When Books Went to War (we won)

Books Went to WarI was recently the happy victim of good marketing.

While clicking through WSJ articles the other day, I came across one that was clearly calling, personally, to me: “How Paperbacks Helped Us Win WWII.” I read the article, realized it was something of a promotional piece for author Molly Guptill Manning’s just-released book on the same topic, and then naturally immediately ordered the book. I read it over last night and today (it’s a quick read at 194 pages).

The WSJ article provides a fuller summary, but the general idea is this: During WWII, while the Germans were burning books, Americans were figuring out how to get as many books as possible to US troops stationed around the world. The first attempt came through the Victory Book Campaign, where Americans donated millions of books through nationally publicized book drives. Because there were never enough books and hardcover books (which comprised the vast majority of books at that time) were not easily transportable by soldiers on the move, the U.S. War Department and a group of publishers got together and did something quite extraordinary: they created Armed Service Edition books – cheap, small, paperback books printed especially for the size of military pockets, and delivered them to our military all over the world.

The book explains how this happened (including a most interesting history on the deployment of books and ideas at home [ever heard of the Council on Books in Wartime and their Imperative book program?]), what the books meant to the soldiers (hint: a lot), and even how American book culture shifted from one limited to the wealthy to one enjoyed by the larger population.

Long story short: if you like books, history, and most of all the history of books, add this one to your list.

The Hours (true, sad, beautiful, perfect.)

book cover for the HoursI never re-read books. Not on principle or anything, it’s just I always have a collection of I’ve-bought-but-not-yet-read books sitting patiently next to me, so it seems… how do you say… irresponsible (insensitive?) (brutish?) to read the same book twice, right in front of them like that.

Recently I’ve been reading A Stranger in Olondria, which has won all sorts of awards and is beautifully written but sort of a challenge to get through (will explain later). Last night I needed a break and was feeling in the mood for something commenting on the human condition (you know the mood). I remembered how much I loved The Hours when I read it back in 2008. Fast forward about 24 hours and I’ll recommit: The Hours may just be my very favorite book ever. The way it describes life (to constantly be seeking the Perfect as if it could finally be, after valiant searching, found in a fixed form. And once found, merged with; in some sense, annihilated by), relationships (of all sorts), the effects of mental illness in and on a family, love (of all sorts). It’s just that I’ve still never read anything I’ve found to speak more truthfully to the occasional intensity of life’s smallest, most fleeting, moments.

A few favorite passages

“Richard cannot imagine a life more interesting or worthwhile than those being lived by his acquaintances and himself, and for that reason one often feels exalted, expanded, in his presence. He is not one of those egotists who miniaturizes others. He is the opposite kind of egotist, driven by grandiosity rather than greed, and if he insists on a version of you that is funnier, stranger, more eccentric and profound than you suspect yourself to be – capable of doing more good and more harm in the world than you’ve ever imagined – it is all but impossible not to believe, at least in his presence and for a while after you’ve left him, that he alone sees through to your essence, weighs your true qualities (not all of which are necessarily flattering – a certain clumsy, childish rudeness is part of his style), and appreciates you more fully than anyone else ever has. It is only after knowing him for some time that you begin to realize you are, to him, an essentially fictional character, one he has invested with nearly limitless capacities for tragedy and comedy not because that is your true nature but because he, Richard, needs to live in a world peopled by extreme and commanding figures.” (NB: once you read about his mom this will break your heart)

“It had seemed like the beginning of happiness, and Clarissa is still sometimes shocked, more than thirty years later, to realize that it was happiness; that the entire experience lay in a kiss and a walk, the anticipation of dinner and a book. The dinner is by now forgotten; Lessing has been long over-shadowed by other writers; and even the sex, once she and Richard reached that point, was ardent but awkward, unsatisfying, more kindly than passionate. What lives undimmed in Clarissa’s mind more than three decades later is a kiss at dusk on a patch of dead grass, and a walk around a pond as mosquitoes droned in the darkening air. There is still that singular perfection, and it’s perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more. Now she knows: That was the moment, right then. There has been no other.”

“What if that moment at dinner – that equipoise, that small perfection – were enough? What if you decided to want no more?”

“There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more.  Heaven only knows why we love it so.”

The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia

Book Cover for The Dispossesed Books where authors work through big moral and political ideas are my favorite. Ever.

I think back to when I first stumbled upon Nancy Kress’ Beggars in Spain trilogy, where she worked through her issues with Ayn Rand and our obligations to each other. Or Brave New World and the idea of whether happiness (be it drug-induced) is really enough. Or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and questions of humanity. These are truly some of the best books I’ve ever been lucky enough to read, and they’ve had a huge impact on my thinking. The Dispossessed is up there. In fact, it might just be one of my new favorites.

After finishing the book last week, I knew I needed to read more about it. That’s when I found The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, a collection of essays on it. Here’s one review of the collection from Kenneth M. Roemer, a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington:

“For three decades Le Guin’s The Dispossessed has inspired debates about competing ideologies, about notions of gender, about space-time continuums, about forms of utopian expression-indeed about topics as broad as human communication and as intensely personal as the emotional epiphanies of the novel’s hero Shevek. So, to say that this lively first collection of essays about the book is welcome and long overdue is to make a grand understatement. Like Le Guin’s novel the collection is wide-ranging, open-ended, and provocative. It offers analyses of expected topics and images—anarchism, ecology, and walls, for instance— from multiple viewpoints, as well as discussions of important less-expected issues, notably consumerism. Contributors examine rich networks of connections and parallels between Le Guin’s thought and art and the works of Lao Tzu, Kropotkin, Paul Goodman, Marcuse, Hegel, Hannah Arendt, and French and Italian architects and designers. Le Guin’s essay, which concludes the collection, is a frank and feisty response to critics who reduce her novel to treatise status, and a complex advocacy of art that teaches. This fine collection will invigorate discussion of The Dispossessed and of Le Guin’s other works, especially Always Coming Home, and engage any serious reader of utopian and science fiction and political and social theory.”

I’ve read one essay so far and most certainly agree.


The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas

book coverIt was more than a few years ago when I first heard of Ursula K. Le Guin. I got The Left Hand of Darkness, which was supposedly her very best book, and tried jumping right in. But for some reason it just didn’t work for me. I’ve probably read the first ten? twenty? pages of that book a half dozen times. But each time I couldn’t get myself to go on.

Anyway, fast forward more than a few years and I somehow stumbled upon Ursula Le Guin’s website. How, I have no idea. Well, the internet, that’s how. But nonetheless I ended up reading about how to contact her and she made some joke about not asking her to explain “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” So, naturally, I immediately had to read “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” and see what it is people would be asking about.

Link to the short story here.

I now can share in the suffering of those who want to know more about Omelas but have been told not to ask.

While some have written that the story is about “waking up” and seeing the suffering of others that underlies (I’d say faux) utopia, I’m not so sure that’s what it means. After all, she says the people of Omelas know full well that their happiness depends fully on the absolutely de-humanizing treatment of one unwilling child. And yet, they are blissfully happy. Indeed, they are better to each other because they know what their utopia depends on.

If anything, doesn’t that mean that (and this seems true of the world) some people can, in fact, accept the misery of others as “payment” for their happiness? That we are quite capable, and frequently do, rationalize the sacrifice of others for own betterment. And is she not suggesting in the story that that acceptance and rationalization is what is actually so horrifying?

But then think of those who walk away. What are we to make of them? At first you might think there’s something heroic about it. Noble. These individuals have seen what is being done, find it wrong, and refuse to take part. But isn’t it interesting that what they do is just walk away? They still know the child is suffering in a most horrific way. Their walking away didn’t change that. They didn’t try to actually help the child or even help their fellow Omelans realize that they had no right to sacrifice the child. So, how much better are these people who walk away? In some ways, it feels worse. And then, given our own reality, what are we to make of our feeling such righteousness about any of the Omelans?

Old Books, Rare Friends (warms the cockles of my heart)

book coverThis book was magic. Pure, wonderful, warm and fuzzy, delightful magic.

Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern were together (both have sadly passed away), I believe, the very first women rare book dealer partnership in the United States. They were also the closest and best friends imaginable over the course of their about 70 years together.

The book is their joint memoir, with some chapters written by each separately and some together. In it, they discuss their early life and education, how they got into rare book dealing, their scholarly pursuits (together they were the first to uncover Louisa Alcott’s pseudonym, and the many scandalous and feminist novels that went with it), a sampling of their book-hunting adventures, and their most wonderful friendship.

The book is wonderful and I look forward to reading their other works in the near-future.

Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart: A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness

AGoing to Pieces book coverfter reading about Mark Epstein in 10% Happier, I watched a few videos of him talking about his work, thought he was wonderful, and proceeded to buy three of his books. I finished this one yesterday and cannot recommend it highly enough (though I think I might like the one I’m currently reading, Open to Desire, even more).

A few of my favorite passages:

* “When the relationship with a parent is too fragile, a child naturally tries to compensate. This leads to the development of a precocious ‘caretaker self’ that is tinged with a feeling of falsity Besides feeling empty, a person in this predicament also fears emptiness. The fear of emptiness is really a sign of the fragility of the bond with the parent. We are afraid to venture into the unknown because to do so would remind us of how unsafe we once felt … Psychotherapy tends to focus on the personal melodrama … Buddhism seeks, instead, to purify the insight of emptiness. Emptiness is vast and astonishing … it does not have to be toxic. When we grasp the emptiness of our false selves, we are touching a little bit of truth … We must learn how to be with our feelings of emptiness without rushing to change them. Only then can we have access to the still, silent center of our own awareness that has been hiding, unbeknownst to our caretaker selves, behind our own embarrassment and shame.”

* “I had permitted myself to simply be, without worrying about keeping myself together.”

* From Freud (who I know near-nothing about): “The proneness to decay of all that is beautiful and perfect can, as we know, give rise to two different impulses in the mind … The one leads to the aching despondency felt by the young poet, with the other leads to rebellion against the fact asserted.” As Mark paraphrases, “Either we get depressed when confronted with impermanence (clinging attachment) … or we devalue what we see and push it away (aversion).” “[T]he heard of the Buddha’s teaching: [] it is possible to cultivate a mind that neither clings nor rejects ….”

* “The solution is not to deny attachment but to become less controlling in how we love. From a Buddhist perspective, it is the very tendency to protect ourselves against mourning that is the cause of the greatest dissatisfaction [because we either cling or avert].”

* “Most of us exist in a state similar to that of Freud’s friends. Our minds are running on without us, keeping us at a distance from that which we love, or from love itself. We justifiably complain of feeling unreal because we are busy keeping ourselves at arm’s length from the biggest reality of all – the transience of which we are a part. Rather than permitting a flow, we impose an interruption that interferes with satisfaction or fulfillment.” [This reminds of My Struggle: Volume One where he discusses how it is that when we see something like a car accident or endure some sort of huge event we often say it was “surreal” or “unreal,” which is odd because it’s really the opposite — such events are so real.

10% Happier (aka the voice in my head is an asshole)

Cover of 10% Happier book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works.

Right at the start the author, ABC anchor Dan Harris, tells us he originally wanted to name the book “The Voice in My Head is an Asshole.” It was thus right at the start that I knew I would like the book.

Dan best sums up the impetus for the book in a NYT interview, “The preamble is I had a panic attack on national television in front of five million people. I learned that the reason for the panic attack was because I was self-medicating [NB: with cocaine and ecstasy] due to so much stress, which was raising the level of adrenaline in my brain. At around the same time, I was assigned to do a series on religion for ABC that sent me into a journey of self-help. This eventually led to Buddhism and meditation and a series of brain exercises that changed my life, and, as the title of the book says, made me 10 percent happier.”

Alright, skeptical reader. You might already be zoning out, convinced this is just a bunch of hippie-dippy BS. But truly, it’s not. Dan wasn’t interested in meditation to become closer to nature, or the infinite oneness, or anything like that (quite the opposite, actually – he was totally turned off by that talk [I’m not, but he is]) — he was interested in figuring out a way to remain on his A-game in a super competitive industry while actually being a happier, less freaked-out, stressed-out person, and not-always-so compassionate person.

I tried out the meditation exercise he puts in there (sit with your back straight, focus on your breathing and where you feel it [nose, chest, stomach, etc.], and every time you start thinking about something other than your breathing [which will happen, oh, a million times] recognize that you’re drifting and just gently bring yourself back to focusing on your breath) and it not easy. Not easy but a totally interesting exercise. Right away I saw how insane my mental churning is. It’s constant! Thinking about the future, remembering something that happened, wondering if I should have done it differently, thinking about what will happen next week, whether I’ll survive spin class, projecting some fantasy-future scenario in my head and living in that scenario instead of being present, anticipating, etc. It’s amazing. And stopping to realize that churning was useful. The next step is to note/name each thought for what it is. A Fantasy. A Worry. Hoping. Stressing. Somehow by stepping back and seeing the thoughts for what they are defangs them. It creates space between you (whatever that is) and this incessant thinking and gives you a chance to reflect before reacting.

Anyway, the book was well written, a quick read, super funny, honest, and useful. I recommend giving it a chance.