Category Archives: Culture

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 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.

What I’m Reading Now: May 22, 2018

A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, by Luc Ferry (Harper Perennial, 2011, 282 pp.)

Last week the subject was the creation of our individual identity—what makes us who we are? This week’s subject is coming to terms with our place in the universe: how we should go about living our lives and coming to terms with our own death?

Luc Ferry is a French philosopher who has taken on the challenge of trying to make understandable to the general reader some very tangled philosophical questions about living and dying. He tries to answer the question put forth by his 16th-century countryman Michel de Montaigne, “How to Live?”

Since the dawn of time, men and women have looked up into the heavens and pondered their place in the universe. How are we supposed to conduct ourselves while we are here, and what happens to us when we die? The answers we’ve come up with range from Stoicism in Greek philosophy, through Christianity, Deism and the Enlightenment, Nietzschean postmodernism, and beyond. Ferry explores them all.

The ultimate question that philosophy seeks to answer is how do we go about living our daily lives without living in fear of our ultimate death? Especially as death comes in many forms, not just the literal death of the body. All through our lives we must come to terms with the end of things: jobs, careers, children who grow up, friends who move away, the seasons as they come and go, love that fades, things constantly changing all around us. All of these can cause the same anxieties as a literal death. We have to come to terms with the irreversibility of life, otherwise we spend all our days living with nostalgia, guilt, regret, and remorse, “those great spoilers of happiness.”

The ancient Greeks posited Stoicism: To conquer our fear of what we cannot change, we must start living in the here and now: “The present moment is the only dimension of existence worth inhabiting, because it is the only one available to us. The past is no longer and the future has yet to come . . .yet we live virtually all of our lives somewhere between memories and aspirations, nostalgia, and expectation.”

We all know the feeling: if I had another job, a bigger house, if I just lived by the beach, then I’d be happy.”  As Seneca so wisely put it, “while we wait for life, life passes.” Accept that nothing is permanent, everything changes, and that the sooner you embrace this, the happier you’ll be. A good Stoical life is one stripped of both hopes and fears, a life that accepts the world as it is—without, however, succumbing to fatalism. As some have put it, “hope a little less, love a little more.”

Christianity followed and promised eternal life through faith in the redemptive love of God. The belief in an afterlife has proved so seductive—and has remained so for two millennium—that it conquered Greek philosophy, and all belief systems since have had to contend with it head-on.

The war between Reason and Faith that began during the Renaissance has continued through the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the Romantics, Nietzsche’s Will to Power, and all the philosophies that have followed. The battlegrounds are individual consciences and public statehouses, and the answers remain as tangled as ever.

Whichever philosophy we choose to guide our lives, however, it is an individual choice. Ferry reminds us that it is incumbent upon us therefore to respect the choices made by others who may disagree with us.

Tolerance and respect for the beliefs of others: perhaps the most elusive philosophy of all.

What I’m Reading Now: May 15, 2018

In the Darkroom, by Susan Faludi (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company, 2016, 417 pp.)

What creates our identity and makes us the person that we are? Our gender? Our sexual organs? Our DNA and our parents? Our country of origin? Religion and History?

Award-winning journalist Susan Faludi received in 2004 an email from her father, with whom she’d barely spoken for 25 years, with the subject line, “Changes.” Her father Steven—at the age of 76—had become Stefanie: “Dear Susan, I’ve got some interesting news for you. I have decided that I have had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man that I have never been inside.”

Her Hungarian father had undergone sexual reassignment surgery, and Susan would spend the next 10 years trying to get to know her father and uncover his long-hidden Jewish past during the Holocaust in Hungary: “As a child I had resented and, later, feared him, and when I was a teenager he had left the family—or rather been forced to leave, by my mother and by the police, after a season of escalating violence. Despite our long alienation, I thought I understood enough of my father’s character to have had some inkling of an inclination this profound. I had none.”

This book is the story of her journey to understand her father’s real identity. The title comes from her father’s fascination with photography, and his lifelong habit of using a camera lens to obscure not only the reality in front of him but also his own murky past—and ultimately who he really was. I didn’t think it possible to mix a study of transsexuality with the history of the Holocaust, but Faludi has done it superbly, uncovering layer by layer pieces of her father’s history.

The result is a fascinating journey into the meaning of gender, sexuality, history, and ultimately identity.  Can we re-invent ourselves and escape who we really are by changing our name and our sexual organs? Is biology destiny? Is that ultimately what creates our identity? Or is the past unescapable, both for individuals and for nations?

Faludi the journalist tells a larger story here as well. As her father reinvents himself, so does modern-day Hungary. She deftly details the rise of the modern authoritarian government there and its quest to “restore” Hungary to its “true” identity, a frightening “pure” Hungarianism that is openly anti-Semitic and anti-LGBT. The clashes on the streets of Budapest reverberate far beyond its borders, across Europe and America.

The questions Faludi poses about identity and history are more pertinent and troubling than ever, both for ourselves individually and for our society collectively. Individually, social media allows us to reinvent ourselves as we choose and present a public brand of our own creation, while collectively we are seemingly at war over the meaning of our own history and the story it tells in the public arena. Some of those who decry the removal of Confederate monuments as “erasing history” applauded when Communist statues came down in Eastern Europe and approve now the erasure of slavery from American history textbooks.

The answers to the questions about history, memory, and identity remain elusive but astoundingly important.  What, ultimately, creates our identity and makes us who we are?