The Game of the Book of Thrones

GuardianNo, it’s not about that heavyweight book series by George Martin, or the TV series based on it (or even about how you really need to read the books to understand anything that is happening in the TV series). It’s about the other throne, the porcelain one. And what books are best for reading thereon.

Yes, reading on the toilet. Don’t tell me you just sit there and stare vacantly into space.

This is important time. Those few rare minutes when we really have uninterrupted time to ourselves; quality time with our bodily functions unhampered by TV, by the phone, by people wanting to see your gas bill or water heater, by the cats or the dog, by the kids or the neighbours.*

Perfect time for reading. It’s quiet, peaceful, gently lit and often fragranced by the sweet aromas of toiletries, like a garden of lilacs and roses. There you can concentrate, focus your attention on the book at hand, while your body takes care of the autonomous business of emptying itself.

So what sort of publication is perfect for that all-too-short slice of intellectual freedom? What work can you read for a few, exhilarating minutes, put down for several hours or even a whole day, and pick up again and continue reading without having lost the thread or diminished the intellectual thrill?

Clearly, for most folks, that’s a challenge. Continuity makes it difficult to read War and Peace in five-minute snippets. From one day to the next, you won’t remember who Count Whats-his-name is or why he’s out of favour, or who’s sleeping with whom or why they’re all akimbo over the French. For this sort of book, continuity matters.

I know, I’ve tried. I’ve been inching my way through Boswell’s Life of Johnson in the downstairs bathroom for the past two years. Unsuccessfully, if keeping clear all his comments, his activities and his conversations is the point. I switched to Bruce Campbell’s autobiography, If Chins Could Kill, and found – despite the shallow, narcissistic content – it was much easier to track through Campbell’s life than Johnson’s. But I feel somehow my bathroom experienced is cheapened.

Continue reading “The Game of the Book of Thrones”

Midway in our Life’s Journey…

Too many books!So begins The Inferno, the first of the three books that comprise Dante’s magnificent and complex work, The Divine Comedy.* It’s a rich, complex and challenging read. I have to admit I have not read it all – all three books that is – but I have made a mighty effort to complete Inferno in several editions.

My problem is not comprehension, but rather distraction. Were this a desert isle, it would make it much easier to finish. I read like a jackdaw.

But back to Dante. The first lines (Canto I, trans. by John Ciardi, Norton edn.), continue:

Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood.

I was reading that opening again, this week, as I collected books from my shelves to donate to the local library. Powerful words. Don’t we all feel that doubt at some time in our lives, that nagging question whether we had made all the right choices, followed the right path? Don’t we all wonder what life would have been like if we made the other choice, took the other road, chose the other person?

And here I am with a book in my hand wondering what life would be like had I never opened it, never read it, never followed it down the path it led me to. What less would I have understood, what less would I have felt, what less would I have explored without it?

I can’t imagine a life without Dante. Without Shakespeare, Chaucer, T.S. Eliot, Shunryu Suzuki, Frank Herbert, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Dickens, Carl Sagan, Casanova, Dante, Machiavelli, Wallace Stevens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Bill Bryson… so many authors whose works have helped build my world view. Wouldn’t life be poorer without them?

Can I bear to part from them? Continue reading “Midway in our Life’s Journey…”

Musing on Melville’s Poetry

Herman MelvilleI came across a poem last night that I had not read in the past (always a pleasant thing to discover something new in one of your books)*. It is by Herman Melville, an author I associate with novels and short stories rather than poetry. Yet he was surprisingly prolific as a poet, mostly in his later life.

Poem Hunter lists 93 of his poems on its site (on PDF here). He wrote many more, it seems – many of them naval or related to the sea, others about the Civil War – and the collected works can be found at the University of Virginia.

Here’s the poem that pleasantly surprised me by its complexity and modernity, given its 1888 publication. It’s called The Maldive Shark:

About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw,
They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghastly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril’s abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!
They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat —
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,
Pale ravener of horrible meat.

It’s hard, reading that, to remember Melville was a contemporary of Walt Whitman and that both of them published rather morally-laden socially instructive books of poetry about the Civil War almost simultaneously (Whitman’s Drum Taps in 1865, Melville’s Battle Pieces in 1866).

Continue reading “Musing on Melville’s Poetry”

Little Dorrit: BBC Drama

Little Dorrit BBCWe just finished watching the 14-part BBC series of Little Dorrit. As usual with most BBC series, it was superbly cast, acted, paced and filmed. Each episode was a mere 30 minutes, and almost every one of them ended in a cliffhanger fashion that made you want to watch just one more.

You might not think of Charles Dickens that way, but much of what he wrote was for serial publication: in weekly or monthly magazines. To keep his audience hooked – and buying the magazines – he wrote cliffhangers. Not perhaps as gripping as, say, episodes of TV’s show 24, but his audience kept coming back for more.

Little Dorrit ran in 19 monthly issues, between December, 1855 and June, 1857.

Watching the series also made me want to read the book – I have read other of Dickens’ works, but not this one. Now, after watching, I can’t imagine why not. It’s a great story. I pulled it off my shelf and stared it this week.

Little Dorrit is both a social commentary and a complicated story. It has – as other Dickens’ novels have – a large cast of characters, often eccentric to the point of caricature. Mr. Barnacle of the Circumlocution Office, for example. His readers loved the characters, loved the caricatures, and understood the reality they thinly veiled.

Modern novels – your James Patterson, Dan Brown, Tom Clancy or Patricia Cornwell for example – are structured differently. The basic idea of a lot of popular fiction is to hit the readers over the head with a strong first page and drag them into the novel and the action right from the earliest lines.

Continue reading “Little Dorrit: BBC Drama”

10,000 or 20,000 hours?

10,000-hour ruleMalcolm Gladwell introduced the concept of the “10,000-hour rule” in his 2008 book, Outliers. As Wikipedia describes it, “…the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.”*

Gladwell does not specifically say that 10,000 hours of practice or apprenticeship will make you an expert. Like most things on the internet, it has been altered in the transmission; dumbed down for the simplistic misquotes we love to pair with pictures of kittens or puppies on Facebook.

Rather what he said was that it will make you damned good. Way above the rest. A phenom, as Eric Dekkers said:

…he’s talking about those surprising success stories who stand head and shoulders above the elite performers in their industry. That one guy who is way better than the 31 other “best quarterbacks in the country.” That one woman who fearsomely dominates all other female tennis players in the world.

Still, the concept and the generalization behind it have not gone unchallenged. As science writer David Bradley wrote for the BBC,

Scientifically speaking, 10,000 hours is not a precise figure but shorthand for “lots and lots of dedicated practice”. Even 10,000 hours of dedicated practice may not be enough to give you the skills of a virtuoso. But whether you dream of playing at the concert hall, wielding the guitar, or taking part on the running track, 10,000 hours is a good starting point. Double that and you may even be winning international competitions.

Bradley also notes that 10,000 is a lot of time doing repetitive practice:

To notch up 10,000 hours would require about 90 minutes of practice every day for 20 years. This might explain why the typical child learning the piano will never make it to concert level. Three hours a day gets you to that stage within a decade, so start at the age of ten and you’re done before you’re out of your teens.

Imagine you’re a 10-year old starting violin lessons. Your parents make you practice an hour every school day, but give you weekends and holidays off. You might be able to get in 195 days or practice a year. At that rate, it would take more than 51 years to reach Gladwell’s 10,000-hour “expert” level.

Continue reading “10,000 or 20,000 hours?”

Mastery: Self Help or Just Opinion?

MasteryRobert Greene’s new book has me somewhat flummoxed. It’s not at all like his previous books. The other books of his I have were all ‘meta’ books – books about what others thought on various subjects: power, leadership, war, seduction, politics.* Mastery combines biography with exhortations to raise one’s self up to the level of mastery. We are all potential geniuses.

It strikes me as an overly-intellectualized self-help book. So far, anyway. I’m still only mid-book. But the little editorial conceit of capitalizing “Life’s Task” throughout the book already annoys me. That and it’s preachy, moralizing and somewhat condescending tone.

He also writes that, “No good can come from deviating from path you were destined to follow.” Destiny is a flimsy religious concept, not a psychological, developmental or scientific one. I find appeals to “destiny” as convincing as the claims of self-described “psychics.”

I personally don’t care for the usual lot of self-help books any more than I care to share motivational pictures or inspirational quotes attached to cute pictures of kittens and puppies, as often appear on Facebook. If you can be motivated more by a photograph of people rowing together than actually doing it, you’re not really motivated at all (and I’d hazard a guess that 85-90% of all the quotations posted on Facebook are either wrongly attributed or just plain wrong).**

Maybe it’s just me; but my experience as a publisher’s sales rep selling a seemingly endless stream of insipid self-help books on every topic has made me cynical towards the genre. I’m okay with do-it-yourself guides that offer tips and hints to help you work through a project or goal. But a lot of self-help books strike me as faux-psychological or saccharinely pseudo-spiritual. Plus a lot of them are mere flimflammery: become a psychic with these easy lessons, homeopathy in your kitchen, seven steps to crystal therapy or how to cure yourself with prayer instead of medicine.***

Continue reading “Mastery: Self Help or Just Opinion?”