The Ilonka Reader

Notes on the Books I Have Read

Category: nonfiction

The Wave in the Mind

By Ursula Le Guin.

I came across this book first in Brain Pickings, in which Maria Popova quoted a section about how Le Guin considers herself a man, albeit a poor one, because when she was writing women hadn’t been in invented yet. I became obsessed with this idea and have been working on a short collection of poetry for a chapbook based on this idea — we are men because women have not yet been invented.

Eventually I decided I should read the actual book this quote came from, so I picked it up from the library.

It’s a collection of essays, decently random, many of which Le Guin was asked to put together for anthology or cause or event or came from a speech she had given. I would say the first half was very engaging, mostly to discuss her voice and personal thoughts and history. Her parents were historians or anthropologists and she had a rich upbringing with many guests coming to the house.

But eventually it became boring and I found the last collection of essays, on writing, somewhat trite.

She had some strange, interesting ones. One about how many women win literary prizes — not enough — and one trying to scan (as in poetry-meter scan) various types of prose to see if some prose is more poetic than others, compiling lists of numbers to compare from very small sample sets. Like she was on her way to do some research using computer science-style tools but didn’t have the computer aspect.

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Hallucinations

By Oliver Sacks.

Another Harvard Bookstore Warehouse Sale grab, this is typical Oliver Sacks description of strange and varied problems of the mind and body. Hallucinations can be, of course, visual, but also aural or of feeling someone brush by you or having the sense that everyone is very familiar (or that no one is.)

Hallucinations are under-reported because people are afraid they will be viewed as crazy. It’s true that reporting aural hallucinations can easily get you diagnosed as schizophrenic, though many people have hallucinations (aural or otherwise) that do indicate some kind of psychosis. People who go blind often have visual hallucinations. People often have hallucinations that they recognize are hallucinations. People have simple, patterned visual hallucinations or very intense scenery ones. People hallucinate musical notes, or text. Some people find their hallucinations calming or joyful; others find them disturbing.

 

Priestdaddy

By Patricia Lockwood

I got this book because I love her poetry, so when Patricia came to talk at Papercuts JP in Jamaica Plains about her memoir I went and after the talk I was convinced I should also buy the book. Here’s what I wrote for Boston Hassle about the event:

Patricia Lockwood is a poet pre-occupied with the strange, often the sexually strange. In the small room next door to the bookstore hosting the reading, she wears a trim pixie haircut, a black dress, and large, black earrings that look suspiciously like the tasseled ends of a curtain draw. In other words: too classy to be a poet who wrote a poem about the world gang-banging a deer, which she manages to reference within ten minutes of the event beginning.

Of course she’s not here to read poetry but to talk about her memoir, Priestdaddy. The book recounts her experience living with her parents as an adult, the title referencing the fact that her father is a priest, entering into priesthood with a wife and children through a loophole. She reads a passage in which she converses with a seminarian visiting the house, warning us that her use of a Chicago accent when quoting him has gotten worse and worse as her book tour has gone on. In the passage, we learn that she informs him what it means to be a ‘furry’ and he is glad to come across this knowledge: in the case anyone ever confesses him about such a thing he needs to know to what they are referring. (If you do not know, I suggest looking it up, though: NSFW.)

After she reads the passage, Nina McLaughlin, a local Cambridge author who is also a carpenter and happened to work on my brother’s house, interviews her about the book. They talk about who the book is really about, hint, it’s Patricia’s mother, and how people often comment on the satire of the dialogue of Patricia’s parents in the book–that is all real, she affirms, that is the most real part of the whole book. The room is small and intimate, we are all on folding chairs or standing in the corners and the front row is close enough that they could easily lean forward touch Patricia or Nina, and when Nina asks for questions from audience there is that awkward silence of no one knowing what to say. Patricia calmly open a packet of peanut M&Ms she had stashed behind her water. Someone asks if she wants a Red-bull.

The whole event is strangely conversational, Patricia extraordinarily comfortable talking to us like we are already friends, realizing that she knows people in the audience from Twitter, (she is also well-known for being a Twitter aficionado which you can take as you will,) complimenting an audience member on his podcast about Ethan Hawke (which he started as a project after Trump got elected — as I said, we all became friends.) At the end most of us line up to get our books signed, which includes Patricia drawing an animal of our choice on the front page, an endeavor that turns out to take so much time I almost regret the hilarity of it all. I get a hedgehog with a tail (nope, hedgehog’s don’t have tails,) and no nipples. “I think he’s too young for nipples,” Patricia tells me as I leave, which almost makes sense.

But the book, the book. It shines bright with fantastic imagery, almost every sentence a medallion reflecting light off it, creating something new. Her voice startles me, it is intense and weird and I love it and I loved learning a bit about where it came from, a peek into the life that made her who she is.

Of course it is strange and sad and her commentary on religion and her family is ever so kind, though also cutting. I almost don’t want to write about but live in it a little longer.

I have a similar feeling towards Patricia Lockwood as I do (or did, before I tried to read Brief Interviews with Hideous Men) towards David Foster Wallace: I desperately want to write like her but know that I cannot because I am not her. I must write like myself. I think I just see a piece of myself in her writing expanded out to great volume.

Stop Guessing: The 9 Behaviors of Great Problem Solvers

By Nat Greene.

I read this book because my friend wrote it and because I was intrigued by the ‘stop guessing’ admonishment. I do a lot of problem solving, though lately I would call it debugging because it’s electrical or software engineering work, and the idea that I may be inadvertently guessing at difficult problems seemed possible.

Of course there are nine behaviors: stop guessing, smell the problem, embrace your ignorance, know what problem you’re solving, dig into fundamentals, don’t rely on experts, believe in a simple solution, make fact-based decisions, and stay on target. I agree with them all, though the examples come heavily from Greene’s experience as a consultant for manufacturing lines. Smelling a firmware problems requires a base level of skill above watching a machine package something, as does digging into the fundamentals. However, I too have been lead astray by not focusing on the problem at hand (kind of ‘know what problem you’re solving’ and ‘stay on target’ rolled into one) and relying too heavily on experts.

Although there were some examples of lifestyle problem solving, like lowering your cholesterol or losing weight, it was hard to see how that could truly be successful. For instance, the lowering cholesterol piece relied on the scientific community discovering that cholesterol levels in the body are not tied to the amount of cholesterol you consume. How could I have figured that out?

I’ve had a nagging hamstring injury for a long time now but it’s very intermittent. I kept trying to think how I could apply these behaviors to help me solve this problem but no clear steps came up. I smell the problem by listening closely to my body. I’ve definitely embraced my ignorance, but I don’t have a team of experts on hand to embrace it with. I’ve done everything, but it’s a complex problem with very long feedback loops. Tendons can take months to heal properly and sometimes scar tissue forms. It’s hard to know if it has healed properly, hard to know if something I have done has made it better in the long- or short-term.

I found the book to be useful reminders for engineering but pretty hopeless for my injury.

Metaphors We Live By

By George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

I read this book at the suggestion of two different computer science professors as I went through my grad school visits. It’s from 1980 and is a linguistics/philosophy book. It claims that metaphors are not just the poetic devices we hear in Shakespeare’s sonnets, but rather our primary tool for understanding and sometimes even defining abstract concepts.

The primary example used throughout the book is the metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR. Think of how we talk about arguments: ‘He defended his point.’ ‘I attacked his position.’ ‘She held her ground.’ It is hard to think of how we talk about argument that doesn’t use the language of war. But it is not true that this is the only metaphor a language or culture could use. Perhaps another metaphor could be ARGUMENT IS DANCE or ARGUMENT IS EXERCISE. These metaphors would change the way we talk about argument, but also change the way we think about argument.

More examples:

IDEAS ARE PLANTS. Her ideas have come to fruition. She has a fertile imagination.
IDEAS ARE PEOPLE. He is the father of modern biology. Who’s brainchild is that?
IDEAS ARE FOOD. Those are half-baked ideas. I can’t digest all this at once. His idea smells fishy.
UNDERSTANDING IS SEEING. I see what your saying. I understand your viewpoint. That was a brilliant remark. She’s got the whole picture.
LIFE IS A CONTAINER. She’s brimming with life. I’ve had a full life. There’s not much life left in him.

They break down how metaphors are tools to map disparate concepts onto each other. A metaphor is a partial overlap that highlights some similarities and hides others. If two concepts are too similar, it is not a metaphor but rather a subcategorization. CAT IS PET is not a metaphor, for instance. Poetic metaphors are unusual ones, either ones that are rarely made in society or take a normal metaphor to lesser-known parts of the overlap. Another common metaphor for argument is AN ARGUMENT IS A BUILDING: ‘I’m constructing my argument.’ ‘She laid the foundation for her argument.’ ‘It’s a flimsy argument.’ A poet might say: ‘Her argument was made of cheap stucco.’ This is fundamentally the AN ARGUMENT IS A BUILDING metaphor but takes it to a more precise place of overlap that is uncommon.

Lakoff and Johnson are experientialists. They argue this lies somewhere between subjectivity and objectivity, where we create our meaning from physical experiences we have. Our metaphors are all based from experiences we have of gravity (up, down,) our posture (vertical,) our view frame (front, back,) our existence as beings separate from others (containers.) They argue that saying THE CLOUDS ARE IN FRONT OF THE MOUNTAINS requires a huge amount of abstract thought because mountains and clouds are not clearly delineated objects, nor do they have an inherent front/back. Instead we shared assumptions about how clouds and mountains can be contained by boundaries (like us) and have front/back (like us.) Or most basic metaphors are based in these experiences we have. GOOD THINGS ARE UP because being physically healthy raises us above the ground. Then follows HIGH STATUS IS UP and FUTURE IS UP. Again, part of this is cultural, not innate.

They also touch on categorization and the concept that we create prototypes for categories and certain aspects of those prototypes can be highlighted or hidden. (Look! An UNDERSTANDING IS SEEING metaphor.) Similarly metaphors, especially more abstract ones like LOVE IS MADNESS or LOVE IS CREATING A WORK OF ART, highlight and hide certain aspects of the concept.

The biggest take aways for me were:

  • Lots of our everyday language is metaphorical and those metaphors frame our definitions for abstract concepts.
  • Metaphors require partial overlap; too much overlap and it is simply categorization, too little and they don’t aid in understanding.
  • New metaphors are how we understand new concepts or ideas.

The Technology of Orgasm

By Rachel P. Maines.

Maines starting doing research on the vibrator in the 80s, primary source research in which she collected advertisements, found original vibrator models, and poured through medical literature, and I agree that it seems absurd that no one should have done so before her. In the introduction she recounts the various polarizing responses from the academic and medical community to her research, which also investigated the medicalization of female sexuality via the medical “condition” hysteria. One of my favorites is how IEEE thought her article on the vibrator was a joke:

Socially Camouflaged Technologies: The Case of the Electromechanical Vibrator, Rachel Maines, ‘Technology and Society’, IEEE 1989

“The Technical Advisory Board (TAB) of IEEE was threatening to withdraw the publication charter of ‘Technology and Society’ on the grounds that since there couldn’t possibly be anyone named Rachel Maines who had actually written this article, it must be some sort of elaborate practical joke on the part of the co-editors. … As one TAB member expressed it, ‘It read like a parody of an IEEE article. It contained dozens and dozens of obsolete references.'”

The book, too, is fairly academic. However, I was hoping the focus would be more on the vibrator itself. Instead, about half the book is about hysteria and the medical literature around it. To be fair, this is fascinating, the way that society was so invested in the androcentric view of sexuality that sexual intercourse was essentially the only “real” sexual act, which produced problems for women given that they rarely achieve orgasm through intercourse alone. In various studies, even in the early 1900s, when most women (generally some 60% or more) did not orgasm through intercourse, those women were removed from the study given that they were outside the norm. Never mind the fact that 60% is clearly a majority. But this had been the Western tradition since Aristotle: women did not enjoy penetration that much, which meant there was something wrong with them, not something wrong with the sexual act.

“Ninetheenth-century physicians noted that their hysterical and neurasthenic women patients experienced traditional androcentric intercourse mainly as a disappointment.”

Earlier, though, physicians would treat hysteria, which was a kind of catch-all disease for women being sexual or rowdy, with massage of the genitals. This was not something the physicians liked to do because it was difficult and tiresome, though it was also extremely profitable as these women often were never fully “cured” but required repeated treatment.

“Since no penetration was involved, believers in the hypothesis that only penetration was sexually gratifying to women could argue that nothing sexual could be occurring when their patients experienced the hysterical paroxysm during treatment.”

The invention of the vibrator not only was generally more effective (and faster) than manual massage, it eased the labor on the physicians. The problem was when they became small and cheap enough to be sold to women directly. In the 1920s vibrators made it to the porn scene and soon hysteria would become an obsolete medical invention.

However, we’re still dealing with the repercussions of centuries of belief that women must also find the peak or best or only real sexual act to be penetration. Given that it is the center of conception, and that we still don’t understand the biological underpinnings of female orgasm, I can appreciate the confusion. However, the data simply does not pan out: in every case in history, most women did not achieve orgasm through penetration alone.

Still, I wanted the book to get a little more detailed on the mechanics of the various vibrator inventions. But maybe what I need is a book on the vibrator written by an engineer, not a historian.

 

 

Crystallizing Public Opinion

By Edward Bernays.

Sandra lent me this book for my birthday. She said it’s interesting but, given the current political climate, depressing. I did not find it too depressing.

This book was written in 1937, before Bernays was as famous as he is today, though he was plenty famous at the time. The introduction, by Stuart Ewen, is fascinating in itself. Ewen met Bernays shortly before Bernays died. Bernays brainstorms with Ewen how he would make a book Ewen had recently written become a success; Ewen thinks perhaps Bernays put in a good word for his book as events played out similar to how Bernays envisioned them, though he has never been sure. Ewen also comments on how Bernays’ wife did much of Bernays work, though Bernays admits to never attributing it to her because it was unthinkable at the time that a woman could do such good work.

Bernays has the idea the public need to be guided from above, that the government is responsible for swaying public opinion. He oscillates between respect and disrespect for the average person. On one hand, they are to trotted along, on the other, they are complex and individual and this needs to be appreciated (in order to trot them along.)

Plenty of the book is examples of how public opinion was changed. Bernays was responsible for allowing women to smoke — a sign of freedom and equality, although in fact he was trying to improve tobacco sales. He came up with the idea of improving the sales of bacon by having newspapers report on how physicians believed a heavier breakfast was good for the health. His ideas are all incredibly simple and yet amazing inventive and powerful. Much of it has to do with pulling in third parties or tangential ideas. A hotel is grappling with a rumor that it is shutting down, so he suggests publicly renewing the contract of a well-respected, leading employee.

A lot of it revolves on how to best use newspapers and the importance of the newspaper as a tool. I suspect much of that has changed now that there are so many more options for newspaper, that they are figuring out a new business model, and there are many more options for news outside of newspapers. Bernays had it easier. Though I suspect he would find trolls genius.

Some quotes I took down:

“If we look back upon the developments of some such thing as the steam engine, we cannot fail to be struck by the extreme obviousness of each advance, and how obstinately it was refused a assimilation until the machine almost invented itself.”

“All papers feature big news. When there is no big news, real editing is needed to select the real news from the semi news. What you read on dull news days is what fixes your opinion of your country and of your compatriots. It is from the non-sensational news that you see the world and assess, rightly or wrongly, the true value of persons and events.

“Propaganda is a purposeful, directed effort to overcome censorship – the censorship of the group mind and the herd reaction. The average citizen is the world’s most efficient censor. His own mind is the greatest barrier between him and the facts.

“Few people are life members of one group and of one group only. The ordinary person is a very temporary member of a great number of groups. This is one of the most powerful forces making for progress in society because it makes for a receptivity and open-mindedness. The modification which results from the inconstancy of individual commitments may be accelerated and directed by conscious effort.”

“Abstract discussions and heavy fact are the groundwork of his involved theory, or analysis, but they cannot be given to the public until they are simplified and dramatized. The refinements of reason and the shading of emotion cannot reach a considerable public.

Wasting Time on the Internet

By Kenneth Goldsmith.

I stumbled across this book in Kinokuniya across from Town Hall in Sydney. It has an adorable picture of a cat on its cover and I picked it up, jokingly suggesting to Silas this is a book for him. But in the first pages Goldsmith won me over with his detailed description of a moment in which he wastes time on the internet and then questions what about those activities were wasteful, reflects on his experience as a poet to suggest that all this wasted time can result in strong human connections that he doesn’t see as worthless.

I bought it for myself.

Goldsmith actually spends much time on conceptual art and how the internet interacts with it, can be its subject, at times appears to be a precise reflection of earlier surrealist conceptual art movements except we the average users are mostly not artists, which was sometimes the point of the art. But I wanted him to reflect more on how the internet can connect us, why it is okay to miss a sunset to text with your friend, how browsing Facebook can be taken as productive, or in what ways the experiences in his class Wasting Time on the Internet became intensely intimate. There were parts of this, but I wanted more.

My Struggle, Book 1

By Karl Ove Knausgaard.

I was unsure what an autobiographical novel would be. I’ve decided it’s when you want to write a novel but it ends up just being about your life.

My Struggle starts with Knausgaard musing about death in perhaps current times. He also muses about raising his children. But we quickly cut back to an experience of his as a young child that focuses a lot on his tense relationship with his father. The majority of the book ends up being about his experience as a teenager and again his father features heavily, often as a background figure. Towards the end of the book, Knuasgaard mostly relives the experience of his father dying when he is in adulthood.

Knausgaard is a master of weaving together his memories, going into a memory from a memory, often pages long, and then coming back out again, like coming up for air. It’s strangely addicting, though the book has no strong narrative arc to speak of there is the theme of his father and of coming of age and how those two intertwine. Mostly, though, the book seems to me to be about how our extensive details impact these tiny moments, that these tiny moments in our life cannot be understood without tracking through the past. For instance, in moments he spends with his brother while dealing with their father’s death, Knausgaard takes on a whirlwind tour of his relationship with his brother, which despite being 300 pages into the book we have yet to really delve into. This tour then ends by returning on the original scene of a particular moment in dealing with their father’s death, that moment now laden with much more meaning.

The writing is plain, the kind that gets out of the way; it’s so good I don’t notice it.

I’m intrigued to read more of the books, mostly to see what he does with them. Are they mostly themed? Which other parts of his life does he explore? Is the idea to explore them all?

The Unwinding

By George Packer.

The Unwinding was an undertaking. I requested it from the library shortly after Trump won on Nov 8th; it was recommended reading by some left-wing news site for understanding what is going on in this country. Then it sat on my desk for a week or two while I finished up Future Sex. I didn’t really know what to expect. It was one of those books I requested on a whim, by some random recommendation, and generally it’s 50/50 whether or not I actually like it. I knew it was nonfiction and about the United States.

When I got to it I was immediately struck by how literary it was. The Unwinding is really a series of stories of people. Some of the people are regular people who we keep going back to, starting with their family history from before WWI and following them through childhood in the mid-1900s and seeing them grow up and into 2015. Some of the people are famous, they get these one chapter character sketches that try to set them in time and cultural trends. The book is chronological, sections representing years, but it does not feel like a history book or even a political book. It feels like a postmodern novel.

Packer follows a woman growing up in ruined old industrial towns and a man from an old farming family, a southern man who goes on to work for Biden in the White House and then a lobbying firm and then back to Congress, many more people from various parts of the country and livelihoods, Packer looks at towns where the steel mills closed, at the housing bubble developing in Tampa, at Occupy Wall Street. It’s a harrowing look at the country — it’s called ‘The Unwinding’ after all — but it’s also incredibly personal and real.

Almost every chapter I came out angry, aware, uncertain: I didn’t really understand the housing bubble, I didn’t really understand Obama, I didn’t really understand steel mills or farming but I got a little bit closer. It struck me that very few people seemed like bad people (perhaps the only exception is Newt Gringrich!) and yet the country unraveled anyway. Still I found glimmers of optimism: the community organizer from Youngstown, Ohio trying to make the city right again after the steel mills left, the rural south entrepreneur championing biofuel, the Washington aide trying to put bankers in jail. There are so many people in the country trying to be the best they can be and do the best they can do. I have to believe we have what it takes.