Taking Life Slower

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Back in May, I watched a segment on CBS Sunday Morning about Norway’s slow TV movement. You can watch the video here. Slow TV is watching ordinary events for hours at a time, like watching the view out the window of a train. It’s a step up from watching paint dry or grass grow – but not by much. I turned to my wife and told her she was already a slow TV fan. She’s been watching a live webcam of two eagles raising a baby for weeks – hours every day.

Slow Snail Life Animal Slime Small

Yesterday, I found “The Case for Taking Forever to Finish Reading Books.” I’ve always known I read too fast, even when I’m intentionally trying to read slowly. That’s why I love audiobooks – they go very slow. My friend Mike has given up audio books because he wants to read even slower.

For years I’ve kept a pace of reading one book a week – or 52 in a year. This year I’ve slowed down. In the first half of 2017, I’ve only read 16 books instead of 26. Still, that’s speed reading compared to the author of the article above, who has spent five years reading In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, and is only two-thirds finished.

My TV buddy Janis and I have rushed through ten episodes of Glow in about a week. We took about as long to finish Season 3 of Fargo. I’m not a slow TV watcher, but I’m wondering if I should be. Tonight my friends and I will be watching Emma, the fifth of six Jane Austen films we’ve watched in five nights. Tomorrow night is Persuasion. Already, I struggle to remember the plot and characters of Northanger Abbey, the first we watched on Saturday night.

If I had watched these six films in six weeks instead of six days would it have improved the experience? This is my Jane Austen week. I’ve been gorging on her biographies. I wish I had time to read her books again. Like most of my study manias, I’ll feast on Austen for a week or two and then forget her for years. Instead of trying to consume all of her quickly, I wonder if I had taken one novel, read it slowly, and studied its history, would I know Jane Austen better?

Reading the biographies concurrent with the movies reveals why she developed her plots. Studying one novel intently for one month would be intensely revealing, both of Austen and of early nineteenth-century English history.

The trouble with reading slower is reading less. I read fast so I can read more. I’m starting to wonder if I need abandon my quest to read everything great. It was never a particularly practical ambition. Over and over again I anguish over the fact that I can’t remember what I read, and I always come to the same conclusion – reading is for the moment. It’s not about remembering. I cannot store facts in my brain like entering data into a computer.

Reading is about experiencing a moment. My guess is reading very slow makes that moment a fuller. (Can you imagine a fatter moment?)

This week is all about Jane Austen. Next Tuesday is the 200th anniversary of her death. I need to read her at the pace Norwegians watch the scenery from a riverboat traveling down a river. Maybe I can stretch my week into a month. I know no matter how hard I try I won’t remember 99.9% what I read.

Mansfield ParkBut if I can slow down, both in my contemplation of what I’m reading and in my need to finish the project, I can go deeper into Jane’s world. I have so many other books I want to read, so many authors I want to consume – but does that matter? Can I go slow enough to forget future ambitions that follow this ambition? If I could go slow enough I’d never leave Jane Austen. If I could go even slower I’d never leave Mansfield Park.

 

JWH

My Book Addiction is Getting Out of Control

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, January 28, 2017

toomanybooksI wrote, “Hi, I’m a Book Addict” for Book Riot hoping the act of writing would exorcise my demon. It hasn’t. Below is a list of books I’ve bought this month. It’s about a year’s worth of reading since I read a book a week. I’m buying 10-12 books for every one I read, which I know sounds insane, but doesn’t stop me.

I’ve annotated the list with my rationalization for buying the book. I know I’m being impractical. I know I’m wasting money. It gives me pleasure to shop for books, especially to find bargains, but those are not reasonable justifications. This compulsive behavior does reveal a pathological need to “own” knowledge. Because my memory is failing, owning a book, especially an old favorite, is a way of keeping it in memory. My new memory is my iPhone, which has become my real auxiliary memory. I guess it’s an external brain, making me a tiny bit of a cyborg.

This list of books reflects what I want to know. Pathetically, not by study, but by acquisition.

Access to cheap books is the main cause of my addiction. Most of the books below cost me just a $1.99. Used books, either from my library’s used bookstore or ABEbooks.com average around $4. Here are the daily newsletters I get that announce bargain books:

I’ve hyperlinked some titles to show why the book is worth reading. If you want to maintain your place in the list, just right-click and select open in new window to read the annotation.

  1. Dimension of Miracles by Robert Sheckley – read twice, want to keep for memory
  2. Draw Lab for Mixed Media Artists by Carla Sonheim – to inspire me to draw
  3. Time is the Simplest Thing by Clifford D. Simak – collecting Simak on the cheap
  4. 10-Minute Digital Declutter by S. J. Scott – love books about minimalizing
  5. 10-Minute Declutter by S. J. Scott – love books about minimalizing
  6. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson – classic I’ve always wanted to read
  7. On the Road by Jack Kerouac – read many times wanted a copy for my iPhone
  8. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn – always wanted to read
  9. The Social Organism by Oliver Luckett – about social media
  10. The Grid by Gretchen Bakke – about our aging power grid
  11. Revolution from Within by Gloria Steinem – interesting feminist take
  12. In the Darkroom Susan Faludi – one of the best books of 2016
  13. Chaos Monkeys by Antonio Garcia Martinez – start ups at Silicon Valley
  14. Never a Dull Moment by David Hepworth – rock music of 1971
  15. Kill ‘Em and Leave by James McBride – James Brown
  16. Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly – best books of 2016
  17. Schaum’s Outline of Mathematica by Eugene Don – to use with Mathematic on my Raspberry Pi
  18. Schaum’s Outline of PreCalculus by Fred Safier – I’m dreaming big
  19. Complete Book of Home Inspection by Norman Becker – should keep an eye on my  house
  20. How Will You Measure Your Life by Clayton M. Christensen – how to measure success in life
  21. College Algebra DeMYSTIFieD by Rhonda Huettenmueller – my dream of relearning math
  22. Pre-Calculus DeMYSTIFieD by Rhonda Huettenmueller – my dream of relearning math
  23. How to Diagnose and Fix Everything Electronic by Michael Geier – I want to learn about electronics
  24. Practical Electronics for Inventors by Paul Scherz – I want to learn about electronics
  25. Schaum’s Outline of Linear Algebra by Seymour Lipschutz – my dream of relearning math
  26. Schaum’s Outline of Precalculus by Fred Safier – my dream of relearning math
  27. Why We Read Fiction by Lisa Zunshine (ebook and audio) – why do we read fiction?
  28. Altamont by Joel Selvin – the evil twin of Woodstock
  29. Summary of Analysis of Hidden Figures by Worth Books – wanted to see how a book is summarized
  30. The Wizard of Menlo Park by Randall E. Stross – bio of Edison
  31. Visual Intelligence by Amy E. Herman – to improve my powers of observation
  32. Extreme Focus by Dominic Mann – want to improve my concentration
  33. Time for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein – old favorite to keep on iPhone
  34. The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes – great science history
  35. Wonderful Town by David Remnick – New York as viewed by the New Yorker
  36. Time and Again by Clifford D. Simak – collection Simak on the cheap
  37. Console Wars by Blake J. Harris – love tech history
  38. Island by Aldous Huxley (ebook and audio) – admire Huxley and always wanted to read it
  39. The Best American Short Stories 2016 – love this series, get them cheap once a year
  40. The Best American Essays 2016 – love this series, get them cheap once a year
  41. The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 – love this series, get them cheap once a year
  42. The Best American Travel Writing 2016 – love this series, get them cheap once a year
  43. The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2016 – love this series, get them cheap once a year
  44. The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt – books to read because of Trump
  45. A Case of Conscience by James Blish – classic of science fiction I want to keep on iPhone
  46. The Second Golden Age of Science Fiction Megapack by Mark Clifton – first Hugo winning novel for 99 cents
  47. The More of Less – by Joshua Becker – love books on minimalism, might help with this book problem
  48. The Hollywood History of the World by George MacDonald Fraser – I’m writing essay on Hollywood’s treatment of history
  49. The  New Painting by Charles Moffert – I’m fascinated by the Impressionists
  50. On Rereading by Patricia Meyer Spacks – writing article about rereading
  51. Composing Digital Music for Dummies – I’d love to learn to use digital music programs
  52. The Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell – read library copy wanted one for me
  53. Mind Tools by Rudy Rucker – my kind of book
  54. I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong – another top 2016 book
  55. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey
  56. The Big Picture by Sean Carroll

JWH

Science Fiction: Books v. Television v. Movies

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 29, 2016

50 years ago tonight, “The Naked Time,” the fourth episode of Star Trek was shown. “The Naked Time” allowed the actors to chew the scenery, but wasn’t that science fictional. The context of Star Trek was very science fictional, with a spaceship exploring the galaxy, but often the episodes plot’s were centered around mundane conflicts or fantasies. Mostly the show liked allegories over speculation. My assumption then and now, was television and movie science fiction had to appeal to millions, and thus any real science fiction was watered down.

The Naked Now

This will reveal my media snobbery, but I’ve always felt science fiction I read was more advanced than science fiction I watched. That might be less true in 2016, because television has evolved a great deal in fifty years, but I think it’s still true. Because we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of Star Trek premiering in 1966, I thought it might be fun to look at the other science fiction from that year. Were the 1966 SF novels and short stories more sophisticated than first fifteen episodes of Star Trek? I’m not comparing the quality of storytelling, but examining which science fictional ideas from 1966 was most innovative.

It’s rather ironic that the beautiful film version of Fahrenheit 451 premiered in England just days after Star Trek.  Directed by François Truffaut, Fahrenheit 451 was science fiction attacking a future where people gave up reading for television and comics. Few episodes of any version of Star Trek can compare to that film, but why haven’t we seen celebrations of its 50th anniversary? Why have we seen no public praise for the novels and stories below turning 50? Star Trek was loved by millions, and I’m afraid the science fiction books and magazines of 1966 were read by just thousands at the time.

Fahrenheit 451

We think of Star Trek as classic science fiction, but what most fans love are the characters, and the show’s allegorical content. If you compare it to the science fiction that was being written in 1966, I don’t think Star Trek was innovative, at least in terms of science fictional ideas. It was innovative television. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking Star Trek. It was fun, and I’m very nostalgic about it. I’m just trying to put it into context of written science fiction of 1966.

The two Hainish Cycle novels by Ursula K. Le Guin that appeared in 1966, were far more mature science fiction than what Gene Roddenberry was pursing.  Even the two short novels published by the youthful Samuel R. Delany were far more philosophical, and intellectual. And if you compare the two tales of young men named Charlie, “Charlie X” and Flowers for Algernon, you’ll see that Star Trek went for the easy and obvious. And let’s face it, Star Trek just couldn’t take us to the strange alien headspaces that Philip K. Dick, R. A. Lafferty, and Cordwainer Smith could. Nor did it have the style of Roger Zelazny or J. G. Ballard. And it certainly didn’t have the elegant beauty of what Keith Roberts was writing. And it’s a real shame that Larry Niven, Anne McCaffrey, Keith Laumer, Gordon R. Dickson, Jack Vance and Fred Saberhagen weren’t writing for Star Trek because they had wonderfully cool ideas for galactic civilizations – although Desilu didn’t have the budget to produce what they imagined.

A great deal of science fiction from the 1960s assumed humans will be part of a galactic civilization in the future. The difference between the famous TV show and what we read was the depth of those assumptions. Star Trek existed between the two most remembered science fiction novels of the 1960s: Dune by Frank Herbert (1965) and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969). Can you imagine Captain Kirk visiting Arrakis or Gethen? What kind of exploration of those societies could a 50 minute TV show give us? Especially, when the plots usually involved Kirk being held hostage, and centering around escape.

Television

Episode Idea
The Man Trap Alien that can shape shift, or telepathically make people think it looks different. Reminds me of “Who Goes There?” (1938) and The Body Snatchers (1954).
Charlie X Human raised by advanced aliens and taught psychic powers, must learn to live with normal humans. Reminds me of Stranger in a Strange Land (1961).
Where No Man Has Gone Before Two humans acquire god-like powers. Reminds me of Slan (1940).
The Naked Time Disease causes crew to lose their inhibitions.
The Enemy Within Transporter creates two Captain Kirks – one aggressive the other passive.
Mudd’s Women Space age mail-order brides with siren like abilities.
What Are Little Girls Made Of? Robots replace people. Reminds me of Philip K. Dick.
Miri On a mirror-Earth, the crew meet children that have very long childhoods and die when they reach puberty.
Dagger of the Mind About a penal colony and mind control.
The Corbomite Maneuver Advanced alien plays cat and mouse with Enterprise.
The Menagerie, Part I Mr. Spock commits mutiny.
The Menagerie, Part II Mr. Spock takes Enterprise to planet where aliens can control human thoughts.
The Conscience of the King Unmasking a mass murderer. Made me think of Nazi war criminals in hiding.
Balance of Terror The Enemy Below played out with Romulans.
Shore Leave Crew visits a planet where thoughts come true. This was written by Theodore Sturgeon but it felt like something Thorne Smith would have written.

Delany_Empire-Star

Novels

Title Idea
Babel-17
Samuel R. Delany
Linguistics, poetry. Language influences thought and perception. Code breaking an enemy alien language.
Empire Star
Samuel R. Delany
The novel referenced in Babel-17. About simplex, complex and multiplex thinking.
Colossus
D. F. Jones
A U.S. military supercomputer takes control and allies with a U.S.S.R. supercomputer.
Destination: Void
Frank Herbert
Developing an artificial consciousness, and cloned humans.
Earthblood
Laumer & Brown
Trying to find lost mythic Earth after humans moved to the stars.
Retief’s War
Keith Laumer
Intergalactic diplomatic hijinks and humor.
Flowers for Algernon
Daniel Keyes
Mentally challenge young man artificially evolved into a genius.
Make Room! Make Room
Harry Harrison
A 1966 extrapolation of year 1999, speculated about the horrors of an overpopulated world of 7 billion.
Mindswap
Robert Sheckley
A comedy about a man who vacations across the galaxy by swapping his mind into various alien bodies.
Now Wait for Last Year
Philip K. Dick
Drug causes time travel and addiction during a time of war with aliens.
Planet of Exile
Ursula K. Le Guin
Anthropological study, and racial conflict on a colony planet.
Rocannon’s World
Ursula K. Le Guin
An ethnological mission to another planet. The word ansible, for faster-the-light communication was coined here.
The Crystal World
J. G. Ballard
Apocalyptic novel about life on Earth turning into crystal.
The Eyes of Heisenberg
Frank Herbert
Genetically modified humans, and longevity.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Robert A. Heinlein
An artificial intelligent sentient machine evolved out of a network of computers on the Moon. The AI joins an anti-colonial rebellion against Earth.
The Solarians
Norman Spinrad
Space opera, about a star-drive that can destroy stars.
The Dream Master
Roger Zelazny
Citizens of an overpopulated Earth suffer psychologically and use dream therapy where their therapist enters their dreams.
This Immortal
Roger Zelazny
A devastated Earth is now a tourist destination for alien races to view our ruins.
The Watch Below
James White
Humans are stranded underwater. Think if The Poseidon Adventure had been science fiction.
World of Ptavvs
Larry Niven
Earth and “Belters” in a cold war, with story of ancient alien discoveries, and telepathic amplifiers.

FSFSEP66

Short Stories

Title Idea
Neutron Star
Larry Niven
Humans and aliens study a neutron star.
Light of Other Days
Bob Shaw
Invents slow glass, where light can take years to pass through, thus capturing scenes from the past.
The Last Castle
Jack Vance
Far future humans battle enslaved aliens
For a Breath I Tarry
Roger Zelazny
After the extinction of mankind, a sentient computer remembers our species
Call Him Lord
Gordon R. Dickson
Aristocrat from galactic empire visits old Earth.
Bookworm, Run!
Vernor Vinge
About an uplifted chimpanzee.
Pavane stories
Keith Roberts
About an alternate history of England where Queen Elizabeth was assassinated and Protestantism failed, and the technology we know never developed.
Day Million
Frederik Pohl
Love affair between two altered humans on what would be the millionth day AD.
In the Temple of Mars
Fred Saberhagen
Humans versus intelligent machines.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers
R. A. Lafferty
Humans visit planet and learn about a strange ontology.
Riverworld
Philip José Farmer
Humans reincarnated in another existence, one that stretches along one immensely long river.
The Ship Who Killed
Anne McCaffrey
Spaceship with a cyborg soul.
We Can Remember It for You Wholesale
Philip K. Dick
Recording false memories.
Under Old Earth
Cordwainer Smith
A visitor to an underground world without laws.
The Age of the Pussyfoot
Frederik Pohl
A man from our time visits the future via suspended animation. He is given a computerized personal assistant.
When I Was Miss Dow
Sonya Dorman
Sexless alien impersonates a woman to understand gender.
You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe
J. G. Ballard
Contemplating geometry and time
The Primary Education of the Camiroi
R. A. Lafferty
About a society where everyone is expected to be an expert.
Behold the Man
Michael Moorcock
Time traveler looks for Jesus.
The Keys to December
Roger Zelazny
Genetic modification.
The Secret Place
Richard McKenna
Science versus myth.

One-Million-Years-BC

Films

Title Idea
Fantastic Voyage Raquel Welch is made small enough to travel in tiny submarine inside a human body.
Fahrenheit 451 About a near future where books are banned, and society wants people to watch large flat-screen TVs or read comic books instead.
Seconds A rich middle-age man buys rejuvenation and attempts to be young again living with bohemians.
One Million Years B.C. Raquel Welch is cavewoman back when humans lived among the dinosaurs. (Not joking)

Is it surprising how many stories involved intelligent computers? In 1966, mainframe computers were common, but few people interacted with them. AI was a concept them emerged in the 1950s, and science fiction had grabbed it. Most of science fiction before the 1950s dealt with exploring the solar system. The idea of interstellar travel and galactic civilizations boomed in the 1950s, so by the 1960s writers were refining those ideas. Writers blended AI with spaceships. And sociology, anthropology, and psychology was embraced. Stories about human colonized worlds and aliens became richer. Much of the science fiction we read in the 21st century is based on science fictional ideas first developed in the 1950s and 1960s. What’s really evolved since then is the art of storytelling. We exist in a Baroque period of science fiction, where novels are gigantic, and often multi-part, but still exploring the same ideas science fiction fans first encountered in 1966.

JWH

An Old Guy Tries To Catch Up With Current Feminism

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, August 11, 2016

I got started reading books on feminism at the beginning of the 1970s when I was required to read The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. Growing up male in the 1960s and 1970s was difficult because the females we chased were transforming. They told us we didn’t understand what it meant to be a woman and we should read the books they were reading, even though they also told us we could never understand. Since then I’ve occasionally read books on feminism trying to keep up. As a male, talking or writing about feminism, can be dangerous, so I’ve mostly kept this reading secret. Decades ago the women I knew often talked about feminism, but I seldom hear the topic mentioned by the women I know today. During the 1970s feminism was talked about as much as we talk about climate change today.

I assumed in the 1970s, before the ERA amendment failed, that all women would become feminists. Understanding why that didn’t happen is fascinating, but exceedingly complex. Reading Backlash by Susan Faludi gives one view. Feminism as a movement fractured, and became less public. It never went away, but retreated to rebuild in many different smaller movements. Trying to define feminism today is contentious. Like President Obama, males can say they are feminists, but I’m not sure what women think of that, especially by younger women who are pushing newer feminist insights. We live in very different times from the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s. Try to keep up with feminism is nearly impossible for men, but I think it’s even harder for women.

53% of voters in 2012 were women. If women voted together they could rule the country. Why don’t they? I’ve always wondered why all women weren’t at least feminists politically. Well, that’s rather naïve of me. How women think politically is just as diverse as how men think. Men don’t agree, so why should women. In fact, women disagree bitterly over the goals of feminism, and even its definition. As a man, I’m an outsider and have to be very careful how I comment on feminism. I’m hesitant to even write this essay, but as a bookworm I feel I must promote the books I admire. Liberal men have the duty of educating ourselves about gender issues, but without trying to lead. Our active role is to learn and follow, which is hard for us. The current issues of gender equality goes well beyond the old binary view of men and women. It’s hard for me to understand because I’m out-of-date, but I don’t think it’s any easier for the young and hip, of any gender.

Since I’m a life-long liberal, I want to keep up with current liberal thought, but knowing what’s happening at the front is difficult. Even trying to understand the subject of current feminism is a minefield, because some women believe it’s an outdated concept, and other women define the term with distinctions that cause conflicts. One way to understand how feminism is evolving is look at the past and study how the concept has changed over time.

Since prehistoric times there have been women who have rebelled against cultural enslavement. They weren’t labeled feminists, but they were. American feminists now talk of first wave feminists and second wave feminists, but those are inexact labels, although useful. Before the first wave feminists organized in the 19th century to get the vote, there were feminists who campaigned for equal education for girls. Even today we can see societies around the world that still don’t believe in this. After equal education, women worked for political equal rights. Most countries accepted this idea in the early 20th century. Then in the 1960s women pressed hard for equal career opportunities. We’re getting very close to electing a woman U.S. President, so this goal appears ready to be checked off, but that’s illusory too. There’s still plenty of inequality in the workplace, but our times are very different from 1960. That brings up the first book I want to recommend.

When Everything Changed by Gail CollinsWomen’s rights have transformed American society far greater than computers and smartphones. I hadn’t realized that until I read When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by Gail Collins. I doubt younger people will believe that, but I’m old enough to remember life before computers, and before women had jobs like they do today . Many women now ignore current feminist thinkers, believing they already have all the rights and opportunities they want. That is far from true, but to understand why requires studying how things used to be. If you think old typewriters and dial phones are archaic, just study people from the 1950s.

When women got the vote after 200,000 years of oppression, you’d think they’d vote en bloc until they got complete equal rights. Yet, the Equal Rights Amendment failed in the 1980s – and maybe because of one woman. 2020 will mark the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment. So why haven’t women elected a president? Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to run for President in 1872. Why have so few run since? Why isn’t every American woman voting for Hilary Clinton?

The easy answer is people vote for what the candidate promises rather than the candidate. Clinton is not campaigning on women’s issues, nor are women’s rights an issue in 2016. Many women feel they have equality, at least in education, voting and jobs. The reason why equal rights haven’t dominated elections since 1920 is because some women want other changes in society more than equal rights.

I highly recommend When Everything Changed. It’s a fantastic overview of second wave feminists. Collins doesn’t preach, but chronicles what happened, case by case, where laws were changed and society adapted. The book profiles dozens of women who fought legal battles proving one person can make a difference.

Will gender even be an issue on November 8th? Surprisingly, I don’t think so. Electing Hilary Clinton could psychologically uplift women everywhere. Or has that time past? Most white Americans never understood what electing Obama meant to African-Americans, and people of color around the world. Maybe we won’t know the impact of a U. S. woman president until after it happens. On the other hand, maybe the changes made by the second wave feminists have already permeated society, and that’s why so many women don’t feel compelled to vote by gender.

Other Powers by Barbara GoldsmithIf Collins’ book explains the huge changes in our lifetime, what was the impact of the first wave of feminists? We need to constantly remind ourselves how we used to think. For this, I highly recommend Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull by Barbara Goldsmith to understand the first-wave feminists in 19th century America. (Sadly, it’s out-of-print except as an ebook and audio book.)

Gail Collins, a New York Times writer, gives a reporter’s chronology of events in her book. Barbara Goldsmith takes a different approach, by writing a biography of Victoria Woodhull, a prostitute, madam, medium, free lover, con-woman and women’s right advocate who was able to run for president in 1872 on a technicality (long before women could vote). Woodhull is the sex that sells Goldsmith’s story, but the heart of this book is Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. I’ve read other books and seen documentaries about Stanton and Anthony, but Other Powers presents these two pioneers holistically alive, in ways that moved me the most.

Other Powers presents 19th century America like no other American history book I’ve read. It’s neither academic or idealistic. When Everything Changed is moving because the facts are powerful. Other Powers is powerful because it’s passionate. Goldsmith showed how women fought for three causes, often in conflict with one another.  Women fighting for suffrage had to compete with women abolitionists fighting against slavery, and with women in the temperance movement, who fought alcohol to save the family. Goldsmith fills in her portrait of the past with competing religious movements, politics, money, graft, corruption, greed, and forgotten 19th century pop culture artifacts, like spiritualism. It’s both a history of women struggling for their rights, and a dynamic story of life in United States during the time of my great grandparents.

One reason Other Powers makes the 19th century pop out, is not by revealing how the past is different, which it was, but by showing how the past is very much like now. We think our times are over-the-top exciting, but wait till you read this book.The base qualities of our souls never change, but our souls do evolve with enlightened insights, discovered in every new generation.

I’m still left wondering about the goals of modern feminism. Third wave feminism got very complicated, and fourth wave feminism may or may not exist. In developed countries, among all liberals, and probably most conservatives, there’s almost universal agreement that women should have the same educational, political and career rights as men. Third wave feminists work to stop gender violence, rape, and misogyny, but that means changing men. Evidently modern men are open to women getting an education, voting or pursuing careers, but convincing them to think differently about women sexually is an apparent impossible task. Second wave feminists transformed our society, but I think the work of third wave feminists is ongoing. We might need to wait another thirty years for a book like Gail Collins to know. The first and second waves were tsunamis. I’m sensing the next wave will be even bigger, if it happens.

Sex-Object-by-Jessica-ValentiThere are two books I recently read to recommend for third wave feminism, Sex Object by Jessica Valenti and Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein. Valenti’s book is a memoir and confessional. She uses her own life as a piece of performance art to dramatize her title. Orenstein is a journalist, taking a social science approach by interviewing over seventy high school and young college girls. Even though Valenti is from an older generation, her life fits in with the data Orenstein collects, and I found a synergy to reading them back to back. The difference is we get to see Valenti as a grown woman, and mother. Most reviewers focus on Valenti’s early story, where she deals with the worst kinds of males and misogyny. But I found her later story of becoming a mother more moving, and revealing. Valenti shows how hard it is to be a feminist, but she also writes about how much harder it is to be a woman and mother.

Both of these books describe the problem of objectification without offering solutions. When second wave feminists identified these problems in the 1970s and tried to offer solutions, it caused deep divisions among feminists. Those feminists were labeled radical, and were often hated.

None of the goals of third wave feminists have found much political traction. There are no planks with the Democrats’ agenda in 2016. I don’t even try to describe third wave goals because they’re too complex to understand without reading many books. These two books only deal with sex objectification, and that’s only one puzzle piece in a complex picture.

Girls and Sex by Peggy OrensteinThe more I try to understand feminism, the more I read why one word, feminism, can’t represent all women. The complexity of gender could eclipse all old ideas about feminism. Time and time again, I’ve read accounts by older feminists telling their daughters about why they should be feminists only to discover their daughters have other ambitions. They are already seeing a newer world. Both Valenti and Orenstein have daughters, and of course they desperately want a better world for them. We all do, but finding out how to achieve that is more difficult than passing laws, organizing politics or voting. It requires men to think differently. But it will also require women to think differently. And it’s not something we can even make into political correctness. I wonder if that’s why some fourth wave feminists think a spiritual component is required, because we all need to evolve into a higher awareness of a multiplex gender reality.

I am reminded of a favorite science fiction story, Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany. His young protagonist leaves a simple home world to explore a diverse galaxy and is told there are three kinds of thinking: simplex, complex and multiplex. With all the problems humans are facing today, it’s time we start multiplex thinking. You’ll have to read these books to understand what I mean, and then keep reading.

JWH

A Reading Plan For An Aging Brain

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 24, 2015

I no longer read to kill time because I’m running out of time to kill.

This essay is for bookworms who are getting older. I’m not sure younger readers will appreciate what I’m going to write about unless they are trying to anticipate getting older like I am now. I’m discovering in my sixties that things are changing once again, adding to that illusion that every decade of life is different.

Getting old is fascinating. You expect your attitude towards life in your autumn years to feel the same as it did in your middle years when you planned your retirement. It hasn’t worked that way for me. Even my relationship with books has changed. I assumed I’d get to read more books when I retired, but I’ve discovered I should intentionally read less. I want to read more, the hunger is there, but the urge to read parallels my sex drive; my mind is still horny but my body has lost it’s enthusiasm. My motto for aging is, “Do more with less.”

The-Signature-of-All-Things

I wish I could read a book a day like super-bookworms Liberty Hardy and Eva at A Striped Armchair, but I can’t. Those women are in their twenties. There were a couple phases in my life when I read a book a day, but reading was about all I did. Now, that I’m 63 and retired, I have plenty of time to read, yet I find I can only read so much before my brain gets mushy. Don’t get me wrong, I can still read all day long and finish a book in a day, but I must tune into a reading mode where words flash by mind like a ticker tape—I’m entertained but I remember little. Imagine a diet of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream for every meal and snack. Such fare will keep you filled up but will it give you any lasting nutritional value?

I’ve read 49 books so far this year. I was on a two books a week pace until July. If I hustled, I could speed back up and finish 102 books in 2015 if I wanted. I still have the vitality to do that, but something has changed. Knocking back book after book just doesn’t feel right. I can’t imagine reading 300-400 books a year like Liberty Hardy. Here’s the rub, now that I’m starting to age, what I want from books is changing. The thrill of quantity is flagging. When you’re young, you want to do it all, and you’re sure you can. Now I’m starting to understand bucket lists. I don’t think I’ll be kicking a bucket anytime soon, but who knows? Youth is full of infinities, I’m learning getting old is all about finite mathematics.

When I go to bookstores, or the library, or read book reviews and book blogs, I encounter hundreds of books I want to read. I ache to be immortal and read them all. I’m giving up my New Year’s goal to read 100 books this year. Just reading a book is no longer enough. It’s like watching television, seeing one show after another in the evening, and realizing the next morning you’ve already forgotten what they were. Realizing that I’m forgetting more and more inspires me to hang on harder and harder. Learning what’s important involves the mathematics of limitations.

Don’t think I’m depressed, or let these thoughts depress you. It’s just a new game, with new rules to make life interesting. Limits have their own pleasures.

Instead of rushing to page one of the next book after reading “The End” of the last book, I want time to think about what I’ve read, to put my impressions into writing, and chat up the book with my bookworm friends. Slowing down my reading pace helps remember. I’m tired of reading only to forget. If reading slower with fewer books means I can retain more, then that’s my new reading plan.

Remember the ending to Fahrenheit 451? Where all the book people are living in the forest. Each person has chosen a book to memorize. I don’t picture myself doing that, but I can picture myself learning to know a finite number of books very well. I expect my sixties to be a decade where I define a set of my favorite books I want to study. Sure, I’ll keep reading new ones, but because of my memory problems I feel compelled to gather books I want to remember. I’m sure as my memories fade, this list will dwindle. It will become a tontine, and one book will be the last to leave my thoughts.

I’ve been a bookworm all my life, and proud of the vast number of books I’ve read, but I now question that sense of pride. It’s probably great to be a voracious reader in the first half of life, but in my waning years becoming a selective reader is becoming necessary. I won’t stop reading new books, because discovering a great new book is one of the better thrills of life. However, my willingness to give them the hook is going to seem downright cruel.

Back in 2002 I had a reading renaissance when I discovered audio books. Reading books with my ears was much slower than reading with my eyes, and I learned to appreciate savoring words rather than speeding past them. It’s time for another reading revolution. I need to change things up again. Here’s the thing, my mind is still pretty sharp, but I can tell it’s in decline. My short term memory is beginning to flake out, and my long term memory feels overstuffed—like I have to erase memories to make room for a new ones.

Reading just to be reading means most of what I take in leaks out of my short term memory before I can use it. And I worry reading new books might be erasing memories of old books. It’s time I defrag my brain and run a disk cleanup. One way I’ve found to preserve old memories is to reread books. Another way is by making lists, writing blogs, talking to friends.

The first stage of my reading plan is to review my books read log and create a list of books I want to get to know intimately. I want stay with these books so they stay in my memory. I’m still anxious to read new books, especially nonfiction, but I’m going to be more selective. It distresses me that I spend so much time taking in new information only to forget it.

Where learning to read slower was the key to my first reading renaissance, learning to take notes will be essential to my second. If a book isn’t worth studying like one in a college course then it isn’t worth my reading time. If the book isn’t a 9 or 10 on a ten point scale, it won’t be reading worthy. Now this might sound too monkish, but there’s a method in my madness. I’m a book junky, an old and jaded one, and if my fix doesn’t have the purity of Walter White’s blue meth, then the high I get won’t feel worthy of the brain cells I sacrifice. After a lifetime of reading, I crave intensity.

I want to read books where the names of the characters stick with me like the names of old friends. I want to read books where writers explore themes with the insight of great philosophers. I want to read books where the prose inspires me to write. I want to read books where the settings feels as vivid as my memories of all the places I lived. I want to read books where the characters struggle to map uncharted reality so well I could follow their trail. I want to read books that show me how other people think and feel that’s both different from the way I feel and think. I want to read books that make me feel I’m seeing more of the world than even the most hardened world travelers. I want to read books that take me up and down the centuries just like I had a time machine. I want to read books that make me feel overwhelming emotions like my favorite music. I want to read books that let me know what it’s like to be people not like me.

And I want to remember those books…

Fifty Novels To Remember

I’ve probably read more than two thousand books, but this short list are the ones that haunt me. I’ve read hundreds more that wowed me at the time, but I’m not sure how well they will linger in my memories. This is my tentative list to work with at the moment. If I reread one book a month, I could reread a list of sixty books every five years. I will need to rethink this list because I only have six women writers—but I have ten slots to fill if I stretch it to sixty books. And I cheated with the Robert J. Sawyer books, which were published as a trilogy, but I consider them one story.

I think these books have stuck with me for philosophical reasons. For some reason they resonate with my unconscious mind.

  1. 1719 – Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
  2. 1813 – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  3. 1861 – Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  4. 1868 – Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  5. 1871 – Middlemarch by George Elliot
  6. 1875 – The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
  7. 1877 – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  8. 1883 – Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
  9. 1895 – The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
  10. 1900 – Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
  11. 1902 – The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  12. 1905 – The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
  13. 1912 – Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey
  14. 1913 – The Patchwork Girl of Oz by L. Frank Baum
  15. 1920 – The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  16. 1926 – The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  17. 1928 – Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence
  18. 1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell
  19. 1945 – High Barbaree by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
  20. 1949 – Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
  21. 1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
  22. 1949 – The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
  23. 1951 – The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  24. 1952 – Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  25. 1953 – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  26. 1955 – Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein
  27. 1956 – Time for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein
  28. 1957 – On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  29. 1958 – Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
  30. 1958 – Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein
  31. 1959 – Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick
  32. 1960 – To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  33. 1961 – Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  34. 1962 – Hothouse by Brian Aldiss
  35. 1962 – The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  36. 1966 – Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany
  37. 1968 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
  38. 1969 – Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
  39. 1972 – When HARLIE Was One by David Gerrold
  40. 1974 – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
  41. 1980 – Timescape by Gregory Benford
  42. 1986 – Replay by Ken Grimwood
  43. 1989 – Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  44. 1996 – The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
  45. 2001 – The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  46. 2009 – Wake/Watch/Wonder by Robert J. Sawyer
  47. 2009 – The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
  48. 2011 – The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale
  49. 2012 – The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  50. 2013 – The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

By the way, I cheated with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which is a memoir, but it feels like a novel to me.

JWH

Does Anyone Actually Read the Paper Version of Wired Magazine?

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, July 6, 2015

I find it almost impossible to read the print edition of Wired magazine. Ditto for Vanity Fair. The emerging trends in magazine graphic design keeps me from reading my favorite magazines printed on paper. Why? Is it because I’m too old to appreciate modern layouts? Are my eyes too ancient to see their tiny typefaces? Is my brain too slow to comprehend their fire hose content? Have I been corrupted by reading on the web or tablet computers? I’m sure all of those things are true, but, could their graphic design be flawed? Have we pushed beyond the limits of Gutenberg?

Wired layouts

The Atlantic and Harper’s offer the most comfortable reading for me. The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker are in the middle of my comfort zone. If you study the design of the six magazines I’ve mentioned so far, there’s an obvious pattern. The harder to read magazines have more areas on the page vying for my attention. If a two-page layout has ten things shouting at my eyeballs I just turn the page. The two NY titles are pretty good at displaying reading content, but their ads are very distracting. The New York Review of Books is printed in large format making it hard to hold. And I hate to say it, but The New Yorker cartoons distract me.

In many ways, all these magazines are easier to read from the web or tablets. It seems print magazines are trying to compete with digital layouts and they’re ruining  print aesthetics. The web and tablets offer flexible font sizing that help readers, but print magazines keep making their text smaller. New layout techniques on tablets offer even better reading experiences by providing modes to separate words from images. I now prefer to read Wired or Vanity Fair on my iPad.

Reading on the web has several advantages over print and tablet. I can clip articles to Evernote, or save them to Instapaper. I can email articles to friends. I can highlight and copy content to my blog. I can follow their hyperlinks. Plus, I don’t end up with piles of paper to recycle. And of course, web editions are free.

The print edition of Wired is beautiful—but busy. I’m sure the editors find their large layout boards easy to study, and feel their content outstanding and obvious. However, when it’s all squeezed down to the size of the printed page, the content looks like information overload puked onto paper.

I’m quite honest when I ask, “Does anyone read the print edition of Wired magazine?” Yes, it has a stunning layout. And it has an amazing array of trendy new ideas presented in innovative visual ways. I enjoy flipping through the pages, and gazing at bits of things, but I can’t read it.

Are the days of printed periodicals over?

JWH

When Does Nonfiction Go Stale?

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, June 19, 2015

When does a newspaper transform from news to wastepaper?  How old do the magazines at your dentist office have to be before you sneer at reading them? When does a science book become a history book? Why don’t we have classic nonfiction books like we have classic novels? What’s so important about new information as opposed to old information? If you found a two week old newspaper in your house you’d immediately throw it away, but if you found a 1832 newspaper in your attic you’d treasure it. How many bestselling novels from 1955 are still read today versus the nonfiction bestsellers from that year? When The Bible and The Iliad were written there was no distinction between fiction and nonfiction.

Sometimes it seems the books I enjoy reading the most are novels from the 19th century and the nonfiction books just published that are getting a lot of buzz. The only nonfiction book I can remember reading from the 19th century is Walden; or Life in the Woods  by Henry David Thoreau. I’ve always meant to read On the Origins of Species by Charles Darwin.

I started reading Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence by George B. Dyson, a book I bought new back in 1997, but just now getting around to reading. Dyson is the son of Freeman Dyson, and the author of the more recent book Turing’s Cathedral (2012), which I bought and is also lying around here waiting to be read. I wonder if I’ve waited too long to read Darwin Among the Machines, because I’ve read The Information (2011) by James Gleick and The Innovators (2014) by Walter Isaacson, as well as many other books about artificial intelligence and information theory since 1997. However, Dyson has a unique approach to the history of thinking machines, starting his story with Thomas Hobbes and his book Leviathan. Dyson even ties in H. G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon. This is the kind of book I would write if I had the discipline to write books.

Darwin Among The Machines by George Dyson 1997 1st printing

Yet, I wonder about reading such an old book when there are so many newer books waiting to be read. Is there a Read By date for nonfiction books?

Dyson opens with,

“Nature (the Art whereby God hath made and governes the World) is by the Art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an Artificial Animal,” wrote Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) on the first page of his Leviathan; or, The Matter, Forme, and Power of a Common-wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill, published to great disturbance in 1651. “For seeing life is but a motion of Limbs, the beginning whereof is in the principall part within; why may we not say that all Automata (Engines that move themselves by springs and wheeles as doth a watch) have an artificiall life?”¹ Hobbes believed that the human commonwealth, given substance by the power of its institutions and the ingenuity of its machines, would coalesce to form that Leviathan described in the Old Testament, when the Lord, speaking to Job out of the whirlwind, had warned, “Upon earth there is not his like, who is made without fear.”

Three centuries after Hobbes, automata are multiplying with an agility that no vision formed in the seventeenth century could have foretold. Artificial intelligence flickers on the desktop and artificial life has become a respectable pursuit. But the artificial life and artificial intelligence that so animated Hobbes’s outlook on the world was not the discrete, autonomous mechanical intelligence conceived by the architects of digital processing in the twentieth century. Hobbes’s Leviathan was a diffuse, distributed, artificial organism more characteristic of the technologies and computational architectures approaching with the arrival of the twenty-first.

The trouble is Dyson wrote this sometime before 1997, and artificial intelligence has come a long way since then, beyond what Dyson could imagine eighteen years ago. Yet, what he’s really writing about are the centuries of thought before the 20th century on the subject – and that is mostly new to me. The common starting place seems to be with Babbage and Ada Lovelace, so it’s rather interesting that Dyson starts with Hobbes.

I guess it depends on what I’m enjoying learning. I seem to have two modes of interest. First is, what’s happening right now. The second is, how did we get here. Should I spend my time reading about the current state of global intelligence, or study the history of how someone imagined it would be hundreds of years ago?

I could be reading The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality published 9/1/14 by Luciano Floridi. The Fourth Revolution is a book Hobbes would have found very interesting.

I wish I could read, digest and summarize a book in my blog in three or four hours. It takes me one or two weeks to read a book, and often longer to digest. If I really get caught up into a book I want to follow its leads and tangents. Just reading the first chapter of the Dyson book makes me want to go read about Thomas Hobbes. But do I need to spend so much time thinking about the 17th century when I live in the 21st? Tim Urban claims in “The AI Revolution” that the years 2000-2014 experienced as much progress as all the progress in the 20th century, and that the years 2015-2021 will speed even faster through that same amount of new information.

I am reminded of an old play title – Stop the World I Want To Get Off. Of course, I’m also reminded of that bestseller of the 1970s, Future Shock. Maybe it would easier on my mind to read Thomas Hobbes than Luciano Floridi. Yet, isn’t it sort of sad, that whatever nonfiction book I’ll read will be out-of-date in just a few years. If I had a good memory, I could tally up a very long list of nonfiction books that promoted some kind of far out idea as a possible understanding of how reality works yet has since been forgotten. How many people remember The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris or The Origins of Consciousness if the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes?

Not only do we surf the web, but we surf the current state of knowledge by reading the latest nonfiction books. New information flows into creation far faster than we can gain wisdom from processing that data. Is it practical for me to stop and read a book from 1997? Dyson was working to make sense of 1996.

Quite often new popular science books rephrase the same histories the older books covered. How many popular physics books have I read that summarized Einstein’s discovery of general relativity or  Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems? Generally my knowledge of science lags far behind it’s discovery. At least I gave up on String Theory before The Big Bang  characters did.

I read for fun, so does it matter when a book is published if it’s fun to read? I’m not a scientist, so I don’t need to be up on the latest theories. I can never understand science at anything more than a popular science level, which is essentially at a philosophical level. And at a philosophical level, Darwin Among the Machines is still a fun read.

The problem that continues to nag me is whether or not I’m being the most efficient reader I can be. I only have a few more years left to live, and I want to cram in as much knowledge as possible. I know it leaks out my brain as fast as I consume it, but overall, a little residue remains and it feels like I’m progressing in my understanding of reality.

The decision to read an old nonfiction book versus a new nonfiction book must be made on how much knowledge will it add to my overall collection. That means I must choose between a writer who is carefully digesting a lot of historical information versus a writer who is reporting a lot of new information.

JWH