Friday, December 23, 2011

2011 A Year in Books: Part 1 – Narrative

I read a surprising number of books this year…to the point that a yearend book post [1] got longish (even for me). So I split it up. In this post, I will write about the ‘narrative texts’, an next time we will move to the ‘idea texts.’ (Note: I don’t really classify books under ‘non-fiction’ and ‘fiction’ but under ‘ideas’ and ‘story’…’argument’ and ‘narrative’). This year I have tried to include one of my favorite (brief) quotes from each text. And here is the legend for the parenthetical notes:

(A) - Audio – I listened to this book
(N) – I have a word document of notes and quotes from this book[2]
(!) – I really liked this book
(X%) – I didn’t finish this book

(Tip for Footnotes: I went a little overboard with footnotes, even for me. I know it is hard to go back and forth. If you are interested in the footnotes it might be helpful to open a second browser.)

Resurrection - Leo Tolstoy (A)

"every man carries within himself the germs of every human quality.”

I love Tolstoy. Anna Kerennena is easily in my top three favorite books. But there is a reason that this is one of his lesser known works. It operates mostly as a tract against the 19th century Russian court [3] and penal system. I read it with my reading group because we heard that it was Tolstoy’s most explicitly spiritual novel. That might itself be part of the problem. There were some very fruitful spiritual themes. But the book was just too polemical, both politically and ideologically, to work very well as a noel. It lacked the subtle contrast of Leven and Anna that told, essentially, the same story. It also lacked notes of hope that accompanied his more famous (and notoriously tragic) work.

Zombiecorns (!) – John Green

“My regret was immediate, total, and useless.” [4]

I’ve written a couple times about this ‘zombie apocalypse novella.’ I loved it. I defy you to listen to the author read the first page and not want to read the rest.

An Abundance of Katherines – John Green (A)

"How very odd to think that God gave you your life but not think that life asks more of you than watching TV."

One of the conditions that John put on the free, public distribution of Zombiecors is that we would read one of his actual works so that we wouldn’t judge his writing on a hastily written zombie apocalypse novella that he did not like. I took him up on the condition, checking out two of his other works. [5] The irony is that I thought Zobicorns was the best of the three by a long shot.

An abundance of Katherines had flourishes of Green’s characteristic wit and insight and deeply appealed to the teenage nerd I once was (as opposed to the adult nerd I now am). I loved the theme of the fear of unfulfilled potential and a world that is gaining on your head start. But it, somehow, did not seem to be the book I knew its author is capable of.

Hunger Games (A) (!) - Suzanne Collins

I have almost no experience with ‘young adult lit.’ It wasn’t a genre when I was a ‘youth’ [6] and honestly, the idea of an adult reading it conjures the images of ‘Twilight mom’ in my mind. But emboldened by my ability to read An Abundance of Katherines without feeling totally creepy, encouraged by no fewer than four adult friends that I admire, and after observing that a lot of the students in our campus ministry loved the book, I finally read the Hunger Games. I am embarrassed to admit I loved it…especially the first half. I cannot remember being as engrossed in a fictional work as I was in the first two hundred pages. Then the book departed from its central premise to set up the series love triangle…and it lost momentum, but it had built enough momentum that the wheels didn’t come off.

I’m not sure I realized how much I vested in these characters until I recently saw the trailer for the film and had trouble viewing part of it through wet eyes.

Will Grayson Will Grayson – David Levitan and John Green (A)

“I never even paid attention to the score. Baseball was just one of those inexplicable things that parents did like Flu Shots and church.”

I know that John Green loves Catcher in the Rye because of he rejects the idea that a successful literary character has to be likable, but most of these characters were just too self absorbed for me to identify with them. I feel like Green’s successful central idea is ‘the aggressive attempt to see life as the other,’ [7] which is kind of the opposite of self absorption. [8] But this work conspicuously lacked that theme. Maybe it because he only wrote half of it. Levitan’s characters, on the whole, lacked the self skepticism that attend Green’s more successful characters.

Also, this kind of felt like a book by two straight guys about two gay guys…probably because it was.

Anyway, thus ended my experiment in youth lit.

Unill we Have Faces - CS Lewis

I think this is the most difficult and least read of Lewis’ popular works. This explains why it may be the only one I hadn’t read. It was very good. One of the difinitive meditations on the hiddeness of God.  But there is a kind of melancholy that attends reading your last Lewis work for the first time. There is a lifetime of productive re-reading ahead of me…but I will never be startled by his clarity and creativity for the first time again.

Slaughterhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut (A)

"Everything there was to know about life can be found in Brother's Karamazov"

“Maggie was a dull person, but a sensational invitation to make babies.”

I have heard much about this being the great early ‘postmodern’ novel (where postmodern mostly means an experiment in non-linear story telling). But I have very little to say about this book. I only even remembered that I read it at the last minute when I found a couple of notes about it in my file. And so it goes.

Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald (A)

"Everyone suspects themselves of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine. I am one of the few honest people I have ever known."

"He was one of those men who acheived such an acute limited excellence at 21 that everything afterwards savors of anticlimax."
I revisited GG (a text I read in High School but failed to appreciate even a little) as part of John Green’s club.

It appears that in my mind I had conflated GG and Death of a Salesman. In place of two iconic stories of materialism in early twentieth century, I created a single mental category of ‘Americana tragedy of inauthenticity [9]’ that held these two together without distinction. As with most of the books I have reread since High School, I did appreciate it more on the second go-around. There are a few great metaphors but when it comes to Fitzgerald I really preferred…

Short Stories - F Scott Fitzgerald (A)

“The more parts of yourself you can afford to forget the more charm you will have.”

I liked these…more than Gatsby. FSF is a sort of understated virtuoso…simultaneously sublime and realistic. And in lieu of more commentary, I’ll include more a couple more quotes.

“People over 40 can seldom be permanently convinced of anything. At 18 our convictions are hills from which we look. At 45 they are caves in which we hide.”

"You can't shock a monk. He is a professional shock absorber.”

1984 (A) – George Orwell

“Why should one feel it to be intolerable unless one had some ancestral memory that things had once been different?”

I had never read 1984. It was unexpectedly grim. But throughout, I couldn’t help think about Neil Postman’s thesis that in the two classic visions of dystopia (1984 and Brave New World) it is the latter rather than the former that is our undoing. It is Huxley not Orwell who was our cultural profit. If you want to undo our society, it is far more effective to pander to appetites than oppress freedoms. We won’t stand for political oppression, forced restriction of freedoms, but will gladly trade careful, conscientious lives of just action for increasingly refined entertainments.

Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon (A) – David Grann

I know this sounds like another zombie narrative…but it isn’t. It is a non-fiction [10] story of a modern reporter’s attempt to recreate, investigate, and relay the events and back story of the most famous attempt to find a lost city in the unexplored Amazon.

It is a well written book…the kind of book that reveals the ending early but still manages suspense and even a twist ending. [11] I listened to it while I was doing field work and found the fortitude and courage of the explorers to be a motivational subsidy. Their tireless trudge into the jungles seemed to make my exertion decisions (am I going to hike another mile in to take another set of samples before I call it a day) seem small and my adventure tractable.

Tomb of the Inflatable Pig: Travels Through Paraguay - John Gimlette

I read this travel memoir/historical survey of Paraguay while I was there. It was a helpful and highly readable introduction to a country whose complicated and often tragic history helps explain some of the complexities of its present reality [12]. The author was a fine writer and a capable guide…but I could not help but notice that he did not seem to love Paraguay. [13] I do not a disinterested, ironic observer to guide me into the back-story of a new place and people. I want someone to show me how, despite their complicated story and bed-bug ridden hotels, he or she came to love the people and connect with the place. I wanted Gimlette to be as intoxicated with Paraguay as Grann was with Z.

Film, Television and Music

Since I don’t do a retrospective post on these forms I thought I’d tag my favorites on the end of this since they fit the ‘narrative’ theme.

Film: [14]

Never Let Me Go – My new criterion for a good film is ‘am I still thinking about it two days later.’ This beautifly made film was still turning over in my brain weeks later. I love the idea of a period science fiction peice. And the closing lines...

Tree of Life – TOL is a deeply flawed film. It is about 45 minutes longer than it needed to be. I recommended it to a thoughtful and reflective friend who did not like it at all. But it easily fit the criterion I listed above. I am still turning it over in my mind a couple weeks later (and may have to do a post on it).


My television competition was a war of attrition. I found that I only had time to follow a couple 30 minute shows (often just before the latest episode fell off the Hulu cue). But Louie and Community were the runaway winners. I stayed in a hotel last night and flipped through a couple of channels struck by how a bunch of shows I had never seen all kind of looked, felt, and sounded the same. If nothing else, Louie and Community are unique. [15]

Community - I have to respect a show that keeps trying. Some episodes are hits and others are misses, but every one tries to be special. And I respect that.

Louie – I started watching Louie half way season 2 when Klosterman declared it the most original and successful show ever. I have always like CK. He is one of the crassest comedians out there [16] but he is also one of the most astute students of human nature that currently has a popular platform and one of the only ones with any semblance of self-skepticism[17]. For example, if you haven’t seen ‘Everything is Awesome and No One is Happy,’ it is characteristic of his voice.

I went back and watched the whole series and it really is fantastic, totally original in format, tone, style, resonance and topical range. Oh, and when he is not busy being observant...he is hilarious...


Sigh No More – Mumford and Sons : I was mildly obsessed with this album this year. There is only one album I own that can rival SNM for the number of times I have listened to it (Catch for Us the Foxes – my favorite album ever). Mumford and Sons share a couple things with mewithoutYou that makes their music defy the standard process of artistic immunity (the process by which a work of art gradually fails to ignite our passions until the only work it can actually do is to occasionally invoke memories of passions). Both albums are stylistically unique, lyrically sublime, artistically excellent and contain spiritually complicated themes.

The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me – Brand New: This is an older album, but I am new to Brand New and really enjoyed them this year.

Next: 2011, A Year in Books Part 2 – Idea Books

This post was written while listening to Deja Entendu by Brand New


[1] I have been doing this for a couple years since my friend Joel started doing it over on his blog.
[2] And I’d be happy to e-mail them if you want a summary.
[3] I watched a couple of old episodes of Ally McBeal while I was reading this and found a surprising similarity in themes…we are at the mercy of legal systems that are capricious and arbitrary and subject to the whims and foibles of peculiar humans.
[4] In the next post I will write about Miroslov Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace (one of the finest texts I read this year). I thought of this quote when Volf argued that at the center of the human predicament is the icy and unforgiving irreversibility of our actions…making forgiveness the only real resource for negotiating our condition. But my reading group was amused when I made this connection for them…with a straight face.
[5] The ones my library had on audio, and admittedly, not his best know or liked.
[6] One of the books I will write about next time surveyed the rise and history of ‘youth culture’ from the 1930’s to the 1960’s…crediting this phenomenon with substantial influence in the development of our economy, culture and social conventions. But it is interesting that ‘youth’ as a subculture continues to segregate itself to the point that literature has been subdivided in just the last dozen years.
[7] He also deconstructs the centrality of romance to the teenage life, which together might be just about the greatest service youth literature could offer its demographic…and in stark contrast to the pandering that generally typifies this genre on both topics (see Twilight et al).
[8] There is a great moment in the second season of Louie where CK and a friend are having an argument and then an arguing couple walked by them and they realize the absurdity and self-involvement betrayed by their argument and just kind of giggle and say good bye despite the gravity of the topic. There was no such moment of self awareness leading to self skepticism. I know this is too much to ask of teenagers, but it isn’t too much to ask of thoughtful thirty-somethings writing for teenagers.
[9] I suppose if Babbit had died (rather than nearly bored me to death) I would have put that book in the same category.
[10] So I made this hard distinction between narrative and fiction because I include narrative non-fiction in essentially the same category as fiction. But this is the only non-fiction narrative I read.
[11] In Cold Blood comes to mind as another example of this.
[12] I have also found that an understanding of the 19th century history of a place gives you entre into more meaningful conversations (which basically boils down to better follow up questions) with those who live there.
[13] I once sent a short story I wrote to my friend Tiffany who is an English professor. Several of her comments stuck with me, but the one I have thought the most about was ‘you do not seem to love your character.’ I have given a lot of thought to whether you can write successful fiction without loving your character…but I do not think you can write successful non-fiction without that predisposition to find the lovely and good and the comprehensive observation that characterizes the lover.
[14] I think the best movie we actually saw this year was A River Runs Through It, but to list a mid-90’s film in a 2011 retrospective is too embarrassing…even for me. But it should be noted that we also liked The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Henry Ford, which means that three of the top 8 or so movies we saw this year had Brad Pitt in them.
[15] And their reward for artistic excellence, Community was suspended and Louie could not attract enough advertisers to move from the 10:30 slot to 10:00…on FX. CK told a story that they showed an episode to a mainstream advertiser and the company actually thought that it was a prank – unable to believe a show like this is actually on television. If you show your program to a corporation and it is so original that they think it is fake, you might be onto something.
[16] So some of my friends will find him unwatchable…and I appreciate and respect that. From time to time students will ask me what I think of The Wire and I have started to respond “It is my favorite show ever and I cannot remotely recommend it.”
[17] I have started a post on Louie and self skepticism. But regular readers will note that few posts I mention ever make it onto the blog. I have something like a 30% completion rate.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Purposeful Epistemological Self Limitation (or why Methodological Naturalism is like Soccer)

I love playing soccer. I love being part of a team built on unspoken communication and the ability to predict each other’s behavior.[1] I love the finesse and the hard work.[2] I love the thwack of the netting as a well struck ball finds the upper corner of the goal. And mostly I love the contact. I just really like getting hit a couple times a week. It reminds me of a part of myself that lies dormant in the coffee shops, cubicle, class rooms and play grounds that compose most of the rest of my life.

So, it does not occur to me to object to the arbitrary limitations placed on hand usage in the game. The self limitation of our most trusted appendages is part of what makes the game interesting. I love the game and so I play by its rules.

In fact, I have gotten so comfortable with these rules, that I have forgotten how un-natural they are…until I had a second born. My two-year-old refuses to limit the use of her hands[3] when we play soccer to the endless frustration of my four-year-old.[4] But this reminds me of my earliest days playing the game. Youth soccer is plagued by ‘hand balls’ because there is nothing more natural for an eight-year-old in the heat of competition than to reach out and grab a contested ball. Part of the early training in soccer is the discipline of self-limitation of highly useful parts of our self.

And we gladly submit to this self limitation, because, as I have established, I love soccer. The rest of my life is enriched by this activity that requires a measure of self limitation. Chasing a ball in a competitive framework burns about twice as many calories per hour than running and, according to my wife, I have more domestic patience if I get to ‘battle’ other dudes a couple times a week.

But when the buzzer goes off, and the game is over, my hands and arms are immediately employed in their standard useful activity. I pick up my bag…I ice my aging joints…I clean off the blood…I drive home…I hug my wife…I hold my baby. You see, the reason self limitation is useful is because it is restricted to an appropriate arena.

If it wasn’t restricted, it would be disability.

Now there is another game I love. I love science.[5] I love the story. I love the paradox. I love the resolution of paradox. I love that reality is ‘not only strange than we thought but stranger than we could have imagined.’ I love discovery and understanding. I even enjoy the reluctant release of a mistaken hypothesis. And I enjoy much of the technology that the enterprise has generated. I love science.

But in some ways, science is just like soccer. The rules of the game…part of what makes the game fruitful and fun…include counter-intuitive self limitation. Science presumes ‘methodological naturalism.’ It requires a temporary renunciation of metaphysics…the suspension of teleology. And just like youth soccer, this takes some getting used to, because we are fundamentally teleological beings, accustomed to employing our metaphysical faculties and finding them useful.[6]

The lab is a ‘world without windows.’[7] It presupposes a closed universe. Methodological naturalism focuses us epistemologically to recognize the aspects of our reality that are repeatable and knowable through by measurement and experimentation. But we can make the mistake to think that because these are the only things science can know, that they are the only things that can be know. Soccer is a fantastic game, but it would be a tragic lifestyle. Science is a fantastic method, but it is a tragic world view.

When the ‘buzzer goes off’ in the lab and I walk out into a beautiful evening and I hug my wife and I hold my baby and I play ‘soccer’ with my daughters and I read poetry and let a flat screen of my laptop tell me stories and read ancient texts with insight into reality…it is time to set aside the self limitation of methodological naturalism and experience reality as a person…with my metaphysical faculties engaged. It is time to let science feed teleology and live under the auspices of a broader, more robust epistemology.

The reason self limitation is useful is because it is restricted to an appropriate arena. If it wasn’t restricted, it would be disability.

This post was written while listening to The Creek Drank the Cradle by Iron and Wine
[1] In other words, on knowing each other. A soccer team that is also a human community is usually a more competitive team.
[2] Sadly, not in that order. I have aged as a soccer player much more rapidly than others. I was Varsity captain and a league All Star in high school. But it was all speed, hard work, set pieces and an unexpectedly competent shot from outside the box (for a nerd…the ‘surprise effect’ of being a competent nerd on the pitch is considerable). I ran track and had a rigorous physical conditioning regimen for a high schooler…so I was just in better shape than almost anyone in the league. But none of my soccer coaches ever actually played soccer. So I never learned foot skills or developed an appreciable ‘soccer IQ’. This is a problem in my mid-thirties. The speed and conditioning advantage has been lost in the slow march to senescence (and a schedule that includes actual responsibilities). This shouldn’t be a problem in the over-30 league, because we are all in the same position, left only with our foot skills and whiles…only, I don’t have any. So I watch the competitive gap between myself and an average player widen (in the wrong direction) the older I get.

I once posted a ‘free agent’ announcement that read “hard worker, reliably shows for games, pays on time, good motor, decent shot, mediocre ball skills.” The sad thing is that I was overselling my ball skills. The sadder thing is I got offers.
[3] I recently took the girls to several UCD volleyball games because one of the senior starters is part of the campus Christian community we are involved in. We love introducing the girls to admirable young women who are kind and strong…who embody the best of grace and power (which describes or friend Katie). Ever since, Aletheia has asked to play ‘volleyball’ instead of soccer because she has realized that sports exist that don’t impose silly hand restrictions.
[4] Here are some additional, gratuitous, Soccer pics of my 4-year. So far, she is like her daddy. She is an average dribbler, but she’s a hard worker and can drop the hammer. One of the other dads told me his son came home and told him ‘Charis kicks the ball so hard.’

[5] I went to the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco for the first time this week. It is the biggest conference I have ever been to…and the least practical. I usually go to applied science or engineering conferences. But the pure beauty of the explored earth sings. Pure science is like art in a lot of way. It requires public funding (or rare and generous patronage) to be possible…so getting to do it is a privilege not a right. But I think a society is ennobled by resourcing both.
[6] There are a number of famous recognitions of this. Most famously Francis Crick argued that “Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved.” Even in my own intro to Ecology class, the venerable Dr Shapiro encouraged us that ‘we have to be ever cautious of teleological thinking.’
[7] Though, for most labs, this is not only metaphorically, but also literally true.