Sunday, February 26, 2012

Leda [poems] by Aldous Huxley

I found this cool first edition copy of Huxley’s Leda at an antique store. I have always been interested in Huxley’s writings, and was curious about his poems. This book contains the poem Leda, along with 25 others.

I was disappointed. Most of the poems, including Leda were rambling and verbose, overly florid depictions of nature, and gushingly romantic. His use obscure words felt too heavy and forced, and the poem was bogged down with his meta-messages. The worst part about poetry like this is being convinced that the meanings aren’t worth the work, and being satisfied with them remaining obscure. Leda, the titular poem of the collection, was the worst. Complete waste of time. So far I like his prose much more than his poetry. Anybody want to buy a first edition of Huxley’s Leda?

HOWEVER, there were a few poems that I was glad I read: The Birth Of God, From The Pillar, First Philosopher’s Song, The Merry-Go-Round, and Last Things. Of these, The Merry-Go-Round is my favorite, and is profoundly moving/disturbing. Too bad it will go mostly unread, as this tawdry collection of poems is sure to ward off most would-be readers.

I’ll save you the trouble…here is the complete text of The Merry-Go-Round:

THE machine is ready to start. The symbolic beasts grow resty, curvetting where they stand at their places in the great blue circle of the year. The Showman's voice rings out. 'Mont e z, mesdames et messieurs, montez. You, sir, must bestride the Ram. You will take the Scorpion. Yours, madame, is the Goat. As for you there, blackguard boy, you must be content with the Fishes. I have allotted you the Virgin, mademoiselle.' . . . 'Polisson !' ' Pardon, pardon. Evidemment, c'est le Sagittaire qu'on demande. Ohé, les dards! The rest must take what comes. The Twins shall counterpoise one another in the Scales. So, so. Now away we go, away.'

Ha, what keen air. Wind of the upper spaces. Snuff it deep, drink in the intoxication of our speed. Hark how the music swells and rings . . . sphery music, music of every vagabond planet, every rooted star; sound of winds and seas and all the simmering millions of life. Moving, singing…so with a roar and a rush round we go and round, for ever whirling on a ceaseless Bank Holiday of drunken life and speed.

But I happened to look inwards among the machinery of our roundabout, and there I saw a slobbering cretin grinding at a wheel and sweating as he ground and grinding eternally. And when I perceived that he was the author of all our speed and that the music was of his making, that everything depended on his grinding wheel, I thought I would like to get off. But we were going too fast.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

In Defense of Childhood: Protecting Kids' Inner Wildness by Chris Mercogliano

In this short book, Mercogliono launches an attack on the modern forces of conformity and societal control over children by labeling these threats “the systematic domestication of childhood itself.” What would warrant such an accusation against the quality of our care of life’s most precious resource? Criticizing parenting and children’s education can be a slippery endeavor, for what life-form doesn’t want to take care of its progeny? None as it turns out, but Mercogliano offers a helpful equation at the end of the book (why the end? me) that helps to account for the total misplacement of values: Fear leads to control, and control leads to domestication. When we allow fear to consume us, our reflex is to completely systematize our lives and super-refine our processes. We sanitize everything. We pad every corner. We child-proof every door leading to other worlds. In short, even great parents and educators fall into the trap of insulating our children from dangerous, magical, beautiful life. This over-protection is cloaked domestication, and we raise children like livestock, growing their minds in petri-dishes. As a result, childhood—real, pure, virgin childhood with all of its risks, margins of free time, and un-manipulated play—is becoming endangered in our society.

Mercogliano (hitherto lovingly referred to as Merc) starts out with citing many of the fears that motivate parents to over-protect their kids’ lives. He believes it all starts at childbirth, where a mother is practically hooked up to machines to birth the baby for her, and parent-child bonding is inhibited. He speaks on this at length, and, frankly, belabors the subject. I’m not sure I buy into all the hysteria about the artificiality and depersonalization of hospitals and modern medicine, but I do see the far-reaching risks of indiscriminately giving our bodies over to be completely regulated by machines. We also risk trusting life less, risk trusting our bodily defenses and self-healing less, and risk losing trust in the level of our pain-tolerance and in our sense of the meaning of pain. But I also see that we are subtly making a sacrifice of relationship—mutual reliance between human beings—for safety. We are entrusting, maybe selling, our souls to machines.

From childbirth he moves to the fears we all face as we try to raise a child in a hazardous world. Here we develop more rules and less freedom for kids to hurt themselves or screw something up. He cites the scare over Halloween candy that had cautious parents thinking that every piece of candy was laced with poison or concealed a razor blade. I was surprised to learn that this scare was blown WAY out of proportion in the 70’s, and two sociologists studying all reported cases of Halloween candy deaths dating back to 1958 found not a single incident of a death from trick-or-treating at strangers’ homes. But the fear of something bad happening greatly changed the way we thought of Halloween for decades.

This paranoia over our children’s safety encroaches upon our dreams for their success. Schools have become ‘factory learning’ centers that are over-scheduled, send home too much homework, and focus on an extrinsic reward system of adult approval (grades) rather than intrinsic motivation that takes into account each student’s unique interests and strengths. The author cracks schools and modern academia against the skull with words that ring like an aluminum baseball bat: “Classrooms are becoming places where kids spend their days like cloned sheep, grazing passively in a pasture of uniform right answers.” He believes our school system neither understands, nor do they care, for children. Children are herded through curriculum and grade levels and diplomas and degrees, and one find day find themselves at the end with a high approval ratings from adults, but no real life experience to share in the adult world. It is ‘arrested adulthood’, and people in their 30’s are finding themselves trapped in it because of the “maddening double message” that has been fed to them all their lives: “grow up fast, but you don’t have to grow up at all”.

So, what are Merc’s solutions?

1) Have your baby at home.

Again, I have the hardest time with the dogmatism of this one. I’m just not convinced that babies and mothers are as estranged, and their relationship as mechanized, as the author suggests. Doesn’t getting a midwife imply that one needs expert attention and assistance? Then why not a doctor with expert nurses all around? I understand the whole idea of avoiding ultra-insulation in medical practices, but I’m not sure I’m with him all the way here. Oh…and his wife is a midwife. Author’s bias anyone?

2) Read

Not just to your kids. Read for yourself. One day your kids will catch on to the areas in which their parents are unable to demonstrate a conviction, despite how much they pretend to want their kids to buy into it.

But yes, as we all know, we must also read to our kids. The author suggests we read a lot of fairy tales/myths in particular. Why? “Embedded in fairy tales…are rich, archetypal symbols and themes that enable children to integrate rather than suppress the turbulent dimensions of their personalities.” In other words, fairy tales and ancient myths are raw and gritty with earthy emotions and expressions of genuine desires that are often repressed by the social contract—Law. It would be wise to remember that Freud warned that the ego, Merc’s ‘inner wildness’, can only endure a certain amount of unsatisfied libido before it channels its energies into a neurosis. Rugged myth is indeed absent from our Sesame Streets and Little Einsteins on which ‘adventures’ are tame exploits into the alphabet or subtle lessons on safety and basic math. You can tell we don’t trust children…maybe we’re afraid they might possibly grow into US!!

3) Work to help children develop intrinsic motivation instead of mere extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation goes beyond ‘the carrot and the stick’, and keeps in mind that “the archenemy of intrinsic motivation is control.” To illustrate his point, Merc offers the contrast of encouraging a child and positively praising them by saying “You must have worked very hard to accomplish that”, versus dangling the flattery, “You must be really smart.” One turns the child’s focus towards their own sense of fulfillment from the task, while the latter turns the focus on how they stacked up against others who compete for their place of acceptance. The first is the child doing something for themselves, and the second for the approval of those around them. A healthy individual must at some point must steer away from dependence on the approval of others, to a more independent sort of fulfillment and morality if they are ever to progress towards an interdependent, collective good.

This intrinsic motivation is further developed by the theory of ‘autopoiesis’. Autopoiesis is the ability of living systems to continually maintain themselves and generate their own organization (theory posited by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela). Human beings are autopoietic (“self making”) in their learning process, and depend on internal structures and organization to adjust to the outside world as a result of contact with external information being processed by internal a priori categories. Thus education is about waking internal truth, bringing to maturity an autonomous being, and not merely the unilateral result of external programming. Immanual Kant said that with ‘the question’ of philosophical inquiry, “no object is obtained, but our being is transformed”. Our educational pursuits become as meaningless as their sought objects if the quest for understanding and expansion is “denatured into scientific objectivity”. And yet, this ‘data-gorging’ is mostly what we offer our kids by way of teaching. The abortive and increasingly un-compelling goal is a social label, a grade, being on the honor roll, having a high gpa, or getting into a prestigious university.

The author takes one final swing at shattering our dreams of a future in which formal academics save humanity: “95% of all learning occurs spontaneously, through play, fantasy, and experimentation—what I call ‘wild learning.’ Only the remaining 5 percent of our knowledge—in our lifetimes—is acquired through formal instruction, and of that 5 percent, we remember only 3-5 percent for any significant length of time.” Psychologist Jean Piaget affirmed this loudly when he wrote, “Teaching at its best requires creating situations where structures can be discovered; it does not mean transmitting structures…Children have real understanding only of that which they invent themselves.”

4) Give children margins for development.

This means kids need time to think. “Solitude and reflection are lost in the constant shuffle from place to place and from structured activity to structured activity.” Kid’s also need time for unstructured, unrestricted, creative play. They need to feel free to be themselves. Don’t smother them, and that also applies to not seeking their approval for everything you do as a parent. Dependency is parasitism, and that also applies to the co-dependency of needy parents. Too many parents are reining their children as alter-egos, turning them into their ‘status symbols’.

The author borrows from Paul MacLean’s model of the ‘triune brain’ to demonstrate how aggressively pushing kids to succeed can be every bit as harmful as over-protection. Our brains have evolved and have become more sophisticated over time, and their current structure reflects the order of that growth. The oldest and most fundamental of our brain structure is called the reptilian brain (“R-complex”) and is responsible for basic sensory information and the central nervous system. Next is the mammalian brain (“limbic system”) which surrounds the reptilian brain and is responsible for emotions and intuition. The final layer is the newest brain (“neo-cortex”) and it is the center of logic, memory, cognition and self-awareness. When a person feels insecure, a ‘downshifting’ occurs which defaults brain functioning to the primal R-complex, and abstract and nuanced intellection is sacrificed in a regress to basic survival instincts. “The learning kids are now expected to accomplish occurs mainly in the neocortex, and yet the neocortex is the first part of the brain to shut down when a child feels threatened [by lack of approval if they fail].”

5) Get out in nature.

This involves getting kids away from the passive experience of the television, away from the sugary comforts of couch potato-ism, and remembering that learning is not simply about ‘going to school’. Kids nowadays suffer from what Richard Louv called “Nature Deficit Disorder.” Playing beneath the unbounded ceiling of the sunny sky alone can teach us more than can be gleaned in the dark, low-ceilinged classrooms. The poet Walt Whitment stated it well when he swore, “I will never again mention love or death inside a house, And I swear I will never translate myself at all, only to him or her who privately stays with me in the open air…No shutter’d room or school can commune with me, but roughs and little children better than they.” Nature has a way of steeping us in truth, and waking the truth inside us; because nature is life, and life is eternal. It would behoove us to remember that a live tree gave its dead leaves for us to write our dead logic upon.

The conclusion: we have to trust our children’s inner wildness to some extent. Now, I would never believe that we can trust raw, earthy nature as much as the author says we can. To be sure, the author is clearly biased in favor of the basic goodness of people, and declares that “children are inherently civil” and “at their core are loving, responsible, and sociable beings.” He even claims that the kids in the Lord Of the Flies scenario would not be acting that way if they were from HIS school. What?? He can’t be serious. Anyone need only sit in the play area of Chic-fil-a for two minutes, their kids out of sight in the play tunnels, before some rougher kid charges rough-shod over the others while hitting and yelling epithets. In my experience, whenever kids are in control all hell breaks loose and someone gets hurt. Each wild bi-ped, even but a few years out of the womb, feverishly yearns to wreak havoc on the world. Let’s remember that ‘wild’ is not always a cute connotation, and Nature is…well…wild. For God’s sake, there’s a species of shark that eats their siblings in the womb!! In…the…friggin’…womb!!

To Merc’s credit, he does acknowledge that a parent must be ‘in control’ but not ‘controlling’, and that is some consolation I suppose, but in my opinion he trusts to the goodness of inner wildness far too idealistically. However—here’s another whiplash reversal—I love him for his idealism, and I think he demonstrates well the benefit of trusting a bit more to this inner wildness than we often do, especially in our regimented society and academics. I believe humanity’s most salutary position is somewhere in the middle on the gamut between beast and machine, instinct and intellect, wildness and culture. So yes, I think it’s high time someone sounds the alarm that our children are being systematically programmed and manufactured for intelligence and behavior that devalue their individuality and spiritual freedom. Merc is doing the right thing in asserting that kids are much more capable than we give them credit for. It’s time for us to stop raising them like livestock to to feed our egos and fend off our fear of being forgotton.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Before Adam by Jack London

This was an interesting glimpse into what life was like for primordial man. The story begins with a modern man who is having dreams and nightmares which are of a type so distressing and profound, that they are disabling to his waking life. In these dreams he is embodied in an early evolutive stage of humanity predating homo sapiens—basically a low-intelligence caveman—and through these dreams he relives an entire lifetime of intermittent images and experiences that he later puzzles together into a coherent narrative. These dreams turn out to be genetic or “racial” memories—snippets of real life that his progenitors experienced over 1 million years ago in the Mid-Pleistocene when hominids began to evolve into their current form but still coexisted with other contemporaneous hominid species.

London actually does a good job of establishing the possibility of genetic memories of bygone eras being transmitted to and through each of us as our biological heritage. It is in line with Jung’s theory of the Collective Unconscious, and is primarily how we define or describe what we know as instinct. London explains through the protagonist that one of the most familiar vestiges of this evolutive memory is the fear of heights, which is posited to be a leftover from our tree-dwelling ancestors. Why else would a newborn baby be sent into convulsions when it suddenly detects instability beneath it? London wiggles his finger into this hole and works it wide enough to accommodate the possibility of a person having concrete memories and dreams that conduct ungarbled sensory data from a past life to the present one. This, other than a strong imagination, could explain some people’s claim to reincarnation or what is referred to as ‘remote viewing’.

The main character describes his primitive experiences without allowing his modern viewpoint to internally vitiate, only retrospectively comment upon, the ancient perspective. His story follows the journeys of his ancestor Big Tooth, a hominid, from shortly after birth, wending through his entrances and exits of tree- and cave-dwelling communities, and finally culminating in his mating with Swift One. It was entertaining to witness the perpetually accidental discoveries which would advance a community or set them back, mostly without them ever realizing how much a small adjustment could have changed everything for better…or worse! It was accidental living at its best. Big Tooth and his friend Lop Ear accidentally discovered boating by falling into a river and catching onto a floating log. They accidentally discovered tools and language and music and even water storage…without remembering it from one minute to the next.

As you might imagine, the hominid community was no paradise. They were brutal towards each other, even towards their kin and friends. They had very short attention spans, laughed a lot, played a lot, tormented anything that moved, and were driven by desire for food and sex. And everything they did was colored by fear. In the collection of stories called “Love Of Life” London wrote, “Fear…lies twisted about life’s deepest roots.” This must have been one of London’s interests in writing this story, for it was the atavistic fear of falling from a height that London premised the tale upon.

I believe London uses this backdrop of prehistoric times to explore the nature of fear, survival, desire (‘hunger’), language (‘thought symbols’), self-awareness (self as ‘universe centers’), community, art, music, and science. Even the provenance of religion was alluded to in a passage about darkness: “We were afraid only of the dark…We knew only the real world, and the things we feared were the real things…the darkness was the time of the hunting animals…Possibly it was out of this fear of the real denizens of the dark that the fear of the unreal denizens was later to develop and to culminate in a whole and mighty unseen world.”

London has limned for us a picture of rudimentary humanity in a state of unreflective, sensual existence. Fortunately or unfortunately, a lot of it feels contemporary. This is still the story of civilization—of all history—only stripped of the logic which we like to imagine can explain most of our actions. It is emotional humanity, which often seems to sum us up quite succinctly. The question London leaves unanswered is: have we as civilized men and women come as far as we like to think?


Sunday, February 12, 2012

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

Brian Selznick is a great author and illustrator. His previous book, The Invention Of Hugo Cabret, was amazing, and although this book seemed clearly inferior, it was a nice read nonetheless. His research is thorough, he puts a lot of thought and intentionality into his characters and the overall message, and he is a great illustrator.

Of course, I would be blind not to notice that the illustrations are a bit inconsistent, with the portraits of the main characters morphing a bit depending on whether or not they are large or small on the page. I’m also not sure that all the illustrations are exactly germane to the story (several pages are simply white circles in the midst of dark shading). Dare I suggest that this book, in form and content, was an ‘easy sequel’ based upon the platform of dedicated fans that resulted from his first book? Sadly, it came across that way several times throughout the book.

I took me only a couple of hours to finish the book, and I am not a superfast reader. As I mentioned, the pictures didn’t seem to be integral to the story, especially at first, and this in spite of the fact that one pivotal character ONLY developed with the pictures in the first half. I like when graphic art supplements the story, but Selznick seemed to quite arbitrarily elect to tell one part of the first half in words, and the other part of the first half in picture. Why? No reason that I can tell. Seemed like this artistic device was more a gimmick than an aid to the story. The second half was altogether different, and Selznick balanced word/picture much more discriminately.

Aside from the style, as far as the elements of the story, the first half of the book was not that great honestly. It felt too mundane and very much like youth fiction. I don’t mind youth fiction per se, but Selznick rose above the genre and appealed to youth and adult alike in Hugo. Wonder Struck began with a broken family and a clear case of a youth attempting to cope with his situation: no father, dead mother, living with his aunt, uncle, and cousins, and he is trying to make sense of the mystery his mother left behind by trying to conceal secrets about his true identity. It was dry mystery without the magic.

The second half was much more appealing as it created a better backdrop and started to tie together much of the dangling ends. I loved the museum adventures which lent to the nostalgic feel of historicity and mystery; and the surprise about the New York Panorama, though it seemed to come out of nowhere, was very educational. I loved how they walked out among the miniature buildings/landmarks and found pieces of Ben’s story hidden throughout. Another great metaphor of how our stories are woven throughout our landscapes, and we are at the heart of the sometimes seemingly impersonal, faceless development of society.

At the very outset, the author takes a stab at setting the tone of expectation for thoughtful readers with, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Such a beautiful line, and I’m sure it will stick with me for quite some time, but I don’t really feel like that theme played out fully throughout the book, even though the final scene was certainly a throwback to that idea. Selznick seemed to flick his storytelling brush across a variety of possible motifs, including how our lives are like valuable museums and treasure maps, the value of communication across the gulf of lost language, and even the title itself, “Wonder Struck” pointed to the miraculous nature of our existence. However, the theme that evolved most consistently was that the interconnectedness of all things in the world and our parallel journeys within it. It reminded me of the theme of Hugo: None of us are extra pieces. We all belong and are indispensible. We fit. Makes me wonder if, in one way or another, Selznick is a man of faith. He definitely sets forth bold and vibrant images for people of hope to hold onto.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

I’ve always loved this story. I first read parts of it in High School. I remember learning that there was something philosophically significant about it, but I liked the grotesque imagery enough to bypass any search for deeper meaning. Now that I’m reading more of the existentialists, this story found its way on my reading list, and I’m glad it did. It is short, but extremely pregnant with meaning.

I was surprised to learn about how autobiographical the plot was. Franz Kafka was a Czech/German/Jew who suffered the alienation from all three groups because of his mixed heritage, especially in the pre-WWII world in which being a Jew had well-known challenges. Not only that, his family also experienced constant friction as his father was a wealth-obsessed tyrant in the home, and his mom, coming from a wealthy upbringing, was constantly dissatisfied with her husband’s failures to rise to the top of their socio-economic class. Kafka’s sister, however, provided Kafka with some comfort, and symbolized for him a place of stability and acceptance. These relationships and his feelings of loneliness, social frustration, and guilt are very clear in The Metamorphosis.

This story is a grueling depiction of the exile of humans by humans. This alienation, crippling to the will, is described by Kafka as being perpetrated, not simply by our enemies, but ultimately by our own community, and often by our own friends and family. In The Metamorphosis, Gregor is segregated from his family by his family, and the worst part to watch is the rationalization and desensitization that the family uses to slowly soothe themselves and finally forget about Gregor. The haunting conclusion is this: we quickly move on from loving one individual, to loving another. In the end, each of us are replaceable in each other’s psychology, and we all would be mortified to know how quickly we may be compensated for by those left behind.

I loved how ordinary the beginning of such an extraordinary tale was rendered. The protagonist was certainly shocked, but he immediately implemented coping mechanisms. He was somehow able to switch mindsets with lightening speed from a human being to a bug, quickly accepting his mutation and assuming that he was in a healthy state of mind. He repeatedly hoped to wake up, but didn’t ever really question his sanity, too quickly adapting to the new world. I suppose that could come in handy for survival scenarios, but if we all abandoned the old world so readily for unconfirmed, undeveloped space, then what would be our chances of ever thriving? Without some trust, and even a degree of commitment to something firm under our feet, we could never build into the clouds. Kafka apparently never was able to reconcile his fear of derelict and floating sense of reality with his longing for progress, not anchored to anything in the so-called absolute or logic. He became a victim to his paranoia of being lonely and drifting in the void of chaotic and dangling sense perceptions.

The entire story was disgusting, and was intended to be so. Kafka cunningly turns us against a person ensconced in a ‘sick’ body, and shows us so clearly how lightly bound we are to one another, barring an aversion of the senses by an uncomely situation. One of the parts of the story that revolted me most was the apple that was thrown by the father to become lodged and rotting in the skin of Gregor’s vermin body. Many critics agree that this is a symbol from Eden, but for me, an apple is a everyday symbol of health, innocence, and purity; and to see it become a projectile of hate and repulsion from one person to another, becoming an agent of inflammation and disease, was sickening. I have to applaud Kafka here for excellence in morbid imagery and piercing symbolism.

I could not believe the family could so easily exchange their sorrow over Gregor’s death for their joy at the prospects of their young, hale daughter. The ending of the story with the sun, and lightheartedness, and celebration was completely forgetful of Gregor’s death, and was evidently even deepened by the loss! Are we so fickle, and is our sorrow over losing a loved one so short-lived? How many of us would hesitate to squash a bug if we knew it was a loved one that could not be restored to our likeness? Are we so driven to a material valuation of each other? Does hunger and egoism really define the firm boundaries of our experience? Is our spirit/consciousness so paper-thin and diluted to nothing by the concerns of the body? Much of my experience seems to corroborate this; but the very fact that I recognize it and long to move beyond mere me—this is hope. And then, there are those stories that give us a glimpse of some kind of higher spiritual life and love.

This story is so meaty and would be awesome fodder for deep discussion about the nature of perspective in logic and relationships, and it could deepen our understanding of the easily confused motives of love and philanthropy. It’s a shame most people stop reading good books after high school or college. This is a great shortcut back to appreciating books that could lead to deeper intellectual activity, and possibly a transformed life. In a good way.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Courage To Be by Paul Tillich

I first started reading this book because I want answers to the existential angst that plagues me and others that are aware of the implications of post-modern ideas. I don’t mean to say that I wanted an alternative to post-modernism; I don’t believe that is any more realistic than saying that I want an alternative to turning 32, for that’s just wishful thinking. I’m not a post-modernist, for I am not merely a product of my culture, but I am influenced by my culture. If I’m being honest with myself, there is simply no escaping thinking in part like a post-modernist, for I am steeped in a post-modern era of thought and practice. It doesn’t help to revert to modernist ‘fact-finding’ when immersed in a society that is exploring the cognitive foundation of what we call objective reality—but people attempt this regressive tactic nonetheless because it’s a familiar place. But the past is dead and done; it is worn into a deep rut, and a new path must be found. We must confess, though disheartened, that facts don’t find nearly as much as they don’t find. Enter post-modernism.

Tillich starts by differentiating between fear and anxiety. Fear is a manifestation of universal, existential anxiety; and as a leaf and not a root, fear can be more directly dealt with than anxiety. The individual fears are embodiments that can be avoided, resisted, opposed and even eliminated—while the root of fear—anxiety—is really the ever-present awareness of non-being that constantly hovers. This anxiety cannot be removed, and is a necessary part of self-preservation (“self-affirmation”) which adds to one’s valuation of life. This principle of ineradicable anxiety is one of most difficult parts of this book to make peace with (didn’t I start reading to do exactly that…decrease anxiety?). But Tillich reveals that just as torture can be accepted at the hand of a trusted physician, so existential anxiety can be courageously endured because of a deeper realization that affirms one’s sense of purpose and identity. This truth is revealed in the last quarter of the book.

There are three basic forms of anxiety: anxiety about death (“non-being”—which ultimately subsumes the other two), anxiety about meaninglessness (an empty life), and condemnation (guilt about a wrong life). One can deal practically with fears, but anxiety (no matter which sort) must ultimately be accepted into one’s ultimate sense of self-worth and one’s right to BE (again, “self-affirmation). This is what the author refers to as ‘taking it [fears, doubts, anxiety] into oneself’. In spite of anxiety, one can still do what must be done, and can remain confident that God is still holding them. This is the confidence of Being—COURAGE—that gives one the strength to stare down non-being in its many forms.

This courage, however, does not always come easy, nor or is always immediately apparent when it does arrive. Courage can be partly obstructed by one’s lack of realization that confidence in one’s own being can take place only as an ancillary to the deeper confidence in what Tillich calls “being-itself”, viz. God. Pre-mature courage often evidences itself as ‘courage to be as a part’ [collectivism], or ‘courage to be as oneself’ [individualistic existentialism]; the former missing out on a belief in self, the later missing out on a belief in the world.

I can certainly say that I comprehend our existential predicament a bit more clearly after reading this book. Never have I read a work that so faithfully scrutinized our ontology as if it were under a microscope, but did not abandon the soul under the microscope to wriggle and die. In the words of the psychologist Carl Jung, our author has stood and stared into face of the monster of the maternal abyss, and has not been mesmerized by its power, but has overcome. This understanding of the source of our anxiety and fear can help bring a renewed determination to renew the fight, and to be hopeful and courageous even when all hope seems lost. It brings new meaning to the idea that while one is alive, there is still confidence to believe that one is ‘meant’ to be alive. In the words of Robert Browning, “This world’s no blot for us nor blank; it means intensely, and means good. And to find its meaning is my meat and drink.”

Why We Read What We Read by Adams/Heath

Overall, this was a very nice treatment of the latest trends in America’s choice of reading as evidenced by book sales. The authors were funny and insightful, and worked hard to interpret the patterns of book sales into a portrait of the modern zeitgeist. It started out great, but became predictable and belabored in parts. Too much time was spent critiquing some books, the choice of which selection to apply a lengthy critique often seemed arbitrary (based on the authors interest and not exclusively on sales), and some books that I was really interested in learning more about were barely mentioned. I realize they had to lean on their discretion to keep the book brief enough to be readable, but it just felt imbalanced in parts. Much of it was synopses of books everyone has already read or heard about, or, in my case, books I’d never want to read. For instance, I’m not all that interested in reading John Gray’s Men Are From Mars…, much less Adams and Heath’s 20 page synopses/critique of it. Whoa. I’d pay not to read either.

They finally brought it back to the real objective of the work near the end, but it took some disciplined skimming to get me there. The findings were fairly obvious: we read to pass time, we read to ‘effortlessly confirm our own convictions’ (Jung), we read for easy secrets, and we read to vicariously experience adventure without the associated risks. I suppose I was attracted to the title because I was hoping for more insight into these principles, and not merely a run-down of sales receipts.

I did find the chapter “Soul Train” to be an interesting case-study of the direction that works on the subject of faith/spirituality are taking and how the world perceives their success or failure. On the whole, even with Rick Warren’s Purpose and Bruce Wilkinson’s Prayer, much of the evangelical output is the old ideas repackaged with the ubiquitous ‘go to church’ ingredient. Adams and Heath write that however sincere these Christian authors may very well be, it will always be a challenge to hear the whispers of truth from out the mounds of gold these writers are amassing. No one can argue that Adams and Heath have done their homework here. I mean, why, just why, would any critic, in his or her right mind read all of the Left Behind series (12 books!!) just to moan about it multiple times and offer the same conclusion as with many other works by the fundamentalist Christian movement? The authors’ verdict: people who can think the sovereign God plans these horrors and still loves us are “succumbing to a kind of spiritual Stockholm Syndrome” by never questioning their torturer. All of the survivors of God’s wrath seem to agree, “Man, I’m glad I’m going to Heaven, but why does God have to be such a nasty prick sometimes?” Brilliant…but it took Adams/Heath 12 books to figure that out?

There are some nifty lists in the back that provide an overview of bestselling books from 1993-2006, but that might be a reason why some may not read the book: it’s outdated by about 5 years. I knew it was fairly outdated when I bought it from a used book sale, but I was hoping to learn something from it nonetheless. Which I did.

So what were Adams/Heath’s final words of advice? Read things that may not be comfortable or familiar, and…read more tragedy. Tragedy doesn’t offer easy, platitudinal solutions that we’ve tried over and over again with the same results. Trends in reading suggest that readers want “simple, univocal reinforcements of hunches, rather than complex, challenging efforts to search for real answers.” Tragedy offers dilemmas in which we are psychologically ‘sucked in’ to searching for a subtly elusive answer, and this struggle stays with us long after reading a book without a satisfactory ending. Their finding is that “the most disturbing stories—whether books or films—stay with us the longest and push us to consider and reconsider the most.” The Road, Martin Eden, and Lord Of the Flies come to mind as great examples.

And a very helpful word of warning from Adams/Heath: be careful not to substitute reading for living, as so many do. Reading engages the brain AND the emotions, and can simulate the effects of adventures lived, but from the comfort and safety of the couch. The semblance of personal growth and change one feels as an after-effect to reading is almost powerful enough to offer the illusion you have lived through experiences that you have only heard about, and the counterfeit risks and sensations of suspense, exhilaration, romance or bravura may actually ward off those risks and opportunities for growth and expansion that reality has to offer. If we read more than we act, we face the very real hazard of “finding solace not in change itself, but in the comforting if short-lived experience of reading about it.”

Reader beware.