My recent reading and listening
by Rob Tiller
One thing that I hate about vacations is that I always come back heavier than I went out. It’s strange, but predictable, that a week of traveling makes me about five pounds heavier. There’s nothing particularly terrible about gaining five, but if you do it enough times, it adds up. I really prefer not to carry around excess pounds, which means, post vacation, I’ve got some reducing to do.
That requires some time exercising, which, fortunately, I enjoy, in a way. It’s a lot more enjoyable since I started combining working out with listening to podcasts and audio books. This week at the gym I’ve been listening to the new Serial, about Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, which examines the mystery of what he was really up to when he was kidnapped by the Taliban. It’s good. I also discovered WTF, an interview podcast by Marc Maron, and listened to an interview with Eric Bogosian, the actor, playwright, and author. He was a student at Oberlin when I was there. Among other impressive talents, he has an amazing voice.
Speaking of talented people I knew slightly, I saw articles in both the NYT and WSJ this week about the artist Robert Irwin. I met Irwin when I was a fact checker at the New Yorker and checked a piece about him by Lawrence (Ren) Weschler that became a book, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, which is still in print.
I really liked Irwin, and was affected by his vision. His work is difficult to describe, but generally involves transforming spaces so that they reveal different things. He has spent most of a restless career, based in Los Angeles and then San Diego, creating subtle, at times vanishingly evanescent, environments with plain materials — fabric scrim, glass, lights, plants and trees — “to make you a little more aware than you were the day before,” as he puts it, “of how beautiful the world is.” He’s now 87, and has various interesting works in progress. Anyhow, I recommend Ren’s book, and the articles, and I’m planning to try to get io his new show at the Hirshhorn.
One thing I like about vacations is some time to really read. Last week I finished a couple of significant books and made substantial progress in others.
I finished Don’t Panic: ISIS, Terror and Today’s Middle East, by Gwynne Dyer. It helped me get a better grip on the geopolitics that led to ISIS, and that sustain the violence going on right now. The atrocities of ISIS are horrifying, but per Dyer we really have to quit freaking out, because it doesn’t help, and they are not an existential threat to us.
Which is not to say they aren’t wreaking havoc on the Middle East. The plight of millions of Syrian and other refugees is horrendous, and winter is just well started. I did a bit of research of what we as individuals might do to help, and ended up making a contribution to the International Rescue Committee. The Times endorsed it and some other charitable organizations. Please consider whether you might be able to help.
I also finished Black Earth, the Holocaust as History and Warning, by Timothy Snyder. The subject of Hitler’s genocide is, of course, tough to think about, but it turns out that there are very important aspects of it that our history professors and museums mostly missed until – Snyder. For example, most of the Jews killed in the Holocaust were victims of mass shootings, rather than gassing, and the likelihood of dying varied according to the degree to which the existing state apparatus was destroyed, as it was in Poland and the Baltic states. As depressing as it is that humans can be as depraved as the Nazis, it is also cheering that we can understand the past in new ways, and maybe change ourselves.
I made substantial progress on re-reading Your Atomic Self: The Invisible Elements that Connect You to Everything Else in the Universe, by Curt Stager. Stager does a good job showing how atoms relate to life as we know it, which is both well known and very difficult to grasp. He breaks the world down to its essentials, starting with hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen, and shows how basic recycled elements form our bodies. I’ve finally got firmly in mind how a lot of the atoms we are made of are the products of long-dead stars. Joni Mitchell was right that we are stardust. And, just as we are continually transforming our surrounding environment, it is transforming us.
A new colleague at work, Jeff K, recommended I read Hackers, by Steven Levy. It’s a history of the computer programming pioneers of the sixties and seventies at MIT, Silicon Valley, and elsewhere. I quickly got absorbed, and have made it about halfway through so far. These people were obsessed, and in some cases brilliant, as they discovered/created the new digital world that we live in today. A lot of them were awkward and odd, and did not have normal social lives (e.g. girlfriends). I thought that seemed sad, but gradually realized how full they were of the joy of discovery. A lot of these pathfinders were making free and open source software well before anyone labelled it as such.
Finally, I made substantial progress on The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. I was interested in the book initially because I love Dutch painting of the 17th Century, and I’ve seen Fabritius’s famous, gorgeous Goldfinch. I’m finding Tart’s book extraordinary, in the way Catcher in the Rye is extraordinary, with perceptions that have the freshness of youth and the risk of fatal error of youth. She’s a great novelist in the old-fashioned way, with a deft grasp of quick emotions and richness of character and incident.
While I’m thinking of brilliant artists, I’ll mention one more recent discovery: the violinist Sarah Chang. As I now know, she was a child prodigy and is now a seasoned concert artist, but I discovered her a few weeks back by chance when I felt like listening to the Brahms violin concerto, and picked her recording from those available for streaming on Rhapsody. (The same recording is available on YouTube) She’s amazing! Volcanic intensity, and yet sensitive to the finest nuance. She’s got a big, gleaming, shimmering sound. Here she is in a wonderful live performance of the Carmen Fantasy.
Saturday I drove out to Cary for my haircut with Ann S, and got caught up on her holiday doings. Afterwards I drove east to Chatham County and visited Jordan Lake. It was gray and raw, with rain threatening, and the water level was high. There were hundreds of gulls at Ebenezer Point, mostly ring-bills and a few herrings.