March 1, 2013

January/February 2013: THE PAST AND THE FUTURE, THE BEGINNING AND THE END OF THE WORLD, NONE OF WHICH WE KNOW VERY WELL

Books Bought
  • Spontaneous Happiness by Andrew Weil, MD @ Hudson Booksellers, Chicago Midway Airport, Chicago, IL
Books Borrowed 
  • The Dog Stars (x2) by Peter Heller @ NYU Library, New York, NY and Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn, NY
  • Priceless Memories by Bob Barker @ NYU Library, New York, NY 
  • Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness by Scott Jurek @ Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn, NY
  • The Driftless Area by Tom Dreary @ NYU Library, New York, NY
  • Gengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford @ Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn, NY
Books Read
  • Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness by Scott Jurek
  • The Driftless Area by Tom Dreary
  • The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
  • The End of your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe
  • Gengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford
  • Spontaneous Happiness by Andrew Weil, MD

There were two beautiful monsters this month, consuming my attention long after I finished both. The first was Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, another book about a global apocalypse, that struck me so deeply I’m still trying to figure out why. Here, the narrator remembers a trip, before. 

"We stayed in a white clapboard cottage in the village with a view of Noonmark from the sleeping porch. That’s a little Adirondack mountain that looks like a parody of a mountain, very peaky like the Matterhorn but tiny. The little mountain that could. We climbed it often on Saturdays after sleeping in. Trotted happily up the ledgy trail to a rocky top just out of the stunted firs. And in the long evening we’d take the two single gear bikes up the paved road to a stone pothole with a little sluicing waterfall, the water always freezing, and we’d strip and jump in. This was our ritual while we waited for our lives to truly begin and I think now that maybe true sweetness can only happen in limbo. I don’t know why. Is it because we are so unsure, so tentative and waiting? Like it needs that much room, that much space to expand. The not knowing anything really, the hoping, the aching transience: This is not real, not really, and so we let it alone, let it unfold lightly. Those times that can fly. That’s the way it seems now looking back. Like those pleasantly exhausted bike rides up the side of a country highway on a warm evening. To a bridge. To a little rootsnaked trail through heavy maples. Where we padded barefoot upsteam to a swimming hole. Even getting poison ivy so badly one weekend I missed two days of work. Seems from here that that was the sweetest time ever vouchsafed to two people. Ever. On earth. While we waited for him to finish his degree, for me to have a child, to do the real work of living." 

In addition to the tangible rhythm, the effortless innocence, and the perfectly-apt adjectives of the language on display here, it’s possible to consider several veins of my lingering fascination. To be sure, my fascination has something to do with the portrayal of stark violence wrought with ever-present guns, and the way those elements play out in a thoughtfully masculine, yet beautifully subtle arc. And as a 5th year PhD student, my fascination definitely has something to do with the idea of waiting for “the real work of living,” and how painfully resonant those words sound as I continue to cobble together 3 jobs for so-little money, based on some hoped-for vision of the future. And it most certainly has to do with the idea of understanding life as an “aching transience,” an idea that stabs me with poignance, and makes me wish deeply that I had thought of it, while feeling that in a way I already had. Whatever it is, this book is enthralling (verging on the preoccupying), and I still lose myself remembering it. 

The second book I’m still brooding over is the history you never read, of Gengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. The tale is nearly beyond belief, and the author has a keen understanding of just how astonishing the facts are, and how to frame them.

In American terms, the accomplishments of Genghis Khan might be understood if the United States, instead of being created by a group of educated merchants or wealthy planters, had been founded by one of its illiterate slaves, who, by the sheer force of personality, charisma, and determination, liberated America from foreign rule, united the people, created an alphabet, wrote the constitution, established universal religious freedom, invented a new system of warfare, marched an army from Canada to Brazil, and opened roads of commerce in a free-trade zone that stretched across the continents. On every level and from any perspective, the scale and scope of Genghis Khan’s accomplishments challenge the limits of imagination and tax the resources of scholarly explanation.  

It seems that so much time is spent imagining the end of the world. Not to delve too deeply into MD Andrew Weil’s ideas about happiness, but perhaps I would be better served by considering the splendor that does exist, although, isn’t that really what apocalypse stories are really about?

Books Purged

  • The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan (read)
  • Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Deception by Eric Van Lustbader (read)
  • The Best Democracy Money Can Buy by Greg Palast (unread)
  • How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer (1 Chapter read)
  • The Gunslinger by Stephen King (read)
  • Sean and David’s Long Ride by Sean Condon (read, and found with Middle College High School Graduation Program, 2008 inside)
  • Complications by Atul Gawande (read)
  • Little Nothings by Lewis Trondheim (read)
  • Priceless by Robert K. Wittman (read) 
  • Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle (read)
  • On Beauty by Zadie Smith (read)
  • Jessica Farm by Josh Simmons (read)