Day 10: A Book that Changed My Life

This Thirty Day Book Challenge is turning out to be significantly more, well, challenging, than I had initially thought. I have spent the last few days giving today’s topic some serious thought…

There is no one, single book that has “changed my life.” No magic moment upon reading a book that as I finished it I knew that I was forever different. What there has been, however, is a series of books, from different authors and at different times, that have forced me to look at the world, my life, my ideas and my beliefs in new and different ways. This group of books, once I really began to think about them, have quite a lot in common. They are all in some way “academic” as opposed to more popular fiction, and all have an undeniable philosophical component, although some more than others. Perhaps what the strongest common thread between all of these texts is that they have all, in their own way, helped me form my intellectual curiosities, my personal philosophical outlook, my moral and ethical grounding, and my general sense of what life should be about.

A more honest way of framing today’s post would be to admit that it’s not necessarily books that have impacted me so strongly, rather thinkers and writers. If I were to list a few, I would include as varied a group as David Hume, Carl Sagan, Thomas Kuhn, Bertrand Russell, Isaiah Berlin, Erwin Schrödinger, Sigmund Freud, Aldous Huxley, Charles Darwin, and Michel Foucault. If I were to count fiction as well, then I would also include Umberto Eco, Aldous Huxley again, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and Tom Robbins. If I included poetry, then the list would have to expand to also include William Blake and Allen Ginsberg. In other words, there is no way that I could sit and discuss a single text, or even a single author in regards to how they have changed my life.

I’ve been reading for a lifetime, and for that lifetime these thinkers and writers have had a certain and cumulative effect. They have, together, taught me to think critically and embrace reason, and to revel in questions instead of becoming entrenched in apparent answers. They have reminded me to never fail to pay attention to beauty that surrounds me, and to live curiously, openly, and passionately. They have taught me that a vigorous intellect is nothing to be ashamed of. Together they have reinforced the idea that kindness and generosity are the highest virtues, and that our significance is measured by how we love, how we think, and how our actions affect those around us. They have opened my eyes to the wonders of this universe, as well as the magnificence of our minds and our hearts. In short, they set me on the path to become the woman who I am, and every time I read anything by these scientists, writers, poets, and thinkers, I see a little of myself reflected in their words.

Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive as there are authors whose influence, although subtle, was nevertheless significant, and other authors who as a result of time have simply been forgotten, although their impact surely remains. Morevoer, and perhaps most importantly, I have not stopped reading. I encounter writers, historians, scientists, and philosophers who, on a daily basis, push me out of my intellectual comfort zone and cause me to rethink my ideas and question my realities, and I hope that this will forever be the case.

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JFK, the Umbrella Man, and Thomas Pynchon

A couple of days ago I wrote a post about revisiting once-read books, and all the dissonance that it can potentially cause. In that post, I referenced a conversation that I had with someone who had just read The Crying of Lot 49 for the first time, and who did not particularly enjoy it. He asked me what it was that I liked about the book, and the general theme of my rather long-winded answer was nostalgia. I liked the book because of what it meant to me at a certain point in my life. Ok, I’ve already written about that, so why bring it up again… and what, if anything, does that have to do with JFK? Well, as a result of that post came quite an interesting conversation.

In that post I mentioned that COL 49 is essentially a book about entropy. It’s very much about the process of sifting information from noise and preventing the “system” (in this case, Oedipa’s life) from falling to entropy. One of the criticisms that he had leveled against the novel dealt with the way Pynchon addressed and introduced topics such as Information Theory or Maxwell’s Demon, seemingly haphazardly and half-heartedly. Through the course of the conversation, however, we agreed that the work itself, in postmodern fashion, was a true “open work.” That these seemingly casual mentions were really carefully placed “tools” that the reader would need to become an active participant in the text.

Throughout the narrative Oedipa Maas, our fearless protagonist, is essentially acting as Maxwell’s Demon, trying to create order and sense as everything around her becomes chaotic. In her quest for the truth, she is actively sorting information and staving off entropy. In fact, in the final scene where she searches the crowd for the secret bidder, in deciding to continue her quest, she effectively claims a (temporary?) victory against entropy.

“Oedipa sat alone, toward the back of the room, looking at the napes of necks, trying to guess which one was her target, her enemy, perhaps her proof.”

Mirroring this, as the novel progresses, the reader is also fed constant strings of information, and in order to make sense of things, as much as is possible, we, too become a Maxwell’s Demon and sort. Like Oedipa, the reader must realize that the only way to survive entropy is to continually try to create meaning. The structure of the novel itself leaves us no choice.

One thing that became apparent was that the more layers that Oedipa peeled away, the further away she got from any clarity.  Questions did not lead to answers, they led to more questions, and information became drowned out in a deluge of noise.

Now here’s where JFK and the Umbrella Man come into play. Last week, on the anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, the New York Times released a short documentary by Errol Morris titled “The Umbrella Man.” 

The documentary did not add fuel nor fire to any of the extant conspiracy theories that still surround JFK’s death, rather, it referenced that in historical research, there may be a level analogous to a “quantum dimension,” where normal rules simply do not apply, that once a certain level of detail is reached, the thread of meaning begins to dissipate.  In other words, that the historian may find him or herself in a position similar to that of Oedipa Maas, peeling away layers only to find more questions and more possibilities. In reference to why he made the movie, and what it was about the Kennedy assassination that drew him in, Morris writes,

What is it about this case that has led not to a solution, but to the endless proliferation of possible solutions?

At very start of the documentary, Josiah Thompson states,

“In December 1967, John Updike was writing [the] ‘Talk of the Town’ [column] for the New Yorker and he spent most of that ‘Talk of the Town’ column talking about the Umbrella Man. He said that his learning of the existence of the Umbrella Man made him speculate that in historical research there may be a dimension similar to the quantum dimension in physical reality. If you put any event under a microscope, you will find a whole dimension of completely weird, incredible things going on. It’s as if there’s the macro level of historical research, where things sort of obey natural laws and usual things happen and unusual things don’t happen, and then there’s this other level where everything is really weird.”

And all that, of course, is under the assumption that what the “umbrella man” claimed to be true was, in fact, true. This could go on and on, ad infinitum. It’s almost as if Pynchon wrote the story of the umbrella man himself.

In the New Yorker column that Thompson referenced, Updike wrote,

We wonder whether a genuine mystery is being concealed here or whether any similar scrutiny of a minute section of time and space would yield similar strangenesses—gaps, inconsistencies, warps, and bubbles in the surface of circumstance. Perhaps, as with the elements of matter, investigation passes a threshold of common sense and enters a sub-atomic realm where laws are mocked, where persons have the life-span of beta particles and the transparency of neutrinos, and where a rough kind of averaging out must substitute for absolute truth. The truth about those seconds in Dallas is especially elusive; the search for it seems to demonstrate how perilously empiricism verges on magic.

What the umbrella man seemed to illustrate was that the historian, and, well, anyone who pokes and prods at the world around them in attempt to understand and establish “truth” has to essentially become their own Nefastis Machine or Maxwell’s Demon, and begin the Sisyfusian tasks of sorting the information from the noise and holding entropy at bay. We, like Oedipa Maas, must all keep striving daily to create meaning.

Here’s a short excerpt from the Morris’ “Umbrella Man.” The video in its entirety can be found here. Well worth watching.

You can’t step into the same river twice… but what about books?

A few weeks ago, in response to my post about book covers, a fellow blogger linked me to this fantastic cover of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.  Every decade or so this book tends to find its way back into my mind and back into my hands, and linking me this image did just that, and a couple of weeks ago I reread the book.

I first read this book in college in a  class titled “Science and Literature, a joint effort of the English, Physics, and Biology departments, taught by multiple professors. I was a physics major with a Literature minor, and this class seemed to merge my interests seamlessly. We had finished a series of lectures on thermodynamics, and of course, my favorite, Maxwell’s Demon (that little imaginary guy that can stop a closed system from become entropic), then were assigned Pynchon’s novel.  I read it in day, then reread it again the next day, since I wasn’t sure about what I had just read at all. After I closed the book for a second time, I remember thinking that for such a small book, it sure packed one hell of a punch.

At the time it was a book that spoke to both my love of science and words. It was playful yet insightful, it included my guilty pleasure (lots of conspiracy theories… did the Tristero actually exist?), and it spoke to some universal truths about trying to stop our lives from becoming entropic, and about our constant struggle to separate real information from all the “noise” around us. In short, it was the right book at the right time.

So a couple of weeks ago I contentedly reread the words that had elicited such a powerful reaction from me so many years ago, yet, when I put the book down, I felt, I don’t know, different. It was not as powerful as I had remembered, and the story now seemed thinner, with far less substance. Then Ken borrowed and read the book, and upon returning it to me he asked what it was about the book that I liked so much. I found myself answering with one word, nostalgia. The book was a signpost in my life, it represented some aspect of who I was at 19. But I’m clearly not 19 anymore, I’ve experienced 20 years of life between then and now, and I began to realize, that the book had changed. Not the text, but what I brought to the text, and that, as Eco would undoubtedly agree, fundamentally changed my reading of the book.

Then last week I wrote about Byron. Here a similar but reverse thing had happened. When I first encountered Byron in high school, I thought he was trite, superficial, and clichéd. But it wasn’t Byron that was lacking, it was my lack of experience. I had nothing to reference. I had not loved nor lost love yet. How could I possible “feel” Byron without a life full of experience to bring to the reading? In the case of the poetry of Lord Byron, it was the wrong text at the wrong time, and it took a lot of living on my part to make it the right text for me. Once again, what I brought to the reading changed my experience of it.

Now just a few days ago, I read this article announcing that Jack Kerouac’s “lost” first novel, The Sea is My Brother, was about to be released. The next day, another blogger posted this, where he said that he probably won’t read it, that Kerouac exists in the past for him, and I thought, is he right?

There was a time when I lived and breathed the Beats.  from Kerouac and Ginsberg, and Ferlinghetti, to Corso, McClure, and Burroughs… all of them. I immersed myself in them and their lifestyle to such an extent, that I even began to write a book about them (an excuse to lose myself in their more intimate, personal material… letters, diaries, drawings). I got nearly 200 pages into the book before I stopped. I suppose that at the time I was using their lives more as an example then a cautionary tale (that would come later), and I just never finished it. Be that as it may, the Beats occupy a very important place in my personal history with books, and I’m afraid of attempting to step into that river twice. I share Chaz’s hesitation to read this new (well, old) novel, in the fear that it will change what he and the rest of them signify to me, I almost rather leave them untouched, frozen in time, where they are.

Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote,

This book will perhaps be understood only by those who have themselves already thought the thoughts which are expressed in it – or similar thoughts. It is therefore not a text book. Its purpose would be achieved if there were one person who read it with understanding and to whom it gave pleasure.

and he’s absolutely correct. Books are experienced in light of what we bring to them, and our experiences of our texts are constantly reformed… as we change, so do they. Sometime for the better, as with Byron, and sometimes I suppose it’s better to leave the books where we first experienced them, our memory of them unmarred by the passage of time. This, however, should never stop us from enjoying all that books have to offer.  As Eco writes,

The “reader” is excited by the new freedom of the work, by its infinite potential for proliferation, by its inner wealth and the unconscious projections that it inspires. The canvas itself invites him not to avoid causal connection and the temptations of univocality, and to commit himself to an exchange rich in unforeseeable discoveries.