Reading Mentors

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Years ago, after reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell I contemplated how my life had been shaped by not having a mentor growing up. Looking back now, I see I had mentor-like encounters. My reading was guided by random external influences and that worked as a kind of mentorship. We expect teachers to be mentors, but they can’t, not really, not with so many students.

This is going to be a long essay to explain how I select books today to read and why. I feel compelled to jump back and write a history of my evolution of discovering what to read. Looking back, I wish I had known right from the first that some books are significantly better than others — that I should seek out the best. I also wish I had read from a wider range of subjects — that I could have had far more favorite subjects. And I wished I had learned at an early age that some books can be like junk food — making me addictive to empty calories.

Society expects schools to pick the best books for children, but I always rebelled against their choices. How can we raise kids to be better book selectors?

Bookstore reading

Can teachers ever select books perfectly customized for the individual student? How can teachers avoid turning off students by promoting the reading of unrelatable classics? How can parents and teachers overcome the urge to make kids read the books they loved so passionately but might not be relevant to their children’s lives? If only one book is taught in any given class period what are the odds that all the students will respond to it? Is the goal to teach reading – the ability to decipher fiction and nonfiction – or to teach kids how to find the right book that will provide them cognitive maps to reality? Are kids ever taught the dangers of reading? Are they ever warned that books can become a crippling addiction? Are they ever taught that books can spread dangerous beliefs, delusions, prejudices, hate, and lies? I wished I had learned those things early on.

It has occurred to me that how I found books have always influenced what I read. And what I read has always determined the direction of my life. Thus, I need to be more careful with how I find books. If you are not a bookworm you probably won’t understand this insight. Back in 1971 when I first took a computer course they taught us this acronym: GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). Before that, I remember hippies preaching, “You are what you eat.” From this, you might assume I’m about to write an essay on “You are what you read.” However, I’m going to take one step back and write, “You are what you find to read.”

The first book I can remember is Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. My mother read it to me in the third grade (1959/60) after I had seen the film version with Wallace Beery. If my mother had chosen a different book for me I would have followed a different path as a bookworm? Both my parents were readers of tattered paperbacks. I remember mother reading Perry Mason and my father reading Mickey Spillane. Neither encouraged me and my sister to read. I guess they assumed our teachers would do that.

Evidently, at the end of the third grade, my teacher told my parents I had a reading problem and should attend summer school for reading. I vaguely remember going to a small, wedged shape room, probably a large closet rather than a classroom. The teacher told me to find a book and start reading. I went over to a twirling wire rack and found a small paperback titled Up Periscope. I started reading. It turns out I could read just fine. I don’t remember the summer school teacher ever giving lessons or even talking to him again. I was just bored by what they made us read in class. That twirling rack was an important book mentor and changed the direction of my life. The lesson I learned was I could pick my own books.

Starting in the 4th, 5th and 6th grades what I chose to read was determined by the school libraries and the physical locations where I came to browse. I was my own reading mentor. I remember always going to the beginning of the A’s of the kid’s section at Homestead Air Force Base Library in the 5th grade (1961/62). That got me reading Tom Swift (Appleton) and Oz books (Baum). Eventually, I worked up to the Hardy Boys (Dixon). I would have tried a greater variety of books if I hadn’t gotten hooked on series.

My sixth-grade (1962/63) teacher, Mrs. Saunders was the first teacher to be a book mentor. She’d read us books after lunch. I remember her starting A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and me rushing to the library after school and checking out a copy to finish on my own.

When I started the 7th grade (1963/64) at another school I found When Worlds Collide (Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie) again by browsing the beginning of a range. That simple routine was a reading mentor of sorts. By then I’d range up and down the alphabet looking for the kind of book I liked. I’d read a lot of so-so books. Books were like television or cookies, I consumed them as fast as I could. They were a commodity. I didn’t know there were great books. That’s when I could have used a reading mentor most. If only someone had only shown me how to find purpose in reading, rather than using reading for cheap thrills. If only a wise reader had shown me how to compare books to reality, or taught me about the quality of writing.

At this time I was fixated on space travel and biographies. I read for vicarious adventure. I found a numbered series that published cut-down biographies for children. I remember reading books about Ben Franklin, Aaron Burr, PT-109 and John Kennedy, and Blackjack Pershing. The numbered series acted like a mentor to me because I wanted to read them all. It also showed me that some people are more interesting than others, worthy of being written about. I wish I had had a reading mentor that that taught me that living is better than reading. On my own, I decided reading life was superior to real life.

In the 6th and 7th grade, my schools gave us order forms for Scholastic Books. I still didn’t know there was a genre called science fiction but I was drawn to science fiction books. Because of Scholastic Books, I discovered Jules Verne and H. G. Wells (too far down the alphabet to discover on my own I guess). These were the first books I bought after begging my mother to write a check. This was my first taste of owning and keeping books. I wish I had had some way of knowing what the other books were like on the Scholastic list. This was my first time I encountered a book list or publisher’s catalog. In a way, the Scholastic sales flyer was a kind of reading mentor.

Scholastic Order Form 1963

If I had found different books in the As and Bs at Homestead Air Force Base Library I could have taken a different path. I picked the Oz books because of the annual showing of The Wizard of Oz on television. Now that I am older I sometimes wish I had not started down the path of fantasy stories. I can see now that I didn’t pick what I chose to read. My tastes had already been shaped by television, which makes it another kind of mentor.

The first person to truly influence my reading was my 8th grade (1964/65) teacher. I’m sad I can’t remember her name because she was very important. She had an approved reading list. To keep the grade we earned from tests during each six week period we had to read three books, three magazine articles, and three newspaper articles — otherwise, our grade was dropped one letter. We could raise our grade each period if we read five of each. Eighth grade was the year I struggled with grammar, so I was able to turn my Cs into Bs by reading. This teacher is memorable for two reasons. She introduced me to Robert A. Heinlein and got me to read books other than science fiction. She also taught me library research and how to make bibliographic lists. This teacher couldn’t be a personalized reading mentor to all her class sections, so she worked out a method of inspiring reading and allowing us to choose our own books from an approved list.

Because I asked a librarian about Heinlein, I was shown the adult science fiction section at the Homestead Air Force Base Library. It was small, only two half-height bookcases of four shelves each. Those shelves shaped my reading for a year. Again, a limited set of books becomes a reading mentor.

In the 9th grade (1965/66) I started earning money mowing lawns and babysitting. This got me into buying albums and books. Having money and a bike let me ride to used bookstores. Because I was a science fiction fan I mainly bought books from the science fiction section. I could only afford cheap books. I mainly bought ten-cent used paperbacks that were very old. That limitation was a kind of reading mentor. I mass-consumed science fiction paperbacks from the 1950s. Even today I realize that shaped my personality more than anything else.

It’s a shame I didn’t know better. I should have read more widely. In junior high, I did branch into nonfiction reading books about science, nature, space travel, exploration, history, maps, sailing, etc., but it was still a limited focus.

In the 10th grade (1966/67) I joined the Science Fiction Book Club. This defined my reading for years. Also in the 10th grade, while going to school in Mississippi that only required 16 credits to graduate, I had two library study halls in a six-period day. Science fiction was rare in Charleston, Mississippi, so I began reading more nonfiction.

In the 11th and 12th grade I worked and went to school so I stopped watching television and got little reading done. (This also became true after I got married and worked full time.) Being a bookworm requires the luxury of time.

In the 1970s while in college, I joined the Book of the Month Club and The Quality Paperback Book Club. This broadened my reading somewhat. So these book clubs became reading mentors. Book clubs allowed me to acquire hardbacks at a discount, but the two monthly selections also became a reading mentor too.

By this time I was regularly reading the science fiction magazines, F&SF, Analog, Galaxy, If, Amazing, and Fantastic. These periodicals had book reviews, and they became another reading mentor. In the late 1960s or early 1970s, I read a review of Heinlein in Dimension by Alexei Panshin. That started me reading books about books. However, I seldom branched out of science fiction. It wasn’t until I became an English major in the later 1970s that I began studying books outside the genre. But even then I rebelled against what my professors wanted me to read. For every required classic I was forced to read to pass a test, I read ten or twenty books of my own choosing.

Unfortunately, most of the books I chose were science fiction, with a smattering of popular science and biographies. Now let’s jump ahead about thirty years. Amazon.com changed my reading habits a lot. But what really changed my reading habits was Audible.com. From listening to books read by wonderful narrators I learned I was a very poor reader myself. I also discovered my poor reading habits caused me to read too fast and love books that could be read fast. Once I started listening to books I tried all kinds of novels and nonfiction I would never have enjoyed before. Suddenly, I loved 19th-century novels. Ones that previously had turned me off by all the slow tedious descriptive bits. I also got into long rambling nonfiction books.

I have to say audiobooks have been my best reading mentor. I was reading around 12-20 books a year during the 1980s and 1990s. Mainly because of work and being married. From 1963-1973 I probably read several books a week. From 2002-2017 I read one book a week, or about 52 a year, mostly because of Audible.com. Not only did I read (listen) to more books, my range of reading topics exploded like a nova.

Then around ten years ago, I started blogging and writing about books. I began to think more about what reading meant. I read more book reviews. The internet gave me access to book commentary from all over the globe. I read blogs by other bookworms and discovered whole reading vistas I had missed. Sites devoted to books and reading maniacs showed me countless paths other bookworms had taken.

Since the 1980s I’ve been fascinated by meta-lists. I created one for science fiction, first for a fanzine, and then for the internet. Since then I’ve found others creating general fiction meta-lists, like The Greatest Books, or even collections of meta-lists like Worlds Without End. These are another kind of reading mentor.

Then there is Goodreads and Listopia where millions of readers gather to discuss books. I can even browse what books family, friends, strangers, and famous people read. That’s another kind of mentor.

Finally, in recent years I’ve been greatly influenced by Best-Books-of-the-Year lists, and especially meta-lists that collect them all together. For example, here is “The Ultimate Best Books of 2017 List,” a meta-list created by Emily Temple, where she combined 35 lists covering 520 different recommended books. These annual lists have been getting me to read 6-10 books each year I never would have tried before, and often they turn out to be the very best books I read in the year.

In conjunction with the Best-of-the-Year meta-lists is ebook bargain sales. I subscribe to a half-dozen email newsletters that tell me what books are on sale each day as ebooks. I’ve already bought three books from Temple’s 2017 list. It’s hard to resist trying a book that is on ten or more Best-Books-of-the-Year lists for only $1.99. That makes for a powerful reading mentor.

It turns out the wisdom of crowds is true. It might make the best reading mentor of all I believe. I would think if kids in school had access to meta-lists of books kids like themselves were recommending it might be an excellent mentor to aid teachers.

It would be great to have had a human reading mentor growing up. To be honest, I was never trustful of grownups as a kid. I was a know-it-all little schmuck who wanted to make my own decisions, even if they were bad. I was greatly inspired by my peers, but let’s be truthful here too, my peers were not that wise. We were all too influenced by trends. Plus, I became addicted to science fiction at an early age, which made me ignore most everything else to read.

A while back I wrote, “What 12 Books Would You Give Your 12-Year-Old Self.” Even if I had a time machine I doubt I could have been much of a mentor to my younger self. We all wish we had known what we know now back then, but we forget that most of us are hard of hearing when it comes to taking advice. Today’s kids seem more connected to their parents than kids of my generation. Maybe today parents can be mentors. Rich folks have always been great mentors to their children. I do believe Malcolm Gladwell was right in Outliers that the kids who succeed in life start early and have mentors.

We try to design education curriculums that has the wisdom of mentors, but I’m not sure if such one-size teaches all plans can ever succeed. We know the internet inspires both good and bad in children but will we ever be able to channel its chaos? I wonder if kids can find other kids on the internet who could act as their reading mentors and provide the kind of wisdom I missed growing up. Teachers might try to catalog the best young adult bloggers to show their students. And I assume the internet allows teachers to be far more in tune with their students than teachers of my era.

JWH

 

 

 

 

Should I Abandon My Bible Study?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 6, 2017

I’m an atheist, so I don’t study the Bible in the same way as people of faith. I have two goals for Bible study. First, I consider Christianity, or any religion for that matter, like a language. To talk to Christians requires understanding their language. The Bible is an integral part of western civilization, and to understand our history requires understanding the Bible. This is still akin to learning a language. The details of history are often idiomatically based on biblical references.

The Bible

The second reason why I study the Bible is to understand how information is transmitted over space and time. Think of my interest like the game of telephone kids play – also known as “Chinese whispers.” Jesus said many things two thousand years ago, and now we hear what he said repeated through thousands of distortions. Is there any way to backtrack and try to filter out two millennia of noise?

I’ve always felt both approaches to this kind of Bible study are practical and intellectually rewarding. However, I’m beginning to fear both goals are pointless. I’m starting to doubt I can ever communicate with a religious person, nor can we ever know what Jesus actually said. One proof of my doubt is all the faithful firmly believe they actually know what Jesus said even though they each have a unique interpretation. In my reading of the gospels, I would say it’s impossible to follow the teachings of Jesus and own a gun or pursue wealth, but millions of Christians would vehemently disagree. Where’s the truth?

This issue came up today when I saw How Jesus Became God by Bart D. Ehrman was on sale from Amazon in November for $1.99 for the Kindle version. I thought about buying and rereading that book. Ehrman is my favorite teacher for explaining how Christian memes evolved over time, and consider this book the best explanation how Christians believe Jesus, a man, is now God. My personal assumption from studying the Bible is Jesus never claimed to be God but was made God by his followers. Ehrman backs this up with historical analysis. I feel these six books by Bart D. Ehrman are the best explanation I’ve found that removes the distortion of playing telephone with Jesus’ original sayings 2000 years ago.

Ehrman’s approach is to study Jesus as history, not theology. Each book takes a different tack in solving a historical puzzle. I believe many of the problems we face in society today are caused by irrational beliefs about Jesus. However, I’m not sure Ehrman’s results can ever be used to logical dispel such beliefs when talking to a person of faith.

Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen has convinced me that irrational thinking is so entrenched in American society that logical discourse will never work. In fact, Andersen makes a good case that two-thirds of Americans embrace a “believing makes truth” philosophy.  They feel rational thinking is out to get them, that scientific knowledge is oppressive, and freedom is being allowed to believe what they want.

Thus, why I wonder if it’s even worthwhile to continue my Bible study.

Because there are billions of interpretations of who Jesus was and what he said it’s impossible to ever know what he actually said and meant. This allows believers to believe anything they want and still claim they are following his teachings. The only logical way I can think of disproving their belief logic is to analyze the words of Jesus by doing what the theologians of the Jesus Seminar did. This was a group of Bible scholars who voted on probable accuracy of every saying we have of Jesus (the ones printed in red in some Bibles). They color-coded the results to statistically reveal which sayings the historical Jesus might have said, with red being the most likely. This is a wisdom of crowds approach.

Thus, if you take just the red, and maybe the pink quotes from The Five Gospels, we might assume that’s what the historical Jesus taught. The trouble is, the results do not match what most people believe today. And since believers believe belief trumps everything, this logical approach will be no proof to them.

I’m wondering if I shouldn’t tune out all discussion of religion completely. Don’t try to understand or explain it. Just write religion off as complete irrational thinking. I was hoping the scientific and faithful could meet halfway, but after reading Fantasyland I’ve given up on that idea.

When I read science or technical books I feel I’m living in a rational reality. I have hope for the future. When I read books written by true believers I feel despair. Their irrational thoughts convince me society is crashing.

JWH

Is There Any Hope for the Future?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, October 24, 2017

A friend of mine recently posted to her Facebook that her world was rocked when she attended a lecture by Rev. Dr. William Barber who is leading a moral movement to repair the breaches in our society. I assume Laurie found hope in the idea we can save ourselves by creating a new moral order. Even though I’m an atheist, I’m all for this. The trouble is our society is too fractured. Is it even possible to put it back together again? I’ve recently wondered if there is any kind of movement that everyone could embrace and find agreement? I figured it would have to be as powerful as Christianity was in its first four centuries — and yet work with non-Christians and non-believers.

How can we find common ground? Everyone talks about America being politically polarized into conservatives and liberals, but I believe there are far more divisions than that cracking up our society. If every group identity is going to demand society conform to their narrow vision we are doomed. How can we find common ground when so many different viewpoints want to dominate making the rules? Instead of seeking cooperative compromises they all fight to impose their view while demeaning everyone else’s.

In small, homogenous societies, social coherence is found with shared morality. We live in a vast, heterogeneous society with countless ethical/moral visions which makes having shared values almost impossible. In the past, we all tried to agree on some social conventions such as etiquette, acceptable public behaviors, and abiding the laws. Such efforts are almost universally ignored now.

Our greatest obstacle to finding social consensus is defining reality. “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise” is how the apostle Paul began the divide between religion and science by attacking what he called the “empty logic of the philosophers.” Several hundred years later, St. Augustine continued with “There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity . . . It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.”

The-Closing-of-the-Western-Mind-by-Charles-Freeman

I got these quotes from The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason by Charles Freeman. They explain perfectly how and why modern believers deny science. The faithful intuitively understand faith is threatened by science. It’s why Christianity embraced Plato and not Aristotle when they discovered the Greeks. It’s why conservatives have a never-ending guerrilla war with education working to undermine K-12 and higher education. They deny the results of science by denying science.

Is it even possible to find a common morality sharable by the sacred and the secular? We can’t even agree murder is evil. How can Christians embrace stand-your-ground laws, gun carrying permits, and AR-15s in light of the Sermon on the Mount? It’s strange that godless liberals support diversity, a concept that St. Paul brought to Christianity when many modern Christians reject it today. Not only is our secular society fractured into countless pieces, but so is Christianity. If believers in a single divine authority can’t agree how can secular society?

The old saying claims money is the root of all evil. I think it’s truer than ever. Money promotes self-interest, and self-interest promotes justifying the acquisition of money by any means. Our plutocratic society has escalated lying to the supreme tool of the greedy. Wealthy people and corporations have learned that lying pays big dividends. A great book that makes that point is The Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway.

There is a war on science, knowledge, expertise, and intellectualism. The greedy have aligned themselves with the faithful to attack science, and they are winning the war. We can never achieve a universal morality if half the population believes the end justifies the means, thus rationalizing lying. The age of fake news and endless assaults on journalism will never stop before society collapses. I sometimes wonder if the goals of the radical right are to destroy society so they can start over fresh.

There is no hope for any moral movements if we all can’t agree to stop lying. We all need to accept that science is the only tool we have for verifying reality. Science was invented to work across cultures and weed out subjective bias. It is an extremely effective tool for explaining the objective reality we all live in. We must accept that any subjective religion, philosophy, or opinion can’t be a basis for defining what is true. Religion has two choices. It can embrace science or reject it. Religion will strengthen itself if it accepts science, even if science denies it’s metaphysical assumptions. The real value of religion is creating shared values and stable communities — heaven on Earth rather than silly promises in exchange of silly declarations of beliefs.

The greedy are currently using religion to attack science to protect their wealth. The greedy have aligned with the faithful who are also attacking science to defend ancient memes created by primitive folks thousands of years ago. There is a logical synergy to their union but if it succeeds it will destroy our current civilization. Thus, greed is corrupting modern Christianity. I find it hard to accept the faithful who claim the moral high ground when Mammon is their ally.

I don’t know how they can assert America is a Christian nation when our society isn’t even close to resembling the sayings printed in red in their bibles. I believe Jesus tried to teach social action that has more in common with the Democratic party than the Republican. To me, the only valid analysis of Christian philosophy comes from what Jesus said. Everything else said in his name or about him is corrupt. Read The Five Gospels by the Jesus Seminar to understand what I mean, or the books of Bart D. Ehrman.

I believe our only hope is to get the faithful and faithless to agree on common secular morality. This is what the Founding Fathers intended when they created freedom of religion. Because religious beliefs are infinite in variety they need to stay out of politics and remain personal. We need laws and common morals that protect everyone equally. We need to ignore the politics of special interest groups that want special treatment for the few.

We need to agree that science is the only arbiter of explaining reality, promote universal quality education, develop a set of ethics that all agree on which protects both people, animals, the plant world, the environment, that develops a sustainable society. What we need is worldwide Constitution and Bill of Rights for everyone in the 21st century. We need to protect the poor and helpless, but allow the ambitious to succeed without collectively destroying the planet.

The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols

I’ve read two articles this week that suggests this won’t happen. Both are about the war on science and knowledge. The first is Bill Moyers dialog with Joan Scott at Salon, “In the Trump age, an embolden attack on intellectuals.” And this older article at The Federalist by Tom Nichols, “The Death of Expertise” which later became the book, The Death of Expertise.

Hope involves believing people can change. Since we haven’t for two hundred thousand years, why expect the human race to get its shit together at the last moment to avoid an apocalypse of our own making? We could save ourselves if we weren’t so greedy. Unfortunately, we live in a civilization where greed is the foundation.

JWH

 

Will Puerto Rico Be The 1st Climate Change Retrofit?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, September 30, 2017

The disaster in Puerto Rico is truly horrendous. What’s important now is how we respond. I worry this Mag-10 catastrophe will be shoved off the news and be forgotten. I know Republicans are horrified at the cost of helping Puerto Ricans but we should make Puerto Rico our 51st state and divert all that tax-relief for billionaires into rebuilding their country. The scale of such a project would be awe-inspiring like the Apollo moon program.

You have to admit as a taxpayer, making the rich richer has gotten rather boring. I just can’t work up any more sympathy for people with private jets, and I’m tired of them conning us into giving them more money because of their self-serving lies about helping the middle class. Rebuilding our infrastructure will make America great again. Designing a self-sustaining economy for the 21st-century will make America great again. Cleaning up the environment will make America great again. Creating social equality will make us great again. Inequality in all its forms is only flushing us down the toilet.

The intellectual challenge of retrofitting Puerto Rico to survive future super-hurricanes is thrilling. And it will be great practice for when we need to rebuild all the southeastern coastal states. Is it possible to create an island paradise that can withstand rising seas and periodic Cat-5 hurricanes? Could we design homes that can be sealed like submarines from flooding and aerodynamically shaped to withstand 250 mph winds? Can we create a cell phone, power grid, water, and sewer system that can take a beating and keep on ticking (like a Timex watch in those old commercials on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom)? Is it possible to develop a self-sustaining economy for 3.6 million people that can periodically withstand the worst nature can throw at them?

Since we won’t solve global warming we need to learn to take regular spankings from a pissed off Mother Nature.

After we retrofit Puerto Rico and other Carribean islands, we can work on Florida.

SanJuanPuerto Rico is the canary in the coal mine. Those folks down there are Americans even though we treat them like red-headed stepchildren. Congress is driven by greed, so I doubt those bastards will change their stripes, but maybe, just maybe, a disaster of this size will crack open their greedy little hearts just enough to let in a ray of compassion. I don’t think our rich folks need tax relief as bad as 3.6 million Americans without power, water, food, internet, and cell phone coverage.

JWH

 

Looking Forwards v. Looking Backwards

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Do you read books about the past, or about now, or the future?

Our Nig by Harriet WilsonThis morning I started work on an essay about African-American fiction in the 19th century. It began with a question that had popped into my head: “Who was the first black novelist in our country?” This kind of fun sleuthing on the internet inspires me to write essays. I quickly came across articles about how Henry Louis Gates, Jr. had discovered a long forgotten book in the early 1980s called Our Nig; or, Sketches From the Life of a Free Black (1859) by Harriet Wilson. That made me want to research a number of other things. Have earlier novels been uncovered since? What were the second, third, fourth, fifth novels? What about short stories? Were any bestsellers in their day. Before long I realized I could spend weeks on this project.

Men-Into-SpaceI usually think of several ideas a day for researching and writing. I start work on just a fraction of these ideas, and complete work on damn few. Another idea I got yesterday was to write about Men Into Space, a one-season TV show of 38-episodes (1959-60) that worked to be very realistic about space flight. A lady in my online book club mentioned it and I was surprised I hadn’t known about it before now. It’s not available on DVD except as DVD-R sales through places like eBay (because it’s in the public domain). It is available to watch online at YouTube. However, I did find a book, Men Into Space by John C. Fredriksen that extensively writes about the series. I’d love to write a book like this – if I could focus my mind for a year or two.

The Spacesuit Film - A History 1918-1969 by Gary WestfahlWhile researching Men Into Space I came across another book The Spacesuit Film: A History 1918-1969 by Gary Westfahl that covered Men Into Space as well as other movies and television shows that prefigured the space age. Hell, this exactly the kind of book I’d love to write too. But can you imagine the time it would take? But wouldn’t it be fun to watch all those old movies and television shows analyzing them for how they imagined the future? However, how many people read such books? I want to, but the $39.95 price for the paperback stops me. Even the $19.99 price for the Kindle edition is making me think long and hard.

This suggests another idea for researching. How many people buy and read these esoteric kinds of history books? How many people love to study tiny segments of forgotten history? I have this nagging desire to write something longer than blog essays. This month was supposed to be the month I began a book-length project. And I did start on an idea, but once again got side-tracked by too many distractions. But I’m back to focusing my mind on the project.

I have to ask myself, who is going to read what I write and why? Why spend a year, or several, writing something few people will want to read? It occurred to me this morning I could divide books into three categories: about the past, about the present, about the future. This is true for both fiction and nonfiction.

To Be A Machine by Mark O'ConnellI’ve always loved science fiction, which is future-oriented. But when I think about writing about science fiction, that’s past-oriented. Because I write for Book Riot, I can also write about contemporary publishing. I even think about writing books like To Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death by Mark O’Connell, which is essentially about how science fiction is affecting our world today.

I also came across this pledge drive for Farah Mendlesohn yesterday. She is writing a book about Robert A. Heinlein and is looking for backers. She’s gotten 143 supportors so far. This is also exactly the kind of book I’d love to write – but is that the rough number of people who would be interested in reading it?

I’m now worrying that I’m spending too much time thinking about the past. Is that because I’m getting older and it’s natural for aging folks to analyze yesterday? I assume that many people who like my blog do so because they are somewhat like me – they are older and thinking about when they grew up, and we all loved some of the same things.

I believe my less popular essays at Book Riot are due to writing about topics that bore their demographic readership, which tilts young and female. This makes me wonder if I should accept that I like to write about things that appeal to a subset of aging baby boomers, or if I should work to write about topics that have a wider appeal across different age groups.

My guess is writing about contemporary subjects or about the future has more universal appeal. I wonder if writing about today or tomorrow isn’t more psychologically positive for both me and readers. But I’m so fascinated by the past, especially esoteric subjects.

I’m currently reading The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman about Paul Erdős, a brilliant mathematician, and The Five Gospels, about the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who work to figure out what the historical Jesus actually said. Both of these books are intensely fascinating. Both of these books are about the past and have little relevance to today or tomorrow.

I have to wonder if I’ve given up on tomorrow because I don’t have much hope for the future, either for myself, or the planet, and I’m finding pleasure and meaning by exploring the past.

I’ve always loved science fiction but when I read science fiction today I’m usually very critical of works that are based on unrealistic ideas. I don’t believe in all those far out futures like I used to. As a writing challenge maybe I should work to write about positive futures that could be realistic, ones we can hope to find. Yet, my most popular essay ever is, “50 Reasons Why Humans Are Too Stupid To Survive.” Gloom and doom does sell. Hell, the TV shows my friends and I binge-watch focus on awful people and horrible events.

Writing is about focus. Writing a book is about intense focus over a great time span. I’m wondering if choosing to write about the past isn’t a way of escaping the present or future? I also wonder if writing about the future isn’t a way to give myself hope for tomorrow?

Maybe you can’t relate to this topic because it’s about writing. Think of it this way. Do you love watching old movies and television shows, or new ones? Do you listen to old music or new music? If you’re mentally young, no matter what your age is, you’ll be enjoying whatever is new.

I’m being more and more drawn into the past. 1950s movie westerns, mid-20th-century written science fiction, 1960s romantic movie comedies, 19th-century novels, 1950s jazz, 1940s film noir, 1920s modernistic literature, Victorian scientific romances, etc. Growing up, I always thought about the future…

JWH

 

The Soul v. Evolved Consciousness

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, August 19, 2017

I keep trying to understand the core cause of our polarized political conflict that’s pushing us to destroy our current civilization. We have the knowledge and technology needed to solve our problems but we don’t apply them. We choose to viciously fight among ourselves instead. Self-interest is winning over group survival. Decade after decade I keep wondering why. I keep refining my theories, and the current one says this conflict originates in a divide between theology and philosophy.

Most people don’t think in terms of theology or philosophy, so how could cognitive tools be the cause of so much hatred? People act on beliefs without being aware of their beliefs or the origins of their actions. My current theory explores if we’re divided by a fundamental sense of self: either assuming we have an immortal soul or an evolving consciousness.

Because science cannot explain why we’re conscious animals the origins of consciousness remain open to interpretation from theology and philosophy. Of course, even when science can overwhelmingly explain such mechanisms as evolution, many people refuse to accept science because of their innate theology, even when they can’t explain that theology in words or logic. But where does theology come from? Why do some people process reality with a theological perspective and other people with a philosophical or scientific perspective?

Humans are not rational creatures. We are rationalizing animals. Our thoughts are not logical, but seek to reinforce our desires. The perfect lab animal for studying this irrationality of humanness is Donald Trump. From my perspective, humans are the product of billions of years of evolution and we’re currently at a paradigm shift of consciousness, where half of us perceive reality in the old paradigm and half in the new.

The old paradigm assumes God created us, giving us immortal souls with time in this existence being temporary because there’s a greater existence after death. The new paradigm is reality is constantly evolving. I use the word “reality” to mean everything. We used to say, “the universe” to mean everything, but it now appears our universe is part of a multiverse, and even that might not be everything. So, I call everything by the term “reality.” It includes all space, time, dimensions, and everything we’ve yet to discover or imagine.

Humans are bubbles of conscious self-awareness popping into this reality that eventual burst. I believe our consciousness minds evolved out of brain evolution, which evolved out of biology, and biology evolved out chemistry, and chemistry evolved out of physics, and physics evolved out of cosmology. Other people believe a superior being called God using the magical power of the Word created us.

It comes down to the soul v. evolved consciousness. Humans whose thoughts arise out of a belief foundation of the soul perceive reality differently from humans whose thoughts arise out of the belief we’re a product of evolution. I don’t think it’s a matter of conscious choice either. I’m guessing our unconscious minds work based on how each paradigm has wired our brains. Obviously, only one paradigm explains our true existence, but individuals live their lives perceiving reality from one or the other paradigm. That perceptual different makes all the cultural, social and political differences.

The people who act like they have souls want to shape reality based on their beliefs, and the people who act like they are evolved consciousnesses want to shape reality according to their beliefs. This causes our political/social/cultural divide. People with souls don’t care what happens to this planet, people with evolving consciousness think this planet is vital.

Distractions! Distractions! Distractions!

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, August 11, 2017

I’ve always wanted to be a person who could focus intensely on a project until it’s finished. Instead, I’m easily derailed by endless distractions. Don’t get me wrong, I love my distractions – that’s my problem – I love them too much. I have too many interests, too many things to do, too many people to visit, too many art forms to consume, too many ideas to write about, too many ambitions, too many book clubs, too many hobbies, too many distractions of all kinds.

Distractions

As can be guessed from the previous sentence the solution is to have less of everything. I regularly meditate on the wisdom of minimalism but the best I can do is maintain a holding action against the thought-kipple hordes that eats up my time.

Psychologically I feel I have all the time in the world since I’m retired, but the reality is I don’t. Every morning when I wake, I spend a delicious half-hour planning my day or thinking about essays to write. I know not to be too ambitious. I’m quite aware of my limitations. Usually, I settle on three small goals, because that’s all I can remember. One task always involves writing. The other two deal with fighting the chaos that comes with everyday living.

If I ever found a genie in a bottle my first wish would be for the kind of mental focusing powers that allow complete control of going in and out of flow. Of course, as all the three-wishes stories tell us, there are dangerous side-effects to getting what we think we want. But this how I imagine focusing:

distractions2

I know what it takes to get there. I’ve always known. I’ve written about it many times before. A great analogy is a rocket with a payload and a destination. The mathematics of space travel involves cruelly cold equations. Every bit of extra mass a rocket carries costs fuel. In the 1950 science fiction film Destination Moon, the astronauts used too much fuel landing their rocket ship on Luna. The only way to return to Earth was by jettisoning everything possible to lower the take-off mass.

Destination-Moon

Knowing this wisdom doesn’t change who I am, that takes more of something I evidently don’t have. It requires I throw out all my beloved interests but one. I usually spend my days alone in solitary pursuits. I love being with people in the evenings. This gives me six to eight hours to pursue whatever I want during the day. That should be more than enough to achieve take-off to any destination.

I dream of spending all those hours on one big ambition, writing a book. However, right now I can’t muster that kind of focus. The older I get the harder it gets to spend even two hours on writing small essays like this one. The reason why I write essays for this blog and other sites is that short essays allow me to pursue many subjects, and that appeals to my scattered-brained thinking. I’m like a dog trying to chase six squirrels at once. I enjoy the hell out of the pursuit but I don’t catch any squirrels. I need to pick just one.

And if that one squirrel I pick to chase is writing a book, it means giving up essay writing, something that’s become a habit during this last decade. Up to now, I couldn’t make that commitment. But today I’m wondering if I could try it for a month?

So, the plan is to spend the rest of August finishing up some projects and commitments and spend all of September thinking and writing on one subject as an experiment. I’ve imagined writing a nonfiction book by writing fifty blog-sized related essays on one subject. 50 x 1,200 words = 60,000 words. I’ve probably written 1,500 essays since 2007, or about 30 books worth of words. The challenge will be to plan one coherent topic that’s divided into fifty chapters that locked together perfectly like a jigsaw puzzle.  I’d need to learn to constantly redirect my thoughts to that one topic. I have a topic in mind too, but I don’t want to talk about it ahead of time.

Now that I’ve thought this out I need to spend the rest of this month jettison all the extra mass I can.

JWH