January 2024 books read

  • The Book of Form and Emptiness – Ruth Ozeki, 2021. Quotes marked, TBD.
  • Whalefall – Daniel Kraus, 2023. Liked but didn’t love this “The Martian inside a whale” science thriller. Cool ideas, but the writing was just way, way too purple, and the peril/damage so over the top. The premise (scuba diver trapped inside a sperm whale) would have worked on its own without daddy issues and reputational repair.
  • How to Keep House While Drowning: A Gentle Approach to Cleaning and Organizing – K.C. Davis, 2022. I would have gotten a lot out of this several decades go; it was really cheering/amazing to reflect how I’ve come so far with my ADHD that this was mostly second nature already, although most credit goes to Jonathan for doing the bulk of the stuff I struggle with.
  • The Alpine Path: The Story of My Career – L.M. Montgomery, 1917. Reading The Blue Castle last month got me thinking about which Montgomerys I hadn’t read yet; I started The Story Girl but am not loving it, so I turned to this memoir partly because I adore Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The One I Knew the Best of All, which I must have neglected to record because I’ve certainly read it in the past six or seven years. Anyway, this was a little interesting but not very insightful and a bit disjointed.
  • Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest – Suzanne Simard, 2021.
  • Tom Brown’s Schooldays – Thomas Hughes, 1857.
  • The Fellowship of the Ring – J.R.R. Tolkien, 1954.

Didn’t finish

The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor – Howard Marks, 2011. This came up because I was searching for a copy of Charlie Munger’s Poor Charlie’s Almanack, which doesn’t seem to be available in library systems (because out of print now, and was originally too expensive, and/or self-published and not available through distributors?) But wait, now a copy has shown up on order through CW Mars – people must have been asking since his death gave a spurt of publicity. But wait again, now an abridged version is online? Anyway, somewhere a version of this book came up in association with that one (it’s blurbed by Warren Buffett, but I thought there was more to it) and it was available through the public library. It basically emphasized to me, for the umpteenth time, that individual stock investing is a mug’s game. “The most important thing” is actually 19 different things – “they’re all important,” says Marks – most of which are outside a regular person’s control. However, I got a couple of quotes before abandoning the book:

  • “Experience is what you got when you didn’t get what you wanted.” (And just recently I heard a similar saying from a relative who’s a ski guide: “Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgement.”)
  • “In basketball they say, ‘You can’t coach height.'”
  • Marks attributes this to Yogi Berra, but per QI it was first written by a Yale student in 1882: “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.”
  • Marks calls this an adage: “Being too far ahead of your time is indistinguishable from being wrong.” Interestingly, the Internet now mostly attributes it to him!
  • Marks attributes to John Maynard Keynes, but QI traces to Gary Shilling: “The market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.”

Wow, that’s a bad – but typical! – ratio on the attribution accuracy!

The Fellowship of the Ring – J.R.R. Tolkien, 1954

This was an unusual choice for Great Books, prompted by a long-term member who’s read a lot of mythology. It didn’t get high marks! I enjoyed re-reading it, but I had never been able to get through any Tolkien until the Peter Jackson LOTR movies, and I certainly sympathize with the general critiques that it doesn’t rank with actual myth, it’s a bit tedious and sexist, and the poetry is second-rate. But this time around both the beautiful descriptions of nature, and the WWII atmosphere of end-times (which apparently Tolkien denied referencing) really resonated with me.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

‘I am not made for perilous quests. I wish I had never seen the Ring! Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?’

‘Such questions cannot be answered,’ said Gandalf. ‘You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.’

I learned

  • glede – a hot coal
  • hythe – landing-place in a river
  • eyot – small island

Example of what makes me roll my eyes

  • “We have now come to the River Hoarwell, that the Elves call Mitheithel. It flows down out of the Ettenmoors, the troll-fells north of Rivendell, and joins the Loudwater away in the South. Some call it the Greyflood after that.”
  • “under them lies Khazad-dûm, the Dwarrowdelf, that is now called the Black Pit, Moria in the Elvish tongue”

Short quotes

  • Gandalf re what Gollum “deserves”: “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
  • “a cup that was filled with a fragrant draught, cool as a clear fountain, golden as a summer afternoon”
  • Goldberry’s response when Frodo asks if the land belongs to Tom Bombadil: “‘That would indeed be a burden,’ she added in a low voice, as if to herself. ‘The trees and the grasses and all things growing or living in the land belong each to themselves.'”
  • “Nothing passes doors or windows save moonlight and starlight and the wind off the hill-top.”
  • “The wind began to blow steadily out of the West and pour the water of the distant seas on the dark heads of the hills in fine drenching rain.”
  • “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”
  • “despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt”
  • “You may learn something, and whether what you see be fair or evil, that may be profitable, and yet it may not. Seeing is both good and perilous.”
  • “For the fate of Lothlórien you are not answerable, but only for the doing of your own task.”
  • “[Galadriel] seemed no longer perilous or terrible, nor filled with hidden power. Already she seemed to him, as by men of later days Elves still at times are seen: present and yet remote, a living vision of that which has already been left far behind by the flowing streams of Time.”
  • “The weather was still grey and overcast, with wind from the East, but as evening drew into night the sky away westward cleared, and pools of faint light, yellow and pale green, opened under the grey shores of cloud. There the white rind of the new Moon could be seen glimmering in the remote lakes.”
  • “A golden afternoon of late sunshine lay warm and drowsy upon the hidden land between. In the midst of it there wound lazily a dark river of brown water, bordered with ancient willows, arched over with willows, blocked with fallen willows, and flecked with thousands of faded willow-leaves. The air was thick with them, fluttering yellow from the branches; for there was a warm and gentle breeze blowing softly in the valley, and the reeds were rustling, and the willow-boughs were creaking.”

Tom Brown’s Schooldays – Thomas Hughes, 1857

For the Massachusetts Center for the Book challenge, “A book you read years ago that you may feel differently about now.” My brief summing up: “I read this 1857 classic multiple times as a child, absorbing its messages about becoming a stiff-upper-lip cricket-playing British boy despite being a timid American girl. It’s mostly as retrograde as I remember, but with a few flashes of heart and humor.” This time around I looked so many things up!

And a few quotes

  • “There isn’t such a reasonable fellow in the world, to hear him talk. He never wants anything but what’s right and fair; only when you come to settle what’s right and fair, it’s everything that he wants, and nothing that you want. And that’s his idea of a compromise.”
  • “if I go and snivel to him, and tell him I’ve really tried to learn it but found it so hard without a translation, or say I’ve had a toothache, or any humbug of that kind, I’m a snob”
  • “bear in mind that majorities, especially respectable ones, are nine times out of ten in the wrong”
  • East: “Now I’ve seen a deal of this sort of religion; I was bred up in it, and I can’t stand it. If nineteen-twentieths of the world are to be left to uncovenanted mercies, and that sort of thing, which means in plain English to go to hell, and the other twentieth are to rejoice at it all, why——” And when he tells his doubts to Arnold, “he didn’t tell me not to follow out my thoughts, and he didn’t give me any cut-and-dried explanation.”
  • Arnold: “Don’t be in a hurry about finding your work in the world for yourself; you are not old enough to judge for yourself yet, but just look about you in the place you find yourself in, and try to make things a little better and honester there. You’ll find plenty to keep your hand in at Oxford, or wherever else you go. And don’t be led away to think this part of the world important, and that unimportant. Every corner of the world is important. No man knows whether this part or that is most so, but every man may do some honest work in his own corner.”

Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest – Suzanne Simard, 2021

Read for Nature and Environment. While the research was fascinating, ultimately I didn’t think it was a great book. We loved how she treated Indigenous knowledge respectfully, and used the tribe names.

In this book I learned about

  • enchytraeids (common name is potworms)
  • pauropods – I think I’ve seen these. Excellent quote by Lord Avebury in Wikipedia: “a bustling, active, neat and cleanly creature. It has, too, a look of cheerful intelligence, which forms a great contrast to the dull stupidity of the Diplopods [millipedes], or the melancholy ferocity of most Chilopods [centipedes].”
  • genet – “one fungal individual …, of singular genetic identity, like an individual person”

Short quotes

  • “My instinct has always been to listen to what living things are saying. We think that most important clues are large, but the world loves to remind us that they can be beautifully small.”
  • One of the clunkiest sentences ever (and it ends a paragraph): “‘Mon chou,’ Wilfred exclaimed while knocking the wedge of sapwood out with the back of his axe-head, leaving a yawning grin that resembled their own mouths, since they’d lost most of their teeth to cavities in their teens, now replaced with dentures.”
  • “I understood the pride of claiming what was grandest, the temptation—green-gold fever. The handsomest trees captured top prices. They meant jobs for the locals, mills staying open. I checked out this one’s immense bole, seeing the cut through Ray’s eyes. Once you start hunting, it’s easy to get addicted. Like always wanting to snag the tallest peaks. After a while, your appetite can never be sated.”
  • “I loved the generous rhythm of the way the land and the forest and the rivers came together to refresh the winds at the close of each day. Helped settle us all down for the night. Air purified by the ancient forests hovered, and I let the downdraft cleanse me.”
  • “The lichens and mosses and algae and fungi were also steady as could be, gradually building up the soil, quietly in tandem. Things—and people—working together so that something noticeable could occur.”
  • “Interactions over resources isn’t a winner-take-all thing; it’s about give-and-take, building more from a little and finding balance over the long term.”
  • Her father tells her to “imagine an audience as a bunch of cabbages,” so throughout the book she references “nodding cabbages” or says “the cabbages tilted forward.”
  • “We emphasize domination and competition in the management of trees in forests. And crops in agricultural fields. And stock animals on farms. We emphasize factions instead of coalitions.”
  • “[I] stopped at a sapling shedding its parka of snow. After I swept the last crust of melded crystals away, its supple stem slowly straightened. We are built for recovery, I thought.”
  • “Maybe the fast-cycling fungi could provide a way for the trees to adjust swiftly to cope with change and uncertainty. Instead of waiting for the next generation of trees to reproduce with more adaptive ways of coping with the soils warming and drying as climate changes, the mycorrhizal fungi with which the trees are in symbiosis could evolve much faster to acquire increasingly tightly bound resources.”
  • “The eagle suddenly lifted, caught an updraft, and vanished past the peaks. There is no moment too small in the world. Nothing should be lost. Everything has a purpose, and everything is in need of care. This is my creed. Let us embrace it. We can watch it rise. Just like that, at any time—all the time—wealth and grace will soar.”

Longer quote

Ecosystems are so similar to human societies—they’re built on relationships. The stronger those are, the more resilient the system. And since our world’s systems are composed of individual organisms, they have the capacity to change. We creatures adapt, our genes evolve, and we can learn from experience. A system is ever changing because its parts—the trees and fungi and people—are constantly responding to one another and to the environment. Our success in coevolution—our success as a productive society—is only as good as the strength of these bonds with other individuals and species. Out of the resulting adaptation and evolution emerge behaviors that help us survive, grow, and thrive.

We can think of an ecosystem of wolves, caribou, trees, and fungi creating biodiversity just as an orchestra of woodwind, brass, percussion, and string musicians assemble into a symphony. Or our brains, composed of neurons, axons, and neurotransmitters, produce thought and compassion. Or the way brothers and sisters join to overcome a trauma like illness or death, the whole greater than the sum of the parts. The cohesion of biodiversity in a forest, the musicians in an orchestra, the members of a family growing through conversation and feedback, through memories and learning from the past, even if chaotic and unpredictable, leveraging scarce resources to thrive. Through this cohesion, our systems develop into something whole and resilient. They are complex. Self-organizing. They have the hallmarks of intelligence. Recognizing that forest ecosystems, like societies, have these elements of intelligence helps us leave behind old notions that they are inert, simple, linear, and predictable. Notions that have helped fuel the justification for rapid exploitation that has risked the future existence of creatures in the forest systems.