Amar Bakshi was about five years behind me at my high school in Washington DC, but he has my dream job, traveling the world to author a blog for the Washington Post, taking on the charged topic, “How the World Sees America.” I started reading it because of the high school connection (Amar is a friend of my little brother’s), but I’ve become an avid reader of it over time as Amar follows in the footsteps of some of my favorite traveling journalists: Jon Lee Anderson, Paul Theroux, and, of course, Ryszard Kapuscinski. Unlike those masters of the form, Amar also carries a video camera with him to further chronicle his experiences. Since starting in May, he’s been to England and India, and now he’s back in the States hashing out plans to travel farther afield. It’s an interesting experiment from a young writer. Worth a read if you’re looking for another blog to follow.
“Under a black cloud, the prison. And within the prison, a bright rebel. The walls were extremely high, and although this was not possible, they appeared to lean inward yet also to bulge outward, and they were topped with a luminous frosting of broken glass.” This, of course, is an excerpt from Marlon Brando’s posthumous (and swash-buckling) novel Fan-Tan. If you really want to get into it, the rest of the excerpt is here, mateys.Previously: Ask a Book Question: The 29th in a Series (I Coulda Been a Contendah)
“If an ox begins to sicken,” Cato the Elder writes in his treatise on Roman farm management, “give him without delay a raw hen’s egg and make him swallow it whole. The next day make him drink from a wooden bowl a measure of wine in which has been scraped the head of an onion. Both the ox and his attendant should do these things fasting and standing upright.”
This passage has stuck with me, for reasons I don’t entirely understand, since the time I first read it, whenever that may have been. I’m less interested in the questionable medicine it prescribes than in the image of the ox and his attendant — who, on the farm described by Cato, was most likely a slave — together: the attendant going about his work, the ox patiently enduring his ministrations. The two at once familiar and yet gazing across an unfathomable distance of incomprehension as they stand facing one another, both unfed save the ox’s hen’s egg and measure of wine.
I’ve been thinking of the passage often lately, as my novel, That’s Not a Feeling, is, to my surprise, filled with animals. The novel is set on the rural campus of a boarding school, so it isn’t entirely unexpected that animals should appear. But a brief catalogue of non-human animals seen and discussed in its pages would include deer, bees, ducks, a turkey, cats, a caterpillar, a goat, a pig, some chickens, an owl, two wasps, a peahen, horses, bats, some birds that are not further identified, and a snake. This seems to me, if not quite excessive, then at least curious. It’s the kind of thing I try not to think much about while I’m writing, but now that the book is in its final form, I don’t really see what harm it can do.
In the eighth of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, the poet contrasts animals’ way of being in the world with that of people. “The creature gazes into openness,” he writes, in A. S. Kline’s translation, “… and when it moves, it moves / in eternity, as streams do.” Humans, however, are always looking inward, “our eyes are / as if they were reversed.” I’m sure that making this type of distinction is not what I was up to. First of all, I find it too romantic, too idealized. And the animals I’ve written about aren’t the free, sure beasts described by Rilke. They are often frightened, in the wrong place, or sick, like the ox in Cato.
In this way, they are mirrors of the human characters in the book, who are also often unsettled, ill at ease, or worse. And these characters’ confusion and anxiety is analogous to the opacity that, it seems to me, exists between people and animals. “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him,” Wittgenstein says. I take this to mean that a lion’s life, his experiences and concerns, are so foreign to us that even if he shared our language, we wouldn’t know what he was talking about. Just before making this point in the Philosophical Investigations, a point I think we can safely assume applies to all animals and not only to lions, Wittgenstein discusses the transparency, or lack thereof, between people. He says, “…one human being can be a complete enigma to another.” And, Freud might have added, a complete enigma to himself or herself as well.
This begins to feel more like what I may have been after, populating the margins of my book with unsteady animals. They stand (or crawl, or fly) as reminders that proximity doesn’t dispel mystery. Just as Cato’s ox and his attendant can live and work together without claiming to know one another completely, we can live among animals and among people without assuming that we comprehend them. This is less a philistine’s incuriosity about his surroundings than a degree of humility as regards the limits of our understanding. Just as psychoanalysis shows us how we are always telling the truth though we do not know the truth, and can be ourselves — can’t help being ourselves — though we remain strangers to ourselves. And yet we are never so resigned that we stop trying to find out more. I like the way animals in books, what John Berger called “animals of the mind,” can serve as emblems of this. From the meadows and the trees, they gaze out at the human characters, who cannot help but wonder what it is the animals see.
The first of the three books I read between starting and finishing The Fortress of Solitude is The Underdog: How I Survived The World’s Most Outlandish Competitions by Joshua Davis. Hilarious. I am not sure where to begin but Davis’s interest in excelling in obscure or at times plain ridiculous fields of “sports” stems from two sources: the Ipski-Pipski stories his dad told him during his childhood (where Ipski-Pipski would overcome any and all difficulties in a very James Bondesque manner) and his mother’s undying hope that her son be best at something (she was the 1962 Miss Nevada and a contender for Miss Universe, who barely missed first spot because of a bad hairdo). So, Davis decides to overcome his shortcomings that keep him from becoming a traditional achiever (such as a high school basketball star or college football player) and get rid of his unfulfilling job as a data-entry clerk by embarking on a quest to be really good at something. Davis not only faces the challenge of finding out what he can excel in but also of providing for his wife, who is about to enroll in gradate school and considers his actions very childish. It is, therefore, difficult to see where Davis is going when he chooses arm wrestling as the first sport to prove himself in. At 125 pounds and 5 foot 9 (and wearing glasses) Davis is not the usual imposing arm-wrestler you would imagine. But despite his physique, Davis manages to join the American Arm Wrestling Team and attend the world championships in Poland, ranking 19th worldwide due and placing 4th in the lightweight category worldwide. Quite a title for a first timer, but it sure helps that there were a mere 4 lightweight contenders. Encouraged by his mediocre success, Davis pursues bullfighting, sumo wrestling, backward running and a Sauna World Championship. Through each of his misadventures Davis meets people such as celebrity bullfighter Miguel Baez Litri, sumo wrestling Yokozuna (grand champion, a title granted to only two people) Musashimaru, world-class backward runner (and inventor) K. Veerabadran, and the Swedish sauna lover Markku Mustonen, who influence and encourage him to pursue his heart’s desire. As Davis runs (at times backwards) from one outrageous feat to another, he also manages to pull his family together, please his wife and land a job at Wired as a staff reporter. The Underdog is an unusual and genuinely encouraging take on the American dream of being all you can be (or whatever you want to be) and it points out that doing ridiculous things might work after all.My second book during the Lethem intermission was Kurt Dosyasi (The Kurdish File) by Ugur Mumcu. Mumcu is a Turkish journalist murdered in 1993 (suspects still at large) whose works were very detailed and influential. I talked a lot about him during my journalism school applications, which made me want to read more of his work. Mumcu was murdered while working on Kurt Dosyasi, hence it is unfortunately cut short in its early investigative stages. The parts that were published, however, tell the parallel stories of (currently imprisoned head of PKK) Abdullah Ocalan’s life as a student, as well as his involvement in the 1970s left-wing student movements, and the government policies regarding the Kurdish population in the Eastern and South-eastern parts of Turkey in the 1930s. The documents that Mumcu presents are interesting and shocking, such as reports by ministers and minutes of parliamentary hearings that talk about assimilating Kurds to Turkish society, dispersing Kurdish clans, and replacing internal populations for the Turkification of Eastern Turkey and the Kurds. Kurt Dosyasi also draws on the government’s shortcomings in peacefully penetrating Kurdish societies and its failure to deal with the threats posed by armed militias that disrupted trade, prevented investments and threatened the newly founded republic with uprisings. Unfortunately, Mumcu was killed before tying all the pieces together and explaining the emergence of Ocalan as the leader of the Kurdish insurgency in 1984. I am sure that his work would have been invaluable in assessing the “Kurdish Issue” in Turkey and it is a shame that it is incomplete. Still, it is a great source of information and sheds some light on the wrong nationalistic policies of the 1930s that led to the creation of Kurdish discontent in Turkey. I would recommend it to all parties interested in the issue; the only drawback is that you have to know Turkish, as the book is not translated.My third and last intermission book was another one by Ugur Mumcu: Sakincali Piyade (The Problematic Private). This collection of short memoirs constitute a satirical take on life, as mostly experienced by Mumcu, in the period following the coup d’etat of March 12, 1971, in Turkey. This was the second time since the foundation of modern Turkey in 1923 that the military dissolved the parliament, declared martial law and ran the country until new elections, which, in this instance, they took place two years later in October 1973 (the other 2 coup d’etats are May 27, 1960 and September 12, 1980 – there is also a military decree issued in February 28, 1997 that caused the government to resign). Mumcu was an Assistant Dean of the Ankara Law School at the time. His leftist politics were widely know and not hidden. In the two years that the military administered the country a lot of leftists were persecuted on extremely flimsy charges. Mumcu was one of them. His bitter experiences led to Sakincali Piyade, which points at the outrageous claims made against him, as well as other leftist scholars, thinkers and activists of his generation. His memoirs chronicle life in prison, court hearings and the army. Mumcu had to serve his mandatory military service in this period and at the hands of army officials that hoped to “correct” his “thinking” during the service. The courtroom antics that Mumcu lists are ridiculous in retrospect, but point directly to the gravity of the situation in the 1970s and the sad consequences of “enforcing” democracy through the military. I would recommend Sakincali Piyade to everyone who is looking to laugh and think deeply (and do those simultaneously) about the tragic-comic situations that plague Turkey to this day. Unfortunately, Sakincali Piyade is also not translated.Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
In late 2001 among the people I knew, cellphones went from being a gadget of the technorati to something that everyone had. I was living in a dorm with five roommates at the time and one consequence of the change was that we no longer ever spoke with each other’s parents. Previously parents had called the room line and whoever was around would pick up. I enjoyed shooting the breeze with my friends’ moms (it was mostly moms who called) and I regretted that there was no longer much opportunity to do that once cellphones allowed our parents to call each of us directly.
Ereaders today feel somewhat like cellphones just before 2001. They are not yet ubiquitous, but they are well past the early-adopter stage and their growth seems poised to go geometric. When the Kindle came out in 2007 I poopooed it as the future face of reading; the hyperactivity of the Internet just seemed like a bad match with the meditative experience of reading a book. But the other day while watching my eight-month-old son knock around a pile of books, I knew suddenly and viscerally that I was wrong. The clunky objects he was playing with seemed like relics.
The Millions has written previously about the externalities of e-readers. Edan has commented on how they portend a drawing down of the public space in which we read—with the Kindle you don’t know what the person next to you is reading, or how far along in it they are, or whether their copy of the book is dog-eared or brand new (because it’s neither).
One of the most prominent losses in this regard stands to be the loss of bookshelves. A chief virtue of digital books is said to be their economical size—they take up no space at all!—but even a megabyte seems bulky compared to what can be conveyed in the few cubic feet of a bookshelf. What other vessel is able to hold with such precision, intricacy, and economy, all the facets of your life: that you bake bread, vacationed in China, fetishize Melville, aspire to read Shakespeare, have coped with loss, and still tote around a copy of The Missing Piece as a totem of your childhood. And what by contrast can a Kindle tell you about yourself or say to those who visit your house? All it offers is blithe reassurance that there is progress in the world, and that you are a part of it.
Of the bookshelves I’ve inspected in my life, two stand out as particularly consequential. The first was my mother’s, which was built into the wall of the bedroom where she grew up. When I would visit my grandparents in the summer I would spend hours inspecting that bookshelf. The books were yellowed and jammed tightly together, as though my mother had known it was time to leave home once she no longer had any room left on her shelves. In the 1960s novels, the Victorian classics, and the freshman year sociology textbooks fossilized on the bookshelf, I got the clearest glimpse I ever had of my mother as a person who existed before me and apart from me, and whose inner life was as bottomless as I knew my own to be.
And then there was my wife, whose bookshelves I first inspected in a humid DC summer, while her parents were away at work. The shelves were stuffed full of novels—Little House on the Prairie, The Andromeda Strain, One Hundred Years of Solitude—that described an arc of discovery I had followed too. At the time we met, her books still quivered from recent use and still radiated traces of the adolescent wonder they’d prompted. In the years since, on visits home for the holidays and to celebrate engagements and births, I’ve watched her bookshelves dim and settle. Lately they’ve begun to resemble a type of monument I recognize from my mother’s room. They sit there waiting for the day when our son will be old enough to spend his own afternoons puzzling out a picture of his mother in the books she left behind.
It remains to be seen how many more generations will have the adventure of getting to know their parents in just this way. One for sure, and maybe two, but not much beyond that I wouldn’t think. To the extent that bookshelves persist, it will be in self-conscious form, as display cases filled with only the books we valued enough to acquire and preserve in hard copy. The more interesting story, however, the open-ended, undirected progression of a life defined by books will surely be lost to a digital world in which there is no such thing as time at all.
[Image source: David Goehring]
I’ve seen some pretty wacky self-published books listed on Amazon, but never, ever, have I seen one as purely absurd as this one. The title alone had me giggling: How to Good-Bye Depression: If You Constrict Anus 100 Times Everyday. Malarkey? or Effective Way? by Hiroyuki Nishigaki. Luckily a book description is provided as well: I think constricting anus 100 times and denting navel 100 times in succession everyday is effective to good-bye depression and take back youth. You can do so at a boring meeting or in a subway. I have known 70-year-old man who has practiced it for 20 years. As a result, he has good complexion and has grown 20 years younger. His eyes sparkle. He is full of vigor, happiness and joy. He has neither complained nor born a grudge under any circumstance. Furthermore, he can make love three times in succession without drawing out.In addition, he also can have burned a strong beautiful fire within his abdomen. It can burn out the dirty stickiness of his body, release his immaterial fiber or third attention which has been confined to his stickiness. Then, he can shoot out his immaterial fiber or third attention to an object, concentrate on it and attain happy lucky feeling through the success of concentration.If you don’t know concentration which gives you peculiar pleasure, your life looks like a hell. You can’t make this stuff up, folks. And the book has proven noteworthy enough to garner 33 customer reviews. I’m sure they’re all quite serious.