Only too eager to have the machine installed in their brains, they did what they could, and, instead, installed their brains into the machine. Data sparkled in the mind void, bouncing about and careening into other bytes and clusters. But the crash cascades always came, a cannibalistic consumption of fact, transmogrifying it into a shabby soup of quasi-reality. Brain-pans paining, densely packed with alternate realities that could never be rectified. By the time they realized the virtue of going out to play, they were no longer sure what "outside" meant -- Outside of what? Where's the exit? Where is there something else? -something simple? How's one get off this speeding bus? It became the pain that ruled that last lost generation.
Not every writer—not even many literary greats—could pull off a book like this. It’s a collection of random speeches, front matter from books (not his own), liner notes, and the occasional eulogy for individuals living and dead. While the book is organized into sections on topics like other authors, comic books, films, and music, it seems that organization derives organically from the topics on which Neil Gaiman is asked to comment–rather than a desire to tighten the book’s theme.
If you’re a Neil Gaiman fanboy/girl, you’ll need no excuse to read anything that he puts out (even though–if that is the case–you’ll probably have read much of this before in separate outings.) So the question is why the rest of us—who may enjoy Gaiman’s writing tremendously but who don’t qualify as fanboys / fangirls—should read this. The reason that it’s worth reading is that Neil Gaiman is funny, has a way of framing ideas that makes them thought-provoking and interesting, and frequently writes quotable bits of text that are essentially brain candy.
The book’s title comes from an essay on Gaiman’s experience attending the Oscars from the upper balcony. As mentioned, the book is divided into thematic sections–ten of them to be precise. The book starts with “Some Things I Believe,” which presents speeches on the virtue of reading, libraries, books, and bookstores. The next section discusses people he has known and worked with—largely writers and graphic artists. Then Gaiman offers thoughts on the nature of science fiction, again mostly through book forwards on seminal works from the genre. There is a section on films and Gaiman’s experience with them—several of his works have been made into films and many others have been considered. The next part is on comic books and the works and artists that influenced Gaiman. The next section bears the title “Introductions and Contradictions” and it offers introductions for various books (not Gaiman’s but those written for other writers.) There’s a musical section about a few recording artists including They Might be Giants, Lou Reed, and—of course—Gaiman’s wife Amanda Palmer. Next, Gaiman presents some introductions and forwards for works of fantasy. One section includes only a solitary entry–a commencement speech entitled “Make Good Art.” The final section is sort of a catchall of essays that includes the title piece and one on events in Syria.
I’d recommend this book for those who enjoy reading (or writing) in the genres for which Gaiman is known. His comments offer interesting insight, and you may learn about some books and authors that you’d never heard of before.
That’s powerful phrasing. It’s much more effective than, say: “Nag your friends until they’re the change you desire.” It’s also far more potent than: “Write your legislator to draft a new bill so that we all have to be the change you wish to see.”
It’s powerful because it acknowledges that–whatever else you do–you have to set a good example by doing what you think is right. Even if that”s painful and lonely. It’s powerful because it’s bold.
That’s why it sticks in the mind. I once read an entire book by a well-known billionaire who made his fortune in foreign currency arbitrage. I was underwhelmed by the book and the character of the author, and don’t even remember the title because I remember thinking the title should have been: “Why It Should Be Illegal to do What I Did.” This individual came to believe it was morally repugnant to upset the economies of entire nations to make a quick buck, but the lure of making that buck was too great for him to stop without the threat that someone would put him in jail for it. In other words, instead of living by the motto of “be the change,” he lived by the motto of “If I don’t do it, someone else will.”
I guess he was expecting admiration, and must have been disappointed when I blurted, “how sad for you.”
But here is a person who has never stepped outside his comfort zone, who has no idea what he is capable of, and–moreover–he’s pleased as punch with that state of affairs.
Hot media are information sources that are packed with data (often simultaneously transmitted to multiple sensory organs at once), and that require little or no interpretation or analysis on the part of the recipient. Television and movies are prime examples.
Cool media are those information sources that offer relatively little data, but which require the receiver to interpret, interpolate, analyse, and draw conclusions about the information they receive. Books are the prime example of cool media.
There are people who proudly say, “I don’t have the time to read, but I only watch the Discovery Channel and Public Broadcasting.” If you think you’re getting smarter just like readers, you’re not. You’re still mainlining information, and the parts of your brain that have to exercise when you read (or otherwise take in information in an abstract form) are shut down.
I’m not suggesting one shouldn’t watch television, or that you can’t learn something from it. I’m just saying that if you don’t read, but try to educate yourself via TV, you are the intellectual version of this guy…
There are two ways to survive a harsh winter: you can squirrel away your pile of acorns or you can bear it by just not needing much.
Hitler killed the short-stache (a.k.a. the “toothbrush mustache.”) Imagine that, almost 70 years after his death, he still holds power over people’s decisions about facial hair.
This is a misplaced take-away lesson. It’s the unbridled narcissism, the icy hatred, and the irrational exuberance in the power of evil of Hitler that should be abandoned (yet, somehow, those intangibles still quietly exist.) It’s not the superficial aspects of Hitler that should be shunned, but the ones at the bastard’s core.
I’m not saying the toothbrush-stache was a good look. On the contrary–as one who has had a mustache his entire adult life and has worn a beard now for several years–I’m a little offended by the lack of commitment to one’s choice of facial hair that the toothbrush-stache represents. (Incidentally, I feel the same about the sole patch and mutton chops.) In my mind, one should go full-stache or go home to shave.
Still, there being no accounting for taste, I think those individuals who would otherwise find the short-stache appealing (i.e. you know, indecisive types who wear culottes and eat with sporks) should revive the toothbrush mustache as a big fuck-you to Hitler–don’t let tyrants boss you around from the grave.
Toothbrush mustache admirers of world, unite! (No, I won’t be joining you.)
In the interest of enhancing global understanding and camaraderie, I’ve built a translator of common first world (FW) problems–putting them in terms of their Rest of the World (RoW) equivalents.
FW: This food needs salt.
RoW: This food needs food.
FW: My health insurance premiums went up $20 per month.
RoW: My right foot, which recently turned from purple to black, just fell off.
FW: My car is in the shop again.
RoW: My right foot, which recently turned from purple to black, just fell off.
FW: It’s raining again today.
RoW: My house was washed off its foundations and is currently floating down the Brahmaputra River.
FW: Looks like those devils from the other party got a majority in the legislature.
RoW: This coup was particularly bloody.
FW: Squirrels are getting into my bird feeder.
RoW: A tiger ate my family.
FW: A traffic jam made me late for Pilates class.
RoW: While limping through the Kyber Pass to get antibiotics for my right stump, I was socked in by an unanticipated blizzard.
FW: My GPS says this road cuts under the interstate, but now I’ve got to go around.
RoW: What’s GPS?
I was sitting at an outdoor cafe as I thought about how to write this post. I’d just finished reading chapter 5 of the Rob Dunn book entitled The Wild Life of Our Bodies, and was reflecting upon how interesting it was to be reading two books whose central premise–in broad brush strokes–was the same. As I was ruminating, a family of four–a couple and their two daughters, an infant and a preschooler/kindergartener–came and sat down at an adjacent table.
For a while the preternaturally-cute infant crawled around on the table top, but as the mother became concerned that the wriggly little child might fall or spill scalding coffee, she eventually set the child down. The child proceeded to crawl around on the ground–ground on which one could easily imagine pigeons trolling for crumbs. [Full-disclosure: I didn’t actually see any pigeons, or even any noticeable filth on the ground for that matter, and–while this is India–it was a major coffee chain attached to the side of a popular up-scale shopping mall, and so that particular ground was probably at least hosed down daily.] The child crawled on all-fours, except that she had the plastic number placard which told the waitress where to bring the order in one of her hands, and she would alternate between dragging it across the ground and–when she got tired of crawling–she would roll onto her rump and pop a corner of the placard into her mouth.
If reading the preceding scene made you a bit queasy, you should be reading one [or both] of books mentioned above. Doing so gave me a totally different perspective on this event. There was a point when I–like many–would have assumed the little girl would get some sort of ailment and that her parents would pay in lost sleep for letting the kid crawl on the ground in an urban public space, but I’m now more inclined to think that probably nothing will happen, and she could–theoretically–end up better off for the wear. I’m not advocating wallowing in filth, but I have come to see biological stressors in a new light. I wouldn’t go so far as to advocate letting a child crawl around sticking things in his or her mouth that have been on the ground at a cafe, but it would no longer surprise me to hear that this child lived a healthier life than children of germophobic (properly “mysophobic”) first-world moms who are about one cookie-off-the-kitchen-floor from forcing their children to live in a bubble.
The reader may be wondering two things: 1.) how these books could mitigate one’s queasiness, and 2.) what the books even have in common. If you’re familiar with Nassim Nicholas Taleb, it’s likely you associate him with criticisms of the misuse of statistical methods, and the failure to understand under what conditions the usefulness of these methods break down. While Taleb does consider a wide range of examples in his popular books Black Swan, Fooled by Randomness, and–most recently and most relevantly–Antifragile, the world of business is where Taleb’s background lies and where much of his discussion is centered. The Dunn book, one the other hand, fits squarely in the domain of biology and medicine.
Both of these books take as their core idea that there are systems that must face constant and occasionally serious challenges to grow stronger, and that the removal of these challenges can have adverse and sometimes dire consequences. Taleb looks at such systems in a broad and general sense, and coins a term, “antifragile”, to describe such systems. A system is antifragile if it gets stronger (i.e. in some way better) when subjected to stresses. This shouldn’t be confused with robustness, which is being indifferent to stressors. Robust systems can take or leave stressors, but antifragile systems need them or they become weakened. Dunn’s book deals with a specific example of an antifragile system, our guts. The biologist suggests that our war on parasites and germs has created a whole raft of problems never before seen. It’s probably not a new idea to most readers, as there are ongoing arguments about the risks of our antibacterial frenzy.
While first-world dwellers tend to take a superior view of those poor third-worlders and their myriad ailments–a number of which have been stamped out in the developed world–Westerners may not even be aware that there are a number of ailments that exist almost exclusively in the first world. Increasing evidence is developing that certain forms of diabetes and allergies are linked to “clean living.” Interestingly, while one might readily imagine how a digestive tract ailment like Crohn’s Disease is tied to insufficiently populated digestive ecosystem, there’s reason to believe that diverse issues such as autism and anxiety disorders may also be linked to loss of internal predators and the imbalances their loss causes.
It’s not entirely a coincidence that I’m reading these books concurrently. I’ve been interested in the issue in a broad sense as of late. How does the craving of comfort weaken a population? What are the risks of indiscriminately weeding the stressors out of one’s life? (As seems to be a major objective of modernity.) Of course, stressors are not eliminated, but instead stressors that are relatively feeble may become the 800 lb. gorilla of stressors.
Amazon recently put out a list of 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime. I appreciate the mega-bookseller taking a less doctrinaire approach than, say, The Guardian’s 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read. Also, props to Amazon for including a number of contemporary works—though I guess that is self-serving of them (i.e. $10 versus $0 sales price)—so never mind.
Whenever I see one of these lists—and there are so many of them—I always feel a bit inadequate. I suspect I’m not alone, given a recent generic list posted by The Millions, entitled 28 Books You Should Read If You Want To. That author’s approach is laudable. She doesn’t hand out exact titles as if we all need the same books, but rather suggests the kind of books one should consider reading (but only if you want to.)
I read like a fiend. While I usually don’t read rapidly (I can; I learned how in grad school, but I prefer savoring to injecting words), I’m constantly reading. So it’s a little disappointing to see how I stack up in the grand scheme of list-makers.
At present I have read:
– 15 of Amazon’s 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime (15%)
– 12 of Esquire’s 80 Books Every Man Should Read (15%)
– 12 of The Telegraph‘s 100 Novels Everyone Should Read (12%)
– 3 of the Huffington Post’s 30 Books to Read Before You’re 30 (10%, and—sadly—yes, I’m over 30.)
– 45 of The Guardian’s 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read (4.5%)
So this brings me to the point of this post, which is to boost my self-esteem by building a list of books, all of which, I’ve read. As I considered the books I’ve read that I would be so bold as to recommend “everyone” read, I saw trends. First, I read a lot of thin books, or, perhaps, they stick with me more. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read some monsters Moby Dick (on everybody’s list—I don’t know why), Atlas Shrugged (on the Libertarian Book-of-the-Month Club list, and not much else), and 1Q84 (given a few years, it’ll be on all the lists.) However, it’s the thin books that have stuck with me, and they often get kicked aside by the [other] pretentious list makers. Also, shorter forms (e.g. essays, short stories, poems, and novellas) often don’t get properly recognized because everyone wants to talk about novels and tomes.
Second, while I like to consider myself an international reader (e.g. I’ve read a fair number of translated Japanese and Chinese classics), the fact of the matter is that I’ve had a skewed reading history. I’m an American, and have disproportionately read books that are either by Americans or that speak to the American worldview / mindset (my list will be both.) This isn’t so much an issue for most of the list makers as they simply propose that every Nigerian, Thai, and Peruvian should read a canon devoid of any Nigerian, Thai, and Peruvian authors (but instead that is 50% British, 30% American, and 20% all others.) While the list may be targeted toward U.S. audience, these books are good for everybody, and everybody should read outside the familiar.
Without further ado, my list, 30 Thin Books That Every [Attention-Challenged] American Should Read:
Because poetry is good for the soul. Yes, this anthology is skewed toward dead poets, but it’s not only thin, it’s cheap. It’s got Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Sandburg, and Hughes.
2.) Animal Farm, Orwell
Because, screw totalitarianism, that’s why. This is like 1984, but without the villainy clubbing one over the skull. Therefore, you can introduce the kids to commie-hating early and without giving them nightmares—well not bad ones. Plus, it’s thinner than 1984.
3.) Apology, Crito, and Phaedo, Plato
Because virtue is good for the soul. This is Plato’s account of Socrates’ defense at his own trial and his subsequent explanation of why he was going to drink the hemlock. Yes, it’s technically three books, but they are often bundled together as one book. Even with all three, it’s pretty thin.
4.) Brave New World, Huxley
Because Orwellian dystopia isn’t the only dystopia. In Huxley’s book, tyranny wasn’t a matter of force, but manipulation. This book shows how dystopia can be disguised as utopia by keeping the population adequately drugged and well-sexed.
5.) Candide, Voltaire
Because satire is good for the soul. No sacred cows escape roasting in this thin volume. A naïve young man travels out into the world to find that evil is ubiquitous.
6.) Catch-22, Heller
Because how often does a book coin a common phrase. (FYI- “A Clockwork Orange” was a phrase Burgess borrowed for the book that was common in some parts, but Heller invented the term “Catch-22.”) The story revolves around the notion that one can’t get out of the war by reason of insanity, because if one is trying to get out of the war one is sane by definition, and if you are insane, you don’t try to get out.
7.) Civil Disobedience, Thoreau
Because if you’re going to break the law, you should know how to do it do it virtuously and not like a dirtbag. (Hint: It’s more painful than you think.) This essay tells of Thoreau’s imprisonment because he refused to pay taxes that would fund the war with Mexico. It’s usually bundled with other essays.
8.) Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury
Because books are good. The title comes from the temperature at which books burn, and it’s set in a dystopian future in which the protagonist, “Fireman” Guy Montag, goes around collecting and burning books.
9.) Green Eggs and Ham, Seuss
Because you should know how to turn someone down (e.g. I would not eat them on a boat, I would not eat them with a goat.) Or, because learning to be playful with words may serve one well. Or, because you should try new things. In the story, an unnamed narrator is subjected endlessly to green eggs and ham, which he steadfastly, refuses until the end.
10.) Hamlet, Shakespeare
11.) Into the Wild, Krakauer
Because you don’t want to underestimate Mother Nature when you strike out to build your indomitable American spirit. This is the true story of a college graduate who gives away his bank account, burns his pocket-money, cuts ties with his upper-middle class family, and sets off to become self-made. Ultimately, he ends up in Alaska, and it does not end well.
12.) It’s Getting Better All the Time, Moore & Simon
Because, stop being such a gloomy-Gus. Admittedly, this is an unconventional choice– both because it’s not particularly skillfully written and a few of its conclusions may not be as true as they once were. However, it does inject a dose of reality for those who view the world through shit-colored glasses. As the title suggests, the authors argue that life in America is getting better year after year. We are getting healthier and richer. Being economists, they present much of their findings as graphic representations of statistical data.
13.) Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl
Because sometimes the world actually looks better through shit-colored glasses, Seriously, because you need to know how to get on with it when life is at its toughest. Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor who writes about what kept people going at places like Auschwitz.
14.) Meditations, Aurelius
15.) On the Road, Kerouac
Because you don’t get enough of the word “rickety” these days. But seriously, you get to “see” a lot of America through Kerouac’s poetic language. It follows the road trips of a beat generation protagonist through America.
16.) Sanctuary, Faulkner
Because Faulkner’s language rocks, and this is a gripping and gritty tale. It’s the story of an upper class co-ed who’s dragged down into the underworld and some desperate times by a couple bad decisions, not the least of which was going for a ride with a stupid drunk.
17.) Self-reliance and Other Essays, Emerson
Because you need a pep talk to think for yourself. Emerson proposed that one stand as an individual and stop letting political parties, religions, or other organizations decide what one believes. Emerson and Twain both saw a sad trend brewing in which people were starting define their beliefs by identifying with a party and then letting that party’s opinion leaders tell them what to think. Sadly, this trend only grew since there day to the point that many people have extremely strong beliefs that they can’t begin explain in a logically and factually consistent way.
18.) Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu
Because one day China is going to collect on our debts, and well need some grasp of their culture. Seriously, you should read outside your culture. In the process, you’ll find that the Taoist stream of thought isn’t all that far off our own—“f#@k authority and pretentiousness and all the bureaucratic formalities.”
19.) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain
Because, screw Melville, this is the great American novel. Yes, I realize that it’s not particularly thin, but compared to Moby Dick it is—and it reads more quickly because there aren’t long drawn out sections on the minutiae of whale pineal glands and what not. This book follows the adventures of that rapscallion, Huck, as he flees a drunk father and a lady who wants to make him civilized, and takes to rafting on the Mississippi with an escaped slave. Yes, it has the n-word like a billion times, but if you read all the words (and not just that one) you’ll see there’s a positive message about the development of mutual friendship and respect between Huck and Jim.
20.) The Call of the Wild, London
Because you need to get outside more. It’s the story of a dog who is taken from the good life as a pet in California to the wilds of Alaska, and what said dog must do to survive.
21.) The Elements of Style, Strunk & White
Because you need to be concise AND coherent. In the age of Twitter, people are mastering the former while losing the latter. This is a thin books that tells you most of what you need to know to write intelligibly in English.
Because America has a dark side, and nobody writes it better than Poe. Any of the many collections of Poe’s short stories (some including poems and/or long-form works) will do. One definitely wants “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “Tell-tale Heart,” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” and, of course, the title poem.
23.) The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, Epictetus
Because we need an injection of Stoicism to counteract the prevailing trend toward whining and moaning. Epictetus was a slave who became one of the most famous Greek sages. His sayings are mostly about not crying over spilt milk, but to be careful not to be the one who spills the milk. In other words, don’t whine about what the world gives you, devote your energies to being virtuous and conscientious.
24.) The Lives of a Cell, Thomas
Because you should understand your place in the ecosystem, and Lewis Thomas describes it artfully and concisely. This is a series of essays that covers a lot of ground with respect to the subjects of biology and physiology.
25.) The Prince, Machiavelli
Because you may just want to take over the word someday. This is advice about how to rule. It may not make one popular as a middle manager, but there are bits of wisdom throughout.
26.) The Road, McCarthy
Because someday it’s all going to come to an end, and it will probably end badly. This is the story of a father and son wandering through a post-apocalyptic wasteland. I realize I’ve put a lot of dystopianism on this short list, but I’m going to say that’s part of the American condition. America has had it good for long enough to realize that all things come to an end.
27.) The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories, Hemingway
Because we should not give the short story short shrift, and Hemingway—like Poe—did them well. Besides the title story, this collection includes “The Killers”, “The Gambler, The Nun, and the Radio”, and “A Clean, Well-lighted Place.”
28.) The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway
Because you need to get out of the country and experience some of the rest of the world. This is about the travels from Paris to Pamplona of a group of men who’ve all fallen for the same woman with that woman—of course—along for the ride.
29.) Walking, Thoreau
Because you need to get out of the house, away from your cubicle, and out into nature. This is an essay extolling the virtues of putting one foot in front of the other like you mean it.
30.) Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak
This is the story of a little boy’s dreamtime journey to a world inhabited by “monsters” and his interaction with them. Like Green Eggs and Ham, you should have read this as a kid. If you didn’t, I’m sorry about your defective parents, but get over it. Since you probably don’t want to read this as an adult on the Metro going to work, you can get Christopher Walken to read it for you on YouTube.
So that is it. That is my list of 30 Thin Books that Every [Attention-Challenged] American Should Read.