Summer Readings

July 24, 2006

Summer is a time for focused reading. It is a time when I catch up on my reading or get started on new reading. I typically have 5 or 6 books going simultaneously, in addition to my writing. Someone asked me the other day why I read so much. Well, I love to read many different writing forms. I read my share of fiction, yet I am finding that there is so much more forms of writing that I do enjoy. This has been a lifelong process for me.

Reading popular or pulp fiction provides a release from thinking. That’s about all it is good for, but I do enjoy a good author. Other authors, in fact many other authors write devastatingly beautiful novels that challenge the reader, capture him or her and allow a different kind of escape. A number of years ago I discovered Willa Cather and immediately had a love affair with her writing. The personal narrative in her writing were eloquent beyond description. Death Comes to the Archbishop is a magnificent work. It evokes in me a sense of perspective, a feeling of presence, an understanding of the character. She does it in ways that pulp fiction will never approach. Works of this kind allow us to grow.

Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life, suggests that a life spent reading is a life well spent. I would agree, but reading is not enough. We also need to find ways to make that reading come alive. For me that is in writing. No, I don’t pretend to be a novelist and while I might try my hand at it someday I am more interested in the personal narrative and the historical narrative. I feel that my contribution may lay in that area. Textbooks are okay, I’ve written a few, but they represent a different kind of writing, a kind of writing that dies when you leave the profession or choose not to write anymore. The frequent revisions that publishers demand are rarely because of the availability of new information, but rather a matter of economics. I am not looking for immortality in my writing, but I am looking for a way to convey my feelings thoughts, and yes even philosophies if I can.

So what am I reading this summer? The list is incomplete, but shares some of my better reads. From a pulp fiction side I have read almost all of Harold Coyle’s books this spring and summer. They focus on army small unit tactics and if you are inclined that way they are quite instructive. You need to ignore the geopolitical aspects of some of his newer books. Coyle’s are day books – good for those 8 hour flights. They aren’t philosophically challenging. I suspect they are good for the beach too. Now to the list. . .

Socrates Cafe
I was slow finding this book and it is an easy read with good content. I have enjoyed reading the approach he uses in his “cafe” readings as well as his own reflections. It is an easy read, not overly given to philosophy, but will lead you to some good additional books for reading.

Mayflower
This book is extremely well written and I look forward to reading more of the author’s work. Some of my notions of goodness about the Pilgrims have been dashed, but having enough sense of history to understand the challenges of living cut off in a new world would challenge many of us. While others may not agree I see some of the behaviors described in Willima Golding’s Lord of the Flies in the behavior described in the book. The tribal mentality of the pilgrims is quite evident in the book. While I am partially repulsed by their behavior I cannot measure it against the moral standards of 21st Century America.

The Writing Life
Part of the beauty of reading is discovering new authors. I have discovered a number of new authors this summer. I sometimes ask myself, how could I have missed this author for so long. However, finding new authors is a little like prospecting for gold. It takes time, you can’t tell the quality of the rock (read as “book”) by its cover. There may be gold or fools gold inside and there is no sure way to tell until you’ve cracked the rock open. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard is one of those books. It is gold on the inside. In fact I have already picked up Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek in anticipation of how good it will be. I have learned from previous readings that just because a book gets the Pulitzer prize does not make it a gold nugget. Come to think of it, a gold nugget is obvious to everyone, a writer’s ability to produce a gold nugget is dependent entirely upon the reader. The Writing Life is full of good thoughts. It is a short 111 pages, but it is not a short read. I suspect I will read it several times before I feel that I have gleaned all there is to find in the book.

Wind, Sand and Stars
Some books you find by reading recommendations from others. In this case I was in a small bookstore on the square in Bloomington, Indiana with my wife and daughter. We were taking a book back we had purchased two days before. My daughter did not realize she already had the book, so while she was making the change I wandered around this small bookstore. Small is an anomaly in today’s bookstores. The bookstore is less than 1000 square feet and yet I never fail to find good books. There may be a few best sellers around, but there are more gold nuggets per square foot than in Borders or Barnes & Noble. Size does not replace the quality of a good proprietor that knows their trade. Published in 1939 and billed as a National Geographic top 10 adventure book of all time does not do this book justice. It is a philosophy book and I have curled up with it several times in the last few days. Good writing requires good reading and for me good reading means I slow down and ponder on the words of the writer. Some words require more reflection than others.

That’s the short list. It reflects about 15 percent of my summer’s efforts.

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How hot is hot?

July 19, 2006

I sit in Salina, Kansas this afternoon basking in an air conditioned hotel room watching “Without a Trace” wondering just how hot can it get. It is 110 degree Fahrenheit outside. I have lived and worked in hot country, but it has been a long time since I experienced such heat. In the lower midwest we rarely if ever see 100 degrees. I haven’t seen it at my home in 16 years. Yet, when we lived in the central valley of California we experienced temperatures in excess of 100 degrees daily, for months at a time. I used to spend parts of my summer in the high desert of southern California running between howitzers, as a safety officer, in 125 degree heat.

Morocco

We adjust to the environment we live in, or at least we like to admit we do. In fact we no longer live within our environment. Instead we go out of our air conditioned homes and offices to experiences moments of heat and cold. But we no longer need to adjust to the temperatures. I only open my home up when the temperature and humidity meet my expectations. If the temperature adjusts 5 degrees either way I consider closing my home up and reverting to my artificial environment.

In my visits to Morocco I see much less of this adaptation. There may be some air conditioning, but the vast majority of individuals do not have the luxury of creating an alternative environment. Are they better or worse off then those of us who have technology available? I don’t know. It is another argument for another day.

As a child growing up in the midwest I was not privy to air conditioning. As a youngster, I remember walking into the Yonkers’ store in downtown Des Moines in the early 1950s and seeing and feeling air conditioning for the very first time. You had to walk into a space bounded by plastic sheets to feel the cool air. I thought it was great. Even then we altered our environment the best we could. Open the house at night, close it during the day. Use fans where possible. Spend time in the basement, or on the cool side of the house.

I have often pondered how the early pioneers trekked across the great plains day after hot day. How they retained the ability to endure the heat and the cold. Of course I know that they suffered and many died. Were they stronger than us. I don’t think so, but they were products of their environment and of the technology that was available to them. Just as we are today. Does that make us lucky. Yes and no. Yes, in that we have the ability to control our environment. No: When that technology doesn’t work we often don’t know how to respond. In a sense we have insulated ourselves from our own environment and it may be at our own expense. We don’t know how to dress for cold, we don’t know of the need for water in the heat, we don’t know of the dangers of being unprepared.

The control of our environment has allowed us to make technological progress, it has allowed us to alter our work habits, it has allowed us to remove the environment from our worries. I’m not sure Maslow ever thought about this. How would he respond to it. We move from the heights of comfort and safety to fear, anxiety, and sense of loss in just a moment. Several years ago we were forced to leave our hotel because of a tornado alert. We worried about our safety, we could get no word. Technology came to the rescue. 1500 miles away my daughter accessed weather.gov and gave us ongoing updates on the storm. We knew what was going on.

Our comfort breeds a contempt for natural disasters. Hurricane Katrina is an example. People scoffed at the idea of listening to the warnings of those who knew the dangers. When the worst happened they pointed fingers at others. Who was right and who was wrong? Both and others have been pointing blame ever since. Again, another topic for another day.

So how hot is hot? It’s a matter of perspective, experience, and our ability to control our exposure to it. Sitting in an non air conditioned trailer in the middle of the prairie, it is HOT! Sitting in a hotel room looking out the window, having turned the AC to a warmer temperature so I’m not cold, it’s not so hot. Or is it?