Category Archives: Books

Fish Don’t Exist

I know, you’re thinking, of course fish exist. I have seen fish, smelled them, eaten them, maybe caught them–there is no denying that they exist. Any yet, that’s the title of Lulu Miller’s delightful book, Fish Don’t Exist which tells the story of David Starr Jordan, the founding president of Stanford University, whose mission in life as an ichthyologist was to discover every species of fish–a quest he pursued with zeal, certainty, and rigor. When the great California earthquake shatters the ethanol filled jars. He grabs a needle and thread to start connecting the labels to samples. This is a tale of American grit–or so Miller had me thinking. Yes, I was hooked from the first chapter.

Fish Don't Exist - Book cover

Miller is one of the co-creators of NPR’s marvelous Invisiblia podcast–she approaches Jordan with a journalists restless curiosity but this book is also a personal history and a reflection on our world. She covers chaos theory, reminds us of Voltaire’s critique of optimism, and the dangers of hubris. We follow her on her journey of discovery–both about Jordan and on the importance of meaningful connections. She grapples with our significance in the universe, and champions doubt to temper our impulse to be blind to the world’s complexity and bigness.

Fish Don’t Exist is one of my favorite reads of 2022.  It is one of those books that changed how I see the world and affirmed my faith in doubt.  Aren’t you wondering just a little bit about how it can be possible that fish don’t exist?  Act on that curiosity my friends.

Reading Joyce’s Ulysses

The novel sat on my bookshelf, imposing, menacing, and calling along with Harry Blamires’ guide for at least 10 years. I knew, I wanted to tackle this great of modern literature, but have always been as intimated by its heft yet also entranced by its accolades. The facts that it is a novel with its own annual festival, Bloomsday, and that it was banned in Australia, the UK and the US made the draw even stronger.  What is the book all about? The most simple explanation: it’s about two men, Leopold and Stephen, making their way through Dublin on a single day in the early 1900s. That’s right, 543 pages on one single day–but Joyce  puts you inside of the heads of these characters,  Stephen, Leopold and Molly. (Leopold’s wife.) Stream of consciousness? Try oceans, rivers, and turbulent seas.

Book cover of Joyce's Ulysses


How to summarize the experience? It varied.  It started off easily enough, especially with Blamires and Campbell as guides. I would read the pages in Joyce and then Blamires’ explanation since I didn’t have the luxury of taking a class. It was deliberately slow going. I committed to only a few pages, 3 to 5, maybe 10 per day. This is not my typical approach to reading novels where I often read them quickly to immerse myself in the characters but Ulysses lends itself to a slow reading. There passages require some explanation, so those pages are multiplied by the helpers–genius lyrics with its line-by-line annotations also were helpful along the way. I also leaned on this wonderfully narrated audiobook to finish Joyce’s epic novel. The multi-page paragraphs without much punctuation were much more manageable when read by Marcella Riordan.

How was the work for me?  Often like my own consciousness,  befuddling, confusing and wandering.  There were flashes of enlightenment, but really you’re in the muddle of the characters stream of consciousness. Here, for example, is Stephen, in conversation with Talbot, a student. Joyce renders the dialog as well as what Stephen is thinking about:

It must be a movement then, an actuality of the possible as possible. Aristotle’s phrase formed itself within the gabbled verses and floated out into the studious silence of the library of St. Genevieve where he had read, sheltered from sin of Paris, night by night. By his elbow, a delicate Siamese conned a handbook of strategy. Fed and feeding brains about me: under glowlamps, impaled, with faintly beating feelers: and in my minds darkness a sloth of the underworld, reluctant, shy of brightness, shifting her dragon scaly folds. Thought is the thought of thought. The soul is in a manner all that is: the soul is the form of forms. Tranquility  sudden, vast, candescent, form of forms. (p. 21, line 70, Gaebler edition.)

How the mind wanders, and wonders.  I heard the first time you read for the plot–I’m not sure about that–I think it’s for the experience of those mind melds, those characters, their concerns are remarkably contemporary. This year when Bloomsday rolls around I’ll be a bit more clued in, and I’m keeping the book on my shelves. I can say I read it through once but I know there’s much more there if I brave it again.



Here Comes Everybody (I’m here too!)

Clay Shirky’s latest book, Here Comes Everybody:
The Power of Organizing Without Organizations
discusses how light-weight web-based
technologies like blogging, twittering and photo sharing sites like
Flickr result in real world actions.  Shirky talked about the book
at the Markle
on April 10.  I’m going to highlight
a new of Clay’s examples and then reflect on what I think his ideas
mean for traditional organizations. 

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This Omnivore’s Dilemma

I pride myself on being an omnivore–at least I did until I read Michael Pollan’s,"The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals."  In it, he explains how the food that’s on our plates–whether it’s a Big Mac from McDonald’s, an organic meal purchased at Whole Foods, a local meal produced by a sustainable farm or one that you might hunt for yourself makes it to the table.  The book lives up to the dictionary definition of dilemma, "a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives."  The story of how food arrives on our plates is complex–but Pollan explains it in heartbreaking detail–the amount of carbon fuel required to produce organic crops, the bushels of corn required to fatten a chicken to the guilty pleasure he gets from hunting–it’s all in there, in wonderful, engrossing detail.

Having read the book, I almost wish that I had not eaten from Pollan’s tree of knowledge–I want back into my ignorant Garden of Eatin’ where I was happy with the stories I purchased from Whole Foods or the convenience of my McDonald’s Egg McMuffin.  Though I must continue eating, it’s impossible to revert to ignorance–instead, I have to live in denial.   It won’t be the first time.  As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I lived close to Pollan’s ideal.  My family had a garden, kept animals, and prided themselves on growing everything without chemicals and preserving foods through natural processes.  When I wanted a turkey for an American style Thanksgiving celebration, they introduced me to my neighbors who introduced me to the turkeys.  I thought, "I didn’t want to meet and greet you, I just wanted to eat you." but there I was holding the squirming bird to see if he was big enough.  (He was.)   I must admit, those were some of the most delectable birds I’ve tasted, but still I longed for the familiar seemingly antiseptic Butterball.  They were so much less messy. 

All of the sudden those folks who are trying to eat local seem a little bit more rational, and I’m longing for the days when my Lithuanian hosts would go out and grab the eggs from the chicken coop in the morning.  I used to fret when I met an animal, and they told me when he was going to expire–"oh, the pig?  Easter."  I was still living in my saran wrapped cocoon of ignorance.  Now my cozy cocoon’s been torn again–and I’m thinking, heh, isn’t New Jersey the Garden State?  Maybe there’s an answer on a local farm…

NYC High School Students Pick Great Reads

Urban Academy, an “alternative” public high school in Manhattan requires that students must complete projects in six different areas–creative arts, criticism, literature, math, social studies, and science. As part of the literature competency, students are required to read a novel and discuss it with an adult reader. I have been a volunteer reader for a few years now and the students choose great books. With them, I’ve read: Going After Cacciato, A Clockwork Orange, Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep, Waiting, and now, A Lesson Before Dying by Earnest Gaines.

In addition to choosing great books, these students are amazing readers–the books are read, and re-read, highlighted, dog-eared, post-it noted and underlined. They’re able to identify themes, relate them back to their lives and always come up with new insights into the work. Almost every day I read a blog post or news story about how New York City public schools could be doing better by our students. These experiences with the students and the committed teachers from Urban Academy is just one example of the good work that’s going on in New York City Schools. These kids are able to read, critique, discuss and express themselves; they also are passionate about what they’ve read. I always learn a great deal from them which is why I never pass up the opportunity to read with them. Lately, I’ve found myself putting my “Urban” hat on when I’m reading for myself–reading a bit more closely, marking pages, and taking notes in the margin. It just makes reading more fun. And if you happen to be looking for a good book, you might check out my Urban Academy Reading list.

Special bonus, a how-to on “masterly marginalia” from the folks at Levenger.

Better: Notes on A Surgeon’s Performance

I just finished reading Better:  A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance. While mistakes are a part of learning, medicine is the profession where a doctor’s mistake could harm or kill a patient.   The decisions I make on a daily basis do not involve life or death–in medicine, doctors make these decisions every day.

Gawande explores how doctors can do "better." and takes readers on location–from forward military hospitals in Iraq to a polio mop up in India.  His conclusion–the technology isn’t nearly as important as process. 
He begins by talking about how hard it is to get something as simple as handwashing right–and why its so insanely difficult and finishes with a tour of a hospital in India where a patient dies because simple supplies were not readily available.  He also talked about the bias that we have here in the US toward new technology–which reminded me of this article where Shapin argues that "uses, not innovations, drive human technology." 
Gawande told of how resourceful, creative and persistent doctors were in developing nations.  In these settings, doctors are almost forced to be better–they turn out to be amazing generalists–administering chemotherapy using pirated drugs or pioneering new procedures for laproscopic stomach ulcer repair.  We would do well to learn from their ingenious approaches.
The ideas he suggests for doctors to get better at their medicine practice and become "positive deviants" are applicable for all of us–they are:

  • Ask an unscripted question–it helps develop rapport and has a way of illuminating what you’re working on.
  • Don’t complain: "it’s boring, it doesn’t solve anything and it will get you down."  Wonder what he would have to say about Kegan and Lahey’s work?
  • Count something:  Apply the scientific method.  Keep track, and use what you learn to make what you do better.
  • Write something:  Share what you know–take the opportunity to reflect.
  • Change:   Be aware of what you’re doing and approach it in a new way

Nanny Knows Flow

Flow is a state of concentration so focused that it amounts to absolute absorption in an activity.   My grandmother, Anna Bongiovanni, who just turned 95, is a master of entering the state without ever having read Mihaly Csikzenthmihaly’s "Flow:  The Psychology of Optimal Experience."  Along with having a flair for completing crossword puzzles, my grandmother is a knitter.   She makes afghans for her grandchildren, and clothes for her great grandchildren, but what impresses me is that she’s always creating new challenges for herself–which is a condition for flow.   The idea is that you want to set out a task for yourself that is not too easy–which would lead to boredom, or too difficult, which would promote anxiety but one that is just the right level of challenge.  For this particular afghan, my grandmother started out with a swath of wallpaper to match the color of my cousin Noelle’s room, used wool yarns instead of acrylic, and then incorporated a popcorn stitch instead of a regular one.  So sure, it’s another afghan, another stitch, but what she’s really doing is finding new ways to transform herself at the young age of 95.  I should be so lucky.

Nanny Knitting
Posted by teddyb.

Conscious Little Rocks?

Kakutani (NYT) panned it, but Begley at the New York Observer said it was "lots of fun."  I thought, heh, I like Wolfe and count Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full among my favorite novels, and so I gave I Am Charlotte Simmons a read.   Sadly, I wish I had waited until this 2 and a half-pound tome was on the remainder shelf.  Be warned, this review is a spoiler, if you’re planning on reading Wolfe’s book you might want to skip this entry. 

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Unix Metaphors

If only people were as transparent as computers.

Timothy Wilson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, in his book, “Strangers to Ourselves,” introduced the idea of the adaptive unconscious. In essence, some 80% of your thinking happens automatically. Think of the adaptive unconscious as that generator in the basement that powers your actions–instead of what you consciously will. Similarly, your computer also has lots going on in the background beyond the few programs you’ve asked it to run, but unlike the adaptive non-conscious, it’s possible to learn exactly what your computer doing.

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