The more I think about it the more I would recommend that people new to DFW start with his first short stories collection Girl with Curious Hair. His first two books (the novel/his college thesis paper (!)) The Broom of the System and the recently aforementioned short stories collection probably have a lower net level of run-on sentences and a more "accessible" style on the whole.
Starting with Infinite Jest as I did probably helped make me view the rest of his corpus through Infinite Jest-tinted glasses, which was obviously a good thing for me since I loved it so much. But for those who are apprehensive about beginning this way (or beginning with Wallace at all for that matter) I say pick up Girl with Curious Hair. Although, the final and mind-blowingly brilliant story is the rather lengthy "Westward The Course of Empire Takes Its Way" which would typically be considered not to be stylistically "accessible" at all really. It's both a barbed criticism of and heartfelt tribute to metafiction, a hilarious quasi-autobiographical look into his writing workshop days in graduate school, and much, much more. And at its heart (as with all of his work) is a sincere and emotionally resonant portrait of what it means to be a homosapien in the 20th/21st century and beyond. Great stuff.(less)
"What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch...moreFrom my favorite story, "Good Old Neon":
"What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant."
Oblivion is not as consistently solid as his first short stories collection Girl With Curious Hair, but hands down is amazing nonetheless.
Only slight complaint: The very first story is a bit difficult as it's loaded with corporate marketing, PR and advertising jargon, but it still unfolds eventually as being brilliant nonetheless. According to an interview Wallace spent quite a long time writing that one. My complaint is that it was not the best decision to place this story as the first in the collection. I have to wonder how many people were put off by it and then didn't get to the rest of the stories which are wonderful, top-notch DFW.
"Incarnations of Burned Children" is a mere 2.5 pages long but an example of perfectly condensed intensity.
"The Soul Is Not A Smithy" is tremendously suspenseful and melancholy. Also contains some of the most emotionally pointed descriptions of the mind of a young child playing mental games with themselves due to elementary school-daze boredom.
And the finale, "The Suffering Channel", is a wonderful example of the well-balanced surrealism, and the emotional and moral realism that is brought out when playing with the twin forces of sadness and hilarity that Wallace is widely celebrated for. It involves a man who shits perfect sculptures and the glossy magazine journalist who must cover the story and spin it appropriately.
My second favorite story is "Another Pioneer." It's just great. That's all I'll say about it for now. (less)
There's just too much for me to say about this book. For some of my thoughts about it and about Harris more generally just check out this review and t...moreThere's just too much for me to say about this book. For some of my thoughts about it and about Harris more generally just check out this review and the comments beneath:
From a blog I wrote early on in my reading of this book (I'll be writing more about the rest later on):
"Climbed to the Highest Point on the Tree and t...moreFrom a blog I wrote early on in my reading of this book (I'll be writing more about the rest later on):
"Climbed to the Highest Point on the Tree and the Empathy Therein"
I'm reading a book right now that's quite impressive called Primates & Philosophers by the primatologist Frans de Waal which is mostly about the evolution of morality. The book is finished with a series of exchanges between philosophers (like Peter Singer for instance) so basically like a conversation in essay form about the subject of evolutionary ethics among other things. De Waal critiques what he calls "Veneer Theory" which posits that human morality exists as a thin layer on top of our amoral core. According to de Waal, and I agree, this model just doesn't add up when we look to the empirical evidence provided by evolution and the rich sources of information we currently have on animal behavior studies. Anyway, I suggest that people check it out. It argues very well for the idea that nature and culture, human nature and moral reasoning are not at odds but rather are so intertwined that the Veneer Theory (culture as a layer on top of biology) just breaks down and falls apart. It's really interesting and has some great descriptions of non-human primate behavior and non-primates (such as dolphins with their relevant presence of higher levels of cognition). One very moving and interesting story is an account of a bonobo attempting to care for an injured bird and help it fly again:
"Here is another story about Bonobo empathy: Betty Walsh, an animal caretaker, observed the following incident involving a 7 year old female Bonobo named Kuni at Twycross Zoo in England. One day, Kuni captured a starling. Out of fear that she might hurt the bird, the keeper urged Kuni to let it go. Kuni took the bird and gently set it on its feet, right side up. When it didn't move, Kuni tossed it in the air. However, it returned to sitting on the earth, probably because it was too stunned or terrified to fly. Kuni then picked it up, climbed to the highest point on the highest tree, wrapped her legs around the trunk so that she had both hands free and carefully unfolded the bird's wings and spread them wide open on her palm and then threw the bird into the air as hard as she could. Unfortunately, it was still too stunned to make it over the barrier, so it sat on the edge of the moat where Kuni guarded it for a long time from the juveniles until it finally flew away."
DeLillo is pretty quotable. Here's a few from White Noise:
"How strange it is. We have these deep terrible lingering fears about ourselves and the peop...moreDeLillo is pretty quotable. Here's a few from White Noise:
"How strange it is. We have these deep terrible lingering fears about ourselves and the people we love. Yet we walk around, talk to people, eat and drink. We manage to function. The feelings are deep and real. Shouldn't they paralyze us? How is it we can survive them, at least for a little while? We drive a car, we teach a class. How is it no one sees how deeply afraid we were, last night, this morning? Is it something we all hide from each other, by mutual consent? Or do we share the same secret without knowing it? Wear the same disguise?"
"The family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation. There must be something in family life that generates factual error. Over-closeness, the noise and heat of being. Perhaps even something deeper like the need to survive. Murray says we are fragile creatures surrounded by a world of hostile facts. Facts threaten our happiness and security. The deeper we delve into things, the looser our structure may seem to become. The family process works towards sealing off the world. Small errors grow heads, fictions proliferate. I tell Murray that ignorance and confusion can’t possibly be the driving forces behind family solidarity. What an idea, what a subversion. He asks me why the strongest family units exist in the least developed societies. Not to know is a weapon of survival, he says. Magic and superstition become entrenched as the powerful orthodoxy of the clan. The family is strongest where objective reality is most likely to be misinterpreted. What a heartless theory, I say. But Murray insists it’s true."
"No sense of the irony of human experience, that we are the highest form of life on earth, and yet ineffably sad because we know what no other animal knows, that we must die."
And one from another novel that I've always loved ever since my first film class:
"Film is more than the twentieth-century art. It's another part of the twentieth-century mind. It's the world seen from inside. We've come to a certain point in the history of film. If a thing can be filmed, the film is implied in the thing itself. This is where we are. The twentieth century is on film. You have to ask yourself if there's anything about us more important than the fact that we're constantly on film, constantly watching ourselves."
-from The Names
"The term itself--my life--is a desperate overstatement."
I'll write about this one another day, just posting these quotations for the time being. A placeholder for a review.(less)
An excellent book to hand to those who deny the veracity of the continually enlarging body of evidence that supports biological evolution or think "in...moreAn excellent book to hand to those who deny the veracity of the continually enlarging body of evidence that supports biological evolution or think "intelligently designed" evolution is a well-supported idea, and even to those who say they believe that evolution is real yet don't quite understand why (a category which I've found many people fall under).
Shermer is well-positioned to write towards the beliefs of the religious who think that evolutionary theory is bogus since he was once one them: Shermer was a evangelical Christian for a few years before rejecting the whole thing.(less)
This is an extremely sound-bite-ish "scarcely mammalian noise" of a fraction of a sliver of a byproduct of a spark of a blurb regarding this book:
I can’t say enough about Berman’s book, really. He lays out a very interesting and condensed yet comprehensive historical analysis of fascistic movements and the mythology based death-cults that fuel them. He carries this out by drawing from political history and theory (obviously), philosophy, and even literary works and movements such as the brief but effective references to Baudelaire and Camus. The parallels he fleshes out between these types of movements and the deep historical time-lines and conceptual trajectories that they occupy and create are very, very incisively perceptive and striking. Again, I think it’s a great book.
The basic thing that people like Paul Berman, Bernard-Henri Levy, Sam Harris (all left leaning liberals generally) and others have and continue to point out clearly and compellingly is that there is a general trend of delusional thinking on "the left" about the realities of what’s going on around the world and of a tendency to succumb to the pitfalls of selectively applying moral relativism (which is the way it's always applied and is subsequently its initial and key failure) and/or hypocrisy in an often times rather perilous way. The chapter "Wishful Thinking" was especially salient in its focus on these points and took Chomsky to task for many of his egregiously misinformed stances on international affairs.
Francis Crick—the "Crick" half of the famous "Watson and Crick" duo that discovered the structure of DNA—coined a term (and used it as the title for h...moreFrancis Crick—the "Crick" half of the famous "Watson and Crick" duo that discovered the structure of DNA—coined a term (and used it as the title for his book on the subject) called The Astonishing Hypothesis, which represents the idea that all human cognition and perception—every emotion, belief, existential crisis, perceived sight, sound, smell, etc—is essentially the product of (or equivalent to) complex clusters and pathways of neurons and the synaptic connections of neurotransmitters that bind them, encased in bone, and in flux like most things. And as Crick once said:
"There is no scientific study more vital to man than the study of his own brain. Our entire view of the universe depends on it."
And just as matter of historical perspective and novelty: Lucretius, a brilliant Roman poet and Epicurian philosopher (circa 99 BC) proposed the same basic idea that lies at the heart of The Astonishing Hypothesis:
"At this stage you must admit that whatever is seen to be sentient is nevertheless composed of atoms that are insentient. The phenomena open to our observation do not contradict this conclusion or conflict with it. Rather they lead us by the hand and compel us to believe that the animate is born, as I maintain, of the insentient."
V.S. Ramachandran has run with The Astonishing Hypothesis in ways like no other pop-science writer has—with the possible exception of Oliver Sacks (who writes a wonderful intro to this book, by the way).
Let's start with a quote from Rama (as I’ll lovingly call him for the rest of the review) that isn’t from this book but gives some sense of scale and scope to what we’re dealing with here when we pursue the implications of The Astonishing Hypothesis:
"The human brain, it has been said, is the most complexly organised structure in the universe and to appreciate this you just have to look at some numbers. The brain is made up of one hundred billion nerve cells or "neurons" which is the basic structural and functional units of the nervous system. Each neuron makes something like a thousand to ten thousand contacts with other neurons and these points of contact are called synapses where exchange of information occurs. And based on this information, someone has calculated that the number of possible permutations and combinations of brain activity, in other words the numbers of brain states, exceeds the number of elementary particles in the known universe."
A quick word on Rama’s overall style: He prides himself—like any good pop-science writer—on being able to make technical, complex topics comprehensible to the layperson. He accomplishes this in spades. He doesn’t condescend and he doesn’t dumb anything down, rather he’s just charismatic (you should see him speak in person), well-educated in more fields than merely his specialty (he’ll drop Shakespeare quotations, references to pop culture, sociology, history and cutting edge philosophy all in the same page), and just knows how to turn a pleasing phrase (rich metaphors and lucid prose abound). He really captures the childlike wonder and openness to evidentiary trajectories and discovery that is an ideal in science. He often compares his work to that of his boyhood hero Sherlock Holmes. He’s a brain-detective tracking down the roots of these various strangest of strange phantoms found lurking ‘round the human brain. Basically, this is the purest antidote to dry, technical writing, and it seems to sacrifice none of the scientific rigor in the process. A truly stunning feat that I’ve only seen a few other authors pull off as well (Steven Pinker and Oliver Sacks both come to mind).
This particular work of Rama’s focuses on some of the strangest, most fascinating, and philosophically rich territory that’s been eked out in the relatively young but incredibly productive and conceptually-expansive history of cognitive neuroscience. At many points I found my jaw dropping further than I thought possible as each page went by. He covers SO MANY interesting neuro-psychological/-behavioral phenomena that it’s difficult to know what to highlight and what to gloss over—there’s just too much for a GoodReads review. Plus, some should be left for you potential readers to happily find on your own (and what I summarize is extremely brief and surface-level anyway).
One of the areas Rama is most well-known for is the revolutionary work he’s done with understanding and curing phantom limb pain. Most people know what this phenomenon consists of: a person loses a body part, most often some section of their arm or leg or the whole thing (though he also mentions rarer instances of phantom penises and phantom breasts) and they begin to have very, very vivid sensations that the limb is still there. The problem often times is that they can’t control what this phantom limb does or how it feels. Commonly, people have the painful sensation that their phantom hand is clenched as tight as can be, to cite one of many examples. Rama discovered a simple and ingenious way to sooth and eventually eliminate these pains. He set up a box with a mirror in it that looks like this:
When he first tried this out on a person who was in agonizing pain they immediately felt a torrent of relief--the phantom limb sufferer described it as an instantaneous and entirely vivid sensation of being able to finally unclench his excrusiatingly painful clenched phantom fist, immediately.
The basic idea is that the brain is tricked into believing that that missing limb is present and when the actual remaining limb moves it gives the equally vivid sensation that the phantom limb is moving in that same willful way. This exercise is done and as time goes on it becomes less and less necessary as the phantom pains become less and less frequent. He cracks a great joke about being the first person to ever amputate a phantom limb. It’s utterly brilliant and a fine humanitarian service that he’s brought to many, many people suffering from what was until his fairly recent discovery such a baffling phenomenon.
This one’s really interesting and rife with all kinds of psychological and philosophical implications. Capgras syndrome is when a person begins to think that people they know and recognize perfectly well are imposters. One main example in the chapter "The Unbearable Likeness of Being" is a young man who had a near fatal car accident which put him into a coma for three weeks. All of his normal functions like talking and walking were restored through physical therapy, but one very peculiar feature remained: he insists that his parents are not his parents. Though he acknowledges the perfect physical similarity and is otherwise perfectly rational he simply cannot be convinced that these kindly older people taking care of him are anything but doppelgangers. Fucking weird, right? Well, there are many more cases of this syndrome than this, so it’s not even quite as rare as one would first guess, and Rama gracefully travels through the cognitive neuroscientific netherworld that lies behind this phenomena with some amazing theories guiding him along the way and developing in his wake. If for no other reason, read this book because of what you’ll learn about Capgras syndrome and...
In Synecdoche, New York, the most recent film by (and directorial debut of) Charlie Kaufman, the central character’s name is (non-coincidently) Caden Cotard. While he doesn’t have the neurological syndrome he does spend large parts of the film fretting about death (it’s a wonderful film, don’t let this description fool you). Actual people with Cotard’s syndrome are either completely convinced that they are already dead or are decaying. They often swear that they can smell their own rotting flesh, etc. Before we jump to the conclusion that these people are just wrist-slitting goth kids prone to hyperbole or just crazy, we need to take the brain’s eye view with Rama as our guide.
And a note about the "just crazy" remark I just made: He stresses throughout this book that it is a profound mistake to send the patients he describes straight to the psychiatrist or the loony bin. And he’s always right to do this. There is some time spent arguing against old paradigms of psychology and psychiatry and cultural theory and sociology—even though he does give Freud credit where credit is due and shows us how Freud had seeds of wisdom, but that the seeds need to be fostered by all of the new knowledge and innovation and (most importantly) positive results brought about by the paradigm-shift of cognitive neuroscience when it comes to treating people with these strangest of mental states and behaviors.
Alright, there are so many other major points of interest I could go into but I’m calling it quits for now. A short list of other great topics:
—Phantom pregnancies —People literally laughing themselves to death —The ins and outs of the placebo effect —Mirror neurons and their relationship to empathy —Blind sight (an incredible phenomenon, look it up) —The pros and cons of evolutionary psychology —People who completely neglect one entire side of their body and do not—and cannot—realize it —The neurological underpinnings of religious revelations and ecstasies —And more!
One last word on...
I tend to approach all of neuroscience with the eyes of a philosopher—meaning, I don’t really have an aptitude for the finer, more technical details, and that there’s basically a constant running commentary in the back of my mind (at least) when I approach the brain which is pondering the ever-increasing philosophical discourse about the nature of consciousness itself. This also easily lends itself to more "existential" thoughts about the obvious which can be more or less boiled down to this: if a person’s conscious experience is the brain or is a product of the brain (the distinctions here will cause most of your eyes to glaze over, so I’ll be be silent on that for now) then its dissolution is our dissolution. In other words, this kind of stuff practically urges a person to consider the inevitability of mortality to some degree or another.
While Rama bypasses all extended musings on the meaning of life and death, he does take a mighty swing at the philosophical debates about consciousness in the final chapter. He’s quite philosophically astute for a neuroscientist with no formal philosophical education. He’s also collaborated with fellow UC-San Diego professor (of philosophy) Patricia Churchland which—for fans of philosophy and science—is basically a dream team. Patricia and her husband Paul are basically the forebearers of a subfield of study called neurophilosophy, which I see as the wave of the future and one of the only hopes for academic philosophy to remain (or become, depending on your station in life) relevant and exciting, and also as a useful clarifying tool for cognitive neuroscience and perhaps science and all the other seriously probing disciplines generally.
I'll continue to urge many people to read this book. It’s maximally eye-opening, entertaining and thought provoking.(less)
A frightening analysis of those who have the courage of their Bible-based convictions. Goldberg's analysis draws considerably from Hannah Arendt's The...moreA frightening analysis of those who have the courage of their Bible-based convictions. Goldberg's analysis draws considerably from Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism.(less)