Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Rebuttal: The Third Policeman

The Third Policeman
Guest writer Cliff Ward shares a rebuttal to my review of The Third Policeman.  Is it not so bad after all?

Shenpa. The term comes from Tibetan Buddhism, or at least the Pema Chodron version. Its literal definition is difficult to verify, but meditation teachers generally open by calling it a fishing hook. And then they us the word “hook” to describe anything that we needlessly obsess about, or spend too much time being distracted by. In other words, Shenpa is all that is irrelevant to having peace and happiness, and meditation, according to these teachers, is the key to remaining unhooked. The Third Policeman is a Shenpa object lesson. It doesn’t tell us how to pull the hooks out, but it does show us in book length what being hooked really means so that we can identify some of the less prominent hooks most of us are pierced with from time to time, like the overwhelming need to possess complete answers to questions and challenges, or placing more value on what is temporary than what can be eternal—family, truth, love, good will. 

Thus, the atomic theory of bicycles. If a man spends so much time with what is temporary and irrelevant that the man and his hooks become indistinguishable, is there really a man left at all?  Has he given away what makes him a man for, ultimately, nothing? O’Brien/O’Nolan said, “Answers do not matter so much as questions . . . A good question is very hard to answer. The better the question the harder the answer. There is no answer at all to a very good question.” I don’t agree that this applies to all questions, but in fiction, with its freedom for exploration and conjecture, the absence of answers provided by the author (perhaps to questions unanswerable by the author) extends a challenge to us, the readers, the thinkers, the hooked, and the unhooked, alike.  Can we answer the difficult questions about the consequences of our less invasive hooks?  Where are they, how can we pull them out, what will it take to heal the wounds?  What percentage of ourselves is something else, something that shouldn’t be occupying our bodies and minds at all (what’s our number?)?  Fiction is true for this reason: it asks questions we hadn’t thought of yet, and specific answers only come from specific questions. 

The Third Policeman is one of those books, like the poems of Emily Dickinson for me, that requires the reader to be in a near-hostile psychological or emotional condition in order to appreciate it. If the reader is not already in that place, the book is liable to take them there. And regardless of the old axiom that “adversity is the best education,” and the fact that much good can come from a sour mood, it is unlikely that anyone would willingly leave behind happy contentment for melancholic ennui. However, in the way a sad song can sooth the sting of a lost love or a crappy job, or the way Greek tragedy can bring forth and drain dry the toxins of the soul, The Third Policeman has the power to uncover the futility and associated suffering of self-centeredness and an obsession with irrelevancies. It is a living Hell that is depicted in the novel, one that shows us consequences that—like Meth Project Foundation ads—work to deter us from those misdirected priorities. I didn’t particularly enjoy the novel when I read it, aside from the atomic theory of bicycles bit, but I have thought about it a lot since that reading. And I think the value of the book is not in its slight and dark attempts at humor, or in its surreal absurdity (though there is a certain realm of pleasure that those things permit access to). It’s in the stylistic method used to teach the same old lessons in a unique way—don’t be selfish; don’t spend all of your time looking for answers to the wrong questions; don’t value your possessions above people, or you may end up a possession yourself.

- Cliff Ward 

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Third Policeman

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Reflections: Outliers

Malcolm Gladwell is a talented writer. Unlike many authors, he is able to write about potentially banal topics in a fresh and neoteric way. Having read The Tipping Point, I had a good idea as to what to expect with Outliers and found some familiar territory and style. Outliers is a good book, worthy of challenge and discussion.

Outliers purports to be "The Story of Success." Rather, it seeks to subvert some of our cultural and societal expectations of how success is achieved. In many ways, it seeks to undercut the myth of the rags to riches, scrappy loner, clawing and climbing his or her way to the top all by their lonesome. In Gladwell's words: "No one - not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses - ever makes it alone." Gladwell provides, with convincing clarity, that the most successful among us were assisted by incredible opportunities, family relationships, cultural heritage, and sometimes blind luck. All of this true; however, I did feel the book emphasized too much the circumstantial elements of success toward the beginning of the book. Regardless of circumstances, as Gladwell points out, unless an individual is willing and engaged in taking advantage of opportunities, then it doesn't matter how serendipitous their circumstances are. Having said that, I do feel the book corrected its emphasis repeatedly and kept things in focus. Of the several ideas presented in the book, the 10,000 hours rule (which has plenty of critics) is perhaps the most popular and well-known, and that idea clearly emphasizes the importance of hard work.

Parenthetically, I think the book, like most commentaries on "success," has too specific a definition of success. Success isn't necessarily (and shouldn't be) linked most directly to material and financial acquirement. Those who are considered "poor" can be perfectly successful when that word is more broadly defined. Furthermore, an exceptionally wealthy person could be considered, according to certain definitions, to be a very unsuccessful person. Consider, for example, the following axiom, which I consider to be wise and true: "[N]o other success can compensate for failure in the home" (David O. McKay).  The outliers detailed in Gladwell's book are outliers of a certain kind but not necessarily the most important kind.

Continuing on, perhaps the idea I found most interesting in Outliers was its exploration of the impact of cultural heritage and legacy. The discussion of plane crashes and the cultural communication problems which appear to be their cause was enthralling. As someone professionally and personally interested in communication and its impact, I found the insights provided by Outliers to be supremely useful and applicable. There is education to be found here, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Gladwell's conclusions and prescriptions.

I enjoyed Outliers. Although not a monumental achievement, and no doubt deconstructed and "debunked" by many after so many years of being published, the book is a fine contribution to the conversation regarding success, opportunity, and hard work.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Contagious: Why Things Catch On
Reflections: Steve Jobs
Reflections: Thinking, Fast and Slow

Thursday, January 19, 2017

400 Books

A small sampling of 400 books
The Great Divorce was my 400th book. Although I haven't reached the next tier in the vaunted Thousander hierarchy, I felt reaching 400 books was worthy of a few comments and listing the most worthwhile books I read since reaching 250.

To begin with, let me offer a few thoughts regarding the value and need for reading. People are often surprised at my goal to read 1,000 books in my lifetime and knowing something of my schedule usually ask: "how do you find the time?" In response I explain that it's less about finding time than it is about using time. I have the same amount of time in a day as everyone else; however, there are pockets of time, such as when I arrive to work a few minutes early or waking up 30 minutes earlier than I need to, in which I take advantage of those moments to read a few pages. Those few pages add upone page here, two pages there. Whether you're reading Number the Stars or The Once and Future King, you have to read each one page at a time. Therefore, I wouldn't say that I have found some mysterious well of time unavailable to others; rather, I would say I have learned to use the time I already have in order to read. Furthermore, my main problem is not deciding to use my time to read but rather deciding what to read. As Susan Elderkind said:

"We feel that though more books are being published than ever before, people are in fact selecting from a smaller and smaller pool. Look at the reading lists of most book clubs, and you’ll see all the same books, the ones that have been shouted about in the press. If you actually calculate how many books you read in a year—and how many that means you’re likely to read before you die [which I have done]—you’ll start to realize that you need to be highly selective in order to make the most of your reading time." (Emphasis added)

And what of the value of reading? Why make it such a priority in my life? In brief blog posts here and there I have tried to delineate my feelings on the topic. I do like what Doug Lemov had to say on the topic of reading:

"The farther you go in education . . . whether you're a behavioral economist or you're a scientist or you study ancient religious history, you are required to develop your understanding of your field through the ability to read and learn from the discipline. And so not only is literature, English, its own important discipline, but all the other disciplines rely on it."

It's self-evident to say reading is fundamental; the act of reading (or not reading) informs every belief we have, which subsequently determines the actions we take. And when I say reading is fundamental, I mean that in a progressive sense. It's not necessarily fundamental to live—plenty have done so and continue to do so without reading. I believe reading is fundamental to thrive. Whether it be canonical texts of religious traditions, the examination of lives and events of history found in non-fiction, or the illuminating and enlightening prose of literary fiction, our human experience can be elevated by reading. This is some high-minded stuff, of course, but I would not consider it hyperbolic. I imagine I do not fully appreciate or have fully discovered the power of reading. (I only recently came across bibliotherapy, which idea I find amusing and useful).

Advocates of reading—especially what's called "deep reading"—point to recent studies showing that those who read literary fiction are "better able to understand other people, empathize with them and view the world from their perspective" (Annie Murphy Paul). I believe this is true. Furthermore, this says nothing about the value of reading non-fiction. I, for example, alternate between a fiction and non-fiction book so as to broaden my perspectives and knowledge in hopefully the most meaningful way I can. I don’t assert that reading makes people good, altruistic, or more pro-social (perhaps improves our tendencies for those things?), but it can certainly highlight and showcase a path—good or bad. Books are laboratories of volition and ideas. We can investigate the most arcane and the most basic dilemmas through reading and still come out the other side unscathed but educated. I won't belabor the point because in many ways I don't think I should have to.

Reading is important. So get to it.

When I reached 250 books I highlighted those books which left the greatest impression on me. It wasn't a list of the "best" books necessarily but the most influential or memorable. (I sometimes call them "sticky" books). Of the 150 books I have read since I collated my previous list, below are the ones I feel deserve a mention:

All the President's Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph Ellis
From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas L. Friedman
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard L. Bushman
Life at the Bottom by Theodore Dalrymple
Love and Hate in Jamestown by David A. Price
Manning Up: How the Rise of Women has Turned Men into Boys by Kay S. Hymowitz
Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick
People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture by Terryl Givens
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
The Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt by Parley P. Pratt
The Candy Bombers by Andrei Cherny
The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant
The Lord's Way by Dallin H. Oaks
The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman
The Prince of Frogtown by Rick Bragg
The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek
The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan
Temple and Cosmos by Hugh Nibley
Too Big to Know by David Weinberger
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azir Nafisi
Restoring the Lost Constitution by Randy Barnett

A Canticle for Leibowtiz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Animal Farm by George Orwell
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield
Gods and Generals by Jeff Shaara
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
Mooncalf by Linda L. Zern
The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis 
The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson
The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Once and Future King by T.H. White
The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson
Tinkers by Paul Harding

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Reflections: The Great Divorce

C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce is a brilliant little book. Although a work of fiction, which I did not realize originally, the book acts more as a commentary on theological ideas than it does as a narrative. Regardless, the commentary itself is so compelling and illuminating the lacking narrative is easily overlooked.

Latter-day Saints have a belief, based mostly upon a scripture found in The Book of Mormon, which explains what happens to the spirits of men and women after they die. It reads in part:

". . . for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world." (Alma 34:34)

The Great Divorce is the great delineation of that doctrine. Obviously C.S. Lewis was not a Latter-day Saint and didn't write his book with that scripture in mind; however, his insights into the afterlife and the very dilemma posited by The Book of Mormon is supremely striking. The Great Divorce explores not only what the afterlife might look like but what we might be like. What follows is a series of conversations between the ghosts of men and women and the exalted spirits who have obtained a heavenly home. The exalted spirits attempt to use all of their powers of reason, feeling, and pleading to convince the recalcitrant ghosts of what is needed to also obtain that heavenly home, which includes not only the forsaking of the common and egregious sins and errors of mankind but also the corrupted virtues, such as selfish "love" for a husband or child. This is a book and a warning for believersthose presumably seeking to live a gospel-centered life. All the classic justifications are hereprideful intellectualism, self-righteousness, and others.

C.S. Lewis is unparalleled, in my opinion, in making the eternal feel local and personal. Yet, I never feel that Lewis is pandering or treating consequential ideas sloppily. In fact, as approachable as Lewis is, his writing does require attention and effort. Albeit, the subsequent enlightenment of reading Lewis is well worth the mental exercise required to obtain it. The Great Divorce is perfectly readable for most readers but is not childish or without challenge.

As mentioned, The Great Divorce is a brilliant little book. It's lacking narrative can be forgiven because it's not terribly interested in narrative completeness. This book is a platform for Lewis to comment on the state of the souls of men after their death, and it is a brilliant commentary indeed.

Notable Quote:
"Having allowed oneself to drift, unresisting, unpraying, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed in Faith.  Just in the same way, a jealous man, drifting and unresisting, reaches a point at which he believes lies about his best friend: a drunkard reaches a point at which (for the moment) he actually believes that another glass will do him no harm.  The beliefs are sincere in the sense that they do occur as psychological events in the man's mind.  If that's what you mean by sincerity they are sincere, and so were ours.  But errors which are sincere in that sense are not innocent."
Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Mere Christianity
Reflections: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
Reflections: Faith Precedes the Miracle

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Reflections: The Third Policeman

To begin with, the author of The Third Policeman—Flann O'Brien, which is a pseudonym for Brian O'Nolan—wrote that "Hell goes round and round.  In shape it is circular and by nature it is interminable, repetitive and very nearly unbearable." It's a poignant statement made all the more so because his book so perfectly captured what hell must feel like. I found reading The Third Policeman to be a particularly unpleasant experience. After discussing it with my wife for a few minutes she posited that maybe that was exactly the point of the book, which I don't dispute. It very well could have been; therefore, I suppose on some levels The Third Policeman is successful as a book, but on so many other levels it's a book I would gladly forget.

The Third Policeman begins off-kilter and gets stranger and stranger with each turn of the page. I want to emphasize that the strangeness of the narrative was not the problem. Rather, the seeming aimlessness of it all definitely was. To quote a line from the book: "Your talk is surely the handiwork of wisdom because not one word of it do I understand." Or is it? The book is so surreal it feels silly and vapid. Although much of the book is intended to be humorous, I laughed very little and was entertained even less. I recognize any book dabbling in ideas regarding reality and fiction has a difficult storytelling job, and I'm not opposed to surrealism and fantasy on the face of it, but The Third Policeman left me totally annoyed and aggravated.

It's obvious at this point that I don't have much to recommend The Third Policeman. I will admit that some of the humor was effective and the prose was anything but elementary. The metaphysical point is made, I guess, but when the point is pointless, then why should I care? It's not as deeply depressing as an Albert Camus book, but I have as much interest in reading another O'Nolan book as I do a Camus one.

There probably isn't much more for me to say about The Third Policeman. I didn't like it. It could potentially spark some worthy conversation, but those sparks could probably be found from much better sources.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Reflections: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
Memorable Moments: The Illustrated Man - 'Make a wish!  Make a wish!'

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Reflections: The Radicalism of the American Revolution

No matter how deep, how far, and how much I swim in American History, I always find something of interest and something new that informs my perspective and love for my nation's history. The Radicalism of the American Revolution explores ideas related to the Revolution I had not previously explored. Its subject matter is interesting, but, alas, its writing lumbers and stomps around and makes the overall reading experience less than enjoyable.

To begin with, I don't want to diminish the additional insight Gordon S. Wood's book brings to the overall conversation and exploration of the American Revolution. There is a lot here which was new, fresh, and valuable. Above all, I loved the exploration of ideas and how they impacted American society before, during, and after the Revolution. How did America slough off the old sentiments of aristocracy? What did the idea of equality do for American society generally? How did it diffuse throughout the population, eventually illuminating not only white male property holders but also women, African slaves, and others? What was the impact of individualism and the establishment of American's republic of commerce? These and a host of other fascinating questions are the book's reason for existing. In the end, The Radicalism of the American Revolution is worth reading, but it will take some extra work and dedication to do so. I'm fine with reading hard books, but I don't love reading bland writing.

When I started reading the book I was a little concerned because it reminded me a bit too much of Charles Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States of America. That book suggest and attempts to show that most of the founders acted wholly out of self-interest in relation to their wealth and property. No doubt the founders were wise enough to be comprehensively concerned about a great many interests, but I found Beard's arguments unpersuasive. For a certain duration Wood appears to be taking a similar approach with the monumental changes which occurred leading up to and causing the Revolution. Wood presents a great preponderance of economic evidence suggesting why societal feelings and trends moved in the way they did; however, this focus misses some of the mark. Ideas matter, as The Radicalism of the American Revolution shows, and economic factors can never, in my opinion, fully explain the course of nations and societies. I admit the explanatory difficulty becomes somewhat of a chicken or the egg dilemma, and the truth is probably found somewhere in the middle. Regardless, the book doesn't fully embrace an economic explanation in the same way Beard's book does, and I think the book was much better for it.

Having attested to its usefulness and value, I have to point out the grind reading the book is. Historians are not wordsmiths in most cases and Wood proves the point. The prose of the book is so utilitarian it can feel downright sterile. By far the most interesting passages in the book don't belong to Wood but to the historical personalities he quotes; unfortunately, far too many of their quotes were sliced and diced by Wood's commentaries and interpretations, but the reader may have been better served by reading the direct passage. By reading The Radicalism of the American Revolution the reader can expect an incredible and unique education—albeit not for beginners—on the American Revolution, but they can't expect anything but the most practical writing.

I liked The Radicalism of the American Revolution for what it is. There is plenty to be learned and gained from the book, but the authorship lacks the necessary style to make the history as unforgettable as it probably should be. It's nice to have in my collection, but reading it wasn't a particularly nice experience.

The Radicalism of the American Revolution won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: 1776
Reflections: Democracy in America
Reflections: Reflections on the Revolution in France