Monday, September 15, 2014

Ten books I remember

Credit: paulbailey / flickr

List 10 books that have stayed with [you] in some way, without thinking too hard about it. They don't have to be the 'right' books or great works of literature, just ones that have affected you in some way.

...goes a meme that’s been doing the rounds on Facebook lately.

I wrote down the first ten I could think of. Then I shuffled them randomly so that I didn’t feel like I was playing favourites. These are those books.

The Last Samurai, Helen De Witt

On the surface, De Witt’s 2000 novel is a coming-of-age story; a precocious young boy, raised by his equally gifted and eccentric mother, who finds a kind of independence as he seeks out his biological father. But The Last Samurai is so much more than that: it is about cross-generational bonds formed by intellectual kinship; autodidacts swimming in ponds far too small; it is about adventurers and explorers finding new roots in unknown lands; cinematic craft (the mother, Sibylla, raising the boy, Ludo, on Kurosawa’s 1954 Seven Samurai), and the art of storytelling; the loneliness of genius; the disjointed pace of parenthood (fragmented sentences and avant-garde paragraph breaks littering Sibylla’s narrative and suggesting an all-encompassing harried-mindedness); the semiotics of music; the ways in which even the very young look out for their elders.

I have read The Last Samurai only once. I intend to read it many times more. The prose is strange but mesmerising, and the themes speak to me on so many different levels that I get shivers just seeing the book lying patiently on my bedside table.

Still from Seven Samurai (七人の侍), 1954.

Airframe, Michael Crichton

Growing up, Michael Crichton’s books were a guilty pleasure (and presumably not just for me, considering how many of them were lying around the house).

...well, “guilty pleasure” is a misnomer. Back at the tender age of thirteen I thought that Crichton, along with Agatha Christie, were the height of ‘grown-up’ literature.

Airframe displays a guarded cynicism about the rise of Sixty Minutes style yellow journalism, the human factor in globalisation, as well as giant corporations and unions alike. (“Cynicism” aptly describes most of Crichton’s oeuvre: in the unabashedly climate-change-denialist State of Fear he describes climate science as the manufacturings of the "politico-legal-media complex" (“complex” in the sense of “military-industrial complex”); and if Jurassic Park isn’t a cautionary tale about techno-capitalism then I’m not sure what is.)

The thing that really stuck with me about this novel through my teenage years was the subplot involving protagonist Casey Singleton’s protracted standoff with current affairs producer Malone. The attention paid to little details about the media machine (from big-picture “scripting” of news stories down to how to fold one’s hands during an interview) was an eye opener.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig

It’s just Chris and me and the forest and the rain. No books can guide us anymore.

I read this recently and I’ve been quoting from it recently too, so I’ll leave this entry brief: this book is both an excellent meditative foray into philosophy (especially idealism vs. realism) and an excellent philosophy-of-science oriented guide to motorcycle maintenance. The protagonist’s journey across the American countryside with his son reflects and contrasts with these ongoing meditations (“chautauquas”, if you will) in myriad ways.

Author Robert Pirsig and his son, 1968.

Amaryllis Night and Day, Russell Hoban

When I lend this book to friends, I often tell them that the prose lifts off the page the same way that food melts in one's mouth. It is an effortless and immensely enjoyable experience.

Amaryllis Night and Day is that rare example of Western magical realism done right. It’s a romance story about two people who meet in each other’s dreams. The liminal barrier between sleeping and waking is preserved within the plot, but Hoban’s use of words and metaphors seems to dissolve it for the reader. Everything seems slightly unreal; thus, everything seems real.

The character arcs themselves are nothing out of the ordinary for the romance genre — the both narrator and their love interest have their own baggage to deal with, but the narrative never veers into Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory, nor does it fetishise the process of healing. The characters are just humans getting on with their lives, as humans do.

It’s a beautiful novel.

It’s also the book that taught me the word ‘callipygian’ so there’s that too.

The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal, Sean Dixon

This is a difficult one to describe: a rite-of-passage story for an ensemble cast, tinged with an air of the fantastical and held steady by an understanding of the world’s little cruelties.

(A plot summary that says essentially nothing of note: at the behest of one of their number, the ladies of the Lacuna Cabal Montreal Young Women's Book Club read the Epic of Gilgamesh in its original cuneiform. Also of note: the novel’s original publication title, The Girls Who Saw Everything.)

What really affected me when I read this was Dixon’s attention to detail in developing the characters, all of them so very human with all the struggles and flaws that entails. I’m finding it very hard to describe this in terms of the plot itself — in many ways, the plot serves as a vehicle for character development and transformation.

(As a side note, flipping through the book again for the first time in a long while, a mild content warning for transphobia applies here: one of the characters is misgendered in her introduction within another character’s first person narration, and her subsequent development seems to carry a tinge of TERF fantasyland.)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera

Kundera’s 1984 novel was another recent read, recommended to me by a close friend. Like Zen…, it exists as both story and philosophical incursion in equal measures. The narrative is presented atemporally, snapshots of the same characters at different points in their intersecting lives. (Wikipedia describes it as ‘postmodern’; I’m not certain I’m ready yet to admit to having enjoyed postmodern literature.)

The author’s philosophical contemplation takes the form of character exploration. One memorable section, “A Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words”, is a careful catalogue of the different meanings two lovers attribute to everyday words like “music” or “darkness” (and by implication, a catalogue of the ways in which they are fundamentally incompatible).

No matter how brutal life becomes, peace always reigns in the cemetery. Even in wartime, in Hitler’s time, in Stalin’s time, through all occupations. When [Sabina] felt low, she would get into the car, leave Prague far behind, and walk through one or another of the country cemeteries she loved so well. Against a backdrop of blue hills, they were as beautiful as a lullaby.

For Franz a cemetery was an ugly dump of stones and bones.

There are erotic and romantic elements within Unbearable Lightness, but the eroticism and romance exist as a foil upon which to elucidate the characters, never quite for their own sake.

The particular kind of erotic elements on display are particularly interesting, though. There is a strong sense of power play and hidden personalities here. To whit: “He would never command her, as Tomas had, to lay the mirror on the floor and walk back and forth on it naked... [But] there are things that can be accomplished only by violence. Physical love is unthinkable without violence.”

Obvious BDSM connotations aside, it’s interesting to see how this interplays with the ways in which the characters perceive themselves, and the continuity of their private selves with their public.

Representing and Intervening, Ian Hacking

My epistemology is unabashedly scientific realist, reductionist, naturalist, and everything else you would expect to go with those. I was assigned Representing and Intervening as a text in second-year philosophy, and it just… clicked.

After a thorough survey of major developments in philosophy of science in the first half of the book, Hacking puts forward a version of experimental realism that is perhaps best summarised by an anecdote in which a friend told him of an experiment to try to detect quarks.

After being told the experimental setup, which included a niobium ball whose charge was gradually altered over time, Hacking asked his friend how exactly the charge was altered.

Replied the friend, “We spray it with positrons to increase the charge or with electrons to decrease the charge.”

Electron Gun in Magnetic Field VI.
Credit: legoman_86 / flickr

It was at this point, Hacking continues, that he realised the theory of positrons and electrons had advanced to the point where there were “standard emitters with which we can spray [them]... we understand the effects, we understand the causes, and we use them to find out something else”. If you can spray them, then they are real, the tagline goes, and Hacking goes on to elaborate on a form of experimental realism where entities can be said (for all intents and purposes) to be real if we understand them so well as to use them as tools in experiments.

One may perhaps read this as a considerably more restrictive “if and only if”, which introduces certain questions about observable but non-manipulable phenomena (macroevolution, anyone?), but I personally never got this impression.

It’s not a watertight presentation (as if anything in philosophy could ever be considered by a consensus to be ‘watertight’), but it’s compelling and well-grounded, certainly more so than the other major naturalist text I was assigned during undergrad (Kornblith’s Inductive inference and its natural ground, which, while clearly getting somewhere with its concept of “homeostatic property clusters”, really needed something more atemporal than “homeostatic” to go with.)

Philosophy interlude over; carry on, everyone.

The Red Queen, Matt Ridley

(Let’s get this out of the way: evolutionary biology is descriptive, not normative. If someone’s moral philosophy says that “X evolved to do Y” implies “X should do Y”, that’s a problem with their moral philosophy, not with the ontological status of “X evolved to do Y”.)

I find sexual selection one of the most counterintuitive bits of evolutionary biology (not least because it exemplifies the difference between relative and absolute fitness), and The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature is a primer and literature review delving into exactly this topic.

Topics covered include:

  • Why does sexual reproduction even exist in the first place?
  • Why do gametes come in multiple sexes? (Why didn’t all gametes evolve to be compatible with all others?)
  • Why are birds so fond of adultery?

The title is an allusion to sexual selection “arms races” via Alice Through the Looking Glass: the Red Queen running as fast as she can but never getting anywhere. (“It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”) Similarly, the rapid evolution of predator-attracting plumages on peacocks or fat-assisted hip-to-waist ratios on humans: particular genes competing with one another to evaluate or fake signals of mating potential, quickly spiralling into an inescapable feedback loop, completely oblivious to forces of natural selection.

Illustration for Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871) by John Tenniel.

I really enjoyed the presentation of the material. Ridley is an adept science writer, couching citations and detailed mechanics in enough emotional context that the neophyte reader never finds themselves disengaging.

Exceptionally Gifted Children, Miraca Gross

More non-fiction! (I swear the list really did get shuffled with these three clumped together.)

Exceptionally Gifted Children is based on the author’s longitudinal study of several dozen IQ 160+ (read: 4 standard deviations or more) children growing up in Australia in the eighties. Gross presents fifteen of the children in the study, and tracks the various pitfalls and uplifts in their upbringing, grouping by topics — their toddler years; their hobbies and reading interests; their academic track records. Frequent reference and introduction is made to the supporting literature in this field, though Gross’s study is the first of its kind.

There are incredible difficulties involved in raising children like this. The culture is not positively predisposed to them (or, often, their parents). Some of the students live up to their purported potential. Others crash and burn.

The toxicity of outcome-‘egalitarian’ school environments makes a big difference here.

Psuedonyms are used, but it’s not difficult to spot, say, Terry Tao in the mix, and I suspect that had I more familiarity with Australian intellectuals in their early thirties I would recognise a couple of the others too.

Gross comes out strongly in favour of acceleration over half-baked enrichment solutions for the exceptionally gifted, though the narrative she presents sugarcoats the decision somewhat: despite the selective anecdotes, kids who are accelerated through school don’t necessarily have picturebook-perfect childhoods, even if that is the best decision they can hope for. As a persuasive piece, Exceptionally Gifted Children works well (especially considering that Gross is writing from within a “tall poppy” culture in 90s, and to some extent contemporary, Australia); as an objective one, slightly less so.

This one was an important part of my adolescence for reasons this margin is too small to contain.

Sum, David Eagleman

Read this first.

Every story in this anthology talks about a different potential afterlife. Eagleman’s trade is neuroscience, and this shows in the particular problems of consciousness and identity he interests himself in. What if the afterlife only has the thousand or so people you met during your life? What if God created microbes in Its own image and sees you only as phenomena beyond Its control?

Eagleman’s style is laconic and simple: it is the ideas that matter here, not linguistic acrobatics.

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