Friday, October 8, 2010

One Reader's Reflections: Post-Vietnam to Now

In the first part of this commentary, I discussed my plodding start as a reader, and reading life while a university student.  In the post-Vietnam war era, highlighted by the assassinations of John F. and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr, like most other Americans I developed a distinctively darker world-view, much like the angst gripping the nation today.  My reading reflected that gloomy mood. That was when I happened onto Jerzy Kozinski’s The Painted Bird, the autobiographical short novel of wanderings of a young boy in Central Europe during WWII, in a horrific struggle to survive.  That stimulated my interest in a Penguin’s series edited by Phillip Roth, Writers from the Other Europe. Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting had the most influence on my thinking. In Kundera’s work, magical elements were blended into a realistic atmosphere in order to access a deeper understanding of reality. Remarkable dream-like elements are explained as though they are normal occurrences that are presented in a straightforward manner, allowing the "real" and the "fantastic" to be accepted in the same stream of thought. These works were infused with a sense of powerlessness, rooted in growing up in Communist Eastern Europe where the individual was nothing.  Others in that series that especially appealed to me were Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Watched Trains and Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles. Both explored themes of futility at the hands of mindless but at times ruthless bureaucrats. Today’s ruthless bureaucratic oligarchs who control our lives have names like Koch (Koch Industries) and Walton (Wallmart) or companies like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley rather than the Politburo or Communist Party.  Aynn Rand’s vision in Atlas Shrugged is becoming a startlingly bleak nightmarish reality in America, in which the top 1 percent of the most wealthy people controlling 42% of the wealth. 

In the past, when travelling by airplane, I often read John LeCarre spy novels to distract myself from that uncomfortable and at times intolerable form of transportation.  I consumed LeCarre novels with enthusiasm while shoe horned into gawd-awful postures masquerading as airplane seating. Those novels featured British MI-5 spy, George Smiley, who never disappointed the reader. LeCarre’s plots were complex and characters had equally complex lives and motives.  My current travel reading, or rather I should say, listening, has been digitally narrated espionage books by Daniel Silva, a series featuring the Israeli Mossad spymaster Gabriel Allon.  In the series, Allon had been originally trained as a professional art restorer before joining the Mossad.  His profession provided cover in many of Sliva’s espionage stories. My favorite Silva book is The Messenger, with an incredibly convoluted plot, including a Saudi billionaire and art collector named Abdul Aziz al-Bakari and a brilliant young academically trained American art curator, Sarah Bancroft, who is recruited by the CIA and Israeli Intelligence to set a trap for Mr. al Bakari using a previously unknown van Gogh painting as bait.  Sarah is a well-educated and more sophisticated version of Isabel Archer, a bright young American woman, stubborn, opinionated and vulnerable in the hands of men from other cultures whom she fails to understand.  Silva does a remarkable job of creating multilayered characters with complex motives and personalities.  I’m currently half way through Silva’s Rembrandt Affair, which is living up to its promise.

Biography and autobiography have generally failed to interest me.  The main exceptions have been Bertrand Russell’s two-volume autobiography and B. F Skinner’s, The Shaping of a Behaviorist and Particulars of My Life, and Sidney Salkow’s biography of Chief Joseph, the life of one of America’s great statesmen.  Over the past decade my reading has gravitated increasingly toward essays, short stories and poetry.  Essay reading necessarily begins with Montaigne and Emerson, but has included John McPhee, one of the modern masters of the medium, and the hyper-abstract, intellectual linguistic essays of Umberto Eco (e.g. Serendipities).  Lewis Thomas’s The Lives of a Cell and Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, rank high on the list of favorite essays.  Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table remains with me after all these years, and Bernard Cooper’s fanciful Maps to Anywhere, again a mixture of magical realism and realism.  The protagonist, a rather mousey Mr. Stone, decides to shop for a globe on his lunch hour.  He wants a simple Replogle globe, the kind that was in our classrooms in elementary school.  The proprietess of the shop “Maps to Anywhere,” Miss Mazel, insists that Stone must have “the Dexter Special,” none other will be adequate to meet his needs.  Poor Mr. Stone was unware he had cartographic needs that must be met. What had begun as a simple purchase of a simple familiar globe has become an existential experience replete with ethereal meaning, as Miss Mazel is adamant that the hapless man purchase the Dexter Special Map to Anywhere, which will reveal far more to him than he wants to know about the world, far more.  None other will do Mss Mazel insists.

Among poets, my continuing favorite is Polish Nobel Laureate, Wislawa Szymborska.  Now 77 years old, Zymborska uses irony, paradox, contradiction and understatement to illuminate themes and obsessions. Szymborska's compressed writing style pose existential puzzles, such as wryly commenting on the choice of content of one’s resume,’ and reflecting on the condition of people both as individuals and as members of society. Her style is succinct, introspective and witty.  I find myself constantly quoting her works.  I understand she is painfully shy, so such public deference would likely be embarrassing to her, so don’t let on to her that you know.

In “Born” Szymborska began,

“So this is his mother/This small woman/This gray-haired procreator.
The boat in which, years ago/ he sailed to shore.”

And another of my favorites, “Nothing’s a Gift,”

“Nothing’s a gift, it’s all on loan/ I’m drowning in debts up to my ears.? I’ll have to pay for myself/ with myself/ give up my life for my life.

I can’t remember/ where, when and why/ I let someone open/ this account in my name./ We call the protest against this/ the soul./ And it’s the only item/not included on the list.”

We can talk more about the soul another day when we discuss Bennet and Hacker's Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. 

There were numerous other reading discursions along the way, like Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, and E. O. Wilson’s remarkable non-fiction book, Consilience, but the foregoing have been some of the main perambulatory streams of my reading life.   Unlike Pat Conroy who reports that his mother believed that by reading, he and his siblings would be elevated from poverty, my family did not view reading a vehicle serving a higher purpose. My parents seemed to assume reading was as an end in itself, and that I would find my own reading pathway, which I suppose I have, in my own disorderly but fulfilling way.


  1. Travis, thanks for introducing me to your new blog. Love it. Love being remind of many of my favorite books, from back in the day. Suspect you introduced me to several of them. Don't read no more--mainly listen--podcasts and recorded books. Will search for the recorded versions of the books you are/were into.

    Minor typo In upper left-hand corner:
    Glad you have visited by Blog,
    Should be my, not by, I suspect.

    Thanks again.

  2. Thanks for the feedback Dick. From time to time people ask me what I read or what reading has influenced my thinking. I find it curious that as a steadfast empiricist, i have gravitated toward literature that has toyed with reality and perception of reality, and struggled with existential puzzles. I'll fix the typo.