The Omnivorous Reader - January, 2020

The Omnivorous Reader




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The Omnivorous Reader

February 3 · Issue #14 · View online

Recommendations, reviews, and assorted digital flotsam and jetsam

Hi, all.
Here’s what I’ve been reading this month.
Why You’re Getting This: This reading list is going out to old and new friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. If you’re receiving this, I thought you might appreciate it.
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Hindsight is 2020 (sorry, couldn't resist...)
In addition to coming up with terrible puns about the new decade, I’ve been thinking this January about my own reading habits. I’ve had the practice of logging titles of books that I finish on the back page of a journal for a few years now, and at some point, I started adding up the total number of books I’d read at the end of the year.
In 2019, I didn’t keep a constant list of titles as reliably as in previous years–an increase of time in the car and streaming audio books from the library that I neglected to count didn’t help. But as I tried to remember and record titles to total my number for 2019, I was struck by how few of the books from this year–not to mention from previous years–I could recall. In a moment of near-existential crisis, I began to wonder what was the point? Who was I totaling this for? I wasn’t sharing the total with anyone. And above all, why was I spending so much time and energy on finding and consuming new books when I could only partially remember what I had read?
I was reminded of a quote from Seneca in this moment that hit like a gut punch:
“The primary indication, to my thinking, of a well-ordered mind is a man’s ability to remain in one place and linger in his own company. Be careful, however, lest this reading of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive and unsteady. You must linger among a limited number of master-thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind. Everywhere means nowhere.”
Nothing like a Stoic to make you feel like a dilettante, huh?
But at that time, I had also been slowly making my way through This Will Make You Smarter by John Brockman, a terrific collection of responses from leading experts to the question What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit? (N.B. These very short essays are great for a read-one-each-day approach.)
Journalist Jason Zweig’s response had particularly resonated when he spoke about “structured serendipity,” which for him consisted of reading widely about a variety of subjects (particularly in scientific journals and articles) as a means of seeing connections and unexpected links between disparate topics. As he put it “Creativity is a fragile flower, but perhaps it can be fertilized with systematic doses of serendipity.”
Curiosity is a main driver in my desire to read “omnivorously,” and the hidden connections between seemingly unrelated things is one of the most rewarding results of the habit. Reading frequently and widely is my own version of systematic serendipity.
But I began to see, as well, that my reading had also become a compulsion of sorts. It is a relatively healthy compulsion, I would argue compared to, say, Netflix, Instagram, or heroin–but I had to admit that Seneca was right in calling it a discursive and unsteadying one given how little resonance this compulsion seemed to bring. What was that book about? I remember liking it, but I don’t remember why.
I like to read, though. I enjoy it, and it’s a pretty harmless pleasure. To treat it exclusively as Seneca would suggest seems like a joyless way to spend my life.
While imperfect, my current solution to this dilemma between systematic serendipity, lingering and learning from master-thinkers, and still enjoying the activity has set the tone for how I plan to spend the year: I plan to reread books that I enjoyed or valued and then using them as a jumping off point for newer works on similar topics.
Not exclusively, mind you. I’ll still be reading plenty of things for fun as well–I’m not vying for sainthood here. But systematically pairing new titles with old titles that I’ve appreciated seems like a practice worth cultivating. More on this in a bit.
How to be a Good President
Biographies aren’t my favorite genre, really. While I typically enjoy the first hundred pages or so, it’s hard for me to sustain attention on all the minutia of a single life. Even Walter Isaacson’s biographies on genuinely fascinating individuals like DaVinci or Franklin tend to lose me around page 150.
But Doris Kearns Goodwin’s most recent biography entitled Leadership: In Turbulent Times was a fantastic look at the lives of four different presidents: Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, and LBJ. Focusing on the theme of leadership and tracing it through the lives of all four presidents might have lost me if Goodwin had started with Lincoln and followed him from birth to death. I probably never would have gotten to the New Deal let alone the Great Society with that approach.
But instead, Goodwin focused on the early years of each of the four, devoting a section to each before switching to the next. Then she moved on to the next stage in life and continued in this vein through all four presidencies while tracing the roots of leadership at every step. In this way, the comparison between each leader was made much clearer, and it kept any single topic from getting bogged down with the historical minutia that can get tedious.
I’d also be lying if I didn’t find the close examination of truly amazing presidents a kind of tonic as news of our current impeachment process dragged on. If that’s a feeling you share, Leadership: In Turbulent Times might be just the thing to remind you of some of the inspiring things that past leaders have done with the presidency.
(And if you’re looking for a way to stay on top of the impeachment proceedings and the current presidency from some place other than the major news outlets, might I suggest this daily blog from Heather Cox Richardson, a professor of American history at Boston College? A historical perspective is always an interesting way of zooming out and putting our own era in context…)
Experiments in Sobriety and Buddhism
If there’s a retrospective tinge to this issue, it might be because I turn 40 in a week and a half. While I’m not getting morose or anything about the milestone, it has caused a fair amount of reflection about the last few decades and the way I’ve spent my time.
It was with mostly curiosity that I first picked up the book Sober Curious by Ruby Warrington, which my wife had picked up from the library. The title struck me as fairly cringeworthy, but I ended up reading it and actually appreciating the nuanced approach of the title, even if there’s still something slightly sanctimonious about it. (I hesitated to even include this portion of my reading in the newsletter, as it seemed somewhat akin to extolling veganism or Crossfit.)
The thrust of the book is that it neatly sidesteps the binary thinking around substances that recovery programs necessarily promote. I get it that there are some people for whom substance abuse becomes such a problem that they have to swear it off forever. They have to give themselves over to a higher power and live one day at a time. But I’m lucky enough not to be one of those people.
If intoxication really isn’t a problem in your life, though, but you still use it to help you relax or unwind, then going without it can seem restrictive or prohibitive. It also begins to seem as though the choice is binary: That I could only choose to enjoy an after-work IPA or to shake my fist at the sky and shout “NEVER AGAIN.” At least, that’s the way it seemed to me.
Rather than accepting this false dichotomy, though, Sober Curious is simply about asking the question “Would my life be better without alcohol?” and then actually trying to discover the answer for myself.
To be clear, I’m not swearing off anything. But I am actually getting much more curious (and trying to find other solutions to) the deeper reasons why I feel the need to unwind and relax in the first place. You don’t really need to read the entire book, though. The first chapter is probably enough to get the gist.
Because it was quoted in Sober Curious, I also decided to read the book Recovery: Freedom from our Addictions by Russell Brand. While the book focuses on Russell’s own humorous interpretation of the AA Twelve Steps (e.g. “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable” becomes “Are you a bit fucked?”) it was, at heart, a spiritual reflection about the real, concrete value that the practices within the Twelve Steps can have for everyone, whether or not they are powerless over a substance.
So much of Brand’s book had a spiritual flavor that dovetailed nicely with the meditation practices that I’ve been engaging in (Man, this section is starting to sound pretentious) over the fall thanks to the guided meditations on Sam Harris’s Waking Up app (You can get a free month of those meditations by clicking here, incidentally.) So much so that I decided to lean into Buddhism with the audio version of Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse on Hoopla.
I’ve read the print version of the Siddhartha any number of times, but it was hugely refreshing to listen to the audio version for a change: The imagery, the intentional repetition, and the arc of Siddhartha’s journey resonated for me this time in a way that simply hadn’t happened before.
And, finally, Brand’s writing was hauntingly reminiscent of themes that I had first heard in the work of David Foster Wallace. Take this quote for example: “We have been taught that freedom is the freedom to pursue our petty, trivial desires. Real freedom is freedom from our petty, trivial desires.”
It sounds eerily similar to Wallace’s famous This is Water commencement address: “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”
So, with two bookmarks in hand (one for the main text, one for the endnotes), I’ve decided to pair Recovery with a rereading of Wallace’s Infinite Jest, a book that I’ve idly flipped through over the last few decades but haven’t seriously read since 2002. The general thrust of the book, though, focuses acutely on the process of recovery from addiction as one of the main narrative threads, so it seemed like a great candidate for a rereading. We’ll see how that goes…
I get in a taxi and say, 'To the Library, and step on it'.
As always, do yourself a favor and put your local library to work:
First, install the Chrome Library Extension–once it’s set up, a single click takes you from Amazon to the “Request Title” page of your library’s website. Since book-related hyperlinks inevitably take you to Amazon, you might as well click one more time and see whether you can check the book out for free.
Next, take two minutes to figure out how to make Interlibrary Loan requests on your library website: A few more clicks and you’ll be able to search and request books from the entire city or state.
Just to be clear, Interlibrary Loan requests are free of charge. That’s right: They’ll ship you the book you want for free and let you borrow it for free. About a third of the books I come across necessitate an interlibrary loan request. My local library is pretty good, but a statewide search nearly always finds me what I’m looking for. 
The Library Extension ensures budget isn’t a factor in reading the books you want to read; an Interlibrary Loan ensures you’re not limited by a local catalog. 
Finally, figure out what app your library uses to stream audiobooks and download it. Hoopla and RB Digital are two popular ones. There are lots of other features in the app, I guess, but free streaming audiobooks is all I’m interested in.
I love owning books, but I abandon them so frequently that it’s just not worth purchasing things until I know I’ll enjoy them. The library lets me do that.
Best Book (and Film) Lists
Each New Year, there are a bunch of “Best of…” lists that pop up online. I’ve started saving them to include here. Also included are film recommendations in case, like me, you can’t remember the last time you went to a “grown up” movie and want to know more specifically what you missed:
The 15 best books of 2019 | The A.V. Club
io9's Best Comics of 2019: Image, Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, IDW
The 25 Best Books Of The Decade
The 25 best films of 2019 | The A.V. Club
I hope you’re all doing well and that you can find (or make) the time to read whichever of these books catches your interest–and I hope that you quickly abandon it if it turns out to be something that’s not for you. And if you come across a book that you’d recommend, please let me know.
Take care,
Chris Cunningham
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