.
Part II: Cease Not till Death
It felt less like an epiphany—a piercing burst of light, illuminating What Really Matters—and more like someone had just firebombed the path forward. Now I would have to work around it.
“I think she likes you.” “And?” “Well, there’s that study that says doctors do a worse job prognosticating for patients they’re personally invested in.”
I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.
Yes, all cancer patients are unlucky, but there’s cancer, and then there’s CANCER, and you have to be really unlucky to have the latter.
What patients seek is not scientific knowledge that doctors hide but existential authenticity each person must find on her own. Getting too deeply into statistics is like trying to quench a thirst with salty water. The angst of facing mortality has no remedy in probability.
If the weight of mortality does not grow lighter, does it at least get more familiar?
Years ago, it had occurred to me that Darwin and Nietzsche agreed on one thing: the defining characteristic of the organism is striving.
After so many years of living with death, I’d come to understand that the easiest death wasn’t necessarily the best.
The monolithic uncertainty of my future was deadening; everywhere I turned, the shadow of death obscured the meaning of any action.
Why? Because I could. Because that’s who I was. Because I would have to learn to live in a different way, seeing death as an imposing itinerant visitor but knowing that even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.
Moral duty has weight, things that have weight have gravity, and so the duty to bear mortal responsibility pulled me back into the operating room.
The tricky part of illness is that, as you go through it, your values are constantly changing. You try to figure out what matters to you, and then you keep figuring it out.
The way forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d write a book. Give me ten years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: What was I supposed to do with that day?
She had done what I had challenged myself to do as a doctor years earlier: accepted mortal responsibility for my soul and returned me to a point where I could return to myself.
I didn’t know. But if I did not know what I wanted, I had learned something, something not found in Hippocrates, Maimonides, or Osler: the physician’s duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face, and make sense of, their own existence.
It featured a frustrated Jesus whose metaphorical language receives literal interpretation from his followers:
Not only that, but maybe the basic message of original sin isn’t “Feel guilty all the time.” Maybe it is more along these lines: “We all have a notion of what it means to be good, and we can’t live up to it all the time.” Maybe that’s what the message of the New Testament is, after all. Even if you have a notion as well defined as Leviticus, you can’t live that way. It’s not just impossible, it’s insane.
There we were, doctor and patient, in a relationship that sometimes carries a magisterial air and other times, like now, was no more, and no less, than two people huddled together, as one faces the abyss.
Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present.
Epilogue by Lucy Kalanithi
Paul’s decision not to avert his eyes from death epitomizes a fortitude we don’t celebrate enough in our death-avoidant culture.
“Bereavement is not the truncation of married love,” C. S. Lewis wrote, “but one of its regular phases—like the honeymoon. What we want is to live our marriage well and faithfully through that phase too.”
Okay, I really don't know where I found the recommendation for this book, or why exactly I picked it up to read, other than it is a book on writing. Except that this is a book on writing non-fiction, and, well, let's be real, I write fiction.
Unsurprisingly, however, I enjoyed the book. I read it more slowly than I normally read books because much of the advice McPhee gives is embedded in the stories he tells. The format of the book is some varied order of story-lesson-example repeated, with the themes of structure, editors, checkpoints, and the like.
The book is such a great book for writers, not only because McPhee is a fun writer with an intelligent moustache (his joke, read the book to understand), but also because the structure of the book is as instructive as the lessons in it. The book is so much more enjoyable in the story-telling than it would be with only the lessons.
Which is, one would think, one of the points.
The last part of the book talks about the confidence of writers and how words, any words, down for the first draft, are often the hardest part of writing. I do so appreciate this part of the book a lot. Draft No 4 is usually the winner, YMMV.
I appreciated this book a lot, for the stories, for the structure, and for the lessons. I strongly recommend the book for anyone who writes non-fiction, but not necessarily of the technical sort.
Even more so, however, new pieces can shoot up from other pieces, pursuing connections that run through the ground like rhizomes. Set one of these progressions in motion, and it will skein out in surprising ways, finally ending in some unexpected place.
I had assembled enough material to fill a silo, and now I had no idea what to do with it.
Mrs. McKee made us do three pieces of writing a week. Not every single week. Some weeks had Thanksgiving in them. But we wrote three pieces a week most weeks for three years.
This ... is awesome.
To lack confidence at the outset seems rational to me. It doesn’t matter that something you’ve done before worked out well. Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you.
“You can build a strong, sound, and artful structure. You can build a structure in such a way that it causes people to want to keep turning pages. A compelling structure in nonfiction can have an attracting effect analogous to a story line in fiction.”
The white space that separated the Upset Rapid and the alpinist said things that I would much prefer to leave to the white space to say — violin phraseology about courage and lack of courage and how they can exist side by side in the human breast.
The procedure eliminated nearly all distraction and concentrated just the material I had to deal with in a given day or week. It painted me into a corner, yes, but in doing so it freed me to write.
Kedit’s All command helps me find all the times I use any word or phrase in a given piece, and tells me how many lines separate each use from the next.
Or, as Tracy Kidder wrote in 1981, in The Soul of a New Machine, “Software that works is precious. Users don’t idly discard it.”
"I don't know WHAT he is talkinga about," she thinks as she laments the loss of OSX 10.6.
Often, after you have reviewed your notes many times and thought through your material, it is difficult to frame much of a structure until you write a lead. You wade around in your notes, getting nowhere. You don’t see a pattern. You don’t know what to do. So stop everything. Stop looking at the notes. Hunt through your mind for a good beginning. Then write it. Write a lead.
Stop looking at the notes. Hunt through your mind for a good beginning. Then write it. Write a lead. If the whole piece is not to be a long one, you may plunge right on and out the other side and have a finished draft before you know it; but if the piece is to have some combination of substance, complexity, and structural juxtaposition that pays dividends, you might begin with that acceptable and workable lead and then be able to sit back with the lead in hand and think about where you are going and how you plan to get there.
... if the piece is not to be a long one, you may plunge right on and out the other side and have a finished draft before you know it; but if the piece is to have some combination of substance, complexity, and structural juxtaposition that pays dividends, you might begin with that acceptable and workable lead and then be able to sit back with the lead in hand and think about where you are going and how you plan to get there. Writing a successful lead, in other words, can illuminate the structure problem for you and cause you to see the piece whole—to see it conceptually, in various parts, to which you then assign your materials. You find your lead, you build your structure, you are now free to write.
In slightly altered form, I’m including them here. I would go so far as to suggest that you should always write your lead (redoing it and polishing it until you are satisfied that it will serve) before you go at the big pile of raw material and sort it into a structure.
All leads — of every variety — should be sound. They should never promise what does not follow.
A lead is a promise. It promises that the piece of writing is going to be like this. If it is not going to be so, don’t use the lead.
Morning Star one year, I was full of admiration for the way Evan S. Connell would briefly mention something, amplify it slightly fifteen pages later, and add to it twenty pages after that, gradually teasing up enough curiosity to call for a full-scale set piece.
What to include, what to leave out. Those thoughts are with you from the start. While scribbling your notes in the field, you obviously leave out a great deal of what you’re looking at.
Broadly speaking, the word “interests” in this context has subdivisions of appeal, among them the ways in which the choices help to set the scene, the ways in which the choices suggest some undercurrent about the people or places being described, and, not least, the sheer sound of the words that bring forth the detail.
I wanted the story of the voyage to begin in total darkness on the ship’s bridge at 4 a.m. in the southeast Pacific Ocean off Valparaiso, and to be given the immediacy of the present tense.
Of course, ValparaIso, Chile, not ValparAiso, Indiana.
Still, caught my attention.
Ending pieces is difficult, and usable endings are difficult to come by. It’s nice when they just appear in appropriate places and times.
If you have come to your planned ending and it doesn’t seem to be working, run your eye up the page and the page before that. You may see that your best ending is somewhere in there, that you were finished before you thought you were.
When am I done? I just know. I’m lucky that way. What I know is that I can’t do any better; someone else might do better, but that’s all I can do; so I call it done.
It dealt with tedium, and the yearning of people who go to sea to get off the sea.
Grass is always greener, etc.
Shawn edited the piece himself, as he routinely did with new writers of long fact, breaking them in, so to speak, but not exactly like a horse, more like a baseball mitt.
Love this analogy.
In discussing a long fact piece, Mr. Shawn would say, often enough, “How do you know?” and “How would you know?” and “How can you possibly know that?” He was saying clearly enough that any nonfiction writer ought always to hold those questions in the forefront of the mind.
The writing impulse seeks its own level and isn’t always given a chance to find it.
Young writers find out what kinds of writers they are by experiment. If they choose from the outset to practice exclusively a form of writing because it is praised in the classroom or otherwise carries appealing prestige, they are vastly increasing the risk inherent in taking up writing in the first place. It is so easy to misjudge yourself and get stuck in the wrong genre. You avoid that, early on, by writing in every genre. If you are telling yourself you’re a poet, write poems. Write a lot of poems. If fewer than one work out, throw them all away; you’re not a poet. Maybe you’re a novelist. You won’t know until you have written several novels.
I have long thought that Ben Jonson summarized the process when he said, “Though a man be more prone and able for one kind of writing than another, yet he must exercise all.” Gender aside, I take that to be a message to young writers.
As Confucius might say, You are what you can’t become, but you can see to it, for a time, that no one becomes what you are.
No one will ever write in just the way that you do, or in just the way that anyone else does. Because of this fact, there is no real competition between writers. What appears to be competition is actually nothing more than jealousy and gossip.
My advice is, never stop battling for the survival of your own unique stamp. An editor can contribute a lot to your thoughts but the piece is yours—and ought to be yours—if it is under your name.
Editors have come along who use terms like “nut graph” — as in “What this piece needs is a good nut graph” — meaning a paragraph close to the beginning that encapsulates the subject and why you are writing about it. That sort of structural formalism is a part of the rote methodology that governs the thought of people who don’t have better ideas.
Something something five paragraph essay something...
Writers come in two principal categories — those who are overtly insecure and those who are covertly insecure — and they can all use help. The help is spoken and informal, and includes insight, encouragement, and reassurance with regard to a current project. If you have an editor like that, you are, among other things, lucky; and, through time, the longer the two of you are talking, the more helpful the conversation will be.
If doing nothing can produce a useful reaction, so can the appearance of being dumb. You can develop a distinct advantage by waxing slow of wit. Evidently, you need help. Who is there to help you but the person who is answering your questions? The result is the opposite of the total shutdown that might have occurred if you had come on glib and omniscient.
We should just be hoping that our pieces aren’t obsolete before the editor sees them.
Frames of reference are like the constellation of lights, some of them blinking, on an airliner descending toward an airport at night. You see the lights. They imply a structure you can’t see. Inside that frame of reference—those descending lights—is a big airplane with its flaps down expecting a runway.
Frank wrote that he was wondering if all of us are losing what he felicitously called our “collective vocabulary.” He asked, “Are common points of reference dwindling? Has the personal niche supplanted the public square?” My answer would be that the collective vocabulary and common points of reference are not only dwindling now but have been for centuries. The dwindling may have become speedier, but it is an old and continuous condition.
It was a story told to me by John A. Wheeler, who, during the Second World War, had been the leading physicist in residence at the Hanford Engineer Works, on the Columbia River in south-central Washington, where he attended the startup and plutonium production of the first large-scale nuclear reactor in the world.
The Japanese called the balloons fūsen bakudan. Thirty-three feet in diameter, they were made of paper and were equipped with incendiary devices or high explosives. In less than a year, nine thousand were launched from a beach on Honshu. They killed six people in Oregon, five of them children, and they started forest fires, and they landed from Alaska to Mexico and as far east as Farmington, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit.
The worst checking error is calling people dead who are not dead. In the words of Joshua Hersh, “It really annoys them.”
An almost foolproof backup screen to the magazine-to-book progression is the magazine’s vigilant readership. After an error gets into The New Yorker, heat-seeking missiles rise off the earth and home in on the author, the fact-checker, the editor, and even the shade of the founder.
Block. It puts some writers down for months. It puts some writers down for life. A not always brief or minor form of it mutes all writers from the outset of every day.
That four-to-one ratio in writing time—first draft versus the other drafts combined—has for me been consistent in projects of any length, even if the first draft takes only a few days or weeks.
The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something—anything—out in front of me.
The difference between a common writer and an improviser on a stage (or any performing artist) is that writing can be revised. Actually, the essence of the process is revision. The adulating portrait of the perfect writer who never blots a line comes Express Mail from fairyland.
This makes me ponder if this is why podcasts are so difficult for me.
"...Who was I to take on that subject? It was terrifying. One falls into such projects like slipping into caves, and then wonders how to get out. To feel such doubt is a part of the picture—important and inescapable. When I hear some young writer express that sort of doubt, it serves as a checkpoint; if they don’t say something like it they are quite possibly, well, kidding themselves.”
The developing writer reacts to excellence as it is discovered—wherever and whenever—and of course does some imitating (unavoidably) in the process of drawing from the admired fabric things to make one’s own.
"... A relaxed, unself-conscious style is not something that one person is born with and another not. Writers do not spring full-blown from the ear of Zeus.”
It is toward the end of the second draft, if I’m lucky, when the feeling comes over me that I have something I want to show to other people, something that seems to be working and is not going to go away.
You draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity.
I like this idea.
The dictionary definitions of words you are trying to replace are far more likely to help you out than a scattershot wad from a thesaurus.
The value of a thesaurus is not to make a writer seem to have a vast vocabulary of recondite words. The value of a thesaurus is in the assistance it can give you in finding the best possible word for the mission that the word is supposed to fulfill.
There can be situations, though, wherein words or phrases lie between the specific object and the clause that proves its specificity, and would call for the irregular restrictive “which.”
Today I became aware of the irregular restrictive "which," which I now love!
House style is a mechanical application of things like spelling and italics. In The New Yorker, “travelling” is spelled with two “l” s.
Oh heck yes.
Reading a sentence like “She didn’t know what happened to the other five people travelling with her,” they will see that what the writer could mean is that the traveller was one of eleven people on the trip.
This is high-alloy nitpicking, but why not?
There is elegance in the less ambiguous way. She didn’t know what happened to the five other people who were travelling with her.
To linger in the same thin air, what is the difference between “further” and “farther”? In the dictionary, look up “further.” It says “farther.” Look up “farther.” It says “further.” So you’re safe and can roll over and sleep. But the distinction has a difference and O.K.’ ers know what’s O.K. “Farther” refers to measurable distance. “Further” is a matter of degree. Will you stop pelting me with derision? That’s enough out of you. You’ll go no further.
Five years later, when I happened to be writing about lacrosse in Manchester, England, I worked in the word “Mancunian” three times in one short paragraph. It was the second-best demonym I’d ever heard, almost matching Vallisoletano (a citizen of Valladolid).
Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going.
At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in—if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got.
Never market-research your writing. Write on subjects in which you have enough interest on your own to see you through all the stops, starts, hesitations, and other impediments along the way.
Ideally, a piece of writing should grow to whatever length is sustained by its selected material—that much and no more.
Writing is selection. From the first word of the first sentence in an actual composition, the writer is choosing, selecting, and deciding (most importantly) what to leave out.
In other words: There are known knowns — there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. Yes, the influence of Ernest Hemingway evidently extended to the Pentagon.
This is from Rumsfield in 2002.
And this quote keeps coming up in the various books I'm reading, too.
The creative writer leaves white space between chapters or segments of chapters. The creative reader silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space.
When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author.
Creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have.
And I give them the whole of the Gettysburg Address (twenty-five lines, Green 3). Memorization and familiarity have made that difficult, yes, but scarcely impossible. For example, if you green the latter part of sentence 9 and the first part of sentence 10, you can attach the head of 9 to the long tail of 10 and pick up twenty-four words, nine per cent of Abraham Lincoln’s famously compact composition:
9. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here
10. to the great task remaining before us …
Yes. Those two lines would flow better that way. But, Lincoln, so we keep it the same as it ever was.
Rob Whiteley recommended this book to me, mentioning that the book is short, yet profound when it comes to determining what bullshit is, and what it is not.
The book is an essay on bullshit. Given the title, this should be obvious. It should have taken me about a half hour to read. I spent much longer reading it, because some parts of it were worth rereading and sitting with, before continuing.
Key points include: bullshit is different than lying, bullshit is closer to bluffing than lying, bullshitting is more acceptable than lying, and, as Rob quoted to me, not all speech is intended to express reality. Intent is also a part of bullshit, as is truth (specifically, not necessarily caring what the truth is at the moment).
The book is, as Rob says, worth a read. Most libraries have it. I recommended heading over to your nearest, sitting down with a cup of coffee, and reading it during lunch.
Also as Rob says:
The idea behind it is subtle but powerful.
It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth — this indifference to how things really are — that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.
What is distinctive about the sort of informal discussion among males that constitutes a bull session is, it seems to me, something like this: while the discussion may be intense and significant, it is in a certain respect not “for real.”
It does seem that bullshitting involves a kind of bluff. It is closer to bluffing, surely, than to telling a lie.
In fact, people do tend to be more tolerant of bullshit than of lies, perhaps because we are less inclined to take the former as a personal affront. We may seek to distance ourselves from bullshit, but we are more likely to turn away from it with an impatient or irritated shrug than with the sense of violation or outrage that lies often inspire.
Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth.
Since they are told only on account of their supposed indispensability to a goal other than deception itself, Saint Augustine regards them as being told unwillingly: what the person really wants is not to tell the lie but to attain the goal.