The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Category: 2016 Book Review Series Page 1 of 3

Review of Descarte’s Error, by Antonio Damasio

This book is a bit long in the tooth now, having been published in ’95. The role it suggests for emotion in the use of reason is, in generalities, no longer controversial. But it was a landmark book for me, when I read it, and it’s still relevant and worth reading.

There’s been a LOT of work around how reason and emotion work together, or don’t. One popular model is “thinking fast and thinking slow,” with emotion as primary in the first, and reason the second.

There’s truth to this, but it’s only a partial truth. In complicated situations, reason does not work alone and can’t.

The human mind is limited, it simply cannot hold a lot of information at one time. Working memory holds about seven bits of information. Some people have a little more, some a little less, and there’s some variation on how much can be held based on the complexity of what is held.

Impressive memory tricks are mostly a result of clumping information into meaningful bits. One strategy for memorizing numbers is to do them as times, for example, making each bit longer.

Logic can work in two ways: sequentially and in parallel. In parallel it can only work up to the limit of working memory. Sequentially we can work through logical chains, but long chains run up against the working memory limitation in their own way–after a time, we don’t really remember the chain.

Humans, for all that we pat ourselves on the back a lot, are fundamentally stupid. It’s just that most other animals are terrible, and those who might be about as good as us or even better are, in some ways, handicapped otherwise, in terms of hands, and/or language, and/or lifespan (octopi), and so on.

Damasio notes that the realm of pure reason is very limited. Most decisions are not obvious. One example he gives is of a patient who has lost the ability to feel emotions trying to decide when his next appointment should be.  It’s not obvious, and he can’t do it, he can spend hours trying to decide.

This same patient, however, in a potential motor vehicle accident where there is an obvious solution, has no problem. Because he feels no emotions, he does the right thing and it’s no big deal for him.

Emotions are really body-states. You feel all emotions in your body. If you don’t, you don’t feel an emotion. (Meditation will show this to you experientially, if you wish.)

We remember emotions and we re-create them as necessary. (Remember the last time you hugged someone you love, feel the emotion. To enhance it, stand and physically mimic hugging them.)

We assign these emotions even to very subtle things, like logical propositions and thoughts on subjects.

When a problem is too hard to deal with using pure reason, when it’s not important enough to subject to pure reason, or when there is no time for pure reason (because logical thinking is, indeed, SLOW), we refer to our feelings, and we go with the one that feels best (or least worst).

Thinking is rarely divided into “pure reasoning” (slow) or “pure feeling” (fast), most complicated decisions use both.

More to the point, most hard decisions are hard because they aren’t clear: There isn’t an obvious logical choice.  They’re close calls, and, in such decisions, we will go with the decision that feels best.

So pure reason is rare, slow, and usually only used for decisions that are, actually, clear cut.

This has a lot of implications, but the one I want to end with is this: Your emotional map of reality is most of your intelligence and if your emotional map of reality (or any decision space within reality) is not accurate, you’re going to make a lot of bad decisions.

This, though Damasio does not go into it, is where ideology and identity come into things. Through those two methods (and anyone who doesn’t think they have an ideology is a fool), we build emotional maps we then layer on top of reason. If our identities or ideologies are screwed, we make bad decisions.

This is an important book to read. Even if all details are not accurate, it is a necessary antidote to a lot of foolishness about how thinking and decision-making actually works.

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

Meditation, Cultivation, and Spirituality Books (Part One)

I’ve been meditating, on and off, for about 14 years. Only in the last three years or so did I start to get much in the way of results from it.

Meditation and cultivation practices do things. They have real effects on people, especially if done diligently and well. Certain practices, done wrong, can mess you up, in much the same way that physical exercise, done wrong, can injure you–sometimes permanently.

One of my friends described to me the time he ran a meditation class for yoga teachers in a major American city. My friend is fat, over 250 pounds, and the yoga teachers were the elite: fit, supple, glowing with health. As they came into the room, and looked at him, he could see what was going through their minds.

He said, “All the time you have spent perfecting your bodies, I have spent perfecting my mind. Let us begin.”

(The body and the mind aren’t really two things, but hey…)

This became so long I’ve split it into two parts. I’ll link Part Two when it is published, most likely Friday.

All that said, let’s start.

The Essence of Enlightenment, James Swartz

Judging by how dog-eared this book is, it’s probably my most read cultivation book. This is the clearest explanation of one type of enlightenment I’ve ever read.

Swartz belongs to the Jnani-Yoga style of cultivation, specifically Indian Vedanta. This is a knowledge based method, where the cultivator uses reason to understand the reality of experience, eventually arriving at witness-consciousness: You view the world and yourself as something you’re just watching.

This is an accurate portrayal of how the human mind, or rather body, on close introspection, actually works.  The feeling of making choices is illusionary, and when you look at the body, thoughts, emotions, or other sense objects, you find that none of them are you (alternatively, they all are, but that’s not what this book is about).

We aren’t trained to think that way; it is not intuitive, and Jnani Yoga and Vedanta are good antidotes: They are logical arguments which help to stop the mind from screaming “bullshit” (as many readers probably are).

This book, while brilliant, is limited in certain ways. Swartz has little time for meditation as commonly understood, other than the close examination of arguments he prescribes Karma Yoga, which is doing things without worrying about the results. While Karma Yoga definitely works for some people, and is a good attitude for anyone on the cultivation path, meditation can be useful for many people.

Another problem is that Swartz expects people to be “qualified,” which means detached and basically psychologically healthy. Most people coming to cultivation aren’t as healthy as Swartz requires for success; people come because they’re hurting.

The third “issue” is that Swartz’s enlightenment, witnessing consciousness, isn’t quite the only kind. There’s another, where one becomes “that in which everything exists and from which everything came,” and there are different interpretations than “witness,” such as Buddhist “no self.” (And blah, blah, other forms that are too complicated and tedious to go into here.)

Still, I recommend this book very highly. It may be the first clean look at where you’re trying to go you read. And, having dealt with Swartz a bit, he’s a good guy, who is genuinely trying to help.

The Mindful Geek, Michael Taft

Some people need their meditation instructions served atheistically with a side of science. If that’s you, Taft has you covered. This falls into the general class of books that explain how meditate and add scientific studies about meditation either working, or studies about the brain which support the mental models on which meditation is based.

Taft is an instructor who works primarily in the tradition of Shinzen Young, who has a very detailed and complicated system of primarily Vipassana (investigatory) meditation. Modern mindfulness, to use Shinzen’s own term. Shinzen and Taft are both the real thing, in my opinion. They’ve put in the work over decades.

This book includes quite a few different styles of meditation, but it’s primarily about noting meditation. You introspect, you examine something, you attach a word or phrase to it, you move on. I came to this style late, but it’s very effective and there are people it’s taken, essentially, all the way. (I find it boring, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.) It has a very Theravada Buddhist feel to it, though Taft’s background is mostly Zen and Hindu.

And you don’t have to believe a thing about God, spirit, souls, or anything else. It’s all completely materialistic.

A good first book or a good book for those with some experience looking for other types of meditation than what they started off with.

Ramakrishna and His Disciples, Christopher Isherwood

So, Ramakrishna was a famous Hindu Holy man, a Bhakti (devotional, ecstatic worshipper) of Kali. His main disciple, Vivekananda, was the first person to introduce Hindu spirituality, including a form of meditation, to the modern West.

This book isn’t useful if you’re looking for instruction. It doesn’t include much on how to meditate, and most of it is firmly in the theistic camp: For Ramakrishna, God exists, gods existed, he saw them regularly, and talked to them and so on. This is, for atheists, a full on crazy.

But Ramakrishna was a seeker, he wanted to experience every type of Awakening. He did have the full non-dual realization (and that’s much of what Vivekananda spread to the West), but he spent time worshipping as Muslim, a Christian, and seeking out experiences of a variety of Hindu Gods.

Firmly on the “right hand” side, he was celibate, lived in a temple and didn’t like tantric practices (no sexual practices here, no sitting on corpses in graveyards, etc.).

Right, so with all that, why read it?

Partly for Bhakti-style cultivation: Intense love for a divine figure or guru, works. It really, really works. That sort of absorption in one thing unifies the mind very well and heals it of a lot of its psychological issues too.

This is the sort of practice which leads to “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Pouring everything into the love of your god, to get the final liberation, you have to transcend the God. Ramakrishna had to “wield the sword of non-discriminatory knowledge” and “kill” Kali to get there. Then, having done so, he hung out with Kali a bunch more, because, hey, why not?

A lot of people on the theistic path get stuck just short of the big realization because having a personal, loving relation with God (or Guru standing in for God) is really, really nice and they don’t want to give God up.

But this book is also, well, lovely. Ramakrishna is lovely and touching. The world he lives in, of Gods and spirits and, well, magic, is lovely. The stories are great. They’re of people who live lives that most of us in the West can barely conceive, full of gods and devotion. Most see this as craziness.

I’ve read this book a bunch of times, and loved it each time.

Joy On Demand, Chade-Meng Tan

When Tan wrote his book he worked for Google. His title, printed on his business card, was “A Jolly Good Fellow, Which Nobody Can Deny.”

So there’s that.

This is a meditation manual. It’s one of the better ones I’ve read. The fact about meditation is that it can often be a shit show: There comes a point where garbage you’ve suppressed (or not) starts coming up, and it sucks. And in certain practices there can be a lot of pain and suffering.

A lot of meditators stall out when they hit this point, they quit. Meditation is so often sold as being wonderful that people can’t handle when it turns to crap.

The best antidote for that, other than truthfulness, is emphasizing joy and bliss and happiness in meditating. The right types of meditation really are wonderful experiences AND having that wonderfulness as a base from which to work will make everything else so much easier–including some of the unavoidable crap that comes up.

Tang’s manual is oriented towards getting you that base, to making meditation enjoyable as quickly as possible.

This is an excellent way to start meditating and if your practice has stalled out, it’s an excellent way to restart it. The enterprise of reducing or ending suffering shouldn’t be some sort of grim death march.

Tang has an odd sense of humour, which all readers may not like. But the book is an enjoyable, easy read, with enough explanations of technique, theory (so you know why you’re doing it and stick with it), and stories to keep you going.


I’ll have a number more books next time, and some theoretical explanations of what you’re doing and why. In the meantime, if you want a first book, Taft’s or Tang’s will do you well. If you want to know why you’re bothering, read Swartz’s “Essence of Enlightenment,” and if you want to visit a wild and crazy–but wonderful–world, read about Ramakrishna and his disciples.

If none of these work for you, I’ll have at least two more books suitable to starting to meditate in Part Two, along with various other, scrumptious reads.

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

Review, Impro, by Keith Johnstone

The subtitle is “Improvisation and the Theatre,” but this is a book for far more than people involved in theatre, and one of the most profound I have read.

Johnstone started as a teacher, and specialized in “problem children,” whom he found to be the most imaginative and bright students, rather than those students who are simply compliant with teacher.

I have two favorite anecdotes from this book. The first is that when teaching drama students, Johnstone would sit on the floor, while the students were in chairs. He would tell them that if they didn’t achieve the abilities the class was teaching it was his fault, not theirs, because he was the teacher.

By the end of his introductory spiel, they would all be off the chairs, sitting on the floor with him, because they didn’t want to be “over” someone treating them as he was.

Johnstone would try and make students feel completely safe, and he found that as people learned not to censor themselves three layers would emerge.

The first was sexual: Often wildly, inappropriately sexual.

The second was a deep fear of God (remember he was teaching more than 50 years ago now) and of Hell, combined with anger and hatred.

The third and final layer was a deep tenderness.

(This is fairly similar to my experiences with meditation. Human nature, stripped of fear and desperate desire, appears to be essentially love. Most people never strip off enough to experience more than brief flashes of this, however.)

Johnstone has a long disquisition on status which is fascinating and useful far beyond the theatre. His analysis that higher status people own more space than lower status people, and that servants own no space, is brilliant.  His breaking down of conversational domination opened up whole vistas of understanding how people talk in real life.

But this is my favourite quote from the book:

I once had a close rapport with a teenager who seemed ‘mad’ when she was with other people, but relatively normal when she was with me. I treated her rather as I would a Mask – that is to say, I was gentle, and I didn’t try to impose my reality on her. One thing that amazed me was her perceptiveness about other people – it was as if she was a body language expert. She described things about them which she read from their movement and postures that I later found to be true, although this was at the beginning of summer school and none of us had ever met before.

I’m remembering her now because of an interaction she had with a very gentle, motherly schoolteacher. I had to leave for a few minutes so I gave the teenager my watch and said she could use it to see I was away only a very short time, and that the schoolteacher would look after her. We were in a beautiful garden (where the teenager had just seen God) and the teacher picked a flower and said: ‘Look at the pretty flower, Betty.’

Betty, filled with spiritual radiance, said, ‘All the flowers are beautiful.’

‘Ah,’ said the teacher, blocking her, ‘but this flower is especially beautiful.’

Betty rolled on the ground screaming, and it took a while to calm her. No one seemed to notice that she was screaming ‘Can’t you see? Can’t you see!”

In the gentlest possible way, this teacher had been very violent. She was insisting on categorizing, and on selecting. Actually it was crazy to insist that one flower is especially beautiful in a whole garden of flowers, but the teacher is allowed to do this, and is not perceived by sane people as violent. Grown-ups are expected to distort the perceptions of the child in this way. Since then I’ve noticed such behaviour constantly, but it took the mad girl to open my eyes to it.

Reality isn’t, mostly. That’s not  to say there aren’t real things, and objects and so on, most of it is filtered so heavily that we never see the world minus huge amounts of connotation and framing we picked up from other people and pass on, too often rather like a virus. A great deal of what passes for us as wrong, escalating to mad, is really just people who refuse to live in our particular reality. (Other madness is, of course, far more serious.)

There’s a vast amount of information here, of course, on how to do improvisational theatre and my theatre friends tell me it’s great, even foundational. The most important points are to always accept prompts (don’t shut down what your impro mate is doing, but run with it) and to not try to be too clever, because too clever doesn’t flow from whatever was given to you and the audience won’t buy it or get it.

But this book is one I keep coming back to because so much of it is about what it means to be human, how to retain our imagination, and how not to drown in social conditioning. It’s a fundamental book, one which deals with the deepest issues and illuminates them. Recommended for everyone.

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

Fiction We Loved as Adults

I thought it would be nice to share books we loved after leaving high school, or thereabouts. As with the previous post on childhood books, all off-topic comments will be deleted.

As before, I make no claim any of these books are “good,” only that I loved them.

The Spenser Novels, Robert Parker

Ostensibly first person “tough guy” detective novels, these are really extended meditations on the good life: what sort of person one should be, how one should act, what’s worth doing and not doing. Spenser has created the person he wants to be, and it’s a person that comes with high costs.

The dialogue is good, the plots are sometimes good, the characters become old friends and cliches over the length of the series. All the books are not as good as each other. Still, they were comfort food bestsellers for years.

The Burke Novels, Andrew Vachss

Also first person tough guy detective novels, but very different from the Spenser novels, except for the characters pushing hard into power-fantasy territory. Burke’s down and out, his obsession is catching pedophiles, and his world is nasty. I found these depressing when I read them in my early 20s, and I stopped reading them after the fifth, as my mood no longer went with them.

But they’re good. And the shit world they depict is one too many people live in. Start at the beginning, with Flood.

The SPQR Novels, John Maddox Roberts

I wrote a long review of just these novels. They’re fun detective stories set in the late Roman Republic. Carried a couple with me whenever I traveled for years. Highly recommended.

A Tapestry of Magics, Brian Daley

There is a place, which attracts pieces of other realities, ruled by an immortal king (who is almost certainly Conan), where much that is lost, be it armies, lovers, or vampires often wind up.

It is the story of Crassmor Tarrant, the ne’er do well son of a powerful family, and features three linked novellas about his life, showing his fall from his father’s grace and his heroics as a nearly outcast knight errant who wants nothing to do with heroics, but only to return home safely to the woman he loves.

Crassmor is delightful: He’s clever, cynical on the surface, and somewhat tired. Unlike a lot of protagonists he’s not stupid about, say, the opposite sex or how the world works: He’s a carouser and womanizer and gambler.

This book is a love letter–to Robin Hood, Conan, courtly knight stories, and far more besides. The author loves his world and his characters and it shines through. And it’s fun.

The Wizard War Series, by Andrew Offut and Richard Lyon

Offut’s one of those authors who wrote a lot, and none of it worked for me, except this one series with Lyon.  The protagonist is the pirate Tiana Highrider. She’s ridiculously overconfident, believes she never feels fear (but often does), very clever, and quite funny. In the first book, she and her foster father go on separate quests to find the pieces of the body of a deceased wizard so they can bring him fully back to life, at which point he will consume their souls and ignite a wizard war.

Her father, a black ex-cannibal, writes his part as letters to his daughter, and they are hilariously on point: Caranga may have adopted Tiana, but his character flaws are hers; she’s his daughter.

The first book sets in motion a war between the two greatest wizards in the world: Prye and Ekron, placing Tiana naturally at the center. (There’s an actual, plot-driven reason.) The second two novels aren’t quite as fun, but they’re still a gas. The world building is excellent, and the secondary characters exhibit the same sense of fun.

Sword and sandal in its feel, with Conan style magic (it’s always bad), I’ve read this series over and over and loved it every time.

The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Bujold has written a LOT of novels, they’ve almost all been bestsellers, and her longest running series is the Vorkosigan series.

I don’t think Bujold has ever written a bad story, though some are definitely weaker than others (those books primarily intended as romances tend to fall flat to me, and I don’t dislike romances).

But of all her books, and I love many, I love the Curse of Chalion the most.  The protagonist is a man broken by war and slavery. Once a noble commander, when we meet him he is poverty ridden, ill, and hoping only for a servant’s job in the castle of an old master he once loved.

That doesn’t turn out to be the case, of course. He wants only peace, but driven by love, he winds up in service to a princess at the heart of a massive power struggle in a corrupt court, whose weak king has given his power to an ambitious and ruthless man; because the family is under a great curse.

In terms of plot, this book is about the resolution of the power struggle and that curse, but what it’s really about is faith and divinity and what the Gods can and can’t do. Even though it’s a universe where the Gods definitely exist, their powers in the world are sharply limited: They can do little to nothing without the aid of mortals, who have free will, and can shut them out.

And the curse can only be lifted by the Gods, who need the aid of a mortal.

But the price of faith is high, and the Gods, even though good, do not act as mortals would have them do. Faith requires, well, faith, as it does in our world, and this book turns out to be probably the best meditation on faith I’ve read, despite its fantasy setting.

Time of the Dark Trilogy, by Barbara Hambly

Hambly’s another author I’ve loved for a long time. She’s got her obsessions, like most, and her characters tend to fall into definite types. In addition to this series, The Ladies of Mandyrign is probably her best.

This series starts off as many fantasy novels once did by taking the protagonists from our world (late 1970s California) into the fantasy world, where there is a rising threat of squamous shapeshifting horrors which float on the wind and consume mind and soul of their victims.

Civilization is shattered, the protagonists cannot be sent back and they flee towards safety. One becomes a wizard, the other a warrior, both try to survive and hope to find a way to defeat the Dark, delving into the history of their previous defeat, using the skills of the female protagonist, a doctoral student in history.

This is a bunch of things: there’s a couple love stories, both good; there’s a meditation on what it means to be a Wizard–“you must love things for themselves before they will give themselves to  you”; there’s a long story of church/state infighting and intrigue; There’s a world with politics and empires and kingdoms that make sense; there’s an investigation of what makes a good warrior and what makes someone willing and able to kill as a calling; there’s love and hate and lust for power and curiousity and magic, and; all the good stuff.

It starts a bit rough, being Hambly’s first, but roars on.

I can’t recommend everything Hambly’s written, not even every book set in this world, but the first three, the trilogy, are part of that set of books I’ve read and re-read, and carried with me on innumerable flights.

And Hambly’s interesting. Her world view is interesting. If it gets a bit tiresome by book ten, well, it’s one worth knowing.

Mairelon the Magician, by Patricia Wrede

Regency England street urchin and thief Kim is hired to find out if a traveling magician has a silver bowl. The magician catches her, and offers to take her on as his apprentice.

The catch, he’s a real mage, not just a stage magician.

This lovely book is escapade after escapade, bordering on farce. Both Mairelon and Kim are delightful, scrappy and lack much in the way of a sense of self-preservation, leading to endless scrapes.

The book ranges from the back streets of London to high society; a druid lodge, a Bow Street Runner and a country estate, with the protagonists plowing gleefully on.

It’s also charming and touching; Mairelon is a good guy, and Kim’s tough and clever. Light as angel cake, but twice as fun.

Concluding Remarks

Fiction can be about ourselves, but I enjoy it most when it’s about someone who is not much like me. I’ve been me all my life, fiction lets me see the world as someone else, and it often lets me see world’s I’ve never seen, whether they’re fantasy worlds, science fiction worlds, historical worlds, or just parts of my world that Ian will never see.

Tell us about fiction you loved as an adult in the comments.

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

Review of Rest, by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

For many years, I’ve noticed something about the work schedules of writers. Most work about four hours a day, virtually none work six or more.

Rest is a part of that genre of books which consist mostly of anecdotes and descriptions of scientific studies. It’s not a genre I’m usually fond of: tedious. But Rest, in my opinion, is an important book.

Too many people today think that working more equals working better. It’s not that that’s never the case; in many jobs and disciplines, the simplest and best way to increase what you get done is to just add more hours.

But that prescription, startlingly popular among many, has always struck me as dubious when it comes to anything creative. Speaking personally, even when perfectly healthy and happy, after more than about four hours of concentrated creative work my brain turns to mush. Work done after that time is not only non-productive, it’s likely to be so filled with mistakes that it’s counterproductive.

If I want to work more than that, the best strategy is to work about three hours and then rest. Best is to take a full sleep cycle nap of about 90 minutes to two hours. Then I can do another two to three hours.

And that’s it.

Further, the best strategy when working on a specific project which requires me to come up with ideas is to completely splurge, learning everything I can about the subject, over however long that takes (in four to five hour daily segments), and then to do something else.

The “something else,” and ideally that involves not work, but rest or play, is necessary, and it is during that time at some point, perhaps in the shower, after a nap, or during a long walk, that the key ideas will occur. They rarely occur during the study period, unless they are fairly obvious.

This is the prescription given by Graham Wallas in The Art of Thought and far more succinctly by ad-man James Webb Young in A Technique For Producing Ideas and it is at the core of Rest:

  • Prepare by immersing yourself.
  • Try to solve the problem.
  • Give up and rest.
  • Eureka.

Rest starts by looking at how Darwin lived his life. Succinctly, he didn’t work that much, four and a half hours a day, in 90 minute periods, with breaks in between.

The book is replete with examples similar to Darwin, but what I found most stunning was a study on scientific production in the 1950s which plotted papers produced vs. hours in the office:

The data revealed an M-shaped curve. The curve rose steeply at first and peaked at between ten to twenty hours per week. The curve then turned downward. Scientists who spent twenty-five hours in the workplace were no more productive than those who spent five. Scientists working thirty-five hours a week were half as productive as their twenty-hours-a-week colleagues. From there, the curve rose again, but more modestly.

Researchers who buckled down and spent fifty hours per week in the lab were able to pull themselves out of the thirty-five-hour valley: They became as productive as colleagues who spent five hours a week in the lab. Van Zelst and Kerr speculated that this fifty-hour bump was concentrated in “physical research which requires continuous use of bulky equipment,” and that most of those ten-hour days were spent tending machines and occasionally taking measurements. After that, it was all downhill: The sixty-plus-hour-a-week researchers were the least productive of all.

When you add back in work at home, and not just office, it appears the most productive scientists were working about 25 to 38 hours a week.

Not 70.

The book also analyzes the famous violin study, of conservatory students who would go on to be world class violinists and shows the same thing: The best students practiced twice a day, and took a rest between. They did other “work,” but considered practice and rest the most important part of their day.

This isn’t a short book, and there’s a ton of detail on sleep, naps, exercise, play, walking, and so on, but the bottom line is simple enough: Too much work and no play (or rest) makes Dick a dull boy with few original ideas. This is true for novelists, scientists, artists, and so on.

The real work of creativity is done by the subconscious. You must put in the work — there is no skipping it. You must read the books, do the practice, try to figure out the problem, but it is not the conscious mind which makes the breakthroughs: You do the work until you just don’t want to think about it any more, both daily and on a longer time schedule, then you take a break, and it shakes out or it doesn’t.

This book is an important antidote to a trend in our society. If you’re working 80 hours a week? No, you’re not going to be peak creative. If you, or your child, spends all their time in school, on homework, and then on adult supervised extra-curricular activities, again, that’s bad for creativity (this kind of busy schedule is the profile of students who go to the Ivy League).

Work hard, have fun playing, and rest.

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

Fiction We Loved as Children and Teenagers

The response to my last post reviewing the Roman Republic Mystery series SPQR, made me think a post on fiction I’ve loved would be appropriate. After some writing, I decided to limit it to books and series I loved before I left high school to keep the word count down to something reasonable.

I make no particular claim that any of these books have any literary merit, only that that I loved them when I read them. Please add your own fiction loves, especially from when you were young, in the comments. Any comments not on the topic of fiction will be removed as I see them.

Patricia McKillip – The Riddle Master of Hed trilogy

In grades six and seven I loved the first two novels of this trilogy, The Riddle Master of Hed, and Heir of Sea and Fire, like crazy. I read each multiple times. Like no one else I’ve read since, McKillip got the feel of magic and myth right. Her world is lyrical and her magic is magical, not technology in drag.

I’ve read them every decade since, and they hold up. McKillip went on to write a lot of books. In some the prose becomes too dense for me, and I feel these are the best she ever wrote, though it may just be a case of imprinting. Nonetheless, highly recommended.

Marion Zimmer Bradley – The Darkover Series

Bradley became famous outside science fiction with The Mists of Avalon, which is actually where I stopped reading her, and post-death some nasty sexual allegations have come out. All that said, her Darkover series, about a lost colony world being rediscovered by more technologically advanced Terrans made a huge impression on me.

It’s an excellent meditation on colonialism and what happens when a more technologically advanced civilization effects a less advanced one with cultural institutions and traditions that aren’t always inferior. It has psionics and some aliens which shift genders and it’s full of 70s era feminism, and it all winds up feeling both heavy and adventurous, because Bradley could tell an adventure story too when she wanted to.

I read these novels when I was ten to 12 years old, and I haven’t read them since, but they made a huge impression on me at the time.

Harper Hall Trilogy, Anne McCaffery

The first two books in particular imprinted me: DragonSong and DragonSinger, about Menolly, a young girl growing up in a sea-hold where girls weren’t supposed to do music. In the second book Menolly makes it to Harper Hall, where music is allowed, but where the first girl Harper is not looked on favorably by all.

These books are both coming of age novels to the tee, that’s what they do, and they may do it better than any other books I’ve read. Menolly is relatable, and the supporting characters shine.

Great for kids and teenagers, but I think adults can still enjoy them.

Desmond Bagley novels. Bagley was a thriller writer who died in the early 80s. His novels were bestsellers, but he’s forgotten now. Not all of his novels are good. I would avoid Juggernaut, Wyatt’s Hurricane, Bahama Crisis, Windfall, and maybe Flyaway.

Flyaway’s not a good novel, but it is a good paean to the North African desert. The protagonist isn’t very interesting, but the real central character, the desert, is.

Bagley is sexist by today’s standards, but not those of the 1950s through the 1970s.

But Bagley has that magical alchemy that allows first person narrative to work. His characters are people one wants to spend time with. They aren’t interesting or complicated, but they are people who are easy to like.

God Stalk, P C Hodgell

If I had a favorite book as a teenager, this was it, hands down. I probably read it 25 times before I left high school. A partially amnesiac heroine winds up in a city with thousands of Gods where the most powerful institution is the thieves guild. A monotheist herself, the existence of so many gods challenges her faith, and the book chronicles her both becoming a thief, and trying to understand the nature of divinity.

This was a fun, fun, book, but it was also philosophical, character-driven in the best way, and so on. I’ve read it since and enjoyed it, but it does have some coming of age vibe.

Dick Francis Novels

So, Dick Francis only ever really had one protagonist despite their differing names, and in certain senses only ever wrote one novel, just over and over again. They’re all first person, the protagonist is always calm, insightful, capable and inhumanly impossible to push around.

But, if you like that person and that novel, Francis mixes it up enough to make it fun to read over and over again, and Francis was a very good writer. Comfort food books, despite being mysteries often involving death.

White Wing, Gordon Kendall

You’ll probably have trouble finding this one. It’s about a galaxy where Earth was destroyed by alien invaders, and some of the remaining humans fight as mercenaries for a group of worlds opposing those invaders. It’s a book about alienation and about family. It is, in fact, the first book I ever read about polyamory, the White Wing’s squads also being families with more than two adults in them, but I didn’t know what polyamory was, nor care.

Good plot, good characters, good world building (not technologically realistic, but culturally so) and quite heart warming, since it’s really about a family healing its wounds and coming together. Oh, and space fighters with BattleStar Galactica/Star Wars-style battles.

The Girl from the Emeraline Island, Robert S. Blum

Yet another coming of age novel with a female protagonist. This is set in a post-apocalyptic earth, and the Emeraline Isle is dotted with shrine schools which only boys are allowed to go to. The protagonist, of course, has disguised herself as a boy and gone to shrine schools. The book starts as she is discovered.

The rest develops more or less as you would expect, but for some reason this book made a huge mark on me when I read it. It ends well, resolving what needed to be resolved while not destroying the integrity of its world. Sometimes you can win, and the world doesn’t change, or even accept you, and that’s not exactly ok, but it is what it is.

Witch World Series, Andre Norton

Norton was one of the most prolific science fiction and fantasy novelists to ever write and her books show it, they are very uneven, and they aren’t always good.

That said, I read almost everything she wrote, and enjoyed even the bad ones. Her main creation was the “Witch World,” a world with powerful magic, mostly forgotten by mortals, and a multitude of odd races including old ones now long gone.

The Witch World had a feeling common in fantasy at one time (Moorcock had it also) of layering of history that goes back and back and back into myth and legend, with old artifacts and lost gods and cities and secrets and lore that no one could know entirely, with eldritch powers that one could approach but never entirely understand.

Magic was not always reliable or to be trusted; it certainly wasn’t always understood. It was mysterious and sometimes fickle and could be very dangerous to those who approached it without care.

It is this feeling that drew me to the Witch World novels. They don’t feel like modern Americans (or 60s Americans) plunked down in a fantasy world, and the fantasy world doesn’t feel like ours but with magic.

I can’t recommend these novels as highly as some of the others in this post, but I can still recommend them. Start with Witch World or with The Crystal Gryphon and go from there.

Concluding Remarks

I read a ton when I was younger. I know that as of age ten I was reading in excess of ten books a week, because the library lending limit was six, we went once a week, but I also took books out of the school library.

In my teen years, when on holiday, I’d read two or three books a day. In some ways, much of my life can be characterized as reading books with some other stuff happening between books. I always had a book with me, and I was always reading, even in class, to the annoyance of many teachers (but most let it lie since I could answer their questions when called on).

Because they weren’t fiction, I didn’t include the following books above, but in grade 4, I discovered mythology and read every myth I could find, which meant Greco Roman and some Norse. Bullfinch’s mythology, of course, but others. It’s possible that that reading mattered more to me than anything I’ve read before or since.

Because I read so much, I read everything. I remember a series of “nurse novels” from the 60s which I loved, for example, though I don’t remember the names. I read all the SciFi standards like Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke, as well as many who are long forgotten now like E. E. Doc Smith (better than he reads, because most of the stereotypes he wallows in weren’t stereotypes when he invented them.)

And since my father preferred thrillers I read those too, as a way of getting around that pesky library borrowing limit, which is how I discovered Bagley and Francis, among others.

I read books for escape, no question. To this day I’ve little interest in books that are about wallowing in despair or existential angst and so on; if I want to wallow in that I can read the news or walk down the street. I spent a fair bit of time in places like Bangladesh and Calcutta, I don’t want to spend my free time wallowing in elegantly written middens, I’ve seen the real thing more than I wanted to and I can have an existential moment any time I want to and many I don’t.

One thing I regret about computers it that I read less books, fiction and non fiction. But  lately, that’s changed, as I got an e-reader and it turned out to be book-crack because of how easy and convenient it is.

And that has pleased me. I’ve gone back and re-read a lot of older novels, some I haven’t read in decades, and also read new stuff. And I like that, and as I knew was true, it turns out to be a lot more fun than hanging out on the internet.

Let us know what books you loved when you were young below in the comments.

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

Review: The SPQR Series by John Maddox Roberts

Amidst all the non-fiction, I thought it would be nice to review some fiction.

This is a series of detective novels set in the late Republic. It starts just before the Cataline conspiracy and runs, as of now, until somewhat after Caesar’s assassination.

The detective is Decius Caecillius Metellus, who starts out as a young man whose family is a powerful force in the Senate.

I’ve loved this series since the 90s, when I stumbled across it. Decius feels Roman, while still being sympathetic to moderns. He loves gladiatorial games and chariot races–he’s very relaxed about violence, but he lacks cruelty and is pushed forward by a sense of obligation to his fellow Romans without spite to non-Romans.

And he’s funny. The stories of SPQR are lovely mysteries, not the greatest, but what really makes the series shine is Decius’s first person narrative and its absolute lack of reverence to the subjects.

Because Decius is of the Plebian nobility, and from an important family, he can call on all the major figures anyone familiar with the period knows: Caesar and Cato and Crassus and Pomey and Milo and many many more. Decius sees these people as his social equals, without the gloss of history. Caesar in the years before his rise to power is described as someone who is known mainly for his debts, the marvel of all Rome, and for almost certainly having been buggered by the King of Bythnia.

Cato is treated as an honorable boor, cruel besides, who is the butt of jokes. Cicero is treated with more respect, but his weaknesses are clearly outlined.

And Deciu’s best friend is Milo, one of the gang leaders fighting for control of Rome, and protected by Cicero.

I’ve never read a series of books that makes a time and place come quite as alive as SPQR does, and SPQR moreover is fun, and often irreverent, without glossing on the cruelties of Rome, but without dwelling.

To Decius this is how things are, and he may disapprove of some of it, but he accepts it as we accept our world. He lives in it, and he takes us with him, and he’s no prude: He wades in, enjoying the food, the fleshpots, and the violence with an honest glee that allows us to see the world with him.

For years, I used to carry two or three of these novels with me whenever I traveled, and I’ve read the first half dozen of them over 15 times each.

For some reason, they’re quite popular in Germany. They’re not so popular in the US, but you may find in them something you enjoy as much as I do.

I hope so.

(The earlier ones are generally better, and while you don’t have to read the series in order, I think it is best enjoyed thus.)

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

Book Review: Pandora’s Seed by Spencer Wells

There have been a number of technological revolutions during humanity’s existence. Perhaps the most important was the stone age tool revolution, really, but that’s not one we tend to focus on, it being so far in the past. Instead, we focus on the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution.

Pandora’s Seed is about the agricultural revolution. As the title suggests, Wells thinks the agricultural revolution was something of a disaster.

This isn’t a novel argument any more, most people have heard it made, and certainly any long time reader of this blog knows I think it is essentially true.

The argument is simple enough: When we look at hunter-gatherers from before the agricultural revolution, they’re healthier and they live longer. After the agricultural revolution, and especially later, after the hydraulic revolution, we are sicker and die sooner. We have a lot more disease. We have gum disease and tooth decay. We are shorter. Women’s hips are narrower, meaning childbirth is harder and the women are less healthy (hip size correlating quite nicely with overall health in women).

Most of these metrics don’t recover for thousands of years. It is not until Hellenic civilization that most of them are exceeded, and when Hellenic civilization collapses, the growth in those metrics ends.

Women’s hip width has STILL not recovered.

And remember that average age statistics include childhood deaths. Take them out, and the average lifespans of many ancient societies look a lot better. It’s a misunderstanding of the general consensus that the natural lifespan was 35 years. The life span was actually about 70, and people who didn’t get to that age didn’t get there due to privation, disease, violence or death in childbirth.

We evolved as hunter-gatherers. It is that simple. We are adapted for that sort of lifestyle. We have made some genetic adaptations to the agricultural lifestyle, without question, but we are not fully adapted to it. The use of cultural change instead of genetic change has led us to be ill-adapted for the way we live.

This becomes, in certain respects, even more extreme post-industrial revolution. It is unquestionable, for example, that we have far more mental illness than our forbears. Humans handle living in industrial society even worse than they do in agricultural societies. We have rampant obesity, because humans are not meant to have easy access to this much sugar and empty carbohydrates all while sitting on their asses all day.

When we do perform labour, whether agricultural labor or industrial, it is generally bad for us. The human body is made for hunting and gathering, not for rote, unnatural repetitive movements, over and over and again.

So in agricultural or industrial societies we eat in ways to which we aren’t adapted, and we work in ways to which we aren’t adapted. And it makes us sick and unhappy.

That is not deny to the obvious benefits of industrialization in particular, simply to note its underside.

As for agriculture, it prevailed because those who took it up (or herding) tended to win wars. Hunter-gatherers were happier, healthier, and lived longer, but they lost wars, and because they didn’t shit nearly as much where they ate, they didn’t have the disease resistance of sedentary agriculturalists. Just going near agricultural settlements would have often been a death sentence.

The core point here is simple: Social and technological advancement are not the same things as increases in human welfare. Mistaking one for another is vastly stupid. Social or technological advancements win if they out-compete other models, and that competition is not based on “is nicer,” it is based, ultimately, on violence. (Most of the world, having been conquered by Europeans after the industrial revolution, is real, real clear on this.)

The agricultural revolution didn’t run humanity off a cliff. But the industrial revolution and our advancements in military technology (aka. nukes) offer us the ability to “win” ourselves to extinction, while making ourselves vastly unhappy doing so.

Perhaps it is time to learn how to take to conscious control of our technology and society, before our unconsciousness causes catastrophes we cannot handle.

This is an important book, to nail into our heads the facts about how advancements work, in a time period long enough ago that we can hopefully look at it with the faintest shred of objectivity.

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.


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