Author Archives: Stan Deaton

What I’m Reading Now: June 26, 2018

The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World, by Jenny Uglow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002, 588 pp.)

Social media and smart phones have made face-to-face interaction passé. It was not always so. Jenny Uglow reminds us that in Britain in the second half of the eighteenth century, people formed clubs of all kinds and for every taste, in London coffeehouses and far beyond. There were clubs for singing, drinking, and for poets, clubs for pudding makers, politicians, even clubs for farting.

Here she focuses on the Lunar Society of Birmingham, an informal group of friends in the 1760s who began meeting in each other’s houses on the Monday nearest the full moon, hence the name. In the age before headlights and streetlamps, they relied upon the moon to light their way home after a night of good food and drink, and lively arguments and conversations.

This was the heart of the Age of Enlightenment, of Voltaire, Samuel Johnson, of Adam Smith, Rousseau, and Captain James Cook, before science was really a profession (the word “scientist” wasn’t even coined until the 1830s), when it was possible to be a polymath with interests in nearly every branch of the arts and sciences. They were curious about the world and the way it worked, and were not afraid to push the boundaries of knowledge into new, exciting, and controversial places. They were freethinkers and non-conformists who ushered in the Industrial Revolution and  transformed the world.

And what an extraordinary group they were: Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles), doctor, poet, botanist, and evolution pioneer; James Watt, the famous Scots steam-engine designer; Josiah Wedgwood, revolutionary pottery designer whose china we still eat from; Joseph Priestley, the radical scientist-clergyman who isolates oxygen and discovers carbon dioxide and other gases; Matthew Boulton, who built the great Soho manufactory and financed Watt’s steam engine; the Scots chemist James Keir, clockmaker John Whitehurst, Dr. William Small (one of Thomas Jefferson’s most influential teachers), Dr. William Withering, who pioneered the use of digitalis in treating heart disease, and several others.

The Lunar Men “build factories, plan canals, make steam-engines thunder. They discover new gases, new minerals and new medicines and propose unsettling new ideas. They create objects of beauty and poetry of bizarre allure.” In two generations, from 1730 to 1800, “the country changed from a mainly agricultural nation into an emerging industrial force. By the time these friends died, iron and coal and cotton were king” and millions of lives were changed forever by the factory, the railway, and the rise of a global empire.

The author warns us that this books “smells of sweat and chemicals and oil, and resounds to the thud of pistons, the tick of clocks, the clinking of cash, the blasts of furnaces and the wheeze and snort of engines, but it also speaks of bodies, courtships, children, paintings, and poetry.” It’s a charming portrait of extraordinary individuals who are driven to unlock the secrets of the universe.

But what did all of their achievements and discoveries really bring? Aye, there’s the rub. Was it progress, or something else? Heaven on earth or hell itself? Factories overran farms, and machines turned humans into interchangeable parts. It was the dawn of the age of the consumer culture that brought luxury and shallow materialism, including, eventually, the smart phones that now make the kind of face-to-face social interactions like the Lunar Society a thing to be longed for. The science that made it all possible has its roots in their long-ago Monday night gatherings under the light of the full moon.

Despite all our technology, in many ways we still live as much in the dark as the Lunar Men did. But there is no denying that they were, as she says, “a constellation of extraordinary individuals” who “felt the greatness of the cosmos and its limitless possibilities, the beauty of the infinitely small and the grandeur of the vast.”

The best advice I can give is to echo book critic Michael Dirda: Here “is a book you can live in for a month or more, especially in these dark times. Start reading some evening when the moon is full.”

What I’m Reading Now: June 19, 2018

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Scribner, 1925, 180 pp.)

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald is one of those artists whose tragic life has become in some ways more famous than his creations.

He was a founding member of the Lost Generation of (mostly) expatriate writers who flourished in the 1920s and ’30s, and who have been endlessly romanticized and criticized, particularly in Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.

Fitzgerald’s meteoric rise after the publication of This Side of Paradise in 1920, his stormy marriage to Zelda and her descent into madness, his rocky friendship with Hemingway, his close partnership with editor Maxwell Perkins, his alcoholism and depression, and his last frantic scriptwriting hack days in Hollywood are all well-known and well-documented. When he died of a heart attack four days before Christmas in 1940 (at age 44, like Robert Louis Stevenson), with his last novel only half-finished, he considered himself a literary failure who would quickly be forgotten.

But a funny thing happened on the way to obscurity. His third novel, The Great Gatsby, had never sold particularly well in his own lifetime—in the first year Scribner’s sold only 20,000 copies—and was considered nothing more than a 1920’s period piece. Then during World War II the paperback version became enormously popular with soldiers stationed abroad, and in the post-war years it was added to high-school curricula across the country. Suddenly it was re-evaluated as a towering classic of American 20th-century fiction, and sales skyrocketed. It has now sold over 25 million copies (including about half a million worldwide annually) and remains Scribner’s most popular title. If only Fitzgerald had lived to see even a bit of it.

Mercifully, I was never required to read it in high school, because if I had, I would have brought a 17-year-old’s sensibilities to a great piece of literature, and it would have been wasted on me. Now was my time to read it. Harrumph alert: It irritates me to no end when I hear grown, mature adults wave off reading a great book because “I read it in high school,” or, when I tell them what I’m reading, ask “Didn’t you read that in high school?”

The Encyclopedia Britannica calls Gatsby “the most profoundly American novel of its time.” The Modern Library in 1998 voted it the 20th century’s best American novel and the century’s second-best English-language novel, behind only—if you can believe it—Ulysses.

Is Gatsby worthy of all the praise? In the immortal words of James I. “Bud” Robertson, Jr., “oh my yes.”

It’s a novel that works on and in you, that will continue to make you ponder just what was going on in it for a good long while after you’ve put it back on the shelf. I just finished it, and I’d like to re-read it already, and that’s not something I say very often. If I were writing a novel, I’d study it and use it as a model for what a writer can do with plot, a few characters (and there aren’t many) and pacing, using spare, lean language that says more than you think it does, all in 180 pages.

The book was written when Fitzgerald was just 29 years old . One can only marvel at his felicity with language at so young an age:

“The bored haughty face that she turned to the world concealed something—most affectations conceal something eventually, even though they don’t in the beginning—and one day I found out what it was.”

“There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired.”

“The evening had made me light-headed and happy; I think I walked into a deep sleep as I entered my front door.”

“No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”

“There is no confusion like the confusion of a simple mind.”

It was a literary feat that proved hard to live up to, much less repeat. Fitzgerald spent the last sloshy 15 years of his life pitifully trying to recreate the magic. He did not know that he had already achieved literary immortality:

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

Finally: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Those last words adorn Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s grave in Baltimore, a fitting literary blanket under which to slumber, marking two lives that ended much too soon.

What I’m Reading Now: June 12, 2018

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott (Pantheon, 1994, 237 pp.)

Writing, someone once said, is easy. Just sit down and wait for the blood to pour out of your forehead.  Mark Twain said that to write, all you had to do was cross out the wrong words. This is not unlike the fellow who carved birds out of a block of wood. All you need do, he advised, is carve away all the parts that don’t look like a bird.

What does it say about writing that when you were in school, one of the worst forms of punishment was being forced to write an essay on why you were being punished? Who among us didn’t dread that thousand-word essay on “What I Did During My Summer Vacation”?

Writing—or at least writing well—is simultaneously one of the most difficult and one of the most romanticized of all occupations. Writers are either mysterious, reclusive creatures who are seldom seen (Harper Lee, J.D. Salinger) or celebrated alcoholics (F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway) who draw attention to themselves for their eccentricities.

Some writers seem to need the stereotypical secluded garret—complete with exotic location—to stimulate the muse. David McCullough famously has a writing shed on  Martha’s Vineyard (pictured here). Christopher Morley built his writing nook, “The Knothole,” with his own hands on his Long Island estate, and it’s preserved at Christopher Morley Park in Roslyn, NY (and pictured below). The late Carl Vipperman, UGA history professor extraordinaire, built a similar shed in his own backyard that I was privileged to see. Pinterest boards of “writing retreats” abound.

Ideal conditions still don’t always do the trick. Dick Van Dyke played television writer Rob Petrie on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” but he never felt like a “real” writer, a theme the show explored amusingly in several episodes. In “A Farewell to Writing,” Rob’s friend Harvey Bellman completes his new novel, The Day of the Sky, and invites Rob to borrow Harvey’s mountain cabin, described as a “perfect place for a novelist to nov.” Desperate to finish his own novel—and thus be a “real writer”—Rob spends several days there alone, and of course suffers completely from writer’s block.

So if writing is so difficult and mysterious, and something that we all loathed in our school days, why does everyone seem to be a frustrated writer? Thanks to the Internet, blogs like the one you’re suffering through at this moment have proliferated, and anyone with a keyboard is a writer now.

Anne Lamott’s book helps us make sense of it all. The daughter of a writer, she de-mystifies the process and boils it down as best she can. Like finding time to read, there is no secret formula for writing. You just have to sit down and do it, day after day.

Other good advice she dispenses:

If you’re writing a novel don’t think you have to have it all figured out beforehand. She quotes E.L. Doctorow: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

“Nothing is as important as a likable narrator. Nothing holds a story together better” (Think Dr. Watson).

“You probably won’t know your characters until weeks or months after you’ve started working with them. Don’t pretend you know more about your characters then they do, because you don’t. Stay open to them. Listen. It’s that simple.”

For me, writing fiction seems immensely more difficult that writing non-fiction, but Lamott’s rules of engagement still apply: get the words down on the screen (or paper), somehow, someway, and do it every single day. Find your voice. Write now, edit later. Allow yourself to write a crappy first draft. Don’t worry about getting published, or finding an agent, or think that if you ever do see your words in print, that it will demonstrably change your life. Unless you’re Stephen King, that’s not likely to happen. As a coach famously said, if you’re not enough before the gold medal, you won’t be enough after you have it.

Write for the sheer joy of it, write to understand yourself and the life around you, write to explain yourself to your children. Listen to that inner voice, and don’t worry that you can’t see beyond the headlights.

Good advice for writers, and pretty good advice for life.

What I’m Reading Now: June 5, 2018

Time Enough at Last

Every so often, I’ll take a break from discussing the book I’m currently reading and give long-suffering followers a welcome respite. In these intervals, we’ll talk about the reading life more broadly, perusing weighty issues about reading, to wit: how do we find more time to read?

This is a question that every reader gets, and I hear it all the time.

First, let’s dispense with the fantasy that we all have that one day, in the future, we’ll have hours and hours to do something like read that we don’t have now. That day is never coming, even in retirement—if we make it that long. The truth is, everyone has time to read, whether they make time or not. It’s just a matter of prioritizing. We have the same number of hours in our day as Shakespeare did, or Einstein, or Jefferson. What you do with them is up to you.

Yes, we’re all busy, with jobs and kids and many demands upon our time. But the same folks who tell me they don’t have time to read have somehow managed to watch every 1-hour episode of “Game of Thrones.” They subscribe to Netflix and binge-watch regularly. If you have time to maintain a social media account and spend countless minutes every day scrolling endlessly through your newsfeed, then you have time to read.

So when, exactly, do we find time to read? For me, I get up early in the morning—5 a.m. to be exact—and read for an hour before the rest of the world awakens. For most people this sounds about as appealing as going over Niagara Falls on a salad plate. Yes, it’s before dawn, but it’s the only time of the day that I can read and not be tempted to do anything else except sleep, and I’m willing to forego an hour of sleep to read. I’m not going to vacuum the house at 5 in the morning, run errands, or do laundry. The only thing I’d be doing otherwise is sleeping, and I’m willing to give that up to read. Maybe nighttime works better for you, or the middle of the day. But carve it out, and guard it jealously.

How much time do you need? Not much, as you’ll see below.

I’m not a speed reader, nor do I want to be. I’m not reading to “get through” a book, I’m reading it for the love of language, the message or wisdom it might have, for entertainment or instruction but ultimately for the sheer pleasure of reading. Some books you can breeze through, others demand that you take your time and work your way through at a more sedate or studious pace. Reading Robert Louis Stevenson is not like reading William Faulkner, or the history of Western philosophy. You might need to slow down and re-read to absorb just half of what the book offers, and it’s okay to do that. Finishing quickly is not as important as absorbing.

I devote about 1 to 1.5 hours each morning to reading, and I usually read about 30 pages an hour, which is probably on the slow end. That’s a page every two minutes. You might be able to read a page a minute. But if you read just 30 pages a day, just one hour a day, you can read nearly 11,000 pages a year. That’s 30 books that are 350 pages long, on average. At just an hour a day.

In 2017 I read 26 books totaling 10,612 pages (an average of 408 pages for each book); in 2016, 31 books, 11,698 pages (377 avg.), and so far this year I’ve read 16 books totaling 5,432 pages (340 avg.).

This means that if you read just 30 pages a day, you could easily read War and Peace and all of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in the next year. The complete works of Jane Austin, or Agatha Christie. Les Miserables and The Count of Monte Cristo, doorstoppers both.

If you can’t read 30 pages a day, read 25. Or 20. If you can’t find one uninterrupted hour, read for 15 minutes, four times a day. But set aside time to read and stick with it. Don’t let anything interfere with your time. And if it means giving up an hour on your computer, or your phone, or watching TV, that is not a loss you will ultimately regret.

The joy of reading, one hour a day. Start tomorrow and check back with me in a year.

 

What I’m Reading Now: May 29, 2018

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World, by Steve Brusatte (William Morrow, 2018, 404 pp.)

I’ve never read a book about dinosaurs. Growing up, I was never very good at (or interested in) science, though like everyone else I went to see Jurassic Park on the big screen when it came out in 1993 and was of course inspired by their majesty and beauty. That movie, for all the flaws that experts picked out, inspired an entire generation of new paleontologists.

I also don’t usually buy books when I’m browsing at the “New Releases” table at the bookstore, but I recently picked up Steve Brusatte’s new book and I’m glad I did. It looked interesting, and I thought it might be a good way to learn about a subject I know next to nothing about.

Brusatte (pronounced brew-sot-e) is an American-born and -trained paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh and the “resident paleontologist” for the BBC’s “Walking with Dinosaurs.” He brings an infectious enthusiasm to his subject and he knows it well. He weaves into the hard science of paleontology tales of discovery that make for good reading, especially for those scientifically challenged learners like me.

First, the vastness of the chronological scale when it comes to dinosaurs is staggering. American historians study people and events from the last few hundred years. Even historians of antiquity focus on thousands of years. But the life of dinosaurs goes back over 225 million years, a temporal span that can be difficult to wrap one’s mind around.

Second, lest you think that scientists have discovered all there is to know about creatures that have been extinct for 66 million years, think again: paleontologists discover on average one new species of dinosaur every week. Not a new bone or fossil—a new species that we did not previously know about. According to Brusatte, we are living in the midst of a golden age of discovery right now; he has discovered fifteen new species himself though not yet 35.

Finally, it’s quite humbling for someone who has spent his entire career studying the history of humans—and very recent ones at that—to contemplate humanity’s link in the evolutionary chain of Earth’s 4.5 billion years. Humanity is a rather recent phenomenon, geologically speaking, and when you’re forced to step back and take the long view of millions of years—as this kind of book makes you do—you realize that we ourselves may vanish one day, as the dinosaurs did, through a natural catastrophe or one of our own making.

It’s hard to imagine that our entire species might eventually be reduced to fossils and bones, discoverable by some other species millions of years from now, but that is exactly what happened to the dinosaurs.

We can only hope that in that new world someone as talented as Steve Brusatte will be around to explain the meaning of whatever fragments of our own long-vanished world they manage to extract out of the dust.