Wednesday, November 25, 2009

books

A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold - The best authors subtly evoke experiential minutia, saying just enough for us to insert our own memories and sensations into their words, and then nudge those naked facts from mere observations into whole interpretations, building ever larger structures and hierarchies and theories and philosophies. That's Leopold's greatest strength, and the result is phenomenal.

(2 tiny caveats to my adoring recommendation: 1) It starts a bit dry, so push past the first chapter. 2) This is actually a personal failing, not anything whatsoever wrong with the book; in fact it will give me a good excuse to reread it in my future less-dumb years. But I should mention it since hardly anyone doesn't have this particular personal failing anymore. I'm just too ecologically illiterate to understand the difference between "There is an affinity between white pines and dewberries, between red pines and flowering spurge, between jackpines and sweet fern" and "There is an affinity between trees and plants, between trees and plants, between trees and plants." Call me Ginger.)

Superfreakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner - It's been years since I read Freakonomics and can no longer recall enough to compare the two, but standing on its own merits, this was certainly an enjoyable read. Sure they like to match their incendiary claims with incendiary language, which I think sometimes is a tiny bit counterproductive, but who cares (in particular, the controversy surrounding the geoengineering chapter is baffling). And the particular style of this edition, in which they interweave several different studies into a common theme per chapter, makes it read like a casual conversation with a very smart and interesting person.

Everyday Zen, by Charlotte Joko - Warning: this is going to be a rant. I got roped into reading it by a friend and skimmed the 2nd half in impatience.

First the good points. There were two things that rang true and important: 1) You are ultimately the only authority on how to live your life. 2) Aspiration and expectation are different things.

Other than that it was mostly infuriatingly nonsensical to me. Life is NOT defined by suffering and learning to accept it and detaching yourself from your emotions is NOT the path to happiness and the things in my head ARE real. The "four noble truths" are self-evidently insane. You know the serenity prayer? "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." This rings true to me. It acknowledges a balance that exists in life. Zen is focused solely on the first third.

Now, it's also true that Zen rhetoric also is obsessed with gleefully saying "no, you're wrong, you just don't understand what I'm saying" and refusing to clarify further. So to preempt that response, let me say that a lot of the specific themes I can just barely make peace with by seeing them as very horribly convoluted and misguided presentations of something that actually contains truth and value. Except for one thing. I can not reconcile or ignore the denial of my mental reality.

Just because I can't point to my unhappiness does not make it real. I really wonder what kind of desperate state these followers must be in to want so badly to buy into the argument "yes your grandfather's body died but this is not a real loss because your relationship with your grandfather is in your head." that they don't immediately strangle whoever is telling them that. Sure I have some degree of control and choice in the matter of my unhappiness that I don't have about physical reality but it is still very very REAL and relevant. Honestly, just this one theme of denying non-physical reality made reading this stuff more infuriating than reading Catholic theology for me. With Thomas Merton and company, I can ignore the belief in the supernatural and the threat of hellfire and still appreciate its practical recommendations. In fact I know of no better succinct recipe for a good life than the Desiderata, which is not at all secular (although easily read as such, as I do.) But this, which contains no objectionable irrationality and invented motivations as its base, leads to much more objectionable conclusions.

Ok I'm done ranting. How's that for dismissing two millennia of philosophy in five minutes?