Reading & Treecentricity

Playa Giones in Nosara, Costa Rica, was where I spent the last week, and was where I saw so many beautiful plants and animals and trees. Howler monkeys, small but sounding like King Kong, iguanas with frilled collars, green birds with dangling tail feathers, strangler figs strangling their host plants, and Halloween Moon Crabs, my new favorite crustacean. I also read a ton of books, as I always do at the beach. I had brought my Kindle so I didn’t need to haul this ton of books back and forth in my suitcase, but there was a very good bookstore at the Harmony Hotel, so I ended up bringing a lot back. Didn’t think I’d be book shopping in Nosara! I decided to read the books that were on my Kindle which had been sitting unread for a long time, and so:

  • Persuasion by Jane Austen needs no introduction. Her novels seem like straightforward marriage plots, but her snarky wickedness, her summary take-downs of the vain and pretentious, and her warm sympathy for women of independent mind are always a sustaining pleasure.
  • Moonglow was another competent book by Michael Chabon, one of those books existing on the border between fact and fiction. This one is about his grandfather’s life as a soldier, his grandmother’s life as a survivor and their lives together after the Second World War had shaped them. And there is a mystery: the lost history of his grandmother’s childhood.
  • Next on my Kindle’s unread list was Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald. Coincidentally it is also about a lost history, that of a boy who at four had been rescued from the Nazis and sent via Kindertransport to Wales. Reading Austerlitz and Moonglow consecutively really helps you see the difference between a journeyman and a master; though their strategies were quite different, their subjects and themes were similar, and the depth of understanding-
  • One thing that is consistently reassuring about books in our world of perpetual commerce is that they’re never trying to sell you anything beyond the book itself. Which is part of the reason I only use my Kindle when I’m traveling. Because at the end of a book, say, Austerlitz, you’re immediately presented with many more books liked by the people who liked the book you just read. Among these I found Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday, which I found quite gratifying. It starts out as a fairly standard “relationship” novel, cataloguing scenes between an ingenue writer and a much older tremendously famous and accomplished writer, roman a clef style–Halliday had a relationship with Philip Roth when she was in her 20s and he in her 60s. But it then suddenly turns into Part Two, an Iraqi man being detained and interrogated at immigration services in Heathrow. A coda ties it all together. But it’s a book unlike other books; I am looking forward to future books by Lisa Halliday.
  • Now, back home I am reading an interview with Richard Powers in the LARB, talking about his new book The Overstory, about the lives of trees. We are “plant blind. Adam’s curse. We only see things that look like us.”

Heard, read and seen

An image of Totoro, comprised of the entire screenplay written by hand in Japanese.

• My favorite anecdote from Emma Cline, author of The Girls, interviewed by Vendela Vida at City Arts and Lectures. Cline grew up in a family with 7 children, and on their birthdays each kid would get their very own box of cereal. They’d write their names on the box with a sharpie and guard it with their lives.

• I serve on the board of McSweeneys, the publisher of the Internet Tendency, a humor web site, the McSweeneys Quarterly Concern , a literary magazine, and lots of lots of literary fiction, poetry, non-fiction, children’s books and books that make the world better. The Quarterly and the Books are in actualy, physical print, beacons of beauty in a world starved for gorgeousness.  Certainly your holiday gift recipients should have some ideas, some poetry, some love, some beauty?

 

No difference at all

“I was working for the city as a janitor in a neighborhood elementary school and, in summer, collecting litter in the park alongside the East River near the Williamsburg Bridge. I felt no shame whatsoever in these activities, because I understood what almost no one else seemed to grasp: that there was only an infinitesimal difference, a difference so small that it barely existed except as a figment of the human imagination, between working in a tall green glass building on Park Avenue and collecting litter in a park. In fact, there may have been no difference at all.”

from A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Ph.D program vs. Time-Life book

…I attended a political theory Ph.D. program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Something happened there. One day I was reading a Time-Life book about the painter Goya. I forget who the king was at the time, but he was one of the few enlightened kings of Spain. In the capital, there was a lot of crime. Men wore these big capes and hats, which made for a great disguise. The king was mad about all the crime, so he made that outfit illegal, but then there was a riot because me were so attached to the capes and hats. So the king repealed the law. He found a new adviser and said, Look, youve got to stop all this thieving. The new guy said, Don’t worry, Your Majesty, I got it covered. And the next day, he made the cape and hat the uniform of the executioner, who worked out in the open every day. People stopped wearing them just like that. Nobody wanted to be identified with the executioner. And I thought, I’ve learned more in reading this one stupid page in this Time-Life book about Goya than I have in my Ph.D. program. So I quit.

– Walter Mosley, interviewed in The Paris Review.

Storytelling, Narrative and the Utility of Knowledge

Why are we so intellectually dismissive towards narrative?” he asks. “Why are we inclined to treat it as rather a trashy, if entertaining, way of thinking about and talking about what we do with our minds? Storytelling performs the dual cultural functions of making the strange familiar and ourselves private and distinctive. If pupils are encouraged to think about the different outcomes that could have resulted from a set of circumstances, they are demonstrating usability of knowledge about a subject. Rather than just retaining knowledge and facts, they go beyond them to use their imaginations to think about other outcomes, as they don’t need the completion of a logical argument to understand a story. This helps them to think about facing the future, and it stimulates the teacher too.

– Jerome Bruner

Jerome Bruner died this week. He had lived well into his 90s and was working until the end.


Further Reading:
Actual Minds, Possible Worlds Bruner argues here that there is too much emphasis on the logical, rational and scientifically oriented parts of cognition, and too little on what he calls its “narrative” aspects, which are the source of all great storytelling, drama, myth and persuasion.

 

 

Acts of Meaning In which Bruner asks us to focus not on the mechanistic, computer-inspired way of looking at thinking, but give our focus to the rich, evocative, meaning-making aspects of our minds.

Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexeivich

The annual announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature brings about an efflorescence of translations worldwide, and for this we should be grateful to those former weapons manufacturers, the Nobels. The granting of peace prizes and prizes for literature is a correction, of sorts, to their war-mongering past and a good way to spend and expend an ill-gotten wealth. Last fall Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexeivich was granted the Nobel Prize for Literature, a surprise, as the recipients often are; perhaps the Nobel committee was even making a political statement against Putin. She stands out from her fellow laureates in that she’s a non-fiction writer, a chronicler rather than a storyteller, a collector of oral histories, and not a writer of poetry or fiction.  Bertrand Russell also won the prize, no poet he. So did Winston Churchill. She is not the first non-fiction laureate.

Alexeivich seeks out the tales behind the historical events, gives voice to those silence or obscured by history. In her first book, War’s Unwomanly Face, she wrote the stories of women and World War II, of war not as a grand geopolitical triumph or national catastrophe, not as a vale of hero-making and striving, or a tale of strategy or tactical derring-do, but war as the backdrop for women nursing men from the battlefields, women working as snipers and killing enemy soldiers, losing their betrothed in battle. She followed this book with The Last Witnesses: the Book of Unchildlike Stories, war from children’s’ point of view.

In her book Chernobyl Prayer, available in the UK, and offered in the States as Voices from Chernobyl, Alexeivich talks to the survivors of the Chernobyl disaster of April 26, 1986. To me, the disaster at Chernobyl had always been a news article, a terrible disaster certainly, one of the worst, but something I had only read about in newspapers and the occasional news magazine. I knew facts, I’d seen charts. I saw maps and commentary and analysis. But Alexeivich transformed what we experienced as news into something different, a real story. Walter Benjamin, in his essay The Storyteller, collected in the book Illuminations, explains the difference between what Alexeivich has done–tell stories– and the Chernobyl situation as we’ve hitherto experienced it: as news, as information, as something explained, analyzed and interpreted:

Every morning brings us the news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation. In other words, by now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information. Actually, it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation as one reproduces it… The most extraordinary things, marvelous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connection of the events is not forced on the reader. It is left up to him to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks.

Alexeivich includes no maps, diagrams or statistics into Chernobyl Prayer. She explains very little of what was reported in the news–that’s been exhaustively covered already. Instead, she allows the wives of the cleanup crew to tell their stories, the parents of children who’ve grown up with terrible disfiguration after their parents were exposed to radiation. She talks to everyone from the region, farmers and professors, children and soldiers, university agriculturalists, scientists, Communist party leaders and secret dissenters. She lets both of the owners of pets that were rounded up and shot by the cleanup workers and  the cleanup workers who were commanded to seek out and kill all the animals left behind tell their stories.  Chernobyl Prayer tells of the returnees, going back to their homes, in spite of the killing radiation they will find there, and eating the beautiful vegetables that are, invisibly, hopelessly contaminated. It tells what it’s like to watch the people you love die deaths of great suffering. It tells of the country people from Pripyat and environs, trying to adjust to life in the city. It tells of their love of nature, and the difficulty of comprehending how flowers, trees and animals that were still so beautiful could be radiating death.

It’s not possible to overstate the power, horror and beauty of this book, its expression of humanity confronted with extremes of experience and catastrophe, the stories of people who were present at the end of the world, the primacy of love in the midst of disaster. It’s a remarkable document, an indelible book of slow death and demise, the story of a poisoned world, told by the survivors of an apocalypse.

I look forward to the other volumes of Alexeivich’s work that will follow, soon, in translation.

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