Archive for books

On books and pretending to have read them.

Posted in blogging, books, education, ill effects of computers, memory, shyness, Uncategorized, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2010 by katekanno

I’ve always been inarticulate, particularly in groups when the social anxiety ramps up.  I have a tendency to lock onto some obscure, often not very meaningful detail, and wax incomprehensible. Summarizing is not a strong suit, and  I cannot, for the life of me, exude an air of mastery over anything so much as making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Yet, what baffled me when I returned to the States five years ago, was how much that skill, online or off,  has usurped genuine knowledge. There seemed to be more value placed on knowing about something, more so if that thing could be dismissed with a clever reference to theory or more appallingly,  a wikipedia link.

Before the internet we called that jousting with a trashcan and a garden hoe.

Even worse is that it now gets the nod from self-help manuals like Pierre Bayard’s “How to Talk About Books that You Haven’t Read,” which Tracy Seeley, a vanguard in the slow reading movement, sees as a more sinister sign of our fraying focus.


And it’s phony as all get up, too.

I’m the first to admit that I’m as insecure  as the next person, but I’d prefer to use that anxiety as a guide. What haven’t I read? Where am I woefully ignorant?  And then I’ll go out and pick up a book, try to gain at least a meager grasp over what I know I don’t know.  It’s not a very efficient system, a little too random, but more often than not the serendipity pays off in ways that I would hope are more creative than the simple art of name dropping.


Cloudy with a Chance of Chicken Heart

Posted in Atheism, books, computing, eco anxiety, education, ghost stories, literature, old time radio, religion, science fiction with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2010 by katekanno

I love it when two books I’m reading unexpectedly connect. I’ve been (slowly) making my way through Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget, a book that I really wish had been around when I was suffering through a ludicrous “ed tech” class last summer that was pushing the cloud computing orthodoxy Lanier discusses. As an atheist with a weakness for Catholic British authors, i.e. Evelyn Waugh and Muriel Spark, I also happened to have just read G.K. Chesterton’s Man Who Was Thursday. I didn’t like it much; it’s a sort of Monty Python meets Trinity Broadcasting, with Chesterton providing lots of tree fort warm fuzzies for white Christian males. But, I will say that Chesterton’s opening verse resonates with Lanier’s arguments.

A cloud was on the mind of men

And wailing went the weather,

Yea, a sick cloud upon the soul,

When we were boys together.

Science announced non-entity

And art admired decay

The world was old and ended 

But you and I were gay

Okay, except the whining about science forcing a meaningless life upon us, to which I say why read a Bible when you have the Hubble, the verse does seem to fit our current environmental, creative, and digital malaise; if you suspect, as Lanier does, that such a malaise exists. 

Lanier brings up some frightening observations. One that really got to me was his ongoing survey of young people who can’t place any music recorded in the past fifteen years to a specific point, or that google’s uploading millions of books may result in a free for all cherry picking that makes the often bigoted trolling of Bible verse seem puny in comparison.  

Well, in honor of the hive mind, and because I haven’t been doing my part on the horror stories links front, here is Arch Oboler’s famous “Chicken Heart” story, where a you-guessed-it and not a digital cloud rises to engulf the world. 

Now someone pass me a wing.

Exploitation vs. Exploration

Posted in blogging, books, education, lifehacking, literature, multitasking, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 28, 2009 by katekanno

Exploitation vs. Exploration.

Previously the former word brought to mind underpaid factory workers or at least those miserably lopsided friendships in junior high, whereas exploration has always drummed up that conscientious chap in the beat up Tee, making his open-minded, charitable way through a new place.  If exploitation was Saruman, hacking up the trees in Lord of the Rings, then exploration was Indiana Jones, knowledgeable, adaptable, and of course, heroic.

On a larger level, of course, this is still true. On a personal level, such thinking is the disaster that we inflict on both ourselves and the world.

How, you might ask, can trying new things, reading new authors, and meeting fabulous new people be a bad thing? It isn’t.
But my life, and I suspect the same is happening in those of many other people, is suffering from a glut of exploration, both physical and psychological. It’s what buries our living spaces in useless consumer junk, the books we don’t read, our time with mildly interesting pursuits and people we know only tangentially, and our brains with all of that digital information on which we, to use that ominously cutesy term coined by David Armano,  snack.

Take all of those indelicate act(s) of multitasking: What are they but pure exploration at the expense of exploitation? We listen to 30 new songs on Pandora while talking on the phone and attempting to cook that souffle via the step by step instructions that we’re watching on the Food Network. And we’re making a hash of it all, even the talking, which we’re reducing more and more to Malaprops, disjointed threads, and yes, grunts.

So this is the year I make a determined effort to exploit more and explore less. Exploit! Exploit! Exploit! I’m with you Saruman. But only when it comes to myself. Save the trees.

Because when you exploit on a personal level, you do save trees. Let’s take my book habit, because it’s come to me after spending five predominantly dull years in the world’s dullest town with nothing else to do but read like a maniac, how very rarely I’ve come away from a book feeling that I know it  to my satisfaction, that I have many of its ideas, characters, and underlying themes mastered, before I’m on to the next one. I’m not trying to beat myself up, or to argue that I’ve gained nothing for my efforts. But as a writer, I want to be better poised to use what’s in what I read both for inspiration and to strengthen my own abilities.

Exploitation project 1: The Reading Journal.

To this purpose I’ve been keeping a reading journal. I’ve been doing it for awhile, but haven’t really landed on a good system until now, my biggest problem being how to separate the writing I do for myself with notes or ideas taken from books. I’ve been using color coded tags from Mujirushi to separate pages of my own writing and the  journal, which is working out well so far. In the reading journal, I  draw a line down the page and note any words or concepts with which I’m unfamiliar, leaving random thoughts or quotes I want to keep on the other. Although I’m not a proponent of Gardner’s learning styles, which are finally, and thankfully being discredited, the act of writing things down rather than typing them up does seem to help me remember what I’ve read. It’s rote baby! There’s no magic trick or psychobabble that can make it any easier.

On Tarzan and gender stereotypes– it's not what you think.

Posted in academic speak, books, gender, genre wars, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2009 by katekanno

Picture 7Today is the 97th anniversary of the publication of Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan of the Apes. In celebration, today’s L.A. Times has chosen to reprint Gore Vidal’s 1963 essay, which includes an accordingly Sterling Cooper style dismissal of the female genre fan.

“These books are clearly for men. I have yet to meet a woman who found Tarzan interesting: no identification, as they say in series-land.”

I’m not sure whether Mr. Vidal would still care to back up that statement, but as a female who’s read the books, and still keeps her supersized Joe Kubert comic adaptations in the closet, I’d like to have a word.

Sometime after I started elementary school my mother went back to college and enrolled in a survey on the adventure novel, lots of Tarzan, John Carter, and She Who Must Be Obeyed. She read them all to me, and while I’m thankful for every word, it was really the abandoned Lord Greystoke who provided my first model for discovery.

Strip Tarzan of its wild beasts and skimpy clothes, and it can no longer be reduced to a semi-pornographic tale of the colonial manly man, but rather a series of thrilling “aha!” moments: a boy realizing he’ll be a lot warmer in that panther’s pelt, teaching himself to read, learning French under Lieutenant D’Arnot, and finally immersing himself in an alien culture of starched collars and strictly observed tea times, only to reject that world and return to himself – a perfect metaphor for grad school and its discontents.

It was Edgar Rice Burroughs who first made me aware that the discovery one’s otherness can be a powerful catalyst for learning, and that, while we may encounter kindly French soldiers and beautiful women along the way, ultimately, we do it alone.

That Mr. Vidal thinks or thought that only men could identify with these novels is not surprising given the time period, but in dismissing the possibility of female identification, he also pooh-poohs the notion that women desire to learn, discover, and create. And while Vidal’s patrician background may have blindsided him, it is certain that, like Greystoke on his return to England, we all deal with those alienating signals from those who think learning is a class privilege.

What woman (or man) couldn’t identify with that?

Project Guiltpile: Unfinished behemoths

Posted in books, lifehacking, literature, Uncategorized, writing with tags , , , , , , , , on October 11, 2009 by katekanno

Picture 8Guilt! Guilt, I say!

Since moving to this godforsaken place, I have developed a habit that has come back to dog ear me in the ass on the way out. I suppose it was only natural that having lived for so long in semi-claustrophobic Japan, I would find ways to welcome the spatial glut of North America.

I could use the term bibliophile, but for its recent twee and self-congratulatory associations. It’s more that I have a ridiculously inflated idea of how much I can read given a limited amount of time. With books you can always fool yourself, like those poor addled multi-taskers, that there’s no need to filter. It’s all relevant.

Well, I can still fool myself a little while longer. In California, there is little employment. Let’s rejoice about this for once and take advantage of the time. I’m going to make up a list of books I hope to take a chunk ou t of before leaving. I’ll update it each time I finish one on the list. Let’s see how far I can get.

First off, The Magic Mountain. I’m getting close to the end of this one. Why did I buy this? Well, as doomed climbers say about real mountains, it was there — and only a dollar.

But there’s another story. A few, quite a few years back, I worked with an elderly Swiss gentleman, very dour and ascetic, whom I always overheard praising the strength of the mighty cockroach in the next cubicle. Usually he did this to elderly Japanese salarymen, who in beginner’s English, would fumble over the “r” in roach, and blink at him in polite discomfort.
This gentleman, Hans, we’ll call him, once descended upon me in the lobby and asked if I’d ever read “Die Zauberberg,” which with my bad ears and undergrad German, translated as “The Clean Hill.”

“No,” he snapped, “The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.”

Now Mann I knew. I love Death in Venice, and even more so, Visconti’s adaptation of same with its garish colors and cackling plague infested minstrels. At that time, however, the only thing I knew about The Magic Mountain was that it was one of those reading rites of passage, 800 lurid pages of mottled lungs and five course meals served with sherry in fine crystal.

Hans, noting the hint of recognition in my face, went on with a sense of mission: “My father was a doctor up in Davos. He tended to many of those patients. I spent my entire boyhood there.”

He continued to tell me how as a boy, he would run about the sanatorium grounds, often disturbing the lavish meals of the patients, many of whom he recognized when reading Mann’s book.

Not reading The Magic Mountain would be a lost opportunity personally equivalent to Castorp’s lost years. Yet, as I do I find myself scouring the pages, and going over the features of every small or slightly youngish character to appear. I can’t help but expect that each time Herr Settembrini and Naphta break out into another religious and philosophical spat that they’ll be cut off by a gaunt, bespectacled boy, who will shake his head and tell them that none of it matters.

Only the cockroaches will survive.