Monday, March 29, 2010

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression: A New Approach to Preventing Relapse
(Zindel Seagal, J. Mark G. Williams, John Teasdale, 351pp)
The approach is interesting (used Jon Kabat-Zinn's training from Full Catastrophe Living to treat classes of former depressives at risk of recurrence). The authors have proven in a journal article that the technique is more effective than anti-depressant pharmaceuticals at preventing a relapse. The book contains interesting confessions about how reluctant the authors were to actually practice the mindfulness based meditation, but they grudgingly came to see that they'd need to practice what they aimed to teach. The book is practically a journal article inflated to fill a book, since so much of the content is their own handouts, which are wholesale adaptations of Kabat-Zinn's teaching.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Learning Meditation
(Pema Chodron, 5:52)
This is a 5 session class (meeting once a week) that was audiotaped in the 1990s at the Gampo Abby in Nova Scotia. The technique of meditation is open-eyed, usually gazing about 4 to 6 feet in front of ones self. There's nitty gritty about approaching the discomfort of sitting. Since I listened to most of this while driving, I got to practice mindful traffic jamming.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Ten Most Inspiring Texts (a theme spun first by Tyler Cowen)

Dialogues of Plato. The maxim, "The unexamined life is not worth living" pierced me as a high school freshman. Over time, I've come to believe the overexamined life also has its flaws, but Socrates has been a persistent and vital gadfly to my own thinking.

Philosophical Explanations, Robert Nozick. (1980) Most affected by the bravura hand-waving, with the intellectual excitement overflowing in the footnotes; his omnivorous references greatly guided my undergraduate reading, which meant reading everything by Hilary Putnam, Kripke & Wittgenstein, as well as studying information theory and flirting with the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Tracking the wrestling match between Rawls & Nozick on justice turned me on to Kant, & also happened to make me a vegetarian for nearly 2 decades.

Genes, Mind and Culture, EO Wilson and Charles Lumsden. (1980) Wilson's capacity to deploy an encyclopedic range of examples overdetermined my genetic predisposition to view life as deeply guided by genes. His outlook would today be called evolutionary psychology. I recently read Before the Dawn which reminded me of how ambitious EO's program was, and also how much more data has been collected in the past 25 years to support the claim that cultural can rapidly catalyze genetic updates that intertwine and facilitate cultural predispositions. The book's naked mapping of models from physics overawed me, which turned out to have anticipated a trick much practiced a decade or so later at the Santa Fe Institute.

Sixty Stories, Donald Barthelme. I'd been tipped off in high school to look for Barthelme's stories in the New Yorker, but this collection bowled me over, and pushed me to track down all his books. The sparkle, the buzz, the endless playfulness, and the anger and sadness continue to guide my own approach to playing with and listening to language.

Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon. My hunger for an unmasterable book was nearly vanquished by this novel. While I came to harbor a predilection for V over GR, being turned on to Pynchon by my father counts as one of great endowments of my patrimony.

The Concept of Irony, Soren Kierkegaard. Reading SK's masters thesis celebrated the use of language to mean more than one thing at a time, and is one of his most accessible works. It seriously compromised my interest in communicating clearly, as it tempted me to encrypt many layers of impossibly interior jokes every time I wrote.

Infinity and the Mind, Rudy Rucker. (1982) A first rate tour of Cantor's transfinite set theory, and an inspiring take on Godelian incompleteness. Completely changed my attitude toward the null set, and inspired me to take a lot more logic and philosophy of math courses.

Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, Amos Tversky. (1982) I read these papers on a road trip the summer before my senior year, and it rocked my world, persuading me that philosophy plus probability theory was not enough. Ultimately, this book caused me to pursue graduate work in psychology at Stanford, which included the great joy of taking classes with Amos from 1994 to '96. [One bibliophilic aside: Almost all of the most inspiring books I studied in college came from one amazing bookstore, Great Expectations, by the Foster St El Stop in Evanston. Run by a misanthrope named Truman, his curatorship of important books was sublime]

Society of Mind, Marvin Minsky. (1988) This book didn't seem so original on first scan, but when I sat down and read it through, it motivated me to audit Minsky's lectures (as well as Seymour Papert's) at the Media Lab. Listening to Marvin (who incarnates intellectual hubris) exposed me to scores of vivid anecdotes, some great jokes, and tipped me to read exciting fiction writers such as Nicholson Baker and Stuart Kauffman (well, the latter's not a novelist, but I admire Kauffman's appetite for speculative modeling, & I started reading him due to a tossed off remark of Marvin's).

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Case for God
(Karen Armstrong, 17 hours)
I was impressed by this former Catholic nun's argument for religion when she wrote a brief column in the WSJ. Her most congenial formulation of how to approach spiritual practice was this sentence: "The best theology is a spiritual exercise, akin to poetry. Religion is not an exact science but a kind of art form that, like music or painting, introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is different from the purely rational and which cannot easily be put into words. At its best, it holds us in an attitude of wonder." I listened to a lot of this book, but only the first and last chapters really deploy the outlook she advocated. The great majority of the work is an argument against literalistic fundamentalism, with a very detailed review of the history of Western civilization, from the point of view of theology. There's only a small place for Judaism in such a broad scope, and a smattering of Islam. I found her argument that Muslim fundamentalism started in post-WWII somewhat dubious, since the Wahabi sect that emanates from Saudi Arabia dates much further back in time. The much shorter work by Hilary Putnam, which foregrounds the importance of an experiential engagement with spiritual practice, does a better job of conveying an approach I find congenial. Armstrong's long book more closely resembles a semester length humanities course, where everything you need to know about God in relation to Western Civ is tossed in, including a lot of tangents on the Crusades, WWI, quantum physics and relativity, etc.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Ask
(Sam Lipsyte, 304pp)
I pre-ordered this, and it arrived the first weekend in March. I knew it was going to be delicious, since I had rated his earlier novel, Homeland, as one of my favorite books of 2006. I also enjoyed his 2 earlier books, The Subject Steve, and Venus Drive. Lipsyte has quoted his writing teacher, Gordon Lish: ‘There is no getting to the good part. It all has to be the good part.’ This book shimmers on every page, and is Lipsyte's best. Here are some of the worlds he so adeptly captures: the cubicle void of a man clinging to a "good shitty job"; the entitlement and skill-lessness of Americans who attend high-ticket colleges to "take hard drugs in suitable company"; the tension of parents who want so much to have their offspring somehow grow up without the vices that make the adults' lives bearable; the conversational sparks of a 4 year old; the trauma and horror of Americans ground up by Iraq. Lipsyte's dark hilarity and verbal facility are, in this novel, wedded to themes that give him his fullest range of expression.

Friday, March 12, 2010

From Fear to Fearlessness
(Pema Chodron, 2 hours)
Sounds true: Listening to Pema give a couple of talks back in the 1990s. She continues to interest me, with her fierce attention to being where you are. The most memorable story she told concerned a guy who was depressive, and meditated for over a decade, only to realize that the depressions recurred with the same pattern even if he stuck with his practice. But according to Pema's teacher, almost nothing is juicier than depression for practicing compassion. The depressive dude also came around to accept that this approach made sense. I would say that, if, after taking anti-depressants, etc., one was left with an intransigent remnant of depression, then tackle it with loving kindness. But I am assuming that however rich the opportunity for deep insight might be inside depression, this does not imply that one shouldn't seek every avenue for reducing the pain of depression.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

(Denis Johnson, 7:17 -- paused after an hour)
Johnson's prose sings like poetry, and yet, I have to admit that this novel's world was so dark, I couldn't see myself diving in just now. I will have a time for this, but it's not the present.

Monday, March 08, 2010

The Professor and Other Writings
(Terry Castle, 14:07)
I didn't enjoy this, and often skimmed this audible book hoping to land on something more juicy. The best chapter by a long mile is the one confessing to how crappy it was to be Susan Sontag's dear friend; who could have known that even to her intimates, Sontag was narcissistic, hectoring, and condescending? The chapter on her buries, rather than praises, the intimidating one. It's almost sad to read how Castle angled so intently to impress Sontag, and in the end, was forced to listen to her intellectual top dog recounting how important her own fiction would doubtless prove to be. I was suckered into this by the TNR review that claimed "her splendid vocabulary will have you Googling." I didn't notice any particularly sharp turns of phrase. It seems vitally important for Castle to convey what a cool kid she is, hip to the jazz and autobiography of Art Pepper, but I preferred reading her talk about the lesbian separatist songwriter Alix Dobkin. Not a fun read.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Face to face with orangutans
(Tim Laman & Cheryl Knott, 32pp)
Orangs are the strangest of the great apes, and this book has some great photos, as well as a lot of interesting bits of information about these unusual "people."
More things like this
(Editors of Mcsweeney's, 224pp)
Very stimulating tour of the art of mostly low-fi creators who combine text with images in an explicitly funny way. The range of people included is quite eclectic, including Raymond Pettibon (whose work is at least as likely to disturb as it is to provoke laughter), the singer-Buddhist-deity Leonard Cohen, and a wide range of here-to-fore unknown artists. I enjoy a lot of this art, and it's a pleasure to page through. An early cartoon by Art Spiegelman draws his alter ego standing on a high wire roped between R. Crumb and Saul Steinberg. That suggests one axis of the work collected here, although it seems a shame that no Lynda Barry got included. A complexification of the mix is that very few of the artists could be considered cartoon artists. Two discoveries for me: Matthew Vescovo and Enrique Chagoya, but there are dozens of others who I'd never known about. My one critique of the book is that each interview seems to follow a set script, which recurrently asks what to me sounds like a dumb question, "How quickly does something develop into a methodology?" So, the interviews weren't a highlight. But if you enjoy whimsy, textual playfulness, and quirky imagery, this book is certain to expose you to work you have never before encountered.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Amazing places to take your kids : hundreds of North American adventures
(Laura Sutherland, 320pp)
No out and out surprises, but still a nice collection of fun places to go. Next time we're in New Haven, besides the Peabody, the book recommends the Barker Museum. I would actually place the two 101 books ahead of this as more practicable guides to having fun.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Brazen Careerist
(Penelope Trunk, 4:24)
Trunk is an oversharing blogger, and though her personality must be fatiguing in real time, she has a fierce commitment to being self-reflective (and not irrelevant to this book, also become a powerful and renowned woman). This is a book of advice, which is subjective, partial, and most applicable to someone who aspires to be a pro volleyball player. I enjoyed it, caveats and all, because I hunger to hear more thoughts about how to deal with life in business.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The annotated Origin : a facsimile of the first edition of On the origin of species
(Charles Darwin; annotated by James T. Costa)
Scanned this, but it's not a compelling read right now. I can imagine circumstances where it'd be fun to read Darwin, while noting where later research has confirmed or disconfirmed his hypotheses.
Jesus' Son
(Denis Johnson, 2:43)
Sublime, funny, often pure poetry. After 17 years on paper, it's finally audible. The narrator, Will Patton, has a fantastic voice, and I realize I first heard him read the entrancing Cosmopolis back in '04. He also read Johnson's amazing Tree of Smoke, and he even has a small acting part in the movie adaptation of this novel. IMDB has some memorable movie quotes (most directly lifted from the book), e.g.: No more pretending for him. He was completely and openly a mess. Meanwhile, the rest of us go on pretending to each other.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

What Shamu Taught Me
(Amy Sutherland, 5;31, punted early)
A bad book with a good premise, namely, that animal training works on the animal one usually refers to, in Berkeley, as "my partner." The writing's mediocre, self-indulgent, and too jokey to wade through. The whole book can be compressed into the NYT article that preceded the book. I had particularly relished reading this after the recent death of a SeaWorld trainer by Tilikum, since that incident underscores the fact that training can only go so far. But Amy Sutherland offered no likelihood of reflecting on or savoring the irony that the beast you try to tame may win the battle.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
(Lewis Carroll, 2:48)
Listened to in honor of the upcoming film by Tim Burton. Nerd that I was, the first time I read Alice, it was Martin Gardner's annotated version. This volume has some splendid nonsense, but I think I favor Through the Looking Glass. Someday, let's check...