I remember when Harvey Pekar’s comic The Beats came out and it got profiled on BoingBoing and I feel like I’ve seen it everywhere since. I’ve read a bit of Kerouac Ginsberg and Burroughs in my day, so I was interested. Those big three are well represented in a non-hagiographic kind of way. What really made this book for me was the information about all the Beats I hadn’t heard of. There are comics in here about a bunch of people who were also at Ginsberg’s first City Lights reading of Howl, and they are very interesting.
For instance, I hadn’t ever really thought about how anti-woman the big-name beats were until seeing some of this stuff laid out on paper. Having stuff about the women who were also creative forces at the time was really good for provoking at least a Wikipedia-binge or two.
I’ve been grabbing people by the arm and talking their ears off about David Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5,000 Years for a couple of weeks now. Putting together a few thoughts about it here has been a little daunting though. Partially because I liked it so much, but partially because it seems to be about so much.
The idea is to look at human history and how the idea of debt has been constructed. Graeber talks about societies where money is used only for the important things in life and the idea of being in debt for something like food makes little sense. He goes into the myth of barter ever existing the way Adam Smith and so many subsequent economists talked about it. He goes into a history of merchants through the world (not limiting himself to Christendom, which means his conception of the Middle Ages start off in China and India) and how religions incorporate their society’s struggle with the idea of all-purpose money. There’s stuff about the ages when Christ and Gautama and Mohammed were changing the world and how separating economics from religion is crazy.
It was an amazing book. I have my buddy who knows about economics reading it now so I can get a bit more informed opinion about it, but for now, I would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed/had their thoughts provoked by Guns Germs and Steel.
I read Cyclist BikeList: The Book for Every Rider in the last session of our Survey of Children’s Literature class. We were talking about informational books.
This book is aimed at middle school kids who are getting into cycling. It’s got a bit about the history of bicycles, and some stuff on how bikes work, which really informs the meat of the book, how to choose a bike. It’s got breakdowns of the differences between Road, Mountain, BMX and Hybrid bikes in terms of tires, frames, the reasons you’d get which. It also has a section on picking a bike shop and the kind of equipment and food that’s good for cycling. I loved the safety section which included the advice to yell and ring your bell at people who turn right in front of you as you’re riding on the street. “They are breaking the law!” the book exclaims. “You are in the right place! Don’t let them intimidate you”
The book was illustrated by Ramon Perez, who was at Emerald City Comicon and my friend got a sketch from. He’s an Eisner nominated comics guy and the illustrations in the book are very contemporary looking. There are also a few photos for things like the parts of a bike.
The book was very good, and I’d definitely recommend it. It’s not targeted at a YA audience, and is more cool for a twelve-year-old than something a fifteen-year-old would want to read. It’s also a bit mroe focused on long-distance biking as recreation than short urban rides, but whatever.
Baseball is the sport I care about and I remember being a kid and having the astounding realization that ball players might actually eat and poop. The Bullpen Gospels: Major League Dreams of a Minor League Veteran is a good book to help a person get over thinking of them as demigods.
I’ve followed Dirk Hayhurst on Twitter since just before he went to Tampa Bay from Toronto. He’s a baseball player, a relief pitcher, but he’s kind of interesting to follow. This book isn’t about his time in the major leagues but about a season in High A and Double A ball. It’s a great story and isn’t about exposing the seamy underbelly of baseball or anything, but about the humanness of baseball players. There are lots of bus exploits and practical jokes but also some of the logistical stuff like how spring training works for the guys who aren’t going to get a big league job. Very interesting stuff.
It’s got a motivational subtext to it, but isn’t preachy as it could be with his alcoholic brother and father who doesn’t say he’s proud of Dirk’s accomplishments. It’s an interesting memoir about being a baseball player who might not make it and how baseball is just a game.
Zeitoun is a Dave Eggers book about a Syrian-born house painter and his family and their experience with Hurricane Katrina. It’s a nonfiction book, told as a story. There are flashbacks to how Abdulrahman and his wife Kathy met, and stories of his older brother who was a long-distance swimmer, but most of the story is about how Zeitoun stayed in New Orleans and took his canoe around helping people and was thrown into Camp Greyhound and then prison for his trouble.
I haven’t immersed myself in a lot of the post-Katrina story of New Orleans, so while I knew that there was a lot of terrible stuff that happened, I didn’t know about the Guantanamo-esque prison camp that they built while people were trapped in houses and the water rose.
It’s not the kind of book that would make you feel much sympathy for anyone in charge of any kind of bureaucracy ever, but it seems to be a really good story about what being Muslim in 21st-century America is like.
I’m glad I read it, but I didn’t really like Eggers’ writing style. It seemed too basic and earnest. Which is fine, this isn’t a story you really want to be injecting a lot of ironic distance into, but I just didn’t like the writing very much.
David Shields’ Reality Hunger was a treatise on the slippery nature of facts and how that makes nonfiction a way more interesting genre of writing than fiction. Each of the paragraphs is numbered, and he liberally quotes people without indicating his sources.
There are bits I recognize like the famous Dubya aide dismissing the “reality based community” but there was also stuff about Ichiro being present in the moment when he catches a fly ball. There’s a lot about James Frey and how he was pilloried for making things up. He talks about hip hop and Girl Talk and the Grey Album. He talks about collage novels, and about how a discursive text in which nothing at all happens or a collage novel has so much more art to it than something with a narrative.
I tend to be conservative when politicians fuck with facts, and this book didn’t change that, but the malleability of facts outside of politics makes the fiction/nonfiction gap much more interesting to me. Also, the difference between autobiography and memoir had never been clear to me, but now it is.
One of the things I loved the most was the notion that most novels are structured to build up a story around the handful of things they want to say. That there are 7 or 12 bits in a novel that are the point of it, and the rest of the story is like the early stages of a rocket, that fall away as the space pod heads to the moon. But. What if you constructed a piece of writing where everything was one of those little space pods of idea? What if you constructed it from other people’s words? What if you eschewed story, which has so little to do with the way we live (unless we make our memories fit in with the received language of how a story is supposed to go, which is all we do anyway) for really clear thinking about ambiguity?
I loved the fuck out of thinking about this stuff, and this book was the most inspiring, brain-tickling thing I’ve read in a long time. Maybe I should read more nonfiction.
Logicomix is an exploration of Bertrand Russell’s lifelong quest for rigorous truth through logic in graphic novel form. There are multiple framing devices to the book: the outermost layer is of the authors in their efforts to write and draw the story accurately, below which is an American lecture by Russell ostensibly about whether the US should enter World War 2, but that lecture is an excuse to have Russell narrating his own interactions with logic and truth, which encompass his life. Oh and then there’s a Greek play at the end.
The multiple layers work quite well, with the authors breaking in to argue about how much of set theory and basic logic needs to be explained, and whether the themes of “logic through madness” actually make any sense. Because Russell is narrating his life himself the realization that he’s kind of a dick to his wives is done half-apologetically and gently.
The theory of things and the importance of taking 320-some pages to prove, to actually prove that 1+1=2 is kind of intriguing. I tend to think of that sort of academic theoretical stuff as nonsense (and there isn’t much sense of how Russell did the practical things like pay his rent through his life) but with the biographical aspects it made it much more understandable. Which is the aim of this kind of book: to make these sorts of things accessible to laypeople like me.
Not necessarily for everyone, and I’m not sure I’d want to use it for a YA book club or anything, but a really interesting read.
Somehow I hadn’t read Richard Feynman’s book Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman until now. I’m not sure exactly how, though I recognized some of the stories he told.
It’s basically a collection of anecdotes from his life about being a scientist and having a really good time solving puzzles and figuring out how the world works. He tells funny stories and writes them in such a way that it feels like he’s talking. I felt kind of feisty and indignant at the stupid ways the world works and wished I had the confidence/lack of social inhibition to behave more like he did.
I am not getting as much writing done as I want. This is usually the case, though right now I feel kind of drained by the constant attention my social media class demands. But I found the time to finish Steven Pressfield’s Do the Work the other day. It’s a book about writing that’s not about craft but about the sheer bloody-mindedness you need to do something creative. It’s the kind of book that tells you to stop reading and start doing, which is the kind of thing that us prone-to-over-analyze folks get stuck in.
I get a little wary of books meant to inspire writers, but Pressfield knows what he’s talking about and I agree with the thesis of his manifesto. I agree with pretty much everything in the book, really, especially this Marianne Williamson quote:
Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people don’t feel insecure around you.
Agreeing with something doesn’t make me much better at following through, however. And the personification of Resistance as the universe actually conspiring against you making anything is a little over the top.
But hell, I want people to make things. I want to make things. If this helps people do it, I’ll take the risk of recommending a somewhat cheerleaderish “inspiring” book.
And of course, blogging about it is not my Work. Which I should go Do.
One of my best friends, who is a historian not a scientist, gave me Richard Holmes’ book The Age of Wonder for being an unofficial bridesmaid at her wedding last summer. It took a while for it to follow me to my new home and longer for me to read, but I loved it. Thanks.
The book is about the development of science at the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th. This is the time of Romanticism, between Newton and Darwin. When ballomania was taking hold of Europe and chemistry was emerging from alchemy’s shadow. I didn’t know much about this time, and after reading this book I feel like that’s a bit of a shame. We don’t really learn the history of science, or the personalities involved. Holmes talks a bit about the problems that brings in his epilogue:
The old, rigid debates and boundaries – science versus religion, science versus the arts, science versus traditional ethics – are no longer enough. We should be impatient with them. We need a wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective. Above all, perhaps, we need the three things that a scientific culture can sustain: the sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe.
He did a great job of making the stories of all of this accessible and fascinating, showing the personalities involved without too much judgment, and championing the neglected people, like astronomer William Herschel’s poor sister Caroline who was his assistant for decades, discovered a pile of comets, and eventually retired back to Germany where she corresponded with her nephew while he mapped out the skies of the southern hemisphere.
It was all a time of adventure and discovery. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, based on these scientists she’d met and Mungo Park went to Africa looking for Timbuktoo twice (he didn’t come back the second time). I don’t know, I kind of loved this book. It reminded me a lot of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle (consisting of Quicksilver, The System of the World and The Confusion) which was similarly about science and exploration and the adventure of it all, but set a generation or two earlier.
Finally, my girlfriend enjoys falling asleep to my retelling of these tales of safety lamps and stargazing which seems like it might be important some day.