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Alan Jacobs – Breaking Bread with the Dead

I’ve just finished Alan Jacobs’ Breaking Bread with the Dead. Reading this book lead me down some wonderful technology-related rabbit holes that, in turn lead me back to people I haven’t thought about or read in a long time, especially Ivan Illich, Mark Hurst (man, The Good Easy takes me back).

Hurst interviews Jacobs on the Techtonic podcast and I got a lot out of their conversation.

One of several interesting ideas that Jacobs’ floats in Bread is that of Personal Density. The term comes from Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow where an engineer named Kurt Mondaugen posits this law of human existence

Personal density … is directly proportional to temporal bandwidth.

Pynchon’s narrator continues: “‘Temporal bandwidth’ is the width of your present, your now. … The more you dwell in the past and future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona. But the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are.”

Jacobs writes about Personal Density in the context of how our current media consumption via The Feed of social media comes at such volume and pressure that our now is becoming more and more compressed and narrow. What seemed so important to us just last week has already faded from our attention as quickly as the last Tweet has scrolled off the screen.

Jacobs’ prescription is to expand our now by reading older books. We need to reach back in time to extend our temporal bandwidth. We need to read, widely and include a lot of classics and older material.

You need the personal density that will hold you firmly until, in your considered and settled judgment, it is time to move. And to acquire the requisite density you have to get out of your transitory moment and into bigger time. Personal density is proportionate to temporal bandwidth.

What I particularly love about this book is Jacobs’ mandate that we be generous and hospitable to the voices of the past even when they are offensive to our current beliefs and ideals.

If it is foolish to think that we can carry with us all the good things from the past—from our personal past or that of our culture—while leaving behind all the unwanted baggage, it is a counsel of despair and, I think, another kind of foolishness to think that if we leave behind the errors and miseries of the past, we must also leave behind everything that gave that world its savor. Wisdom lies in discernment, and utopianism and nostalgia alike are ways of abandoning discernment.

We need to be generous. We need to realize that writers were products of their time. That there is still gold to be mined in them hills even if parts of the author’s world view seems out of step with our own.

…the moment of double realization. To confront the reality that the very same people who give us rich wisdom can also talk what seems to us absolute nonsense (and vice versa) is an education in the human condition. Including our own condition, which is likewise compounded of wisdom and nonsense.

This, of course, reminds me of the line from one of Jim Harrison’s characters: “Every day I wonder how many things I am dead wrong about.” I like that idea of hedging our bets, knowing that–in all likelihood and at any point in time–we are wrong about something that is probably very important.

Jacob’s book arrived at an opportune time for me as I try to disengage with Facebook while still trying to participate meaningfully online. I’ve found his approach of broadening my now helpful. So helpful that I’ve picked up two of his previous books that, combined with this one, seem to make up a trilogy of sorts: How to Think and The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. Looking forward to learning what kind of perspective these titles may add to my relationship with being online.

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Book Review – Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders

I can’t say enough good things about this book. Saunder’s Catholicism-informed Buddhism is on full display. The detailing of Lincoln’s transformation of grief is one of the best things I’ve ever read on dealing with loss. The re-animation of the souls stuck in bardo through their metta/lovingkindness engagement with the departing Lincoln, also great.

Also highlighted many passages about how, at the time, people thought Lincoln was a horrible leader, horrible parent, etc. and history holds him in an entirely different regard than his contemporaries.

We must try to see one another in this way. As suffering, limited being.

Also, the passages about what the dead will miss about daily life (the specificity. pasting a long one here):

Though the things of the world were strong with me still. Such as, for example: a gaggle of children trudging through a side-blown December flurry; a friendly match-share beneath some collision-tilted streetlight; a frozen clock, bird-visited within its high tower; cold water from a tin jug; toweling off one’s clinging shirt post–June rain. Pearls, rags, buttons, rug-tuft, beer-froth. Someone’s kind wishes for you; someone remembering to write; someone noticing that you are not at all at ease. A bloody roast death-red on a platter; a hedgetop under-hand as you flee late to some chalk-and-woodfire-smelling schoolhouse. Geese above, clover below, the sound of one’s own breath when winded. The way a moistness in the eye will blur a field of stars; the sore place on the shoulder a resting toboggan makes; writing one’s beloved’s name upon a frosted window with a gloved finger. Tying a shoe; tying a knot on a package; a mouth on yours; a hand on yours; the ending of the day; the beginning of the day; the feeling that there will always be a day ahead. Goodbye, I must now say goodbye to all of it. Loon-call in the dark; calf-cramp in the spring; neck-rub in the parlor; milk-sip at end of day.

— this seems right out of William Carlos Williams’ edict of no ideas but in things. meaning Saunders’ specificity of things in this passage is what makes it so damn powerful.

amazing book. have already read Saunder’s stories, looking forward to more novels from him for sure.

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Book Review: No Country for Old Men

This was my first Cormac McCarthy book. I asked a good friend of mine who is a McCarthy fan to pick one and this was his pick.

Man. What an amazing read. All of the components were there: great story, unfamiliar-sounding yet authentic dialog, characters who you really, really cared about. And then on top of that there is a meta-plot about how the hell one ought to behave when the world around you is falling apart, something that seems especially timely.

The story here seems mostly about choosing to commit and persevere no matter how bad the outcome looks. Doing the right thing in the face of inevitability. But it’s so much more than that. The Sheriff may be one of my favorite characters ever. McCarthy’s dialog partly accounts for that but it is also really compelling to watch his internal struggle reconciling his behaviors, something we all deal with at one level or another. Such a great book. Really grateful to have read it.

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Book Review: Brave New World

The premise of Brave New World is compelling enough to recommend the book. Especially if you’re in high school, which I think is when I first read it. The dytopian future portrayed by Huxley of a world that tries to engineer a better version of itself challenges the reader to pull connections from more modern attempts at these efforts.

Despite the interesting premise, I just didn’t enjoy the writing. The world represented in the book seemed like an academic exercise that Huxley engineered to make a point. It was interesting but only as a thought exercise.

I discovered that Ridley Scott was going to try to make a movie out of the book and seems to have backed away, citing:

I think Brave New World was probably great in nineteen thirty-eight, because it had a very interesting revolutionary idea. Don’t forget it came shortly before or after George Orwell, roughly the same time. When you re-analyze it, maybe it should stay as a book. I don’t know.

I think Scott would have been hard pressed to get an audience to feel real empathy for any of the characters the way he did in Blade Runner.

Huxley apparently was inspired to write the book in response to a trip he made to the US where he observed our obsession with youth and commercialism. That’s easy enough to believe. Out national fixation on self-improvement seems like just the kind of ecosystem that unchecked could eventually yield the kind of attempts to engineer the friction out of life represented in Brave New World.

To me, it’s this thread of the book’s narrative that is so interesting to me. Specifically, what happens when you engineer the suffering out of life. Huxley’s plot seems to fixate on the tools and techniques used to engineer the friction out of life but I think the tools and techniaues are mere disctraction.

Instead, especially relevant and meaningful are the effects of a life devoid of friction or where friction is seen as somehow being different from or seperate from the good life. Huxley fails to really dig into this thread in a satisfying way and perhaps that why it felt a little flat to me.

It certainly seems relevant today where we seem spend so much energy trying to reduce friction, sadness, pain, etc. from our lives. But it occurs to me that those things we try to avoid and minimize (and which have been erradicated in Huxley’s work) are exactly the things that make life worth living.

That is the underlying message of BNW that gets hidden in all of the dystopian engineering: If life is all good, it’s no good. Life is only good to the extent that we are open to the suffering it exposes us to.

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Book Review: The Nickel Boys

The Nickel Boys was on a lot of “Best of” lists for 2019 so I figured to check it out and I’m glad I did. I haven’t read anything else by Colson Whitehead so not sure if this is true with all of his writing but he got me to feel a degree of empathy for his characters that was so deep that by the end of the book I felt wrung out.

I don’t get that a lot.

Moreover, I’m a middle age white guy and here I am feeling really deep connection and empathy towards these African american boys in Jim Crow south. Whitehead’s ability to connect the reader to these characters is unreal. I found myself highlighting certain passages throughout the book that achieved this effect and by then end I realized that part of his skill lies in what I think of as a casual intimacy with the characters’ inner lives.

Meaning the powerfully brutal scenes built connection and alone they would have probably been sufficient. But certain scenes where the narrator makes these offhanded observations—like when waiting for a table at a restaurant, briefly wondering if the delay is racism or just bad service—reveal the lens through which the characters are viewing the world and by the end of the book you and the character are nearly one and the book is just a powerfully moving experience. Grateful that Whitehead wrote it and that I got to experience it.

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Book Notes: The Alchemist

The Alchemist by Paula Coelho was recommended to me by the Goodreads algorithm, which apparently stinks as the only thing that kept me turning the pages in this book was the suspense of trying to figure out why the heck this book was recommended to me.

Not my bag I suppose.

Have been slowly making my way through Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations this winter and I did enjoy the parallels in some of the ideas in this book and Meditations, especially around the sentiment when Coelho articulates that the timing of death is largely irrelevant if you are truly living in the present.

Still, maybe Goodreads was suggesting this for the 14 year-old me? I think I might have appreciated it back then. Not sure. But will definitely be more skeptical of future algorithm suggestions.

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Book Notes: To Kill A Mockingbird

We will be seeing the new production of To Kill A Mockingbird in a few weeks so I decided to re-read the book on the kindle I received for Christmas.

Having read nothing but non-fiction for a long time now I forgot how much I enjoy the sensation of getting lost in the atmosphere created by good fiction writing. Lee does a good job evoking the feel, the routine, and the patterns of a neighborhood from a kid’s perspective. I feel like my own feet have worn a path in the ground from the Finch’s to the schoolyard over these past few days.

It’s interesting that the book ends with Scout seeing her neighborhood from Boo’s perspective and really underlines how important that notion of empathy is that runs through the book.

Also I had completely over-simplified the story in my head over time and forgotten just how much this is a story about class structure as it is about race. Such a great and important book and am glad for the experience of having read it again.

The book’s message of empathy, the importance of seeing the world from someone else’s shoes and how most people are nice “when you finally see them” seem more relevant now than ever.