Bob Harris: Prisoner of Trebekistan (Crown, 2006) [IBR2022]

Trebekistan is a location unfixed in physical space and time. It’s a place of pure learning, where hard playful work can bring sudden shock of unexpected perception. In Trebekistan, art and math and geography and science stop pretending to be separate subjects, and instead converge in a glorious riot. Every new detail creates two fresh curiosities, so you know less as you learn, and yet nothing seems unknowable. Trebekistan, oddly, is a place of expanding dimension yet increasing connection, both growing and shrinking with every new step.
Of course, even the best places can be screwed up. Toured foolishly, I would learn, Trebekistan can become a place of self-absorption, where knowledge has no purpose but the accretion of other knowledge. One can sin with intellectual greed as self-destructively as one who hoards wealth, love, or pride itself.

I am, and have been most of my life, an unabashed Jeopardy! fan. It started in the late 60s when I was in junior high and the only time I could watch the show, then on in the afternoon, was during school vacations. Things got a little jumbled for a few decades, and it wasn’t until the 90s that I realized it was still there,  in a more watchable early evening time slot. Since about 2000, I’ve watched it pretty regularly. For the past ten years or so, it’s been unmissable with a few exceptions; those usually involved hospital stays.

I’ve bought a couple of books like this before, but never really worried about using them to study for the show. I have no interest in appearing on TV to make a fool of myself. But I was looking for something quick and fun to read, and this fit the bill.

It’s something of a peculiar book: part autobiography, part history of the show, part excruciatingly detailed accounts of each individual game played, part study guide and prep techniques (complete with an Eightfold-Path to Enlightened Jeopardy! which, of course, has nine steps) with a sideline of cognitive science tidbits backing up the methodology, part travel guide, part love story, part not-love story. And part medical narrative for several different people, varying from the severe to the merely disgusting (I can handle discussions of pretty much any organ systems and their failures, but this was TMI about nasal secretions, particularly in the age of COVID. That isn’t the author’s fault; he was writing in 2006). There is a method to this madness, as one of the Eightfold Steps is: Everything Connects to Everything Else.

At first I found it annoying, all these Forrest Bounces (aha! If you know, you know) from topic to topic within the same page, paragraph, sometimes sentence. But in time, the narrative got me. Here you have this small-venue stand-up comedian from the Midwest who stumbles onto Jeopardy, alienates his girlfriend by turning his house into a Study Chamber, gets himself through five consecutive games, and heads for the Tournament of Champions, then to a couple more Tournaments. Along the way, he starts to value learning, rather than mnemonic devices:

More important, though: I wanted to know this stuff. I couldn’t imagine not wanting to know everything about everything. Every day was a rush of excitement, new knowledge and worlds and perceptions unfolding. I was an eager captive, unable and unwilling to leave.
I was imprisoning myself in Trebekistan.

I know the feeling. It’s how I feel every time I start a mooc or open a book.

When I say detailed accounts of each game, that includes several of the mental conversations he had with himself while pondering his responses. Consider, for example, his reasoning as he tackled the Final Jeopardy question:

This historic city was named for the Bishop of Hippo on whose feast day the area was first sighted.

“This historic city”… OK, and the category is U.S. cities… Well, the oldest city in the U.S. is Saint Augustine; That’s in my notebooks somewhere… “was named for the Bishop of Hippo.” Hippo, singular. A place, not the animal. Good, I didn’t think hippos had bishops. Where the hell is Hippo? Still, any city named for a Catholic might start with “St.” or “Santa.” good enough. St. Augustine, fine…
Electronic pen on glass. Clackety-click-whap-clickety. But I am second-guessing my response before it is even finished.
“On whose feast today the area was first sighted.” So it’s either on the coast or near a mountain pass. Shit. Santa Fe is really old, too. And it’s in the mountains. Crap. I wonder if somebody named Fe was from Hippo. Shit…
The lights come up. It’s over.
… But Who is Saint Augustine? is correct.

This kind of thing allows those of us who have done some superficial study of Church history, as well as any good Catholic, to feel smug and superior since we had it at Hippo and smirked at the animal reference. But other clues are there to humble us. Like: The Secretary of State who survived an assassination attempt on the night his boss was shot. Harris knew it was “the guy who bought Alaska.” I had no idea. I mean, I knew Seward bought Alaska, but I had no idea the assassination plot that killed Lincoln included Seward as well – and, by the way, injured several other people, including his family and bodyguards. Now isn’t that more fun than memorizing secretaries of state?

If that level of detail doesn’t discourage you, I have one more caution. The book uses foreshadowing like a blunt instrument. Several times, the film Amistad shows up, and doesn’t pay off until the first game of the Tournament of Champions. Hints about romantic partners likewise stretch delayed gratification to the utmost. But I have to hand it to him: he knows when and how to drop the beat.

There is, if you persist, a genuine soul to the story, and that might make it good reading for those who are less enchanted by reading about learning techniques like chunking and state-dependent retrieval, or Jeopardy!-specific training like buzzer technique, clue choice, and wager strategies. You have to want it – but it just might be worth it, even if you have no intention of ever following in his footsteps.

Cookbooks are books, too! [IBR2022]

The matter of how to read a cookbook is a very personal one. After all, who is to say which way is best when it comes to digesting the ingredients, recipe notes, and photography from one cook to another?
…There are voracious cookbook readers, who tear open the box as soon as it arrives and don’t get up from the couch until they’ve finished reading cover to cover. This kind of reading is often a luxury, but a wonderful one.
There are thoughtful cookbook readers, who set aside time to pick it up and set it down again, always saving where they left off, and reading from beginning to end in the order it was written.
If someone is very hungry, they might read in accordance to their physical needs. If it’s dinner time, they start with main courses. If they’re hosting a party this weekend, they consider appetizers, flipping around from chapter to chapter in no particular order.
Also, the note takers, who keep a running list of things to make and keep it folded in the cookbook so when they pull it off the shelf again, they’ll know exactly what they had wanted to try from the first time they read it. They may or may not cross off the recipes they made with a triumphant smile.
There are even non-readers who purchase cookbooks solely on the basis of beauty, to be stacked and assembled as art pieces in their living rooms.

From “How To Read A Cookbook” by Nicole Gulotta available online at Eat This Poem

I recently binge-watched Top Chef: all 19 seasons, which was tricky since it bounced from one streaming service to another while I was in the middle. Back in the day, I blogged recaps for a few seasons, but I lost track around season 11, so I had some catching up to do. I noticed a few things: the earlier seasons were mean. Season 2 included theft, cheating, bullying, threatened assault, and an actual assault. Most of the early seasons featured a villain of some sort, sometimes just an out-of-place chef who stayed beyond their skill level (which isn’t in the chef’s control after all; my theory is they want someone they can plausibly cut should one of the obvious leaders have a really bad week) but Last Chance Kitchen seems to have obviated that. Language seemed to evolve as well: in later seasons, I kept hearing “the dish eats salty” or “it eats dry,” and dishes were declared “vegetable-forward” or “flavor-forward,” while those phrases didn’t show up in the early years. I’m tempted to ask Language Log of this is linguistic evolution or if they just decided to get sophisticated all of a sudden.

Linguistic and psychosocial observations aside, two cookbook purchases resulted from this binge. The first was motivated by a renewed appreciation for Richard Blais; the second, by several reminders that I really want to move towards a more vegetarian diet.

Richard Blais, twice a contestant and several times a guest judge, has an interesting approach to cooking, summed up perfectly by his choice of the character Willy Wonka on a challenge about movies. He thrives on puns and spectacle, and isn’t afraid of modernist techniques (agars, liquid nitrogen) to create dishes that are conceptually and visually interesting as well as, most of the time, tasty. I got curious about what he’s up to now (apparently, starting restaurants and selling them once they’re up and running is a thing) and discovered he’d written a couple of cookbooks. One was available at a bargain price via one of my favorite used booksellers, so Try This At Home now graces my shelves.

What I love about cooking is recreating traditional dishes to make them delicious and an experience. I prod my diners for an emotional reaction – a chance to revisit childhood, or a special time and place, or to find whimsy in overwrought dishes that we sometimes eat.

Richard Blais, Try This At Home

As is usually the case with cookbooks, it’s not that I’m going to cook Blais’ recipes. I’m certainly not going to rush out and get an immersion circulator or liquid nitrogen (both of which he advocates, to my surprise, with plenty of warnings about the coolant), and I already make rigatoni alla Bolognese but I call it American chop suey; I’m perfectly happy with boxed pasta and sauce from a jar mixed with browned ground beef so I feel no need to make it all from scratch. His sweet potato gnocchi is a lot more tempting; I’ve never made or even eaten gnocchi but this version sounds great and looks beautiful. Mostly I just like looking at the pictures: cookbook photography is incredibly tempting. There’s a charred half-artichoke that makes me drool so hard, I might even consider trying it, but the recipe includes only boiling so I wonder how the char gets there. See, this is why I don’t try to cook from cookbooks.

The other impetus, moving towards a more vegetarian lifestyle, was generated by watching the Top Chefs catch fish and glory at their success as these living creatures flopped and gasped and died. Not to mention seeing suckling pigs on a spit, and lobsters and crabs thrown live into boiling water. I felt guilty every time I saw one of Crouton’s tweets. Those of us who eat out of supermarket packaging forget there were once live animals on the other end of those fillets and chops.

So that’s how Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone ended up on my shelves.  The teaser called it the equivalent of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but for vegetarian cuisine. I should have realized that meant it was more than I really wanted, but it, too, was at a low price and brought the total to the threshold for free shipping. It turns out it’s a doorstop of a book, and assumes the “everyone” to whom it’s addressed cares about non-GMO and organic and natural crap, which, well, i don’t. Still, it’s probably good to have as a reference.

There is also the fundamental joy in cooking, born of the pleasure of using our senses – rustling our fingers through a bunch of herbs, listening to the sizzle of onions, watching the colors brighten while vegetables cook, inhaling the fragrance of olive oil the moment it hits the pasta. This sensual involvement draws us into the process of cooking and teaches us about it. That sizzling sound tells us our heat is high enough; the scent of the herbs tells us whether we need to use a lot or a few; the fragrance of the oil assures us of its quality. Because these small but often stellar moments occur even when cooking the simplest things, both the beginning cook and the expert can experience them.

Deborah Madison, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

In retrospect I should have found something simpler. What I really wanted was some ideas about combining grains and legumes for protein that goes beyond rice and beans. There’s a frozen dinner I’m very fond of which includes something they call whole wheat orzo and wheat berries; I’m in love with it, and long to combine it with, I don’t know, pea pods? I can’t find either grain at my local supermarket, and that means, I guess, a trip to Whole Foods. I’m always afraid an alarm will go off if I step into Whole Foods: “Caution, shoppers, a person contaminated with artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners has just entered the store!” I wish I had the nerve to ask them, batting my eyes innocently, where the Diet Coke is.

While in this mindset, I took a look at my sparse collection of cookbooks. Very sparse, two, three if you stretch the definition of cookbook a little.

My original Joy of Cooking fell apart decades ago, so I replaced it with the 1975 edition, the last, as I understand it, to include pictures with descriptions of skinning rabbits and squirrels (and basic instructions for muskrats, possums, and other critters). Remember, I only look at the pictures. These pictures amuse me. At some point the book became water-soaked, but I don’t want to replace it again so I put up with the warped pages. I only remember making pinwheel cookies and osso bucco from the book, but it was a handy reference for cooking times.

Asking a cook why he heats food at all is, of course, like asking an architect why men do not live in caves. The obvious answer is that it usually tastes better that way.

Rombauer/Becker, The Joy of Cooking

It’s kind of a loaded item: I still remember Julia Child’s dismay over it in the film Julie and Julia (love the movie, never had any urge to buy her cookbooks). But I have a vague recollection of a line from Frank Conroy’s Body and Soul in which Claude, the pianist at the beginning of his career, raves about reading a copy of Joy of Cooking as if it were a novel. That scene may or may not be in the actual book (regrettably, it’s long been purged from my shelves) but it gives me a fondness for the book that overrules Ms. Child’s disdain.

Sheila Lukins’ All Around the World cookbook makes a nice complement to the solidly middle-America  Joy. I don’t remember what I was thinking when I bought it. And again, it’s something I read rather than cook from. She admits sacrificing authenticity for accessibility, which is fine by me. It’s a resource for flavor combinations. I should look through this again, who knows what might jump out at me.

My book presents some of everything I learned after going all around the world. I brought home the customs, flavors, and essences of each cuisine and reinterpreted them in my kitchen. My recipes are not traditional, rather a blend of my views on the best the world has to offer.

Sheila Lukins, All Around the World Coobook

Lastly is the not-cookbook: The Restaurant Lover’s Companion by Steve Ettlinger et al. It provides a preview of what going to your local French, Italian, Indian, Japanese, or a dozen other ethnically defined restaurants will entail: signature dishes, most common flavors and ingredients, booze, dining customs, a bit of vocabulary to help with the menu.

This is not a definitive reference book or a complete glossary, but rather an introductory guide to make ordering easier and exploring new cuisines more fulfilling. [It’s] meant to play the role of an erudite and well-traveled friend who dines with you and explains the meal as it progresses.

Steve Ettinger et al, The Restaurant Lover’s Companion

I can count the number of times I’ve been to an actual restaurant in the past couple of decades on one hand – first there was financial stress, then there was COVID, and there’s always been the intimidation factor and my hopelessly bland and unadventurous palate – but as is my typical pattern, I prefer reading about things to doing them. Besides, thanks to the wonder of the frozen foods section of my supermarket, I can experiment with flavors, inauthentic and unrepresentative as they may be.

Now, let’s be honest: if you want a recipe, you can find dozens, hundreds, on Youtube or any of the recipe sites online. But a cookbook, that’s more than recipes. As I went googling for a lead quote for this post, I found numerous articles discussing cookbooks as books:

Jaya Saxena presents cookbooks as history and personal narratives in “Eight Cookbooks You Can Read Like Books” at Electric Literature: “From histories to family secrets, some of the most delicious tales around can be found between the recipes.”

Amanda Shapiro explains how cookbooks helped her cope with panic attacks in “There’s No Better Time to… Read a Cookbook Like a Book-Book” at Bon Appetit:

A common strategy for dealing with panic attacks, I’ve learned recently, is something called the 5-4-3-2-1 method. You find 5 things to see, 4 things to feel, 3 things to hear, 2 things to smell, and 1 thing to taste. The idea is to get your brain away from Anxietyland and back to the immediate present by focusing on what’s around you. I think reading [How To Cook Everything by Mark Bittman] works in a similar way. My eyes are focused on a page, my hands on holding a solid (and quite heavy) object, and my mind on the food I’m reading about: how the ingredients come together, how the dish might smell and taste, the texture of it in my mouth.

Article available online at Bon Appetit

Neha Patel tells us how looking for recipes to cook during lockdown turned into something else: “My intentions were pure: I wanted to learn new cooking techniques. But the reader in me couldn’t read through the recipes. Instead, I found myself attracted to the introductions, the blurbs that always come before a recipe, and even the acknowledgements.” I know the feeling! She relates her experience in “Why I Don’t Just Read Cookbooks For The Recipes” at Bookriot.

Bee Wilson has a surprisingly bookish take on recipes in her New Yorker article, “The Pleasures of Reading Recipes”:

Recipes have a story arc. You need to get through the tricky early prepping stages via the complications of heat and measuring before you arrive at the point of happy closure where the dish goes in the oven or is sliced or served. When a recipe has many ingredients and stages and finicky instructions, it can be hard to concentrate, like reading a Victorian novel with so many characters that you need a dramatis personae to keep things straight.
…There are many mysteries here: What is a timbale? And how do you make a vanilla-flavoured syrup? If Escoffier tried to clear them up, the recipe would be easier to use but less intriguing. And part of the pleasure of recipe-reading is the feeling that you are about to discover a great secret.

Article available online at The New Yorker

Frank Conroy’s Claude was on to something.

I also found numerous sites recreating dishes from various books: Boeuf en daube from To The Lighthouse was a favorite, but the crab salad on avocado from The Bell Jar showed up surprisingly often; surprisingly, since in the book it gave everyone food poisoning. However, I crave chicken broth – with or without the pat of butter floating on top – whenever I’m recovering from any ailment, from the close of that segment.

I used to do a fair amount of cooking. I specialize in “Swedish” dishes: not Swedish, as in originating from Sweden, but “Swedish” as in altered to suit my peculiar preferences. It started out by recognizing that when you ask for Swedish pancakes, or Swedish meatballs, you won’t get typical pancakes or meatballs. Add to that my father’s Swedish heritage, and the whacko Swedish chef, and you’ve got my cooking style: my “Swedish” lasagna is more sweet than savory, and my “Swedish” tagine uses dried apricots instead of preserved lemons and my favorite spice blend – cinnamon plus ginger with half as much cumin, inspired by, I kid you not, Rachael Ray – instead of Ras el hanout and grains of paradise. You don’t want to know about my “Swedish” rice and beans or burritos, trust me. Oddly, I learned to make reasonably authentic sauerbraten at the urging of my husband; it may be the best thing that came out of that marriage.

I do make one authentically Swedish item: Vetebröd, a fairly standard yeast bread made with cardamom. I have the recipe from my genuinely Swedish Aunt Elsie tucked in my water-warped Joy of Cooking. It’s the closest I come to the warm family memoir stuff cookbooks are now famous for. My family wasn’t about warm memories.

I have one culinary dream:  to make Jacques Torres’ Bûche de Noël. The first problem is that I will need help, if only to keep me calm. The second problem is that it requires a small amount of Grand Marnier, which doesn’t come in small amounts, only large, very expensive amounts. The recipe does offer the helpful “or other liqueur” so there is some wiggle room. We’ll see.

These days, my hands aren’t reliable for fine chopping (I recently bought a new bread knife and cut myself taking it out of the packaging) or strong enough for kneading, so I haven’t been doing much cooking. Maybe if I can find some of that whole wheat orzo and those wheat berries, that’ll change. And from there, who knows, Richard Blais’ sweet potato gnocchi might make it to my plate yet.

Harold Rabinowitz & Bob Kaplan, eds.: A Passion for Books (Three Rivers Press, 1999) [IBR2022]

My history is all books, and rarely anything else, which is why I am up front here, as preface….
The Egyptians often, in death, had their favorite cats embalmed, to cozen their feet. If things go well, my special pets will pace me into eternity, Shakespeare as pillow, Pope at one elbow, Yeats at the other, and Shaw to warm my toes. Good company for far-traveling. Meanwhile, I stand here with my hopeless prejudices, to preface these loves. Please, to begin.

Ray Bradbury, Foreword

About twelve years ago, during my read of BASS 2011, I came across a story by pre-Overstory Richard Powers titled “To the Measures Fall.” It’s the story of a woman’s relationship with a book, and how that relationship continued and changed throughout her life. I can remember, unprompted, only a handful of the stories I’ve read over the years; this is one of them.

I was hoping to capture that same feeling – relationships with books – in this anthology of writings about books. I was disappointed.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy parts of it, it’s just that it’s one of those Great Men Write About the Greatness of Books (oh, sure, there are a few women sprinkled in, but it’s a sausage-fest, partly because many of the essays are drawn from prior to the 20th century when women belatedly appeared on Earth).

Not reading: books. I hadn’t realized what a difference that would make. Many of the articles are about book collecting, a process I don’t quite understand. Now, I have for the past ten years or so become fascinated with manuscripts, and I realize books don’t become historical cultural treasures unless they are collected and protected from their start. Will we some day stare in awe at a hardcover copy of, say, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire as the product of a bygone technology? Still, I don’t understand collecting books for their value. I have only recently come to appreciate books as physical objects, but that’s only inasmuch as the substance makes the reading easier or better in some way. I still consider books as tools to be used, not sculptures to be admired from afar. Yes, I dog-ear, I underline and notate, I crack spines and roll paperback covers. I’ve recently replaced several volumes that were falling apart, because I’m attached to the content, not the package. But there are those who put considerable effort – not to mention funds – into amassing book collections, not of books to read, but of books to have. To each his own.

I did find a number of articles fun to read. “Pillow Books” by Clifton Fadiman wonders what type of book is best for bedtime reading? Few want something dull enough to let them nod off in boredom, but how do you find a book that’s engaging but sedating rather than stimulating?

Then there are lists. The ten, fifty, one hundred best books of all time, of the 20th century, of course. “Books that changed America.” Favorite novels of Somerset Maugham and Norman Mailer. And a wonderful list of “Ten Books that Never Existed,” books mentioned within books. To the Measures Fall was not included. Neither was An Imperial Affliction, which I felt I might have liked more than The Fault in our Stars in which it appeared. More seriously, nothing by Borges made the list.

The most heartbreaking article was “Comfort Found in Good Old Books” by George Hamlin Fitch. In a moving essay, Fitch describes how favorite books were a comfort after the unexpected death of his son.

 Other essays covered the perils of loaning books, several articles titled “Bibliomania” or derivatives thereof, and the business end of books, both publishing and selling. Some of these were interesting, but I suspect I would have to be more of a book sophisticate to fully appreciate them.

Choosing to read this book was a worthy effort with mediocre success. I should have found a book titled A Passion For Reading instead. Or maybe just reread “To the Measures Fall.”

Malba Tahan: The Man Who Counted (Norton 1993) [IBR2022]

…[T]he book is set in Arabia as a mixture of One Thousand and One Nights and a maths book – it’s coming out of the most populous Catholic country in the world and yet it’s as much a love story to Arab culture as to maths itself…. It is composed of lovely little stories and, with each chapter of a few pages, it introduces a mathematical idea along with a story about travelling through the Arab world. ….[I]n Brazil when I told friends, ‘I’m now working on maths,’ they all said, ‘Oh, you must read Malba Tahan.’ And friends who were kids during that era said, ‘Oh, I remember my parents reading it to me’ – it’s almost like Alice in Wonderland in that it is one of the things that makes people feel nostalgic about their childhood. My Brazilian copy is the 74th edition.

Alex Bellos, FiveBooks Best Books on Math

I love goofy math books; I even have my own list of Best Math Books for People Who Don’t Do Math in the user archives of FiveBooks. I think I may have to rotate one of them out, because this one has completely charmed me. It was originally published in Portuguese in Brazil in 1972; the English edition I have, dated 1993,  is translated from the Portuguese by Leslie Clark and Alastair Reid. The beautiful color image on the cover, as well as the black-and-white drawings that begin each chapter, are by Patricia Reid Baquero.

Within the book we encounter, in short vignettes set in 13th century Baghdad, several numerical tricks and puzzles, a little history of mathematics, and some introduction to various concepts in understandable, practical terms. How can three brothers divide the 35 camels inherited from their father so that, according to the testament, the oldest receives half, the middle brother receives one-third, and the youngest gets one-ninth? How can a merchant discover which of eight pearls is lighter than the others, given a balancing scale that can be used only twice? Perfect numbers are defined by releasing three birds from a cage of 499; amicable numbers are demonstrated by poems written on a wall in red and black letters.

But it isn’t all about such concepts. Myths about the origin of chess, about the death of Archimedes and Eratosthenes, and passages on ethical issues and the wonder of math, apart from its usefulness, appear as well.

There is an overall plot:

My name is Hanak Tade Maia. Once I was returning, at my camels slow pace, along the road to Baghdad after an excursion to the famous city of Samarra, on the banks of the Tigris, when I saw a modestly dressed traveler who was seated on a rock, apparently resting from the fatigue of the journey.
I was about to offer the perfunctory salaam of travelers when, to my great surprise, he rose and said ceremoniously, “One million, four hundred and twenty-thee thousand, seven hundred and forty-five.” He quickly sat down and lapsed into silence, his head resting in his hands, as if he were absorbed in profound meditation. I stopped at some distance and stood watching him, as if he were a historic monument to the legendary past.
…. Several times more the strange traveler rose and uttered a number in the millions, before sinking down again on the rough stone by the roadside. Unable to restrain my curiosity, I approached the stranger and, after greeting him in the name of Allah, asked him the meaning of those fantastic sums.
“Stranger,” replied The Man Who Counted, “I do not disapprove of this curiosity that disturbs the peace of my thoughts and calculations. And now that you have spoken to me with such courtesy and graciousness, I am going to accede to your wishes. But first I must tell you the story of my life.”
And he told me the following, which, for your entertainment, I transcribe exactly as I heard it.

From there, Hanak and Berezim, The Man Who Counted, run into various people with mathematical or logical problems. Berezim solves the problems and, at each encounter, comes away with more than he entered with: a second camel, a turban, a ring, a job as secretary to a Vizier in Baghdad (with Hanak appointed as scribe). He continues to offer advice to various people they encounter in Baghdad, where a Vizier, skeptical at first but finally convinced of the man’s abilities, asks Berezim to teach his seventeen-year-old daughter mathematics to assure her happy future:

When Telassim was born, I consulted a famous astrologer who knew how to read the future by observing clouds and stars. He told me my daughter would be happy for her first eighteen years. From that age on, she would be threatened by a series of tragic misfortunes. He, however, had a way of keeping her bad luck from deeply affecting her destiny. Telassim, he said, ought to learn the properties of numbers and their many working possibilities. But to master numbers and calculation, it is essential to know the science of al Khwarizmi, that is, mathematics. So I decided to provide a happy future for Telassim by making her study the mysteries of calculus and geometry.”

This becomes a fateful request that impacts the rest of the overall story. Some philosophers have ridiculed the idea of teaching a woman mathematics, but Berezim passionately approves of the idea and takes on the assignment. It’s in these meetings, the girl modestly hidden behind screens and fabrics, that Berezim delivers his most eloquent defenses of mathematics:

Geometry is everywhere. Consider the ordinary and perfect forms of many bodies. Flowers, leaves, and innumerable animals reveal admirable symmetries that lighten the spirit. Geometry, I repeat, exists everywhere: in the sun’s disk, in leaves, in the rainbow, in butterflies, in diamonds, in starfish, in the tiniest grain of sand. There is an infinite variety of geometric forms throughout nature. A crow flying slowly through the air traces wondrous figures with its sooty body. The blood circulating in the veins of a camel also obeys strict geometric principles; its humps, unique among mammals, show a singular elliptical form; the stone thrown at an intruding jackal describes a perfect curve in the air, known as a parabola: the bee makes its cells in the form of hexagonal prisms and uses that geometrical form to build its house with the greatest possible economy of material.
“Geometry exists everywhere. It is necessary, to have the eyes to see it, intelligence to understand it, and spirit to wonder at it….”

By the end of the book, Berezim is brought before a council of seven wise men who put questions to him to determine if he is truly as brilliant as he seems. He passes the tests, of course, but we suddenly find ourselves with a love story that rises above the historical Mongol conquest of Baghdad that occurred in 1258.

The dedication that opens the book at first had me a bit puzzled:

To the memory of seven great geometrists, Christian or agnostic:
Descartes, Pascal, Newton
Leibniz, Euler, Lagrange, Comte

Allah take pity on these infidels!

and to the memory of the unforgettable mathematician, astronomer, and Muslim philosopher
Abu Jafar Muhammad ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi

Allah preserve him in his glory!

and also to all who study, teach, or admire the prodigious science of scale, form, numbers, measures, functions, movement, and the laws of nature.

I, pilgrim, descend from the Prophet
Ali Iezid Izz-Edim ibn-Salim Hanak
Malba Tahan

believer in Allah and in Muhammad, his sacred Prophet

dedicate these pages of legend and fantasy.

– Baghdad, nineteenth day of the moon of Ramadan, 1321

I recognized the names of the mathematicians (and am so honored to be included as one who studies and admires, however poorly, the arts to which he refers) but was puzzled because of the date: many of them lived long after 1321. Then I remembered: the Muslim calendar begins with the Hejira of 622, so 1321 is the Gregorian year 1903.

However, there’s more to it than that.

The publication history of the book is almost as delightful as the text itself. Malban Tahan is a pen name of Brazilian mathematician Júlio César (who is, unfortunately, deceased) which gives this story an extra level: a fictional character (Beremiz) chronicled by a fictional companion (Maia) finally discovered and published by a fictional author (Tahan). The Guardian tells me that César had tried to interest newspapers in publishing some of his earlier stories to no avail, so made up the pseudonym R. S. Slade, a New York translator. That worked, so he eventually took on the persona of Malban Tahan for a series of newspaper columns which became books, including this one.

I wish someone would do a math class – for adults, for children (because the book is, as all those Brazilians will tell you, very suitable for kids), for everyone – using this book as a text. It keeps the surprise of math up front (you mean you really can create any integer using four fours? Is there a proof for this?) while introducing real concepts. And generosity, morality, and kindness are always in the picture. Spread all that over the plot that rewards our good guy heroes, and you’ve got better than Scheherazade if she were a mathematician: you’ve got the perfect goofy little math book.

John Boardley: Typographic Firsts (Bodlian Library, 2019) [IBR2022]

Typography, from the ancient Greek typos (impress) and graphia (writing), is described, in the broadest terms, by the eminent poet-typographer Robert Bringhurst as “the craft of endowing human language with a durable visual form.” More precisely it is the craft of using discrete, reusable and rearrangeable pieces of type – tangible or digital glyphs or characters – to produce, ideally, readable texts. The typographical firsts discussed in the chapters that follow originate in incunabula, a term coined to describe the first decades of European printing from its introduction in about 1450 to the arbitrary but bibliographically convenient 1500.
There is an innate danger in employing superlatives. The oldest, the youngest, the best, the worst, the first, the last – these are invariably open to interpretation and revision…. To qualify every single statement about firsts, as though we were engaged in the preliminaries to a philosophical debate, is laborious and makes for tedious reading, so I have done my best to tread carefully, and where appropriate I have added caveats to my ‘firsts’ with modifying or comparative qualifiers…. I hope I have managed to find a compromise between flagrant laissez-faire and persnickety pedantry.

What a gorgeous book – and true to its subtitle, it does describe “Adventures in Early Printing.” For all of us who complain about digital media, let’s remember that, as the Middle Ages turned into the Renaissance, manuscripts turned into printed books. Not suddenly, not in a year or a decade, but over time. I imagine a curmudgeon in the year 1520 or so griping, “These new books made by machine, they’re not real books! Get me a scribe and some vellum!”

I have to admit, this was not precisely the book I expected it to be. I became aware of it because it was frequently mentioned on the blog for the website, which showcases new fonts. So I was expecting something more along the lines of Simon Garfield’s Just My Type, a book I loved so much I wrote five posts about it because I just couldn’t wait to finish it before enthusing about the early chapters. Instead, it’s much more like an expansion of the first week of Trinity College’s mooc on The History of the Book in the Early Modern Period: the technological and human influences on books as handwritten texts became printed and thus more widely available. A happy accident, to be sure; it’s a wonderful story told with various slants, accompanied by plentiful and beautiful full-color illustrations from those early books, many of them full-page spreads.

In spite of his cautions about the term “first” in the Introduction, Boardley structures the book around the very idea of firsts in mechanical book production: the first fonts, the first use of title pages, the first illustrations, the first printed music and maps, etc. This thematic structure allows the reader to zero in on a topic rather than a time period; I found it very effective and enjoyable, since it allows for amusing historical and legendary anecdotes as well as history. For example, we’ve all heard of Guttenberg and his Bible, but how many of us were aware that there was another origin story, along the lines of Newton and Leibniz discovering calculus, or Marconi and Tesla inventing the radio:

Out walking among the dunes with his children, a father picked up a piece of bark and for no other reason than to entertain them proceeded to carve from it a letter. Upon completion it fell from his hands, face down, leaving its impression in the soft sand. In this happy accident Laurens Coster of Haarlem in the Netherlands saw the entire typographic process clearly before him. Despite the apocryphal nature of this origins tale, it elucidates the fundamental component of typography – an alphabet of discrete cast or molded letters, inked and then printed.

Ok, sure, Coster as the West’s first typographer is a lot more fanciful than Liebniz or Tesla, but it’s a great story.  From there we find how fonts were adapted from handwritten manuscripts, and how they changed over time and geography. It’s a complicated story; I was surprised to find that several fonts existed before the famous Guttenberg 42-line Bible (called such because the pages have 42 lines) employed its familiar Gothic font.

I was also surprised that women were a definite, if small, presence in the early book industry. Generally it seemed they took over operations after the deaths of their husbands (though some declined to do so, possibly because the debt was too great). Boardley gives us a glimpse into the business savvy of Charlotte Guillard in Paris, who outlasted two husbands and created something of a book empire.

The descriptions of how illustrations came to be incorporated into books – from hand-added rubrics to stencils to woodcuts to intaglio to lithography and beyond – were accompanied by so many full-color plates, I often just stared at the pictures and forgot to read!

I always enjoy recognizing a name or concept that I’ve come across before, and this was no exception: my buddy Poggio Bracciolini, whom I encountered in Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve as the manuscript-hunting monk, is credited for his humanist minuscules; and the chapter on printer’s marks mentions the rather famous Festina Lente,  familiar to me first from Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the New Millenium and then from some other book-related moocs.

 And in connection with printer’s marks, a touch of humor:

Visual puns and play on words were common themes in printers’ devices. For example, the rebus of the late sixteenth-century English printer William Norton was a pun on his given and family names; His device was a Sweet William growing through a tun or cask inscribed with the letters nor. Another, arguably subtler jeux de mots was to be found in the device of Simon de Colines, wherein a family of rabbits are frolicking at the base of a tree. Why rabbits? ‘Conil’, the old French word for rabbit, is an acoustic anagram for Colines. Moreover bouquin, a French farmer’s word for a male hare or rabbit, is also colloquial French for book. Thus the book-hawkers or chapmen of Paris were bouquinistes – literally, jack-rabbit dealers.
There were not only puns, but parody too. For example, in Venice, Giovanni Angelo Ruffinelli’s device employed three artichokes, a parody of the fleur-de-lys mark of the Florentine Giunti dynasty.

As it was in manuscripts, where marginal illustrations often made humorous comments about either the content or people who would be recognized in the current time, it seems pictures allow humor where words might make offense.

I’ve referred to this book several times as a coffee-table book, but it occurred to me I have no idea if there is some set criteria for such nomenclature. Various descriptions seem to agree on several points: a coffee table book is oversized, expensive, lavishly illustrated in full color, and meant to be read in short sittings, such as while waiting for something or as a conversation starter, rather than read straight through. This book is a bit oversized though not dramatically; at $40, it’s a bit more than a current best-seller but nowhere near most academic tomes; it abounds in the requisite illustrations; and I’ve been reading it for over a year a little at a time, sometimes just flipping through and looking at the pictures. I’ve read that ‘coffee table book’ is often considered pejorative, less than a real book, but this is a real book, and while the images sometimes steal the show, the information is interesting and delightful as well.

And by the way – I’m no snob when it comes to digital books (though I admit I’m far more comfortable with paper) but there’s nothing like these full-page plates on paper. Sure, online you can zoom in or out, but there’s still something breathtaking when I turn a page and find a title page from Aesop or Renaissance polyphony greeting me.

It’s a beautiful book.

Zena Hitz: Lost in Thought (PUPress 2020) [IBR2022]

What does learning look like, stripped of its trappings of fame, prestige, fortune, and social use? In other words, how is it good for its own sake, because of its effect on the learner rather than because of its outward results?

Earlier this year, I was excited to see an online presentation of research into mooc engagement during the pandemic specific to a particular course, their entry-level Intro to Biology class. It’s an outstanding course; I’ve gone through it two or three times (though I skipped a lot of the genetics material on the later runs) because it covered a lot of basic material in an interesting and engaging way.

In the middle of the presentation, the two researchers considered how difficult it was to really know exactly who dropped out, who started over, and who went on to the Competency Exam, because of the nature of moocs.  One of the women, who to me is something of a god because she directs the MITxBio online effort and their moocs are so great, explained the difficulty of tracking dropouts and re-takes: “These courses, in some ways, can be like Netflix, that they’re free to just enter, try out some, watch it. There’s people who are retired but do this for entertainment even. And so people have a lot of different purposes for what they’re using the course for.”

My heart broke.

It’s not her fault. Her job is to make sure the online offerings teach what is needed to succeed as a Bio student, primarily at MIT but also at other institutions. It’s not to assure entertainment value for those of us who will never again enter a classroom or lab, and certainly don’t have bio degrees in our futures. Still, it felt like dismissal. If you’re not in it for credit, you’re doing the equivalent of watching a romcom. Hey, I like romcoms, but I don’t spend hours working on them, putting the entire course into a document I can refer to (which takes an astonishing amount of time what with formatting and adding relevant images) or entering the information into Cerego so I can study it for years to come (Molecular Biology, part 1, has been coming up a lot lately, must have hit the two-year mark).

Granted, I’m a bit hypersensitive to being classified as a “hobbyist” but look at it this way: I’m not expecting any secondary gain, no degree, no high-paying job, from my moocing (and OCW-ing and Duolingo-ing etc); don’t I get some kind of respect for trying to learn the ins and outs of the Krebs cycle (not to mention Spanish, ancient Greek history, Chinese philosophy, and all the other things I study) just because I want to know them? Spoiler alert: nope.

This book helped me feel a lot better.

It’s partly an updated and expanded version of Bertrand Russell’s “In Praise of Idleness” which I read a few months ago. Hitz, a philosophy professor, combines her own disillusionment and re-enchantment with academia via spiritual and religious exploration with numerous sources showing different way learning affects individuals. Malcolm X, Primo Levi, St. Augustin, W.E.B. DuBois, and Einstein provide evidence that learning, not in the service of a goal such as professional advancement, makes us better able to understand others, better able to reach out to others, and better able to handle the less terrific aspects of our lives.

Reading the book turned out to demonstrate its own argument in several ways.

First: Had I read this twenty years ago – even ten years ago – it would have been a very different experience. Now, it was like shaking hands with an old friend when I read the first line of the prologue:

Midway through the journey of my life, I found myself in the woods of eastern Ontario, living in a remote Catholic religious community called Madonna House.

This was during her recovery from overstressed academia, and the work she did gave her a way to figure out how to return to a more rewarding academic setting. She never mentions the reference to the first line of Dante’s Commedia, just leaves it there for others to perhaps recognize. Had I not read Dante several years ago – an adventure that itself was predicated on considerable other adventures that prepared me – I would have missed it. It wouldn’t have prevented my reading her book, but this moment added a richness that was encouraging.

Second: A few pages later she discusses learning as a refuge from the world with the aid of “a fictional bookworm” who turns out to be a character in the film version of the protagonist of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, another book I just happened to have read some years ago. One of the memorable scenes from that book involves the concierge and a tenant in her building, two people far apart on the socioeconomic spectrum, connecting with a brief shared wince at another tenant’s slightly non-standard use of a word; it is their knowledge that provides a bridge that allows them to enjoy each other’s company. It’s the same little frisson I felt on recognizing the book: “Hey, I know that, too!”

Third: It wasn’t just the joy of discovering works we’d both read; I also found reading that I might like to take on, specifically, Martin Eden, by Jack London. I’ve already ordered a used copy for next year’s In-Between read. I didn’t know London wrote anything but adventure and nature novels, and I’m excited to find out otherwise. It sounds fascinating.

As Hitz points out, it’s learning for the joy it brings us, or the change it creates in us that helps us interact with others and the world at large. And here I thought of two more examples: “Babette’s Feast,” a wonderful story by Isak Dinesen (and later a wonderful film), in which a woman spends all she has creating a magnificent feast for the group of austere Scandinavians who have taken her in, simply for the joy of creating; and Daisy, the scullery maid turned assistant cook on Downton Abbey (I haven’t seen anything beyond the first series), who discovers learning and keeps going back and forth on whether it’s ok to keep doing it since there’s no purpose to it other than her delight in seeing things she’s never seen before.

A section on the asceticism required to turn inward hit home:

Yet, the solitary excellence of the individual, finally grasping the cause of causes, does feel somehow incomplete. Understanding, like the sight of something beautiful or fascinating, calls out to be shared. The most solitary of solitary learners seeks to communicate, even if only in writing and only for the sake of human beings she will never meet.

Tell me about it. I so long to have conversations that go beyond 280 characters – but those 280 characters are in themselves rare, since my posts are generally met with a Like, a brief comment like “I think I might read this,” or, most commonly, silence. The closest thing to communication is the back-and-forth my blogging buddy Jake Weber and I do with BASS story posts; we (me more than he) often discover something we hadn’t thought of in each other’s posts.

Then again, sometimes I get rewards beyond my dreams. A reader – an English professor who has several times mentioned how he uses my BASS posts in his course – recommended this book in a comment because he felt it would fit in with my pursuit of learning. Thank you, Prof. Bliss; you were right.

Michael Marder: The Philosopher’s Plant (CUP 2014) [IBR2022]

Despite its widespread conceptual allergy to vegetable life – indeed, it’s phytophobia – the philosophical tradition in the West could not skirt the issue of plants altogether. Philosophers allotted to them a generally inferior place in their systems; used their germination, growth, blossoming, fruition, reproduction, and decay as illustrations of abstract concepts; mentioned them in passing as the natural backdrops for their dialogues, letters, and other compositions; spun elaborate allegory’s out of them; and recommended appropriate medicinal, dietary, and aesthetic approaches to particular specimens.
Most of these engagements with the flora were fleeting and marginal, as though plants did not deserve the same careful reflection and theoretical attention due to other beings. But our rehashing of the philosophical record, sketchy at best in the case of plants, is not doomed to repeat the failures of the past…. Briefly put, this book lifts the curtain on the significance of plants to the making (and growth) of thought.

I recently became a plant person.

It’s not that I’ve never had an interest in plants before. In the mid-70s, I worked in an office that viewed desktop horticulture as a competitive sport; everything I tried at home developed little white fuzzy spots, possibly because my basement apartment was plagued by dampness (and a few other things). I moved to an airier but much darker place, and to a more work-conscious job, and plants disappeared from my life.

In the early 90s, however, they reappeared, courtesy of balconies and large sunny windows, then disappeared again when I again moved into the dark later that decade. There was one exception to this twenty years of shadow: when I was reading Dante’s Commedia, I noticed a vine growing on the outside of the building, unattached but reaching towards something; this made Dante’s defense of his faith to Peter in “Paradiso” more concrete to this heathen than any commentary:

And one vine, on some mission to spread, was growing out into nothing. Eventually, it grew long enough to sag under its own weight and found the bricks at the bottom of the window sash.
That’s faith. It doesn’t know if it will find anything, but it grows because it must grow, and faith has to be at the core of that growth; otherwise it would stay in the safety of the known. Faith is coded into the DNA of this vine, so that it reaches out, for something it can cling to. This has been a particularly bleak time for many of us, as we watch bluster preferred over wisdom, greed over cooperation, anger and fear over everything. But we have to keep growing, in the faith that there’s something worth growing towards.

“A few months with Dante: vines, hyperspheres, and forgiveness” 8/14/2015 post

Three years ago, I found myself in this current place with abundant windows and great views of sunrises and moonrises and abundant light, but plants didn’t occur to me until a few months later when COVID changed everything. I will now talk anyone’s ear off about my rather mundane array of philodendrons, curly Bonnie spider plants (late-breaking news: one of them is blooming! A rare event, I hear), ponytail palms (named Tina Turner), oxalis (named Mrs. O’Malley), English ivy, and several cobbled-together trios of the phil-ivy-bonnie, and spend far more time than necessary rearranging and propagating my green family.

All of which is a long-winded, self-aggrandizing way to explain why I might have been interested in a book about the role of plants in philosophy when I saw it on that gold mine of interesting books, Five Books’ “What’s everyone reading this weekend” thread. Especially when they included pics of the TOC.

So I walked through the Intellectual Herbarium watching how the philosophical meaning of plants changed over time as schools of thought came and went. A paragraph from the Heidegger chapter – fairly late in the book – sums it up quite nicely:

After Plato called being eidos (Idea), he located truth in the idea of the tree, rather than in the trees themselves, and prioritized other Ideas, such as that of beauty, over the tree. Aristotle conceived of being as the “unmoved mover” and, focusing on the problems of animation and entelechy, reduced plants to the poor bearers of vegetable souls. Plotinus converted the plant into the vegetable dimension of the One, his Parmenidian misnomer for being.
Augustine was still less interested in actual vegetation, preferring to treat it as the symbol of spiritual reality. For him, as for all medieval philosophers, perfect and self-sufficient being is none other than God, while plants are the least autonomous of all creatures. Avicenna slotted plants into an intricate hierarchy of souls and reduced them to their instrumental value (e.g., for a human diet or medicine) even as Maimonides turned them into hapless quasi-things bearing the full brunt of the law.
Leibnitz’ word for being was “substance,” the same as in the thought of Spinoza and Descartes; for him, plants were the most unabashedly material expressions of the one substance. Kant thought of beings as the “thing-in-itself,” beyond the limits of our practical and conceptual grasp. Within these limits, plants were reduced to scientifically knowable matter prepared for reproduction, to useful resources, and, at best, to the placeholders of universal beauty. Hegel called being “Spirit” and implied that actual plants had to lose their immediate biological life – to be preserved as dried mementos or fermented into bread or wine, for instance – to be reborn into the glorious world of Spirit.
On each page of this intellectual herbarium the plants themselves are forlorn: they are supposed to point to a reality beyond themselves, a reality ranging from Ideas to Spirit. The forgetting of the growing trees, herbs, or flowers corresponds to and stems from the forgetting of being in the midst of attempts to name it. Our ethical failures – be they in relation to other human beings, animals, or plants – are the direct consequences of this forgetting that consistently drives us out of this world and away from the material ground of our lives, that commits us to a “higher” reality, and that devalues whatever or whoever surrounds us. Heidegger’s ontology, locating being in the beings themselves, is therefore fundamental also in this important sense: it is the ground for the ethics of respecting beings in their own being.

Marder’s book is unique not only in its focus on plants – similar to many history-of-philosophy books that focus on a certain common element – but in its structure. Four historically-matched sections each contain three philosophers:

  • Ancient Plant-Souls (Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus);
  • Medieval Plant-Instruments (Augustine, Avicenna, Maimonides);
  • Modern Plant-Images (Leibniz, Kant, Hegel);
  • Postmodern Plant-Subjects (Heidegger, Derrida, Irigaray).

What’s unique about any of this, you say? It’s the structure of each chapter: they are subdivided into four thematic parts, related to each of the other chapters, which creates, as Marder puts it, a different path for reading:

Readers interested in stories that mingle the episodes from the lives (and, in some cases, the deaths) of philosophers with the life of plants may browse the first section of each chapter. If you would like to glean theories of vegetable existence and how they bear up on the main ideas of each philosopher in question, you are advised to consult the second sections (and, at times, the third). The third section of each chapter explores the implications of human interactions with plants. The concluding sections offer critical vistas for reassessing the place of plants as well as the legacies of the thinkers discussed in the book.

So if you’re in an ambling mood, you can read about how Plato snuck himself into Phaedrus as a plano tree, overshadowing Socrates and Phaedrus discussing love, friendship, and sex; then you can move on to some discussion of just why Augustine featured his youthful theft of pears so prominently in his Confessions, to an examination of Kant’s marginal use of a tulip, cadged from Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, in his Critique of Judgment (and why it’s unlikely to actually be a tulip), to three encounters Derrida had with plants, one from his teenage years in Algiers, one from writing a love note, and one considering sunflowers and their heliotropism, all of which featured in his later writings.

But if you’re looking more for how these philosophers viewed plants in their overall view of being (for ontology is the primary focus of the works, with a few nods to aesthetics and epistemology), you can start with, say, Plato, who sees humans as upside-down plants: not rooted in the soil, but in the plane of Ideas, with our roots reaching upward from our heads. Then you can read about Maimonides disagreeing with the idea of plants, animals, and humans all having a vegetative soul and seeing instead individual souls for each creature, similar in some aspects but unique to the species. Hegel works in a botanical dialectic, which puzzles me a bit so I’ll just mention it and come back to it later when I’ve got more background. From the post-modern section, Irigaray (who, I confess, is brand-new to me) as a feminist thinker kicks back against the notion of a plant’s perceived passivity and sharing as deficiencies.

While I’ve done some reading and coursework in some areas covered by this book, others were new horizons. I’m familiar with Leibniz from calculus, where there’s usually a comment that in addition to having invented calculus parallel to Newton and contributed notation which is more useful in some circumstances, he was a philosopher, but that’s about it. Now I’ve had a chance to get a small glimpse of his philosophy, particularly the identity of indiscernables, which I think of as something like an ontological Pauli Exclusion Principle. I was also quite fond of Maimonides weaving Jewish law around “pots with holes” and who owns the part above the ground versus who owns the roots. And I was tickled to learn that Avicenna, whose book on medicine was a standard for centuries, didn’t consider fruits and vegetables to be of much nutritional benefit.

Although this is an academic rather than a general-readership book, it’s quite accessible to those of us who have some background but limited depth. For one thing, information on the philosophers involved is easily available online to fill in any gaps. I haven’t thought about Derrida since college (let’s just say that was a long time ago) when I was obsessed with the idea of binary opposition; I was able to find a video from Pomona College that gave a very quick review of differance and enabled me to appreciate all the word play mentioned in the chapter. Everything I know about Heidegger comes from a wonderful short story by Tim Horvath, “The Understory,” which features Heidegger as a character but foregrounds trees. Funny how, if you read enough, it all eventually connects. Yet the chapter was quite readable; I wouldn’t say I understand everything, but learning is a layered process and I’ve made progress.

Another lovely touch are the illustrations by Mathilde Roussel that begin each chapter. It was fun to look at them after reading and see how they illustrated some point that was raised.

One outside reference made me very happy: when Plato proposes that plants have an appetitive soul, Marder editorializes:

Upon hearing about the appetitive soul of plants, today’s readers of Plato might run out of patience with his theory. They will raise a litany of ironical questions: what is it that my cactus desires? What are the pleasures of a rosebush – not the ones it gives to those contemplating its blossoms, but of the bush itself? And that is not even to speak of the pains of a liana, the sensations of a bamboo, or the desires of a palm tree.
Before brushing aside the Platonic insight with a dismissive smirk, why not give the philosopher the benefit of the doubt and let him explain himself. His train of reasoning is actually very simple. Plants cannot live without receiving nourishment by imbibing water through their roots. (although the term is of a Greek pedigree, photosynthesis was as yet unknown at the time of Plato.) When water is in short supply, plants detect the lack of moisture and respond by wilting. If they can be thirsty, and if desire is associated with the experienced a lack of the desired thing in the desiring being, then the fern you have not watered for weeks is, in fact, desirous of water.

First of all, people who take their plants seriously – even if it’s one tiny coleus on an office windowsill – are always saying things like “it doesn’t look happy so I’d better get it out of direct sun” or “it needs something but I’m not sure.” That speaks more to our tendency to anthropomorphize than to the plant’s feelings, but a plant has ways of showing distress: wilting, browning, legginess. And what is legginess but the search for needed light? Not only does the plant know what it needs, it takes steps to find it.

But the really fun part is that next to the sentence, “Does a water-deprived plant really feel the absence of its desire?” I wrote in the margin: “What A Plant Knows!!”, a book by Daniel Chamovitz (and accompanying mooc) I read a couple of years ago. I was going to tell Dr. Marder a thing or two about plants. But then, a couple of paragraphs later, practically danced when he mentioned Chamovitz’ book as providing “data that support the Platonic hypothesis” with the example of leaves that fold up when touched. I still remember the research phytologist who recommended the book to me after she tweeted, “The smell of cut grass is the grass releasing a wounding compound into the air to warn other plants that they were injured. You are smelling their screams.” So keep your Plato snark to yourself: to paraphrase Whitman, “Do not scorn the plants because they don’t communicate the way you do.”

I have to admit, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book, both in its form and content. Beyond enjoyment, it was also a success in how much I learned and in the roadmap I now see for how much I still have to learn. It’s probably not the first philosophy book one should read, but it makes a very nice secondary effort.

Michael Lewis: The Undoing Project (Norton 2017) [IBR2022]

I hadn’t actually thought much about the psychological aspects of the Moneyball story…
I’d set out to tell a story about the way markets worked, or failed to work, especially when they were valuing people. But buried somewhere inside it was another story, one that I’d left unexplored and untold, about the way the human mind worked, or failed to work, when it was forming judgments and making decisions. When faced with uncertainty – about investments or people or anything else – how did it arrive at its conclusions? How did it process evidence – from a baseball game, and earnings report, a trial, a medical examination, or a speed date? What were people’s minds doing – even the minds of supposed experts – that led them to the misjudgments that could be exploited for profit by others, who ignored the experts and relied on data?
And how did a pair of Israeli psychologists come to have so much to say about these matters that they more or less anticipated a book about American baseball written decades in the future? What possessed two guys in the Middle East just sit down and figure out what the mind was doing when it tried to judge a baseball player, or an investment, or a presidential candidate? And how on earth does a psychologist win a Nobel Prize in economics? In the answers to those questions, it emerged, there was another story to tell. Here it is.

Once again, the @FiveBooks “What are you reading this weekend?” thread got me to add an unplanned read for this year’s in-between session. I was interested in this book for two reasons. First, I hadn’t read any of Lewis’s other work, but greatly enjoyed both movies based on Moneyball and The Big Short – surprising, since I’m not particularly interested in baseball, and finance is the only thing I hate more than auto racing. And secondly, I am interested in Daniel Kahneman’s work; it had featured prominently in a behavioral economics mooc I took some years ago (which is, sadly, no longer available; it was incredibly interesting) as well as in some philosophy and neuroscience courses.

While the book does cover a great many topics researched over fourteen years by Kahneman and his collaborator Amos Tversky, the focus is on the relationship between the two psychologists. Much is made of how they shut themselves in a room and tossed ideas around, figured out how to test hypotheses, and wrote up their results. Lewis writes: “What they were like, in every way but sexually, was lovers. They connected with each other more deeply than either had connected with anyone else.”

They wanted to be the people they became when they were with each other. Work, for Amos, had always been play: if it wasn’t fun, he simply didn’t see the point in doing it. Work now became play for Danny, too. This was new. Danny was like a kid with the world’s best toy closet who is so paralyzed by indecision that he never gets around to enjoying his possessions but instead just stands there worrying himself to death over whether to grab his Super Soaker or take his electric scooter out for a spin. Amos rooted around in Danny’s mind and said, “Screw it, we’re going to play with all of this stuff.
…. The way Danny put it was, “we were sharing a mind.”

The book starts with basketball and the familiar “how do you select the best players” problem explored in Moneyball. And again, it took a brave manager to figure out they weren’t doing it right. This gets turned into what Kahneman and Tversky called the representativeness heuristic:

When people make judgments, they argued, they compare whatever they are judging to some model in their minds. How much do these clouds resemble my mental model of an approaching storm? How closely does this ulcer resemble my mental model of a malignant cancer? Does Jeremy Lin match my mental picture of a future NBA player? Does that belligerent German political leader resemble my idea of a man capable of orchestrating genocide? The world not just the stage. It’s a casino, and our lives are games of chance…. You have some notion of apparent population: “storm clouds” or “gastric ulcers” or “genocidal dictators” or “NBA players.” you compare the specific case to the parent population

From the examples given, you can see this isn’t just an academic issue, or something about building a basketball team. It’s how we judge what’s going on in the world, what we take seriously, what we ignore. Who we ignore. It’s why so many women, especially women of color, sometimes tweet “This is what a scientist/mathematician/professor/judge looks like,” along with stories of school advisors who told them to study nursing or typing. It’s not just virtue signaling or political correctness: there’s a real need to disrupt the white-male image so many of us, especially those of us who grew up in an earlier time, have of those professions.

From there, Lewis tells the individual stories of Danny and Amos up until they met each other at Hebrew University when Danny invited Amos to give a lecture to his class. It wasn’t love at first sight, but they did start trading ideas and viewpoints and eventually found themselves a working relationship.

While there is some discussion of the technical and statistical approaches to the problems they worked on, the explanations are down-to-earth and easily grasped by a general readership. Initially they combined three heuristics: representativeness already mentioned, anchoring, and availability. Anchoring: if you give a completely irrelevant number – say, the last two digits of your cell phone number – any estimate in a more relevant context will be affected by that number. This is demonstrated by having subjects spin a wheel with numbers from 0 to 100 and record where the wheel stops. Then they’re asked the percentage of the UN composed of nations from Africa. The higher the wheel spin number, the higher they guess the percentage to be, although of course there’s no relation whatsoever. Availability refers to whatever is easiest to remember: if asked if there are more English words that begin with K, or words with K in the third position, most people will guess the initial is more common when it’s only half as common. It just happens to be easier to remember words that begin with K.

Lewis doesn’t ignore the stresses of academia. They were working in a hybrid of psychology and economics, and neither discipline was pleased.

In the academic culture war triggered by Danny and Amos’s work, Amos served as a strategic advisor. At least some of his sympathies were with the economists. Amos’s mind had always clashed with most of psychology. He didn’t like emotion, as a subject. His interest in the unconscious mind was limited to a desire to prove it didn’t exist…. Like the economists, he preferred neat formal models to mixed-chocolate boxes of psychological phenomena. Like them, he found it completely normal to be rude. And, like them, he had worldly ambitions for his ideas. Economists sought influence in the arenas of finance and business and public policy. Psychologists hardly ever entered those arenas. That was about to change.
Danny and Amos both saw that there was no point trying to infiltrate economics from psychology. The economists would just ignore intruders. What they needed were young economists with an interest in psychology. Almost magically, after Amos and Danny arrived in North America, they began to appear.

As I read the book, I was waiting for some reference to System1/System2 thinking, the topic I ran into in moocs from many fields.  That, however, was research Danny did later. It’s a fascinating topic: we tend to make decisions based on gut feelings (System1) then justify them rationally (System2) but we think we’ve done it the other way around. Sometimes this works out fine; sometimes we take a pass on Jeremy Lin because he doesn’t look like a basketball player. Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, is a general-readership explanation. But it was in the post-Tversky era of Danny’s career, so it was just mentioned here in the afterword.

The book’s title refers to a fourth heuristic Danny and Amos never were able to integrate into their schema.

They’d been interested chiefly in people’s anticipation of the unpleasant emotion, and how this anticipation might alter the choices they made period now Danny wanted to explore regret, and other emotions, from the opposite direction. He wanted to study how people undid events that had already happened.
…Danny now had an idea that there might be a fourth heuristic – to add to availability, representativeness, and anchoring. “The simulation heuristic,” he’d eventually call it, and it was all about the power of unrealized possibilities to contaminate people’s mind. As they moved through the world, people ran simulations of the future.

Although the connection isn’t stated outright, it’s clear this relates to the disintegration of their working relationship. A lot happened at around the same time: divorce, remarriage, a move across the world, a change in academic status. There wasn’t any big fight; they continued to work together but it was less productive. It’s painful to read. And it gets harder. These guys who researched regret, who researched undoing the past when things went wrong, who drew lines from the irrational to rationality, were just as helpless as anyone else when it started to fall apart.

I have to admire how Lewis lands the plane; I wouldn’t have believed a book about behavioral economics could draw tears. His superpower is not just the ability to explain complex ideas in simple terms, but to combine what could be dry information with an emotionally rich story. While I’m intrigued by the research, I’m also enchanted by these two psychologists who dared to scientifically examine what everyone either ignored or thought but wouldn’t talk about and thus started a new field. Youtube has videos of both Lewis talking about his experience of writing the book – he was afraid Kahneman would see he was a B-student writing about an A-student – and Kahneman talking about his concerns – he only went ahead with the project because he realized someone was going to do it and it might as well be Lewis.

It’s very much worth a read to see what you might be missing in your own decision making, and to experience a different kind of love story.

John Man: Alpha Beta (Wiley 2000) [IBR2022]

Writing was invented perhaps four times: in China, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Central America (‘perhaps’ because there are those who argue that the Egyptians took over the idea, though not the form, from Mesopotamia). The base-ten numbering system also emerged four times independently: in Babylon, China, India and Central America. Monotheism arose independently in the Old and New World (a generalization I can defend, in a small way, by citing a tribe with which I spent some time in 1979-80, the Waorani of the eastern Ecuadorian jungle; they believed in a single god, Waengongi, from long before the arrival of Europeans). And evolution had an evolution of its own from long before it was formalized by Darwin. But the alphabet, despite its multifarious forms, was a unique idea, arising only once, spreading across cultures and down centuries. There are many other writing systems, but they are all ideographic or syllabic. Other than the unknown scribes who originated the first tentative form of the alphabet around 2000 BC in Egypt, no culture or person ever independently dreamed up the idea.

This was the wrong book.

I was looking for a different book on the alphabet – one with a somewhat mystical theory – and couldn’t remember the name. This was suggested, and I figured, hey, why not, maybe a straightforward history is the place to start.

Alas, this particular book was the victim of poor timing: I was deep in my Chesterton obsession so didn’t focus as much as I could have, and got lost halfway through. Once I put Chesterton to bed, I started over (it’s a fairly short book) but got lost in the same place. Either I’m losing brain cells at an alarming rate, or there’s something about the second half of this book that’s a lot less readable.

…[T]he roots of the alphabet are still emerging. It seems increasingly certain that this revolutionary, one-off concept arose in Egypt, about 2000 BC. These discoveries will remain controversial until more evidence is found, interpreted and accepted, but one thing you can bet on: as archaeology becomes ever more effective, astonishing advances are still to be made. One day, perhaps, some cache of scrolls or inscriptions will reveal the genii – perhaps even the individual genius – who mined the first treasure-trove of letters from Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Man’s primary point is that the alphabet – originally, proto-Sinitic or proto-Canaanite – was derived from Egyptian hieroglyphics some time around 2000 BC. He tells this by way of two discoveries, one slightly west of the Nile in the 1990s, and one in the Sinai in the early 20th century. I’m unable to relate these two separate discoveries, or figure out any kind of timeline, but this serves as a basic theory of alphabetic origin. From there, the alphabet was adapted into Hebrew, by the Phonecians who spread it around, and eventually the Greeks and Romans.

The rest of the book delves into explanations of the limitations of cuneiform and hieroglyphics, general linguistic theories of sound production, and glimpses into various writing systems. Although less than a linear history, these are the sections that were the most interesting to me.

Included is a section on the Korean alphabet, which I briefly encountered in a mooc on Korean philosophy. Originally Korea adopted Chinese script as the written basis for their language; it didn’t fit well, but they made it work. In the 15th century, Sejong, a king and a scholar, spent decades consulting with scholars and finally produced The Correct Sounds for the Instruction of the People, a handbook for Hangul, an alphabet designed for the Korean language.

Its letters are based on an accurate analysis of Korean phonemes. It makes a clear distinction between consonants and vowels. Perhaps the most outstanding feature is that the shapes of the basic letters have significance (whereas the purpose of Roman shapes is lost in history). Sejong’s letters are based on the position of the tongue when the sound is made…
Rooted in practicality, Hangul also reflects Sejong’s Neo-Confucianism. The whole alphabet divides into two complementary opposites of yin – the female, passive, dark, wet and cold principles – and yang – the male, active, bright, dry and hot ones. The interplay of these two forces produce the five elements of wood, earth, fire, metal and water. In Hangul, the vowels are all elaborations on three basic Confucian symbols: a vertical for man, a horizontal for earth and a circle for heaven. Moreover vowels are either bright or dark, and consonants either hard or soft, with further symbolic connections to the five elements depending on whether they are consonants of the back teeth, front teeth, tongue, lips or throat.
Yet, despite Sejong’s authority and the beauty of his system, Hangul did not sweep away tradition. It found modest use in several of his pet projects, and in Buddhist literature, poetry and novels. The establishment refused to be convinced. Bureaucrats and scholars kept their precious Chinese for over four centuries…. In the 1990s, his great invention finally won.

This is used to demonstrate what Man calls his Working Theories of Script Innovation:

1. In a writing system, complexity knows no bounds and imposes none.
2. A writing system will last as long as its culture, unless changed by force.
3. New writing systems emerge only in new, young, ambitious cultures.

Another interesting, if already well-known, aside is an examination of the Pioneer plaque designed by Carl Sagan in 1971. If the Pioneer probe ever reaches intelligent life, what would serve as a “Hi there, we’re your neighbors” calling card?

A similar problem from the 1980s was faced by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  They wanted to post some kind of warning on nuclear waste sites, warnings that would be intelligible in 10,000 years, even if current society collapsed and a completely new culture evolved. They assumed language would not survive, so what about pictures, or stylized pictographs like Do Not Walk signs? The problem is even those can be misinterpreted now; who knows how they would strike whoever was here so many millennia from now. They enlisted Thomas Sebeok, a professor of linguistics, to recommend such a warning. He came back with a detailed analysis of why the task was impossible, and recommended an Atomic Priesthood (I swear, I am not making this up) that would be passed down over the years making the area culturally taboo if science should shrivel and die. “Naturally, no such ‘priesthood’ has ever been established,” says Man. I asked one of my online science fiction experts if this had generated a story or novel or series, but it seems not. It makes me wonder about the origins of various existing cultural taboos.

I’m well aware I didn’t give this book its due, and at some point I just stopped trying. I may revisit it, or try a different book on the same subject (or find the original book I was looking for) but for now I’ve gotten tired of the whole mess. In spite of that I came out of it with some interesting tidbits.

Judy Melinek & T. J. Mitchell: Working Stiff (Scribner 2014) [IBR2022]

I’m not a ghoulish person. I’m a guileless, sunny optimist, in fact. When I first started training in death investigation, T. J. worried my new job would change the way I looked at the world. He feared that after a few months of hearing about the myriad ways New Yorkers die, the two of us would start looking up nervously for window air conditioners to fall on our heads….
Instead, my experience has had the opposite effects. It freed me – and, eventually, my husband as well – from our six o’clock news phobias. Once I became an eyewitness to death, I found that nearly every unexpected fatality I investigated was either the result of something dangerously mundane, or of something predictably hazardous.
…. Staying alive, as it turns out, is mostly common sense.

Yes, I’ve been doing the blood-and-guts thing again. What can I say: autopsies are cool, they combine anatomy, physiology, and puzzles. I have two other non-fiction medical examiner books, one by Milton Helpern, one by Michael Baden, and a shelf of Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta, ME fiction series. But it’s been a while, so I got another one.

After medical school, Melinek took a surgical residency. Most surgeons are proud of the absurdly difficult working conditions inherent (or believed to be inherent) their training, but Melinek found it absurd and quit fairly quickly. Forensic pathology suited her far better.

Some of the book is predictably grisly: decomposition, bloating, violence, horrible accidents.

From Michael Donoghue’s green body and purple face on my autopsy table, I learned what a man of average build looks like after lying dead for forty-eight hours wrapped in a blanket, dumped face-down into an open-air canvas bin in cool, dry autumn weather, without animal depredation, covered in banana peels and soda cans. I filed the image away.

That’s a scary mental file cabinet she’s got there. But it’s part of the job, to recognize how the passage of time affects a body.

There is some humor as well, as when an apartment resident called the police about a bucket of… something in a hallway. The police who responded freaked out and brought it to the medical examiner’s office; they thought it contained a fetus. But it was a lot stranger, and less tragic, than that:

The mystery bucket became Dr. Hayes’s case. He dipped into its cloudy red contents and fished out something cold and hard. It was a porcelain figure of kissing angels. That was weird enough, but next came a couple dozen maraschino cherries. Finally he extracted a pair of two foot long ropy gobs of organic matter. To him they looked either like skinned snakes or donkey penises – he wasn’t sure which. Dr. Hayes washed the objects off and carried them over to radiography. X-rays revealed they certainly weren’t fetuses: there were no bones. Probably penises, then. Just to make sure, Hayes cut the gobs in half. They had a spongiform cross-section. Yes, they were penises, from a nonhuman animal.
Hayes is a fabulously witty and irreverent man to begin with, so hearing him present the Mysterious Case of the Maraschino Donkey Dongs in his genteel English accent was the highlight of everyone’s week.

It’s the matter-of-fact voice that makes this anecdote fun. And imagining the presentation.

Two medical phenomena stood out to me. One is sequestration: when most of the body’s blood volume is sucked back into the bone marrow on collapse of the vascular system. In the case Melinek describes, a man jumped in front of a train. He had no external injuries, but suffered internal decapitation: that is, his skull was disconnected from his spinal column without disrupting the skin of the neck or head. Melenik had trouble drawing blood; the heart was empty. Her supervisor suggested, since there was no outlet for blood to leave the body, that it might have pooled in the bone marrow. I wanted to know more about this, but I can’t find any mention of this online; I may not be using the best search terms.

Another phenomenon is called TRALI, transfusion-related acute lung injury. It’s a very rare reaction to blood transfusion that causes pulmonary edema. In the case Melinek came across, there were numerous complicating factors (including a false positive screen for methadone) and the patient died; her job was to figure out why, and TRALI turned out to be the cause of death. I was able to find a lot of additional information on this process.

Various chapters cover poisonings, accidents, wound comparisons, and unexpected hospital deaths requiring autopsy. There’s the usual discussion of cause vs manner of death, and a long explanation of therapeutic complications (such as the TRALI case) and why that doesn’t necessarily mean a doctor made a mistake. In the chapter about suicides, Melinek is quite open about her father’s suicide when she was thirteen years old. Several chapters cover her involvement in 9/11, which occurred two months after she was appointed as an assistant medical examiner at New York’s  OCME. This was followed by the anthrax attacks, and a couple of months later, the second deadliest plane crash on US soil, ultimately determined to be due to pilot error, in Queens.

Melinek’s husband was the co-author on this book. They have since co-written two novels featuring a medical examiner protagonist. Maybe I’ll give one of them a try at some point.

Jack Miles: God: A Biography (Vintage, 1995) [IBR2022]

I write here about the life of the Lord God as – and only as – the protagonist of a classic of world literature; namely, the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. I do not write about (though I certainly do not write against) the Lord God as the object of religious belief. I do not attempt, as theology does, to make an original statement about God as an extraliterary reality. I do not write as a historian and therefore do not focus, as historians do, on the successive Israelite and Jewish communities that believed in God.
….If biography is seen narrowly as a branch of history, then there can be no biography of a non-historical character. But God does have a first and a last appearance in the Hebrew Bible. We see him first as the creator, outside history, prior to it, masterfully setting in motion the heavenly bodies by which historical time will be measured. We see him last as the “Ancient of Days,” white-haired and silent, looking forward to the end of history from a remote and cloudy throne. This book becomes a biography of a special sort by dint of its determination to describe the middle that lies between so vigorous a beginning and so quiescent an end.

This was a late addition to this year’s list. My blogging buddy Jake Weber, with whom I share an interest in religion, mentioned he’d read it, and it sounded like an interesting approach: God as a literary character. It turned out to be a surprisingly difficult frame of mind to get into. I’m familiar with various Protestant interpretations of scripture, and I’m used to what Miles calls a scholastic approach to the Bible: the different authors, historical settings, what was added or removed. Through the beginning of Miles’ chapters on Genesis, I kept complaining, “But that’s by a different author!” His point is, as a literary text, it doesn’t matter: the book was combined as one text, which sometimes repeats (and contradicts) itself. Once I finally got over that hurdle, however, I had a great time.

My concern before I even opened the cover was: Which Bible? Miles deals with that right off the bat. He’s looking at the Hebrew Tanakh, which is not quite the same as the Christian Old Testament. Most importantly for his purposes, the order of the books is different; in Miles’ terms, the Tanakh goes from action to speech to silence, while the Old Testament goes from action to silence to speech. The ending of silence turns out to have a meaning all its own: it makes God’s conversation with Job the last time he speaks (and, though it’s much to complicated to review here, the sections on Job are fascinating). Then come the prophets who speak for him, but he does not speak again.

But Miles sees something very interesting happen in that silence:

The biography of God, as we saw earlier, has several beginnings. God, ‘elohim, creates the world in one way; the Lord, Yahweh, in another. But if there had been no creation story, the Tanakh could have begun with Noah; if there had been no flood story, it could have begun with Abraham; if no patriarchal covenant, then with Moses. In the books to which we now turn, the Tanakh, with its several beginnings, comes to several endings. In each of these endings, God’s life comes to a close, but in none of them does he die.
We may say, keeping our focus tightly on him, that he subsides; but widening the focus somewhat, we may say that he is incorporated in the Jewish nation….. [I]t does seem that in the books of Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles, a pragmatic transfer of functions and expectations occurs. Actions that once God would have taken on behalf of the Jews, statements that he would have made to them, they now take and make for themselves. God is still God and the only God. They are still no more than human beings. And yet in a strange way, he and they exchange roles.

Remember, this is a progression of a character. From speaking to people, to taking action on their behalf, he goes quiet but the people start taking action. Esther defends the Jewish community from Haman. Ezra purifies. Nehemiah rebuilds and continues the purification. But they act as people. They can be presumed to be inspired by God if you wish, but God doesn’t tell the what to do nor does he act on their behalf. He doesn’t need to; they’ve incorporated him into their culture, which is not really an ending, but a definite shift.

One of the first main points Miles makes is that God has different personalities. This is one of those stumbling blocks I had, since, to me, the different personalities are the result of different authors’ work being pieced together. But that’s the point of viewing it as a single text: the character, sometimes called God and sometimes The Lord God, is sometimes personable, sometimes harsh. This can be seen as a conflation of various deities of the time and place (and Miles outlines them all) and results in a character who’s, well, unstable.

Another literary interpretation that sticks with me is that God, from the start, seems to not know what he wants, beyond creating man in his image. What that image is, he isn’t sure:

As for the concrete particulars of what God wants mankind to be, this he only discovers as he goes along. His manner is always supremely confident, but he does not announce or even seem to know all his plans in detail or in advance…. Getting it right is, in the Bible, not just a matter of mankind’s observing the law of God (at this point in the story, the law has not even been given). It is rather, and much more broadly, a matter of mankind’s becoming the image of God. That quest, arising from the protagonists sole stated motive, drives the only real plot that’s the Bible can be said to have. But that plot, God’s attempt to shape mankind in his image, would be far more comprehensible if God had a richer subjective life, one more clearly separate from, more clearly prior to, the human object of his shaping.
…. He is portrayed, with apparent sincerity and unwavering consistency, as truly without a past and, though not without intentions, as truly without desires except the desire that mankind should be his self-image…. God relies on man even for the working out of his own intentions and is, to this extent, almost parasitic on human desire. If man wanted nothing, it is difficult to imagine how God would discover what God wanted.

The interesting point here is that man becomes a mirror in which God can see himself. And he often doesn’t like what he sees.

Miles has a wonderful interpretation of the final books that hinges on repetition. He acknowledges that the repetition may be a scribe’s error; this sort of thing is seen all the time in hand-written manuscripts (including the medieval manuscripts I’ve read about). But it’s there, so it’s fair game for literary interpretation:

The repetition of the first words of the book of Ezra at the end of II Chronicles may well be an accident, but its effect is nonetheless to turn these last four books of the Tanakh into the literary equivalent of a musical round. A round is a composition that because it’s last notes are identical with its first can go on in principle forever.
A round is typically composed to be sung by three or four voices simultaneously; and once the voices are all singing, it is impossible to say what his beginning, what had middle, and what end. Just as a circle, unlike a line, has no beginning, middle, or end, so this circular form of song, as at it’s exhilarating best, seems to defeat death. The Tanakh may be said to defeat its own death and God’s by ending in a literary round…. .

Time is jumbled in that combination anyway, since Chronicles, tacked on the end of the Tanakh, repeats (more or less) the history already told in Kings, so covers a period earlier than Ezra and Nehemiah. Turning it into a round is a nice kind of wordplay, and the Bible is full of wordplay.

The book is full of interesting observations. For example:

  • Abraham: God promises him excellent potency, and as the years wear on, Abram (before his name change) becomes more and more skeptical. Then at last, he has a child – and God demands circumcision: “God is demanding that Abram concede, symbolically, that his fertility is not his own to exercise without divine let or hindrance. A physical reduction in the literal super abundance of Abram’s penis is a sign with an intrinsic relationship to what it signifies…. The text does not conceal the strangeness of the moment.”
  • The tone of prophecy: “The three major prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel – may be considered, respectively, the manic, the depressive, and to the psychotic articulation of the prophetic message.” As evidenced here, the book is not without humor.
  • On the analogy between David’s loss of his son and God’s loss of Israel’s faithfulness: “In the Absalom story we see what it means to be a father when your son attacks you, and you destroy him, but he is still your son, and you are still his father. Can the Lord be such a father?”
  • On the problem of bad things happening to good people: “’The Lord made everything for a purpose, / even the wicked for an evil day’ – Proverbs 16: 4 is an answer of a new and most untraditional kind to the entreaty in literally scores of Psalms that the Lord put the petitioners wicked enemies in their place…  ‘No,’ the Lord is here imagined to respond, ‘I have my purpose for them and [by clear implication] you must endure them.’”

Miles has the  bona fides to write this book: after ten years as a Jesuit he received his doctorate in ancient languages from Harvard (including Hebrew and Aramaic), and worked in publishing and academia. He now describes himself as an Episcopalian, having become uncomfortable with some of the more restrictive Catholic teachings. He’s also written books about Christ and Islam, presumably in the same vein.

Those who have a strong belief system and are not open to other beliefs may see the book in conflict with religious interpretation, much as I saw the premise of literary interpretation initially in conflict with my more historical studies.  It’s information-dense (it took me three weeks to read) and assumes a certain comfort level with the Bible. Quotes are provided in places where wording is crucial, but if you aren’t sure who Joseph was, or what Saul’s problem was, or if you’re a bit vague on anything after “Let there be light,” it might be tough reading.  I enjoyed it greatly and learned a lot. For those of us interested in Western religion, it’s an interesting and thought-provoking adventure.

Jerald Walker: How to Make A Slave and Other Essays (Mad Creek Books, 2020) [IBR2022]

In these absorbing essays, Jerald Walker adds race to the commonplace (a little girl helping her younger brother with his homework, a job interview, a family dining out, a teenager crashing the family car) and shows us something knotty, fraught, and unforgettable, not just about race and the commonplace, “living while black,” but about living while human. Walker is furious and funny. He is talking to himself about his life and allows us to listen in.

National Book Awards 2020 Judge’s Citation

I first became acquainted with Walker via the 2022 Pushcart volume which featured his essay, “The Kaleshion.” I enthused about it wildly in my post – it’s not only a great narrative that brings together humor and tension, but it also ends with a fun surprise that changes the context – and ordered this collection before I finished writing the post. As I’d hoped, these short essays that all have some combination of that compelling narrative drive, hit-you-in-the-face truth, and irresistibly sly humor.

I’ve spent a little time in these pages on award-winning author and Iowa Writers Workshop professor James Alan McPherson, a mentor to many current writers, including Walker. In “Dragon Slayers,” (available online) Walker describes his formative experience with the professor, which began with a painful critique of a workshop story detailing the gritty details of his youth in Chicago.

“Stereotypes are valuable,” he said. “But only if you use them to your advantage. They present your readers with something they’ll recognize, and it pulls them into what appears to be familiar territory, a comfort zone. But once they’re in, you have to move them beyond the stereotype. You have to show them what’s real.”
“What’s real?” I asked.
Without hesitation, he said, “You.”
It was one of those things that you instantly recognize as profound, and then, because you don’t quite understand it, try to forget as quickly as you can.

It took Walker a while to figure out what this meant, but when he got it, he really got it: yes, he got in with a bad set, did drugs and watched a friend die and could’ve gone down that same road, but now here he was in the most prestigious writing program in the country. As McPherson told him later, “Less time needs to be spent on the dragons, and more on our ability to forge swords for battle.”

That describes the essays in this book. Yes, there’s racism, and there’s rage and injustice, but there’s also the grace to handle it (sometimes in better ways than others), the wisdom to learn from one’s experience, the courage to admit he doesn’t know how to handle some things, and the humor to laugh at oneself – and others – when appropriate.

The title essay, “How To Make A Slave,” (available online) follows McPherson’s advice as it bounces off the Frederick Douglass quote, “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man” by way of Walker’s recollection of making a popsicle-stick Douglass for a school project, wishing “black history had some funny parts.” And now that he has children of his own, children who are growing up in a lovely middle class white suburb instead of the South Side of Chicago, he wonders how he can parent them effectively.

Inauguration” follows a similar path, but tucks in some extra humor. Walker’s sons are six and eight years old. He’s answered questions about differing skin colors within and without the family “in purely biological terms” so that, when he tells them Obama won the election and asks if they remember who he is, the eight-year-old replies, “The one with the high levels of melanin?”

He recalls how his own father gave him the sex talk and imagines translating this to discussing race with his sons: 

“Boys,” he said, rising, “you’re old enough to start being with girls, but if you’re going to be out there tomcat’n, you’ll need these.” He held up a hand, in which were several sex education brochures. “When you’re ready for them,” he continued, “they’ll be on top of the refrigerator.” And then he left. This was not the model I intended to follow when it came time to broach the subject of sex with Dorian and Adrian. But at that moment, as I entered the room to broach the subject of race, I wished there was something that, right before leaving, I could hold up and say, Boys, you’re old enough to start being black, but if you’re going to be out there Negro’n, you’ll need these.

It’s hilarious, but it paves the way for the deeply serious issue of how to convey the importance of the moment without scaring them. He follows the Dragon Slayer technique: start with slavery, but let it lead to the capabilities that can lead to greatness, or whatever one’s heart’s desire might be.  And when the boys talk of side-by-side art studios in different colors, well, maybe just let the moment be. They’ll remember the important stuff, like the brochures on top of the fridge, when they’re ready for it.

Walker teaches Creative Writing at a prominent Boston college; this also serves as a focus for several essays. “The Heritage Room” (available online) outlines the tight control a Black man must keep on his anger, even in a structured setting debating a policy issue.  

The Heritage Room was named in honor of its two-dozen mounted portraits of famous African Americans. The usual troika of black iconography is here—former slaves, civil rights leaders and athletes—and each person seems, if not angry, then intensely displeased. Even Rosa Parks looks like she could kill. For once I’d like to see portraits of famous African Americans smiling, or frozen in laughter, their heads tossed back and hands clutching guts as they consider the absurdities and ironies of their lives.
.… And that is the fallacy of those images, for in those same communities where black boys snarl and clutch their crotches, anger is often a prelude to a joke, as there is broad understanding that the triumph over this destructive emotion lay in finding its punch line. Rosa Parks, I am willing to wager, laughed more than she frowned.

That twist from anger to humor features in most of these essays. And then there’s “Balling” (available online) which forgets the prelude and moves straight to the joke in describing how Walker came to work at this particular college. Apparently there were racial discrimination lawsuits and official complaints that made headlines, just as they started advertising for “a professor of creative writing, with a specific appeal for applicants of color.” It’s the most flat-out satirical essay in the collection: funny, with an undercurrent of truth:

I feared that competitors for the job with darker skin, even if only by a shade or two, would have a psychological edge with the search committee. I had first seen this sort of thing as a child; on basketball courts, as players were being divvied up teams, the darker your skin, the greater assumption that you were a baller….
Morally speaking, I am not a perfect person—who is?—so I considered getting a tan. There was a salon next door to the Starbucks I frequented and sometimes, before getting out of my car to grab a cappuccino, I would see ghostly Caucasians enter its doors and their dazzlingly bronzed counterparts exit. I imagined going inside and how the clerk, after initially being confused by my presence in the lobby, would open the cash register and dump its contents on the counter, right after pressing the silent alarm. But that could work in my favor; there are few things more balling than a black man’s false arrest.

In “Race Stories,” the quintessential story of a black man stopped by security in the school where he teaches simply because he’s black is raised to fine art. For one thing, he’s stopped while on his way to a dinner honoring faculty members of color. But it’s how he tells the story that makes it – and he starts out by telling us exactly how he’s going to tell it:

It is not my style to rush a good race story….. The stories I favor are not only upsetting but also uplifting; they are rich with irony and tinged with humor; they are unique, in some way, and lend themselves to interesting digressions, and their protagonists always confront villains, even if not always with success – when I come into a race story with these components, I prefer to delay its telling, allowing it to breathe, so to speak, like a newly uncorked Merlot.

And of course, just as he’s delaying telling the story in the dinner, he’s delaying telling the story in the essay as well by describing how he’s delaying telling the story… oh, wow, I love this guy.

But for all the humor, it’s not lost on the reader that this is so common, even the security supervisor who’s called – a black woman, as it happens – recognizes what’s happened to the point where she slaps her forehead – “Literally slapped it!” – as she’s introduced to Prof. Walker, the suspicious black man, by the Vice President of Inclusion and Diversity. And it’s not lost on the reader as the story ends with the professors of color exchanging similar stories. A spoonful of sugar, sang Julie Andrews; anger is a prelude to a joke, wrote Jerald Walker.

Not all of the stories are explicitly about race. “Feeding Pigeons” (available online) looks at attitudes towards gayness; “Wars” features a reading/writing group Walker led in a VA hospital; “The Heart” (available online) introduces us to Walker’s twin brother and the rocky path of marriage to a heroin addict. All employs the same subtle-but-kapow! ending Walker is so good at. “Simple” is another family story; both of Walker’s parents were blind, and that’s key to this story of a comedy that could have been a tragedy, but instead turns into “a blind man and his simple son bonding in a court of law.” “Before Grief” tells of Walker’s fascination as a child with Michael Jackson, and how Thriller burst into his stoned consciousness later during “a terrible period of chaos and wrong choices for me.” He does something interesting in this essay: before telling us about watching the video with his brothers, he tells us, “While I do not know if this is true, I have a vague memory that the three of us, in 1983, watched the Motown 25 television special together, and maybe we rose at some point to attempt Michael’s moonwalk…” I’ve said before, when nonfiction writers claim there’s no way to be sure memories are accurate so it’s ok if nonfiction is a little fictional, that there are ways to handle that uncertainty, and this upfront admission which contributes to the drug-drenched setting and eventual resolution is one of them.

While so many of these are extraordinary, “Strippers” sticks in my mind. It’s more suspenseful than a Stephen King novel, with the focus of suspense switching three or four times over its seven brief pages. A dinner with friends runs late, and they reveal great news: a bone-marrow donor for their sick child has been found. They want to toast to this, but the restaurant is closing and the only other option is a strip club down the block. Will one of Walker’s students see him in a strip club? Will the white patrons think he’s just another black guy who gets off on ogling white women? Will the friends he’s with get into it with the bouncer? At heart it’s about who people seem to be, who we assume they are based on a glance at some random microslice of behavior, and who they really are, about our instinct to judge. And it’s about how our snap judgments can be stripped away by another random microslice of behavior that completely contradicts the first, thanks to a last line that changes everything and sings with the promise that we can do better.  

Walker’s been showing up in various “Best Essays” anthologies for years; I’m so glad I finally ran across him via Pushcart. It’s his third book: the first two deal with the rough years of his Chicago boyhood, and the religious cult his family embraced. I don’t particularly want to read either of those, but I’m going to keep my eyes peeled for future works, because I love the voice, I love the juxtapositions and the viewpoints (and the strong use of second person), and I love how he makes me want to be better – in my judgments, in my actions, and in my reading.

Asher Hirshberg & Kenneth L. Mattox: Top Knife: The Art and Craft of Trauma Surgery (tfm 2018) [IBR2022]

Who should read this book? Are you a resident or registrar in the senior years of surgical training? A general surgeon interested in trauma? A fellow in trauma and critical care? If you are, we wrote this book primarily with you in mind….
Many operative encounters with bad injuries take place in austere circumstances. The rural surgeon doing an occasional major trauma case alone, the military surgeon in the field, and the disaster relief team on a humanitarian mission are examples of trauma surgery with extremely limited resources…. If you are one of these surgeons, you are probably more interested in simple technical solutions that work, rather than complex maneuvers that you won’t use anyway. Most operative problems in trauma have more than one effective answer, and that the trick is to tailor a simple, feasible solution to your specific circumstances. In this book, we show you how to do just that.

No, I’m not planning on doing surgery any time soon. Nor am I a surgeon, or in any way trained in health care. I just like medical stuff. Last year, one of the doctors I follow on Twitter retweeted a comment about this book

I checked out the hash tag #TopKnife, and found a brief video from one of the authors referring to it as a surgical philosophy book in the spirit of the tenets contained in Samuel Shem’s hilarious 1978 novel House of God. Well, that sold me.

And if it hadn’t  – uh oh, I need to confess another guilty pleasure, that’s two this month – a friend and I began watching Grey’s Anatomy, start to finish, last September. It was his first viewing, and he’s been mostly interested in the emotional conflicts; I’ve watched it probably seven or eight times, less for later seasons, and look up new medical stuff every time. I found a lot of that in this book: Like the Mattox maneuver, which was mentioned in S9E4. Mattox, as in Kenneth L., co-author of this very book. Click Add to Cart.

As is appropriate for a philosophy book, it starts out explaining a great deal of strategy and approach; a lot of that transfers to non-medical areas. For example, flailing:

Have you ever heard of flailing? Flailing is repetitive, ineffective action. It is one of the most common tactical errors of the inexperienced. For example, imagine yourself trying to control a bleeder with a hemostatic stitch. You insert the suture and tie it, but bleeding continues. You try again. It still doesn’t work period you try again; Maybe it will work this time. We can tell you without being there that it probably won’t – you are flailing. Very often, flailing will be more obvious to the OR team than to you. How can you avoid it?
Get used to the idea that in the real world surgical maneuvers don’t always work.

From there they advise a set of options: retreat (get help), look for alternatives, retry (but change something), reconsider the need for the step. Even if you have no idea what a hemostatic stitch is, the same approach could be applied to various processes you are familiar with from baking cookies, changing tires, or setting up a website. By the way, Twelve-Step groups have aphorized flailing: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and thinking you’ll get a different result.”

Some other words of wisdom in the early pages that could be useful outside an operating room:

  • Know what the key maneuver is for what you’re trying to accomplish.
  • Know the pitfalls and be prepared to handle them if they should happen.
  • How well does your solution fail? If it would fail badly, choose a repair that fails well.
  • Learn to distinguish between a small problem and Big Trouble.

There is, of course, a lot of straight-out medical stuff:

If you must explore a perinephric hematoma in a stable patient, you can gain vascular control of the renal vessels at their origin by using a maneuver called midline looping…. Eviscerate the small bowel and pull it up and to the right. Take it down the ligament of Treitz and open the posterior peritoneum overlying the aorta. First, identify the LRV crossing in front of the aorta beneath the interior border of the pancreas and add circle it with a vessel loop. This is the first of four loopings. Very gently retract the LRV downward….

Yeah, that’s a lot of stuff. But hey, that’s why I keep taking anatomy and physiology and biochemistry and cell biology moocs, so I can read something like that and understand it – not do it, lord knows (I don’t have enough anatomy to even visualize it) but know what they’re talking about and maybe use it to better understand how all the anatomy, which I’ve only studied in individual pieces, relates. And if nothing else I can pat myself on the back for recognizing that LRV means left renal vein.

The illustrations (by Scott Weldon) are great, too: mostly line drawings of various blood-spouting parts, a guy holding a shattered liver together with his hands, and poking holes in the mesentery.    

In most places, though there’s a great blend of imagery, whimsy, and anatomy. Some of the chapter titles show this sense of humor in what is, after all, a grim business:

  • Fixing Tubes: The Hollow Organs
  • The “Take-Outable” Solid Organs
  • The Injured Liver: Ninja Master
  • The Neck: Safari in Tiger Country

Sometimes a topic will just play into the hands of us GA watchers: the aforementioned Mattox maneuver, for example. The Pringle maneuver, also described in the book, comes up in several episodes. Packing: it’s not just stuffing gauze into a wound. That damage control they keep talking about, and the triad of death. And the ultimate prize for the alert resident: the Whipple: it’s not just for cancer any more:

A trauma Whipple is the ultimate big whack of abdominal trauma. Use it as a last resort when the pancreaticoduodenal complex is destroyed or way the ampulla cannot be reconstructed and no simpler solution will work…. Herein lies the big paradox of this operation: the exsanguinating patient with a shattered pancreatic alco duodenal complex is too sick to survive it. A stable patient who will survive it often does not need it. So choose a lesser alternative, however imperfect, when you can.

Well, given that paradox, maybe it is just for cancer.

Given this weekend was the release of the Top Gun sequel (which I have no interest in watching but it’s infested my feed), the authors’ thoughts on the title of the book might interest the non-medical mindset, should anyone of that nature have ventured this far:

Why Top Knife? Top Gun is the popular name of the Naval Fighters Weapons School. Their mission is to train the very best fighter pilots for the US Navy. We called our book Top Knife in recognition of the many similarities between trauma surgeons and fighter pilots: clear thinking under pressure, responding effectively to rapidly changing situations, and a long and arduous training process. Just like aerial combat, trauma surgery is, first and foremost, a discipline. You cannot become a fighter pilot or a trauma surgeon without a lot of hard work and willingness to face adversity.

Sure, it’s a niche book; few who aren’t surgeons would have any interest in it. But I’m glad it’s there for those of us odd enough to find it just as spellbinding as any post-apocalypse trilogy.

Bertrand Russell / Bradley Trevor Greive: In Praise of Idleness (St.Martin’s 2017) [IBR2022]

Russell’s message changed my life. Not immediately, perhaps – at least not visibly. But I started to look at my spare time differently, and then my time on earth in general. I tried to cut back on passive entertainment and move towards more active interests.
…. Given how impactful Russell has been in my own life, I was determined to share his sui generis genius with as many people as possible, and having at last secured the blessing of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, I present this modest volume to you.
I am neither a philosopher nor a mathematician and I am known primarily for my humorous gift books, so I do not pretend that I am worthy of this task. Nevertheless I feel honored to have the opportunity to present Russell’s work to a new audience. My only hope is that Russell’s essay might have heard you a similar epiphany to that which I experienced.

Bradley Trevor Greive, Introduction

I found the title of this intriguing. I’m not sure idleness is the best word for what’s being presented (yes, I am editing Bertrand Russell, you got a problem with that?). Idleness denotes lack of activity, what Russell would call passive entertainment; that is, Netflix and 48 hours of weekend televised sports. What he’s promoting is something else: non-work time – leisure – as a means of ramping up the creative powers, diffusing thought from targeted activity and letting things rip.

There are clear precedents that speak to the value of this process. When Newton spent a year at home because of the plague, he didn’t sit idly, he invented calculus. When Linus Pauling was sick in bed with a cold, he dabbled with a strip of paper and figured out protein structure. St. John spent time on Patmos and wrote the book of Revelation (hmm, might not be the best example).

Russell’s essay is couched in irony and wit.

Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. The second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given. Usually two opposite kinds of advice are given simultaneously by two organized bodies of men; this is called politics. The skill required for this kind of work is not knowledge of the subjects as to which advice is given, but knowledge of the art of persuasive speaking and writing, i.e. of advertising.

It’s important to remember that Russell was writing from the UK in the 1930s. I’ve watched Downton Abbey enough to be familiar with the shift from landowners (“What is a week end?”) lauded as providers of employment, to the question of just why so many people spent their days paying calls, hunting foxes, and being dressed several times a day for different functions, while others were slopping pigs and sewing and mining all day.  Russell’s solution – everyone works four hours, leaving a less exhausted working class able to function more creatively in their off hours – doesn’t map easily onto the 21st century US.

At the root of it all is the view that leisure lets us develop those things that aren’t necessarily profitable in the short run, but last millennia.

In the past, there was a small leisure class and a larger working class. The leisure class enjoyed advantages for which there was no basis in social justice; This necessarily made it oppressive, limited in sympathies, and caused it to invent theories by which to justify its privileges. These facts greatly diminished its excellence, but in spite of this drawback it contributed nearly the whole of what we call civilization. It cultivated the arts and discovered the sciences; it wrote the books, invented the philosophies, and refined social relations. Even the liberation of the oppressed has usually been inaugurated from above. Without the leisure class, mankind would never have emerged from barbarism.

I wonder if this is at the heart of the educated/practical divide. I recently learned that Robert Boyle, who, as one of the first chemists, discovered that the pressure of a gas is inversely relative to its volume and started thinking about heat as motion, was the son of one of the richest men in England. That’s why he could build a laboratory for his experiments. But look at Antoine Lavoisier: he was on a brilliant course with oxygen and the law of conservation of mass, but he got guillotined during the Reign of Terror because of his and his family’s ownership of tax agencies and general upper class status.

Today, everybody wants smartphones and technology to do more and more, but there’s a strong anti-education contingent that seems to want to limit education to certain people and certain subjects. More gadgets, more financial tinkering, less history and philosophy and art. Keep it practical. And, as Russell points out in several ways, preach about the virtue of hard work without ever doing any yourself.

As I was reading this, I thought of the attitudes towards moocs. Way back in the early days (about a decade ago; time moves on an accelerated scale these days) I was deeply insulted when a professor I admired referred to those of us who were not taking the course to prepare for further academic study in the subject as “hobbyists.” A few months ago, the Digital Learning Scientist working on MIT’s biology department held a zoom meeting on mooc engagement during the pandemic; when describing the data, they indicated taking the course as a verified student – that is, paying for it – is a “rough indicator” of dedication to the course. Rough is right.

Acknowledging different students had different goals, she said, “People who are retired do this for entertainment even.” The idea that someone could commit to a concentrated study of biology simply because they find it fascinating is not a first-thought idea, even after a pandemic makes understanding what mRNA is and how the immune system works a practical skill. Forgive me for ranting, I’m still wounded. But where Russell doubts that universities are fulfilling their goal as cultural generators, I see moocs as being so much more inclusive, reaching well beyond those who want a degree. Yet those are the very students modd educators dismiss as entertainment-seeking hobbyists.

Back to the book. The essay itself – a short little thing – is packaged with a foreword, afterword, and recommended reading list by Bradley Trevor Greive. I had no idea who that is, and his self-description as a writer of “humorous gift books” didn’t help (even after googling around, I have no idea what a humorous gift book is). Turns out he’s also instrumental in Australian television and film.

His introduction sets up Russell’s essay by explaining how he came across it. His Afterword a brief biography of Russell, and, most interestingly, his summary of what he calls the Russell Method of Creative Discipline, based on the prof’s activities, conversations, and diary entries:

– Exhaustive research and thought to the point of complete immersion in the subject.
– Attaining physical and objective distance from the project, during which further contemplation is undertaken in a state of active idleness.
– Seeing the work or solution as a whole, and reproducing same.
– Sober self criticism and editing after the fact to ensure the creative and intellectual integrity of the project.

This combination of study, escape, contemplation, inspiration, and critical evaluation makes perfect sense end served the prolific Russell well; To wit, without escape from the cerebral churn Russell could not find the freedom to think creatively, and without the intensely disciplined study he had nothing of substance to think about in the first place.

Bradley Trevor Greive, Afterword: In Praise of Doubt

See why I say idleness is maybe not the best word? This is a lot of work. I’m nowhere near Russell’s level, but it’s why I read a story or a book and let it percolate before I write about it; often I have no idea what approach to take at first, but it gradually comes into view. Sometimes it doesn’t. I suspect readers can tell which posts fit into that latter category.

Russell won a Nobel Prize for his writings; they’re collected in various ways. He was a Socialist dove who valued people above profit, which makes him everything the State – pretty much any State – distrusts. I’m vaguely familiar with some of his mathematical and philosophical work from various moocs, but I’m more interested in his social views. As usual, I’m intimidated by Great Names, so this was a good way to dip my toe in. Thanks to Greive’s reading list, I have an idea how to proceed.

Roxane Gay: Bad Feminist (Harper 2014) [IBR2022]

We don’t all have to believe in the same feminism. Feminism can be pluralistic so long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us, so long as we give enough of a damn to try to minimize the fractures among us. Feminism will better succeed with collective effort, but feminist success can also rise out of personal conduct. I hear many young women say they can’t find well known feminists with whom they identify. That can be disheartening, but I say, let us (try to) become the feminists we would like to see moving through the world. When you can’t find someone to follow, you have to find a way to lead by example. In this collection of essays, I’m trying to lead, in a small, imperfect way. I am raising my voice as a bad feminist. I am taking a stand as a bad feminist. I offer insights on our culture and how we consume it. The essays in this collection also examine race in contemporary film, the limits of diversity, and how innovation is rarely satisfying; It is rarely enough.

Roxane Gay, Introduction

I chose not to read this book when it came out because I didn’t want to read about feminism. Part of that hesitation is covered in Gay’s introduction: it’s a complicated topic that seems to mean different things to different people, yet somehow manages to leave out huge swathes of women. And part is a lack of enthusiasm for pedantic diatribe, however earnest and appropriate. *Footnote (if I could do footnotes in WordPress): I should have trusted Gay.

So why read it now?

Over the past several years, I’ve repeatedly quoted Gay’s article, “Not Here to Make Friends” on unlikeable characters (as well as her tweets and other writings). The surprise came late last year, when I discovered it was included in this collection. A quick glance showed me yes, there’s a lot of gender and sexuality, but there’s also academia, Scrabble, and Sweet Valley High, as well as politics and race and intersections of all of the above with gender and sexuality. Click “add to cart.”

The book is divided into five sections: Me, Gender & Sexuality, Race & Entertainment, Politics, Gender & Race, and Back to Me. The essays appeared in many print and online magazines over several years, so some were familiar, like “Not Here to Make Friends” (which always makes me want to read The Age of Innocence; fortunately, or not, I get over it pretty quickly). They’re all fairly short, and they all are immensely readable.

In these pages I learned about the exhaustion of real-life academia I so love reading about in fiction:

An alarming number of my students don’t seem to want to be in college. They are in school because they don’t feel they have a choice or have nothing better to do; because their parents are making them attend college; because, like most of us, they’ve surrendered to the rhetoric that just succeed in this country you need a college degree. They are not necessarily incorrect. And yet, all too often, I find myself wishing I could teach more students who actually want to be in school, who don’t resent the education being foisted upon them. I wish there were viable alternatives for students who would rather be anywhere but in a classroom. I wish, in all things, for a perfect world.

“Typical First Year Professor”

As someone who deferred higher education after high school, then found myself passionately drawn to it in any form (continuing most recently in moocs, OCWs, and Youtube classes), I’m actually a fan of postponing college until one really wants it. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in learning; I was, and that was generated by reading, by seeing interesting characters who knew things I didn’t. But let’s face it, most people go to college to get a good job, not because they really REALLY want to finally understand Chaucer or calculus or the Middle Ages. The result is what Gay sees in her classes.

Then I read about Scrabble. I confess: I love the NYT Sunday Crossword (and no other, though I’ll take anything in a pinch), I spend an enormous amount of time on Wordle and its derivatives, as well as WEBoggle, which is psychically equivalent to taking a cigarette break while avoiding the physical damage, but I’ve never liked Scrabble. But it turns out, I love reading about Scrabble. At least in “To Scratch, Claw, or Grope Clumsily or Frantically,” in which Gay takes us through her introduction to the world of competitive Scrabble via a casual invitation she accepted simply because she was new in town and had nothing else to do. And I learned the reason WEBoggle never accepts “Broasted” as a word is because it’s a proper noun.

Other articles included references less familiar to me that nevertheless were emotionally wrenching. In “What We Hunger For,” Gay discusses her love for the Hunger Games stories in the context of her own experience of sexual violence. That’s followed by “The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion,” and the ineffectiveness, and ultimate nonsense, of trigger warnings. The Race & Entertainment section reference movies and TV shows I’ve either never seen (Tyler Perry movies, Django Unchained) or saw so long ago I don’t really remember them (The Help). The exception is Fruitvale Station, which stuck with me:

It is in this context that Fruitvale Station works compellingly to treat Oscar Grant as a man. Forced to decide whether to sell drugs to support his family, Oscar makes what we hope is the right choice, throwing a large quantity of marijuana into the Bay. He tries to get his job back at a local grocer after being fired. Not only are his options drastically limited, his learning curve is steep. There is little room for error. For some young black men, there is no room for error at all.

“The Last Day of a Young Black Man”

Most of these essays are very short. Many were published in online magazines, others in print venues. Many of them cover ground that has become familiar; others show we’ve moved on without resolving much. Social media, political agendas, entertainment trends, these change quickly. It’d be nice if we went back to the eighteenth century when writing about morality would last forever, but those essays tended to be so general as to weave into whatever current events were playing. Gay’s essays are very specific, so they have a shorter shelf life.

It’s still a book worth reading, if only to remember back when it seemed like change was possible. And if the issues in the more time-specific essays are more familiar now, the good news is that Gay is now writing NYT opinion columns.

Leonard Mlodinow: The Upright Thinkers (Vintage 2015) [IBR2022]

In the wrong hands, science can be famously boring. But the story of what we know and how we know it isn’t boring at all. It is supremely exciting. Full episodes of discovery that are no less compelling than a Star Trek episode or our first trip to the moon, it is peopled by characters as passionate and quirky as those we know from art and music and literature, seekers whose insatiable curiosity took our species from its origins on the African savanna to the society we live in today. How did they do that? How did we go from a species that had barely learned to walk upright and lived off whatever nuts and berries and roots we could harvest with our bare hands to one that flies airplanes, sends messages instantly around the globe, and re-creates enormous laboratories that conditions of the early universe? That is the story I want to tell, for to know it is to understand your heritage as a human being.

I’ve read several history-of-science books; they tend to provide encyclopedia-style citations for history – born, died, discovered – and focus on the science, with some acknowledgement to major influencing events: wars, plagues, the printing press. Many start with the ancient Greeks, but quickly skedaddle up to Copernicus or even Newton so they can get to the good stuff. They tend to ignore biology completely, sticking to physics and chemistry. That’s fine; they’re often good books, for what they are.

Mlodinow’s approach is a bit different. He focuses on the changes that occurred in how scientists approached discovery, and how that led to new science, rather than the details of the discoveries. And he starts much earlier: a few million years earlier, in fact.

Let me put in here is that it’s a very Western-centric book: Mlodinow’s story is a fairly straight line from Greece to Europe.  Egypt, the Islamic Empire, and India are mentioned as supporting players; China and the American peoples are pretty much ignored, as is sub-Saharan Africa. This is necessary for the story he is telling, similar to reducing the pre-human species to four, but let’s not interpret this as meaning there was no scientific inquiry elsewhere. 

The book is divided into three parts. In the first, he traces the evolutionary development of humans, both in biological and social and intellectual terms, up to Aristotle:

Part I, spanning millions of years, traces the evolution of the human brain and its propensity to ask “Why?” Our why’s propelled us to our earliest spiritual inquiries and led, eventually, to the development of writing and mathematics and the very concept of laws – the necessary tools of science. Ultimately those why’s led to the invention of philosophy, the insight that the material world operates according to rhyme and reason that can, in principle, be understood.

I liked this section – it’s short, about 60 pages – so much, I started a Cerego set to help me retain some of the information. The emphasis is on what change allowed each step to take place. Why was Göbekli Tepe built 14,000 years ago, when no one lived within miles of the place? Why was Thales able to think about what the world was fundamentally made of, when no one had before? The section ends with Aristotle’s view of science as the study of purpose, a direction that would persist for a thousand years.

The second section – “a story of revolutionaries who had the gift of seeing the world differently” – shows how Aristotle’s view of science yielded to Galileo and Newton as physics, chemistry, and biology developed from the late Middle Ages through the late nineteenth century. I was a bit disappointed that biology got less page space; it’s mostly Darwin. But Mlodinow is, after all, a physicist. And though it took place in the mid-20th century, I still think the story of Linus Pauling, discovering the structure of protein by cutting up paper strips while in bed with a cold, would’ve made a great addition; FMI see MIT’s introductory Biology mooc. Again, the focus is not on the details of the scientific discoveries but on the change in viewpoint, the new approach, that allowed scientists to look at old questions in new ways.

The third section watches Newton’s laws crumble to quantum physics as the atom is uncovered, quanta and relativity emerge, and uncertainty takes a bow. This can sound intimidating; it’s not. You won’t learn quantum physics, and it probably helps to have had some exposure, however basic, to the concepts, but it’s very readable, and again is as much about the personalities and interactions as the science.

The Second World War becomes an end point of sorts. And because early 20th century physics was focused in Germany, it includes a scorecards of sorts: who had to leave, who chose to leave, who chose to stay and work on a Nazi version of an atom bomb. I’ve read before that, had Germany not chased away so many of its most talented people, had they not expended so many resources on murdering people they hated, they could have won the war (and then, presumably, murdered everyone they didn’t like). Something to think about as the US turns more authoritarian every day.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the book is the storytelling nature of so much of it. He writes of the Merton Rule relating constant acceleration to average speed, and tells how Nicole Oresme created what can be viewed as the first graph to demonstrate the mathematics. At the time, other scientists were unimpressed. Mlodinow relates this to the 20th century chemical engineer at 3M who developed Post-its, and the unenthusiastic reception he got from the marketing department who could see no use for sticky scrap paper. Then he brings in his father’s childhood experience in rural Poland when someone threw a sheet over a goat and the Purim celebrants thought it was a ghost: “They were merely interpreting what they saw in terms of the context of their beliefs…. Had we not been raised in a Newtonian culture, [Newton’s laws] that are now so self-evident to us all would have been, for most of us, incomprehensible.”  Sometimes we see the future but don’t recognize it. And, sadly, sometimes we try to undo it and return to the blind past. 

He offers this anecdote about Galileo as a college dropout in search of a job:

After quitting school, Galileo at first supported himself by giving private mathematics lessons. He eventually got wind of an opening for a junior position at the University of Bologna. Though he was twenty-three, he applied, and in a novel twist on rounding he reported his age as “around twenty-six.” the university apparently wanted someone “around” a little older and hired a thirty-two-year-old who had also actually finished his degree. Still, even centuries later, it has to be comforting to anyone who has ever been turned down for an academic job but it’s an experience you share with the great Galileo.

He offers still more comfort, and some advice, to academics:

But one of the traits that distinguishes the successful physicist is the knack (or luck) of choosing problems that prove both enlightening and solvable. … In physics, there is little consolation in thinking you had a “beautiful idea” if it was not a correct idea. And so in physics, as in any attempt at innovation, you have to maintain a difficult balance, being careful about the research problems you choose to pursue while not being so careful that you never do anything new. That’s why the tenure system is so valuable to science – it makes it safe to fail, which is essential for fostering creativity.

While he presents this in the context of scientific research, it’s also true in other fields. I remember Al Filreis, Penn English professor, director of the Kelly Writer’s House, and developer of the extremely popular modern poetry mooc known as ModPo, said something similar: he didn’t know if he could create a participatory, partly synchronous mooc, but he figured he had tenure so he wouldn’t get fired for trying. Moocs have decided to go another way, but ModPo, and its year-round offshoot SloPo, continues. So the next time you hear of a state wanting to end tenure and get rid of those pesky professors and their non-traditional ideas, you might want to think about what that loss means in terms of new ideas that might, oh, I don’t know, save civilization from melting as the temperature rises.

Mlodinow also looks at the difference between physics and chemistry. It turns out he originally planned to study chemistry but physics wooed him away. “Different areas of science not only focus on different questions, but also have different cultures.” Basic physics required observation and mathematics; chemistry required technology to measure and control substances in small amounts. As a result, it took longer to develop, and more people played a part.

A friend and I have been watching a TV program that has twice now used the “scientists believe in what they can see and touch” and I’ve gone off on a rant about that statement.  Mlodinow discusses the progression of science from what can be seen and touched to what outcomes can be expected and confirmed to how mathematics and statistics now serve as core evidence. He goes a bit into how string theory complicates this, since it’s quite possibly not confirmable by any means we know. Then again, the atom was hotly contested for a very long time by some very smart 20th century physicists.

Mlodinow’s father is a constant presence in the book; in fact, he begins with his father’s story about trading a crust of bread for an explanation of a mathematical puzzle when he was in Buchenwald. 

I was in my late teens when my father recounted that episode, and it made a huge impact on me. My father’s family was gone, his possessions confiscated, his body starved, withered, and beaten. The Nazis had stripped him of everything palpable, yet his drive to think and reason and no survived. He was imprisoned, but his mind was free to roam, and it did. I realized then that the search for knowledge is the most human of all our desires, and that, different as our circumstances were, my own passion for understanding the world was driven by the same instinct as my father’s. As I went on to study science in college and after, my father would question me not so much about the technicalities of what I was learning, but about the underlying meaning – where are the theories came from, why I felt they were beautiful, and what they said about us as human beings. This book, written decades later, is my attempt, finally, to answer those questions.

Some may find it too “soft” and prefer more detailed science, in which case something more like Marcelo Gleiser’s The Island of Knowledge might be a better choice. Both books have their place. I very much enjoyed the relaxed, anecdotal style, and the expanded timeline. I have Mlodinow’s Elastic as well, and a number of his other titles appeal to me. I’m surprised – dismayed, really – that I’ve never read him before. I wonder what else I’m missing out on. I want to read all the books, before they’re gone.

Asking Alice: Down the Rabbit Hole, guided by Martin Gardner and Robin Wilson [IBR2022]

The last level of metaphor in the Alice books is this: that life, viewed rationally and without illusion, appears to be a nonsense tale told by an idiot mathematician. At the heart of things science finds only a mad, never-ending quadrille of Mock Turtle Waves and Gryphon Particles. For a moment the waves and particles dance in grotesque, in conceivably complex patterns capable of reflecting on their own absurdity. We all live slapstick lives, under an inexplicable sentence of death, and when we try to find out what the Castle authorities want us to do, we are shifted from one bumbling bureaucrat to another. We are not even sure that Count West-West, the owner of the Castle, really exists. More than one critic has commented on the similarities between Kafka’s Trial and the trial of the Jack of Hearts: between Kafka’s Castle and a chess game in which living pieces are ignorant of the game’s plan and cannot tell if they move of their own wills or are being pushed by invisible fingers.
The vision of monstrous mindlessness of the cosmos (“Off with its head!”) can be grim and disturbing, as it is in Kafka and the Book of Job, or light-hearted comedy, as in Alice or Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday…. it is a vision that can lead to despair and suicide, to the laughter that closes Jean Paul Sarte’s story “The Wall,” to the humanist’s resolve to carry on bravely in the face of ultimate darkness. Curiously, it can also suggest the wild hypothesis that there may be a light behind the darkness.

Martin Gardner, Introduction, The Annotated Alice

Last Fall, before I’d even finished my 2021 In Between Reading stretch, I became acutely aware I’d never read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland thanks to a @FiveBooks post about Illustrated Philosophy Books. Their entry  The Annotated Alice was annotated by none other than Martin Gardner, who I’ve heard adoring math professors refer to as the Father of Recreational Mathematics for years. It occurred to me it would make an interesting project for this year. I figured I would be able to better understand all the mathematical and logical subtleties I’d seen referred to in Alice mentions over the years, but had never really knuckled down to understand. And thought “recreational mathematics” seems like an oxymoron to me, I’m always looking for ways to make friends with math. I put it on my list.

Which, alas, is a very long list, and it might have just stayed there had I not seen another @FiveBooks category, the History of Mathematics, a couple of months later. Through that article I discovered the archivist, Robin Wilson, had written Lewis Carroll in Numberland, described as a mathematical biography of the author. That brought to mind Alice waiting on my list, and so I ordered them both as a project read for this year.

To my surprise, Gardner’s annotations focus more on historical and biographical details, the differences between the published work and the original hand-written and illustrated manuscript (titled Alice’s Adventures Underground) and the 1886 stage play, and commentary about the original illustrations (included) by John Tenniel. There are some comments about the science, math, and logic, but they’re not as numerous, nor as explanatory, as I’d expected.

I should add that I got the 1960 edition of the book. A “Definitive Edition” was published in 1999, updated to include more material. I wasn’t clear on this at the time I ordered it; I probably should get the newer version, and take note of additions and changes.

Wilson’s book, as the full title Lewis Carroll in Numberland: His Fantastical Mathematical Life might suggest, focuses far more on Dodgson’s mathematical publications and notes, tying them in to his children’s books and published articles when applicable. He includes a great many puzzles that appeared under Carroll’s and Dodgson’s name, as well as articles and portions of books on logic. I found his use of graphical solutions to syllogisms and logic problems particularly interesting; I would, I like pictures. Others might be interested in his method of finding the day of the week for any date, or his discourse on voting methods, a very popular contemporary topic. Additionally, he includes excerpts from “Hiawatha’s Photographing,” a parody of Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha,” and his dramatized defense of Euclid’s Elements as the standard text of geometry. He also includes a royal anecdote (and denial):

A well-known story relates how Queen Victoria was so utterly charmed by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that she demanded:

Send me the next book Mr. Carroll produces –

The next book duly arrived; It was entitled An Elementary Treatise On Determinants. Queen Victoria was not amused.
Dodgson firmly denied this story thirty years later in the second edition of his Symbolic Logic:

I take this opportunity of giving what publicity I can to my contradiction of a silly story, which has been going the rounds of the papers, about my having presented certain books to Her Majesty the queen. It is so constantly repeated, and is such absolute fiction, that I think it is worthwhile to state, once and for all, that it is utterly false in every particular; nothing even resembling it has ever occurred.

No British newspaper reports have been found that support Dodgson’s account, so perhaps it was true after all…

Robin Wilson, Lewis Carroll in Numberland

This sounds like a rather Wonderland passage itself: a fun occurrence, a denial, and the lack of evidence that something never happened as evidence that it did.

Some of my favorite takeaways from these two books:

FREEFALL: In the first chapter of AAIW, Alice falls down the famous rabbit hole, grabbing a jar of orange marmalade along the way then fears to drop it lest it hurt someone beneath her, and puts it back on a passing shelf. She wonders, as her fall continues, if she might fall all the way through the earth. Gardiner devotes significant space to this event, noting Dodgson’s familiarity with free fall and, in the later Sylvie and Bruno, sees an anticipation of Einstein’s elevator explanation of gravity and acceleration. The fall itself – “In Carroll’s day there was considerable popular speculation about what would happen if one fell through a hole that went straight through the center of the earth” –  recapitulated in Sylvie, also gets due attention as an investigation over history from Plutarch to the twentieth century. This also features in Wilson’s Scene 8 in the initial section of his book.

KNOTS: In Chapter 3 of AAIW, involving, among other things, a figurative poem resembling a long mouse’s tail, Alice responds to the mouse’s assertion “I had not!” with “A knot!’ said Alice, ready to make herself useful, and looking anxiously about her. ‘Oh, do let me help undo it!’” Knots became a series of mathematical puzzles Carroll included in his puzzle column for the magazine The Monthly Packet, and collected all ten in his puzzle book A Tangled Tale.

Gardner mentions this, but Wilson expands on it, including that it was dedicated to, not Alice Liddell (the real-life Alice) but to Edith Rix, another girl with whom he had a mathematical correspondence; she went on to study mathematics at Cambridge and, additional poking around uncovers, worked as a computer (in the pre-data-processing sense) at Greenwich Observatory. He prints one of the Knots in full and summarizes the rest. They are something like contemporary word puzzles, expanded to make them little stories. This was only one example of Dodgson’s fascination with puzzles and his effort to extend challenges to those who dared. I wonder if Dodgson/Carroll could have been considered a predecessor to Gardner in the field of Recreational Mathematics.

DUCHESS AND CHESHIRE CAT:  I found Gardner’s notes on Chapter 6 of AAIW to be a lot of fun, though they tend to go far afield:  “Ugly Duchess” by Quintin Matsys as the basis for Tenniel’s illustration of the Duchess; the historical authenticity but uncertain origin of the common expression “grin like a Cheshire cat” in Dodgson’s day; Dodgson’s invention of the Wonderland Postage Stamp Case; and the origin of the name of the flower “foxglove” (Carroll’s explanation in The Nursery ‘Alice’ appears to be folk etymology rather than the real thing).

More substantial are the considerations of The Cheshire Cat, who tells Alice, “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad” and offers her presence as proof. Gardner quotes an entry from Dodgson’s diary:

Query: when we are dreaming and, as often happens, have a dim consciousness of that fact and try to wake, do we not say and do things which in waking life would be insane? May we not then sometimes define insanity as an inability to distinguish which is the waking and which is the sleeping life?”

Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson, Diary, 2/9/1856 entry

Several years ago, I had a therapeutic misadventure (beware of overdoing the NSAIDS when you’re on blood pressure medications; depleted potassium has bizarre effects) which resulted in hospitalization and delirium. I would have brief dreams, then think they had actually happened. I kept worrying about the game I was in, the arts and theater troupe that visited that morning and invited me to a block party, my trip to South America where corn burst into butterflies. I was definitely quite mad, all from taking dreams as reality.

Gardner quotes Plato’s Theaetetus, which also considers how one can determine if one is in a dream, or reality: “How can you determine whether at this moment we are sleeping, and all our thoughts are a dream; Or whether we are awake, and talking to one another in the waking stage?” I thought also of Zhuangzi:

Once upon a time, I, Zhuangzi, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Zhuangzi. Soon I awakened, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things.


Gardner closes the chapter with his observation:

The phrase “a grin without the cat” is not a bad description of pure mathematics.” although mathematical theorems often can be usefully applied to the structure of the external world, the theorems themselves are abstractions that belong in another realm….

Martin Gardner, Chapter VI, The Annotated Alice

I’ve heard some highly qualified mathematicians discuss the nature of mathematics to understand the general thrust of this: what, after all, is two, if not embodied in two of something? I’m way out of my pay grade here, but it’s still fun to consider.

MAD HATTER: Gardner suggests that Carroll urged Tenniel to use one Theophilus Carter as a model for the Mad Hatter. Why? The man was known as the Mad Hatter (a common term following from the problems hat makers experienced, later discovered to be from the mercury used in hatmaking) because he not only wore a hat, but was a bit of a nut: by trade a furniture dealer, he supposedly invented the alarm-clock bed, which would throw one out of it at a set time (this is not well-documented in reality; there was such a bed in the Great Exhibition of 1851, but Carter’s name is not in the existing records). Gardner also tells us the Mad Hatter was not in the original handwritten manuscript, but was added later.

TORTOISE:  In Chapter 9, Alice asks the Mock Turtle why he called his teacher a tortoise when he wasn’t one. “We called him tortoise because he taught us,” he replies. Gardner mentions this pun is incorporated into Carroll’s  article, “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles,” a logico-geometric sequel to his previous logical resolution of Zeno’s Paradox. Wilson expands on this, reprinting the article, which ends with an even more devastating pun:

…Achilles was still seated on the back of the much-enduring Tortoise, and was writing in his note-book, which appeared to be nearly full. The Tortoise was saying, “Have you got that last step written down? Unless I’ve lost count, that makes a thousand and one. There are several millions more to come. And would you mind, as a personal favour, considering what a lot of instruction this colloquy of ours will provide for the Logicians of the Nineteenth Century—would you mind adopting a pun that my cousin the Mock-Turtle will then make, and allowing yourself to be re-named Taught-Us?”
“As you please!” replied the weary warrior, in the hollow tones of despair, as he buried his face in his hands. “Provided that you, for your/em> part, will adopt a pun the Mock-Turtle never made, and allow yourself to be re-named A Kill-Ease!”

Lewis Carroll, “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles” from Mind, April 1895.

When it comes to Through the Looking Glass, Gardner praises the chess moves for their authenticity:

Considering the staggering difficulties involved in dovetailing a chess game with an amusing nonsense fantasy, Carol does a remarkable job. At no time, for example, does Alice exchange words with a piece that is not then on a square alongside her own. Queens bustle about doing things while their husbands remain relatively fixed and impotent, just as in actual chess games. The White Knight’s eccentricities fit admirably the eccentric way in which Knights move; even the tendency of Knights to fall off their horses, on one side or the other, suggests the Knight’s move, which is two squares in one direction followed by one square to the right or left.

Martin Gardner, The Annotated Alice

And, of course, there’s a complete exegesis of Jabbewocky. But, having read many such explanations, I found other comments of more interest.

TIGER-LILY: The Tiger Lily was to be a Passion Flower, but Dodgson, who’d originally started studies for the priesthood and was devoutly religious, discovered the name of the flower echoed the Passion of Christ, not mundane earthly passions; he substituted the Tiger Lily to avoid sacrilege.

TWEEDLEDEE AND -DUM: From my participation in recent biochemistry moocs, I’ve become somewhat acquainted with the concept of enantiomers, molecules that differ only in that their structures are mirror images that cannot be superimposed; think gloves. This is a concept taken from the broader geometric concept of enantiomorphs, and Carroll embodied it in Tweedledee and Tweedledum:

Tweedledum and Tweedledee are what geometers call and enantiomorphs, mirror image forms of each other. That Carroll intended this is strongly suggested by Tweedledee’s favorite word, “contrariwise,” and by the fact that they extend right and left hands for a handshake. Tenniel’s picture of the two enantiomorphs arrayed for battle, standing in identical postures, indicates that he looked upon the twins in the same way.

Martin Gardner, The Annotated Alice

I have to admit I found the Alice books themselves a bit disappointing. Why? Because it seems all the best parts have been quoted so often they’re practically part of everyday life. As a result, what was left was mostly  transition material. I’m not particularly interested in chess, so that entire content of Through the Looking Glass  didn’t intrigue me the way it should, and I’ve frequently admitted my inability to math, which made the few truly mathematical parts difficult to read. Yet I consider it time well spent. If nothing else, I’ve finally discovered that TTLG is a separate book from AAIW, a sequel; I’d never been sure if it was a chapter, a subtitle, or some other thing.

Is it ok that I admit to having “Remember what the dormouse said: Feed your head!” buzzing in my mind the entire time I was working on these books?

I was also a bit horrified right off the bat by a section of Gardner’s Introduction:

Carroll’s principal hobby – the hobby that aroused his greatest joys – was entertaining little girls. “I am fond of children (except boys),” he once wrote….. He thought the naked bodies of little girls (unlike the bodies of boys) extremely beautiful. Upon occasion he sketched or photographed them in the nude, with the mother’s permission, of course. “If I had the loveliest child in the world, to draw or photograph,” he wrote, “and found she had a modest shrinking (however slight, and however easily overcome) from being taken nude, I should feel it was a solemn duty owed to God to drop the request altogether.” Lest these undraped pictures later embarrass the girls, he requested that after his death they be destroyed or returned to the children or their parents. None seems to have survived.
….He became adept at meeting little girls in railway carriages and on public beaches. A black bag that he always took with him on these seaside trips contained wire puzzles and other unusual gifts to stimulate their interest. He even carried a supply of safety pins for pinning up the skirts of little girls when they wished to wade in the surf.

Martin Gardner, Introduction, The Annotated Alice

This book was published in 1959; it’s quite possible this didn’t sound as horrifying back then, before the Oprahfication of child abuse turned attention from scary guys in trench coats to the friendly guy who’s fun to hang out with. And Gardner goes on to clarify he isn’t indicating anything amiss:

There is no indication that Carol was conscious of anything but the purest innocence in his relations with little girls, nor is there a hint of impropriety in any of the fond recollections that dozens of them later wrote about him.

Martin Gardner, Introduction, The Annotated Alice

Gardiner also includes that the children he spent time with have had uniformly positive things to say about him, and cherished his friendship. One of his favorite child friends was Alice Liddell, daughter of the dean of Christ Church, Oxford, where Carroll worked; she was, of course, the model for the literary character, as well as the child he originally made up the stories for. As for Wilson, he dismisses out of hand any dark speculation, calling it nonsense.

So what are we to make of Dodgson/Carroll’s life work as a mathematician and teacher? Gardner’s opinion – as a mathematician – is fairly clear: “[H]is lectures were humorless and boring…. His books on logic and mathematics are written quaintly, with many amusing problems, but their level is elementary and they are seldom read today.” Wilson claims, “if Dodgson had not written the Alice books, he would be remembered mainly as a pioneering photographer, one of the first to consider photography as an art rather than as simply a means of recording images.” But it is as the author of the two Alice books he has become a fixture in our collective consciousness.

As for me, I have no doubt that, if Dodgson/Carroll lived in this era rather than the 19th century, he would have been a YouTube sensation, perhaps rivalling Vi Hart in her heyday, or giving  Matt Parker and Grant Sanderson a run for their money.

At the end of his book, Wilson includes mention of the Lewis Carroll Window at the Daresbury Church in Cheshire, completed in 1935: a stained-glass representation of the Nativity, with Carroll and Alice in reverent attendance, and with scenes from the book included below. “In memory of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), author of ‘Alice in Wonderland.’” That might be the concise summation of his life right there.

Rian Malan: The Lion Sleeps Tonight and Other Stories of Africa (Grove, 2012) [IBR2022]

In South Africa, it’s like a law of nature: there’s no such thing as a true story here. The facts may be correct, but the truth they embody is always a lie to someone else. Every inch of our soil is contested, every word in our histories likewise; our languages are mutually incomprehensible, our philosophies irreconcilable. My truths strike some South African writers as counterrevolutionary ravings. Theirs strike me as distortions calculated to appeal to gormless liberals in the outside world. Many South Africans can’t read any of us, so their truth is something else entirely. Atop all this, we live in a country where mutually annihilating truths coexist entirely amicably. We are a light unto nations. We are an abject failure. We are progressing even as we hurtle backward. The blessing of living here is that every day presents you with material whose richness beggars the imagination of those who live in saner places. The curse is that you can never get it quite right, and if you come close, the results are often unpublishable.

Rian Malan, Foreword (2012)

I got this book for the title story. I didn’t do so well with the rest. I’m one of the gormless liberals in the outside world who annoy Malan because we watched Invictus with tears in our eyes and don’t want to hear a word against Mandela. He’s probably got a point: I have enough trouble figuring out USAian sociopolitics without figuring out South Africa’s conflicts, so we cling to a hero for dear life. But music, ah, music, yeah, that’s something I want to know about. Until the lawyers get into it, at which point I put my head down and cry.

“The Lion Sleeps Tonight” brings to mind Helen DeWitt’s conflict between art and commerce, sandwiched between layers of legally institutionalized racism.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, a Zulu man stepped up to a microphone and improvised a melody that earned in the region of $15 million. That Solomon Linda got almost none of it was probably inevitable. He was a black man in white-ruled South Africa, but his American peers fared little better…. All musicians were minnows in the pop-music food chain, but blacks were most vulnerable, and Solomon Linda, an illiterate migrant from a wild and backward place, was totally defenseless against sophisticated predators. Which is not to say that he was cheated. On the contrary, all the deals were perfectly legal. No one forced Linda to sell “Mbube” to Eric Gallo for 10 shillings, at if Gallo turned around and traded it at a profit, So what?

Have you heard the one about Solomon Linda? In 1939 Apartheid South Africa, he and his band, The Evening Birds, recorded a song he called “Mbube,” which means lion. And of course it’s on Youtube today, as is everything. It’s mostly an a capella chant with Linda’s falsetto wail above, but at 2:24, almost the end, he comes out with a series of notes that we recognize as the melody beneath familiar words: “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.…” He was paid about ten shillings and signed over his rights to the Gallo publishing company; chances are it was just like that back then, who knows what he was told. The song did quite well in southern African countries, selling 100,000 copies over the next ten years. Linda kept working as a packer in a factory.

In 1948, Pete Seeger was trying to get a folk-singing career going in the US when ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax showed up with a bunch of records of world music, among them, “Mbube.” Seeger liked that. He had no idea what the word was they were singing, but to him it sounded like “Wimoweh” so that’s the song he recorded and sang with the Weavers. Gallo told him it was African folk music, so Folkways bought the publishing rights. Seeger got cancelled by the Red Scare a few years later, but bounced back. To be fair he later learned about Solomon Linda and asked that his own royalties be transferred to the Zulu man. They weren’t.

In the early 60s, a New Jersey doo-wop group called the Tokens heard the Seeger recording and wanted to do the song, but wailing wasn’t going to cut it. Their record company hired Julliard-trained musician George Weiss to write lyrics for the American pop market. The only clue he had was something about lions so he wrote the lyrics that today we associate with Linda’s melody recorded in 1939. The Tokens’ version is the one I remember most clearly.  

Solomon Linda died in 1962. His family couldn’t afford a stone for his grave.

The song showed up on a lot of albums and in a lot of movies until the 90s when Disney put it in The Lion King, and now we’re really off to the races. Solomon Linda’s daughters, living in Soweto, had no idea.

Malan continued to push for some semblance of justice in spite of that signed 10-shilling contract, and found it when the guy who wrote the book on South African intellectual property law remembered a legal maneuver used by Dickens’ family to get some income from the dead author’s work. It worked. Three Zulu sisters went after Disney and won, mostly because Disney didn’t particularly want headlines about their signature Africa-movie taking advantage of an African musician. That’s where the article, expanded from Malan’s original Rolling Stone piece, ends.

To my surprise I found a 2019 documentary on Netflix. ReMastered: The Lion’s Share that features Malan describing the entire journey and a few years beyond the cited article. Whereas the article focused on the musicians – Linda at first, then the others – the documentary is something of The Rian Malan Story. Not that it’s an uninteresting story. Turns out his great-uncle, Daniël François Malan, was the Prime Minister who instituted Apartheid; Malan’s sense of guilt affected the course of his life (much of this is included in various other stories in the collection), and drove him to help this one South African family get its due. Alas, the sisters who eventually were awarded a trust were never sure things were on the up-and-up, though Malan wasn’t able to find any evidence of fraud. That the ending wasn’t entirely happy isn’t a surprise. If everyone had been happy, a screenwriter would’ve turned it into a White Savior film.

Another piece I tried to pay some attention to was “The Body Count,” part of Malan’s reporting on the AIDS crisis. It’s an older piece, from the 90s, so it’s hard to fit into context, but he basically felt the number of deaths, probably the number of cases of AIDS in the region, was exaggerated. He wasn’t saying AIDS wasn’t a horrible problem causing disease and death among South Africans; he certainly wasn’t saying it wasn’t caused by a virus, which was a competing theory at the time, believe it or not. But as best I can tell (and I may be misreading here) he felt the case numbers were arrived at by extrapolating from the number of pregnant women at local clinics. He couldn’t find funerals or caskets or any kind of activity to match the number of deaths being reported. And he seems to have looked very hard. His thoroughness – checking other countries, various economic levels of casket makers, cemeteries in outlying areas – is quite convincing.

His reputation apparently took a hit for that reporting. Again, I don’t have the background to judge one way or the other, but he makes a strong defense for himself. Given all the crap that went on in the US with AIDS, and the even more incredible crap that’s going on right now with COVID, I’m not surprised.

“The Beautiful and the Damned” is a bitterly satirical piece about the 1993 Miss World contest, held in Sun City, South Africa, against the violence attending the political birth of the new Constitution and the shift of power. Miss South Africa, Jacqui Mofokeng, wasn’t the first Black woman to hold her title, but she was the first Black title-holder who didn’t look pretty damn white. Apparently the South African version of talk radio had a field day with that.

Jaqui and I went to the same school, incidentally, a rather expensive private establishment called Woodmead. In my day, Woodmead was whites-only, but it was integrated in the late seventies, in bold defiance of apartheid. Now it’s predominantly black and widely regarded as a model of racial harmony and integration. The headmistress’s office was petrol-bombed by rioting students the other day, but we don’t want to go into that, do we? Nah, fuck it. Let’s party.

Mofokeng came in second to Miss Jamaica, the promoters made their money, and Malan’s story ends there, with a postscript:

By the time this piece hit the newsstands, South Africa’s political factions were tearing one another apart in the worst bloodletting we’d ever seen, and the pessimism evident in my cynical asides seemed entirely prescient. Ninety days later, Nelson Mandela came to power in a miraculously peaceful election, and I wound up looking, as was so often the case, like an idiot.

In spite of my discomfort, I have to hand it to this guy, he can write a story. I appreciate someone who can admit he was wrong and not sound disappointed there wasn’t more bloodshed.

But back to Jacqui Mofokeng. According to Wikipedia, within a few years she started a political career which continued until April 2021 when she, and her daughter, died of COVID.

I feel a bit guilty that I didn’t try harder with this book, but it really defeated me early on. Part of it is that the background changed over time, and part is what he says in his foreword:  it’s a crazy place. But I’m glad I got to know something about Solomon Linda, and when I next hear “Wimoweh” it’s his 1939 version I’ll remember.

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Jeremiah Moss, “Open House” (non-fiction) from N+1 #36

N+1 Art by Amanda C. Mathis: Displacement
It reads like a personal essay if you don’t think about it too much, but it really is research based… there’s multiple section about Instagram and how it’s shaping this.… there’s a fair amount of sourcing, but he doesn’t do it in a really overt way where it’s a giant block quote…. It’s really outward looking, in some ways research reported but also personal. …. A lot of times fiction writers who are writing an essay, it’s got a very narrative frame, like “New person is moving in” and it’s not that at all, it’s much more complicated than that; he’s covering decades here, he’s not interested in one neighbor, he’s interested in thirty years of changing.

Justin St. Germain I’ll Find Myself When I’m Dead podcast (edited)

I’ve got to find time to listen to this podcast; it rambles a lot (as all podcasts do, that’s what people love about them, they aren’t speeches) but it contains so much info on different approaches to essay writing.

The essay in question is about gentrification, specifically in New York.

The Great Invasion began sometime in the late 1990s but didn’t really take shape until after September 11. That’s when the new people found the East Village. The new people, the emphatically normal, come from someplace else, the Midwest, the South, but that’s not what makes them invaders. Many of us come from someplace else. I come from someplace else. Move anywhere and you’re potentially interloping. So what is it? How can I talk about the new people and their superpower of invasion? I’m forever grappling with this question, reducing, stereotyping, and then struggling not to be reductive. What I keep coming back to is their apparent belief that their way of living belongs everywhere, that it should trickle down the ladder of power and fill every lower space, scouring and purifying as it goes. Spaces of queerness. Spaces of color. Spaces of marginalization. Spaces of This is our little scrap of somewhere, can’t you just let us have it, oh you who have everywhere? With good reason, colonization and Manifest Destiny are the enduring metaphors of gentrification.

It makes a great read, funny and poignant in turns, with recognizable characters and situations if you’ve lived in a neighborhood for any length of time. I’ve seen a lot of changes in my small city over the past twenty years, some good, some bad. And I do recognize the feeling of being swept out so the more desirable tenants can come in. I’m not sure it adds anything new to the topic; this has been going on forever in New York, traceable through a lot of literature set in the city with parents arriving here especially in the pre-war years and their kids breaking away from their traditions but returning to upgraded housing. But it’s a great way to remind people that the poor have lives and pasts and histories that matter, too, and maybe we should think twice before turning their buildings into condos and townhouses to build up the tax base.

The author is fascinating in himself. Jeremiah Moss is a pseudonym for his writing; Griffin Hansbury became a psychotherapist, writer, and activist whose blog is full of stories about people being pushed aside to make room for people who matter more.

I came in the early 1990s because it made sense for me to be here. I was a young, queer, transsexual poet, and where else would a young, queer, transsexual poet go but to the East Village? Back then the neighborhood still throbbed with its hundred years of counterculture, a dissident history going back to the early anarchists and feminists, up through the bohemians and Beats, the hippies and punks, the poets, queers, and transsexuals too. I had a pair of combat boots and an elite liberal arts education, thanks to a full ride of grants and work-study programs, but not much money. I hail from generations of peasants, washerwomen, and bricklayers, orphans raised by nuns, 12-year-old factory workers, icemen who sang opera while they slung frozen bricks, soldiers, hucksters, and bookmakers, thick-legged Italians and paper-skinned Irish Catholics, most of whom didn’t get to high school and not one of whom saw the inside of a college classroom. I had ambition but didn’t yet understand entitlement…. The East Village was full of people who were bruised like I was bruised, people who weren’t quite pulled together but were trying to make something interesting with their lives. I belonged here. In this neighborhood. In this crumbling tenement.

I find myself with little to say about the piece, mostly because the essay is clear and forceful. I’ll just leave it at that.

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  • The essay is available online at N+1 
  • Author’s website
  • The episode of the podcast I’ll Find Myself When I’m Dead referenced above can be found online; the discussion of this essay begins around 58:15

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Jerald Walker, “The Kaleshion” (non-fiction) from Creative Nonfiction #73

Art from LitHub
A particularly high point: Sidestepping all the mayhem, in an essay called “The Kaleshion,” Jerald Walker recounts the perilous path from Afro to Jheri curl to self-administered haircuts, one of the last of which yields a hilarious disaster and a rare and welcome moment of laughter.

Kirkus Review of Pushcart XLVI

I concur with Kirkus Review. Think of this piece as a palate cleanser: having examined – sometimes with a touch of humor – all manner of contemporary and perennial troubles, from climate change to domestic violence to children lost in the economic shuffle to racism, we’re now allowed to laugh out loud. And a satisfying laugh it is, too.

It’s a short piece, and it’s available online (link below) so I’ll let the Kirkus commentary serve as a brief recap. What I am compelled to point out is that, for all it’s narrative drive and humor, there are craft elements that deserve attention. Like, the use of second person voice in nonfiction.

Kaleshion isn’t a word in the dictionary. It’s a word on your barber’s wall, handwritten beneath a photo of a bald head. There are other photos up there with made-up words to identify other haircuts, but your father never selects those, because they require hair. Male preschoolers should not have hair, your father believes; that’s a crime to which he’ll no more be party than to genocide…. What’s the deal with that? You don’t know. All you know is he relaxes his stance in the nick of time, because it’s 1974 and the Afro is king. You grow yours the size of a basketball and swear on your grandmother’s grave that you’ll never get a kaleshion again.
But it’s never a good idea to swear on your grandmother’s grave.

While the instruction manual mode of second person would seem to be the natural way to use the POV, here we’re in narrative mode. The memoir reads more like a fictional story, giving it more of the narrative drive I noticed before (it really keeps you turning pages) while glossing over years in places. The tendency of second person to conflate, or at least slightly confuse, subject, object, and reader, allows the narrator/author to take a step back and foreground the character/author.

This confusion, the exploitable flaw of second person, is emphasized, brought into the narrative in fact, in one scene in particular when Walker, as an adult, goes to a new barber and asks for a trim, but gets something else.

When he spins the chair around, you are surprised to discover the mirror is actually a window, through which you see another man in another barber’s chair staring at you. And yet, somehow, the barber standing behind that man’s chair is also standing behind yours, which means the window isn’t a window and the man is you. It’s amazing the difference a kaleshion can make.

This scene where the second-person “you” mistakes himself as a third-person “him” for a moment is a brilliant way to bring second-person into the story, not just use it as a writing tool.

At the same time, the story evolves in top-notch narrative form to bring in another great craft moment: using humor to highlight tragedy: Walker’s girlfriend doesn’t recognize him, and he fears she’s calling the police, which could lead to… well, you know. While the story never loses a beat, nor drops the amused tone, we’re reminded how the real world permeates even absurdities, to the extent that some readers will start whining, “Why is everything always political with these people?” all of which only makes it sad and funnier at the same moment.

The final anecdote is again hilariously relatable for anyone who’s had a near-catastrophe – coffee spilled on a tie, a broken heel – moments before an important public moment. The ending brings back the confusion of the barber’s chair and makes a point about ego at the same time, then closes with the perfect phrase.

I swore, after I ordered an additional three books the other day, that I wouldn’t buy any more for this year’s In-Between Reading, since I already have far more than I can read in six months. But this essay impressed me so much, from technique to pure enjoyment, I had to order Walker’s 2020 essay collection, The Making of a Slave.  I often get into form, function, and meaning when I look at poetry, but in this essay, it all worked together. I can’t wait to read more.

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  • This essay is available online at the original publisher Creative Nonfiction and as an excerpt from the essay collection at LitHub   
  • Find out more about Walker’s 2020 essay collection, How To Make A Slave