January Books: Part 2

The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen

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Ah, the book that gets thrown around with Desert Solitaire as one of the best pieces of wilderness literature. I was hesitant to read this book because of all the praise that it has received, and when I picked it up I was still feeling hesitant. Fortunately, I was not disappointed. I read this at the right time. If I would've read this a year ago, I'm not sure I would've enjoyed it as much. There is something in each book that requires a certain mindset, and this one requires a mindset of peace to enjoy. Because there is a satisfaction that I latched onto during reading. He describes the land in a way that is able to convey his emotions. Not many writers can achieve that level of connection with a place within their writing.

But, the part that struck me most was not the part about nature, but the internal journey that Matthiessen goes on during the book.

“The absurdity of a life that may well end before one understands it does not relieve one of the duty (to the self which is inseparable from others) to live it through as bravely and genrously as possible. I feel great gratitude for being here, for being, rather, for there is no need to hie oneself to the snow mountains in order to feel free. I am not here to seek the “crazy wisdom”; if I am, I shall never find it. I am here to be here, like these rocks and sky and snow, like this hail that is falling down out of the sun.

That is the key. For certain personality types, it is exceedingly easy to look at the times in life when one is not actively "exploring the world" as times of decay. Happily, Matthiessen reminds us that what we are looking for does not lie in the far off places, regardless of how much we may love those places.

 

On Mysticism by Jorge Luis Borges

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I'm not exactly sure what I expected from this one. I supposed I expected a 100 page essay on his views concerning mysticism. Instead, this little book was filled with short stories and a few short essays on different aspects of metaphysics. In many ways, this is made reading a grander joy than originally anticipated. I have read a Borges before, but as it was in Spanish, I missed out on some of the more difficult concepts. The problem with reading Borges in a different language than English for me is that he incorporates deeper meanings that only make sense while accompanied by a full mastery over the language. There were too many quotes that hit the nose, but I keep coming back to one from The Circular Ruins, one of the short stories that opens the book:

“He understood that the task of molding the incoherent and dizzying stuff that dreams are made of is the most difficult work a man can undertake, even if he fathoms all the enigmas of the higher and lower spheres—-much more difficult than weaving a rope of sand or minting coins of the faceless wind. He understood that initial failure was inevitable. He swore to put behind him the vast hallucination that at first had drawn him off the track, and he sought another way to approach his task.

I have never read a more compelling few lines about accomplishing dreams than this one right here. However, being Borges, he buried that quote in a long meta story about a man coming from nowhere and attempting to dream another man into existence.

I'm going to be wrestling with all the meanings that are nestled inside the essays and shorts that Borges has written here. In fact, this may be one of the few books I decide to buy as a reference. I don't buy many, usually once is enough, but some books require time and another look to fully absorb.

 

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

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“I want to marry a girl,” I told them, “so I can rest my soul with her till we both get old. This can’t go on all the time—all this franticness and jumping around. We’ve got to go someplace, find something.”

I don't see what those beats were trying to run after. Jack was not telling anyone a story of triumph and exuberance, but one of self-contempt and striving for an ideal that may not exist. I may have missed something big, but many times Jack could hardly stay in one place before itching to move on to the next. He never seemed content, and he was always striving for a new place. Unfortunately, and I am quite sure that he realized it, the running to and fro wasn't serving him in any emotional capacity. There were stolen cars driven through mountains, sunny days in Mexico, and chance encounters with lovers; but there were also pointless jobs, dozens of quarrels, and strong hunger. Seeing his progression through his three most well known works (On the Road, The Dharma Bums, and Big Sur) makes me wonder if Jack felt that it was all worth it. I hesitate to say that he was a man without regret. He seemed like a man who stood at the forefront of a movement that he never wanted to start.

 

The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson

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“Happy,” I muttered, trying to pin the word down. But it is one of those words, like Love, that I have never quite understood. Most people who deal in words don’t have much faith in them and I am no exception—especially the big ones like Happy and Love and Honest and Strong. They are too elusive and far too relative when you compare them to sharp, mean little words like Punk and Cheap and Phony. I feel at home with these, because they’re scrawny and easy to pin, but the big ones are tough and it takes either a priest or a fool to use them with any confidence.

I don't know what I expected from Hunter S. Thompson, but it definitely wasn't this. I was expecting more debauchery and less introspection. Quotes like the above are more plentiful than I originally would've imagined from a guy who, over his lifetime, tried almost any drug he could get his hands on. I often forget that this man engineered a new style of journalism that still lives this day through programs like Vice News.

Above anything else, for me, The Rum Diary is able to capture the reasons why a person falls out of love with a place: the constant choking feeling that comes with staying in one place too long and the listless stagnation that comes with feeling "comfortable."

 

God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian by Kurt Vonnegut

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When Mr. Pellegrino heard that, he said, “For God’s sake, man—get a tank of propane and a balloon while you’ve still got time, or you’ll never what Heaven is!” Saint Peter protested. “Mr. Pellegrino,” he said, “this is Heaven!” “The only reason you can say that,” said Pellegrino, “is because you’ve never crossed the Alps in a hot air balloon!” Saint Peter said to me, “Not only do you still have time to go ballooning. You might also write a book with the title, ‘Heaven and Its Discontents.’” He said to Pellegrino, ironically of course, “If you’d had crack cocaine on Earth, I suppose Heaven would also be a disappointment.” “Bingo!” said Pellegrino.

I enjoyed this short little book, but it came across as Vonnegut doodling more than a serious work that merits any attention. I appreciated the idea, and of course it has a few vintage Vonnegut quotes like the above, but I can't say that I gained much more out of it other than a half hour or so of relaxing and relatively enjoyable reading. I will say that I'm glad it wasn't much longer, as the layout of the book got a little tedious towards the end.

Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut

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Practically everything was automated, too. Nancy and Mary and the sheriff were lucky to have jobs. Most people didn’t. the average citizen moped around home and watched telvision, which was the Government. Every fifteen minutes his television would urge him to vote intelligently or consume intelligently, or worship in the church of his choice, or love his fellowmen, or obey the laws—or pay a call to the nearest Ethical Suicide Parlor and find out how friendly and understanding a Hostess could be.

More than anything else, Vonnegut is at his best when writing short stories. Most of them are relatively basic, and there is always a moral of each story. I would usually revolt against this as too traditional, but Vonnegut is able to create such intricate and enjoyable worlds in such a short period of time that I hardly care if some of them are a tad moralistic. In addition, him being from the Midwest and having many of the same morals that I do, it is likely that I accept his conclusions easier than someone with a completely different background.

Homo Deus by Yuvah Noah Harari

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Throughout this book we have repeatedly asked what makes humans superior to other animals. Dataism has a new and simple answer. In themselves human experiences are not superior at all to the experiences of wolves or elephants. One bit of data is as good as another. However, humans can write poems and blogs about their experiences and post them online, thereby enriching the global data-processing system. That makes their bits count.
As the global data-processing system becomes all-knowing and all-powerful, so connecting to the system becomes the source of when you are part of the data flow you are part of something much bigger than yourself. Traditional religions assured you that your every word and action was part of some great cosmic plan, and that God watched you every minute and cared about all your thoughts and feelings. Data religion now says that your every word and action is part of the great data flow, that the algorithms are constantly watching you and that they care about everything you do and feel. Most people like this very much. Fr true-believers, to be disconnected from the data flow risks losing the very meaning of life. What’s the point of doing or experiencing anything if nobody knows about it and it doesn’t contribute something to the global exchange of information?

I've read more than a few futurist pieces in the past year, but this one was by far the most distressing. There were innumerable quotes that I could have posted here and each one gives me anxiety. The little bits of relative peace were quickly interrupted by a techno-optimism that created a world I would never want to live in. 

My biggest struggle throughout the entire book was the authors take on free will. He follows the deterministic philosophy which states that every choice a person makes is dictated by previous choices and genetics and other environmental factors rather than each and every choice being independent. In this case, I would agree with him. However, this seems like a false choice. The black and white ones like this usually are.

Where I differ with Yuval is his assumption that because computers that can read our heart rates and biochemistry during every minute of every day, that they will make better decisions for us than we would, and because of this, we will learn to accept the choices of the computer. I find this unnecessarily simplifies even a deterministic free will. He states that a computer will "know us" better than we will know ourselves. While that may be true chemically, he seems to forget the idea of consciousness for the sake of the argument. Until we figure out consciousness, it is unrealistic to me that a computer could do know who we are, as the secret likely lies in a mixture of our consciousness and our chemical makeup.