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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey



Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The central question of Flow is that of how to experience life well. It’s not about the conditions of living well, because Csikszentmihalyi makes the case that the conditions of living (past a baseline of survivability) have little to do with the experience of living well. That experience, he argues, is a psychological state induced by a particular structuring of consciousness, and that structuring of consciousness is one over which we can (and should) exert control. His shorthand for this ‘optimal experience’ is ‘flow’, and the state of flow has a few specific conditions:

  1. To experience flow, one must be engaged in a purposeful activity. The purpose need not necessarily be a ‘higher’ purpose with moral weight, but simply a purpose: jumping higher, producing a garden, or learning to juggle will do.
  2. The purposeful activity must be one that challenges us. If it’s too easy, we get bored. If it’s too difficult, we get frustrated. We need goals that are achievable, but only with some effort.
  3. We need feedback. We need to have some means of knowing whether or not we’re making progress toward the chosen purpose.

When these conditions are satisfied, Csikszentmihalyi argues that we find ourselves in a state of ‘flow’ or ‘optimal experience’, and that flow is the basis for what we experience as having a good life. Without those conditions, what we experience is boredom, lack of purpose, low self-esteem, anxiety, or any of a number of other non-optimal experiences.

I find myself in agreement with Csikszentmihalyi‘s basic premise, and I find the argument persuasive based on my own experiences. That said, I don’t think Flow is a very good book. There wasn’t quite enough material in it. The substantive parts of the book were enough for a good solid article or essay, and the rest is just padded with endless listing of examples. Examples are useful in illustrating points, but they aren’t a substitute for arguments.

Nonetheless, the book succeeded in getting me to write about reading again – the point being to impose a structure on my reading, to once again read with purpose instead of merely to pass time. I try not to read books that don’t affect me, and this one did. Which, despite the sub-par writing, makes it not a waste of time to have read.

Blues and Chaos: The Music Writing of Robert Palmer

Blues and ChaosBlues and Chaos: The Music Writing of Bob Palmer

Anthony DeCurtis (ed.)

The best writing transforms the reader.  It shows them parts of themselves that they didn’t know existed, shows them potentials that they didn’t know they had, shows them perspectives that they thought themselves incapable of adopting.  That, I suppose, is the mark of writing that transcends to the category of literature.  The best of the best transforms not just the reader, but the world: think Invisible Man or The Jungle or The Grapes of Wrath.

Blues and Chaos didn’t transform me.  But it did make me buy a lot of CDs.

Bob Palmer, longtime popular music critic for the New York Times and regular contributor to Rolling Stone, had a Hunter S. Thompson approach to music journalism.  He was able to write well about musicians living on the edge because he was a musician living on the edge.  He played and partied with the people about whom he wrote, ranging from bluesmen from the American south to sacred musicians from the mountains of Morocco.  That gonzo journalism granted him access, whether to the inner sanctum of Yoko Ono’s apartment, the back rooms of black juke joints in Mississippi, or the private sacred rituals of his beloved Moroccans.  Of course, it also granted him access to drugs, and subsequent fatal addiction.  Palmer burned brightly and blew out early, like so many of the musicians that he interviewed.

But reading through his book of essays, I realized just how much American and world music I didn’t know.  I started making a CD wish list.  Son House!  How could I have missed Son House?  I felt a little ashamed to admit that I didn’t own the Robert Johnson recordings.  And there wasn’t a single Ray Charles album in my collection.  I picked up a collection of 45s from Morocco.  I looked in vain for recordings of Pandit Pran Nath and had to settle for LaMonte Young.  And still I felt ignorant.  We live in a world with too much good music, and reading someone like Robert Palmer is like drinking from a firehose.  He listened to records professionally; most of us can’t.  But Blues and Chaos is a great starting point for building a sample of things you may have missed.

The Devil Drives

Devil DrivesThe Devil Drives

Fawn M. Brodie

There are demons that incapacitate a person: demons that drive one to drink, drive one to murder, drive one to the madhouse.  And there are demons that just plain drive, pushing a person beyond their physical and mental limits for no reason other than to go, because going is the only thing to do.  We call these people “self-starters”, “highly motivated”, sometimes “visionaries”.  And sometimes the visions cross over into mania.

burtonSir Richard Burton‘s drive almost certainly has more than a touch of mania to it.  What else could cause a man to master twenty-nine languages, to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in disguise and under threat of death, to trudge miles across the desert at night with an assassin’s spear hanging out of the side of his face?  He published books on swordfighting, the sexual customs of India and Africa, the Mormons of Utah, and of course his massive translation of the Tales of the Arabian Nights, all based on his own travels and experiences.  He even set out to learn the language of monkeys — not by going out in to the jungle and recording what he heard, but by brining the monkeys into his house, dressing them in tiny clothes, and trying to have dinner table conversations with them.  It’s hard not to attribute at least a touch of mania to a person like that.

Still, amid the thousands of pages he published, the sprawling maps of areas he explored, the volumes of eastern literature he translated, and the litany of tales he lived and told, Burton’s was a mania that was as productive as a human body can be.  And yet somehow the fire didn’t consume him.  Somehow he died not of malaria, not of assassins or cannibals, not lost at sea or dessicated in the desert, but at home, in bed, at the age of sixty-nine, after a nice supper.  He lived a life larger than life, but died an absolutely ordinary death.  His wife, in a posthumous attempt to make him a decent Christian, burned all of his diaries and unfinished manuscripts.  The devils that drove her were entirely Catholic in origin, and have left us the poorer for it.



Oliver Sacks

In the Internet Age, paranoia runs rampant.  The wealth of self-service medical information available gives the average person incredibly broad abilities to diagnose — and mis-diagnose — illness.  Pick any possible symptom, run it through a search engine, and you can convince yourself that you have any number of life-threatening illnesses.  You can find a dozen different message boards to confirm your suspicions, and even self-medicate to a large extent thanks to all sorts of half-baked half-expert advice.

All of which makes it terrifying to read medical nonfiction in the Internet Age.  One of the effects of reading Awakenings is the realization of just how fragile a normal life can be.  One encephalitic infection, and you’re in a state hospital for the rest of your life, unable to do so much as walk across the room or write your own name.  Was that a twitch or a tremor?  Are my hands shaking because I’m developing Parkinson’s, or have I just had too much coffee?  Do I stutter more than I used to?  Who will visit me in the hospital?

Of course, that’s not really the story of Awakenings.  The stories in Awakenings are about individuals — individuals locked inside the cages of their own bodies for decades, released (if only partially and temporarily) by L-DOPA — and how they do or don’t cope with their imprisonment, release, and re-imprisonment.  Some accept it with grace; others cannot.  Some remain creative, vibrant humans; others go mad.  The stories that Sacks shares are not merely the stories of their illnesses, but of their humanity in the face of their illnesses.  They aren’t humans for whom the illness is some foreign body; their illness is their body, and an inseparable part of their humanity.  Awakenings, as a chapter in medical history, is very much about the impossibility of treating the disease without treating the person.  That will almost certainly be its legacy.

And I suppose modern medical practitioners would do well to keep that in mind in the current world of over-mis-informed “health care consumers”.  You have to treat the paranoia along with the symptom, I think.  Because while one might go away easily, the other will not.

The Instructions

The Instructions
Adam Levin

This one unfortunately goes in the very small category of books that I started but didn’t finish.  I gave it a chance — a really good chance, actually.  But 500 pages into it, I still just didn’t care.  Didn’t care about the story, didn’t care about the characters, didn’t care about the art or the language of the thing.  With another 500 pages to go, I pushed it into the library’s return slot.

It’s a Catcher in the Rye sort of story, about a kid who isn’t quite a kid, a who thinks he might become the Messiah.  That’s not a bad premise for a book, and it sets up for some interesting character development.  But then there isn’t any.  Gurion Macabee, the protagonist, is exactly the same on page 500 as he was on page 1.  Like Catcher in the Rye, it’s really just a character sketch, but Salinger had the good sense not to make Catcher in the Rye 1000 pages long.  After the first 100 pages or so, the character is pretty well sketched.  Then you have to do something with him.

It’s not that I’m opposed to long books.  Gravity’s Rainbow has always been a favorite, and it’s a whole lot more dense than The Instructions.  But it also goes somewhere, has a narrative arc that has layers and depth.  It sets up a totally weird story, twists it back around itself, sews in a dozen bizarre characters, and still barely manages to tie the whole thing up at the end.  The Instructions doesn’t do that.  There’s virtually no story there.  It gives us our Holden Caulfield, and then just turns him loose to babble.  Some of the babble is mildly interesting, but there just didn’t seem to be any reason to finish reading the book.  Life’s short.  Into the return slot it goes.