I’ve taken journeys by the page,
sitting before the Globe’s great stage,
trolling a knight’s tilt at windmills,
and seen where Grendel made his kills
to kick off a much greater rage.
I learned why birds sing in their cage,
and why the caged go on rampage,
while knights and knaves go quest for thrills.
I’ve read of roads…
I’ve spanned the Stone through the Space Age
while living too briefly to be sage,
I’ve moved by dogsled through the chill,
and opulently, with all the frills.
I’ve read of roads…
I donned this book like sunglasses
to tweak my old worldview,
but that intent was overshot
and I saw all anew.
I peered at the page and there saw
Through eyes not mine, but no better —
nor in any way worse.
Eyes that’d seen things unknown to me,
but not this world of mine.
We’ll have to work together to
unravel space and time.
Reading should be a courageous act
that threatens all you know.
It should shove your feet into shoes
far different from your own.
If you want your world unchanged,
T.V. is right for you.
Books will insist you be torn a-
part and rebuilt anew.
There are many philosophical novels in existence. However, many of them are difficult reads either because they are complex in language or concepts (e.g. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” or “Faust“) or because — while readily understandable — they were badly in need of an editor (e.g. “Atlas Shrugged.”) Here are a few novels with interesting philosophical lessons that aren’t killers to read.
5.) Ishmael by Daniel Quinn: A man answers an ad that begins: “Teacher seeks pupil.” The teacher he discovers and the lessons he is taught aren’t what he bargained for. The book considers the impact of modern man versus aboriginal people, and the two groups’ respective place in the world.
4.) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: In a futuristic world, people are controlled and manipulated by genetic engineering, classical conditioning, sleep-teaching, not to mention heaping helpings of drugs and promiscuity. The book considers the role of technology in humanity’s trajectory, and it contrasts Orwell’s bleak vision of dystopian governance with one that is every bit as manipulatory — if a great deal more pleasant in appearance.
3.) The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: A young prince from a far-away land comes to Earth, and shows how wise the young can be and how absurd adults often are.
2.) Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse: A man who feels out of step with humanity faces events that force him to reconsider what it means to be a man in the world of men.
5.) Nothing, and I mean nothing, gets stronger in the absence of adversity. If I told you that I had a strength building regime that would double your strength and you’d never be sore, you’d call bullshit. [I’m presuming that you’re not the proud owner of a Shake Weight.] Yet, somehow, people think they can build a stronger mind while consuming only information that confirms their existing worldview just because it, at best, offers a few additional scraps of information.
4.) Get a journey on the cheap. Reading outside your comfort zone not only exposes you to an unfamiliar world, it’s good preparation for traveling and the mental gymnastics that will be required of you. If you cannot handle the cognitive dissonance of reading something that challenges your existing worldview, you aren’t ready for traveling — stick with your AC bus tour group, or stay at home. [Yes, I’m distinguishing between being a tourist and a traveler. If you’re a traveler, you know exactly what I mean. If you don’t know the difference, you — my friend — are either a tourist or a homebody. Yes, furthermore, I’m aware of the irony of making a distinction between travelers and tourists in a post that is — in part — a critique of the proclivity to create separations between oneself and large portions of the rest of humanity.]
3.) Master your mind. If you get queasy reading a character perspective that is remote from your experience, or if you get livid reading views that radically depart from your own, that’s a good opportunity to step in and rewire your mind to be more agile and empathetic. A good place to start is by trying to adopt another’s perspective as a dispassionate observer.
2.) Tear down some of the things you “know.” I use the word “know” [in quote marks] to describe those beliefs you ascribe to with iron-clad certainty for no reason that would survive, say… lunch with Socrates. I’m not suggesting one should obliterate all of one’s beliefs, I’m just saying one should become aware of which articles of belief serve you and which do not.
For a few decades, I thought the path to a truer picture of the world involved adding to my stockpile of knowledge. However, I realized that some of what I knew was bullshit, and just adding to a stockpile of knowledge ballooned up the bullshit as well as the understanding of truth. So I needed away to tear down illusions. But how to do it? Turns out that beating one’s head with a frying pan destroys what one knows as well as what one “knows.” Furthermore, it turns out that reading outside my comfort zone has been key to helping separate the wheat of knowledge from the chaff.
1.) Be less predictable. Emerson said, “If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument.” He was a smart guy, and thought for himself.
This book consists of 17 essays about reading and writing. As the book’s title–also the title of the second essay–suggests, there’s an analogy drawn between story and a map, but—more importantly– Chabon proposes that the literary domain is a realm with frontiers and hinterlands. The central theme is that there is room for great discoveries if we stray from the center of the map were all is clear and well-defined. Literary fiction is the center. The hinterlands include a range of genres and approaches to story-telling that are often maligned as low-brow—e.g. fan fiction and comic books.
The book could be split into two parts, though the aforementioned theme cuts across all essays. The first 11 essays offer insight into maligned genres and their merits, but the next five shift gears into autobiographical telling of Chabon’s transformation into a writer. (The last essay, not present in some editions, could be seen as an epilogue to the entire work.) I’ll list the essays and give a hint about what each is about:
-“Trickster in a Suit of Lights”: This essay invites us to reconsider the connection between entertainment and literature, and in particular with respect to the modern short story.
-“Maps and Legends”: Here Chabon reflects upon the nature of a map and its analogy to the domain of fiction.
-“Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes”: Fan fiction is maligned, and not entirely without reason. Even when it achieves great popularity, it’s often bad (e.g. “Fifty Shades…”) However, Chabon correctly suggests that we consider fan fiction too narrowly, including only that which reinforces our notions. He offers a great example of a character, Sherlock Holmes, who launched a thousand fan fictions, some of which are masterpieces in their own right.
-“Ragnarok Boy”: Mythology often seems tired and cliché, but there are reasons such stories survive across ages. Chabon explores what it is in Norse mythology that makes it an ongoing font of inspiration for writers.
-“On Daemons & Dust”: For a while, YA was the only genre with rising sales–much to the chagrin of those who felt this might herald the rise of a real world idiocracy. In this essay, Chabon describes what it is about Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” series of fantasy books that pulls readers in—including the appeal of dark elements in stories.
-“Kids Stuff”: In this essay, Chabon considers the comic book and its evolution from kids’ stuff to a vast domain meant to appeal to a broad readership.
-“The Killer Hook”: This essay continues Chabon’s look at comic books, but through a specific example: “American Flagg!” a dystopian sci-fi comic book. Chabon proposes that “American Flagg!” spawned a new approach to comic book art and tone.
-“Dark Adventure”: This is about Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” Some topics are revisited, such as the appeal of dark and dystopian content. [For those unfamiliar, “The Road” is the story of a father and son wandering through a post-apocalyptic wasteland in search of some sort of stable community. McCarthy is the master of sparse prose, eschewing dialogue tags and maintaining a minimalist approach to his craft.
-“The Other James”: Here Chabon discusses the ghost story, using M.R. James’ story “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” as an exemplar.
-“The Landsman of the Lost”: Chabon discusses the comic strip work of Ben Katchor.
-“Thoughts on the Death of Will Eisner”: Eisner was a popular cartoonist, associated with such comic books as, “The Spirit.”
-“My Back Pages”: Here the book ventures into autobiographical territory as Chabon talks about his first dalliances with writing a novel.
-“Diving into the Wreck”: This continues Chabon’s telling of how he came to be a writer, and his early troubles in structuring a novel.
-“The Recipe for Life”: Here Chabon tells us about his introduction to Golems, a concept that would play an important role in one of his most influential works—an in the rest of the book. You’ll note the connection between fantastical devices and the telling of story that carries over from the first part.
-“Imaginary Homelands”: Chabon describes the role that is played by culture in forming a writer’s experience—both the culture one is living in and the cultural heritage that we each carry with us wherever we may roam.
-“Golems I Have Known”: This is one of the longer pieces and it presents the climax of Chabon’s tale of his transformation into a novelist. Golems as fictitious creatures built to facilitate certain truths are a central feature around which Chabon’s story is told.
-“Secret Skin”: [Note: This essay didn’t appear in the initial version of the book, and so your edition might not have it.] This essay invites the reader to reconsider the role that costumes and secret identities play for superheroes and how that need resonates with readers. In the process, this last essay sums up the reason why fantastical elements are so powerful in fiction.
There are only few graphics in the book, i.e. comic panels. Other than that there’s not much by way of ancillary matter, though there are recommended readings (oddly) interspersed within the index—rather than being a separate section.
I’d recommend this book for readers and writers. The essays are well-crafted and thought-provoking.
When one has a passion for an activity, it’s easy to get tunnel vision and miss out on the many avenues of information by which one might improve oneself. I’ve done many posts on martial arts books, but I thought it might be useful to do one about books that aren’t about martial arts per se, but which have none-the-less contributed to my thinking as a martial artist.
1.) On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by LTC Dave Grossman
What it’s about? Psychologically, it’s a lot harder to kill another human being than one might think. Even when one is a combatant in a just war, the reluctance to kill–even one’s sworn enemy–is intense. Grossman examines the roots of this reluctance, what methods have been employed to get soldiers over it, and what the cost of doing so is.
The book also goes into a topic one might find surprising: video games. Not to give too much away, but military researchers discovered that getting infantrymen to kill required conditioning them to shoot targets that look human. This resulted in moving from bulls-eye targets to silhouettes, pictures of humans, and even Firearms Training Simulators (i.e. FATS, systems that run shoot / no-shoot scenarios on a screen, like an interactive movie.) It turns out that shoot-em-up video games may contribute to a child’s conditioning to be willing to shoot another human being.
Why it’s a good read for martial artists? Martial arts vary radically in realism and relevance to combative situations, but it’s easy for students of the martial arts–even martial arts that seem “hardcore” and self-defense oriented–to have unrealistic notions about the realities of combat. As François de La Rodefoucauld said, “One cannot answer for his courage when he has never been in danger.” By reading this book one might, perhaps, begin to rethink one’s assumptions, and change how one prepares to defend oneself and others.
Further reading on related topics: I’ve heard good things about the works of Rory Miller–particularly Facing Violence and Meditations on Violence, but I haven’t gotten around to reading his books yet. If you have, please feel free to comment with your thoughts.
2.) The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler
What it’s about? Kotler examines a state of mind that is widely call “flow,” and how extreme athletes are tapping into flow to achieve unprecedented advances in performance. There are a number of ways by which this state of mind can be defined, e.g. neurochemically (i.e. a neuro-cocktail of serotonin, anandamide, endorphins, dopamine, and norepinephrine), neuroanatomically (transient hypofrontality), neuroelectrically (high theta / low alpha wave–i.e. between meditation and resting wakefulness), or psychologically (intense concentration on a challenge that’s just beyond one’s present skill level.)
Kotler proposes that risk is an important trigger for entering a deep state of flow, and that this is why extreme athletes are proving so much better at achieving these states (and translating them into radically increased performance) than many other groups who seek to master flow.
Why it’s a good read for martial artists? It should be noted that not only is flow not a newly discovered state of mind, but it sounds a lot like the state of mind that martial artists have sought for centuries in the practice of their arts–often in conjunction with disciplines such as Zen or Vajrayana Buddhism. What is new, which makes this book worth reading, is an understanding of the science behind flow states. By moving beyond the hazy mix of truth and falsehood embodied in systems of spirituality, one may be able to find a way to more reliably increase one’s performance.
Further reading on related topics: Flow in Sports: The Keys to Optimal Experiences and Performances is a book that is co-authored by the granddaddy of flow research Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
3.) Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero by E. Paul Zehr
What it’s about? (Arguably, this is a martial arts book, but I’m including it because one wouldn’t get that from the title or blurb.) This book’s central question is whether a real life person could achieve the level of crime-fighting bad-assery that is the Batman, and–if so–what combination of genetics, training, and conditioning would be required. It also addresses what would be the cost in terms of wear and tear on one’s body and how long one could be expected to maintain said abilities. (Also, for the martial artists of feminine persuasion, how Batgirl or Catwoman might fair in combat against Batman.)
Why it’s a good read for martial artists? There is tons of great information relevant to martial artists about the toll of extreme practice and regular fighting on one’s body (e.g. concussions, broken bones, etc.), what the limits of human performance are, by what means those limits are approached, and how realistic it is to have an unreciprocated policy prohibiting lethal weapons.
Further reading on related topics: Actually, if you know of any books on related topics, I’d love to hear about them. There are a number of such books, but they’re on textbook pricing (i.e. insanely expensive.)
What it’s about? This book is about the mental and physical effects of mortal peril, and why some people’s performance excels under dire threats while other people just let themselves die while cowering in a fetal ball. The book asks what we can all learn from those people who manage to keep their heads about them when death seems certain.
In the interest of full-disclosure, as of this writing I’ve not completed this book. I just started it and am only in the second chapter. However, so far it’s been both informative and interesting.
Why it’s a good read for martial artists? Much like On Killing, I think this book may be valuable because there are many martial artists with daydream-induced misconceptions about how they will perform in dangerous situations. This book may help one evaluate one’s true state of preparedness, and discover how to go about making changes to improve one’s level of preparedness for a worst-case scenario.
Further reading on related topics: If you want a scholar’s account, the book Anxious by Joseph E. Ledoux may be more your style. (Wise is a popular science writer.) I see that Ledoux is cited a lot in books I’ve been reading as of late, but I can’t say I’ve read any of his books yet. However, I know he’s widely regarded as one of the foremost experts on fear. It looks like his book isn’t so much on mortal peril as Wise’s book, and covers all kinds of anxiety and fear.
What it’s about? The super-long subtitle says it all. It’s about how athletic performance is being improved by bringing scientific methods to the study of sports, and–as the second half of the freakish subtitle suggests–it explains how amateurs can put this information to good use. There are some methods used by elite athletes that aren’t at all suitable to the run-of-the-mill martial artists (e.g. don’t consume mass quantities of baking soda.) However, there are other approaches to nutrition and training that are readily translated to amateurs without much downside.
Why it’s a good read for martial artists? You may or may not think of yourself as an athlete. I can hear some martial artists saying, “I don’t practice a sport, I’m a martial artist. I deal in lethal combat, not games. yada, yada, yada…” Maybe so, but fitness, nutrition, and conditioning matter. If you want to be able to hold your own against more skilled opponents, you need to improve your capabilities and capacities. Fitness matters. If you think technical proficiency will get you through any situation, you haven’t run up against someone who is both technically skilled and highly fit–and when you come up against said person, your disillusionment will be swift.
Further reading on related topics: As with the Becoming Batman book, most of the books on this subject are textbooks and are outrageously priced. If you know of other books in this vein, I’d love to hear about them.
6.) Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson et. al.
What it’s about? This book turns the lens of modern science on the serene, immovable state of mind that martial artists have historically sought out through Buddhist and yogic systems. It discusses how Buddhist practices help people to be more cognitively effective and less prone to emotional manipulation or disturbance.
Why it’s a good read for martial artists? If one reads the works of warriors–ancient and modern, one will discover that the greatest warriors place a premium on the importance of the mind.
Consider the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. Musashi was exceedingly successful in defeating his enemies by making them angry. He would show up late and behave disrespectfully, and he would make his own mind imperturbable. This allowed him to easily defeat warriors who were considered at least his equal in terms of technique.
Further reading on related topics: There are many books that look at similar questions. Zen and the Brain is probably a better book in terms of the amount of information / insight provided, but it’s a much more daunting read. I wouldn’t put the latter in the category of “pop science” as much as just “science.” (Zen and the Brain is also a much older book.)
These are my recommendations, I’d love to hear about yours in the comments section.
Most of my reading time this week was divided between two books, one of which was also a new purchase. The newly purchased book that I spent a lot of time with is E. Paul Zehr’s Becoming Batman. This book isn’t at all what one might expect from the title or the cover. If one were to notice that it’s put out by Johns Hopkins University Press, one might realize that it’s not a fanboy fantasy work. What it is is a book about the science of exercise and conditioning for athletes that uses “Batman” as a pedagogic tool to make more digestible scientific information like how our muscles grow or how we make our movement more efficient through practice. It’s a fascinating book if you are interested in science and martial arts (or movement arts more generally.)
The other book I’ve been tearing through is Wired for Story, which I wrote about last week. It’s a book that explains how human brains are wired to be intrigued by story, and how writers can put this information to good use.
The one book that I finished this week is Gay Terry’s Meeting the Dog Girls. This is a collection of short stories (some of which might be classified as flash fiction) that could be called tales of the weird or supernatural fiction. Most of the stories have a quirky sense of humor.
I bought two other books this week, both of which have been on my reading list for a while. The first is Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, by Robert Sapolsky. As the title suggests, this book is about why humans are unique within the animal kingdom with respect to stress-induced illnesses. Stress reduction and mitigation have been an important question of inquiry for me as of late.
The other book is Haruki Murakami’s After Dark. This will be the third or fourth book by Murakami I’ve read, and I enjoy his style. Ironically, this was the first book by Murakami that I noticed in the bookstore, but I never got around to reading it.