13 Feb

New Work, Old Work, What’s the Difference Once Your Head’s Blown Off

Book review: Makers by Cory Doctorow

Makers book coverEver since I read Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson last year, I’ve been captivated by the maker movement. I was going to link to my awesome review about Anderson’s Makers, but then I remembered I didn’t write it (I always want to review everything, but few reviews make it out of my head). I picked up Makers from the library on a whim and thanks to name recognition of Doctrow whose Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom I’d read some years ago on an Amtrak train from Portland to Seattle.

Anyway.

Makers is a near-future/cyberpunk/science-fiction published in 2009 that strikes me as fairly prescient. I mean, I don’t know what the future holds (I hope it’s monstrous alien creatures), but given the state of things, Doctrow’s vision feels on point. The story takes place approximately 20 years from now (by my reckoning), the characters at the intersection of several groups of people coming together in the brave new economy.

The character who most resonated with me (for perhaps obvious reasons) is Suzanne Church, a journalist. She starts the story as a writer with the San Jose Mercury, an actual newspaper. Her coverage of Silicon Valley events leads her to Florida, where she meets tinkerers extraordinaires Perry and Lester. Perry and Lester live in an abandoned mall in Florida, making interesting junk out of the world’s inexhaustible supply of useless crap, utilizing our surplus of Boogie Woogie Elmos. Suzanne begins documenting Perry and Lester’s inspired madness as it gives way to the New Work movement, a sort of maker revolution that, unfortunately, doesn’t quite last for the long term.

I don’t want to summarize this book because that is boring and pointless. Go read the book. I do really like some of the concepts that percolated in my brain while I read this, so I’ll talk about those instead.

First, I liked Suzanne a lot. She quits her stable, grown-up journalism job to follow what she perceives to be the real news of the day. She reports on stuff that is simply too cool to not write about and her readers clearly respond to it, since she manages to stay in business with her site’s ad revenue. That is something I really admire, especially since, regardless of intent, writing seems to be developing into something of a career for me. I don’t think I have the ovaries to up and move to follow a story (maybe I will eventually), but the idea of just taking off after awesome things to chronicle them is fucking cool to me.

In her own way, Suzanne embodies the story’s New Work movement with what she does. Although she isn’t tinkering and creating things or using 3D printers to improve people’s lives, she is creating based on what’s around her. She still makes an important contribution to the movement, especially since it isn’t logistically feasible for everyone to be an engineer. I think the way of the new economy, as Doctorw foretells it, is that everyone is essentially their own business. And honestly, life already feels that way to me a lot right now. Many jobs I consider treat employees as independent contractors. You are a contractor and you are your own brand. So, seeing Suzanne in the novel is like reading about someone who is doing a great job managing her brand and just making her own way, fuck the rest.

Another aspect of this book that I appreciated was the nature of community and how it can be configured using the Web. In the second act of the novel, Perry and Lester’s tinkering results in “the ride.” The ride is a series of scenes composed of bricolage, staged in an abandoned WalMart. Riders upvote or downvote scenes based on whether they like them or think they belong in their personal vision of the ride. Eventually, The Story emerges. Online communities begin discussing and dissecting the story. A segment of the Florida goth community becomes particularly involved after Death Waits (né Darren) gets laid off by Disney World (of course there is Disney, this is a Cory Doctrow novel) and then has the shit kicked out of him. After word of the ride spreads to the Web, rides spring up in other cities, each with its own style and engendering its own community.

Finally, as a novel of things-to-come, I like it. The United States, it is indicated, is essentially a third world country (not hard to predict at this point, to be honest), but people make do. Consider all the empty real estate there will be—it’s put to good use by people creating their own sort of slum towns or filled with things like the ride. 3D printers play a significant role in the economic liberation of these ad hoc communities. By the end of the book, people are even making bicycles with them thanks to tireless tinkering and open-source sharing.

It always feels difficult to review novels because I want to distill my feelings and the new thoughts that I had when my brain interacted with the story. I hope this makes some kind of sense. Doctrow is definitely a prophet of the coming tech age.

What to read next:

  • If you want the non-fiction version, check out Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson. It talks about the cool stuff 3D printers are doing now. If you’re a would-be librarian like me, you can read it and think about the cool things you would do with it in a library. There are a few books about the maker movement, maker spaces, etc., but this is one that I have read and enjoyed. At this point, I have to reference my favorite Twitter feed, Fake Library Stats:
  • If you want more Cory Doctorow, I recommend Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Not only because this is the only other Doctrow book I’ve read, but because I like the cyberpunk, techie aspects of the story.
  • My third recommendation is Oryx and Crake byMargaret Atwood because I feel like this is the opposite kind of universe from Makers and because you should read Atwood. Everyone should read Atwood.
04 Dec

All Hail the All-Father

Book review Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths by Nancy Marie Brown

Song of the Vikings book cover

Song of the Vikings book cover

So, a few weeks ago we saw the new Loki movie—excuse me—Thor movie and I was like, by Odin’s beard! It has been too long since I read up on Norse mythology (which according to my records was in 2011)! I came home, hopped on to the website for my local library and found this book.

Song of the Vikings is an interesting read because it links a few different vectors of Norse mythology. There is a little bit of the myths themselves (we learn about the time Loki got down with a horse, for example, and why gold is otter’s ransom), but more than the myths, Brown lays down the saga of Snorri Sturluson and how the myths came down from the Vikings to the present. In many ways, this is more instructive than the actual content of the myths.

Snorri Sturluson is one of the most influential dudes you have (probably) never heard of. He is the author of several works: The Prose Edda, Heimskringla, and Egil’s Saga. The Edda is perhaps the most well-known of his works, even though no one knows what an “edda” actually is. Some think it might be “the book of Oddi,” (Oddi being the name of a place Snorri lived), or maybe something like “the art of poetry.” It could possibly even be given the cheeky translation of “the art of great-grandmother’s old-fashioned songs.” The Prose Edda (yes, this is in contrast to another author’s Poetic Edda) is the primary compendium of the stories we recognize as Norse mythology. Not only is this mythology awesome, but it has been called “the deep an ancient wellspring of Western culture.” So, if you are not an uncultured lout, you should listen up and learn yourself some Norse business.

Snorri lived in Iceland during the late 12th and early 13th century. Iceland at this time was kind of the way you might imagine it to be. People then and there had plots of land where they might graze cows or goats. There was, of course, a lot of fishing, and exceptionally well-situated landowners might have access to a hot spring. Families were brought together under chieftains, who were not exactly elected, but who could not govern if they did not have the confidence and might of the people behind them. Positions of power were typically cemented through family ties, but people were also respected for being well-versed in the law or for being great poets. Another cultural force at this time was Christianity, which was a surprise to me. There were churches in Iceland during this period and the church was gradually becoming more influential among the people.

In this climate we have Snorri. He was born to a fairly influential family and was a foster son to Jon Loftsson of Oddi, the “uncrowned king of Iceland.” Snorri became educated and grew up to be influential in his own right. He was the chief over some choice chieftaincies and he even became the lawspeaker at the allthing—essentially the most law-knowing and well-versed guy at the annual Icelandic assembly. He was also a great poet and he loved writing about the gods, especially Odin, who was, in Snorri’s opinion, the best god. While most people at the time favored Thor, Snorri seems to have considered him a dumb meat-head, eschewing Thor for Odin and his cleverness and skill in poetry. It should be noted that poetry was not then, as it is today, seen as a sign of femininity. Manly men went on raids and also traded verses to exhibit their keen wit. Vikings love poetry; it is manly business.

an image of Snorri Stuluson

Snorri himself, fat and sassy

Although Iceland was, at this time, an independent commonwealth, the Norwegian king had designs on the land. Snorri, in his quest for more power and influence, spent several seasons at the Norwegian court getting to know the young king and apparently glad-handing with everyone there. Snorri was also semi-obsessed with the concept of kingliness and what it meant to be a king. His first visit to Norway inspired his work Heimskringla, which is a saga about Norwegian kings. Snorri was concerned the Norway’s young king (then 16) was missing out on vital information. He worried that kids these days were losing the ability to understand poetry—that most influential of arts. Heimskringla goes a long way to explain the old stories of the gods; understanding these stories is the key to understanding poetry, and as such, all the important literature of the time. Nordic poetry was fond of kennings, which is basically referring to something by calling it something else. Brown includes this example to illustrate the importance of knowing one’s stories:

“The noble hater of the fire of the sea defends the woman-friend of the enemy of the wolf; prows are set before the step brow of the confidante of the friend of Mimir. The noble, all-powerful one knows how to protect the mother of the attacker of the work; enjoy, enemy of neck-rings, the mother of the troll-wife’s enemy until old age.”

Brown comments “As the translator of this stanza notes, the audience needs to know five myths and the family trees of two gods or it’s nonsense.” The majority of verses were similarly oblique (if the poet had any level of skill).

The main concept I got from Song of the Vikings is that almost everything we know of Norse myth came from one guy: Snorri Sturluson. It seems obvious that Snorri’s personal biases would have been woven into the myth, but I wonder how much? One thing that comes to mind is the duality of fire and ice, which runs through a lot of the myths (the creation myth, for one). Iceland would have been a place where snow and lava clash, but that would not be true of Norway and Sweden, where the myths originated. Did Snorri come up with this imagery himself because he was a storyteller or was this idea already part of the world of myth? I wonder how the myths would be different if not told by Snorri? We know that he was a big fan of Odin. Would we know that Odin traded an eye for wisdom?

The last chapter of the book deals with how Norse mythology became a part of our present culture. For a long time, the stories were essentially lost. After Snorri’s death, Iceland was annexed into Norway, Christianity became more prominent and, you know, paganism was not really on the rise. The church even tried to change the names of the weekdays to silly things like Third Day and Midweek Day (instead of Tyr’s Day and Odin’s Day, also known as Tuesday and Wednesday). I thought it was interesting that the Germans later (by later I mean 1700-1800s) reclaimed Norse mythology as their heritage. They took it up so fiercely that it essentially inspired modern German nationalism. During the early 20th century, any non-Germans who were interested in Norse myth were suspected to by Nazi sympathizers. Yes, this includes J. R. R. Tolkien, who was hugely influenced by Norse mythology.

Tolkien has probably done more to propel Norse myth into modern Western (American and English, at least) consciousness than anyone. As a professor of English, he started a club to focus on Nordic literature and he fought to get Norse myth into the syllabus. He felt that the Norse mythology was of great import to the English canon than Shakespeare, which is quite the claim.

Now, of course, the Norse gods are very much in pop culture, especially with movies like The Avengers and comics and the rest of it. Although, I think mythology is general is having quite the renaissance. Greek and Roman myth is getting treatment in things like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and Camp Halfblood series, as well. I would be interested in see an analysis regarding what draws us to mythology. Is it just that it makes for great storytelling? Is it something more?

I’ll conclude with a quotation from Snorri. He states in the Edda, “But these things [lore] have now to be told to young poets … but these stories are not to be consigned to oblivion.” Thankfully, they were not and it seems like they will not be consigned to oblivion any time too soon.

If you are interested in Norse mythology, here are some suggestions for further reading:

17 Aug

New Voices from Oz

 

Oz Reimagined book cover

Oz Reimagined

Oz Reimagined is a great collection of short stories on the topic of, of course, Oz. There are 15 stories collected from notable writers in science fiction and fantasy, all accompanied by a cool illustration. What I particularly enjoyed about this anthology was that the stories were so diverse. If you enjoy Oz, or re-tellings, or fantasy in general, you should give Oz Reimagined a try (and if you don’t want to commit to all the stories, you can buy them individually on Amazon).

The stories in this collection were all inspired by the original written canon of Oz books (not the movies or subsequent adaptations), so you find characters like Jack (who has a pumpkin head) and Ozma (child queen and erstwhile boy, Tip). Some of the stories deal with Dorothy and her life after her original visit to Oz. Sometimes she is an Ambassador (which is a much less dry story than it sounds), sometimes she returns as an adult. Some of the stories focus on the Wizard and some of them don’t feature Dorothy or Oz the Great and Powerful at all, instead focusing on the people of Oz.

Many of the stories take a darker turn, which I suppose is to be expected when you ask authors to work off a story that is pretty solidly for children. One of the more cynical stories that particularly resonated with me was about Oz’s reality television show Wish. The show was orchestrated by Oz’s witches and the story is told from the perspective of a jeweler. Wish turns out to be the social event of the season and it is revealed that it is actually part of a plan to orchestrate a coup against the Wizard. Another story that hints at the, perhaps, surveillance-state nature of Oz is about a munchkin who works as a window washer in the Emerald City. One of his buddies dies on the job, despite all the safety measures that are in place. When he comments to some friends saying that something about the whole situation seems “off,” a flying monkey he works with brings up the fact that the friend had been working to unionize them.

One of the other stories that I thought was totally unexpected was one called “The Veiled Shanghai.” In this story, Dorothy is a fourteen-year-old Chinese girl (Dorothy is her English school name and she lives on Kansu Road) who unwittingly facilitates the May Fourth movement via her actions in the Veiled Shanghai—a place where carrots are magically sweet and that is ruled by a wicket warlord. What I liked about this story was that it used the Oz mythos to describe real events. The story ascribed a magical impetus for the May Fourth movement. I have to admit that this movement is not something I know much (ahem, anything) about, but I like the concept of using stories like this to explain history.

This collection is full of cool stories, but I don’t want to spoil them all. There is a riff on One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a cyberpunk version of Dorothy and Oz, a story about a Zeppelin, and one about a young L. Frank Baum meeting the girl who would show him the Kingdom of the Air (which inspired the Oz stories, of course). There were a lot of stories; I enjoyed all of them. They all offered fresh takes on the Oz mythos without overlapping. I think some of the reason for this is that the source material is so vast. The other part of this is that there are so many ways to interpret an older version of Dorothy or to characterized the other denizens of Oz (and there are a lot of them).

I was giving some thought to why the dystopian views of Oz appeal to me so much. I don’t know if it’s simply that our era is so jaded and cynical (is that too much of a generalization?) or if it’s that the original Oz is so squeaky clean that it’s impossible, from a writer’s perspective, to avoid corrupting it in some way. But I think the Oz story was ripe for reconsideration. The way that Oz’s society is set up naturally lends itself (if I may be so presumptuous) to dystopian interpretations: four cultures who all live in their own isolated areas of the country, an autocratic ruler who doesn’t let anyone see him, a capital city that literally shines (seriously, nothing is that clean on its own). And if you think about the movie, you have that road and no one else is travelling on it. What are the people of Oz doing all day? Obviously not traveling. Perhaps, like so many police states, travel is strictly regulated. Okay, I will stop with this line of thinking because I am clearly talking myself into a story of my own!

I’ll end with some book recommendations. I hadn’t heard of a lot of the authors featured in this collection, but at least half of the stories made me want to look them up to see what else they had written. Here are some book selections if you’re looking for something to read after you’ve made it through Oz Reimagined. Oh, and I won’t bother recommending the original Oz stories or Wicked because come on, you can find that in two seconds of Googling.

  • Rosemary and Rue (October Daye, Book one) by Seanan McGuire has the kind of cover that generally signals something I don’t want to read, but I really liked her story in Oz Reimagined, so I guess I will have to take that advice about not judging books by their covers. This book is billed as urban fantasy and its main character is a half-human, half-fae changeling. So, what could possibly go wrong?
  • David Farland is the author of a cool cyberpunk story that made it into Oz Reimagined, but it looks like his books are fairly fantasy-based (although he has a lot of books and I can’t promise that I’ve comprehensively gone through them). The Lair of Bones is book one of his Runelords series, and it sounds like some pretty good fantasy.
  • This recommendation isn’t actually out yet, but it sounds super good and it’s from the author of the Oz has a reality show story. How the World Became Quiet: Myths of the Past Present, and Future by Rachel Swirsky sounds like it is going to be a great read.
13 Jul

A Cult I Had Never Read about Before: the Independent Fundamental Baptists

Book cover of I Fired God

I Fired God

Book Review: I Fired God: My Life Inside—and Escape from—the Secret World of the Independent Fundamental Baptist Cult by Jocelyn Zichterman

This book has quite the audacious title. How do you fire God? Or, as my boyfriend quipped, “Does she have the authority to do that?” Given the author’s experience with religion, I can definitely appreciate her position. This book is part autobiography and part memoir and part political call to action. Jocelyn Zichterman (neé Janz) recounts her abusive childhood, her attempt to find her place in the world as an adult in the Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) church/cult, her subsequent liberation from the IFB, and career as an activist. As someone who just can’t get enough of reading about cults, the people in cults, and people managing their post-cult existence, when I saw this book on the new shelf at the library, I had to check it out.

The opening part of the book deals with Zichterman’s abuse at the hands of her father and, later on, brothers. It is inherently hard to read about abuse for me, especially when it goes into detail about the unpredictable nature of their father, Bart, an IFB pastor and expert misogynist, and the times he tortured animals and beat his children bloody with a dowel. However, I appreciate the impact of these events and how they establish a context for the author’s actions later on. They also make it clear that Zichterman has a real, tangible reason to fear her father, and other people in the IFB who enable his behavior.

I had a hard time getting into the narrative at first because it started out feeling really clunky. The chapters were organized into vignettes and each one had a subheading. It felt more like reading blog posts or journal entries than a cohesive story. But as the narrative progressed, I found my irritation waning. I think that it seemed so difficult to read at the outset because the author was describing events from a time when she didn’t have a full understanding of herself, but the narrative became more confident and mature as the author did. I think it can be difficult to recount events from a time when the mind isn’t fully mature, fully settled. Trying to get into a prior mindset (from childhood, or before a major life change—like leaving your religion-based worldview) makes for awkward tellings, no matter how skilled you are. For comparison, I find that when I try to discuss how I used to feel when I was growing up Mormon, I can’t really articulate myself fully, likely because I have my brain engaged on more levels than I did then.

Zichterman recounts an absurd amount of incidences that indicate that women in the IFB have zero standing. The men who run this cult view women on the same level as children. They also describe the need to keep women under men’s “umbrella of protection,” which means that fathers are responsible for girl-children until they marry, at which point husbands are responsible. The whole cult (I will take Zichterman at her word that it is a cult) seems to be based on giving misogynistic, sociopathic men an outlet for dominating and totally gaslighting women.

The descriptions of how women in the IFB are treated highlight some awful behavior, but the true purpose of this book, and one of the main themes running through it, is that groups like the IFB cultivate an isolationist stance, distancing themselves from government and regulation. This this is a huge detriment to its members and is prohibitive for anyone who wants to leave. Like many religious groups, the IFB does a deplorable job of educating kids. The IFB preaches isolation—public schools will convert your children to Satanists, the government is just waiting to round up fine, Christian folk for execution, and calling the police is a sure way to make God mad—and as such, almost everyone is homeschooled or goes to a private, religious school. Homeschooled kids in this group use study booklets that blatantly ignore basically everything we know about history and science, and instead focus on the fact that the Bible should be our main source of information. Kids are left to work on these booklets independently, with minimal supervision. Sometimes, they aren’t supervised at all, as was the case for Zichterman and her siblings one year.

Another of Zichterman’s main issues with the education system is that these home or private schools feed into IFB “colleges” like Bob Jones University or Northland Baptist Bible College, which Zichterman herself attended. These schools do not have accreditation, so their degrees are literally meaningless. When the author and her husband who had graduate-level degrees from these schools were trying to escape the IFB, they found that her husband couldn’t get a job anywhere because his degrees were unaccredited and completely useless. This means that anyone who wants to educate themselves and get out has essentially no recourse. The cult leaders are actively keeping people ignorant (and making money) by feeding members into this system.

This steady stream of misinformation is, in fact, state-approved. In Wisconsin, where the author grew up, all parents who wanted to homeschool their children had to do was submit a form. These schools and “colleges” also receive federal funding either through voucher programs, or more directly.

Zichterman makes the case that none of this should be legal. I Fired God highlights the profound unfairness of abuse and how it continues to affect the lives of its victims long after the abuse has supposedly ended. Not educating children properly is abusive. It limits their options. Zichterman argues that freedom of religion should also be freedom from religion and it is impossible to free yourself from such a religion when everything you see or do is controlled by it. Everyone should receive an education that enables them to make it on their own if they so choose. Of course, that is what the leaders of cults like this fear. They know that if people were not kept entirely ignorant, they wouldn’t choose to stay in such conditions and live these lives. This book is part of Zichterman’s campaign to fight back.

Ultimately, I did enjoy reading this book. I like getting perspective on how other people live and it is insane to hear about such systemic abuse even within my own country. I really support Zichterman’s cause; I think that having more regulation and robust education for everyone would solve a lot of problems. I sympathize with people in this situation and I hope that change will soon be enacted. If you like reading about fringe religious movements, people breaking out of oppressive systems, or women overcoming hardship and becoming activists, then you will probably enjoy this book.

One other thing that I want to add: if you don’t want to commit to a whole book, this 20/20 episode features Zichterman, her cause, and an expose on the IFB.

What should you read after you’ve finished I Fired God? Here are some things that I’ve read or have been meaning to read that play well with this subject:

  • Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement by Kathryn Joyce. I read this book a few years ago and really enjoyed it. It deals with the Quiverfull ideology, which stipulates that parents should have a “Quiverfull” of children. That means people shouldn’t use birth control and just accept however many children God wants to give them. The IFB subscribe to this mindset and it is another way in which women are subjugated.
  • Write These Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling by Robert Kunzman. I’ve had this book on my radar for a while, but have yet to read it. Now I want to read it a lot more. This book deals with exactly what Zichterman is concerned about: people homeschooling children with little or no oversight.
  • Escape by Carolyn Jessop. Zichterman recounts seeing an interview on television featuring Carolyn Jessop and realizing, for the first time, that the IFB was a cult. Jessop is a former member of the FLDS (fundamentalist, polygamist Mormons) and her story has a lot of parallels with Zichterman’s. I haven’t read this particular FLDS memoir, but I have read Lost Boy, Favorite Wife: Escape from Polygamy, and Shattered Dreams, which are all written by survivors/escapees from the FLDS sect.
06 Jul

Zimbabwe, America, and the immigrant experience

Book Review: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

We Need New Names

I can’t quite recall where I first heard about this book, but I have been hearing about it a lot lately. I discovered that We Need New Names is definitely not being over-hyped; it is awesome. This is probably the first work of Africa-related, contemporary fiction I’ve read since Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in high school and it made me feel like I’ve been missing out on something profound and interesting.

This book is beautifully written. It is just full of amazing imagery. I’m not inclined to gush about such things, but as I was reading this book, I just wanted to drink up all the language and become drunk from it because it was so heady. Even though the story is told from the point of view of a child, the language isn’t necessarily puerile. Darling, the narrator, doesn’t use lots of sophisticated language, but her thoughts are really succinct and what she says makes the reader picture everything. For example, when speaking about the heat she says, “The sun keeps ironing us and ironing us and ironing us,” which is something I can relate to with the heat wave happening at the moment.  In another chapter, Darling is watching a funeral and comments of the cemetery:

“[It] is mounds and mounds of red earth everywhere, like people are being harvested, like death is maybe waiting behind a rock with a big bag of free food and people are rushing, tripping over each other to get to the front before the handouts run out. That is how it is, the way the dead keep coming and coming.”

Not all the imagery is morbid, of course, but this example stood out to me because it’s such a mature observation even though it is rooted in kid-logic.

As to the plot (which is, I suppose, what people want to hear about in a review), the book is told from the perspective of Darling, a girl who lives in Paradise—a shanty town in Zimbabwe. Her observations about life are folded in among vignettes of playing with her friends: Bastard, Godknows, Shbo, Stina, and the pregnant Chipo. Darling dreams of moving to America, a place where everyone has enough food and is rich, and she knows that one day she will because her Aunt Fostalina lives there. The second part of the book focuses on Darling’s life in America (specifically, in “Destroyedmichygen”) and how she copes with the reality of living in the US, works through her identity, and relates to others. The result is both a poignant view of life in modern Zimbabwe and of the immigrant experience in America.

The first half of We Need New Names made me realize how little I know about Zimbabwe specifically and Africa in general. From the way the story is told, the reader can gather that Zimbabwe used to be ruled by a king, but then it was taken over by white colonialists. The colonialists were eventually ousted by the native black people, who were then deposed by another group of black people. That is an extremely rudimentary understanding, but clearly this isn’t a book about politics or history; it’s about one person’s experience in Zimbabwe. I feel like I should be able to at least put names on some of these movements or governments, but I don’t have any in my head. I think that reading up on modern African history is definitely going to be on my to-do list.

The second half of the book was, in a way, more relatable, just because I am American and Darling’s experiences were easier for me to digest, even though they were through the eyes of someone new to the country. I briefly taught English as a second language when I was a teacher, so I was able to appreciate some of the observations about learning (or improving, more accurately) English. In one scene, Aunt Fostalina is on the phone trying to order something from Victoria’s Secret, but she is not being well-understood. Darling comments about how you can practice what you want to say beforehand, but the words still come out wrong, concluding “English is like a huge iron door and you are always losing the keys.” This is such an amazing way to conceptualize all language learning, but especially English learning.

Something incidental to the story, but that I really liked, is the concept of a “talking eye.” Essentially, this is when you look at someone in a way that says something, like when a little dog wearing a pink jacket tries to get attention from Darling and she gives it a talking eye that says “No, dog, you don’t even know me like that.” Or you could give a talking eye that says “Don’t even think about it,” or “Get over here.” Bulawayo has managed to name something I didn’t know I needed a word for.

We Need New Names is stuffed with observations about life both in Zimbabwe and in America. I really enjoyed Bulawayo’s take on the world and I feel like my worldview has definitely been expanded (which is the point of reading in the first place). There is a lot more in this book that I haven’t discussed because I know I can’t just talk about a whole book, but if anyone who has read it would like to discuss it with me, I would love to talk about it! I will definitely be keeping my eye out for future works by NoViolet Bulawayo.

What should you read after you’ve finished We Need New Names? Here are some things I am thinking of picking up that have similar themes:

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie seems to be focused on immigration in a similar way to Bulawayo’s work, but centers on a teenage couple from Nigeria. The woman in the couple manages to immigrate to America, but the man is unable to do so. Adichie won the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing for one of her previous novels.
  • A Contellation of Vital Phenomena is the debut novel of Anthony Marra. This story is set in Chechnya, another place I don’t know enough about.
  • The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe by Peter Godwin looks to be a pretty solid work on the modern political situation in Zimbabwe. If, like me, you know want to know more about Zimbabwe, this would be a good pick.

 

30 Jun

Dreaming Is Free: Its Aftermath Is Not

The book cover for Dreams and Shadows

Dreams and Shadows

Book Review: Dreams and Shadows: A Novel by C. Robert Cargill

I loved reading this book; I guess we can start with that. Like most books I’ve been reading lately, I spotted this on the “new” shelf at the library. The cover looked really cool and the description sounded good, so I went for it. I know we’re not supposed to judge books by their covers, but I think it’s okay to do so sometimes, especially when the cover is awesome and the text is awesome too.

I would describe this book as probably urban fantasy or, perhaps, a modern fairy tale. And yes, it’s a fairy tale with all the nasty, brutish implications of one told by the Brothers Grim, not the Disney adaptation. I know I am not the first person to say this, but it definitely reminded me of a Neil Gaiman novel—it’s kind of American Gods-esque. Like all great fantasy, it deals not just with the fantastical, but also with how humankind’s fantasies reflect its true nature. I’ll get into that in a minute.

Before we go any further: a summary. The first part of Dreams and Shadows alternates between two characters. There is Ewan who is kidnapped by fairies as a baby and replaced by a changeling who wastes no time compelling Ewan’s parents to kill themselves. There is also Colby, the son of an alcoholic, negligent mother who encounters a genie. Part of the excitement of reading this book was that I immediately knew that the characters were going to cross paths (because, duh, that is how stories work), but I couldn’t wait to find out how. Ewan and Colby are both eight years old during the first part of the story (with the exception of the part of the exposition that involves the changeling) so even though they are operating in realms that would seem illogical to adults, they inhabit this madness readily.

Ewan is being raised by the fairy folk of the Limestone Kingdom (near Austin, Texas—and when was the last time you read a fantasy set in Texas?) and is being slowly transformed into a fairy. Unfortunately for him, he is not being turned into a fairy just for fun, but he is the tithe child. Fairies, it is explained, have an ongoing pact with the devil that requires them to sacrifice one of their own every seven years in order to maintain their longevity. Rather than sacrifice their proper kin, they often steal children, turn them into fairies, and sacrifice them as soon as they’ve turned.

Colby meets the cursed genie (djinn, to be more accurate), Yashar. Yashar has an interesting backstory that involves a jealous vizier, the genocide of the djinn, and years of lonliness. He selects Colby for wish-making because djinn are unable to survive unless someone remembers them. Although Yashar is reluctant to grant Colby’s wish (cursed djinn, remember?), he does eventually grant it. Colby, somewhat unfortunately, wishes to “see everything.” By everything, he means all the supernatural things that no one else sees. This wish is eventually what makes him cross paths with Ewan.

I won’t go into the rest because I don’t want to ruin it, but suffice to say, Colby and Ewan do cross paths. Colby also wishes to become a wizard in what I found to be a hilarious display of child-logic. One thing I will also say about the progression of the narrative is that I appreciated Cargill’s inclusion of faux-scholarly texts on the matter of the fey. There is a series of excerpts from the work of Dr. Thaddeus Ray, Ph.D. Some of them explain different types of fairies (djinn, for one), or fairy custom (like the tithe). The best explained where fairies came from. Fairies are essentially the result of whatever ambient emotion there is to be found in an area. If a city radiates misery and hatred, fairy folk are created who feed off these emotions. A region full of goodwill is likely to engender fairies who feed on those emotions instead. In this way, the fey are a true reflection of humanity. Miserable people beget miserable creatures.

One of the themes that I found in Dreams and Shadows is that monsters aren’t the real monsters; people are. When Colby first meets Yashar, the djinn, he asks if monsters are real. His response was to tell Colby:

“Monsters are real. Very real. But they’re not just creatures. Monsters are everywhere. They’re people, they’re nightmares … They are the things that we harbor within ourselves. If you remember one thing, even above remembering me, remember that there is not a monster dreamt of that hasn’t walked once within the soul of a man.”

So, even though most of the villains in this story are fairies, we must remember that the fairies are, effectively, created by humans. It’s easier to understand and contextualize our own humanity when we see it in another group of beings.

Another piece of the ‘monsters aren’t the monsters’ trope is Yashar’s behavior. After Colby and Ewan meet, the local fairy council decides that Colby and Yashar have to go because they pose a threat to the tithe child, Ewan. Yashar’s response to the fact that Ewan is going to be brutally murdered for the sake of the Limestone Kingdom: “You’ve got to be kidding me.”  Yashar displays a much higher degree of humanity than almost anyone else in the story, despite being a djinn.

But don’t worry, this story isn’t preachy, I just like analyzing literature. Dreams and Shadows is also hilarious. One of my favorite exchanges is between young Colby and Ewan. Colby finds out that Ewan has never seen Aladdin because he’s been busy being raised by fairies. When Ewan thinks Colby is an idiot for not knowing something basic about fairies, Colby shoots back, “At least I’ve seen Aladdin!” Cargill does a great job of representing what children find to be critically important and incorporating it into the story. Another part that I laughed out loud over was Colby wishing to be a wizard. Yashar insists that he can’t “just make [Colby] a wizard.” Colby just keeps wishing, insisting that Yashar promised he would grant any wish as long as they left the Limestone Kingdom and Ewan behind. Obviously, describing jokes out of context is not that funny, but trust me, there are some pretty funny bits in this story.

There is a lot more to this story than I’ve written about here because I don’t want to spoil it. I really loved this book and it was one of the best fantasies I’ve read in a while. If you’re looking for a modern, hilarious, but poignant story, definitely check out Dreams and Shadows.

30 Apr

Logic by Any Other Name

Book Review: Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou

I heard about this book via friend who thought I might be interested in learning more about logic and I finally decided to get it from the library a couple of weeks ago. Logicomix is a graphic novel about Bertrand Russell who was one of the first mathematicians/philosophers to devote himself to the study of logic as the underpinnings of math and philosophy.

Logicomix has several narrative threads: it is a frame story with a meta component, which sounds ridiculous, but is actually quite easy to understand thanks to the artistic conventions used. The book opens with one of the authors, Apostolos, discussing the somewhat crazy decision to discuss logic, of all topics, in graphic novel format. Apolostos introduces his creative team and his friend Christos who is responsible for injecting a little more logic into the narrative. The authors discuss some general ideas for the narrative while walking through Athens (where they work). Then, the frame of the main story is introduced. The reader first meets Russell when he is in the United States (Russell was English–the grandson of a Prime Minister, in fact) to speak to a group of isolationists who are protesting to keep the US out of World War II. Russell agrees to advise the protestors by discussing logic, providing the frame for him to narrate his life and achievements to date. This is occasionally interrupted by the meta layer of the narrative, in which the authors discuss a controversial choice or attempt to clarify certain things for the readers. Russell sketches an outline of his early life, his work and frustrations in university, his quest to understand and build upon the “giants” of the field, his personal life, and his publication of Principia Mathematica with Alfred Whitehead. The narrative also includes some very basic introductions to logical concepts, like set theory.

Graphic novel is an interesting narrative choice for discussion the foundations of logic. I expect that this medium was chosen because it is a way to connect readers with a topic they might not have otherwise investigated and because it is an effective way to introduce readers to Russell as a person in addition to some of his ideas. A book on logic and Russell’s life would probably be too dry for most readers, but Logicomix manages to straddle entertaining and informative quite well. Personally, although I enjoyed Logicomix, I think I am one of those odd people who would probably prefer the dry, no-pictures text version of learning about logic. It was hard for me to remember who the major logicians were by sight (they would pop up at conferences and such) and I don’t feel like I really got that much logic out of it. However, I will admit that my dissatisfaction with the amount of actual logic may be because I am already casually familiar with concepts like set theory, which Russell explains is based on Boole’s work. And any good librarian knows about Boolean operators, so this was not one hundred percent new.

Despite all that, I did learn some logical concepts from reading Logicomix. Russell was obsessed with the concept of mathematical concepts requiring concrete definitions and rules. He felt that there was no way to move forward with mathematics until its foundations were strong and definite. This lead directly to his work on Principia Mathematica, which occupies a significant section of the narrative. Set theory was what Russell saw as the key to mathematics. Sets are groups of objects and the way sets are organized and understood is what Russell focused on. Russell is later criticized by his student, Wittgenstein, who claimed that all Russell accomplished was to establish a series of tautologies. Wittgenstein later went to work on logic as it relates to semantics (at least, that is how the text made it sound); he also expresses in the novel, “The meaning of the world does not reside in the world,” and seemed to develop a somewhat mystical bent in his work. Russell and Wittgenstein’s works also lead to major philosophical players like Gödel. There is also an interesting (but somewhat too briefly covered for my taste) treatment of these philosophers working in Europe leading up to World War II. Logicians were divided along pro and anti-Nazi lines and some of them used their work to justify the Third Reich and the extermination of the Jews, which I found alarming.

Finally, an overt theme of the work is the intersection of logic and madness. The authors discuss the concept throughout the work and they seem to conclude that a certain degree of madness seems to be inherent for people interested in logic. I can’t recall if the text specifically alludes to this, but this link seems to suggest that people who have turbulent minds are more likely to want to impose order on the world around them, which seems to be the case for Russell. Ultimately, both Russell and Wittgenstein come to the conclusion that while logic is important, it isn’t everything. Wittgenstein states that “The things that cannot be talked about logically are the only ones which are truly important” and Russell explains that human life isn’t logical, so people should not use logic to justify things like the Nazi regime, for example. Leaving the story here, as the authors point out in their meta section, makes it sound like logic was a failure: Russell and Wittgenstein admit that it isn’t everything, and Continental logicians are using it to kindle a genocide. However, one of the authors, Christos points out that logic actually won the war. People like Alan Turning leveraged it to create early computers and crack the Nazi codes, which of course lead to modern computing, et. al.

I enjoyed reading this and I will admit it was quite interesting. It was cool to read about a specific slice of history in comic book format because it gives you a better sense of the period (showing the aesthetics, etc.) and it was probably easier to follow than starting out cold with a textbook on logic. Overall, it made me want to read a lot more about logic, set theory, and Bertrand Russell, which is probably the main aim of the book. In which case, it can definitely be considered a success.

 

21 Apr

Scientology, Comparative Religion, and Fun with Cults

Book Review: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

Going Clear cover

There is so much to say about this book that it’s hard to know where to begin. I love reading about cults/people who survived cults/wacky religious beliefs and the rest, but this is my first read on Scientology. Up until this point, my main exposure to the subject was via South Park (I’m not proud). Going Clear spans nearly 100 years of history, beginning with L. Ron Hubbard’s birth in 1911 and ending with Paul Haggis’ (the work’s protagonist, such that it can be said to have one) departure from Scientology and the subsequent uproar in 2010-2011. This book is packed with information and there are a lot of people who were interviewed and who played parts in the narrative (it has more characters than a George R. R. Martin novel). Some of the people involved are introduced early in the book as young people involved in Scientology and show up again later as adults, which I found hard to keep track of–I didn’t know I’d have to manage all the people!–but I don’t think you need to remember exactly who everyone is (other than a few power players) to appreciate the absolute insanity of a lot of the things that happen.

Going Clear is meticulously researched. It draws on interviews with lots of current and former Scientologists, court documents, medical records, and the writings of L. Ron Hubbard and other parties. The book is also peppered with footnotes to the tune of “[person’s name]’s attorney denies that X happened” and “The church denies that [person] ever did Y,” which makes one wonder what kinds of behavior that anyone’s attorney would admit to, but that is another matter. The title of the book, Going Clear, refers to the first step in being a Scientologist. When one becomes “clear,” one is free of malicious engrams and is able to work towards being an Operating Thetan (OT). Various people throughout the book are described by their Scientology levels; OT VIII is the highest level that anyone other than Hubbard has ever had access to (Hubbard supposedly penned several more levels, but no one has seen them). Operating Thetans are supposed to have amazing mental powers that can prevent sickness, bend others to one’s will, and basically a certain level of telekinesis. At least, OT levels are described this way. There is as yet no one on the record demonstrating these amazing powers, which of course makes one question why people keep on believing in it, but of course, we could ask such questions about any number of movements.

The book opens with Paul Haggis, that archetypal, directionless young person of the 1970’s who finds Scientology. People like Haggis were attracted to Scientology because of its idealism, they state that they’re working toward “A civilization without insanity, without criminals and without war, where the able can prosper and honest beings can have rights, and where Man is free to rise of greater heights,” as stated by Hubbard himself. This narrative that Scientology is actively working to improve the world seems at odds with basically everything that happens to individual Scientologists in the book, and yet, they all kept stating that they were in it for this ideal; they thought they were really helping. Haggis is the bread in this Scientology sandwich. After his introduction, the reader doesn’t hear about him again until much later in the book when he begins questioning Scientology.

L. Ron Hubbard’s (the L is for Lafayette) early years, when examined from the perspective of Scientology as it is today, are quite revealing. Wright traces the development of some of the themes of Scientology back to Hubbard’s youth, which I think is one of the most interesting aspects of the book. Analyzing modern “religions” and charismatic leaders is so different from tracing the history of someone like the Prophet Muhammad because there is actually a record of what people did and one can draw conclusions about how that influenced their later work. One of the formative experiences of Hubbard’s life was traveling by boat from Seattle to Washington D.C. via the Panama Canal. Hubbard was taken in by Commander Joseph C. “Snake” Thompson on the trip, who was “of the US Navy Medical Corps. A neurosurgeon, a naturalist, and a former spy, Thompson made a vivid impression on [Hubbard].” Thompson also schooled Hubbard on Freudian theory, which doubtless had an impact on Hubbard’s later preoccupation with pyschiatrists and psychologists. There are so many anecdotes (and fabrications, which Wright compares to evidence and accounts from other people) about Hubbard’s early life  that it is difficult to choose what to discuss in a short review, but I will mention that Hubbard briefly served in the US Navy during World War II. He insisted he was a hero and I’m sure this also was a part of his choice to later make Scientology a maritime venture. He was also connected with several people on Hollywood, and it seemed that he was fascinated with society there, but he never made it big, which I think was also a factor in the later choice for Scientology to court celebrities so seriously.

Dianetics was Hubbard’s first effort and producing a work that would define a movement. It quickly became popular because it capitalized on the public’s interest in psychology and psychotherapy, but it supposedly offered people the tools to treat themselves without any actual academic or scientific grounding. Although its popularity burned brightly, it burned out quickly when people realized that Dianetics didn’t actually enable them to do fantastical feats with mental powers. Hubbard, an autocrat at heart, decided that Dianetics had gotten out of hand, and choose to rebrand it as Scientology. He is quoted as saying “I’d like to start a religion. That’s where the money is.” Shortly after Scientology began, Hubbard moved to England with his family (well, his new family, Hubbard had three wives and seven children throughout his life). Soon, Hubbard became paranoid that “British, American, and Soviet governments were interested in gaining control of Scientology’s secrets in order to use them for evil intentions.” To combat this, he bought three boats, gathered up his staunchest believers (who all signed billion year contracts, yes, billion since Scientology subscribes to reincarnation) and founded the Sea Org, which came to be what is essentially Scientology’s clergy. The Sea Org is when, it seems to me, that the real abuses of power began. Parents were separated from their children, abandoned at various ports, and in one case, representatives were caught up in a popular uprising in Morocco. At this time, many of Scientology’s procedures were codified, like the RPF rundown, which involved locking up a dissenter in a room with no contact for several weeks. The practice later evolved to include making such people stay in confinement for years, in some cases, and do labor while there.

There are a lot of tragic events described in Going Clear, but I want to spend some time looking at Scientology from a comparative religion perspective, with a focus on similarities between Scientology and Mormonism (full disclosure: I was raised Mormon). Later in the history of Scientology, when they were back on land, Hubbard was working to get a film made. The script was shopped around and an offer for $10 million came in (at the time, a record sum for a script purchase). Upon investigation of the buyers, they learned that the  buyers were mormons and “Hubbard figured that the only reason Mormons would buy it was to put it on the shelf,” which is probably true. I find it interesting that Mormons would want to suppress a Scientologist message, considering that the movements really have a lot in common as modern religious movements. There are a lot of parallels to be found between Joseph Smith (the founder of Mormonism) and L. Ron Hubbard. Smith was a known huckster and treasure hunter before starting Mormonism, as Hubbard was a prolific science fiction writer before Scientology–both had a flair for the fictitious. Hubbard also took multiple wives (to say nothing of mistresses) without divorcing, although a few wives isn’t much compared to Smith, they are both outside cultural norms. I would also make the argument that Scientology’s doctrine of spirits being sent to Earth as punishment by a more powerful force has some parallel to Mormonism’s concept of there being a “war in heaven,” which Satan lost and God won. Except in the case of Mormonism, the losers weren’t sent to Earth for punishment, they went straight to hell. Both movements also have a period of being on a journey early in their  history. The Mormons, of course, were hounded out of New York and across the Midwest, finally taking a long trek to what is now Utah to escape persecution. Hubbard sailed the Mediterranean and Carribean for several years with his Sea Org to escape what he perceived as persecution. Although the early periods have a lot in common, I will admit that the later histories diverge. Mormonism doesn’t have the forced labor of the RPF (although young people are required to serve missions under extremely spartan conditions) and it also seems to have found a broader appeal than Scientology. However, as comparative cases they are interesting to consider in the context of the development of modern, American religions.

Although there are many differences between contemporary Mormonism and Scientology, some of the tactics they use have similar roots. One line from Going Clear regarding a Sea Org member who wanted to leave explained, “Most of those who fled were torn by conflicting emotions. On the one hand, they were often frightened, humiliated, and angry. They desperately wanted a life outside the organization.” Many people who leave Scientology quickly realize that they don’t know much of the real world, and many of the people who joined as young people or who were born into the religion lack a formal education and haven’t graduated high school (which reminds me of fundamentalist Mormons–the ones that practice polygamy and live in compounds). Scientology is described as being completely consuming. While Mormonism allows people to have lives outside of church, they pack the week so full of church functions that people often find it difficult to do much else, it truly can be difficult to figure out what one’s life is after the organization. Another tactic used by Scientology is “disconnection,” which is the practice of encouraging Scientologists to cut themselves off from anyone or anything that isn’t related to Scientology. This ensures that Scientologists are so emotionally and socially invested that leaving involves a total social suicide. Mormons operate in similar ways. As the good people of Reddit’s exmormon community will tell you, families do disown members who leave Mormonism with alarming frequency.

Comparing Mormonism and Scientology is both part of my fascination with cults and also a way of validating my own experiences. Something about seeing similar tactics documented in other cults (I will go ahead and call it a cult) makes me feel a little less foolish. Obviously these strategies work. We have seen all sorts of movements rise and fall and maintain zealous members using these strategies. Some parts of Going Clear hit close to home, but there were just as many things totally outside of my experience that were absolutely tragic. It’s hard to know what to write about this book because there is just so much to tell; so many stories, so many lives ruined or people’s emotions and sense of self destroyed. This is probably not my best review because I did react very emotionally to this book. I appreciate non-fiction work on religious movements like some people are into horror. It produces that “can’t look away” fascination. I marked a lot of sections in this book that I wanted to talk about, but instead I’ll leave you with this. Be rational for your own self. Be compassionate to other people and then maybe they won’t feel such strong needs to find meaning and acceptance in cults. Read this book because you will be horrified and sad and feel like you want to punch someone.

14 Apr

In the Kiddie Pool

Book Review: The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

The Shallows book cover

The Shallows cover

I wanted to read The Shallows because, like the majority of people in my generation (or at least, among those in my generation I talk to), I spend a huge amount of time online or otherwise connected. I was skeptical that being so involved in digital life was making me stupider (as the title implies). Now having read the book, I think that the premise is less about how we’re becoming stupid, although I think Carr does convey that sentiment at points, and more about how technology shapes the way we think. Humans mold themselves to the available tools, rather than the tools to the humans, it seems.

The central thesis of The Shallows seems to be that computers have changed our behavior in a fundamental way. The way that we learn, remember, and retrieve information has been altered thanks to widespread computer use. Or, to quote Nietzche–as Carr does after relaying an anecdote involving Nietzche and a typewriter–, “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” To support this claim, Carr spends the initial portion of the work discussing neuroplasticity and working through a history of other technologies that have changed the way humanity uses their minds. Carr raises the point that studies show that the brain is both able and willing to reallocate neurons to new tasks, if those neurons aren’t being made use of elsewhere. He cites work showing that when someone becomes blind, that person’s brain reconfigures such that the area of the brain formerly given over to visual processing is put to use in auditory processing or other pertinent tasks. In fact, neurologist Alvaro Pascual-Leone’s (a researcher at Harvard Medical School) opinions are shared. He explains that neuroplasticity is one of the most important traits that humans have evolved. Carr states, “The genius of our brain’s construction is not that it contains a lot of hardwiring, but that it doesn’t,” i.e. that we’ve made it this far as a species because we can adapt well. My response to the fan fare over neuroplasticity was to wonder why the author seems to be decrying another step in the brain’s inevitable adaptation to our modern computing landscape.

There are a few fascinating examples of technological developments and how they changed humanity. One that I particularly enjoyed was a discussion on clocks and timekeeping. For much of the history of civilization, time was primarily kept only by the rise and fall of the sun, but in the Middle Ages, Christian monks decided that they needed more precision in their schedules, and as such, pushed for superior time keeping technology (superior to sun dials and water clocks). Eventually, every town had a clock and kept time by the bells ringing during the day, but it came to a point when that wasn’t enough either; people wanted absolute time precision. Of course, clocks were developed, soon pocket watches, and all the rest. Now, we think about the whole day in the abstract medium of hours, minutes, and seconds. Having the technology available made people change their habits. Some people saw that keeping accurate time was an improvement, and eventually everyone else standardized too. By presenting these historical anecdotes on technology, Carr draws an analogy between these instances of technology and our current matter: computers. He even states, “In large measure, civilization has assumed its current form as a result of the technologies people have come to use.”

After discussing technology in general, Carr goes on to discuss writing and reading. When the Greeks first started to use writing, Socrates complained about it, stating that it had some practical benefits, but it would not affect us for the better (sidenote: he then told those damn kids to get off his lawn and turn down that music). Something interesting that I didn’t know (but once I read it, seemed obvious) was that reading was originally only an out loud activity. Silent and solo reading were not things that people thought to do. Even though people started writing things down as an aid to memory or to communicate stories, people still only read in the same way that they had communicated for ages: with spoken word. It wasn’t until the middle ages that people started reading silently and methods of writing text (like using spaces between words) were developed to support silent reading. Carr argues that we are now at a point where reading is a feat of sustained attention and quiet effort. This is where Carr’s complaint about reading on computers comes in. Computers as a medium are inherently distracting due to the way that we navigate the text. Furthermore, “Research has shown that the cognitive act of reading draws not just on our sense of sight but also on our sense of touch. It’s tactile as well as visual.” I would be interested to see if there is any research on how the tactile sensation of reading is interpreted for readers of different generations. I feel like, when I close out other distractions, I can read just as well on the computer as I do with a book. I wonder if there is a generational divide in this issue. If the brain has as much plasticity as the reader is lead to believe in earlier chapters, would it not be possible that the brain can learn to get as much out of digital reading as analog reading?

There are a couple chapters in the middle of the book that strike me as rather self-indulgent. Take this statement, for example, “Despite years of hype about electronic books, most people haven’t shown much interest in them. Investing a few hundred dollars in a specialized ‘digital reader’ has seemed silly, given the ease and pleasure of buying and reading old-fashioned books.” Ah, yes, the simple allure of analog books, that ultimate argument against digital reading! You know, based on the ridiculous amount of statistics on this issue, I think I am going to have to disagree that e-books aren’t catching on. Carr also discusses the fact that some people predict social media conversations happening within e-books. One the one hand, I can see that being annoying, but as long as there is the option to disable it, I fail to see the problem. In some texts, I can even see it being beneficial. Readers could start discussions and connect with each other this way. In textbooks or technical books, readers might as each other questions. The future isn’t necessarily horrible, Mr. Carr!

Finally, we get to how the Internet is changing our brains. Inquiring minds want to know: what is the word on this? Carr characterizes the modern Web as a “high speed system for delivering responses and rewards … which encourage the repetition of both physical and mental actions.” He argues that we keep interneting because it stimulates our brains and bite-sized information chunks make us feel happy; it boils down to basic operant conditioning. Carr also states that the Internet keeps our brains distracted. The brain needs downtime away from highly stimulating environments to do deep thinking and refresh itself, but it’s hard to pull away from the computer because we feel rewarded when we use it. I do agree with this, but I also think there isn’t anyone who really disagrees with this. Even the most internet addicted among us (Redditors?) will agree that spending the entire day online results in feeling kind of bad at the end of it all. Everyone has to learn to moderate their own time online in order to get things done. That’s the nature of modern life. Carr also cites some work on attention and multitasking, making the case–again–that the desultory nature of reading online is making us dumb because we can’t remember anything. There is a case in which people were assigned a reading comprehension task, one with hyperlinks throughout and one without. The people with no hyperlinks understood the story they read on a deeper level because they didn’t get lost on tangents with the hyperlinks. Furthermore, the people who had the hyperlinks remembered less about everything they had read than the no-links group. In a similar study, a researcher found that readers understood less for every additional link in a text. I can see that this is a problem, just from my own experience. I find that if I click on links through a text and read all the links immediately, it is harder to understand what is going on. However, I think this problem can be solved quite simply by opening new links in a tab and reading things all the way through before going onto the next one. So, again, the tone seems somewhat alarmist to me, especially when there are so many easy ways to get around these problems.

Next, Carr considers the effects of “outsourcing” one’s memory to the Web. On this subject, I do agree with the author that this is a dumb idea. Some people take the approach that they don’t really need to remember things because everything is online. Carr brings up some interesting research on this subject, noting that “the very act of recalling a memory appears to restart the entire process of consolidation,” which is to say that when you remember something, your brain strengthens the neural pathways to the memory and you probably deepen your understanding of the issue by thinking about it again, but with new knowledge in your brain. I must agree with this based on my own experience. I find that the more I know, the more I can know. Remembering a lot of things allows more links between information to be formed, thus making me smarter. Treating the mind as an index to things online works in some ways (perhaps for things you want to learn later, or for incidental information), but the best course of action for actually being a more intelligent person is to use your damn memory! I also appreciated the William James quotation in this section, “The art of remembering is the art of thinking.” I like it.

Overall, The Shallows has discussions about some interesting research and I felt that it did make some valid points about the metacognition, but I thought the tone was needlessly alarmist. I don’t think people are becoming more shallow in their thinking as a whole, but I do believe we are in a transitional period in terms of how we view technology and its role in cognition and learning. The technology will change and we will adapt to it. In some ways it will be better, and in some ways it will be worse. Such is humanity. Should you read the book? If you like reading about technology and the brain, yes, you will likely be interested. I particularly enjoyed the beginning of the book because of these topics. The end of the book has some interesting modern research on attention, which I also appreciated. On the whole, I am ambivalent about The Shallows, but I would not say that I regret reading it (in between opening all the hyper links, checking email, and generally going to hell in a hand basket).

07 Apr

Every day the same, but different

Book Review: Every Day by David Levithan

Every Day cover

Every Day cover

I picked this book up from the library on a whim. I volunteer there twice a week, so I spend a lot of time walking past books, and this one caught my eye. The author wrote another book that a friend of mine has been telling me to read and the summary on the back sounded good, so I borrowed it.  I was glad I did because even though it is a “young adult” book and a quick read, I enjoyed it.

The premise of Every Day is that the protagonist, a 16 year old who has taken the name A, wakes up in a new body (of zir own age) every day. Ze (ze is a gender neutral pronoun) can “access” the  host body’s memories and generally tries to go about zirs day without disrupting the life of the body’s owner. A’s life has been like this for as long as ze can remember. Furthermore, A has no idea why or how this happens, just that it does. A also doesn’t know what zir original body is: boy or girl, straight or gay. A has experienced all types of genders and doesn’t feel anymore at home in one type of body than another. Each chapter of Every Day tells us what day A is on. The book opens with day 5994 with A inhabiting a boy named Justin. This leads A to Rihannon, Justin’s girlfriend, with whom ze immediately falls in love. On that day, A breaks zirs own rules and disrupts Justin’s life, skipping class with Rihannon to drive to the beach and get to know each other. The next day, A is desperate to meet Rihannon again. Luckily, A seems to stay within a relatively small geographical area so on any given day our protagonist isn’t too far away from the love interest. The book chronicles A’s efforts to meet her and get her to see A’s inner self, apart from the physical trappings. They deal with issues of attraction and sexuality and try to figure out what it means to be with someone who is a different person every day.

I felt that it had some strong themes that would be good for teenagers who are still trying to figure out who they are. Feeling like you’re a totally different person every day is not uncommon for a lot of  teenagers (or, let’s be real, 20-somethings) and Every Day plays with that concept quite literally. At one point, A tells the reader, “Part of growing up is making sure your sense of reality isn’t entirely grounded in your own mind” and I have to agree. You can always spot the mature children based on how aware they are of things that go on that have nothing to do with them. And from a perspective of advanced reality-awareness, being able to navigate the world around you without basing all your decision on your immediate feelings or hormone situation really is the secret to being a level-headed adult.

Another identity-related theme is our protagonists attitudes about sexuality. I know that not everyone is going to agree with this sentiment, but there is a part in the book where A expresses that zir preferences aren’t based on what sex organs people have, but on the person as an individual. Or, as I like to put it: love the person, not the parts. Again, I know that not everyone will feel this way, but I feel like for young LGBTQI (especially for the “questioning” part), the message that it’s not a big deal which gender the people you like are is an important one. It’s okay to just like people for themselves and not based on your considerations of how to have sex.

As a practically inevitable counterpoint to A’s genderless attraction preferences, ze is thrown into contact with some people who strongly disagree with those ideas. A ruminates on the family of one boy whose body he inhabits; the children are homeschooled in the extreme Christian way (not the cool, learn what you want and experience life way) and the mother goes berzerk when he catches her son (so it seems) kissing a girl–the beloved Rihannon. A remarks on the lecture ze received about “the sins of the flesh” and comments, “I want to tell [the mother] that ‘sins of the flesh’ is just a control mechanism–if you demonize a person’s pleasure, then you can control his or her life.” Speaking as an ex-Mormon, I find this to be totally true. Control of one’s sexuality is an all too common tactic that religions use to keep people down. Even though A feels this way, ze also expresses a lot of empathy for people who go to church. As a by product of zir life, A has been to all kinds of religious services. A emphasizes to the reader that religions have about 98% in common, and it’s that other 2% that everyone wants to focus on. Even though I am not a religious person, I liked that bit of perspective. It is a good point and I think that we do focus on the differences when we disagree with someone, rather than on the vast amounts we might have in common. And that’s really the point of Every Day. A wants us to focus on the commonalities of human experience as a way to come together, rather than dwell on the minute differences and let ourselves be dragged apart.

As a fan of science fiction and fantasy, I enjoyed the premise (a new body every day), but I did want there to be more to it. Of course, that would make it a dedicated genre novel, rather than more of a YA work. The way I see it, there are two ways to interpret A’s condition: either ze is some kind of “soul” that isn’t linked to a body, or A body swaps every day, with the essence of the host body going to A’s body somewhere. Based on A’s description of how the mind of zir host works (the host seems to remember the day how A wants him/her to remember it, A can access memories of the host’s life), the latter interpretation seems unlikely; however, it is the better launching point for telling an alternate perspective of this story. Imagine, A’s body somewhere waking up everyday confused and alarmed. Parents come in and ask “What’s wrong, Liam?” (or whatever A’s possible “real” name is). The guest consciousness panics, “Liam? Who’s Liam? My name is Ashley. Wait … who are you and WHERE AM I?” You’d get various levels of hysteria from different personalities. Frustrated, Liam’s parents seek professional help, seeing a new doctor every week it seems like. Every day, Liam is someone else and the people are so detailed. Liam is so young, where does he get these ideas? Even worse, Liam never recognizes his parents. Eventually, unable to cope, Liam’s parents send him to a psychiatric institution. Every day, the psych tech wakes Liam up and sometimes she’s frustrated and sometimes she laughs at him. He sees the doctors who ask, “Who are you today?” Every day, Liam is someone new. I think that is a story that would be fun to write, perhaps I will look into that, although it’s likely that the premise has been used before. Even though Every Day didn’t delve deep into the genre stuff, I still liked the system created around A’s talent, if you will. It was consistent and it was interesting. This book might be disappointing if you’re looking for serious science fiction or fantasy, but if you think the premise sounds interesting and you like young adult literature, you will probably enjoy this book.