Guns, Germs, and Steel – Jared Diamond, 1997, 2003, 2005

Another classic I’d been meaning to read for years that the Nature and Environment book group tackled. It’s a great book, with one of the broadest sweeps of anything I’ve read except maybe A Brief History of Everything. Diamond succeeds admirably in what he sets out to do—illuminate why human development “proceed at such different rates on different continents”—and it’s one of the delights of the book to see how his particular background enables him to do it justice, from having a linguist and a doctor as parents, to being obsessed with birds, to spending years in New Guinea. As we discussed in the book group, though, the title is a bit of a misnomer since guns are made out of steel, and it omits the huge role played by animal and plants species which the book itself emphasizes. “Domesticated Species, Germs, and Guns” wouldn’t have the same ring though.

Things I learned: how recent many of our familiar diseases are (mumps 400 BCE, leprosy 200 BCE, polio 1940); the orientation of continental axes (east/west in Eurasia vs north/south in Africa and the Americas) makes a big difference to agricultural diffusion because of day length and temperature changes; how irregularly large-seeded grass species are distributed (32 species in the Mediterranean zone vs only 11 in all of the Americas).

On political leadership in small groups: “The chief may either combine the offices of political leader and priest in a single person, or may support a separate group of kleptocrats (that is, priests) whose function is to provide ideological justification for the chiefs.” It’s interesting and depressing that the non-food-producing specialists who develop as a consequence of food surplus always include kings and bureaucrats, and not just craftsmen and artists.

In a band, where everyone is closely related to everyone else, people related simultaneously to both quarreling parties step in to mediate quarrels. In a tribe, where many people are still close relatives and everyone at least knows everyone else by name, mutual relatives and mutual friends mediate the quarrel. But once the threshold of “several hundred” … has been crossed, increasing numbers of dyads become pairs of unrelated strangers. … [M]any onlookers will be friends or relatives of only one combatant and will side with that person, escalating the two-person fight into a general brawl. Hence a large society that continues to leave conflict resolution to all of its members is guaranteed to blow up. That factor alone would explain why societies of thousands can exist only if they develop centralized authority to monopolize force and resolve conflicts.

And yikes:

Even in democracies today, crucial knowledge is available to only a few individuals, who control the flow of information to the rest of the government and consequently control decisions. For instance, in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, information and discussions that determined whether nuclear war would engulf half a billion people were initially confined by President Kennedy to a ten-member executive committee of the National Security Council that he himself appointed; then he limited final decisions to a four-member group consisting of himself and three of his cabinet ministers.

The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light – Paul Bogard, 2013

A local light pollution activist, James Lowenthal, requested that a Forbes book group read this. My Nature and Environment book group alternates between classics of nature writing, “issue books,” and cross-disciplinary works, so this seemed perfect as an issue book choice and we pushed The Selfish Gene to next year in order to read this one. It’s so well-written (I think–not everyone agreed!) and comprehensive that it verges into cross-disciplinary—way better than I expected. James and his wife came to the discussion and brought interesting brochures from the International Dark-Sky Association, and we discussed various local issues around street lighting (Northampton put in a lot of new LED lights that are terrible for glare and night vision). But we spent plenty of time talking about the book as well. It’s an elegy to so much that we’ve lost without even recognizing it.

When I think of how light pollution keeps us from knowing real darkness, real night, I think of Henry David Thoreau wondering in 1856, “Is it not a maimed and imperfect nature that I am conversant with?” He was writing about the woods around Walden Pond and how the “nobler” animals such as wolf and moose had been killed or scared away. “I hear that it is but an imperfect copy that I possess,” he explained, “that my ancestors have torn out many of the first leaves and grandest passages, and mutilated it in many places. I should not like to think that some demigod had come before me and picked out some of the best of the stars.” Some 150 years later, this is exactly what we have allowed our lights to do. “I wish to know an entire heaven and an entire earth,” Thoreau concluded. Every time I read this I think, Me, too.

Bogard interviews François Jousse, a lighting architect in Paris, who describes his work:

“I want that the building says something with the light,” he explains. “But the speaking can be different. Maybe it’s an architectural speech, maybe it’s a historical speech, maybe it’s humorous. Sometimes the speech can be spiritual. Sometimes people say to me, But nobody will understand what the building says. And I say, It’s not a problem, the building says something and it’s beautiful because the building says something.”

Bonnie, who encourages other women to go out at night:

“It’s this manufactured fear that creates a perception that something bad is going to happen to you.” The reality, she says, is that as you sit at home watching TV “something bad is happening—you’re getting sick, and you’re missing out.”

…already in Australia they’re speaking of solastagia, about missing a loved place that still exists but to which the old birds and plants and animals no longer come. A word newly coined for our time, solastalgia combines the Latin word for comfort (solacium) and the Greek root meaning pain (algia) and differs from nostalgia in that it’s a yearning for a place you still inhabit rather than one you’ve left behind. It’s a word we’ll be hearing more often, for wherever we live, the climate has changed, or soon will. Next to my own death or that of my family this is the darkness I fear most, this sadness at the ongoing destruction of the wild world.

It’s a tremendously sad book in some ways, mourning the loss of what most people don’t even recognize we ever had, and yet light pollution is something, unlike climate change, which is instantly fixable and reversible. Turn off the lights, and the stars are still there in all their majesty. Not one iota has been truly lost.

The turning Earth, the presented universe—in the dry desert air the stars come down to the horizon, in the west blinking out as they fall from the world’s edge, and in the east blinking on, as though lit and set into the sky by some happy wild creatures just on the mountain’s other side.

Bogard briefly mentions the artist James Turrell (misspelled as “Terrell”), who’s building an installation near Flagstaff to facilitate the experience of “celestial vaulting,” where you feel like you’re falling into the stars. Earlier this summer I’d attended MassMOCA’s grand opening of the new Building 6, where a number of Turrell pieces are installed as “Into the Light.” They are great ways of experiencing dark adaptation, as you need to enter dark rooms and stay there until you can fully see the works.

At the very end, Bogard quotes Wendell Berry’s “To Know the Dark,” which also serves as the epigraph:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

Usually you have to flip back to the front of the book to check the epigraph, and it’s easy to forget. I love the book-ending here. One of my favorite books I’ve read this year!

July 2017 – to be linked

I was talking to Jonathan about my pattern with this blog since its inception: I really enjoy having written each post, but don’t get to it very often because it takes time and energy, and then the books pile up physically and psychically because I impractically think I’ll do each one. He suggested that I just do the ones I actually get to, which I’ve attempted before. But starting in 2016, while my blogs were down, I started just a running list and that was satisfying in its own way. So my compromise idea is to make a list and link in the posts if I actually write them.

  • The Sea-Gull – Anton Chekhov, 1895 – in preparation for seeing Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird at Silverthorne, which was great!
  • Hillbilly Elegy – J.D. Vance, 2016
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter Miller Jr., 1960
  • How to Become a Straight-A Student – Cal Newport, 2006
  • The Noise of Time – Julian Barnes, 2016
  • The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light – Paul Bogard, 2013
  • Père Goriot– Honoré de Balzac, 1835
  • The Immaterial Murder Case – Julian Symons, 1945
  • Emily Dickinson Is Dead – Jane Langton, 1984
  • J’irai cracher sur vos tombes – Boris Vian (as Vernon Sullivan), 1946
  • And Five Were Foolish – Dornford Yates, 1924
  • As Other Men Are – Dornford Yates, 1925
  • Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World – Cal Newport, 2016

Père Goriot– Honoré de Balzac, 1835

This was the July selection for the Great Books group. I read the original French as an epub first and then the translation by A. J. Krailsheimer in paper, so the latter is what I flagged for quotes. My reading French is still very good (I was bilingual as a kid and went through the French school system all the way through high school, but my oral French is pretty lousy now), but I knew I would still miss some context and I always like being able to compare to the translation. This one is very good! The only strange thing I noticed was “plump as a presbytery cat” for “dodue comme un rat d’église” (literally “plump as a church rat”), which presumably was to avoid the confusing analogy with “poor as a church mouse.” It sounds like the connotation in Balzac is supposed to be more metaphorical: a civil employee of a parish, ie sort of feathering her own bed?

It was an interesting combination of social commentary—Rastignac experiencing the various levels of society—with a Lear-ish family drama of father spoiling ungrateful daughters, but to me overall too sentimental and exaggerated to feel real, without the saving humor and passion of a Dickens. A delightful, truly modern-feeling bit was the lodgers’ faddish appendage of “-rama” to various words, which made a strong contrast with the horrific 19th century medicine (Goriot on his death-bed being tortured with mustard plasters and moxibustion).

I guess this is going to be the norm for my book club entries: ending with the dump of quotes! (although it’s is only a subset of what I originally flagged)

…he finally lay down and slept like a log. For every ten nights that young men pledge themselves to work, they spend seven asleep. You need to be over 20 to stay awake.

Vautrin, the voice of the non-respectable outsider:

“Those who get spattered in their carriages are respectable people, those who do so on foot are rogues. Just have the bad luck to pinch something or other and you’ll be pointed out as a curiosity outside the Law Courts. Steal a million and you’ll be held up as an example of virtue in the salons.

No doubt ideas are projected in direct proportion to the force with which they are conceived, and strike where the brain directs them, by a mathematical law which may be compared to that governing the bombs shot out of a mortar. Their effects are varied. If there are sensitive characters in whom ideas lodge and wreak havoc, there are also armour-plated characters, skulls with bronze ramparts against which the will of others is flattened out and drops like bullets against a wall. Then again there are flabby, wooly characters on whom the ideas of others fall spent like cannon-balls harmlessly absorbed by the soft earth of the redoubt. Rastignac’s head was one of those that are filled with gunpowder and explode at the slightest shock. He had too much youthful intensity to be impervious to this projection of ideas…

Bianchon, the feet-on-the-ground medical student:

“For my part I am content with the modest living I shall make in the provinces… A man’s desires can just as easily be satisfied in the smallest of circles as within an immense circumference. Napoleon didn’t dine twice a day, and couldn’t take any more mistresses than a medical student doing his house training at the Capuchins. Our happiness, my friend, will always lie between the soles of our feet and the crown of our head. Whether it costs a million francs a year or a hundred louis our basic perception of it is just the same within us.”

The Noise of Time – Julian Barnes, 2016

The Second Monday book group at Forbes rotates volunteer discussion leaders, and I signed up for this one because I like Barnes (although I haven’t read that much by him). It’s a meditation on courage and power’s corrupting effect on art, told as the inner thoughts of Dmitri Shostakovich at three low points in his life when he was humiliated by the Soviet Union. In my own reading I had mixed feelings about the historical fiction aspect, but the discussion brought me around to unqualified admiration. It’s so well structured and patterned, and even though Barnes’ “Shostakovich” is a construct, the choice makes sense. And it’s a jewel of compression–under 200 pages but very rich and full, which led to a great discussion. I typically flag a bunch of passages and then weed them down; some keepers:

On his parents’ relationship: “The strong cannot help confronting; the less strong cannot help evading.”

There was nothing in his life for those weeks except love, music, and mosquito bites. The love in his heart, the music in his head, the bites on his skin. Not even paradise was free of insects. But he could hardly resent them. Their bites were ingeniously made in places inaccessible to him; the lotion was based on an extract of carnation flowers. If a mosquito was the cause of her fingers touching his skin and making him smell of carnations, how could he possibly hold anything against the insect?

In an ideal world, a young man should not be an ironical person. At that age, irony prevents growth, stunts the imagination. It is best to start life in a cheerful and open state of mind, believing in others, being optimistic, being frank with everyone about everything. And then, as one comes to understand things and people better, to develop a sense of irony. The natural progression of human life is from optimism to pessimism; and a sense of irony helps temper pessimism, helps produce balance, harmony.
But this was not an ideal world, and so irony grew in sudden and strange ways. Overnight, like a mushroom; disastrously, like a cancer.

Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art’s sake: it exists for people’s sake. … He wrote music for the ears that could hear. And he knew, therefore, that all true definitions of art are circular, and all untrue definitions of art ascribe to it a specific function.

He admired those who stood up and spoke truth to Power. He admired their bravery and their moral integrity. And sometimes he envied them; but it was complicated, because part of what he envied them was their death, their being put out of the agony of living. … He too had felt the vanity of transitory courage.
But these heroes, these martyrs, whose death often gave a double satisfaction–to the tyrant who ordered it, and to watching nations who wished to sympathise and yet feel superior–they did not die alone. Many around them would be destroyed as a result of their heroism. And therefore it was not simple, even when it was clear.

What could be put up against the noise of time? Only that music which is inside ourselves—the music of our being—which is transformed by some into real music. Which, over the decades, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, is transformed into the whisper of history.

In New York, he had gone to a pharmacy for some aspirin. Ten minutes after he left, an assistant was seen fixing a sign in the window. It read: DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH SHOPS HERE.

Now that he had seen more of life, and been deafened by the noise of time, he thought it likely that Shakespeare had been right, had been truthful: but only for his own times. In the world’s younger days, when magic and religion held sway, it was plausible that monsters might have consciences. Not anymore. The world had moved on, become more scientific, more practical, less under the sway of the old superstitions. And tyrants had moved on as well. Perhaps conscience no longer had an evolutionary function, and so had been bred out. Penetrate beneath the modern tyrant’s skin, go down layer after layer, and you will find that the texture does not change, that granite encloses yet more granite; and there is no cave of conscience to be found.

… how much bad music is a good composer allowed? … He had written a lot of bad music for a lot of very bad films. Though you could say that his music’s badness made those films even worse, and thus rendered a service to truth and art.

What he hoped was that death would liberate his music: liberate it from his life. Time would pass, and though musicologists would continue their debates, his work would begin to stand for itself. History, as well as biography, would fade: perhaps one day Fascism and Communism would be merely words in textbooks. And then, if it still had value—if there were still ears to hear—his music would be … just music. That was all a composer could hope for. Whom does music belong to, he had asked that trembling student, and thought the reply was written in capital letters on a banner behind her interrogator’s head, the girl could not answer. Not being able to answer was the correct answer. Because music, in the end, belonged to music. That was all you could say, or wish for.

And one strange editing oversight, I assume: a great line about “He swam in honours like a shrimp in shrimp-cocktail sauce,” but it appears twice! (in the Knopf hardcover, pages 126 and 146) Even Homer nods…

On Rereading – Patricia Meyer Spacks, 2011

I re-read a lot, especially for comfort but also in book groups or to revisit works that are especially meaningful to me. My reading memory is so terrible that I often have forgotten plot and character enough to be surprised again, but even when I do remember, I almost always notice new angles or features. I also love reading about reading, so I was prepared to enjoy this book, but it exceeded my expectations. Spacks articulates many aspects of re-reading that ring true to me:

The experience of reading [Brighton Rock] seemed new, although the book itself did not. This distinction is vital to rereading’s pleasures. Even give perfect memory of a text from previous reading, I would posit, … the act of rereading under new circumstances, as a new moment, virtually guarantees new thoughts and feelings.

She examines different kinds of rereading: children’s books, Jane Austen, “guilty pleasures,” books she “ought to like,” professional reading (she’s a professor of English at U of Virginia), and also branches into reading with other people–revisiting Islandia, one of my liked-but-never-got-all-the-way-throughs. Three of the most interesting chapters to me were rereadings of books she associated with the 1950s (Lucky Jim and Catcher in the Rye), 60s (The Golden Notebook), and 70s (The Sacred and Profane Love Machine by Iris Murdoch). Many of the books she mentions I’ve also reread, and even if I didn’t feel the same way–the Narnia books haven’t worn out for me as they have for her–her descriptions are always interesting and convincing. Her ultimate conclusion is that rereading is more complex than one might think, and that it’s often more about us changing as people than about the text itself:

To think about my own rereading has encouraged a sense of humility, especially when it comes to questions of value. … Although I still hold that the question of value deserves pondering in relation to everything read, I’m no longer sure that such reflection produces solid results in any individual instance. My uncertainly comes from my reversals over the years. … The really unsettling part is that my standards remain the same. I value complex characterization, effective and elegant prose, meaningful and engaging plot, large import. I find exactly these qualities, however, where I did not find them before; and they have disappeared where I once readily discerned them.

We3: the Deluxe Edition – Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely, 2011

When my mother found me reading comic books, she would always say, dismissively, “Don’t strain your brain!” That came back to me ironically about this graphic novel (originally issued as 3 comics)–it is a strain for me to read image-heavy/text-light books. The creators described this as “Western Manga,” which captures the type of wordless narration. Three pets–a dog, a cat, and a rabbit–have been kidnapped and turned into experimental cyborg soldiers who escape. Very violent and gory, yet studded with some amazing images. I don’t have a lot of passion or time for the genre usually, but love for Franco-Belgian comics (Asterix, Tintin, Lucky Luke) and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics keep me coming back to dip a toe in here and there. Particularly interesting in this one is exploration of the “pop-out effect,” which the after-matter in the deluxe edition explains:

We chose to treat the page not as a flat 2-D surface upon which panels were “pasted” down flat but as a virtual 3-D space in which panels could be “hung” and “rotated” or stacked one on top of the other. … This is a completely new way of depicting high-speed action which only comics can do.

Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë, 1847

I don’t think I had actually read this before about 2013, just seen the Olivier/Oberon movie, and that first time I kind of hated it. It’s the Great Books selection for June, and this time through I appreciated it much more. Firstly because the humor in the initial section really jumped out this time:

[Lockwood trying to flirt with Cathy] “Ah, your favorites are among these!” I continued, turning to an obscure cushion full of something like cats. … Unluckily, it was a heap of dead rabbits.

[Cathy desisted only to] push away a dog, now and then, that snoozled its nose over-forwardly into her face.

[Heathcliff describes Isabella and Edgar fighting over a little dog] ‘The idiots! That was their pleasure! to quarrel who should hold a heap of warm hair, and each begin to cry because both, after struggling to get it, refused to take it.’

and secondly in thinking of hygge, the coziness that’s heightened by a blizzard outside–Heathcliff and Catherine as the awful storm, the people we can feel happy not to know or be. As a Gothic ghost story instead of a Gothic romance, it makes much more sense to me. On my previous reading, I thought it would be more like Jane Eyre (one of my all-time favorites) and expected Catherine to be the Jane and Heathcliff the Rochester, but they have only superficial similarities and are really both horrible, violent, cruel people through and through. Then Lockwood and Nelly Dean make more sense as the true protagonists in a way, who survive the awfulness of everything else. I had also forgotten there’s a happy ending for Cathy and Hareton.

Some more quotes, this one from sensible Nelly Dean:

You shouldn’t lie till ten. There’s the very prime of the morning gone long before that time. A person who has not done one half his day’s work by ten o’clock, runs a chance of leaving the other half undone.’

From Catherine:

I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me forever, and changed my ideas; they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.

…the fool’s craving to hear evil of self that haunts some people like a demon!

[to Nelly] But I begin to fancy you don’t like me. How strange! I thought, though everybody hated and despised each other, they could not avoid loving me.

Cathy and Linton quarrel over their ideas of happiness (both sound pretty good to me!):

He said the pleasantest manner of spending a hot July day was lying from morning till evening on a bank of heath in the middle of the moors, with the bees humming dreamily about among the bloom, and the larks singing high up overhead, and the blue sky and bright sun shining steadily and cloudlessly. That was his most perfect idea of heaven’s happiness: mine was rocking in a rustling green tree, with a west wind blowing, and bright white clouds flitting rapidly above; and not only larks, but throstles, and blackbirds, and linnets, and cuckoos pouring out music on every side, and the moors seen at a distance, broken into cool dusky dells; but close by great swells of long grass undulating in waves to the breeze; and woods and sounding water, and the whole world awake and wild with joy. He wanted all to lie in an ecstasy of peace; I wanted all to sparkle and dance in a glorious jubilee. I said his heaven would be only half alive; and he said mine would be drunk: I said I should fall asleep in his; and he said he could not breathe in mine, and began to grow very snappish.

A parting note: Nelly Dean must be the least effective servant ever. Any time somebody asks her to keep X away from Y, or prevent Z from happening, exactly the opposite occurs! She even confesses as much, before retracting it:

I seated myself in a chair, and rocked to and fro, passing harsh judgment on my many derelictions of duty; from which, it struck me then, all the misfortunes of my employers sprang. It was not the case, in reality, I am aware; but it was, in my imagination, that dismal night; and I thought Heathcliff himself less guilty than I.

The Water-Buffalo Children (1943) and The Dragon Fish (1944) – Pearl S. Buck

We owned these as a single paperback, and I remember at least Dragon Fish being one of the stories my father dictated onto his reel-to-reel tape deck for us to have as bedtime stories when he was out. (Appropriate to remember around Father’s Day–thanks, Daddy!) What led me to dig them up was a quote from Wolf Totem that I forgot to transcribe:

Westerners eat with a knife and fork, devour rare beef, consume cheese and butter. That is why they have kept a lot of their primitive, animal nature, much more so than agricultural peoples.

That reminded me of the “ew, you smell like butter!” idea from The Water-Buffalo Children, which was one of the few memories I had of this book–I vaguely remembered it was Pearl Buck, but the the other vivid images were of Alice’s mother making her warm milk and toast and an egg to welcome her home, and of the heavy jade dragon fish. I had forgotten Da Lobo, the cranky water-buffalo, and the fact that Lan-may and Alice, who meet and find the dragon fish, both run away from home because they are tired of boys. A lot of cliches, but still enjoyable stories.

The House on the Edge of Things – Ethel Cook Eliot, 1923/2012

Apparently I haven’t yet written about The Little House in the Fairy Wood, a lost favorite from childhood that I rediscovered thanks to the wonderful Loganberry Books “Stump the Bookseller” and subsequently digitized for Project Gutenberg. Since then I’ve been fascinated by Ethel Cook Eliot, especially since we moved to Northampton MA, where she lived most of her life. I have a long-standing vague project to write up something about her–so many interesting connections! Diane Arbus, the Little Theater movement, Northampton natural history, Sylvia Plath– and I’ve tracked down as many as her works as I can find (and afford). This one started turning up in searches fairly recently, to my surprise since I thought I knew of all her titles, it’s dated 1923 (same as Wind Boy), and I can’t find any evidence of the original publication details. This copy is new, published by Raven Rocks Press, who also re-issued The Wind Boy and The House Above the Trees – and wow, looking at their website, there’s also a bunch of interesting connections there and I could go right down the rabbit hole. But stopping at the edge for now–this was quite disappointing compared to LHFW and her other work. It reads like it may have been written much earlier, possibly as free-standing stories. It still has charm and originality, and the physical book is very nice, with color plates by Eliot’s sister-in-law which were presumably executed in the 20s, and pen and ink illustrations by another relative (granddaughter?). Best of all, there’s a photo and author bio that adds to my picture of her. Tantalizing!