The Ilonka Reader

Notes on the Books I Have Read


By Weike Wang

I saw that the author was coming to talk at the Harvard Bookstore and I was intrigued by her novel about a Boston-based chemistry PhD student struggling to finish because my sister did a PhD in chemistry at Harvard and similarly found the environment pretty terrible. Chemistry’s main character, whose name we never learn, is Chinese, born in Shanghai but brought to the US with her parents at a young age. She questions why she is even doing chemistry–is it just because of her overbearing parents? But the novel is also about her relationship with her boyfriend, who she will not commit to. She won’t say yes or no to his marriage proposal, she won’t say yes or no to moving with him to Oberlin when he gets a faculty job. She doesn’t feel like his equal. She can’t commit without having career success. She doesn’t want to have a marriage like her parents had.

It’s a short novel. I read it almost all in one go, from when I picked it up at the library around 6pm to when I almost finished it at 9pm. It’s somewhat stream of consciousness, lots of little sections that relate a scene in sparse detail in the first person. But it’s also hilarious with this sharp, dark humor of a woman trying to make sense of herself and the world around her. And of course there is the science, all these little science metaphors, all these little explanations of light, of clouds, of thermodynamics. I immediately felt at home in this book that argon boxes and Nobel’s first invention, dynamite.

A great joke: What do you do with a sick chemist? Helium. Curium. Barium.


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.

A Brief History of Seven Killings

By Marlon James.

It wasn’t until the very last section of this daunting 700 page novel that I realized that the icons of the bird at the end of some chapters indicated one of the seven killings just occurred. I flipped back through the book, looking for the others to find out what were the seven, iconic killings but I couldn’t find them. The book is huge.

Much of this novel is in voice, like Zadie Smith’s White Teeth but moreso because each chapter is explicitly in the voice of a character. Sometimes the Jamaican English tired me because although it is clearly English it has a rhythm that was difficult for me to understand. It was more work. Towards the end of the book this Jamaican English is commented upon by an American doctor who asks the Jamaican nurse to translate his English into ‘Jamaican’ for a patient. The nurse refuses to translate because there is nothing to translate. It’s English.

The book lulled for me around the third quarter, as many long books do, but it picked up again at the end. The book is confusing, I couldn’t always keep the Jamaican politics straight and could rarely figure out what was going on with the CIA and the Cuban anti-Castro involvement. There were plot points I definitely missed or maybe forgot, like what exactly happened to Nina Burgess. But it was a strong, engaging book that sprawled over decades and countries and such terrible, terrifying violence.

I just read the NY Times review and the reviewer compares the book to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. This comparison, of a strong book I just read and a crazy intense book I love and have read twice, reminded me of another writer arguing that the American Novel is a farce, that some overly-intellectual white guy’s story can never speak for everyone, that no one can every speak for everyone, especially in America. I think my apprehension about comparing Infinite Jest to A Brief History of Seven Killings is more a cultural one: Infinite Jest, though so strange and weird, is so much closer to my experience than Brief History. I know nothing of ghettos or gangs or violence. But this doesn’t make Brief History a worse book, though I suspect it may make it harder for it to get the acclaim it deserves.

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.

Changing My Mind

by Zadie Smith.

This series of essays is cobbled together from a number of projects Zadie Smith has done. They are loosely grouped into themes, the themes loosely group into a book, but more I found it just a dipping into Zadie Smith’s mind, which is my favorite thing about essays. She writes about an Oxfam trip to Liberia, about movies, about Middlemarch and Kafka and E. M. Forster, about Barthes v Nabokov, about Zora Neale Hurston, on Hepburn and the Oscars and her father and David Foster Wallace.

The stories about her father, especially on how her interviewing of her father about WWII was so clearly about her and not him, how she used his stories in White Teeth, to learn more about Zadie Smith’s history and see how it trickled into her writing was interesting and rewarding from a writer’s perspective. I want to dig into some of these essays again, the personal ones, to learn a little more about the craft of those essays.

I also want to reread her essay on Wallace, who I love, such that I can better articulate what I love about him. First, though, I think I need to read Brief Interviews, the Wallace book of short stories she talks about.

Overall a good read with some essays I want to return to.

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.



If on a winter’s night a traveler

By Italo Calvino.

Although this book was at times slow, I loved the ending and had no regrets struggling through to the end.

Calvino oscillates between the story of the Reader, excited to start a new book but continually interrupted by increasingly absurd events, and the books the Reader begins to read. It is a strangely cyclic story that would be reminiscent of David Foster Wallace’s strange recursions if the writing style weren’t completely different, more old world and straightforward. (Though it’s translated from Italian, so who knows what is lost.)

There are even some moments in which Calvino explores computers and how they can reduce books to word frequencies; there is a character who believes this is more useful and time efficient than reading the book at all. At one point a book is translated into frequencies and then the computer code is lost, the book, too, lost as the computer can no longer translate it back into its original form.

This is a book that could use another read, the content fascinating and whirlwind, though the style of the book was not quite gripping enough for me.

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?