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The Omnivorous Reader - June 2022


The Omnivorous Reader

June 6 · Issue #15 · View online

Recommendations, reviews, and assorted digital flotsam and jetsam

After a 2 year hiatus owing to Covid, seismic shifts in employment, and lots of life changes, I’ve decided to restart this monthly newsletter. I’m pairing down the recommendations, too, only focusing on the best of what I read.
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.
If you don’t want to receive a monthly newsletter with book recommendations, please unsubscribe below–obligatory reading is the worst.
If you know a fellow reader who might enjoy it, please forward it along!

Ah, the Russians...
Once at a holiday party, I casually asked a coworker who had just come back from a diversity conference how it had gone and ended up having to listen to 25 minutes of his thoughts on the Trans Atlantic slave trade, the Holocaust, and other examples of man’s inhumanity to man. Not that there’s not a time and place for serious discussions–just, you know, read the room, man. Even Lisa from HR was wearing a holiday antler headband and drinking a Corona.
I’ve always felt the Russian writers were sort of like that guy: They only want to talk about serious, weighty philosophical topics. It’s intimidating and sometimes exhausting, so I’ve only ventured into the Russian canon once or twice. But I like George Saunders, so despite the fact that his latest book focused solely on Russian short stories, I decided to give A Swim in a Pond in the Rain a try.
I’m so glad I did.
The book truly lives up to the subtitle “In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life.” Saunders has been teaching a class on creative writing at Syracuse for years now, and this book is like auditing that class, chock full of Saunders’ insight, humor, and generous spirit as he takes us through some of his favorite short stories from Tolstoy, Gogol, Chekhov, and Turgenev. He dissects each story with precision and uses them as a springboard to discuss…well, writing, reading, and life.
Doing What's Right
I first heard an interview with Michael Schur on a podcast and realized that I had been a fan of his writing for years. You probably are, too–he wrote for SNL, The Office (he played Dwight’s brother Mose), and Parks and Recreation. He also wrote and created The Good Place (also recommended) where he explored moral philosophy through the lens of a supernatural sitcom.
His book How to Be Perfect is the nonfiction version of that T.V. show where he unpacks and explores moral philosophies while making jokes and generally being hilarious. If you’ve taken a Philosophy 101-type class, there really isn’t anything new here, moral philosophy-wise, and I didn’t expect to finish the book. But Schur’s writing is funny enough that I found myself enjoying the journey through various moral dilemmas and frameworks: Should you return your supermarket cart to the store or leave it in the parking lot? Should I punch my friend in the face for no reason? What is the philosophical difference between “bullshit” and “smarm”?
It is, by far, the funniest book on moral philosophy I’ve ever read. And because that’s an absurdly low bar, I’ll also say: It’s a genuinely enjoyable book, too.
Yes, and...
The vast majority of the comedy we love and enjoy today was born from improvisors. More than just silly theater games and live word play, Improv Nation makes the (mostly successful) claim that improvisational acting deserves to be ranked with Jazz and Blues as a great, wholly American art form.
Tracing the history of improvisational theater from its therapeutic origins at the University of Chicago through the breeding ground of Second City into Saturday Night Live and Hollywood, Improv Nation is a fascinating look at the history of the last 60 years of comedy. It tracks the histories of John Belushi, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase and countless others and takes us behind the scenes for the makings of The Graduate, Caddyshack, and The Colbert Report.
Assorted Quotes about Books
There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag–and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or a movement. Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty–and vise versa. Don’t read a book out of its right time for you. - Doris Lessing
Anyone who thinks one book has all the answers hasn’t read enough books - Brian K. Vaughan
Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible. They are engines of change (as the poet said), windows on the world, lighthouses erected in the sea of time. They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. Books are humanity in print. - Barbara Tuchman
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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