Prediction.Within a few years, there will be something very much like a hybrid of reality shows and a facebook wall, where you can watch celebrities going about their daily lives. Britney, for instance. And you’ll be able to click on Britney’s shoes and see and ad for the shop that sells them and make an impulse purchase right then and there. There will be links to the food she’s eating, the drinks she’s toying with, her makeup, clothes, tableware, the art on the walls, the paint used to paint them, hell even the building she lives in. Hovering nearby will be links to her favourite entertainment, a dating site in case you feel lonely, and various medical services in case you’re feeling queasy or a little bit blue.
The next step will be that all facebook (or whatever replaces it) users will be treated the same way. You’ll be able to watch your friends move through their day and all around them will be popup ads for anything branded in their environment.
What I Tend to Write About
Excerpt from Cal’s Commonplace Book
“When I think of all the books I have left to read, I have the certainty of being still happy.” – Jules Redard
Cal’s Commonplace Book
Updated November 10, 2018
The Constant Reader
Books Read This Year
Updated August 13, 2019
“I continue to think of myself as someone who is essentially a reader—a man who takes a deep pleasure in good books, who views reading as a fine mode of acquiring experience, and who still brings the highest expectations to what he reads. By the highest expectations I mean that I am perhaps a naïve person who has never ceased to believe that books can change his life, and decisively so.” – Joseph Epstein (from Partial Payments: Essays on Writers and Their Lives , quoted by Patrick Kurp at his blog Anecdotal Evidence)
Life in Lower Slaughter (1975) by Robert G. Deindorfer
Sometime during the midst of the Watergate Hearings, a New York public relations specialist and his wife and young song de-camp for two years from Manhattan to the Cotswolds village where at the end of a previous vacation they impulsively bought a cottage. The author’s humorous and articulate descriptions of the contrasts between uber-urban and uber-country life are fascinating (if somewhat dated now in some of the particulars). I read this book in anticipation of my own sojourn, later this year, to the Cotswolds, and to compare my own longstanding fantasy of moving there to someone’s story of actually pursuing such a notion. Enjoyed this writer’s style very much, and reading this book have helped in planning the upcoming trip.
The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World (2004) by A.J. Jacobs
New York journalist decides to read the Encyclopedia Britannica from A-Z. Much hilarity ensues, not only from the nuggets of knowledge from the encyclopedia that he shares with readers (and his comments about them), but from his descriptions of how his unusual project affects his marriage and his other relationships, as well as how he feels about himself. Delightful from the first page to the last. My curiosity about what Jacobs has been up to since he published this book has led me to (among other things) the titles of his subsequent books (also, like this one, bestsellers), which I hope to one day getting around to reading.
When Nietzsche Wept: A Novel of Obsession (1992) by Irvin D. Yalom
What a story! Yalom, a practicing existential psychotherapist and prolific writer of both novels and guidebooks for group therapists, brilliantly imagines a suicidal Nietzsche being psychoanalyzed by Freud’s friend (and, later, Freud’s co-author of the revolutionary Studies in Hysteria) Joseph Brauer. The encounter is set in 1882 Vienna, before the advent of psychoanalysis as a budding enterprise and long before Nietzsche achieved fame as a philosopher (and before the Nazis mischaracterized and then championed some of Nietzsche’s notions). Yalom’s meticulous historical research is evident in the unfolding of his exciting tale, which features completely believable main and minor characters and more than a few imaginative plot twists, including a remarkable, and totally believable reversal of roles: the ostensible patient, Nietzsche, gradually ends up acting as therapist to Breuer. The writing is much more sophisticated than what I found with The Schopenhauer Cure (2005), another of what Yolem has called his “teaching novels.” My thorough enjoyment of When Nietzsche Wept, from the first page to the last, has increased my anticipation of getting hold of Yolem’s later novel, The Spinoza Problem (2012).
Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries (2017) by Kory Stamper
I must be a word nerd, or even a dictionary nerd, as I really enjoyed this book. Stamper manages, with frequent hilarity, to entertainingly explain the complex and intriguing vagaries of lexicography (the making of dictionaries), the challenges and nuisances facing lexicographers, and the many delusions suffered by casual or uninformed dictionary-users. Stamper is definitely among the humblest and most witty nonfiction authors I’ve come across, and I’m definitely going to track down her blog so I can read more of her fabulous prose.
Landscape and Memory (1994) by Simon Schama
BOOKS FINISHED EARLIER THIS YEAR:
William Morris at Home (1996) by David Rogers
I’ve long been intrigued by the founders of what became known as the Arts & Crafts Movement – an interest that’s intensified since meeting my partner Randy, who knows a lot more about this movement than I do (and has furnished part of his house with objects inspired by that movement). Morris was a phenomenally productive creator and I bought this book because it seemed easier to ease myself into his biography with something focused on his domestic arrangements rather than his politics or the details of his astonishingly numerous artistic accomplishments. This book proved the perfect aperitif for, if I ever get around to it, further study of this amazing man’s life and work. I also hope to visit some of his many homes in our upcoming trip to England, and to see (more carefully this time around) the large collection Morris-related objects in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.
Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death (2008) by Irvin D. Yalom
I was unaware of Yalom’s books until someone (a psychologist) in my book club suggested earlier this year that we read one of his novels, The Schopenhauer Cure. That book led me to resolve to read Yalom’s other novels, and to tracking down this nonfiction book of his. Yalom is a gifted writer, which makes his treatment of this subject of death anxiety required reading for me, someone long unhappy with how most people I know stubbornly avoid discussing this topic. Although the case studies Yalom uses to illustrate his therapy methods around death anxiety would probably be more interesting to readers who are therapists themselves, I was totally impressed by how thorough Yalom treats the various ramifications of examining, deliberately, our mortality. An atheist like myself, I also enjoyed Yalom’s descriptions of how the human predicament can be confronted without the comforts and/or delusions offered by organized religions. His explanation of what he calls “rippling” (the silent, usually unacknowledged influence each of us has on the people who know us) was also intriguing, and convincing. I recommend this book, as it will lead you to others that have brought Yalom to his conclusions, and will help you articulate your own notions and fears around death.
Gardening Through Your Golden Years (2003) by Jim Wilson
This book’s corny (or perhaps merely wince-worthy?) title almost kept me from buying it when I spotted it at a thrift store. It was a pleasant read, but doesn’t contain very much information new to me (aged 70). On the other hand, the very short essays it contains by (and interviews with) older gardeners was encouraging in terms of settling forever the question of whether or not gardening is likely to become a hobby I will eventually want to give up on myself. Most of these gardeners – most of them older than I am – enthusiastically continue to maintain (or pay others to maintain) gardens that are far more elaborate and extensive than my own postage-stamp sized acreage, so I can stop worrying about whether I will eventually need to radically cut back on my own gardening activities anytime soon. I wish the writing had been a bit more inspiring or the how-t0 advice a bit more surprising. Better – and better-written – books on this subject are Gardening for a Lifetime: How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older (2010) by Sydney Eddison and Growing Pains: Time and Change in the Garden (1994) by Patricia Thorpe.
The Library Book (2018) by Susan Orlean
Ostensibly the story of the devastating 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Public Library’s Central Library, with a lot of LAPL history and the long history of libraries in general (including a horrific chronicle of burned-down libraries) thrown in, Orlean’s well-written tale is also the best book I’ve come across that captures the variety and the challenges and the excitement of working in a public library. Once I started reading it, I realized I kept putting off doing all sorts of chores so I could finish reading it. I’ll be forever grateful to my librarian colleague Katharine Suttell for recommending it to me. And because Orlean is such a talented writer, I might decide to read The Orchid Thief, her most famous novel (whose movie version was entitled Adaptation, starring Nicholas Cage, Meryl Streep, and Nicole Kidman).
The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, The Royal Society & The Birth of the Modern World (2011) by Edward Dolnick
A romp through the often unlikely origins of modern science. Dolnick’s has a rare talent for vividly (and wittily) portraying the often eccentric personalities of the people – Newton, Leibnitz, Boyle, Hook, Galileo, Brahe, etc. – whose radical ideas transformed a world rampant with ignorance, disease, and war. The book bogged down a bit for me in the middle, when Dolnick attempts to explain more than I could follow of the mathematics involved several of the age’s scientific discoveries, but that rough patch was a small price to pay for the delights of the rest of the book. I will be on the lookout for other books that Dolnick has written.
The Schopenhauer Cure by Irvin D. Yalom (2005)
I had never heard of this novel before my book club decided to read it. Although Yalom is famous among therapists for his books on existential therapy, I’d never heard of him. Since finishing the book, I was happy to discover a huge trove of information about Yalom on the Internet. Yalom is certainly not my favorite writer (especially of dialog, which I find to be annoyingly implausible), but I admire and enjoyed the clever ways Yalom weaves into his group therapy tale the life and work of Schopenhauer, a philosopher who has long intrigued me, and whose writings I have long put off plunging into. The Schopenhauer Cure, for me, is a portal into not only into my resolve to further explore Schopenhauer, but to finally read Nietzsche and Spinoza as well (two other philosophers whose notions have also intrigued me, and who Yalom has written other novels centered around their teachings) – two more Yalom novels that I now feel obliged to read, as well as some of Yalom’s later nonfiction works, beginning with Staring into the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death, the book Yalom wrote immediately after The Schopenhauer Cure.
Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude (2018) by Stephanie Rosenbloom
A pleasant and surprisingly successful combination of memoir, travel guide, and findings from research (and other authors’ reflections) on the benefits of solitude. The four cities Rosenbloom scours by herself and then writes about are Paris, Florence, Istanbul, and New York, and the sections devoted to each are interesting for different reasons. For example, in the final section (the author is a New York native and resident), Rosenbloom discusses, among other things, the pleasures of solitude at home and the sensation of treating your native city with new eyes, while in the other sections she emphasizes the psychological upsides of traveling abroad alone. The book ends with an extensive section on Internet apps and websites especially useful to solo travelers. I was pleased to see that Rosenbloom is well aware of the wonderful book by Andrew Storr’s Solitude: A Return to the Self (1998).
Beauty: The Invisible Embrace: Rediscovering the True Sources of Compassion, Serenity, and Hope (2005) by John O’Donohue
Rarely does a book simultaneously entrance and exasperate me, but this one never stopped doing that. The enchantment of O’Donohue’s rich, evocative, poetic language (and the book’s alleged subject, which has intrigued me – and O’Donohue – for decades) kept me reading his compelling paragraphs all the way to end of the book, but his delicious prose kept colliding with the rational/skeptical side of my brain. Example: O’Donohue, a former priest, seemed admirably open to non-traditional, n0n-Christianity-based explorations of the nature of, and ramifications of, the multitudinous forms or beauty; however, his explorations kept sliding into unannounced, apparently unconscious acceptance of rather orthodox Christian notions. The book is worth reading purely for its beauty, hypnotic persuasiveness, and its wide-ranging treatment of a mysterious and perennially-interesting subject. O’Donohue’s writing – and what I was able to find out about him (shockingly, I discovered he had died in 2008) makes me want to track down some of his other books – which I hope do not frustrate me as much as this one did whenever I wasn’t completely captivated by the amazing subtlety and sensitivity of his writing style. Meanwhile, I will hang onto my copy of this book: it will take me a long time to copy out of it the dozens of paragraphs from it that I want to add to the “Beauty” section of my Commonplace Book, and to find some of the works O’Donohue lists in his bibliography.
As William James Said: Extracts from the Published Writings of William James (1942) edited by Elizabeth Perkins Aldrich
I was relieved to stumble upon the existence of this book after realizing that my ambition to read all of James’s major works – yea, to read any of them – is likely to be thwarted by my countless detours into other books that continue to grab my attention. Reading this compilation has only strengthened my impression (first planted back in college days, with a major boost in 2013 from reading Jacques Barzun’s 1983 masterpiece, A Stroll with William James) that James was a modern genius, and a first-rate writer to boot. Before I had to return this Interlibrary Loan-obtained tome, I was able to copy out several dozen gems for placement in my Commonplace Book.
A Gentleman from Moscow (2016) by Amor Towles
A Russian aristocrat is sentenced in 1922 by the Bolsheviks to house arrest for the rest of his life. As he lives in the posh Metropol Hotel on Red Square, his adventures and misadventures are a lot more interesting than the fate of other “enemies of the Revolution.” Vivid characters, witty dialog, fascinating period details, unexpected plot twists, plenty of philosophical musings woven exquisitely skillfully into the plot: what’s not to like? If every novel I tried reading for my book club was this good, I’d end up happily reading a lot more novels!
Asymmetry (2018) by Lisa Halliday
I read this award-winning debut novel for my book club. The book is devoted to two different sets of characters (and two different settings). Halliday is an excellent writer, but I couldn’t find myself caring too much about the fate of the main characters in the first story (involving a Manhattan-based novelist and his much younger mistress). The second set of characters (an Iraqi-American and his family and acquaintances) were also drawn very vividly, but what I appreciated the most about this part of the book was Halliday’s skillful insertion of the horrific damage caused to civilians by the U.S. government’s imperialistic venture in Iraq. The third part of the novel (an interview with the novelist featured in the first part of Asymmetry) seemed tacked on and unnecessary. I’d recommend this author, but not this book.
An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town (2009) by David Farley
I ran across this book at a recent library book sale, and am so glad I did. Part travel diary, part detective story, part history, it has two things bound to capture my interest: it’s a chronicle of an American living for a year in a tiny Italian hilltop town for a year, intermingled with a dogged quest for understanding (and locating) a notorious holy relic. Who knew that the fervent veneration of Jesus’s circumcised foreskin (yes, you read that correctly!) had such a long and interesting career? Farley’s sense of humor and his scrupulous scholarship, together make this a delightful romp of a book – and a thoroughly entertaining case study of the absurdity (and lucrativeness) of religious cults. And I was happy to see, in Farley’s notes, his reference to another Italy-themed travelog I enjoyed reading years ago, Anthony Doerr’s Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the history of the World (2007).
In the Morning: Reflections from First Light (2006) by Philip Lee Williams
Like me, this book’s author is a “morning person.” Unlike me, he writes about his early morning walks, and this book is a sampling of the thoughts that those pre-dawn walks have provoked over the years. Williams is both a poet and a science writer, and his ruminations show that fact. Williams lives about 90 miles from where I do, so that was an added plus in my enjoyment of these essays.
Somewhere Near the End: A Memoir (2009) by Diana Athill
By happy coincidence, the same week that one of my author heroines, Diana Athill, died (at age 101), I discovered that I’d at some point purchased – but never got around to starting – a copy of Somewhere Near the End, now over eight years old. I eagerly plucked it from my bookshelf and spent most of the next three days devouring it. The adjectives in the blurbs excerpted from the book’s reviews are, for once, are spot-on: “remorseless and tender,” “a wisdom more ambient than aphoristic,” “refreshingly candid,” “fiercely intelligent…and never dull,” “unflinching,” “deals with growing old with bravery, humor and honesty,” “prose as clear and graceful as ever,” “brilliant; entirely lacking in the usual regrets [and] nostalgia.” “as unalarmed by the prospect of death as by the seeming meaninglessness of the universe,” “her easy-going prose and startling honesty are riveting”, “bracingly frank…joyful rather than grim.’ Or, to use the description supplied by the organization that gave this book its annual award for biography: “candid, detailed, charming, totally lacking in self-pity or sentimentality and, above all, beautifully, beautifully written.” If I were ever to embark on any writing project myself, I would aim to write with the precision, the honesty, and the humility of Diana Athill.
Gay Men and Women Who Enriched the World (1988; updated 1997) by Tom Cowan
Brief and straightforward biographical sketches of over 40 lesbians and gay men who enriched the fields of art, literature, theater, music, science, social science, or philosophy. A bit like spending time reading a series of Wikipedia entries, I was often surprised at the author’s ability to clearly express why he’d chosen these particular worthies over the ones he omitted. In any case, I learned – in almost every bio – something new (to me) and important about celebrities I (mistakenly) thought I already knew a fair amount about.
Ultimate Questions (2016) by Brian Magee
I am not familiar with the Britain-based Magee’s earlier works, but am so glad he wrote this one and so glad I found it. (His earlier book, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer will be the next book by Magee that I will track down). One reviewer wrote about this book: “Magee writes clearly, without jargon, and he makes his case for profound agnosticism with considerable force.” Exactly so; in fact, this is probably the single most compelling book of modern philosophy I have ever read. It’s also one of the most eloquent and least pompous books of philosophy I have ever read. This is a book I will buy a copy of for the sheer pleasure of re-reading its arrestingly clear (and mostly irrefutable) sentences.
Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones (2018) by James Clear
This book’s bringing together of what scientists and psychologists know about habit formation (the making of new ones, the breaking of old ones) is not only useful, but entertainingly presented. Because of the author’s engaging style and his incorporation of findings from multiple post-behaviorism fields (like neurolinguistic programming), it took a while for me to realize that the book is largely a recapitulation of what I’d learned in college (50 years ago!) about operant conditioning. Still, there were things about how habits are formed and how they persist that I needed to be reminded of, especially some of the counter-intuitive features of habit formation, and I am using some of the author’s tips to create some better habits in 2019 – and to get rid of a few undesirable ones.