Life, Naturally: Humboldt & Extinction

The last two books I read took me a long time to read. Not so much because they weren’t good– on the contrary, it was fascinating to learn about concepts like ecology and extinction– but because I was traveling, spending time with friends, reading other books in between, and gardening a lot.

Isn’t this why most of us struggle to find time to read? Life’s details often get in the way of our best reading lives.

The commitment I made to reading two nonfiction books, both The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf and The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, was absolutely worth it. I actually stopped in the middle of The Sixth Extinction to find my copy of The Invention of Nature because Kolbert was namedropping Humboldt and I meant to know more about him back in December when I bought Wulf’s book as a Christmas gift to myself.

Reading can be complicated. But it was an excellent choice.

The Invention of Nature  was incredible. I had never even heard of Alexander von Humboldt, the democratic polymath who was so influential he established standards and cultivated new ideas in political discourse, scientific exploration, poetry, art, and countless other areas. I’m baffled by the reasons we’ve forgotten who he is as a culture.

This was a man who started talking about deforestation and global warming in 1827.

The Sixth Extinction was equally interesting but in a completely different way. I knew a lot about extinction from reading The Invention of Nature but this was a contemporary focus on the Anthropocene, the name scientists have given our current age of human destruction.

No judgement. I am, after all, mostly homo sapiens myself.

I was fascinated by details such as the fact that homo sapiens of Europeans and Asian descent are 1-4% Neanderthal, according to current research on the genomes of both species, and the study of the effects of mass extinction, which has occurred at least five times on a global scale and is now occurring for a sixth.

As a teacher, I often have to explain the difference between facts and opinions. This is a fact, not a political statement: humans significantly impact global ecology. 

The politicizing of these issues is probably the single most successful act of special interest groups supporting the goals of commerce and leading corporations worldwide. However, as someone who has the almost insurmountable challenge of teaching not only the difference between fact and opinion, but how to tell which is which, I assure you this is an apolitical statement: we are changing (and have always changed) the planet. Historically, it’s what we do.

This is an empirical fact, not a political opinion.

We’re all connected. Whether or not there are frogs living in the Amazon may not seem important to your everyday life, but if the frogs disappear, the insects they feed on may increase, which might mean they spread a previously unknown disease, which could travel around the world and, one day, land on your doorstep. We are connected in ways our most intelligent scientists are only beginning to uncover, and they’ve been at it for more than two centuries.

It’s both terrifying and fascinating to think about these facts.

I think this is why I love nonfiction, and why it takes me so long to read it: nonfiction collects the facts fiction helps us process through narrative. When I read nonfiction, it becomes a part of my own narrative. This takes more time– and honestly stresses me out a little bit because it’s a little more work to read– but anything worth doing is difficult. If you get a chance to read nonfiction it gives you the opportunity to widen your awareness of the infinite intricacies hidden in plain sight all around us. The force binding us to the planet is the same force keeping the stars apart.

And that’s life, naturally.

 

 

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24in48: Read Like You Mean It, Pt. 2

It’s over. Aside from an unfortunate incident involving missing tacos, I read all day today. I started around 12 and ended around 12. Altogether, counting distractions, I’d say I managed at least 20 hours. I’m tired, but content. 

I’m also really looking forward to doing something active tomorrow. 

Don’t get me wrong, all the lounging about reading books this weekend was everything I hoped it would be. I finished Bonita Avenue in one sitting, although knowing what I know now I will choose my stack more carefully next time. 

Let me explain. Bonita Avenue was a heavy, saturated novel describing often deeply complicated relationships between fragmented families and their flawed participants. The prose was so rich, the plot so tertiary to the internal landscapes of each character, each sentence resonated long after the initial reading. This requires processing time, a prolonged rumination spaced with contemplative activities like walking or washing dishes, to truly appreciate. 


Still, it was a lovely book and I’m delighted my friend recommended it! I plan on coming back to it sometime later, maybe while I’m pondering the bleak wastes of Iceland or traveling across the isolated moors.

Since Bonite Avenue was all too real and terrifying in a completely human way, I turned to Bird Box next. Bird Box was terrifying in a completely inhuman way, although some hysteria added to the chaos of invasive, inhuman creatures. It was the quickest read by far, weighing in at a mere 272 pages, with a good deal of dialogue and quick, short sentences. The whole style of the writing created a sense of anxiety and impetus, moving the book forward at a tumultuous speed. As a reader, not being able to see the enemy, the terror behind ferrying two very young children through a dangerous landscape, and the insanity of survivors trying to manage the psychological burden of the event was tantalizing, to say the least.


Since at this rate, I was starting to get tired, I thought I’d try some short stories for a little instant gratification. Benjamin Hale’s The Fat Artist was a little more intense than I expected, even though I am familiar with his prose. His stories, again, have a disturbing way of tilting reality and his sense of rhythm and voice is hypnotizing. His narrators are singularly unflappable, or at least they tend to face the inevitability of their fates with a kind of dignity or acceptance that complements the author’s existential purposes. 


All told, I managed a little over 1,350 pages. I still have 143 pages left in the short story collection, but I’m confident I can take care of that before I leave for Oregon on Tuesday. And, of course, I already have my books picked out for the plane. 

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24 in 48: Read Like You Mean It, Pt. 1

Roughly 10 hours ago I started my first readathon. 

24 in 48 (24in48.com) asks readers to section off 24 hours over the course of a weekend. 24 hours of reading in whatever format, whether it’s audiobook, print, or electronic, to be divided over 48 hours however you wish. 


Today I wanted to log a good 12 hours. Aside from numerous breaks for tea, snacks, and one short nap, my focus never wavered. I made it 10 hours at the most, subtracting for lunch, posting, and the impromptu nap time. 

Honestly, I’m embarrassed not to reach my goal. 

I regularly spend hours on end devouring books. Just yesterday I slammed a new book club selection over a croissant and some chai, occupying a highbacked cafe couch for about 4 hours of loitering bliss. However, I’m not sure if I’m up to the challenge of reading for a full 24 hours, even if it is spread over 48 hours. I still have time tomorrow, but still…

I did finish Empire of Things, though. (Finally!)

Have you ever read something and immediately wanted to re-read it because the information was so seemingly infinite you  know you would notice new things the second time through? If I had nothing to do for a week, I would read it again.


This book traces intricate patterns through centuries of global history: mainly, the interaction between society and its various cycles of consumption. The relevancy of shifting consumption patterns connected meticulously to the larger concepts addressed in each chapter, which in turn connected to the larger context addressed in each section. I never felt lost or considered the information irrelevant because the careful focus and clear explanations in each chapter clearly described the context and connection between each point of research.

Even the sequence of the chapters were fastidiously organized. The decidedly inclusive global perspective and staggering historical scope presented in the first section implicitly laid the foundation for the analysis and data presented in the second section. Frankly, it’s surprising the author only needed 700 pages to explore the topic. 

Because of this relative economy, any reviews of this book tend to fall woefully short of encapsulating both its importance and purpose. One reviewer even asserted the goal of the book was to examine the wastefulness of consumer culture. This is far too reductive. Although the argument for eliminating waste is compelling, it is by no means the author’s only purpose. The book itself is much larger than any singular message. 

Instead, it presents the facts and then leaves the reader to make of them what he or she will. 

After reading the (albeit, fascinating) nonfiction leviathan, I craved fiction, so I just started Peter Buwalda’s Bonita Avenue. I’m already mesmerized by the complex characters and am excited to see them continuously tangled up in fascinating ways. But more on that tomorrow! 

For now, I better head to bed. I have a lot of reading left to do…

 

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Immersive Reading, or What I Learned at the MACRA Conference Last Fall

Last fall I went to the same reading conference I go to every year. This year, there was a new presenter who talked about a very successful reading concept he’d tried with his students: immersive reading.

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He described immersive reading as reading in a time and place that most clearly emulates the time and place described in the book. Specifically, he mentioned having his students read a local author’s work in the place where the local author lived and wrote at dawn, a scene he wrote about in his book.

Very, very cool stuff.

cover.jpg.rendition.460.707It got me thinking, what are other immersive environments? I’ve been reading Empire of Things by Frank Trentmann. It’s a fascinating historical account of the history of consumerism and the rise of consumer culture. How much more fun would it be to read in a shopping mall? Or sitting at Nordstrom’s?

So I tried it.

I sat on a lovely bench outside a number of boutiques and read. All around me were the quiet sounds of commerce. While watching men and women stroll in and out of shops, their glass storefronts an image of the types of identities they were purchasing, I contemplated the author’s commentary on the moral dichotomy between luxury and materialism as a vice or virtue of modern culture. As I strolled through, shopping in between chapters, I saw each thing in a new light. Both the environment and the book became cross illuminated by the experience.

In short, it worked.

On the way home my fiancé and I brainstormed other immersive reading experiences. Here are a few we came up with:

  1. The Post Office by Charles Bukowski, while waiting in line at a post office.
  2. The Trial by Franz Kafka, while attending court or on jury duty.
  3. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, while visiting a large library.
  4. Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson, while wintering a snow storm.
  5. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, while cruising to Canada.
  6. The Waves by Virginia Woolf, within the sound of the seashore.
  7. Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell, anywhere in the Pacific Islands.
  8. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, while walking the Appalachian Trail.
  9. Joyland by Stephen King, anywhere in North Carolina.
  10. Edward Rutherford, in any of his book’s eponymous cities.

Obviously there are many, many more options here. These are just the ones we could come up with on the car ride home.

All the same, I’m looking forward to sharing my own limited immersive reading experiences with the same speaker at next year’s conference and hopefully collaborating on designing even better reading experiences.

Please share more immersive reading ideas in the comments! The options are infinite.

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Stuff Matters & The Dark Lady of DNA

This month I read two books that made me want to raise my fist defiantly and shout “Science!” 

I’m currently waiting for Lab Girl to become available at the library. I can’t buy any new books until I build more shelves, and I really wanted to read something science-related so, I read a couple I already had on the shelf!

My book addiction counselor would call this progress. But I digress. 

Science, like everything, is a social construct. The same way society discusses inconsequential questions like “Is this dress blue or white?” another, much more exclusive society discusses such important questions as the carrying capacity of an African swallow.

The difference? Scientists use mathematics, method, and experimentation. 

In movies, science is the careful measuring of various colored liquids by studious men (and to a lesser degree, women) illuminated by the cool blue light of computer displays. The reality, although less cinematic, is also more fascinating.

Stuff Matters starts with a shocking vignette about the author as a young man and an attempted stabbing. This spurrs a conversation about steel, also carried by a discussion of the author/scientist’s drunken night at a pub with a friend. The book continues providing these points of reference even as it moves into the discussion of how crystals form in graphite or concrete creates our homes and workplaces. The whole book pivots on the items found in a single photograph of the author, sitting at his breakfast table in his roof garden, explaining each item shown in fascinating detail.

The book doesn’t just provide a relatable context for the materials science it discusses, but delves into historical contexts as well. The effect is transformative. I have a new appreciation for my windowless office and the steel body of my new car.

The second book, Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, was inspired by a hilarious joke my old undergraduate physics professor posted on Facebook. 

This sounded shady. I hoped I was going to get a chance to participate in some juicy lab gossip that included sticking it to the male scientific patriarchy with the righteous fire of indignation. I was not disappointed. 

Instead, I was very pleasantly surprised to find the life of Rosalind Franklin to be fascinating. The biographer depicted the sensitivity of her subject in rich detail, showing not only the character arc, but the depth and quality of research necessary to make Rosalind real. She succeeded in making one of the most historically misunderstood women in science not only understandable, but showed the true admiration and regard her work deserved without heavy-handed lay crowing about injustice. Her treatment of the way Watson misrepresented a woman who was not only a trusted colleague and contributor, but a departed friend, allowed the facts to speak for themselves and left the reader to his or her own conclusions. 

Also, it made the joke much funnier to know what it was about. 

I’m still waiting for Lab Girl, but now the waiting is even harder. If every science-y book is as compelling as the two I just read, I might have a new favorite genre. On a more practical note, this might mean I need to plan for more shelves. 

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What I Read While I Wasn’t Writing

As the semester draws to a close, I tend to do a lot less writing about reading.

It’s not that I stop reading, because then I’d stop breathing, but I run out of brainpower. I think it’s the over-whelming tide of grading and end of the year planning, writing term papers for my graduate courses, and designing summer coursework that does it.

This summer I’m waiting tables, taking a Master’s course, and teaching 2 online courses, so this will leave me a lot more time to write about reading. In the meantime, here’s a list of some of the books I’ve read since we last spoke:

The Cormoran Strike Series (#1-3)

This has been the most fun to read. I’m very attached to the characters and really enjoy how the pacing moves you through the story like a rollercoaster. Also, it has that hard-boiled detective feel that I so love. Nicely done, Rowling.

More detective stories read this month: The Writing on the Wall, The Shogun’s Daughter, The Tree People, & Black Orchid Blues.

 

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The Grand TourOur Days in Stockholm

I also read a couple of interesting mini-biographies about authors, namely Steig Larsson and Agatha Christie.

The Steig Larsson book was fascinating and made me feel like a whiner (see first and second paragraph) considering he wrote the Millennium series at night to relax from his day job as an investigative journalist. Chew on the for a second.

13624013The Agatha Christie book was a lot more fun, with plenty of pictures, and letters, which I always love. (I used to love reading collections of letters in college but fell out of practice recently.) Did you know Agatha Christie was an expert surfer? I didn’t, but I’m currently working on an Agatha Christie tattoo incorporating that fact. Maybe her, Mrs. Marple, and Poirot riding a surf board with the caption hang-ten? Anyway, this made me want to reread all of her novels while traveling the world. Needless to say, this was a great feeling.

 

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk13325079

I wanted to read this because there was a blurb calling it “the modern day Catch 22” and I loved studying that book in Dr. Safer’s post-war literature course. Again, it did not disappoint! I would love to write a future blog post about how the two compare.

The Satanic Verses

I’ve been meaning to read this for a long time. Not only am I a fan of Rushdie’s other work, but also the book was published the year I was born, which always fascinates me.12781
It took me forever to get through this book, not because it was bad (it wasn’t) but because it was so dense and full of ideas. It was incredibly fun to read and think about but it was also a lot to process. I couldn’t chew it up and gulp it down the way I normally would. I had to stop every now and then and think about it and decide what it meant and work through the intricate story lines until I could pick it back up again. Still, I kept picking it back up. I probably will read it again at some point in the future, but not anytime soon.

Also read but not commented on:

Dancer, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The 5th Wave, Ender’s Game,  The Martian, The Girl Who Wrote in Silk, & 50 Ways to Pamper Your Cat

 

So that’s it until the end of the semester, my friends! In the meantime, happy reading!

 

 

 

 

 

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Weird Stuff: On the Suspension of Disbelief

Suspension of disbelief is the very basis of fiction. Readers and viewers alike allow themselves to be lied to for a little while in the interest of entertainment.

A very talented writer or filmmaker can make us forget this complicity, while others purposefully draw attention to it. I find myself nodding along with well-written dialogue, hearing the character’s voices loud and clear.throw-book-vintage.jpg

Other times I make a face and find myself saying aloud, disgustedly, “No he didn’t,” or “No she didn’t”. Then I throw the book across the room.

Sometimes I find myself jolted out of this delightful suspension by the oddest things. For example, when Martha stands on tiptoe to kiss a young Abe Lincoln in Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, I was immediately outraged. No young 19th century girl would compromise herself by kissing a young man in the street! And certainly not Martha Lincoln!

Then I remembered I was watching a movie about a previous president hunting a conspiracy of vampires and let it slide.

kafkaOn the other hand, there are authors like Haruki Murakami, who make suspension of disbelief subtle, but cutting. Reading Kafka on the Shore, for instance. So gradually does the author lure you into another world you hardly realize you left this one. Then again, in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, everything is stated so matter-of-factly, it becomes so believable, you hardly realize how much you’ve bought into.

It’s even more disturbing when you consider how the violence and dishonesty are the most real images of the book. windup

Basically, the weird stuff is what makes it work. But choosing the right weird stuff is what makes it work; magic happens when an author can make the unreal feel realer than reality, bending light in such a way as to trick the eye into thinking the horizon is straight.

So, anyway, that’s why I like Murakami.

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