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11 Nov 2017

October reading review – I’m back with yet another reading review. I did not read nearly as much last month as I did in September, although as usual I did do quite a bit of academic reading that I am (mostly) not including here because it might be a little boring. So I’ll just stick with the stuff that was fun to read.

“If a story is well told, I don’t need to be surprised by it to enjoy it.”

When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops (George Carlin, 2004)

This is the first book I have read by the late comedian, although I have seen his stand-up routines. I started reading it on a trip to Minneapolis (for a conference) and finished it before we got back to Boston. Perhaps I was primed by the fact that I was traveling by air, but I noticed that he did seem to talk a lot about airplanes, airports, and air travel in general, including the possibility of plunging to a fiery (or watery) death. I found these sections grimly amusing rather than disturbing.

Reading the book was a funny experience, though, and here I am using the word to mean “strange” rather than “amusing.” I read the text in Carlin’s voice, and I could even picture him delivering the lines, but I didn’t laugh nearly as often or as loudly as I would have at an actual Carlin routine (I think I managed an enthusiastic chortle at several points). I suppose that had something to do with the fact that I was reading a book, which is generally a quieter experience. But I think there is also something communal about watching stand-up comedy that doesn’t really translate to the written word. If I had watched Carlin deliver some of those lines from a stage, surrounded by other people, I probably would have found them more amusing.

This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book, of course. I did, although the parts I appreciated most were less funny than they were insightful. He talked a lot about language in this book, choosing euphemisms and politically correct speech as his targets, and I found myself shaking my head in rueful agreement at many of the things he said. As a language geek myself, I could sympathize with his concern over some of the changes that have taken place in the English language.

Carlin was famously anti-religious, and the parts that catered to this aspect of his message probably appealed to me the least—but having read the title I knew what I was getting into. Even if I disagreed with him, though, I appreciated his attempts to think and see clearly, and not simply to criticize or insult blindly. This was something I always appreciated about Carlin: his pursuit of clear seeing and thinking. As odd as it may sound, he had the spirit of a prophet in his pursuit of truth regardless of what taboos he might break along the way.

Sadly, though, I never did learn when Jesus will bring the pork chops.

The Confidence Game (Maria Konnikova, 2016)

Technically, I read this book for research purposes, but it is not really an academic book and is aimed more at a general audience. It does reference a lot of academic studies on psychology in particular, but the book is very approachable and a good read. It examines in detail the psychology of the con, structuring the chapters to follow the stages of a typical con and show how, at each step along the way, we are vulnerable to the wiles of the con man.

What was most interesting to me was the idea that everyone is wired to be susceptible to cons—or, more accurately, that cons are designed to take advantage of basic human psychology. I’ve been doing a lot of research on cons and con men recently, so this was something that I already had a pretty good handle on, but early on in my study of cons I think I bought into the idea that you can’t con an honest man—that there is something inherently dishonest or corrupt in those who fall for cons. Looking back on my thinking now, this seems ridiculous, as there are plenty of perfectly honest people who fall for cons all the time. And what I most appreciated about this book was the effort the author made to show exactly how that happens. Put it this way: If you think you would never fall for a con, you’re probably wrong. And such over-confidence could actually make the con more devastating and/or difficult to recover from.

The very last chapter took what at first seemed to be an odd left turn into talking about cults, but this makes sense: cults are the ultimate con. And it brings everything discussed in the previous chapters together in a productive way—being aware of how cons work can make you more resilient to them.

The Best American Travel Writing 2014 (edited by Paul Theroux)

I picked up this book when I was back at my parents’ place over the summer, mainly because I’m doing some travel writing of my own, but it took me by surprise. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but I guess I had a very different conception of what “travel writing” was—that is, writing focused more on the place being traveled to. In this book, though, travel was more about new places as sites for new experiences and new ways of thinking—a means of getting outside the familiar and the routine to change the way you look at life.

It’s hard to talk about this book in detail without getting into the individual pieces, since they vary greatly, but to do that would require far too many words. I can say that the single most surprising chapter was a piece written by a woman who had been captured and held hostage in Somalia—I definitely did not expect to read about something like that. There were other pieces written by war correspondents, environmental activists, and journalists, and they were all quite fascinating. After reading this collection, my perception of what travel writing was changed drastically. I had been focusing on how to convey the place that I saw and experienced, but now I realize the value of showing the I that saw and experienced that place.

Journey to the Center of the Earth (Jules Verne, 2005 (1864))

This seemed like a natural follow-up to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea from last month, especially since I said then that I’ve always enjoyed this one more. I wanted to go back to it to see if that still held true, and, unsurprisingly, it did. I don’t know how many times I have read this book, but every time I do it feels like coming back to an old friend that I haven’t seen in a while. I think the fact that I continue to enjoy this book even though I know every detail of the plot says something about how much I need (or don’t need) suspense or plot twists. If a story is well told, I don’t need to be surprised by it to enjoy it. (I’ve even read that some people prefer spoilers, since they relieve the tension of not knowing how things are going to turn out and allow them to just enjoy the story. I’m not sure if I would go quite that far, but I understand and sympathize with the sentiment.)

The most interesting question for me, though, is why I enjoy this book so much more than 20,000 Leagues. I speculated about some possible reasons last time, but after giving it a lot of thought I came to the conclusion that it comes down to agency and purpose. The protagonist of 20,000 Leagues is taken on the voyage against his will; it is true that his scientific curiosity makes him a willing hostage for most of the book, but he is not the driving agent, he is just (literally) along for the ride. In Journey, the protagonist is similarly not the main driving force—that would be his uncle, the eccentric academic Lidenbrock—but his love for his uncle and his own sense of adventure make him much more part of the team. And the dynamic between Lidenbrock and his nephew is much more compelling to me than the dynamic between Captain Nemo and Arronax.

There is also the sense of purpose in the respective books. In 20,000 Leagues, Captain Nemo’s purpose is shrouded in mystery (partly due to Verne being encouraged by his editor to tone down the political message of the book). He is just wandering around the depths of the sea, and we have no idea what his ultimate destination is. In Journey, though, there is a definite destination—the center of the earth—and even though (spoiler!) the protagonists never reach that destination, Lidenbrock’s obsession with getting there and his nephew’s initial skepticism and fear make for a very interesting dynamic. The uncle-nephew dynamic would have been interesting enough, but then you have Hans, who succeeds in being a fascinating character despite never saying more than one word at a time, and rarely speaking at all. His calm acceptance of all things and deep inner strength are the perfect compliment to Lidenbrock’s reckless obsession and Axel’s vacillating will. Indeed, without Hans, the expedition would have been lost on numerous occasions.

Anyway, suffice it to say that I love this book, and will probably continue to go back to it often over the course of my life. It has a place on my “best-loved” shelf, along with books like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And that seems like a good note to end my October reading review on. (I’ve gotten into the habit of writing little more here than reading reviews, but I hope to be back soon with an entry on something else, so stay tuned.)

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