In my view, this book and the accompanying PBS series combined into one entity is Carl Sagan’s masterpiece. He fuses astronomy, history, philosophy, rIn my view, this book and the accompanying PBS series combined into one entity is Carl Sagan’s masterpiece. He fuses astronomy, history, philosophy, religion, biography, speculation, and art into this project in such an unique and astonishing way that one can’t help but be completely enthralled with the information given. We start off as a passenger on a ‘spaceship of the imagination’ that takes us back and forth through time from the moment of the Big Bang to the end of the Earth – either by the Sun’s expansion into a red giant star about 6 billion years from now, or the end of humanity through self-destruction. In between and along the way we see the evolution of life with the progression of natural and artificial selection, to the rise and fall of the Ionians in Greece, we hear the questions posed about alien life and what it would mean to humanity, we find explorers of the future in their nuclear powered spaceships, and to the present where Sagan gives a moving plea in the final chapter, ‘Who Speaks for Earth?’ as he asks the people of the Earth to cooperate and help each other in ways that promote a global community that appreciates cultural diversity, as well as a common stewardship of the planet that we all share. Being that this is one of the best selling science books of all time and the most watched PBS series ever; Sagan’s message of education and wonder made it out to a lot of people – including a 4 year-old and a 31 year-old version of me! As a professional astronomer and science populizer, he understood the importance of communicating to the public the contemporary discoveries of science and the lessons of history.
On exploration then and now: These voyages of exploration and discovery are the latest in a long series that have characterized and distinguished human history. In the 15th and 16th centuries you could travel from Spain to the Azores in a few days, the same time it takes us now to cross the channel from Earth to the Moon. It took then a few months to traverse the Atlantic Ocean and reach what was called the New World, the Americas. Today it takes a few months to cross the ocean of the inner solar system and make planet-fall on Mars or Venus, which are truly and literally new worlds awaiting us. In the 17th and 18th centuries you could travel from Holland to China in a year or two, the time it has taken Voyager to travel from Earth to Jupiter. On theology: Every human culture rejoices in the fact that there are cycles in nature. But how, it was thought, could such cycles come about unless the gods willed them? And if there are cycles in the years of humans, might there not be cycles in the aeons of the gods?... It is said that men may not be the dreams of the gods, but rather that the gods are the dreams of men. On humanity and stewardship: There are not yet any obvious signs of extraterrestrial intelligence and this makes us wonder whether civilizations like ours always rush implacably, headlong, toward self-destruction. National boundaries are not evident when we view the Earth from space. Fanatical ethnic or religious or national chauvinisms are a little difficult to maintain when we see our planet as a fragile blue crescent fading to become an inconspicuous point of light against the bastion and citadel of stars… What account would we give of our stewardship of the planet Earth? We have heard the rationales offered by the nuclear superpowers. We know who speaks for the nations. But who speaks for the human species? Who speaks for Earth?...more
I first encountered Dr. David Grinspoon when I was reading a biography on Carl Sagan. David is the son of Dr. Lester Grinspoon; a professor of psychiaI first encountered Dr. David Grinspoon when I was reading a biography on Carl Sagan. David is the son of Dr. Lester Grinspoon; a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School that has done original work in cannabis research and mental health, and was a close friend of Sagan. The next encounter I had with David was at a lecture he gave at DU for the Denver Astronomical Society to promote this book and his research. Observing his natural exuberance and love for these topics make him a highly likable character. Why, y’all ask? Because he’s not the stereotypical science lecturer that radiates boredom, dryness, uninteresting logic, and social skills that bottom out in the negative extremis; but rather, Dr. Grinspoon gives highly charged and invigorating descriptions of all things astronomical – plus the dichotomy of his possession of degrees in philosophy and planetary science with a doctorate in the latter, and his physical appearance of multiple earrings and a frizzy, thinning afro atop a tall body, make for an interesting lecturing experience. Also, I must mention that he’s a local that’s based in Boulder and a fellow musician, and that I’ve seen a few of his talks at this point. Yes, he’s quirky, funny, and damn smart; and he wrote this amazing book that masterfully paints his individuality and passion for science across its 428 pages.
On Earth being in the habitable zone: The surface of a planet can be a good place for elements and simple molecules to get together, try new variations on their structural themes, and make ever more complex molecules. Especially if, as was this particular planet, the third stone from a third-generation star, it is blessed with a sprinkling of holy water rich in carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, and phosphorus – the “biogenic elements.” It also helps if, when the music stops after the random accretionary dance, your planet winds up at a healthy distance from the irradiating glow of its newborn star.
On what “life” is: Try this: Life is a self-perpetuating, self-contained chemical phenomenon that extracts or manufactures high-energy nutrients from its environment, excretes waste material of lower chemical energy, and surfs the energy difference between food and shit to go on living. Life is a breakfast cereal, a board game, a very long sentence, a bitch and then you die. I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret: We don’t really know what life is. We may as well try and catch the wind as pin life down with a tidy definition… Now that I’ve established that we don’t know what life is, I’ll continue to describe where we think it came from.
On attending a conference in his adopted home turf of Boulder, CO: It was a classic Boulder crowd: well-heeled hippies with carefully matted dreadlocks falling over designer tie-dyes, bespectacled academics toting tattered notebooks, and smatterings of spandex, bike helmets, laptops, dogs, beards and peasant dresses (not necessarily on the same person but not necessarily not), the occasional whiff of patchouli oil or pot (but absolutely no tobacco smoking, under pain of death)… Boulder is a bubble town nestled against the mountains thirty miles northwest of Denver. It’s sort of like the city in Logan’s Run, a pleasant place, and anybody who is unhappy or unattractive or too old or unwealthy is recycled, and used to grow organic, free-range fruits and vegetables.
Ha! Learning has never been so fun as Lonely Planets! It’s a bullet-train ride through history, pseudoscience, real science, philosophy, astrobiology, and his specialty, planetary science. I must say that this is probably my favorite astronomy book, because I’ve plowed though it twice now and I’m sure I’ll do it a few more times as the years go on....more
Gretchen Rubin is a former lawyer that has been a clerk for Sandra Day O’Connor, provided legal counsel to an FCC chairman, and has been a professor aGretchen Rubin is a former lawyer that has been a clerk for Sandra Day O’Connor, provided legal counsel to an FCC chairman, and has been a professor at Yale Law School. In all her free time she wrote a book and started a family. Eventually she chucked the lawyer thing and decided to devote herself fulltime to writing, thus producing her second book; 40 Ways To Look At Winston Churchill.
This book is unique because it’s a short 300 page romp through an amazing life, where 40 questions are asked in the form of chapters about its namesake. Rubin knew she had to do something different in order to garner any kind of attention on one of the most recognizable figures in recent history. Among the piles of biographies on Churchill, this one stands out because it doesn’t tell the reader a linear set of facts that add up to a “business as usual” biography, but rather gives conflicting views of the man from diverse sources. It is up to the reader to decide, not the biographer, on the questions posed. The form of this book attracted me as much as the story of Churchill, because it represents in a non-fiction guise, what fiction authors have been arguing is the most unique quality to the art of fiction and reading; the reader is the co-author, the co-creator of the imaginative experience. Fiction authors will say that this is proof that reading is non-passive, but rather highly engaging for a reader that is experiencing story telling through their own mind’s eye, thus filtering the author’s story through their personal perspectives and interpretations to create a unique activity. By asking questions in the chapter headings, Rubin has given the reader a map to follow that points to the often conflicting notions of a character that resists definitive conclusions.
On the tactics of biographers: Churchill biographers – like all biographers – decide their stories and include facts to support them. Someone portraying Churchill as the savior of his country chooses certain facts; someone debunking the Churchill myth chooses others. In deciding what facts to relate – where each detail must stand in for hundreds of omitted details – biographers act like novelists, using theme, irony, motif, metonymy, description, symbolism, morals, and the like to shape a particular image of their subject.
Winston Churchill’s own words: “Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”
“Perhaps it is better to be irresponsible and right than responsible and wrong.”
“All newborn babies look like me.”
An American critic talking to Churchill about Mahatma Gandhi and the subject of Indian independence and Churchill’s reluctance to give up British India: “Before we proceed any further, let us get one thing clear. Are we talking about the brown Indians in India, who have multiplied alarmingly well under benevolent British rule? Or are we speaking of the red Indians in America who, I understand, are almost extinct?”
On Churchill the renaissance man: There is something melodramatic – legendary – fantastic about Churchill, a figure galloping out of the past. Even his name has Dickensian aptness: sacred and lofty, with decisive, alliterative elements. Can the facts be true? Could he really have been a man who was not only a prominent world statesman but also rode to hounds, fenced, flew airplanes, played polo, owned racehorses, painted, farmed, and collected tropical fish? Who without a university education was a celebrated war correspondent, novelist, historian, and biographer – whose books were not only best sellers but also won their author the Nobel Prize in literature, in the same year it might be added, he accepted the Order of Garter? He was the only person to serve in the War Cabinet in both WWI and WWII; he served in the Army, Navy, and Air Force. At age 70, in shooting contest with General Eisenhower and guard officers, Churchill hit 9 shots in the center of a bull’s-eye and 1 on the fringe.
Question and answer or not; you decide. That is the task of this book, because part of Churchill's mystique lies within our outlook. In this way, his likeness is seen through ourselves....more
It’s a funny title and subject for sure, but this book is a serious philosophical inquiry into the nature of bullshit and its applications. I might alIt’s a funny title and subject for sure, but this book is a serious philosophical inquiry into the nature of bullshit and its applications. I might also say that Frankfurt is a Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton – just to appease anyone that thinks this is all a bunch of bullshit.
Opening argument: One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit... In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, and what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory. I propose to begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit, mainly by providing some tentative and exploratory philosophical analysis. One of the main subjects of the book is the distinction between a liar and a bullshitter. Frankfurt contends that a liar is more vile than a mere bullshitter. Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth… In order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of truth. On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared, so far as required, to fake context as well. This freedom from the constraints to which the liar must submit does not necessarily mean, of course, that his task is easier than the task of the liar. But the mode of creativity upon which it relies is less analytical and less deliberative than that which is mobilized in lying. It is more expansive and independent, with more spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play. Hence the familiar notion of the “bullshit artist.” Frankfurt’s descriptions of bullshit are so succinct and poignant, that I can’t elaborate or bullshit my way through any analysis of his theoretical study. The only thing I can add here, on a personal note, is that I get a giddy chuckle every time I read the word ‘bullshit’ and ‘bullshitter’ in this insightful book!...more
Now here’s a real problem; a British literary critic whom I greatly admire, one James Wood, publishes an essay on why he doesnJames Wood vs. Don DeLillo
Now here’s a real problem; a British literary critic whom I greatly admire, one James Wood, publishes an essay on why he doesn’t like a novel called, Underworld, by one of my favorite authors, the American novelist Don DeLillo. And that pesky rub is somewhere between the two, because I really like DeLillo’s book, while Wood’s 12 page critique of it, is an accurate and dead-on review that would make any fan of literature nod their head in one way or another. The facts: Underworld was first published in 1997 and James Wood’s essay entitled, Against Paranoia: The Case of Don DeLillo, was published in The New Republic shortly thereafter. Both the novel and essay are brilliantly crafted pieces that give the reader unexpected insights into the world around us. And no, I’m not kidding or being gratuitous when I say that.
James Wood Born 1965; Durham, UK Wood has published three books of criticism and one novel. He is a writer for the New Yorker and has written for The Guardian and The New Republic. He teaches at Harvard and Columbia Universities.
Don DeLillo Born 1936; New York City, USA DeLillo has written 15 novels and three plays. He’s won a National Book Award and a PEN/Faulkner Award. Underworld was voted the second most important work of fiction in the last 25 years by The New York Times.
Wood ~ To call Underworld, Don DeLillo’s large novel, a failure, might seem an act of slightly flirtatious irrelevance. The book is so large, so serious, so ambitious, so often well written, so punctually intelligent, that it produces its own antibodies and makes criticism a small germ. Moreover, Don DeLillo’s huge endeavor represents a promise to restock the novel’s wasting pedigree in our age, and few want to see the promise broken. It is easy, and rightly so, for big books to flush away criticism. But DeLillo’s novel, despite chapters of great brilliance, does not gather its local victories as a book this large should. Instead, it enforces relations between its parts which it cannot coax. Curiously, it is at once distractingly centrifugal and dogmatically centripetal: its many characters dissolve an intensity which the novel insists on repeating. Some background:
Underworld is the story of the kind of history that influences our lives in monumental ways. That being our personal history; things like, birth place, parents, siblings, school, environment, friends, romantic counterparts, and of course all this sets against the history we all know; JFK, Vietnam, Civil Rights, the Cold War. The book starts in 1951 with the “Shot Heard Around the World” in baseball when Bobby Thomson hit a homerun for a New York Giants victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers. Simultaneously the USSR makes its “shot” when it detonates its first atomic bomb in Kazakhstan. Underworld takes us on a journey from then to the late 1990’s in which we follow Thomson’s baseball that in reality was never found, but here its ownership changes over the next 50 years frequently. Every person to come in contact with the ball is a character along with others including, a Jesuit nun, a New York graffiti artist, a Kazakh medical ward, a conceptual artist, a waiter, and fictionalized versions of real characters; J. Edgar Hoover, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, and most significantly, Lenny Bruce. The book follows a non-linear narrative that goes back and forth in time through the years of the Cold War.
DeLillo talking about his book in an interview ~ The last half century has been an enormously complex period – a strange spin-out experience, filled with danger and change. The novel is a very open form. It will accommodate large themes and whole landscapes of experience. The novel is here, the novel exists to give us a form that is fully equal to the sweeping realities of a given period. The novel expands, contracts, becomes essay-like, floats in pure consciousness – it gives the writer what he needs to produce a book that duplicates, a book that models the rich, dense, and complex weave of actual experience. The novel goads the writer into surpassing himself… And it occurs to me that this is what the writer does to transcend the limitations of his background. He does it though language, obviously. He writes himself into the larger world. He opens himself to the entire culture. Round 3
Wood ~ Don DeLillo is a serious artist whose pointed stewardship of the novel in our culture and pleasure in the chafe of fictional language are cherishable. But his very defensiveness of the novel leads him, as far as one can see, into a philosophy of history which may weaken the novel, and into a battle with the culture which the novel can only lose. Again, the problem is that DeLillo veers toward a complicity with the very culture he wants to defend the novel against. Yet DeLillo’s struggle with the anaconda of postmodern America, if not his personal theory of that struggle, is representative of much American writing since 1960, when Philip Roth famously argued that American reality was more vivid, and hence more fictional, than American fiction. DeLillo is not isolate; where Underworld fails, it fails collegiately. Round 4
Underworld page; 446 In cities you build a language of circumspection and tact, a thousand little intimations, the nuance that has a shimmer of rubbed bronze. Then you go to the wilderness and become undone, lapsing into babble, eating mushroom caps that implode your brain, that make you preternaturally aware and afraid, turn you into an Aztec bird. Matt Shay sat in the terminal of the airport in Tucson and listened to announcements bouncing off the walls. He was thinking about his paranoid episode at the bombhead party the night before. He felt he’d glimpsed some horrific system of connections in which you can’t tell the difference between a soup can and a car bomb, because they are made by the same people in the way and ultimately refer to the same thing. There was a garbage strike in New York. There was a man being paged known only as Jack. A woman with an accent said to someone seated next to her, “I so-call fell in love with him the day he paint my walls.” There was a man in a wheelchair eating a burrito. Round 5
Wood ~ What is striking is how many paranoid people there are in Underworld, and how this multitude drives so many perforations of unreality into the book’s form that its truths come to seem ragged and uncertain, while its untruths have an airy consistency… Such an agglomeration of paranoid people makes the reader weary about discrimination, and thus deprives this novel of one of fiction’s great goads. Paranoia must necessarily do this to fiction, for it silences judgment. One might call this the logic of pampered ignorance. If what you start out from is what you do not know, this is an infinitely extendable mystical spectrum. One can always not know more. Paranoia approaches knowledge from behind, so that anything can be connected with anything. It is dogmatic occultism. Yet fiction’s task is to show where connections seem to end, the better for their vivid spread. Round 6
Underworld page; 301 You withhold the deepest things from those who are closest and then talk to a stranger in a numbered room. page; 778 It was dark and quiet now and he went up the narrow street toward his building but then swung into a gateway on an impulse and went down the steps and into the yards. There was no light in the outer passage and he felt along the walls for the door that led inside. He smelled wet stone where the super had hosed the floors. He went inside and walked past the furnace room to the door at the end of the passage. He still felt uneasy about the basement room, about the needle and strap and spoon, but it was passing little by little into faded time, half lost in the weave of a thousand things. Page; 803 Most of our longings go unfulfilled. This is the word’s wistful implication – a desire for something lost or fled or otherwise out of reach. In Phoenix now, with the years blowing by, I take a drive sometimes out past the regimented typeface on the map… Closing Arguments
Don DeLillo is an amazingly talented writer and I have no problem calling him a genius. However in my view, Underworld is not his best work, yet it stands near the top of a skinny mountain that is the best of contemporary fiction. Of DeLillo’s work that stand above Underworld are; The Names, White Noise, The Body Artist, and Mao II. Literary Criticism is something that I’ve really enjoyed reading the past few years. It can give insight and understanding of literature that’s not always immediately apparent, and in turn, criticism can add to the evocative nature of the works it analyzes. James Wood is a fairly recent find for me. Out of the very few critics that I like, he is the best because he seems to possess an almost ESP-like ability to break things down and render them comprehensible to the layman while adding his own touch of resonance.
Wood ~ Naturally enough, DeLillo has his own American anxiety; you cannot have the calm growl of a Tolstoy in late-twentieth-century America, nor should you. But the paranoid vision incorporates a certain restless despair that makes the creation of rounded individual characters impossible. Paranoia acts as a falsely religious stimulant, to both novelists and their characters. Thus it is that DeLillo fights history with the religion of the novel, and speaks of the novel as “fanaticism, with elements of obsession, superstition and awe” – an extraordinary inversion of the sober nineteenth-century legacy, and a superstitious cul-de-sac for the novel. Living in America, inheriting a dread that American reality is too powerful for American fiction, he responds by crawling very close to an outright denial of reality’s groundedness, while exaggerating the strength of fiction’s potential resistance to that reality. If Tolstoy fought superstition with the daylight of realism, DeLillo merely fights superstition with a new superstition. He fights the religion of history with religion of fiction. Round 8
Underworld Page; 827 And you can glance out the window for a moment, distracted by the sound of small kids playing a made-up game in a neighbor’s yard, some kind of kickball maybe, and they speak in your voice, or piggy-back races on the weedy lawn, and it’s your voice you hear, essentially, under the glimmerglass sky, and you look at the things in the room, offscreen, unwebbed, the tissued grain of the deskwood alive in the light, the thick lived tenor of things, the argument of things to be seen and eaten, the apple core going sepia in the lunch tray, and the dense measures of experience in a random glance, the monk’s candle reflected in the slope of the phone, hours marked in Roman numerals, and the glaze of the wax, and the curl of the braided wick, and the chipped rim of the mug that holds your yellow pencils, skewed all crazy, and the plied lives of the simplest surface, the slabbed butter melting on the crumbled bun, and the yellow of the yellow of the pencils, and you try to imagine the word on the screen becoming a thing in the world, taking all its meanings, its sense of serenities and contentments out into the streets somehow, its whisper of reconciliation, a word extending itself ever outward, the tone of agreement or treaty, the tone of repose, the sense of mollifying silence, the tone of hail and farewell, a word that carries the sunlit ardor of an object deep in drenching noon, the argument of binding touch, but it’s only a sequence of pulses on a dullish screen and all it can do is make you pensive – a word that spreads a longing through the raw sprawl of the city and out across the dreaming bourns and orchards to the solitary hills....more