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“And what is good Phaedrus, and what is not good.  Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?”  –  Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Pirsig

Pirsig

Robert M. Pirsig, who I wrote about here earlier, died this week at the age of 88 at his home in South Berwick, Maine after a period of failing health.

He will be remembered for his two books: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values and Lila: An Inquiry into Morals.

Zen is a novelistic autobiography that inspired readers in many ways, including those who did their own road trip across America with or without a motorcycle.

Published in 1974, I read it as I was finishing college and the mix of road story, philosophy, Zen and some actual motorcycle maintenance tips inspired me to take a small road trip after graduation of my own.

“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”

I would say the book is a classic, and not of the “underground” type, as it sold well then and seems to continues to find new readers.

Though published in 1974, it echoes a lot of the philosophies and issues that the earlier decade brought forward in America and also the “on the road” vibes of the 1950s. Pirsig used as inspiration a motorcycle trip across the West he took with his son Christopher in 1968.

“When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called a Religion.”

While serving as a soldier in South Korea after WWII, Pirsig encountered the Asian philosophies and he went on to study Hindu philosophy in India. He started a philosophy Ph.D. at the University of Chicago but didn’t continue with it.

He went through a period of hospitalization for mental illness, but after his release he lived in Minneapolis, worked as a technical writer and began writing Zen.

The Zen was real for him. He helped found the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center.

“The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself.”

He worked on and off on his second book for 17 years. Lila, his look at morals, came out in 1991 and  tells of a journey down the Hudson River in a sailboat by his philosopher-narrator, Phaedrus. He encounters Lila, a troubled woman who is nearing a mental breakdown. This book feels like an attempt to complete the “metaphysics of Quality” system introduced in his first book.

“You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge.”

 

All quotations here from  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Let’s start with me freely admitting that I really like Tom Hanks and Emma Watson. They star in the new film, The Circle, that opens April 28. They are both ridiculously likeable actors and often play likeable characters. Not so in this film.

This is not a film review; it’s a preview. I have seen some trailers and clips. The actors are doing some interviews. I read the book.

Watch the first trailer that was released for the film at the start of 2017 before we continue.

The Circle is the novel by Dave Eggers that the film is based on. In the book, the main character is Mae. She interviews for the dream job at the Circle. It is the world’s most powerful internet company. It is Google + Apple + Facebook + Amazon + whatever other giants come to mind. It is more than any one of these real companies. They are located, of course, on a huge California campus. They connect everything: emails, social media, banking, your purchasing and more.

As with those companies, Circle wants to be your One Platform, your universal operating system, your online home. They appear to want to do good, not evil.

Mae is happy and feels very lucky to be there. What’s not to like? Open-plan office spaces, great dining, clubs, activities, nice dorms if you want to spend nights at work, sports, exercise, parties with famous musicians.

One of their technologies is SeeChange, a very portable camera for easy real-time video that are worn 24/7 by some people, like politicians who want to be transparent. (Think police body cams.)

Mae’s off-campus life starts to fade away, replaced by her work life which is going very well.

I’m not sure how many of the sub-plots survived adaptation. One important one is her romantic connection with a colleague who is mysterious enough that she’s not even sure he is an employee.

Another subplot is about Mae’s father who has multiple sclerosis. She gets him on her health plan which also gets their home wired with SeeChange cameras. Mae even ends up “going transparent.” That is their expression for wearing the camera. It echoes for me with the Scientology term of going “Clear” which is what they call the state of being free of subconscious memories of past trauma (engrams). I don’t know if Eggers intended that connection.

Mae drinks deeply from the company Kool-Aid and gives tours of the corporate campus praising their products and vision. She starts to preach that “secrets are lies,” “sharing is caring,” and “privacy is theft.” Remind you of any real companies?

Will Mae’s ambition and idealism be crushed by the Circle, or will she fight the “good fight” for our privacy, democracy, and maintaining our personal memories, history and knowledge? Buy a ticket. Or read the book. (No guarantee the answer will be the same.)

Yes, Internet companies are the bad guys here. How much of our lives do we still own?

I was thinking it was a contemporary Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four when I read the novel. I don’t think this novel will be a “classic” but it was an enjoyable read.

Dave Eggers is an author I discovered  at the turn of the century with A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. That is a novel about a college senior who loses both of his parents to cancer and then is left to care for his eight-year-old brother.

Eggers is the author of ten books, including  A Hologram for the King, which was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. He is also the founder of McSweeney’s, an independent publishing company that produces books, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern and a monthly magazine, The Believer.

I’ll give Eggers credit for doing some good: McSweeney’s publishes Voice of Witness, a nonprofit book series that uses oral history to increase awareness of human rights crises around the world; he co-founded 826 National, a network of tutoring centers around the country and ScholarMatch, a nonprofit organization that connects students with resources, schools and donors to make college possible.

I see that Tom Hanks is doing a benefit for Scholarmatch this month, so I know some good came out of him meeting Eggers and making The Circle.

Browsing the poetry shelves you will come across numerous editions of the prose and poetry of Walt Whitman. His Leaves of Grass is probably the best-selling title today. Thanks to technology, you can buy his complete works with that book, patriotic poems, prose, The Wound Dresser and even his letters in a Kindle Edition for a mere 99 cents.

One piece of his writing you won’t get in that digital archive is a curious collection he wrote in 1858 under the pseudonym Mose Velsor. Walt wrote an advice column in the New York Atlas newspaper for “manly men.” The topics included diet, exercise, and grooming.

I suppose it was a Men’s Journal or Esquire column for the time, though it seems out of character for the man I have mentally archived as “the good gray poet.”

That is until someone uncovered the 13-part newspaper series from 150 years ago.

It has been published in at least two versions I could find. Manly Health and Training: To Teach the Science of a Sound and Beautiful Body is the series.

Walt Whitman’s Guide to Manly Health and Training is 75 manly chunks of advice.

It was also published in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review.

Some of the columns headlines are pretty funny:  “The great american evil—indigestion” and “Could there be an entire nation of vigorous and beautiful men?”

 

So how well does 19th century Walt Whitman‘s advice hold up for 21st century men?

Let’s start the day like Walt…

The man rises at day-break, or soon after—if in winter, rather before. In most cases the best thing he can commence the day with is a rapid wash of the whole body in cold water, using a sponge, or the hands rubbing the water over the body—and then coarse towels to rub dry with; after which, the hair gloves, the flesh-brush, or any thing handy, may be used, for friction, and to put the skin in a red glow all over . . . as soon as the glow is attained, the window, unless the weather is very bad, should be opened, and the door also, so that the room may become filled with good fresh air—for the play of the respiratory organs will be increased by the performances just mentioned, and it is at such times that good air tells best.

How about some breakfast? Walt was much the carnivore.  “Let the main part of the diet be meat, to the exclusion of all else.”

Usually the breakfast, for a hearty man, might consist in a plate of fresh rare lean meat, without fat or gravy, a slice or chunk of bread, and, if desired, a cup of tea, which must be left till the last. If there be boiled potatoes, and one of them is desired, it may be permitted.

Let’s get groomed and dressed for the day.

The beard is a great sanitary protection to the throat—for purposes of health it should always be worn, just as much as the hair of the head should be. Think what would be the result if the hair of the head should be carefully scraped off three or four times a week with the razor! Of course, the additional aches, neuralgias, colds, etc., would be immense. Well, it is just as bad with removing the natural protection of the neck; for nature indicates the necessity of that covering there, for full and sufficient reasons.
Most of the usual fashionable boots and shoes, which neither favor comfort, nor health, nor the ease of walking, are to be discarded.”

Okay, we are ready to get on with the day!

Habituate yourself to the brisk walk in the fresh air—to the exercise of pulling the oar—and to the loud declamation upon the hills, or along the shore. Such are the means by which you can seize with treble grip upon all the puzzles and difficulties of your student life—whatever problems are presented to you in your books, or by your professors.

That walking gives me an appetite!

Lunch should consist of a good plate of fresh meat, (rare lean beef, broiled or roast, is best) with as few outside condiments as possible.

Maybe I should have saved that walk for after lunch. All this meat is making me a bit sleepy, but I must do some work!

A steady and agreeable occupation is one of the most potent adjuncts and favorers of health and long life. The idler, without object, without definite direction, is very apt to brood himself into some moral or physical fever—and one is about as bad as the other.

Well, I managed to work on a poem and a blog post and didn’t doze off (not completely anyway). The sun is low in the sky. It must be time for supper. I hope it is not meat again.

The supper, which must not be at a late hour, we would recommend always to be light—occasionally making this meal to consist of fruit, either fresh, during the middle and latter part of the summer—and of stewed fruit during the winter and spring.

It is easy for even the manly man to become a bit depressed after dinner. But don’t fear – Walt has advice for “the horrors” too.

If the victim of ‘the horrors’ could but pluck up energy enough to strip off all his clothes and gives his whole body a stinging rubdown with a flesh-brush till the skin becomes all red and aglow, he would be thoroughly cured of his depression, by this alone.

Is it 10 pm already?  Then it is time to go to sleep.

Ten o’clock at night ought to find a man in bed—for that will not afford him the time requisite for rest, if he rise betimes in the morning. The bedroom must not be small and close—that would go far toward spoiling all other observances and cares for health. It is important that the system should be clarified, through the inspiration and respiration, with a plentiful supply of good air, during the six, seven, or eight hours that are spent in sleep. During most of the year, the window must be kept partly open for this purpose.

Well, we quite a full day. Perhaps, we should do a bit of reading in bed to close out the day. We could read some poems.  But we also have another “new” Whitman book we might read. Zachary Turpin, a grad student at the University of Houston, is the person who rediscovered the columns on microfilm last year. He also discovered a long-lost novel of Whitman’s titled Life and Adventures of Jack Engle. It has one of those 19th century subtitles with a colon and a semi-colon. Wow.  “An Auto-Biography; A Story of New York at the Present Time in which the Reader Will Find Some Familiar Characters”

Back in 1852, Walt Whitman was a sweet 33 years old and not doing very well as a housebuilder in Brooklyn. He was writing. He was working on a free-verse book-length poem that would be published as Leaves of Grass and clinch his place in American literature.

He was also working on a novel. It would be published under a pseudonym and it did get serialized in a newspaper. And then it was forgotten, until Turpin rediscovered it after some clues led him to the Library of Congress. It seems that the LoC had the only surviving copy of Jack Engle. has lain waiting for generations.

The novel was also published in the WW Quarterly Review. Here’s how chapter one opens.

Punctually at half past 12, the noon-day sun shining flat on the pavement of Wall street, a youth with the pious name of Nathaniel, clapt upon his closely cropt head, a straw hat, for which he had that very morning given the sum of twenty-five cents, and announced his intention of going to his dinner.

“COVERT
Attorney at Law”

stared into the room (it was a down-town law-office) from the door which was opened wide and fastened back, for coolness; and the real Covert, at that moment, looked up from his cloth-covered table, in an inner apartment, whose carpet, book-cases, musty smell, big chair, with leather cushions, and the panels of only one window out of three being opened, and they but partially so, announced it as the sanctum of the sovereign master there. That gentleman’s garb marked him as one of the sect of Friends, or Quakers. He was a tallish man, considerably round-shouldered, with a pale, square, closely shaven face; and one who possessed any expertness as a physiognomist, could not mistake a certain sanctimonious satanic look out of the eyes. From some suspicion that he didn’t appear well in that part of his countenance, Mr. Covert had a practice of casting down his visual organs. On this occasion, however, they lighted on his errand-boy.
“Yes, go to thy dinner; both can go,” said he, “for I want to be alone.”
And Wigglesworth, the clerk, a tobacco-scented old man—he smoked and chewed incessantly—left his high stool in the corner where he had been slowly copying some document.

Ah, nothing like a 19th century novel to lull you to sleep. And I really need a good 8 hours in order to wake up early, take another cold shower, eat some breakfast meat and start another manly day!

I started reading The Goldfinchthe third novel by Donna Tartt, when it was released. I really enjoyed her first novel, The Secret History (1992), but at almost 800 pages The Goldfinch didn’t grab me.

I’m tough on books lately. I tend to get library books most of the time nowadays – too many books in the house and it is getting harder to get rid of them. That means, especially for new, popular books, that I have two weeks to read them probably without renewal. I read slower than ever before and I only made it about 100 pages into the novel and didn’t renew it.

Tartt only produces a book about every decade, so there is plenty of time to read her work. And then The Goldfinch was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014. Amazon selected the novel as the 2013 Best Book of the Year, and it was selected as one of the 10 Best Books of 2013 by the editors of the New York Times Book Review

I am not the only reader who misses something in a book that is critically acclaimed later. One review of The Goldfinch reminded us that “It isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention,” was part of a review in The New York Times at the release of Nabokov’s Lolita. I liked that novel a lot when I read it in college.

The NYT (well, their critic) also declared that  Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was “Kind of monotonous… He should’ve cut out a lot about these jerks and all at that crummy school.” And I loved that book when I read it at 13 and every time I reread it.

Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is in my top ten novels list and many others, but it was called “An absurd story” by The Saturday Review while the New York Herald Tribune said it was “a book of the season only.”

My local library now offers me ebooks and audiobooks online via Overdrive and I saw that The Goldfinch was available as an audiobook. I downloaded it and once again had two weeks to finish. I started at the beginning again and this time I made it through the 32 hours and 29 minutes.

The novel can be called a Bildungsroman, which is the fancier German word for a novel of formation or education, and is sometimes called a coming-of-age story. The  first-person narrator is Theodore Decker who we meet at age 13. He survives a terrorist bombing at a NYC art museum. His much beloved mother dies in the blast. As he escapes the museum he meets two other victims and half-consciously takes a small, Dutch painting, The Goldfinch. 

Those two people will change his life path, as will having that stolen work of art.

The painting (shown above) is one of the few surviving works by Rembrandt’s most promising pupil, Carel Fabritius. I doubt that it is coincidence that almost all of Fabritius’ work was destroyed in an explosion in 1654 which also killed the artist.

The goldfinch in that painting is chained to its feeder perch. In the painter’s time,  goldfinches were popular pets. They could be trained to draw water from a bowl with a miniature bucket. The Dutch title of the painting, Het puttertje, pertains to the bird’s nickname puttertje, which refers to this training and translates literally as “little weller.”

I see goldfinches at the feeder outside my window. they are American goldfinches and more beautiful than the one in that painting.

goldfinches

American Goldfinches at a feeder – male on the left

I don’t find the painting that extraordinary but, as the novel makes clear, my review doesn’t match that of most critics.  With the painting, like the novel, maybe I am missing something.

The painting is nice. The novel was okay this second time around. But I can’t give either one a rave review. I don’t like reading reviews before I read a book or watch a film. But I did read reviews for the novel in between my first and second attempts. Some people loved it. Some did not.

But those goldfinches outside get five stars. They are perfect.

I may have started out as a voracious reader, moved on to be an English major and then a teacher, but now that all that life has pretty much passed, I find myself more fascinated by what is actually outside my window. Real birds. Real stories. Real people.

I haven’t abandoned the arts. I even make some attempts at them myself.  And I’ll still recommend Tartt’s The Secret History, and Gatsby, Lolita, and Catcher. But I strongly recommend looking out the window and then stepping out to encounter the world more often.

 

 

 

coelho

Paulo Coelho‘s novel The Alchemist spent an amazing eight years on The NY Times best sellers list. What attracted so many readers?

It is a tale of self-discovery. It has magic, mysticism and wisdom. It became a “modern classic.” It has sold over 150 million copies worldwide and won 115 international prizes and awards. It has been translated into 80 languages.

It is an allegorical novel. The story follows a young Andalusian shepherd named Santiago on a journey to Egypt. His journey begins with a recurring dream he has of finding treasure there. The dream, which he feels is prophetic, leads him to a fortune-teller in a nearby town who interprets the dream as a prophecy telling the boy that there is a treasure in the pyramids in Egypt.

Coelho wrote The Alchemist in only two weeks in 1987. He explained he was able to write at this pace because the story was “already written in my soul.”

A friend loaned me her copy in 1988. I was skeptical. It sounded more “New Age” than literature, but she was a reader I respected, so I read it.

Paulo Coelho was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1947. He worked as a director, theater actor, songwriter and journalist.

In 1986, he made the pilgrimage to Saint James Compostela (in Spain). The Way of St. James was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during the Middle Ages, together with those to Rome and Jerusalem. The pilgrimage was a turning point in his existence.

A year later, he wrote The Pilgrimage, an autobiographical novel that is considered the beginning of his career.

The following year, he published The Alchemist. The initial sales were not good. His original publisher dropped the novel. Big mistake. It went on to be one of the best-selling Brazilian books (originally written in Portuguese) of all time, and then a global best seller.

I read it. It didn’t change my life. I enjoyed it and I identified with its theme of finding one’s destiny. I wanted it to change my life.

The New York Times reviewer said it is “more self-help than literature.” I think that was meant as a putdown, but plenty of us are seeking help.

The novel reminds me of The Prophet, a book of prose poetry fables written in English by the Lebanese-American artist, philosopher and writer Kahlil Gibran.

It was originally published in 1923 but continued to sell and had a resurgence during the 1960s. It has been translated into over 40 languages and has never been out of print.

Parallels have been made to William Blake’s work, Walt Whitman, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The ideas of those writers, such as reincarnation and the Over-soul and more modern symbolism and surrealism, seem to run through The Prophet. I knew people who loved the book, and I knew people who made fun of it.

In The Alchemist, an old king tells Santiago that, “when you really want something to happen, the whole universe will conspire so that your wish comes true.” That is the kind of philosophy that fills the novel. You might find it inspiring. You might dismiss it as greeting card philosophy.

I read Coelho’s latest novel, The Spy, which is very different. It is the story of one of history’s most enigmatic women: Mata Hari. She arrived in Paris penniless and became a dancer, a courtesan, and in 1917, she was arrested in her hotel room on the Champs Elysees, and accused of espionage.

Coelho is not a guru. He is a prolific writer. He loves writing. He likes Kyudo (a meditative archery), reading, walking, football and computers.

He is very active on social media.  He was the second most influential celebrity on Twitter in 2010 according to Forbes and he is the writer with the highest number of followers in the social media.

He blogs. He is on Facebook and Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Flickr.

It sure seems like the universe has conspired so that his wish has comes true. maybe I should reread The Alchemist.

The future often looks dystopian to writers of fiction. Since the election, the future seems dystopian in the real world to some people. In dystopian literature, the world of the future is the opposite of utopian. Everything is terrible and unpleasant. Sometimes it is a totalitarian society. Sometimes the world has been destroyed by war or is environmentally degraded.

That doesn’t seem like a world you would want to read about, but we have been reading about these places for a long time. Wikipedia’s list of dystopian novels spans from Gulliver’s Travels, through The Time Machine, Brave New World, 1984, Player Piano, A Clockwork Orange, The Handmaid’s Tale and Infinite Jest.

You can say that reading this literature is not something we do only out of pessimism, but we view them as cautionary tales. They are the Ghost of Christmas Future come to warn us of what might be if we continue on our current path.

These thoughts came to me as I read Children of the New World, a collection of stories by Alexander Weinstein. The stories use many of our current fears about technology gone mad. It exists not too far in the future but in a time when social media implants and memory manufacturing are possible. There are frighteningly immersive virtual reality games that aren’t so much games as they become reality. Robots are alarmingly intuitive. Many futures seem utopian at the beginning. These stories cover both ends. We have a utopian future of instant connection and gratification, at the cost of human distance, a price some of us are already willing to pay. There is also the world after the collapse landscape where we are once again primitive and rebuilding.

How about taking a vacation for $99? You can, by having a memory of a perfect vacation placed in your brain. It will be as real as any vacation you have actually take, but this one is perfect. (see false memories) The character who works for a company that creates and sells virtual memories in “The Cartographers” is so charmed by his creations that he finds it increasingly difficult to maintain a real-world relationship, or separate the virtual from the real.

“In this haunting and prescient debut collection, Weinstein evokes a vaguely dystopian, domestic existence where virtual reality, cybernetics, and social media are second nature. Like today we are disconnected despite being connected. We feel the insidious reach of technology, corporate forces, and climate change tightening into a chokehold. Over 13 tales, he steeps us in a realm of alternate realities close to our own, but each with a thought-provoking twist.”   – The Boston Globe

Two of the stories that got me thinking were the title story and “Saying Goodbye to Yang.” What these stories share are children. In the latter story, the robot brother of an adopted Chinese girl malfunctions and needs to be taken away, and finally buried. But he has become a real brother and son. This theme was explored in the Steven Spielberg film AI from the point of view of the robot child, and in the recent TV series Humans.

In our desire to make robots and AI more human, we encounter the fear that they will gain sentience and become human – or close enough that we can’t tell the difference. In that story and in the film and television series, the families do not recognize the attachment they have to the robot until it is gone.

This speculative fiction of Alexander Weinstein is dark, sad and sometimes funny. It is not set that far into the future, and the technology is not so much sci-fi as it is extensions of what already exists. That makes it more frightening and perhaps more prescient.

In the story, “Children of the New World,” we find a couple who enter the Dark City and a virtual world. Here they can have everything they need, including things they never had in their real life, such as children. But a virtual world can be infected by viruses.

Mary took the children into our bedroom and I logged off to call online support. The man on the other end of the line spoke broken English, the line buzzing from an overseas connection. He tried a couple options with me, and finally said, “Sir, your account is corrupted. You will have to reset all files to the initial settings.”
“What’s that mean?”
“You must delete all data from your account—your preferences, photos and music. You will need to recreate your bodies again. I see you have children.”
“Yes.”
“You will need to delete them.”

These 13 rather short stories are an easy and fast read. Hopefully, they leave a reader thinking. As with any great film, I want to talk to people after I watch or read something “thought-provoking.” I want human connections.

“Rocket Night” reminds me immediately of Shirley Jackson’s shocker “The Lottery.” The story is told by a parent in a calm, polite, logical way. It is about an event not unlike many held at elementary schools now, but for a twist that is revealed in the opening line.

“It was Rocket Night at our daughter’s elementary school, the night when parents, students, and the administration gather to place the least liked child in a rocket and shoot him into the stars. Last year we placed Laura Jackson into the capsule, a short, squat girl known for her limp dresses which hung crookedly on her body. The previous year we’d sent off a boy from India whose name none of us could remember.”

The more connected we are through technology, the less connected we really are to people and our world. Sherry Turkle’s non-fiction, Alone Together, made that point quite clearly right in its title and subtitle – Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.”

I see that online many readers compare Weinstein’s stories to the current series Black Mirror and to the past Twilight Zone. I can see those connections, but there are many comparisons that can be made.

This book took me back to the short stories of Ray Bradbury that I loved in my youth, and have reread with new meanings lately. In those stories I found a child visiting a museum that had the last remaining tree on Earth. I discovered many years ago a smart home in “There Will Come Soft Rains.”  And in the disturbing story “The Veldt,” I could imagine the two children playing in their  “nursery,” a virtual reality room able to reproduce any place they could imagine, and the horror a child’s imagination might create.

Weinstein dedicates the book to his son, and parenting is something that runs through many of the stories. It is something that exists in all dystopian tales, because even if it is a future we personally will never see, we wonder about our children and their children. And we are worried.

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