BOOK REVIEW: Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Essays by Ralph Waldo EmersonEssays by Ralph Waldo Emerson by Emerson Ralph Waldo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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There are many collections of Emerson’s essays in publication – some more complete or more recently compiled – but the one under review here was originally published by the Charles E. Merrill Co. in 1907. It contains eleven essays, including selections from both Emerson’s First and Second Series. There are around 700 end-notes that provide points of clarification. The front matter includes a brief biographical statement on Emerson, a discussion of critical opinion of his work, and a list of his writings.

Rather than discuss the essays as a whole, I’ll describe each in turn.

1.) The American Scholar: a major theme in this essay is avoiding pretentiousness and not neglecting to see the virtue in the simple and unrefined.

2.) Compensation: Emerson had an interesting philosophy on this subject, believing that everything that belongs to one or which one ought to have will come to one. There is a Taoist feel to this essay, e.g. “For everything you have missed, you have gained something else: and for everything you gain, you lose something.”

3.) Self-Reliance: This is my favorite essay, hands down. It’s full of pithy, powerful, and quotable statements. e.g. “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” “If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument.” Even where it’s not so concise and quotable, it delivers important ideas.

4.) Friendship: There is a quote that I think is quite illustrative of Emerson’s thoughts on the subject: “I do then with my friends as I do with my books. I would have them where I can find them, but I seldom use them.”

5.) Heroism: Consistent with the ideas in “Self-Reliance,” Emerson proposes that the route to heroism is in trusting oneself and having inner confidence, rather than in trying to satisfy the dictates of society.

6.) Manners: Emerson was a fan of a polite and genteel nature. This may seem at odds with his general inclination to avoid pretension or elitism, but if one treats all people with polite respect, then these ideals do not conflict.

7.) Gifts: Related to the earlier essay on compensation, this piece decries getting caught up in giving opulent gifts and thinking it a grand virtue, while it doesn’t criticize gift giving all together.

8.) Nature: This is the subject that one likely most associates with Emerson and his friend and protégé, Thoreau. As one expects, Emerson suggests one spend more time in nature. Something interesting I found in this piece was his rebuke of pseudo-science. Not that it should be unexpected, but one must consider that the line between science and the occult wasn’t as fully formed as it is today and Emerson was a mystic. But consider this: “Astronomy to the selfish becomes astrology; psychology, mesmerism (with intent to show where our spoons are gone); and anatomy and physiology become phrenology and palmistry.”

9.) Shakespeare; or, The Poet: While honoring Shakespeare, Emerson points out that our recognition of brilliance isn’t recognition of originality. e.g. “The greatest genius is the most indebted man.”

10.) Prudence: Emerson insists that sagacity in managing oneself and one’s affairs is crucial.

11.) Circles: This essay covers a lot of ground in dealing with topics that are cyclical – though they may seem progressive. In parts it reminds me of the portion of self-reliance that says “society is a wave,” and which goes on to explain how it’s not a matter of society steadily advancing because it recedes on one side as quickly as it gains on the other. This can be seen in a quote such as: “New arts destroy the old.” I think a quote that drives to the heart of not falling into the illusion of believing fashions of the moment are an invariable truth can be seen here: “No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker with not past at my back.”

I highly recommend this collection of essays. Some have maintained greater relevance than others, but all offer some interesting food for thought.

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BOOK REVIEW: Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon

Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the BorderlandsMaps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands by Michael Chabon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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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.

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BOOK REVIEW: The View From the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected NonfictionThe View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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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.

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BOOK REVIEW: Life from Elsewhere from Pushkin Press

Life from Elsewhere: Journeys Through World LiteratureLife from Elsewhere: Journeys Through World Literature by Amit Chaudhuri

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

“Life from Elsewhere” is a collection of essays written by writers from around the world on culture, multiculturalism, and the struggles of life (and writing) in a culture-infused world. The book consists of an introduction and ten essays by authors from India, Congo, Argentina / Spain, China, Israel, Syria, Palestine, Iran, Poland, Russia, and Turkey. It’s being put out to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of a program that seeks to translate more global literature into English (English PEN’s Writers in Translation.)

This was a hard work to rate, and so you may want to take the number of stars with a grain of salt. If you’re part of the niche audience of contemporary world literature devotees, you may love this book from beginning to end. For a more general reader—such as myself–there are golden nuggets scattered among a field of shiny gravel. I found the essays by Asmaa al-Ghul (i.e. “When Ideas Fall in Line”) and Andrey Kurkov (i.e. “Sea of Voices”) to be fascinating, even for the general reader. The former tells the story of a journalist who reaped a firestorm by posting a Facebook picture sans veil, but it offers insight into life under blockade in Gaza. The latter offers a Russian author’s experience of traveling in the Middle East, and the incidences of clash of cultures it offers was thought-provoking.

The countries represented by authors in this book are well chosen. Authors were chosen from locales that would have once been underrepresented in such a work. However, one might question the fact that half of the essays are from countries of the Middle East. While this may seem odd, one must admit that a writer or artist in most of the Middle East faces challenges that a writer from Osaka, Sao Paulo, or Prague would not. This isn’t only addressed in the al-Ghul essay mentioned above, but also in pieces such as those by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (i.e. “Literature: Forbidden, Defied,”) and Elif Shafak (i.e. “A Rallying Cry for Cosmopolitan Europe.”)

I’d recommend this book for ardent devotees of contemporary global literature. Other readers will gain insight into what it’s like to be an artist in a world defined by culture–and particularly fascinating insight into cultures which are threatened by modern literature—and should make up their mind about how fascinating they find said topic. (Otherwise, one may find the book a bit dry.)

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Reflections on Vietnam

IMG_0122I was five when Saigon fell. So I can’t say that I remember the war as breaking news. However, by the time I was coming into adulthood, Vietnam remained front and center in the American psyche. Many of the most prominent movies on the war came out when I was in high school or shortly thereafter (e.g. Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Bat 21 (1988), Casualties of War (1989), and Born on the Fourth of July (1989).) Even films that weren’t explicitly or solely about the war often featured characters transformed by its crucible (e.g. Lt. Dan from Forrest Gump.)

 

It wasn’t just cinema. While many of the most prominent books on the war came out in the 70’s and early 80’s, bestsellers were still coming out during my early adult life (e.g. The Things They Carried (1990) and We Were Soldiers Once… and Young (1992).) Even once the war wasn’t news anymore, discussion of the aftershocks continued to grace news and talk shows. I do remember my father watching an episode of 60 Minutes  which showed footage of helicopters being pushed off of aircraft carriers into the sea as American forces steamed back home. I have no idea what that story was about (perhaps the ecological and environmental effects of the war,) I just thought it was too bad that they were destroying perfectly good whirly-gigs.

 

Terms like “the fall of Saigon” were etched into my consciousness before I had any capacity to understand them. It fell from what? To what? I didn’t know. It’s a city, right? How can a city fall? Balls fall. People fall. Dinner plates, unfortunately, fall. Of course, I’d eventually be taught what it meant, and would mistakenly think I knew what it meant for many years. I thought it meant the defeat of those forces that would keep Vietnam from becoming a totalitarian dystopia akin to the Soviet Union or, even more apropos, Kim dynasty North Korea. Sure enough, one side–the side that America had supported–had been defeated, but otherwise this “fall” was false.

 

IMG_0411As one walks around Saigon today, passing a few Starbucks, a Carl’s Jr, and innumerable Circle-Ks, it’s difficult to imagine how a victory by the other side would have resulted in a more entrepreneurial or vibrant Vietnam. The college kids at the dinner, largely ignoring the friends around them in favor of texting someone else on their iPhones, seem strikingly like their counterparts in Bangalore and Atlanta. They seem mirthful and exuberant. A tour guide lets fly little criticisms about the bureaucracy, and nobody sweeps in and throws a black hood over his head. People just don’t seem scared, brainwashed, or crazy, and–believe me–everybody who survives in North Korea fits one of those criteria. (While I’ve been impressed by cool, gregarious, and well-spoken North Korean diplomats; they’re always accompanied by a sinewy, mirthless “assistant” who I’m pretty sure has a syringe of strychnine in his pocket to silence the diplomat if he goes off script.)

 

I’m aware that it’s difficult to see the dysfunctions of a nation as a traveler or tourist. I also realize that–to twist Tolstoy– “All happy nations are alike; each unhappy nation is unhappy in its own way.” However, what Tolstoy’s quote doesn’t convey is that all families are unhappy in some measure–and the same is true of nations. However, it’s easy enough to see extremes of dysfunction. That’s why the Kims mostly keep foreigners out of the DPRK and carefully select and manage the experience of those they do let in. It’s difficult to imagine a degree to which things could be better in Vietnam that would have made the cost of that war worth it.

 

I also know that hindsight is 20/20, but where fear runs rampant foresight is 20/100 with a nasty astigmatism. In my International Affairs graduate program, I specialized in asymmetric warfare, writing a thesis entitled, “Playing a Poor Hand Well.” While my thesis didn’t focus on Vietnam, one can’t study asymmetric warfare without learning a thing or two about the Vietnam war. One learns that the mathematical, attrition rate-based formulas that analysts love are worthless in deciding a victor when one side is fighting in their backyard and the other is fighting in a place of marginal importance to a population who mostly couldn’t point said country out on a map. Will matters. What made America take on such a burden on the other side of the world?  Many feared a domino effect. If Vietnam was lost to the forces of communism, soon we’d be surrounded by tyrannical totalitarian states blaring “one of us, one of us…” through loudspeakers until we relented–or something like that. In retrospect, it seems like an astounding lack of faith in the appeal of democracy and rule of law, but that’s what happens when one stews in one’s fears.

 

What worries me is that I still see a desire to make mountainous threats out of mere ant hills.

 

 

 

 

30 Thin Books Every American Should Read

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:


1.) 101 Great American Poems

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.


Animal Farm

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.



Candide

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.



GreenEggs&Ham

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

Because you think you’ve got a weird family. Hamlet exacts revenge when he finds out that his uncle killed his father to marry his mother and usurp the throne.



IntoTheWild

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

Because, just get on with it. This was actually a kind of “Notes to Self,” written by the Roman Emperor to remind himself to be virtuous, to live, and to not fear death.



OnTheRoad

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.



FallofUsher

22.) The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Tales, Poe

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.



livesOfACell

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.

TODAY’S RANT: Emerson Haters

Ralph_Waldo_Emerson_ca1857_retouchedI began reading the Best American Essays of 2012 and was disappointed by the first  essay entitled, The Foul Reign of Self-Reliance by Benjamin Anastas.

Self-Reliance: In or out of the canon?:

Anastas rails against the essay Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson. The only nice thing he has to say about Emerson (as a parenthetical insert) was that the philosopher spoke out against slavery and the poor treatment of American Indians.  Anastas suggests Emerson’s essay should be eliminated from the  canon of required reading. This desire to censor ideas that he (or his collective) find objectionable is a telling indicator of why he finds Emerson so vile. In my ideal world, students would read Emerson and Marx and Jefferson and Socrates and Confucius and eventually even the likes of Hitler and they’d make up their own minds about what ideas were sound and which were suspect. I’m  confident that on the whole that a free-thinking people will overwhelming reject the poorest and most vile of ideas. Obviously, not all will draw the same conclusions as I about which ideas are best, but I prefer the company of such people to those who completely agree with me but have turned their thinking caps off. Anastas seems to favor control of the flow of ideas to those society or teachers or some collective finds agreeable.

An undeniably powerful idea:

About all that Anastas and I agree on is that the thesis of Emerson’s Self-Reliance is powerful. By a powerful idea, I mean one that has the ability to grab a reader by the collar and demand his or her attention –whether they like it or not. Where Anastas sees Emerson’s ideas as perniciously powerful, I see them as sagely powerful. While we seem to be in near complete disagreement, I don’t want to go into a point by point refutation. I want to focus on what I believe is Anastas’s central point, that our current political dysfunction is the fault of Emersonian thinking. On this I think Anastas is shows perfection in his wrongheadedness.

The reason I don’t bother arguing point by point is because  much of my difference of opinion with Anastas comes down to being on radically different places on the Borg-Anarchist continuum. Reasonable people may disagree. I have a set of beliefs that inform my position on the Borg-Anarchist continuum that range from my opinion on free will to ideas about the value of optimizing (minimizing) what I would call “social friction” (others have used that term in another way.) That’s neither here nor there, Anastas may have his own justification for his views, though he doesn’t lay them out. For example, he uses the phrase, “excessive love of individual liberty” without indicating what he believes would be the appropriate amount to love liberty, let alone how he drew his conclusion. It may be that he doesn’t have a rationale, but rather has suborned his views to some collective that he believes is representative of society (that would be the true anti-Emersonian approach.)

The Borg-Anarchist continuum:

I should explain what I call the “Borg-Anarchist continuum” for those who are neither Star Trek fans nor wonky. Humans are inescapably both individualistic and social creatures. We know that people get morbidly depressed when they feel they aren’t valued as individuals (Tom Hanks at the beginning of Joe Versus the Volcano), but it’s also true that people go nuts when they are completely isolated from others (Tom Hanks in Castaway.) [Please, don’t draw conclusions about which is “better” on the relative merit of those two movies.] This leads to one of our most fundamental dilemmas. Where our individuality bumps up a social unit, how does one reconcile theses conflicts?

We can imagine a continuum where at one end are the Borg and at the other end are Anarchists. Borg were a powerful enemy in the Star Trek universe. The Borg were a collective in which any given individual was inconsequential and all gave themselves fully to the objective of the collective (i.e. universal domination.) Anarchists are those who feel there should be no authority over the individual. Virtually no one fits into the extreme camps because they’re both blatantly flawed. No one would have any incentive to do anything in Borg world, and an anarchy will inevitably devolve into chaos. No one would invite the Borg or Anarchists to their cocktail party. In practice, one might think of a Communist-Libertarian continuum. Communists believe the state owns the means of production and should be able to regulate ideas as intimately personal as religion, but they don’t attempt to completely stamp out all vestiges of individuality (e.g. people still have names instead of the Borg’s “4 of 7.”) Libertarians believe that authority over the individual should be minimal, but that there’s a role for governance in punishing the illegitimate use of force or the use of fraud.

Yes, I realize that in being one-dimensional, a Republican and a Democrat could occupy the exact same space on the continuum (i.e. wanting the same amount of governance, just not in the exact same domain.)

Is political dysfunction a product of Emersonian thought?:

So, let’s go back to the issue of blaming political dysfunction on Emersonian ideals. It’s my belief that we have political dysfunction because politicians aren’t following Emerson’s advice, rather than that too many are doing so. Let’s consider Anastas’s argument.

“’A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition,’ Emerson advises, ‘as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he.’ If this isn’t the official motto of the 112th Congress of the United States, well, it should be.”

Anastas is saying that the idea that one shouldn’t bend to the ideas of other men, as suggested by Emerson, is the cause of the problem. However, this requires us to believe that politicians engaged in free thinking consistently come down in the perfectly bifurcated set of positions required for grid-lock to take hold on a wide range of issues.  This is dubious. I find it much more probable that politicians do not think freely, but rather they subordinate their opinion to their party and to what the people of their district think. That, my friends, is the source of the problem. Politicians are doing exactly what Anastas wants, which is subordinating their opinion to the majority in their districts. The two-part problem is that: a.) districts are drawn to have clear winners. b.) our society has abandoned the Emersonian idea and taken party and sect as a substitute for thinking. We’ve created a two-party grid-lock machine, and we’re surprised that it works.

Yes, Emerson tells us to be obstinate in holding to ones own beliefs in the face of other people. If every politician did this, our political field would be much richer with many sets of opinions and not just the two captured by the party platforms of the two ruling parties. (At least it wouldn’t hold sway always on anything important.)  What Emerson does not ask of us is to be obstinate in the face of new or better information. Anastas’s own selection of quotes says as much.

“Speak what you think now in hard words,” Emerson exhorted, “and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today.”

In other words, Emerson is suggesting that one should be able to change one’s mind (one just shouldn’t do this in deference to the views of other people.) One should changes one’s mind when one has new or better information or one’s thinking about the subject is clearer. Changing one’s mind has a bad rap in our political system. There’s a kind of changing of one’s mind that should leave us with a bad taste in our mouths, and that’s pandering. However, not all mind-changing is pandering. If we ask a politician why he changed his mind and he says, “Because I learned X, and that new information made me conclude Y,” then that person should be applauded. The ideas of people of party and sect don’t change regardless of new information. This stagnancy is part of the problem as well. An individual can change his or her mind rapidly but an ideological organization is never swift. When people subordinate their thinking to their sect, this is when we end up unable to get out-of-the-way of slow-moving freight train problems like many that we face today.

The animus that characterizes our political domain is not a function of Emersonian thinking. While Emerson may not address it because it isn’t part of what he’s trying to get across in this essay, it stands to reason that if everyone thinks for themselves people will draw different conclusions. The Maytag repairman is not the loneliest person; the loneliest person in the world is a free-thinker who can’t get along with people who don’t share his exact slate of thinking across a range of  subjects. Thinking for oneself is not only consistent with tolerance, it breeds it. It’s only when one conforms one’s thinking to that of a collective that one can afford to act like people who think differently from one are pure evil.

Other thoughts on the subject:

For another post of mine about Emerson’s Self-Reliance see here.

Also, Emerson was not the only one in the 19th century who was dismayed by the trend toward subordinating political views to party, Mark Twain had a lighter essay on the subject called Corn Pone Opinions.