2022 Book #2 – Bewilderment by Richard Powers

by James Wallace Harris, 1/16/21

I often wonder how young people today feel about the future. The only way to have hope is through massive acts of denial. Susan and I never had children, so I don’t know what it’s like to answer their questions as they grow up. Do you lie? Do you hide the news? What do you tell them about the metal detectors in the schools? How do you explain our handling of pandemics or climate change? What do you teach your kids about race relations and the politics of hate? What do you tell your kids about the thousands of failures we are facing as a society?

This is the core of the new novel by Richard Powers. Bewilderment is about raising a nine-year-old kid with emotional problems. He’s probably on the autism spectrum but is very high functioning. He probably has other learning disorders, but nothing is definite. He has trouble in school and his teachers want to medicate him with powerful psychoactive drugs. He has hair-trigger tantrums. His mother has died. How would you cope with such a kid? To make matters worse, the setting is the near future where things have gotten even worse than today. Imagine what the U.S. would be like if Trump was on his third term.

Bewilderment is not marketed as science fiction, but it’s set slightly into the future and talks about technology that might be possible soon. The story often references science fiction and uses its techniques, so I do consider it a science fiction novel. It’s the most gut-wrenching science fiction novel since Flowers for Algernon. If that novel wrecked you emotionally, you might not want to read this one. I found this one even more emotionally devastating.

Theo Byrne is the widower father of Robin (Robbie), a nine-year-old boy who is smart enough to know that humanity is on an insane self-destructive path and he can’t stop asking why. Robbie relentlessly wonders why his father, his teachers, or any of the adults he meets don’t act rationally. Robbie acts out, sometimes violently, sometimes in tantrums, demanding truth and honesty. Robbie is the one sighted person in the land of the blind. Robbie is the person we should all be. And Theo is constantly at his wit’s end trying to help his son.

Teachers want to control Robbie with psychoactive meds, and Theo is looking for any solution but that. Theo is a great dad. He constantly tries to engage Robin in insightful learning. Theo has two tools for calming Robbie. One, he calls on his memory of reading 2,000 paperback science fiction novels for engaging stories to divert Robbie from his meltdowns. Second, Theo is a scientist developing simulations of exoplanets for the day a new space telescope will be launched. He gets Robbie involved in these possible worlds that could be discovered soon. The basis of Theo’s work is to develop as many simulations as he can, so when the telescope detects certain conditions with an exoplanet they can match it to the simulations and quickly understand what we might be seeing.

Theo uses his simulations to visualize being on other planets to engage Robbie’s attention. This works at times, but often it only fuels Robbie’s awareness of what we’re doing to the planet Earth. For a nine-year-old, Robin can extrapolate brilliantly. His bullshit detector never fails.

Bewilderment progresses through one year of Theo’s and Robin’s life. Robbie is obsessed with memories of his dead mother, who was a lawyer for all the save-the-world causes. It’s through learning about his mother that Robbie finds some hope of controlling his emotions.

Like I said, most people will not consider Bewilderment a real science fiction novel. Bewilderment doesn’t have spaceships, galactic empires, time travel, robots, or dystopias — well, other than our own. The reason I like to think of Bewilderment as a science fiction novel is it uses all the sense of wonder I grew up with to give us hope for the real future we’re about to enter.

Unfortunately, Bewilderment shows our science fiction dreams are going to fail us. Or more exactly, we are going to fail them. The rap sheet for our species is long. The list of what we’re destroying grows every day. One of the things Richard Powers believes we’re destroying is our positive science fiction dreams. That like me, he worries about what hopes young people can still find in science fiction.

Science fiction has always been about hopes and fears regarding the future. What happens when science fiction only has fears to work with?

JWH

2022 Book #1 – The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

by James Wallace Harris

My old buddy Connell and I often talk about the unexpected scientific discoveries made in our lifetime. Back in the 1960s, we both grew up reading science fiction and we had certain expectations about the 21st-century. Now that we’re in our seventies living in that century we realized that science fiction missed so much, and so did our imaginations.

Because we grew up thinking the black and white astronomical photos made by the Mt. Palomar 200″ telescope were the pinnacle of astronomical awareness, we never imagined what the Hubble Space Telescope would show us in color. We never dreamed that astronomers would discover exoplanets or robots would roam the solar system. We thought people had to go to all those places.

Nor did we imagine society being transformed by computers and networks. I never pictured the computer I’m typing on now, or what I could do with my iPhone or iPad.

But one of the biggest discoveries we missed was about animal consciousness. We expected that we’d have to wait for interstellar spaceships to be developed before we’d meet another form of intelligent life. We never realized it was all around us on Earth and in the oceans.

Intelligence and sentience are on a spectrum. We grew up in a time when people believed they were the crown of creation, and all life below us was unconscious and stupid. We’re finally realizing just how stupid we were. See The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness.

There are so many books to read to illustrate what I mean. The Soul of an Octopus is just one, but a beautiful work by a woman that has learned so much about animals by spending time with them. Sy Montgomery writes in a way that we follow her around as she makes her discoveries. You will fall in love with four beautiful creatures, Athena, Octavia, Kali, and Karma. You will cry when some of them die, but you will also get to meet intelligent alien lifeforms.

I still read a lot of science fiction, I can’t help myself, it’s a lifelong addiction that I no longer try to escape from. But I’ve learned if I really want to experience the far-out I need to read science books, books like The Soul of an Octopus.

My reading goal for 2022 is to read as many intensely great books as I can find. The Soul of an Octopus starts the year with a bang.

JWH

Do you drive yourself crazy trying to find your next book to read?

by James Wallace Harris, 1/7/22

I do. I’m as indecisive as Hamlet when picking my next book to read.

I’ve just finished The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery which was a wonderful nonfiction book that made me go misty-eyed many times while reading it. It’s a memoir about getting to know octopuses. At first, Montgomery falls in love with Athena, an octopus at a New England aquarium, then spends years getting to know a succession of octopuses at that aquarium, before eventually learning to scuba dive so she can visit octopuses in the wild from the world.

I thoroughly loved this book, and whenever I read a great book, I want to be very careful picking my next book to read. I’ve had an impressive streak of great reads, both novels, and nonfiction, and I hate to break it. The Soul of an Octopus is the first book I’ve finished in 2022. I want my second book to be just as moving and inspirational.

Right now, I feel I’m in the mood for a novel, but I’m always feeling something different from one moment to the next. I started Around the World in 80 Days just before the premiere of the first episode of that story on PBS Masterpiece last Sunday. That novel is good, but I’m not sure it’s good enough for my next read.

I’m supposed to be reading The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim for my nonfiction book club, and I’ve started it too. But I’m afraid it’s going to be academic theorizing that will disappoint me. I’m intrigued by the idea of why reading fairytales could be significant to the moral development of children, but I’m not sure I buy the hypothesis. After reading the entry on Wikipedia on fairytales, I’m tempted to find a book about the history of fairytales but I don’t know if there’s an obvious book on the subject. Once Upon a Time by Marina Warner might be a good starting place. It gets raves from The New York Times and The Guardian.

Is my momentary pique of interest in fairytales just a fleeting distraction? This happens to be all the time. I read an essay and I want to gallop off to read a book. I don’t like reading fantasy fiction that much, but the Wikipedia entry got me very curious about writers studying fairytales. It’s not the stories themselves that attract me to the idea, but the study of them. I already have many unread books on the history of the novel patiently waiting on my shelves, so why should I go buy another book?

This is why I’m writing this essay, to reveal just how chaotic my mind is when it comes to making the decision of what to read. I have thousands of unread books sitting on shelves, both wooden and virtual. When I bought each of those books, I thought I would read it next. That didn’t happen. I got distracted by another idea or book before I could start. Thus my never-ending queue of books waiting to be read.

I also have the list of 2021 books I just blogged about. Rereading that list reminds me I was anxious to read two novels: Bewilderment by Richard Powers and Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr, and was strongly considering two more, No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood or Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead. All four of them were on many best-of-the-year lists for 2021, and in all likelihood, would be tremendous books — just what I’m in the mood for.

Yes, I should very definitely read a great contemporary novel. I’m almost convinced that’s what I should do. Then, seeping up from deep down in my unconscious mind is the urge to read a science fiction novel. One that will thrill me like those science fiction novels thrilled me when I was 13. I think that desire comes from just getting over Covid. Whenever I’m sick, I get nostalgic for classic science fiction. I’m tempted to read Orion Shall Rise by Poul Anderson after researching reading his novella “No Truce with Kings.” I was intrigued by Anderson’s desire to write a novel about future societies trying to rebuild after our global society collapses.

My reading moods are far less varied than the number of books I want to read. Science fiction satisfies my sense of wonder. Literary novels, either from the 19th, 20th, or 21st centuries make me feel closer to people. Reading nonfiction gives the satisfying feeling I’m learning something.

I have ten large bookcases full of printed books that stare down at me with countless volumes begging to be read. My digital larder of Kindle books and Audible books wanting by eyes and ears is just as many. The reality is I can only love one book at a time. I can be reading on several if I’m only so-so into them. But if I really get into a book, I won’t read anything else until it’s finished.

That’s exactly what I’m in the mood for, to be completely consumed by wanting to finish that one great book. That’s what I’m always wanting. I keep thinking I can consciously choose such a book. I keep thinking I can intellectually figure out what such a book should be. However, it never works out like that.

Until I open a book and get hooked, I never know what book that will be. Yet, there is a part of me, my anal-retentive side, that wants to pick 52 books from my shelves and schedule them on my calendar to read during 2022. That aspect of my personality wants to command what will happen. That part of my personality thinks I bought all those damn books then I should get busy and systematically read them.

The La-De-Da part of my personality just wants to tell the anal-retentive me, “Fuck off.”

Oh, the mental chaos it is to be me.

JWH

Why It’s So Important to Remember What I Read in 2021

by James Wallace Harris, 12/30/21

Reading is my sixth sense, how I explore the larger reality I can’t observe with my classic five senses. Every year I can only read so many books, making it important to wisely select the novels, nonfiction books, short stories, and articles I do read. Reading changes me. I shape myself by what I read. Each year I work to become more conscious by what I select to read. However, this self-improvement effort is very much like my efforts to eat healthily and avoid junk food. I’m never a saint.

At seventy, my mind is becoming like an old suit with moth holes. Words and thoughts leak out of my consciousness through little missing places eaten away by the moths of time. Remembering is something that’s become very important to me, as much as sex was on my adolescent mind.

The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams is the 52nd and last book I read in 2021. It’s an accomplishment to read so many books in one year. And 52 is a good number. It means I averaged one book a week, and that’s a nice reading pace.

I’ve always wanted to be one of those superbookworms who could read 100 or 200 books a year, but my mind and memory can’t handle that much new content. I like to think one book a week is what my mind can handle, but I’m probably fooling myself.

52 is probably too many but I’d hate to read less. I feel I did a pretty good job of picking worthwhile reads, ones I still remember reading at the end of the year, but I have to admit, some of them were not necessarily the best books I could have picked. I will try harder next year. The problem is the conflict between reading books that expand my awareness, and books that soothe my soul.

One way to remember the books I read in 2021 is to remember my favorites, the ones I’d recommend. Links are to essays I wrote during the year.

New Fiction

New Nonfiction

  • The Code Breaker – Walter Isaacson
  • Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause – Ty Seidule
  • Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal – George Packer
  • The Premonition: A Pandemic Story – Michael Lewis
  • Under a White Sky – Elizabeth Kolbert

Old Fiction

Old Nonfiction

  • The Invention of Nature – Andrea Wulf
  • Evil Geniuses – Kurt Andersen
  • The Art of Dying Well – Katy Butler
  • Hackers – Steven Levy
  • The Sisters – Mary S. Lovell
  • LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P. W. Singer

Another way to remember is to recall why I read certain books. I’m in a two-person book club with my friend Linda, I’m also a member of an online nonfiction book club, I’m in a Facebook group that reads science fiction anthologies, I have a personal reading goal to read all 25 volumes of The Great SF Stories edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg, I like to read science fiction novels, I love to read popular science books, and I enjoy reading some contemporary and classic fiction.

Two-Person Book Club With Linda

  • Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America – Kurt Andersen
  • Horseman, Pass By – Larry McMurtry
  • 21 Lessons for the 21st Century – Yuval Noah Harari
  • Leaving Cheyenne – Larry McMurtry
  • The Art of Dying Well – Katy Butler
  • Robert E. Lee and Me – Ty Seidule
  • The Code Breaker – Walter Isaacson
  • Elderhood – Louise Aronson
  • Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal – George Packer
  • Crossroads – Jonathan Franzen
  • The Premonition: A Pandemic Story – Michael Lewis

Linda went on to read several more Larry McMurtry books, but I just couldn’t keep up with her.

Online Nonfiction Book Club

  • Underland: A Deep Time Journey – Robert MacFarlane
  • The Sisters – Mary S. Lovell
  • Robert E. Lee and Me – Ty Seidule
  • The Invention of Nature – Andrea Wulf
  • Noise (didn’t finish) –
  • Uncanny Valley (read in 2020) – Anna Weiner
  • Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World –  Fareed Zakariia (didn’t finish)
  • Fermat’s Enigma – Simon Singh (didn’t finish)

I had read The Sisters, Uncanny Valley, and The Invention of Nature on my own and nominated those books. I skipped four books this year: Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake, Forgetting by Scott A. Small, Kindred by Rebecca Waggs Sykes, A Promised Land by Barack Obama.

Nonfiction I Picked

  • Hackers – Steven Levy (reread)
  • Yesterday’s Tomorrows – Mike Ashley
  • LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media – P. W. Singer
  • A People’s History of Computing in the United States – Joy Lis Rankin
  • Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. – Sam Wasson

I love reading about the history of computers, and the history of science fiction. Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. is about the making of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I also love reading about pop culture history.

Facebook Group – Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction

  • Year’s Best SF 1 – ed. David Hartwell
  • Orbit 1 – ed. Damon Knight
  • The Very Best of the Best ed. Gardner Dozois
  • The Year’s Best S-F, 5th Annual Edition – Judith Merril
  • The Dark Side – ed. Damon Knight
  • World’s Best Science Fiction 1968 – ed. Donald Wollheim
  • The New Space Opera ed. Gardner Dozois
  • The Year’s Best Science Fiction 3rd Annual – ed. Gardner Dozois
  • The Big Book of Science Fiction – ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (58% finished)

This group gets me to read a great deal of science fiction short stories. We discuss one short story a day, but I don’t read every day’s story. Still, probably over 200 stories. I really enjoy this group, and I’m learning a tremendous lot about the history of short science fiction. I’ve probably read over 400 short stories this year because of other SF anthologies and magazines I read on my own.

The Great SF Stories

  • The Great SF Stories 16 (1954) – ed. Asimov/Greenberg
  • The Great SF Stories 17 (1955) – ed. Asimov/Greenberg
  • The Great SF Stories 18 (1965) – ed. Asimov/Greenberg

I’ve been working through this 25-volume series since 2018. I’ve become immensely fond of this series. It’s a shame they are out of print. I own all twenty-five in paperback, but I read them on my iPad from pdf copies found on the internet. I keep hoping the Facebook group to vote to read the entire run. We do start volume 25 on the 29th of this month. I’d love to finish off the series in 2022, but that would be reading 7 more volumes in 2022 and that probably won’t happen.

Science Fiction

  • The Ministry of the Future – Kim Stanley Robinson
  • The Man Who Fell to Earth – Walter Tevis
  • Klara and the Sun – Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Children of Ruin – Adrian Tchaikovsky
  • The Clockwork Man – E. V. Odle
  • Past Master – R. A. Lafferty
  • Of Men and Monsters – William Tenn
  • Lords of the Psychon – Daniel F. Galouye
  • The Dying Earth – Jack Vance
  • The War of the Worlds – H. G. Wells
  • Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint – Abrashkin & Williams
  • A Gift of Time – Jerry Merritt
  • The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  • To Say Nothing of the Dog – Connie Willis

That’s a total of 26 science fiction books. Far more science fiction than I believe I should be reading. Each year I tell myself I should read less science fiction and more other kinds of books, but I can’t seem to break my life-long science fiction addiction.

General Fiction

  • Horseman, Pass By – Larry McMurtry
  • Leaving Cheyenne – Larry McMurtry
  • The Girl on the Boat – P. G. Wodehouse
  • The Pursuit of Love – Nancy Mitford
  • Love in a Cold Climate – Nancy Mitford
  • Don’t Tell Alfred – Nancy Mitford
  • Crossroads – Jonathan Franzen
  • The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen
  • The Reading List – Sara Nisha Adams

I’m disappointed that I didn’t read a new 19th-century classic. Last year I read War and Peace. I did read The War of the Worlds, but I’ve read it a couple of times before. I had planned to read Madame Bovery.

2021 Books

  • Klara and the Sun – Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Yesterday’s Tomorrows – Mike Ashley
  • Robert E. Lee and Me – Ty Seidule
  • The Code Breaker – Walter Isaacson
  • Last Best Hope – George Packer
  • Crossroads – Jonathan Franzen
  • The Premonition – Michael Lewis
  • Under a White Sky – Elizabeth Kolbert
  • The Reading List – Sara Nisha Adams

Each year I aim to read a certain number of books that come out during the year. Nine is pretty good for 2021, but I’m going to aim for 12 in 2022.

JWH

The Post-Doom Reading List

by James Wallace Harris, 12/23/21

I’m listening to a wonderful book right now, The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams which came out in August. It’s set in London. Someone is going around leaving little notes that say:

Just in case you need it:

- To Kill a Mockingbird
- Rebecca
- The Kite Runner
- The Life of Pi
- Pride and Prejudice
- Little Women
- Beloved
- A Suitable Boy

The novel is about the people who find those lists, read the books, and how reading changed their lives. Any bookworm should love this book, and most Goodreads reviewers do. I highly recommend the audiobook version because the narrators do the ethnic accents which make the book extra charming.

This inspires me to create my own list of favorite feel-good novels. If I went around leaving a list of books for people to read in these trying times, my eight would be:

We’re living through some hard times and I appreciate books with characters who overcome big difficulties. I’m moving into what I call my Post-Doom Philosophy. I’ve concluded that humanity will not solve its existential problems. Just not in our nature. And it will be better to concentrate on uplifting outselves.

I’m reminded of The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. Our present situation is beyond absurd, one I can’t change. I accept that we’re already in a collapsing civilization, we just don’t know how long it will take before a new paradigm shift emerges. Some civilizations collapse in decades, Rome took centuries. Everyone eventually dies, and all civilizations eventually collapse. We can’t wish either away. We’ve always had the problem of what to do in our last years of life, and just by coincidence this century, we’ll also have to consider what to do in the last decades of our civilization. It’s an interesting philosophical and spiritual challenge.

Just because the future looks bleak we shouldn’t feel all gloom and doom.

My friend Linda and I have a two-person book club where we read mostly nonfiction books together and discuss them on the phone each Sunday afternoon. We’ve read many books about the problems of the world. Linda just texted me asking if we could avoid such books in 2022 and pick books like The Soul of the Octopus by Sy Montgomery. She wants more delightful books. I couldn’t agree more.

If you were making a list of eight nonfiction books to leave around to inspire people, what would they be? What would your list of favorite inspiring novels be?

JWH

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