HAPPY NEW YEAR!
I was wondering how to launch this new year here in the Philosopher's Corner. Originally, I had intended to begin a new series on a first century BC roman sage who has some wisdom for us that we all can use. But then I decided to do something else today, January 1, 2001, and save Horace's poetic wisdom for next week and the week or two that follow. What I'd like to take just a few minutes to do is to share with all of you some of the best books I've read in the past six months, books that you might or might not otherwise come across.
I love to go into bookstores and just wander. I've become convinced that creativity is encouraged in our lives by exposure to new viewpoints and perspectives, in areas and on topics that don't normally dominate our attention. The easiest thing in the world to do with our limited reading time is just to read more and more of what we already know. Some of us are tempted to a constant diet of business books. Others read only philosophy. I try to break out of such habits by reading all sorts of things. Here is a recent sampling of a few things I can recommend, in no particular order. I won't mention stuff like Horace or Xenophon, because you know I read that stuff, and I write about it here. This is a little off the beaten path for a philosopher and so much the more worth mentioning.
A Hope in the Unseen. An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League. By Ron Suskind.
This is a remarkable account of one young man's incredible struggle against all odds to escape the bonds of poverty, desperation, and hopelessness to be found in many of our inner cities. Cedric Jennings grows up in a Washington D.C neighborhood that sends its children to prison, not to ivy league universities. But with the help of a few adults who believe in him, Cedric makes it to Brown University and a new universe of possibilities. This is a great account by a Pulitzer Prize journalist of the series of challenges that Cedric faces and surmounts. Sobering and inspirational.
The Blood Like a River Runs Through My Dreams. By Nasdijj.
Have you ever been told by everyone around you that your dreams are stupid or unrealistic, and have you gone through a time when reality seemed to prove them right? This is an account of one man who hung in there despite it all. This is also great and powerful writing by a native American man who was born with fetal alcohol syndrome. He says "It is very unusual that someone with this disease would become a writer. But I am stubborn and perverse." And later he adds "I became a writer just to piss on all the many write teachers and white editors out there (everywhere) who insisted that it could not be done. Not by the stupid mongrel likes of me." Like Cedric Jennings, Nasdijj lives to refute the odds. He became not just a writer, but a very very good one, first published nationally in Esquire, and producing here a book that is, by turns, sweet, brutal, hopeful, realistic, and so carefully observed as to be at times breathtaking as well as heartbreaking.
This is a man committed to writing. And a man able to endure failure of cosmic proportions because of his commitment. He once submitted a novel to an editor and had it returned torn into little pieces. Supporting himself with small journalistic jobs, he recounts ending up homeless, and living in circumstances that most of us literally can't imagine. But the power of his heart and intellect burn through it all. This is his story. And the story of his love for his son, who dies at the age of six. Just a sample:
"It is not incumbent on life to evolve into happily ever after. Take your happilies while you can." (page 46)
"I am ashamed of what I have done with the gift that was my life. It runs fluidly through my fingers and pours itself on the ground at my feet. It was a life once. It did things. It had value." (page 111)
But Nasdijj ends up using that gift of his life in a way that benefits us all. He finds hope and triumph at the end of all the pain and defeat. And he tells us:
"People here still blow corn dust into the morning wind as a way of communicating thanks for the life to be lived that day." (page 147)
Where is the Mango Princess?" By Cathy Crimmins.
This is the sort of true story that can make anyone shudder. A husband and wife win a lake vacation at a school auction. On the lake, the husband is involved in a terrible boating accident through no fault of his own that leaves him with permanent brain damage. This book is his wife's account of the aftermath. It is the most amazing look at that fragile thing we call "personality" and all take for granted. It is a down to earth, incredibly suspenseful, and surprisingly informative look at the construct of consciousness that depends, in this life, on the integrity of our neural functioning. It's also a story that recalls to mind a line in a Woody Allen movie where Woody's character says to a colleague "Don't you realize what a thread we're all hanging by?" You can't read this book without ending up more thankful than you were before for all the small goods in your life.
Cathy Crimmins teaches non-fiction writing at the University of Pennsylvania. And she teaches life in this book. What's the significance of the title? You have to read it to see!
Jim the Boy. By Tony Earley.
This is an old fashioned story about a boy growing up in the mountains of North Carolina. It is a quick read that takes you back to a simpler time. I could almost taste the cool mountain air in my lungs as I sat and read.
Success: A Book of Wit and Wisdom. Edited by Susan Feuer.
This is one of Andrews and McMeel's little gift books that packs a punch. Nearly every quote in it is worth serious reflection and application. I've pretty much seen it all when it comes to quote books and success books, and I have very high standards for thinking something is worth your time and mine. This tiny $4.95 book is. It also makes a nice little giftette with a value far beyond its size or cost. A few of the quotes are hyperbolic overstatements, but most embody profound wisdom for any form of success. And some will bring a smile, as for example, T.S. Eliot's perspective that "Success is relative: it is what we can make of the mess we have made of things." (page 42)
So read this little book and think hard over its wisdom nuggets, but also remember:
"Those who act receive the prizes." - Aristotle (page 21)
The O'Reilly Factor. By Bill O'Reilly.
A few weeks ago, I had no idea who Bill O'Reilly is. I had never seen his popular television show. But I knew his book was on the bestseller list. And so, out of curiosity, I picked it up.
The sweep of topics in this slim book is impressive. All the things of life that an ancient philosopher, or contemporary advice columnist, would touch on. And there is a lot of common sense in its pages. O'Reilly writes straightforwardly and well. There are chapters here on money, social class, dating, jobs, the media, parents, spouses, politics, race, religion, success, and gratitude, among other things.
One of my students at Notre Dame once wrote on a final course evaluation form at the end of the semester: "This class wasn't like being in a class at all. It was more like a conversation, but with a really really talkative person." Reading O'Reilly's book is a little bit like having a conversation with a well read and opinionated, but cultured and charming neighbor. He doesn't dig deep or aim too high, but he makes you think. Sometimes I found myself saying "Yes, BUT..." and I noticed quickly that the quiet of my study was indeed a good place to engage him in argument, because I ended up being the one who always had the last word.
For example, at the beginning of his chapter on success, he says:
"There is only one rule of success that really counts in the long run. Success is measured by how many people on this earth respect you." (page 169)
Doesn't reading those two sentences immediately make you think, by confirming contrast, of people who have risen to the top slashing and burning every step of the way, and who as a result have the fear and loathing of others but never their respect? Doesn't what he says here, in that context, strike you as so true? Success, real success, is surely tied in with the respect of others. But I want to respond "True success is surely tied in with respect worthiness - but I'm not sure there are any guarantees about how much of it you'll actually get, even if you are a real success." It surely can't be a simple numbers game. Consider by contrast a quote I keep taped on my computer monitor, right beside my "7 Cs of Success":
"The only kind of dignity which is genuine is that which is not diminished by the indifference of others." - Dag Hammarskjold
I have known people of true success who had extreme dignity and yet were not widely known or widely regarded in any way. Their success was not literally to be measured by the number of people who respected them. Nor can it be a matter of percentages. What if they are surrounded by jerks? But, even when I find myself disagreeing with the precise claim Mr. O'Reilly makes, I enjoy thinking through how he got there, and what in the conceptual neighborhood I might say instead. He often starts a nice conversation in my head.
Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. By David Brooks.
A lot of us are "bourgeois bohemians" and didn't know it. David Brooks explains what this means, and what its significance might be, in this book. He shows how two different cultural streams from business and the arts have come together to give us a distinctive upper class lifestyle where certain kinds of vehicles, kitchen appliances, gardening tools, and foods play a new role in the lives of increasing numbers of people. A new educated consumer class is really enjoying itself, but perhaps at the cost of depth and commitment. Brooks' critique is not harsh or detailed, but a sample of it can be found on page 246 and 247, if you happen upon this book in your local bookstore.
The Twilight of American Culture. By Morris Berman.
If you're in the mood for one intelligent observer's account of what's wrong in modern American culture, this is a pretty good read. It's a little screechy in parts, and I think that Berman's understanding of American business is way off, for the most part, but in other ways, it is a fascinating critique of many contemporary cultural trends. You don't have to agree with a book in all ways to benefit from reading it, and this is how I think of Berman's effort here. Ok I have to admit - Screechy, preachy, wrong - this doesn't sound like praise, I know, but I did learn from this book, and will think through some of its points again.
The Art of Possibility. Transforming Professional and Personal Life. By Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander.
This book by Harvard Business Press is interesting and innovative. Ben Zander is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, and is a popular lecturer to business leaders. I met him many years ago on a trip to Russia, Finland and Sweden in the company of a couple of hundred company presidents and their families. I was right away tremendously impressed with his musicianship and his ability to inspire business people with a new sense of the possibilities in their lives and work. In fact, he was a man endlessly excited by the concept of possibility. But I was surprised to hear him argue very animatedly at the time that there is no such thing as truth or necessity. As a philosopher, I believe that truth and possibility are in a dance of mutual dependence: truth depends on possibility and possibility depends on truth. You can't have one without the other. But I recall this view upsetting the maestro, who would hear nothing of it. Despite the difficulties that I had at the time talking with him about these ideas, I remember with great fondness the extraordinary experience of hearing him conduct a Russian orchestra with almost no preparation. As we sat, transfixed, in an old symphony hall in St. Petersburg, listening to him coax such beauty from the assembled musicians, a stray cat walked around on the stage, utterly oblivious to the proceedings. I like to believe that this illustrated the truth, and objective reality, that lies behind all possibility. But I'm sure he wouldn't agree. And that's ok, because I saw the cat before he did too.
As the years have passed, I believe that Zander's grasp of possibility has deepened, and his accomplishments in passing on an excitement about it to others have certainly grown ever more impressive. This new book presents his philosophy and tells his story. I haven't often heard a CEO praise any speaker that he once brought in to talk to his executives like I have heard Zander praised. In this book, he and his wife and collaborator give a glimpse of what is so powerful in what they do. After reading their account, I hope they do it for a long time.
See How She Runs. Marion Jones and the Making of a Champion. By Ron Rapoport.
She shot for 5 gold medals and ended up with 3 gold and 2 bronze. Not bad. This little book gives a great account of the life and commitment of a remarkable athlete. I think it's important for all of us to see, reported so thoroughly, how tough it is to get to the top. And she did it in basketball at my alma mater, as well as in track. A great and inspiring book.
How to Read and Why. By Harold Bloom.
This is that great course with that famous Yale professor that you never took, either because you didn't go to Yale, or because you were there taking accounting courses the whole time, or it conflicted with your secret society meetings, or you spent all your time preparing for the presidency when you should have been reading Shakespeare with Bloom.
Why do we read? To grow, to "strengthen the self." At one point, Bloom says:
"We ought to read for many purposes, and to gain copious benefits, but the cultivation of an individual consciousness is certainly a prime purpose, and a major benefit, of deep reading. Zest and insight: these are the attributes of the solitary reader's consciousness that are most enhanced by reading." (page 173)
Bloom takes us through a selection of texts and masters in poetry and prose, and shows us how to read. Good stuff indeed.
A Short Guide to a Happy Life.By Anna Quindlen.
One of my daughter's friends gave her this little book for Christmas. I read it in ten minutes and really enjoyed it. Anna tells us that her mother died of ovarian cancer at the age of 40, when she was 19 (my daughter's age now). That was the worst year of her life, but it gave her a perspective on living that would stay with her, and open her to life's little joys every day. That's the basic message of the book. Life is to be enjoyed now. Not later. Now.
My wife told me today that she heard Anna Quindlen speak when we were at Notre Dame, and that she is a very good speaker. My wife is a tough critic, and so that's praise indeed. She is just as good a writer. This is a simple book no longer than a magazine article, but nicely published with accompanying photographs evocative of the human condition at its best. Get this book. Or give it. Or at least sit down in the bookstore or library for ten minutes and read it. And enjoy your day.
Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition. By Wendell Berry.
Read everything that Wendell Berry writes. I try to. This book is a long conversation with Edward O. Wilson's recent book Consilience, which had prominently argued for a unity of all human knowledge under the constraints of empirical, physical science. Berry takes it apart and reminds us of all the stuff in life that matters deeply and that science will never explain. It's a little like a book review that grew up and became a book itself.
Berry is a farmer and is one of the few people I think of as a prophetic genius. He is at times cantankerous and is more than a little down on aspects of the corporate world, but there is no better spokesman alive for the importance of community and a sense of place in our lives. Reading what he says about the Bible and about the role of art in life, I sit in awe. I mean it. There are few books that really captivate me, but Berry does it fairly consistently in his. Today I was sitting in front of the fireplace, fire roaring away, with Mozart on in the background, and enjoying the heck out of this book. Read it and his other books if you get a chance. I promise you'll enjoy and learn.
Well it's past my bedtime and I don't want to start the new year off wrong, so I'll stop. I hope you've found books this past year that you've enjoyed as much as I've enjoyed these and others. If so, write and tell me about them! And have a happy new year in everything you do, as well as in everything you read.
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