Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Reading Good Books

How to Read a Book: 
The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading 

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading

“....a good book can teach you about the world and about yourself. You learn more than how to read better; you also learn more about life. You become wiser. Not just more knowledgeable - books that provide nothing but information can produce that result. But wiser, in the sense that you are more deeply aware of the great and enduring truths of human life.”   ― Mortimer J. Adler, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading

This book is a handbook for reading books, what the Greeks would call an Enchiridion. The handbook is divided into four parts that cover all aspects of reading from the dimensions of the subject to ultimate goals one may expiscate from reading books.

Part one begins with a discussion of reading as both an activity and an art. It is an activity in the sense that it is something that you do to, according to the authors, become an "active" reader. But it is also an art in the sense that the reader is as much an artist in his recognition of the beauty of the book as was the author who created it. I believe this applies to all works whether they are fiction or non-fiction.

The remainder of parts one and two provide detailed discussions of both the levels of reading with a concentration on analytical reading and determining a book's message. The authors provide a lot of detailed rules and "how to" suggestions, yielding an ideal structure for reading books. In creating this ideal approach to reading books I believe they leave sufficient room for each reader to develop their own personal methods appropriating the guidelines provided.

The book concludes with a discussion of different kinds or genres of reading matter followed by the introduction of the idea of syntopical reading or reading books with other relevant books in mind. This provides a way to focus on ideas presented in different ways and manners across different texts. Finally, the ultimate goal of serious reading is to improve your mind. This process is analogous to strength training for the muscles in your body. This reader was impressed with the text and the ideas presented and when applied along with a focus on the enjoyment of reading they provide a useful approach to reading great books.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Hockey Town


Beartown (Beartown, #1)

“One of the plainest truths about both towns and individuals is that they usually don't turn into what we tell them to be, but what they are told they are.”  
― Fredrik Backman, Beartown

Having not read any of Fredrik Backman's previous novels I did not know what to expect with this story. Set in a small Swedish town called Beartown, the story centers around the local juniors' hockey team and their preparation for their semifinal game. The hockey team is the pride of the town, which is otherwise suffering a decline. People are out of work and local businesses are shuttering. The plot involves a small group of people associated with the hockey team and the importance of it to the town. After the team wins the semifinal game there is a terrible event that affects everyone directly or indirectly leading to decisions that must be made by the individuals involved.

Backman focuses on the human experience and provides insights into the difficulties surrounding the individuals' abilities to deal with their feelings. The author captures some of these feelings when he comments:
"All adults have days when we feel completely drained. When we no longer know quite what we spend so much tie fighting for, when reality and everyday worries overwhelm us and we wonder how much longer we're going to be able to carry on."

The author uses the theme of community to demonstrate how an identity based on belonging to a group can have both positive and negative effects. Beartown is a small community that is centered around a successful hockey team. The people of Beartown are very devoted to both the team and the town, but this ultimately causes many to dismiss the importance and impact of the event that interrupts their regular activities.

How each of them carry on is demonstrated in their actions as the novel moves toward a denouement. The conclusion is not necessarily a happy one, but it is portrayed in a true and realistic way. The author did tend to emphasize the points he was trying to make a little too hard, but overall I found the book suspenseful and excellent.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Experience and Reflection

Open City 

Open City

"For Paracelsus, the light of nature functioned intuitively, but it was also sharpened by experience. . .  it informed us what the inner reality of a thing was by means of its form, so that the appearance of a man gave some valid reflection of the person he really was."  (p 237)

“To be alive, it seemed to me, as I stood there in all kinds of sorrow, was to be both original and reflection, and to be dead was to be split off, to be reflection alone.”   ― Teju Cole, Open City

Some books have opening lines that are immediately moving for the reader. This is one of those books. This uncommon novel begins with the narrator commenting on on his daily walks: "And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall. . . "
While this line may seem unassuming, and the whole book contains vignettes that, taken individually, may seem unassuming, the entirety of this memoir-like narrative is powerful indeed. What is it that makes the individual parts come together in such a fashion that they had such an impact on this reader?

There are two parts containing short chapters. In Part One the story follows the main character, Julius, who is a Nigerian doctor doing his psychiatric residency in New York City. Julius takes up walking as a way to diminish the pressures of his job working with his patients. Julius even uses the walks to clear his mind of personal matters, such as a recent breakup with his girlfriend, Nadege. Throughout the novel, the narration of the story does not include any dialogue among the characters, but is told in exposition - in short chapters. He is an observer of humanity and as he walks he shares his experiences in a somewhat random manner. What we learn from this is not just the experiences but his ruminations on history, literature, art, and eventually his own family. He starts to recognize what a true melting pot New York is as far as cultures and ethnicities are concerned. In the face of living in such a diverse city, however, Julius also notices that stark separation that still draws an imaginary line segregating one ethnic group from another.

As Julius walks, he also thinks back to his childhood in Nigeria. His father died when Julius was 14. He is now estranged from his mother. while his father was of Nigerian descent, Julius's mother is white and of German descent, making Julius a mixed race. Due to his mixed race, and light colored skin, Julius feels out of place, even in the worlds where he belongs. As he wanders around the city, black people seem to connect with him, recognizing his African roots.
One of his run-ins with someone he grew up with in Nigeria even reveals that Julius raped her. Subsequently, Julius blocked out the memory of this event and never reveals if he recalls it when his Moji tells him what he did to her.

Near the end of Part One of the novel Julius visits Brussels. He is only just visiting Brussels, but it has a similar impact on him as Manhattan. He is impressed by the feeling of history from the ancient buildings, since Brussels was an "Open City" in WWII and was thus exempt from bombing. But beyond the history and his own internal meditations he feels just as impermanent in Brussels as he had in New York. It was like he being awestruck by it for the first time despite being world-weary restless. He is a perpetual tourist, stopping in his steps to gawk, never in a hurry but always moving somewhere—if not forward or backward, still somewhere.

By the end of the novel, Julius finishes his residency and moves into private practice. It seems as if he has come to terms with some of the events in his life. On the other hand, he never fully addresses some of the other issues to reveal to the reader as to whether the issues are ongoing or resolved. The lack of resolution did not diminish the cumulative power of the stories shared by the narrator.

Open City is the debut novel by author Teju Cole. the story of narrator Julius’ wandering through New York, and, briefly, Brussels. It gains power and presence through his contemplation of immigration and nationality in the U.S., his fleetingly depicted but often strong friendships, the way we manufacture brotherhood as a way to both unite and distance ourselves from humanity.