Books I Read last month (Nov2020)

The Origins and History of Consciousness – Erich Neumann
Blackout – Candace Owens
White Teeth – Zadie Smith
Let the Great World Spin – Colum McCann
Manhattan Beach – Jennifer Egan
The Plus: Self-Help for People Who Hate Self-Help – Greg Gutfeld
How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom – Matt Ridley
The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets – Helen Vendler

So I’ve been making a conscious change in my reading habits, less fiction and more nonfiction, useful stuff. Granted, political polemics can hardly be called “useful” but they are fun to read and, if good, rife with handy facts.

“Blackout” is an anti-Democratic party apologia from black conservative Candace Owens. I’m not black, so I can’t speak to black Americans unconditional support for the Democratic party, but from the outside looking in, it doesn’t make any sense, as Owens amply makes clear. (Imo, this isn’t to say the Republican Party is much better; the ruling class establishment in America is breathtakingly corrupt, and relentlessly shits on the country at large. Hopefully, a future political realignment will throw them out of power, and hold them criminally responsible, but I’m not holding my breath.) I know this is a totally absurd thing to say, but if you’re ever in the mood to have your preconceptions challenged, pick this up.

“The Plus” advises against politicizing everything; it’s pro-sanity in our discourse in order to bring the temperature down in our national politics. Gutfeld makes a great point about thinking the other side can only be irredeemably stupid or evil to disagree with your side. In fact, assuming the other side is stupid and evil results in your side acting in ways that are (no surprise here) increasingly stupid and evil.

Politics is a tangential subject in “How Innovation Works”, which focuses on how innovations in both technology and ideas are inevitable. For example, there are like 10 different people, completely independent of each other and in separate countries, can claim to have invented the light bulb.

But Ridley covers a wide swathe of innovations (even the prehistorical ones), and then details the political climate thats most conducive to invention. America, for most of its history, has been the supreme incubator of new ideas, especially in contrast to (contemporary) Europe, whose 100 largest corporations were all founded over 50 years ago. This is the type of book so jam-packed with facts and history that you can’t help being smarter after reading.

“The Origins and History of Consciousness” is like Carl Jung wrote “A Hero with a Thousand Faces”. Neumann traces how consciousness evolved along with popular myth, or more accurately, how myth elucidates humanity’s psychological development. 

“White Teeth” is the precocious debut of Zadie Smith; “Let the Great World Spin” is a pseudo-metaphor for 9/11 thru the lens of the tight-rope walker in the 70s who walked between the towers. They’re both beautifully constructed, their stories spanning across generations, and from diverse perspectives.

That seems to be the formula for a Pulitzer nowadays, which both of these won: arrange the plot around one semi-significant event, and tell the story from the point of view of a white protagonist who struggles for moral righteousness, and then also from a minority/immigrant point of view. Add in their family members as supplementary characters, as well as a few characters on the periphery, and ta da-Pulitzer. The effect is one of literary parallax, or looking at the same event from multiple perspectives and seeing it differently.

This is the third straight month I’ve read a Jennifer Egan novel, this time her latest effort, “Manhattan Beach”. Instead of the aforementioned postmodernist techniques she employed in “A Visit from the Goon Squad”, she reverts to old-fashioned storytelling in “Manhattan Beach”, but man does it work. It reads like a noir thriller, and has all the requisite gangsters, missing persons, and pre-1960s cultural mores. Simple, yet artful.

Finally, “The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets” is something I wish I had during undergrad. Damn, I could’ve written some mind-blowing essays. Vendler breaks down and analyzes every sonnet of the Bard; she highlights the reputation of sounds and words, and then explicates their meaning in relation to the meaning of the poem as a whole.

Like women and sex, I have to be in the mood to read Shakespeare, but once I partake, damn do I enjoy it. Shakespeare is the most revered writer for a reason, and each of Vendler’s analyses demonstrate his supreme skill in capturing any emotion, no matter how nuanced.

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