Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Jean Garnett, “There I Almost Am: On Envy and Twinship” (non-fiction) from Yale Review #109.1

You may know the feeling of taking proud shelter in a sibling, someone who knows how to assemble and disassemble you, someone with whom you share blood, history, memory. Imagine sharing not only all of that but also hair, skin, iris, nipple, the same winces of pain caused by the same herniation in the same cervical disks, the same laugh sounds and laugh lines, the very same early marks of age; the same face—your face, the signature that proves the youness of you—so that you can look at another person and think, There I am. There I almost am.

One of the most frequent compliments paid to writers is that their work is brave. Maybe it recalls an incident that’s humiliating or shameful, or maybe it reveals honest thoughts that are genuine, not rearranged for a more flattering angle. I often wonder if the word is overused, that it means the reader will think it’s brave but not necessarily that the writer actually had to be brave to put those words on paper. In this case, however, I have to say unequivocally, there is enormous bravery here. Garnett is not just admitting to less flattering moments, but is writing them as a book editor, therefore highly read by others in her professional field. And one of those readers will be her sister, the object of many of those unpleasant moments. 

Garnett tells us some of the good things about having a twin – a permanent friend, someone who gets it, connection – before going into the dark side. Most prevalent is envy. This may be exaggerated because they work in the same field, but it seems to be a feature of twinship. We learn about the ways envy reveals itself from a variety of sources, Socrates to Nietzsche to Melanie Klein, and then discover how it’s fit into Garnett’s life over the years.

I remember how, in our early twenties when my sister was at her thinnest, I was always angling for a view of her, using barback mirrors and public bathrooms and shop windows to catch secret glimpses. I remember how perverted I felt whenever our eyes met in the reflection and she caught me in the act of envy. I am never more disgusted with myself than when I am engaged in this covert looking and assessing, treating her body as a human mirror. But I still do it. I spy on her. She’ll be walking or crying or dancing or getting dressed or trying to tell me something important, and I’ll become aware that my eyes are scanning her as though she were a bar code. You want your identical twin to be beautiful, to confirm that you are beautiful, but you also want her to be ugly, to confirm that she is uglier than you.

She then goes beyond her personal situation, using examples from The Little Mermaid and Amadeus, to show how envy is often about destruction. She gives an example from Twitter: a celebrity posts a beauty pic, and the compliments pour in:

Every so often one of her millions of followers will reply with an “ugh, so gorgeous” or an “I can’t even” or occasionally a friendly “OMG I hate you.” This is the closest we come to discharging the barely contained fury coursing through the comment feed. “ANGEL!” people shout. “PURE WARRIOR GODDESS!” “YASS!” “YOU’RE SO PERFECT!” It’s like we are stoning her with compliments.

I love that image of stoning with compliments, but I’m not sure I agree. Then again, I often see Twitter differently from others. What are followers supposed to do, not comment? How would the celebrity react to that?

A significant part of the essay concerns a relationship with a man who, after their relationship ended, approached the twin sister, which seems not just tacky but odd. This was complicated by the unrequited nature of the relationship.  Been there, done that, didn’t have to bear the twin sister on top of it.

We end with a moment of connection in despair that serves as a reverse reflection of an earlier moment, and discover that the sister sometimes feels the same way: “I feel like you’re leaving me behind.” It shouldn’t be surprising that this happens. After all, they are twins.

* * *      

  • This article is available online at Yale Review
  • The sisters share an Instagram site : @PublishingTwins

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Doug Crandell, “The Union Waltz” (non-fiction) from The Sun #543

The air was brisk, and the nubs of the harvested corn-stalks were covered with hoarfrost. A cassette player blared a Waylon Jennings song someone had recorded from the radio. George hooted at the dark autumn sky as if trying to summon some animal spirit. In the shadowy light I caught the disapproving glances my parents gave each other. It wasn’t that all dancing was bad in their eyes, but it was shameful if you did it like George: with a passion, legs jigging, steps straight out of the Appalachians. Our father wanted my siblings and me to be more than foolish hicks like our great-great-grandfather, who had been run out of Kentucky for unspecified crimes and ended up here in Indiana. But George’s dance fascinated me like nothing else, the taboo sway of his knees and hips. I had seen men dance like this before: at high-school graduation parties or weddings, the graduate or bride and groom children of other union members. I longed to watch and learn.

I always find it interesting how the pieces in a volume of Pushcart interact with each other. Sometimes they come at similar themes from different angles,and sometimes they show how differently those themes can play out. In the fiction piece “Skinfolk” we had a couple of teenagers trying with all their might to escape their home culture; here in this real-life memoir, we have a teen trying to understand what his family culture had been just a generation or two earlier, against the clear efforts of his parents to deny that heritage.

The piece opens at a neighborhood celebration over a victory for the labor union – hence the title – where Crandell first became interested in how George danced, drank, and celebrated his rural roots with abandon. Crandell’s parents were far more staid, possibly because they were not far removed from the same behavior. A few years later, Crandall was eager to move on with his life, heading to college and then, who knows. But he still had the desire to experience the kind of freedom he saw in George’s dance.

Even as George brought me closer to my ancestry, I was aware that I would soon be getting my degree and moving away from that job, that place. George was curious about college life. He thought my being an undergrad psychology major meant that, after I graduated, I could prescribe him drugs: “Don’t you go forgetting that ol’ George taught you how to cook this cancer tile and showed you how to do the two-count.” My heart sank, because I realized I wouldn’t be staying on at the factory after college, which meant I might not know George much longer. I felt caught in a tug of war between the old life my parents somberly led and something new I could not wholly grasp. And the old life was slipping away.

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered Crandall. Back in 2017, his Pushcart piece told of discovering “honor comes in different shapes and sizes” via a new neighbor who was far more “hippie” than his parents were comfortable with, yet turned out to also have lessons worth learning. Today we keep hearing about rural people who don’t want anything to change, yet here is one man from the heartlands who was willing to see difference as potentially positive, rather than as a threat.

* * *           

  • This piece can be read online at The Sun.
  • See Crandell’s website for more of his writing.
  • Read his prior Pushcart-winning Sun article, “Winter Wheat.”

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Gail Godwin, “The Desperate Place” (non-fiction) from Narrative, Fall 2021

This is from a June 16, 2018, New York Times opinion piece, “What Kept Me from Killing Myself,” by Iraq War veteran Kevin Powers.
“Throughout that summer and into the fall . . . just below the surface of my semi-consciousness, was the constant thought: Maybe I won’t wake up this time.”
Powers continues, “I doubt much needs to be said about the kind of despair that would make such an idea a source of comfort, despair that came not from accepting that things were as bad as they were going to get, but, worse, that they might go on like that forever. The next step felt both logical and inevitable.”
Which sounds along the lines of what my twenty-eight-year-old brother might have been thinking in the hours that led up to his death.

Godwin’s writing career began in journalism; it shows here in this essay about the suicide of her father and half-brother. The voice is calm, with little hand-wringing and no guilt but a generous serving of compassion for the pain that led to the suicides. Although there are some details of events, the speculative psychological analysis, other than references to the Powers article, is controlled.

Godwin had been estranged from her father for most of her early life, only coming back into contact with him via her high school graduation. She’d been in her own desperate place, and sent him an invitation “in a mood of defiant resignation,” not expecting him to come. But he did, and it created a new beginning for them. She spent the summer at the beach with him and his wife. He then paid for her to start junior college, a gesture denied her by her stepfather, a gift that enabled her to become a writer. A rescue from her desperate place.

But that beginning between father and daughter was to be short-lived:

…I had no idea that old disappointments were biding their time, stealthily building like waves, which in less than three years would drown him. One winter afternoon when I was a junior at Chapel Hill, he phoned his brother at his office. “Just felt like saying hello, old son,” he said. “Son” was what the brothers called each other. After he hung up, he lay down on the floor of his bedroom in Smithfield and shot himself in the head.
Losing ground. Was that the thing that ultimately killed him?

Her half-brother’s story, occurring decades later is more harrowing: the exact sequence of events was not clear, and he was not the only person who ended up dead. Godwin recalled her discomfort its prelude only years later:

The afternoon before his death, on my mother’s birthday, we were in the kitchen and he told me the story of his girlfriend suddenly breaking off with him. But this time something was different. I was not deriving the usual listener’s satisfaction from his story. Many years later when remembering that kitchen scene, I realized what had spooked me about it: Not only was there not a trace of the shy, closemouthed smile, but there was no knight errant starring in my brother’s story. The tone was new: one of bafflement and resignation. There was no sense of any future missions. There was no tug of suspense. It was like a story that had already happened.

Godwin tells the stories piecemeal, laying breadcrumbs for the reader to follow, to lead us to a final place with a certain understanding. The inclusion of the Powers essay, as well as her own story of having known desperate places, keeps the question of why some people resist and others succumb before the reader.

It’s a question that isn’t really answered. Is it luck – Powers finding a poem that spoke to him, she finding a way out of the troubled family that held her captive? Is it some quirk of personality, some learned behavior? She lets us consider that for ourselves.

* * *          

  • This memoir can be read online at Narrative.
  • See Godwin’s website for more about her writing and how it reflects events in her life.

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Joseph Sigurdson, “Wishbone” (non-fiction) from Reed #154

The village where I teach is called Kalskag. A Yup’ik fishing village on the Kuskokwim River. For thousands of years these people have harvested the masses of salmon who come upriver to lay eggs and die. A paleolithic lifestyle is still alive here, although the kids love basketball and Machine Gun Kelly just as much as any other. It’s a mix of two worlds. People harvest moose then go to bingo.
The stuff I shipped was at the school, so I went there first and explored my new workplace. My classroom was modern. Rows of desks, big whiteboard, big TV, thin carpet. The gym was large and clean. Its walls were decorated with tapestries of past victories in basketball and volleyball and wrestling. I explored the teachers’ lounge to find the sink filled with blood-soaked cutting boards. Knives caked in moose hair and blood and tendons lay in the mix. I opened the fridge and there was nothing but a forsaken jar of mayonnaise. I opened the freezer and there was a beaver. I flinched so hard I nearly burst my appendix. The huge frozen rodent was still fully intact. Its face was in a screaming posture, its paws were upright, ready to scratch.

[SPOILER ALERT! The story is not available online (except a brief excerpt), but I can’t discuss it without revealing where it ends up.]

Since I read this story a couple of days ago, I’ve had a line bouncing in my head, a line I can’t get rid of:

There was a man who loved a dog.

Maybe it’s the simplicity of the line, the Emily Dickinson-esque ballad meter that makes so many of her poems fit the tune from Gilligan’s Island, the sing-song iambic tetrameter:

Because I could not stop for death…

I heard a fly buzz when I died…

It was not Death, for I stood up…

This is an essay about a man who loved a dog. It may seem like an essay about a teacher in rural Alaska, and it is, in fact, but that’s the setting. It becomes the point at the end, but to get there, you have to know the man who loved a dog.

Permanently chained dogs were everywhere. Loose dogs were everywhere. I played with them on my morning smokes. These bedraggled mutts were just as loving as a suburban golden retriever. Some of them limped though, from injuries uncertain to me. Some were rib-skinny. One was covered in spray paint.
My neighbor said, “I won’t look at them, because I will get sad.”
“Uh-huh” I said, puffing some Honduran cigar.
“They won’t last. The dog-catcher will get them eventually.”
Here there are no spay and neuter clinics. No veterinarians. The town hires a man with a .22 to shoot the strays. $20 a tail.

There was a man who loved a dog.

I follow a lot of writers, and writer-frequented sites, on Twitter, and every few weeks someone will retweet the Chekhov quote, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” By the way, Chekhov didn’t actually say that, per QuoteInvestigator; he wrote a longer paragraph including some of the phrases, and expressing the sentiment, in a letter to his brother, and someone paraphrased it down to its pithier form later. But it persists.

Don’t tell me there was a man who loved a dog.

Show me the glint of love on Alaskan snow.

Now, I have some unresolved issues with this essay. It starts with the first paragraph:

You start in Anchorage: you get your gun, a new cell phone plan, winter gear to withstand -40° temperatures, your final dose of civilization for quite some time. The planes that take you to these Alaskan villages feel like minivans that are somehow flying. The pilot’s gym clothes were in the seat beside me. He was eating a sandwich as he flew. We were low enough and moose are big enough where you could see them from up there, mediating in the tundra pools formed from yesterwinter’s melted snow. The pilot leaned over to point to one and brought the whole plane with him. “YOU SEE THAT’S MOOSE DOWN THERE?”
“YES,” I said.
We were still descending. “BEAUTIFUL CREATURES AREN’T THEY?” he asked.

Why would a writer start with a second-person voice, then switch over to first-person? Is it to prepare us for a switcheroo: this isn’t an essay about Alaska, or about teaching, it’s about a man who loves a dog, and where that leaves him? Or is it to progress in intimacy, to move from second to first, from you to me? Maybe it was just the way he heard it, the casual “you do this” as an informal “One does this”? I wonder if an editor along the way between first submission and winning Reed Magazine’s Gabriele Rico Challenge for Nonfiction and Pushcart Prize publication asked him if he might want to change it. I wonder if he said no, it was exactly how he wanted it.

I wonder about all that isn’t in the essay. We never find out what he teaches. We see very little of the kids he teaches, and nothing of him teaching in the classroom. We have no idea why he came to Alaska in the first place. It’s stripped of all backstory.

I also wonder about emotional manipulation. My blogging buddy Jake has a way of mentioning, when I get all gushy about something, that a story must earn the right to play with our hearts, to jerk tears out of us. But this isn’t a story; this is essay, and let’s assume (though I’ve learned from grim experience it’s not a safe assumption) that it’s all 100% true. Does that rule apply? If so, does the story earn my tears? Who determines the grading scale?

But that leaves the man who loved a dog.

There was a man who loved a dog.

Don’t tell me there was a man who loved a dog.

Show me the man holding the dog away from the dog-catcher with the .22 who survives on $20 a tail for strays.

Show me the man sharing a grouse with the dog on their first hunting expedition.

Show me the man reassuring the dog he is still there – “You thought I’d leave you little boy?” – after a shower.

Show me the man realizing the dog, even though he has a collar that should protect him from the dog-catcher, is gone.

Show me the man looking for the dog in the pile of dead tail-less bodies left by the dog-catcher in the woods.

Show me the man building a funeral pyre for the dog because the ground is too cold for burial.

I waited until there was nothing but ash. I sat there staring at the Kuskokwim. His remains would blow into this ancient river and get carried way into the nooks of the world no man or dog had ever set foot in. They asked me if I was leaving after that, and I said no.

Show me the man learning to love a place by loving a dog.

As far as I can tell, Sigurdson is still in Alaska.

* * *        

  • Check out Reed Magazine for an excerpt and author interview.
  • Check QuoteInvestigator’s website for the details of the Chekhov quote, and for any quote you’ve always thought someone said – you’ll be surprised how often they didn’t.
  • Check the website of the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska for information about the Yun’ip.
  • See my comments about Pam Houston’s essay, “Corn Maze” to understand why I’m gun-shy about accepting non-fiction as more than 82% true.

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Katrina Vandenberg, “Remembrance Poppy” (non-fiction) from Orion #40.3

What did the poppy know of my grandfather’s death that Christmas Eve? Its essence had been inside his body through his illness. It had been part of him when he died. What did the poppy know of our daughter’s birth?
We want the world to cleave neatly into halves, no and yes, evil and goodness, fantastic and real. We want it to be clear what to choose and who to hate. We want life and death to be opposite endpoints on a single line. The poppy reveals this kind of thinking to be hopelessly naive.
Poppy seeds are not circular. They are pitted and kidney- shaped.
The poet says in the voice of one of the Magi, three astrologers schooled in prophecy who were guided by a star to witness the birth of Jesus, “I had seen birth and death, but had thought they were different.”
Mysteries are places where opposites touch.

I learned some interesting tidbits about poppies from this essay. But more importantly, I learned more about the lyric essay, and the braided essay. And maybe, just maybe I learned something about poetry. Vandenberg is primarily known as a poet, after all.

Let’s start with the simpler stuff: all about poppies. When you hear the word, what pops into your head? Opium, most likely, and the drugs that derive from it. How about Memorial Day? I vaguely remember making paper poppies in kindergarten or first grade. The tradition seems to have faded since then. Or maybe it’s Veterans’ Day, which used to be Armistice Day, marking the end of WWI, commemorated by the poem “In Flanders Fields the Poppies Grow,” but now as Veterans’ Day celebrates living veterans while Memorial Day is for those who died… and it’s very confused. No wonder no one wears poppies any more, we managed to muck it up. The British celebrate Remembrance Day on the second Sunday in November, and Europeans are more likely at this point to wear poppies, possibly because the war was literally in their back yards and because they were at it much longer than we were. 

One thing I learned from this essay is why the poppies grew in Flanders Fields:

Mostly, poppies don’t grow right away. They lie dormant in the earth until they are disturbed, often by a plow. In the spring of 1915, in Flanders, the cornfields had been turned to battlegrounds, and whole nations full of young men waited in the dirt, in trenches they dug for themselves. The battlegrounds had been so disturbed by mines and trench digging that nothing was left, not a single tree or a blade of grass, not one building. But all the dormant poppy seeds were awakened. Blood-colored poppies began to grow. For the next four summers, until the fighting ended, poppies were everywhere.

That’s so incredibly… horrible. And beautiful. Nature scolding us, laying our sins before us. Or blessing us, comforting us. As she said, mysteries are places where opposites touch.

I learned something else, maybe not so much about poppies but more about baby poop. Medically, a baby’s first bowel movement, formed from amniotic fluid ingested in the womb, is called meconium, which literally means poppy-juice:

Meconium – from Greek mekonion meaning the poppy juice obtained from pressing the whole plant which gives a thick Juice of black, greenish-brown color. The intestinal content of the newborn infant has a similar consistency and appearance and so Galen adopted the term for the content of the bowels of newborn infants.

American Academy of Pediatrics 46.6

That surprised me.

There’s also an explanation of the way morphine fits perfectly into certain neuroreceptors which is why it’s such a feel-good drug, and a bit about baked goods, such as kalach, containing paste made from poppy seeds, which are found in abundance in poppies, as tokens of that abundance in terms of luck, money, fertility, or general happiness, depending on the culture and occasion.

Extraneous to the essay, but on my mind because of the timing, was the memo just released last week from the Department of Defense advising service members to refrain from any foods containing poppy seeds, as some can contain enough opioids to cause a positive drug test. I guess that excuse has run its course, at least as far as Uncle Sam is concerned.

I also furthered my education on essay writing thanks to an interview with Brenda Miller, a writing professor specializing in essay forms:

I just read an astounding braided essay in the most recent issue of Orion (Autumn 2021) called “Remembrance Poppy” by Katrina Vandenberg. In it, she weaves in information about poppies, poppy seeds, and opioids, with personal stories about the birth of her daughter, the death of her grandfather, and her own experiences of pain…. I was completely engaged from beginning to end because of the way her associations—that started with the tiniest thing, a poppy seed—kept growing and deepening. That’s what a perfect lyric essay does—immerses me in a subject I had no idea I’d be interested in and then makes me wholly invested in learning more.

Brenda Miller, interview in Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies

I first became aware of the formal use of the terms lyric and braided in regards to essays just last year when I listened to a podcast that discussed, among other things, Cathryn Klusmeier’s truly great essay “Gutted.” I’d recognized how an essay could be about two separate things and combine them by overlapping certain elements of each, but didn’t know that was a formal thing or how it was accomplished. I see it clearly here in the crossovers: the essay starts:

About the time a pregnancy test registers as positive, a fertilized human ovum is the same size as a poppy seed.
I sing and celebrate the poppy.
Our daughter was born by an emergency C-section. She was already more than two weeks late, and even then she did not want to come. Her heart rate had dropped dangerously low. Before the surgery, the anesthesiologist came to deliver the spinal block, a numbing anesthetic combined with a powerful form of synthetic morphine. He was blunt and smart, highly skilled and not kind.
I have a needle next to your spinal cord right now, he hissed. I don’t care how bad your next contraction is. Don’t. Move.
I hated him and adored the bite of his needle all at once.

By starting with that particular imagery, birth and poppy seeds are connected, only to be strengthened by the etymology of meconium; pain comes in the next paragraph. As I go through the essay, I recognize other resonances, as the podcast put it: the baker who provided a free kalach when Vandenberg’s grandfather died on Christmas Eve; the entire Flanders Fields section; and her childhood memory of cough syrup, back when codeine was a standard ingredient:

My sister that I were among the final group of American kids given over-the-counter children’s cough syrup laced with codeine before the FDA outlawed the practice. It was thick and grape-flavoured, with the dull sheen of an eggplant. Probably it soothed our coughs and helped us sleep, but what I remember most about it was the feeling of well-being it created, as if I’d been swaddled in purple blankets and allowed to sleep all night in my mother’s arms…. When my sister and I reminisce about growing up, it’s the banned cough syrup that gets our most dreamy praise. This must be one of the more sinister aspects of narcotics: no other drug has made me feel beloved.

I’m older than Vandenberg, but I don’t really remember getting stoned on cough syrup. Then again I don’t remember much from prior to my teen years. Hmmm… maybe I was stoned more than I realize. Ah, but the point is, that’s a gorgeous image there, a drug that makes you feel beloved.

These images proliferate even in the more fact-based sections. Bringing in the Opium Wars again reinforces the connection between poppies and war; the surprise about their appearance, as opposed to what we think they look like from our acquaintance with bagels and muffins, comes in handy when we get to that last paragraph, the one I quoted first, because it says everything: nothing is simple. Look more closely.

Then there’s just this touch of poetic whimsy that had me laughing out loud:

Poppy seeds look as if someone took all the periods from typesetter’s case and scattered them. Somewhere there exists a marvelous three-hundred-page book with all of its hesitations cast away.

Even amidst pain and death and addiction, we can laugh at something. And the idea that periods are hesitations is just perfect.

And this is what I learned about poetry: Maybe I’m not as clueless as I thought. If Vandenberg had written this as a poem, I would’ve been trying to figure out why this line breaks here and that one breaks there. That’s why I struggle so with poetry: I focus on the question, “Why is this a poem?” and only rarely find the answer. Here, this essay has all the associations and images of a poem, but it doesn’t try to be something artsy. Oh, ok, the sections are numbered, but that’s useful, the numbers could just be section breaks, or maybe there’s some reason for the numbers, maybe they mean something that I just haven’t seen. The point is: I’m not worried about why it’s written the way it is. It works. Maybe more poems should be written as essays.

At the start, I said I learned a lot from this essay. Maybe Vandenberg – and other readers – would have preferred I said it was beautiful, or well-written, or something more overtly laudatory. But I love a story – or an essay, or a poem, or a Post-it for that matter – that teaches me something, and I learned a lot here. Including something about poppy seeds.

* * *           

  • Check out Vandenberg’s website for more information about her and her poetry.
  • The etymology of meconium can be found in numerous places like Wikipedia and various online dictionaries, but for authenticity I used “On The Etymologic Derivation Of Some Commonly Used Words In Pediatrics” from the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, 46.6
  • Brenda Miller’s November 2021 interview via “The Assay Interview Project” from Assay: The Journal of Nonfiction Studies  is available online 
  • The Defense Department memo of February 21, 2023, can be found online.

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Nicole Graev Lipson, “Tikkun Olam Ted” (non-fiction) from River Teeth #22.2

River Teeth Journal illustration
I’m sitting with my son on the floor of his first-grade Hebrew school classroom, both of us drawing, according to his teacher’s instruction, what we’d like to do to repair the world. My four-year-old daughter, tagging along for the morning, is also drawing, and though she’s young for this assignment, she gets the basic idea. She scribbles blotches of flowers on her paper while I add a woman – me? – beside a compost bin, depositing food scraps. I’m feeling pretty good about myself for being down here on the rug, in the thick of things, while most parents sit in a semicircle of chairs, watching from afar. I am a very engaged mother, I think. I am modeling enthusiasm for my children!

If you’ve read other lessons-learned essays, you know what’s coming next: a dramatic shift, knocking that feel-good moment right on its head. And you know how the story will end: with a reprise of feel-good, a clearing of the air, a lesson learned. No surprises here; it’s a nice little story of parenting, set against the background of Kabbalah.

In that opening scene, instead of drawing an appropriate child’s-eye image of fixing the world, Lipson’s son has written, “I LUV MI PENES.” It’s every parents’ nightmare, hilarious to onlookers, and, she acknowledges, as a future can-you-believe-it anecdote. A five-year old pipes up on the bus: Mommy, what does sex mean? Or an eight-year-old asks why these napkins are feminine (I don’t think that happens any more, since, thank Zeus, they’re called pads now, but once upon a time…). Things don’t get any better when, after mom hides his proud creation in embarrassment, he then writes: FEK MOMMY. Hey, it happens.

The counterweight is a simple introduction to Kabbalah: not the celebrity version involving red strings, but the real deal, the intense physical and philosophical version begun in the thirteenth century and developed by Isaac Luria in the sixteenth century. There’s a mooc for that, and it was one of my favorites. In this case, one of the key ideas is Tikkun Olem, fixing the world. Tikkun Olem Ted is a children’s picture book about a little boy named Ted who finds small ways to repair the world: feeding birds, recycling, and so on.

One of the key concepts in this essay is from the creation story of Kabbalah, a story complementary to the account in Genesis: God fills the universe, then contracts to allow space for the world to exist. “In this version of the world’s beginning, God does not so much impose or demand, but pull back and allow.” It’s a lesson not lost on Lipson, emphasized by her sister as she later commiserates on the day:

“So he got angry at you for ruining his penis joke,” she says.
“Well, yeah,” I say.
“And to deal with that anger, he expressed his feelings on paper, in writing?” she says.
“I guess.”
“Even though he has had a language delay, and gets Early Intervention, and writing is hard for him?” she says. “He didn’t yell or scream?”
I don’t say anything.
“That’s a fucking awesome parenting success story, if you ask me,” she says and then she sits down on the couch next to me and reaches for the remote control. Outside the window, the barren March afternoon darkens to evening. Inside, the television blooms neon, illuminating Jacqui’s face in joyous flashes.
I’m beginning to see how I’ve gotten this day all wrong.

I don’t have kids, so I don’t really have standing to pass judgment, but I’d say any parent who worries about whether they’re doing a good job of parenting is probably doing a great job. As the essay shows, it’s when you think you’re doing great that you find out you’re not. Welcome to the agony of parenting, paradoxical version. I found it to be a delightful essay. Predictable in its comforting message, but amusing and touching in its telling, and intelligent in its kabbalic setting.

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Isaac Yuen, “Utter, Earth” (nonfiction) from Agni #94

Weddell seals vocalize nine types of sounds beyond the range of human hearing. Guinea baboons learn to grunt in the accent of their preferred social group. Glass frogs pitch their calls higher near roaring waterfalls while waving hello to potential mates. The croaks of male gulf corvina resemble underwater machine-gun fire in sound and decibel level; spawning aggregations can induce hearing loss in nearby marine mammals. Deaf, earless moths sport wing scales that dampen and deaden predatory sonar. Bats can crash into large sponge walls with weak echoes, not unlike people walking into glass doors. Solitary minke whales seem to abandon efforts to hear and be heard in waters with heavy shipping and military activities. The album Songs of the Humpback Whale officially reached interstellar space in August 2012 onboard Voyager 1; it is not part of the Golden Record’s “Sounds of Earth” track with tame dogs, wild dogs, and hyenas, but mixed amongst the recorded human “Hellos” in fifty-five languages. In 40,000 years, the probe will drift within 1.6 light-years of Gliese 445, a star in the constellation of Camelopardalis. What we think of as a giraffe is in reality four genetically distinct species, some of which have been recorded humming at night. Researchers are unsure if these sounds are passive, like snores, or active messages intended for fellow giraffes, swaying in the black.

Somewhere between journalism, poetry, and creative nonfiction you’ll find this essay. It starts with sounds, then moves on to vision and touch, but within those senses one thing leads to another and we go from whales to interstellar space and back again without missing a beat, a kind of language-guided tour of everything from Nabokov to  the pigmentation of dinosaur butts.

Many of the facts presented are astounding. Four species of giraffes? I discovered there are researchers who believe there should be eight or nine species. Koala fingerprints are indistinguishable from human prints; they’re the only non-primates to have fingerprints, leading to the question, why? Researchers ran over a diabolical ironclad beetle (that’s not a characterization, it’s what it’s called) twice, and it survived, possibly suggesting engineering techniques. Sheep and other ungulates seem to be passing along a cultural knowledge of migration routes – yet again moving the goalposts for “why humans are different from animals.”

Then there are the more sobering facts. The decline of bee species. The effect of white noise on bats. Temperatures that affect multiple species in multiple ways. The devastating effects of pollutants, chemical, light, sound.

I won’t begin to speculate on the structure of the essay. I don’t need to, for one thing: Yuen has described his process and the resulting form in an author interview at AGNI:

The piece actually began as an attempt at organization…. I found myself asking how can a sentence, whose function is to convey a finding, suggest so much more than itself? How can a narrative arc arise from stringing one fact to another, and without conventional narration?
….Eventually the theme of perception came to the fore, and I started mapping out sections based on the senses: Sound. Sight. Touch. And out of those came their counterpoints: Silence. Blindness. Resistance.

Isaac Yuen, Interview with James Brookes at AGNI: “The Power in Naming and Not Naming: Three Questions with Isaac Yuen”

I’ve always said I’m not big on nature articles, but Pushcart often finds exceptions: this was great reading. Yuen is a prolific and passionate nature writer; his debut collection, with this essay as the title selection, is scheduled for publication in 2023.

* * *       

  • Yuen’s author interview “The Power in Naming and Not Naming: Three Questions with Isaac Yuen” can be read online at AGNI.
  • The diabolical ironclad beetle thing just sounds like a gag, but Smithsonian Magazine reported it. Honest.
  • Find out more about sheep culture at National Geographic.

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Le Van D. Hawkins, “Both Sissies” (non-fiction) from Chicago Quarterly Review #33

Robert took special delight in harassing me. He knew how uncomfortable I was interacting with him and he knew I hated being called a sissy. I was doing everything I could think of to squelch that description. My mannerisms were subtler than Roberts, something I thought made me more acceptable than him until one of my high school classmates sat across from me in our crowded cafeteria and loudly told everyone in the vicinity of our table that unlike Robert, I was a “sophisticated” sissy: one who couldn’t be detected on first glance, but was a sissy just the same.
… After all the work I’ve done, I still behaved like a sissy??? At the very least, I thought I had made the transition from sophisticated sissy (my classmates’ description, not mine) to nice but kool dude (kool with a k, like Kool cigarettes). I gave my voice edge when I spoke, dropping f-bombs and making sure when I tossed out motherfucker it was “mutha” and “fucka” not “mothER fuckER.”

I can still be surprised at the way we torment each other. But I’m also surprised at the creativity that springs from pain.

Hawkins recalls his experiences as a youth usher in a Chicago-area Black church. I had no idea ushering was such a Big Deal in Black churches; in the (overwhelmingly white) churches I’ve been in, it’s generally a few older members who are coaxed into handing out bulletins at the door at the start of service. But in Hawkins’ church, ushering was lifted to a calling, to an organized and disciplined ministry with a strong artistic dimension:

Right hands extended in welcome, left hands behind their backs, they executed a sequence of precise, well- choreographed moves that welcomed church members and visitors, then directed them to their seats. Later, during the services, we collected the membership offerings with the same sense of purpose, precision, and showmanship, then brought the gold-plated collection plates to the prayer table in front of the altar, left hands behind our backs, right hands holding the collection plates at our waists. As the minister began his offering prayer, every usher standing in the sanctuary – in the aisles, posted at the exits – would take their cue from the ushers standing before the prayer table as they emphatically dropped their hands to their sides in unison, raised and crossed their arms at their chests, then, finally, bowed their heads in prayer.
Extended hands, graceful turns on the soles of our freshly polished shoes, these stylish maneuvers originated at a Black Baptist church in Chicago less than a half hour’s drive from my church in Robbins, a predominantly Black Chicago South suburb. Representatives of various usher boards – officers, junior supervisors, or in many cases, the usher board’s most graceful members – traveled across Chicagoland, where they were taught to these procedures along with a series of hand signals that enabled the ushers to communicate while going about their duties.
…. Quickly, this dynamic new style of welcoming church members and visitors became so popular it was used in Black churches across the United states.

Unfortunately for Hawkins, there was Robert, his supervisor. Robert was only a few years older, but had a kind of presence that Hawkins wouldn’t recognize for what it was until years later. His beef wasn’t that Hawkins was queer; it was that Hawkins was ashamed of being queer. “Here’s the big difference between Robert and me: I did everything I could to fit in; Robert did everything he could to stand out.”

I’m a little puzzled that Robert was invested with the responsibility of leading the youth ushers given his willingness to stand out, as it were. And yet he was. Until he showed up as Robbie Mae in full regalia, right down to the red turban and heels.

I frowned at the gawkers until I caught Robbie Mae’s attention – I was frowning in her direction. She stared at me, her face indignantly asking, What are you looking at? You still think you’re better than me? Haven’t you learned anything?

Decades ago, when I saw Robbie Mae in all her glory, I wasn’t familiar with the words trans woman. I also wasn’t aware of internalized homophobia when I began altering myself to please people who hated me. I hadn’t heard the phrase toxic masculinity behaviors when they began mimicking the kool dudes’ stereotypically masculine way of behaving.

She was brave. I was not.
I still have a long walk to get to freedom.

Some people have to be brave just to be who they are. Seems to me that’s something that should change.

In retrospect, it seems Robert wasn’t taunting Hawkins to be mean, but to disapprove of his hiding behind kool. Not the kindest methodology, but perhaps all he had at his disposal at the time.

*   *   *  

  • Youtube is full of videos about the usher ministry in Black churches: here’s one, and another.

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Debra Gwartney, “Fire and Ice” (non-fiction) from Granta #156

Three days before he died, my husband got out of bed. Somehow he propelled himself down the hall and into the living room, where I found him bent over a volume of Esther Horvath photographs called Into the Arctic Ice: The Largest Polar Expedition of All Time. Barry’s white hair was sprung wild and his feet were bare though it was late at night in December, sleety rain driving against the windows. How had he pulled sweatpants over his bony hips? He’d hardly stirred all day, lifting his head only to sip on bone broth made by one of our daughters, leaning against me to get to the bathroom because he was bleary from pain drugs. Yet he’d managed to transport himself to the center of this rental house to dig out a book that now held his rapt attention.

Pushcart often includes memorial pieces like this one; I’m always uncomfortable writing about them. They’re personal expressions of intense grief, love, and loss, not necessarily artistic expression, though of course art  manage to shape everything, including pain, into art.

Gwartney’s account is particularly harrowing as it includes a period of tragedies surrounding the death of her husband, writer Barry Lopez. The Labor Day 2020 wildfire chased them out of their home in the Oregon forest in the middle of the night; their house was saved via firefighting techniques, but was inaccessible due to surrounding devastation. Lopez’ cancer, under control via medication, burst into renewed activity; he was hospitalized for a time, and due to COVID restrictions she was unable to be with him. Her mother died, and COVID restrictions made the funeral particularly lonely. To add insult to injury, on her return Lopez insisted on continued distancing through the quarantine period, an essential precaution but a trying one.

On a thin January afternoon about a month after his death, I pulled the Horvath book from the drawer where I’d hidden it to study the photos that had so ignited my husband. I discovered in the text a mission obviously steeped in scientific logic and methodology, yet also not that far from the koans of my weekly yoga class: embrace the moment. Trust the wind to push you where you need to go. Be prepared to find your way back to center through the densest of fog. The only authentic discoveries are those that aren’t forced. Stop trying to control that which is beyond your control.

I’m often uncomfortable with these pieces for another reason: many involve people I’m unfamiliar with, though they are of great stature in the literary community. This piece is different. I’ve read both Gwartney and Lopez before, both via Pushcart nonfiction: her “Suffer Me To Pass” last year, and his “The Invitation” several years earlier. My discomfort isn’t noticeably lessened, however.

Therefore I merely present the piece as part of the anthology. Someone’s sacrament is not fodder for analysis, but rather can be a vehicle for communion.

*  *  *        

  • This piece can be read online at Granta.

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Mary Ruefle, “Dear Friends” (memoir) from Sewanee Review, Winter 2021

I would rather write about friends than relations. Relations—parents, children, siblings, spouses—exist within a grid of social conceptions and expectations that have evolved over centuries, and though we may fail in these relations, though we may let the preconceived down, nowhere in these relations do I find the sheer unexpected variety that friendship offers, for no two friendships are based on the same thing, the bond between two friends has no other explanation other than itself.

I know Mary Ruefle – as much as I know her, which isn’t much – as a poet, based on two poems I’ve encountered in prior Pushcarts. Both have a tendency to roll in a variety of directions based on the last words encountered. This memoir – the term Pushcart has used to subcategorize it in non-fiction – is more focused on the topic of friends. It is in fact something of a catalogue poem, in which Ruefle demonstrates the wide variation of friendships by listing the characteristics of various friendships she’s had or has, using for the most part the rhetorical structure of anaphora: “I have a friend” or “I had a friend” begins most of the paragraphs.

Some of these descriptions of friendship are very short:

….I have a friend who has never read a single word I have ever written. I love being with her.
….I have a friend who is not a person I could ever be, even if I tried, nor would I want to be, and I love being with her.
….I have a friend who wishes that she were not a human animal, but an animal with fur. A cat, fox, dog, or rabbit. This disturbs me so much I love her even more.
….I have a friend I have never met; I am pretty sure we will meet next year.
….I had a friend I loved for twenty-five years, and then the earth opened between us, and now we have not spoken in twenty-five years. But nearly every week I dream of her so there is this sense, for me at least, that we still know and love each other, but only late in the night behind closed eyes.

Most are a lot longer:

I had a friend who peeled an orange in public for the first time when she was seventeen. I do not remember the first time I peeled an orange, but it was probably in front of another. Do any of us remember such an act, such a little act lost in so many other acts performed for the first time as children? My friend’s mother was cultivated to the point of exoticism, and at the same time conservative and strict; at least that is how I remember her. She taught her daughter that to peel an orange, or any other fruit, in the presence of another person, was perverse; you might as well undress in front of them. Fruit was peeled in the kitchen by servants and served naked on a plate with a little knife to the side. The logic of this is itself perverse—do not undress in public but appear there naked—but as a result of such logic my friend was apprehensive when I unpacked our lunch one sunny afternoon, spreading a blue napkin on the stone steps of a cathedral; we were two teenagers having an outing in the city, an adventure, and I had thought to bring a picnic. Hence two unpeeled oranges appeared on the napkin, and I watched my friend’s face color as she told me the rules regarding oranges. I insisted that people did it all the time, no one would notice, not a head would turn if she ventured to try. Never before or since have I seen someone peel an orange with such exquisite delicacy. She took off the skin as if it were covered with tiny mother-of-pearl buttons, and her hands trembled every time a piece of skin came off and fell away like a little continent set adrift, revealing the flesh inside, which was sometimes translucent and bright and bursting with moisture, and at other times covered by a thin white cottony undergarment. And that was that, we ate our oranges in public as carelessly as any two girls, none of the passersby noticed anything historical, and years later when I ran into my old friend, and recalled that afternoon in the sun, she told me she has hated oranges and never ate them, her mother was dead, and she had no memory of any picnic on the steps of a church.

This memoir was apparently inspired by a comment made by a Facebook COO (I’m guessing Sheryl Sandberg) indicating she had three thousand friends, most of whom she doesn’t know but has met “in one shape or form.” That sounds like Facebook “friends” and is a great indicator of how a term in different contexts can mean very different things. I think it’s less of an indicator of the decline of friendship and more an indicator of the kidnapping of language by corporations wishing to increase their reach via the emotional content of language.

That said, the term “friend” has always been a bit malleable. Some people consider everyone whose name they know to be friends. Others distinguish between acquaintances and friends. I once insulted someone because I referred to her as an acquaintance when she felt she was a friend. I once enjoyed a woman’s company on a couple of occasions – a shopping trip, a casual dinner – and thought we were becoming friends only to be told she couldn’t be friends with me because she was one of Jehovah’s Witness and would miss me too much when she went to heaven for all of eternity and I didn’t.

I have an online friend who is right now probably my closest confidant, though we’ve never met and most likely never will. There are other people I follow online and consider to be great sources of inspiration in various ways, but I wouldn’t consider them friends; I’m very careful not to make a pest of myself, knowing I could lose access to them that way. In the same way home is where they have to take you in when you show up, a friend is someone who is always happy to hear from you. I’m not sure I have a home at this point. But I have a couple of friends, at least.

I noticed, while thinking about this memoir, that Ruefle is now seventy years old. That’s interesting. I’ve always thought of her as very young. She is of course much too famous and busy doing artistic things, and I am the most uninteresting of people, but this essay made me almost wish we were friends. I wonder – with some trepidation – how she would characterize that.

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Jeb Loy Nichols, “Talking to Hedgerows about Money” (non-fiction) from  Caught by the River 1/13/22

I lived in London, I lived in New York. I moved here to not be there. I came here so I could make a certain kind of art and music, so I could write a certain kind of book. If I lived there I would write about there and there’s too much written about there already. I didn’t want to be rich or successful or fulfilled or content or admired or loved. I wanted to be here….
So now I write books and make prints and release records. I have an affection for a great many things. It’s not good or bad, it’s not noble or corrupt. It is what it is; a life.

Leb Joy Nichols, website

In my intro to this series of posts on Pushcart 2023 material, I said, “I’m still a bit reluctant, and I feel like it’s going to show.” Here’s where it starts showing. I apologize in advance to Jeb Loy Nichols; he seems like a decent guy, and I agree, at least in general principle, with much of what he says. But this piece is a big reason I was reluctant to continue with this project in the first place.

Nichols starts out with a Yup’ik legend explaining how people came to be: they were a mistake.

After thousands of years of peaceful life, the first man was born from out of a pea pod. A raven appeared, raised its wings and said, where have you come from? The man pointed at the pea pod. The raven said, I made that plant and all the others and I’ve never seen anything like you. The man stood up and said, what am I? The raven, who knew well all the makings of the land, said, a mistake, a malignancy, a sickness. The man said, perhaps I am, but nonetheless I’m here. The raven said, you’re my mistake so I shall deal with you. And with that he ate the man, as he often ate slugs or caterpillars. He flew away and the next day had a terrible stomach ache. In the night he died. The next morning his belly split open and out walked the man. He returned to the pea patch where he waited a thousand years for another human to appear. This time it was a woman and together they went forth into the world. From that day to this they have blundered across the land, unable to not be the thing they are, a creeping sickness.

Then he tears into Bruce Springsteen for having too much money – 500 million, in fact, for having sold is catalog of songs. I’m the first to agree that entertainers, sports players, and CEOs earn way, way too much and teachers, nurses, and child care workers earn way, way too little – but, hey, what did Springsteen ever do to you? To be fair, I think the reason Springsteen was chosen was the irony of the whole working-class hero image which Lennon already expressed beautifully. Such irony is supposed to shock us into reconsidering that even those we may approve of – those who were part of our adolescence, our lives, maybe those we looked at as heroes – are also part of the problem.

Eventually he gets around to the more familiar billionaires, particularly the ones who want to commercialize the rest of the solar system. From there, it’s your basic eat-the-rich anticapitalistic rant.

Now, I’m always up for a good eat-the-rich rant, some anti-capitalist rhetoric. But I’d like it to be something unique, something with literary quality or an interesting structure or evocative imagery. I don’t deny that I often miss such things, but I didn’t see anything like that here. In fact, it seemed a bit wide-ranging and overwrought, and somewhat lacking in logical progression.

If people per se are evil, then the writer is also evil. No? So maybe the problem is, the evil people are more powerful than the good, purely by benefit of the fruits of their evil? Or that we’re so willing to shell out insane ticket prices for concerts and orbital space rides? If they lower ticket prices, do you really think Springsteen will get paid less? No, it’ll be the people who clean the stadium, or take the tickets, or print the programs. I haven’t been to a concert in decades, are there still programs?

As for our destruction, I’ve always wanted to get it out there that we aren’t destroying the planet – it’s been here 4.5 billion years and isn’t going anywhere soon – but the ecosystems, and with it, potentially, civilization, which is a fragile thing in this interdependent world. If we destroy ourselves – or allow the Musks and Bransons of this world to destroy us – maybe we deserve it, maybe something better will emerge. One of the few things I remember from my undergraduate days was an anthropology professor declaring, “All life depends on death.”  After all, we emerged from the failure of non-avian dinosaurs to adapt, and they emerged from some other failure. In fact, most life on the planet today emerged from The Great Oxygenation Event that destroyed what was here before and paved the way for… us, eventually. If we don’t learn from that, maybe the next species to evolve will. That sounds pretty hopeless, as though I’ve given up on the human race. Some days, I have.

I can’t disagree with much of what Nichols says. I’d love it if wealth were more evenly distributed, and I vote for those more likely to agree with us both. I can’t say it’s done much good. But I’m with him. Thing is: there are people in the world, in the US, in my state, who would see my standard of living, most likely Nichols’ as well, as outrageously profligate. Who’s rich depends on who you ask.

There was one place where I reacted quite negatively:

I have a friend who doesn’t want to take the vaccine. It is, she says, a pharmaceutical answer to a profoundly non-pharmaceutical question. No one ever addresses the root causes. Frantic global consumerism and exploitation of animals, desperate greed, the swirling cocktail of chemicals and pharmaceuticals and military paranoia, it all goes on and on. Just as the new virus and its army of mutations will go on and on as well. When they develop a vaccine against greed and capitalism and nationalism and growth, she says, I’ll take that. Oh, wait, she says, they already have. It’s called Having Less.

Granted, Nichols doesn’t say he agrees with this person’s point of view, he just uses it as an example of the level of frustration with the status quo. But I’m not sure why anyone thinks that the unvaccinated poor dying of COVID will help matters. Of course, I have my own bias here: after having avoided infection for almost three years, I’m currently recuperating from the illness, which has affected me to a lesser degree because of the vaccinations I got as soon as they were available. Would my protracted hospitalization or death really have convinced any capitalist anywhere to behave with more concern for the community?

I feel real guilt lighting into a singer-songwriter with folk/blues/country sensibilities, my type of music. Is it because I’m unfamiliar with his music? I ask myself: if John Prine had written this, would I have liked it more? No, I don’t think so. But it doesn’t feel like punching up, like when I edit Karen Russell or complain about Wells Tower’s approach to science fiction. It is punching up (he is, I gather, quite successful as a musician, writer, and in other artistic pursuits), but not up enough to make it morally comfortable. I’m reminded of Roger Ebert’s review of the Christopher Guest film A Mighty Wind satirizing folk singers: “But the edge is missing from Guest’s usual style. Maybe it’s because his targets are, after all, so harmless.” Nichols isn’t harmless; instead, he’s harmful against the right things, in the spirit of Woody Guthrie’s “This Machine Kills Fascists” guitar, and why am I complaining about that? But… I just don’t think this is a good piece, a Pushcart-level piece. Compare it to last year’s “Gutted” or “My First Blood” – a piece that also addressed, in part, how greed is killing us. Maybe the idea is to include alternative voices. If so, fine, but this voice is a miss for me.

At some point I have to decide if I’m going to say what I think, or make some bland comment that can’t be held against me. One advantage of internet obscurity is that only one or two people – people who, like me, don’t really matter in the Blogosphere – will read this. That obscurity gives me some cover, some license, and I’m taking it this time.

* * *      

  • Nichols’ essay can be read online at Caught by the River.
  • Cathryn Klusmeier’s outstanding essay “Gutted” can be read online at Agni.
  • Rebecca Cadenhead’s equally outstanding piece “My First Blood” can be read online at Harvard Advocate.

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 ILoveTypography.com, 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.