Some Summer Nonfiction and Limping Away from a Text

I had a good summer reading non-fiction.  For the past several years I have been reading more general non-fiction and  I’m not sure how to account for this trend. I no longer keep up as relentlessly with my field (utopias and dystopias–though Jesse Ball’s new dystopia, The Curfew, will probably rate a review in a few weeks) as I once did so that probably frees up some time, and I like knowing things outside my field.  I’m always looking for things to teach or that add to the “invisible architecture of my learning” as the great reviewer Michael Dirda has so felicitously phrased such reading.  I’m not sure that anything I learned from Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster and other Essays, Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw, Alex Bellos’ Here’s Looking at Euclid, and Alexandra Horowitz’ Inside of a Dog will be of use in my classes.  Still, knowing these things does help my teaching–and, I’d like to think–my living.  Herewith a round-up of some of my non-fiction reading from the summer.

The most jaw-dropping book I read this summer was David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster and Other Essays.  I have had a few former students, the estimable Corey Sobel in particular, who have been encouraging me to read Wallace.  Every time I looked at Infinite Jest and its 1000+ pages I felt defeated.  After Consider the Lobster, Infinite Jest goes on the list to be read (but probably not until next summer or the summer after that).  Wallace is so incandescently brilliant–there is no other word for it–and curious and his prose leaves me weak-kneed.  On topics ranging from American Usage and dictionary wars (my favorite) to Joseph Frank and Dostoevsky scholarship and from Tracy Austin, tennis and the appearance of athletic genius (and the truly horrendous nature of the sports biography) to the attempt to recreate all that happens in Wallace’s mind as he follows a right-wing radio talk-show host is astonishing. Wallace’s fearlessness about his own attempts to understand John McCain’s campaign and whether lobsters feel pain are so searingly honest that I put him in place with Arnold, E.M. Forster, and Orwell among great English language essayists (I wonder if a few months or years of reflection will dampen this observation–and yes, I know I left out American essayists and many other worthies).

I tell my students that my favorite story from the Bible is when Jacob wrestles with the angel because Jacob is marked forever by his confrontation with the Divine–and we should all be marked when we confront the Divine.  If I read correctly and to the best of my ability, there should be times when I (intellectually at least, and probably morally and spiritually) limp away.  I limped away from my confrontation with Wallace–it’s the highest praise I can give. (And more in the blog in coming weeks about limping away from texts.)

There must be some alchemical process that deepens knowledge while nearly hiding it.  Even now I cannot recall all (or even most) of Bellos’ arguments and examples in Euclid, but I know that when I teach two stories about mathematicians that I’ll be able to dredge up some remarkably cool examples of the nature of measurement–it is a remarkable truth that the smaller the unit of measurement the larger the thing being measured–until you reach infinity!  England, it is clear from a map, occupies a finite space–and its perimeter measured in miles can be found.  But shrink that measuring unit to feet, then to centimeters (to intentionally confuse the measuring units), then to microns and angstroms and even smaller units and eventually the perimeter of England becomes immense–too large to measure (and too unstable as we try to get each grain of sand only to have it move by the time we finish).

I loved The Big Short–and I doubt I understood very much of it (I also admired Moneyball, The Blind Side, and Coach, the only others I know by Michael Lewis).  Lewis’ gift, perhaps the gift of all superior non-fiction writers, is that he renders clear for the reader what he is rendering clear for himself so that he achieves in Orwell’s phrase, “prose like a windowpane” through which we view the subject and the author.  I know I’ll take from this book the certainty that S & P and Moody’s are not to be trusted in any way–not just the giant firms on Wall Street that, according to Lewis, are designed to enrich only a few by cheating the rest of us.

Alexandra Horowitz’ book on dogs was a wonderful gift that taught me a lot about dogs in general and observation.  While the parts on a dog’s nasal capacity is amazing, I found particularly fascinating the explanation of the arrangement of cones and rods in a dog’s eye that cause dogs to see in a different color spectrum and at a different speed than we do.  In fact, much of our movement must appear to them as if we are moving through strobe lights.

Malcolm Gladwell’s books Blink, The Tipping Point, and Outliers I found adequate but not exceptionally engaging–but What the Dog Saw, which is a collection of essays, was mesmerizing.  Gladwell is able to find a great question to answer and then set about answering it in the most lucid prose. From essays on choosing professional quarterbacks to Cesar Milan and dogs, Gladwell is extraordinary.  I worry that short form non-fiction of the kind that Gladwell writes might go away. It’s too long for newspapers and magazine readership is shrinking–and much of what Gladwell writes is NOT crying out to be book-length.

Next week some pure pulp–an appreciation of one of the most enduring plots of all time, Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” and a nifty take on that plot by Algis Budrys in “Master of the Hounds.”

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5 Comments

Filed under books and learning, popular culture, teaching, Uncategorized

5 responses to “Some Summer Nonfiction and Limping Away from a Text

  1. John McGean

    You are my hero. However do you find time for such writing? Thanks for sharing “invisible architecture of my learning.” My last pre-retirement interest was exploring learning architecture in disciplines. How does a scientist think? How does an artist think? How do experts in a field build on existing blueprints?

  2. Ted Bradford

    That is quite an endorsement for Consider the Lobster. I bought it for my Kindle and look forward to reading it. Can you post the syllabus for your class this year? I am interested in seeing what you guys are reading.

    • Ted,

      Great idea, I’ll post the syllabus in a couple of weeks (i’m heading out of town or I’d do it sooner….) D

    • Stephen D

      Regarding Gladwell and magazines:

      While we’re talking about the Kindle, it’s worth noting that Amazon is pushing Kindle Singles — “Compelling ideas expressed at their natural length.” I’m curious to see whether e-reading devices can create a profitable market for these shorter, Gladwell-length pieces. As of now, I’m skeptical, but mostly because I think blogs are such an easy way to share writing that I think more content will gravitate towards them. Consider this blog, which contains observations that would typically be limited to in-class settings…

  3. Fitz Fitzgerald

    I have another collection of Wallace’s essays—A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do again. Very impressive collection—he writes absolutely lapidary sentences and ranges over an incredible amount of territory, writing like an insider all the while. The essay I found most interesting in the collection is “E Unibus Pluram: Television and Fiction,” in which he discusses the effect of television on fiction. I quibble with his theory that writers can approach TV as a mirror that reflects American normalcy—seems to me that despite all the so-called reality shows if you just watch TV you will walk away with a distorted view of Americans. Otherwise I found the essay provocative, especially the part where he discusses the relationship between TV irony and contemporary fiction that’s all hip irony, pop reference and surface. If only Wallace and his genius stuck around to give us a similarly thought-provoking essay about the influence of the internet on fiction.

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