I am in Sweden for the first time, exploring Stockholm with a friend, preparing for a journey west to research family ancestry with my son.
I’d like to find at least one, if not both, of the farms near Falkenberg and the North Sea where my grandmother (mormor) lived. I have photos, but no addresses.
I’d like to find out more about my mysterious grandfather (morfar), who was said to have been orphaned in a flu epidemic and who sailed for America a few days behind the Titanic, having missed that ill-fated ship because of a rail strike in England.
For the most part, seeing extended Swedish family will have to wait until another trip to Sweden, although we do have plans to meet up with a distant cousin. Many years ago when I was living in New York City, two Swedish cousins came to sightsee and I had a great time showing them around. They have both since passed away. My aunts visited Sweden a few decades ago and saw many cousins, but there is a new generation now whose addresses I don’t have.
We’ll see what I find this time around.
I brought with me the classic Swedish novel Doctor Glas, a brooding, psychological period piece that foreshadows modern-day themes of euthanasia and abortion. Margaret Atwood wrote the foreword to the paperback edition I have.
It has been intriguing to find turn-of-the-century landmarks, such as restaurants and museums, mentioned in the novel as we pass by them sightseeing around Stockholm.
And there is the unusual, early morning light of the 4 am Swedish spring sunrise – Atwood mentions eerie evening light below.
“Doctor Glass is deeply unsettling, in the way certain dreams are – or, no coincidence, certain films by Bergman….the eerie blue northern nights of midsummer combined with an unexplained anxiety, the nameless Kirkegaardean dread that strikes Glas at the most ordinary of moments….It occurs on the cusp of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it opens doors the novel has been opening ever since.” – Margaret Atwood
In Stockholm, I found my way to a city park, which gave way to an enchanting neighborhood of garden allotments along the water, with a public, tree-lined hiking path. I saw the following passage in Swedish on a plaque. I used Google Translate to decipher it. Because that tool is imperfect, I took liberties and edited the passage, so it’s not a literal translation:
“From the cottages on the slopes above the Eriksdalslunden, with its aspen and small flowering gardens, look down to the water and the dark wilderness of coniferous forests across thew way; it’s as if you’ve been transported to Sweden’s Norrland (Northland). – Architect Osvald Almqvist, 1930s
Birdsong and flowers in Eriksdaslunden:
I’ve been carrying around (and not so much reading) the poetry of Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. Here, his poem about espresso:
The black coffee they serve outdoors/among tables and chairs gaudy as insects.
Precious distillations/filled with the same strength as Yes and No.
It’s carried out from the gloomy kitchen/and looks into the sun without blinking.
In the daylight a dot of beneficent black/that quickly flows into a pale customer.
It’s like the drops of black profoundness/sometimes gathered up by the soul,
giving a salutary push: Go!/Inspiration to open your eyes.
“Now the details are so clear to me, as if contained in a time capsule: the Hudson River in the darkness; the lights strung across the George Washington Bridge; the even timbre of my mother’s voice; the high plane of her cheekbone. Her long-fingered hands clasped in her lap. Institute. World-famous. Philadelphia.” Inheritance, Dani Shapiro
A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love
Over the next month or two, I’ll be looking at memoir through the lens of inheritance – genetic, ancestral, cultural, and otherwise. This, as I send off my DNA to be analyzed and journey to my two ancestral homes: Sweden, for the first time; and Sicily, where we’ve traveled as a family on several occasions while raising our sons.
I’m not sure what I’ll find in Sweden – more about that in upcoming posts. As for Sicily, I look forward to seeing my extended family again and their stunningly beautiful landscape, their small city on the sea which has been their ancestral home for centuries, and their warm, embracing culture.
I wanted to begin with Dani Shapiro’s jaw-dropping Inheritance because it is a “big,” important memoir, masterfully executed by a seasoned memoirist and novelist, about an increasingly common situation: more people are having their DNA analyzed, and some are getting huge surprises. Others are having long-held suspicions about maternity or paternity confirmed.
In Dani’s case, she learned that her father, whom she adored, was not her biological father. Which meant that her half sister was not her sister. Her beloved aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents were not her blood relations, either. Their rich, storied Jewish history and culture were not hers. (Or were they? Do true blood ties matter? Or can nurture make up the difference? Dani explores this.)
Some of Dani’s memories are especially resonant and ironic in hindsight:
At a writer’s retreat, when she was young, aspiring, and still unknown, a famous poet, observing her fair-skinned features, commented: “There’s no way you are Jewish. No way.”
At a backyard barbecue in their close-knit, Jewish neighborhood, a friend and Holocaust survivor said to a baffled, eight-year-old Dani: ““We could have used you in the ghetto, little blondie. You could have gotten us bread from the Nazis.”
After a photographic portrait session, three-year-old Dani was selected by Kodak for the Grand Central Station Colorama photo: the iconic, blonde, All-American (non-Jewish) child in front of the Christmas tree waiting eagerly for Santa.
But I found the following memory most haunting of all: it speaks of Dani’s staggering loneliness and bewilderment as an only child who had always had an innate, deeply felt sense she didn’t belong in her own family. Years after it happened, a neighbor recalled how one day Dani ran across the street to her house, frightened and crying. A home security alarm had gone off, and Dani’s babysitter had been apparently indifferent or unconcerned. The neighbor said she later called Dani’s mother, fed up with Dani’s endless string of babysitters and what she saw as parental neglect. I should say here that Dani had a challenging, contentious relationship with her mother who was, to say the least, a difficult woman.
Inheritance is an important memoir for many reasons; among other things, it raises moral and ethical questions that we, as a society, need to confront. I’ve written before about Jaron Lanier’s call for a more humanitarian focus as our culture becomes shaped and influenced in unforeseen ways by advances in technology. As genetic identities become easily obtainable, we’d do well to ask:
At what point does the quest to have children, at all costs, become morally questionable? (There is something deeply ironic about the profession chosen by Dani’s biological father, whose identity she goes on to discover.)
Is it not the basic human right of every individual to know his or her genetic identity? Is it ever right for that genetic identity to be legally or otherwise withheld?
Dani comes to think of her discovery as a form of trauma:
“Later, I will become a student of trauma. I will read deeply on the subject as a way of understanding the two opposite poles of my own history: the trauma my parents must have experienced in order to have made a decision so painful that it was buried at the moment it was made, and the trauma of my discovery of that decision more than half a century later.
It is the nature of trauma that, when left untreated, it deepens over time. I had experienced trauma over the years and had developed ways of dealing with it. I meditated each morning. I had a decades-long yoga practice. I had suffered other traumas – my parents’ car accident, Jacob’s childhood illness – and had come out the other side, eventually. What I didn’t understand was that as terrible as these were, they were singular incidents….
But this – the discovery that I wasn’t who I had believed myself to be all my life, that my parents had on some level, no matter how subtle, made the choice to keep the truth of my identity from me – this was no singular incident. It wasn’t something outside myself, to be held to the light and examined, and finally understood. It was inseparable from myself. It was myself.
Their trauma became mine – had always been mine. It was my inheritance, my lot.”
Memoir, as a genre, is coming into its own, partly because we are finally realizing how silence and secrets can deepen trauma, with impacts on individuals, families, communities, and our larger culture.
Coming up on Books Can Save a Life:
The Book of Help: A Memoir in Remedies, by Megan Griswold. There is something uniquely American and West Coast about this hilarious and deeply honest memoir by a fabulous writer. I’ll be looking at her familial and cultural “inheritance.”
My personal stake in memoir, my own writing of memoir, and what aspects of inheritance I’ll be searching for when I travel to Europe.
Oregon Poet Laureate Kim Stafford came “home” to our little town last week to read poetry, tell stories, sing, call up local history, and conjure memories of many Stafford family vacations spent here in a home-made cabin.
It was a lively, friendly, intimate couple of hours. I’m new to central Oregon, but I could feel the great love long-timers here have for Kim’s family, which includes his sister, Kit, a local artist and teacher, and his father, William Stafford, now deceased, one of America’s most beloved and important poets. It’s been a long, cold winter, and Kim’s energy and love resurrected our spirits, a perfect springtime happening.
It seems a natural progression to next look at how we, as individuals, can cope and thrive in challenging times, and how we can slow down our lives to nurture and sustain our creative work – which may in turn serve as witness to what needs changing and as a catalyst for that change. This is what Kim Stafford’s life is all about, and what his father’s life was about, too.
If you want to be uplifted and fed, I suggest getting a copy of World Enough & Time. I didn’t read World Enough & Timestraight through, but picked it up between other books, reading chunks here and there, especially when I wanted creative or spiritual uplift.
You’d want to keep World Enough & Time handy on your desk or nightstand to pick up as needed. Its bibliography alone is a gold mine.
Chapters are organized around themes that include: having face-to-face conversations with friends and loved ones; approaching life with the playfulness and imagination of a child; walking; looking; reading; writing letters and keeping journals; pausing; and dreaming. You can read chapters out of order, picking and choosing as you please.
World Enough & Timeis a an especially rich collection. For a decade, McEwen interviewed contemporaries; unearthed insights from past poets, artists, writers, composers, and musicians; and culled from her own life experiences.
The passages below are about or by writers, but I think you can adapt their wisdom to your particular work and daily life. Here, McEwen quotes William Stafford explaining his daily 4 am writing habit:
“I get pen and paper, take a glance out of the window (often it is dark out there), and wait. It is like fishing. But I do not wait very long, for there is always a nibble – and this is where receptivity comes in. To get started I will accept anything that occurs to me.”
McEwen goes on to say:
“Years later, Kim Stafford wrote a memoir about his father entitled Early Morning. He described William’s steady practice as a ‘symposium with the self.’ A particular day’s writing might include images from a recent dream, news of the family and the world at large – and a couple of poems…. by lending ‘faith and attention’ to what he called those ‘waifs of thought,’ a total of more than sixty books made their slow way into print.”
How could I not quote a few of McEwen’s words about Mary Oliver’s creative practice:
“Mary Oliver’s day starts at five each morning, when she sets off on a long, solitary, attentive walk. ‘What I write begins and ends with the act of noticing and cherishing…’ Like Coleridge, who scribbled words and phrases while he was out in the field, Mary Oliver likes to use a pocket notebook, ‘small, three inches by five inches, and hand-sewn.'”
Kim Stafford, William Stafford, Mary Oliver, Christian McEwen, and many others. Feast on the beauty of their work and on the beauty of the world around you. You can’t go wrong.
“What is it like to live your life story, to feed on the beauty meant for you alone, to insist on the conditions that make it possible to live the precise, full life you are here to accomplish?
Don’t wait for the right time. Don’t hesitate. Cross into your beauty now. Carry your seeing, your feasting, your selfish pleasures in the art you choose to the place you need to be, and enact what you have to do there. If you are awake, you have no choice.
The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
“Imagine a society where money plays little or no role, where people rescue each other and then care for each other, where food is given away, where life is mostly out of doors in public, where the old divides between people seem to have fallen away, and the fate that faces them, no matter how grim, is far less so for being shared, where much once considered impossible, both good and bad, is now possible or present, and where the moment is so pressing that old complaints and worries fall away, where people feel important, purposeful, at the center of the world.” A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, by Rebecca Solnit
An upside to disaster is that it can create community out of the ashes. Utopia, even, temporary though that might be. And among individuals, a clarified, reinvigorated sense of life purpose.
In light of my last post about David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth,it occurred to me that Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell can be an antidote to despair, because it arms us with a deeply optimistic view of human nature. When it was published in 2009, it was named best book of the year by The Washington Post, The New York Times, the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, The New Yorker, and the San Francisco Chronicle.
Two hundred years from now, when people want to know what it was like to be alive early in the 21st century, they’ll read Rebecca Solnit: journalist, scholar, historian, and immensely gifted storyteller. Solnit’s prose is a joy to read, because she so seamlessly blends deep research with exquisite portrayals of the humans involved in whatever stranger-than-fiction story she happens to be telling.
Solnit is a soulful activist with a decidedly liberal bent, so she may not appeal if you have more conservative leanings. On the other hand, her books are not partisan diatribes, but suspenseful, exquisitely-researched works often drawing surprising conclusions that transcend our tired, inaccurate political and cultural divides. She does so in A Paradise Built in Hell.
We see a handful of disasters: the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, the 1917 Halifax explosion, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina, among others – and how the government, other well-established institutions, and ordinary citizens responded. Mostly, citizens rose to the occasion magnificently. But, often, the government, the military, and officially designated emergency responders – not so much. Solnit interviews disaster studies experts (it never occurred to me that disaster studies is a well established and growing academic discipline) and other specialists and draws upon what she learned to posit theories as to why might be so.
We also see, up close and personal, overwhelmed individuals who mustered inner resources they didn’t know they had, permanently transformed by the utopian-like goodwill and community that, in the right circumstances, can arise in the days after disaster.
Here’s a passage written by a survivor of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire:
“….everybody was your friend and you in turn everybody’s friend. The individual, the isolated self was dead. The social self was regnant. Never even when the four walls of ones own room in a new city shall close around us again shall we sense the old lonesomeness shutting us off from our neighbors. Never again shall we feel singled out by fate for the hardships and ill luck that’s going. And that is the sweetness and the gladness of the earthquake and the fire. Not of bravery, not of strength, nor of a new city, but of a new inclusiveness.”
Here are the memories of a young woman who survived the London Blitz:
“A bomb fell two streets away. Another landed nearer as they raced inside, came near enough to buffet her with waves, ‘like bathing in a rough sea.’ She found herself clutching the floor as if to keep from falling while dust was everywhere, her mouth was full of plaster….She was taken in by a neighbor who plied her with blankets and a hot-water bottle ‘for the shock’ and when she said she wasn’t in shock her hostess ‘referred darkly to ‘delayed shock.’ And when she was left alone: ‘I lay there feeling indescribably happy and triumphant. ‘I’ve been bombed!’ I kept saying to myself, over and over again – trying the phrase on, like a new dress, to see how it fitted.’ She concluded, ‘It seems a terrible thing to say, when many people must have been killed and injured last night; but never in my whole life have I ever experience such pure and flawless happiness.’
She was young, she’d survived with her love by her side, and she had fifty-five more nights of bombing to endure…..but time and war did not change her memory. Thirty-five years later Harrison….followed up on her story. She had recently become a grandmother, and she looked back on her night of being bombed as a ‘peak experience – a sense of triumph and happiness’ that she compared to the ‘experience of having a baby.’
All is not roses and optimism in Solnit’s book, however. For example, she takes a good, hard look at what went wrong in New Orleans after Katrina. I found the chapters on New Orleans especially moving, a nuanced portrait of a city and its citizens in a years-long recovery, permanently changed. (It would be fascinating to see what Solnit might make of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.)
(Her portrayal of Katrina reminded me of the riveting Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospitalby Sheri Fink, about a New Orleans hospital forced to cope on its own, with disastrous results. I wrote about this on Books Can Save a Life when I was a medical librarian and interested in the issue of medical rationing during disasters, something we’ll be hearing more about in the coming years.)
In the epilogue of A Paradise Built in Hell, Solnit writes:
“The paradises built in hell are improvisational; we make them up as we go along, and in so doing they call on all our strength and creativity and leave us free to invent even as we find ourselves enmeshed in community. These paradises built in hell show us both what we want and what we can be….
In the 1906 earthquake, a mansion burned down but its stone portals remained standing. A photograph shows that suddenly, rather than framing the entrance to a private interior, they framed the whole city beyond the hill where the ruins stood. Disaster sometimes knocks down institutions and structures and suspends private life, leaving a broader view of what lies beyond. The task before us is to recognize the possibilities visible through that gateway and endeavor to bring them into the realm of the everyday.”
I highly recommend getting to know Rebecca Solnit, especially if you’re restless to find a new nonfiction writer who is entertaining and spot-on when it comes to portraying our current culture, or if you need to become re-enchanted with the world. I have my eye on reading these books by her someday:
Wanderlust: A History of Walking
A Field Guide to Getting Lost
The Faraway Nearby
Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities
Coming up on Books Can Save a Life:
From the dark specter of an uninhabitable earth, to Solnit’s redeeming vision of community and resilience to, next up, a book well on its way to becoming a classic: one that shows us how to constructively turn inward, live slowly, and cultivate an authentic, deeply felt creativity that can be our gift to a world that sorely needs it. Hint: the author is Christian McEwen.
What are you reading now? Fiction? Nonfiction? Books worth your time, I hope. Please let us know your recommendations in the comments.
After we moved from upstate New York to central Oregon, one of the most unsettling adjustments we had to make was contending with late-summer wildfire smoke. For several days in a row, I didn’t venture outside. On a couple of especially bad days, people wore masks if they had to go out and about.
As bleak as The Uninhabitable Earth is, it did relieve me of my wildfire and smoke worries, somewhat. Should we stay where the air can be so hazardous to our health? Ultimately, I’m not sure it matters. No place on earth will remain unaffected by climate change upheaval, and the climate we enjoyed growing up is gone forever.
This book is being compared to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which had an enormous impact when it was published in 1962.
But of course The Uninhabitable Earth was not a pleasant book to read. I hurried through it, sometimes skimming, often wanting to put it down.
“The earth has experienced five mass extinctions before the one we are living through now, each so complete a wiping of the fossil record that it functioned as an evolutionary reset…: 86 percent of all species dead, 450 million years ago; 70 million years later, 75 percent; 125 million years later, 96 percent; 50 million years later, 80 percent; 135 million years after that, 75 percent again. Unless you are a teenager, you probably read in your high school textbooks that these extinctions were the result of asteroids. In fact, all but the one that killed the dinosaurs involved climate change produced by greenhouse gas. The most notorious was 250 million years ago; it began when carbon dioxide warmed the planet by five degrees Celsius, accelerated when that warming triggered the release of methane, another greenhouse gas, and ended with all but a sliver of life on Earth dead.”
David Wallace-Wells intends for The Uninhabitable Earth to arouse fear, even panic, so that we will finally do something. He has been one of the first writers to synthesize research on catastrophic climate change that involves warming of 4 degrees Celsius or higher – because this is what we are on track for so far – and present it to a lay audience.
Something new I learned was that most atmospheric damage has occurred during the last thirty years, and not since the Industrial Revolution began. For the past thirty years, we were raising our children. It isn’t easy to acknowledge that my generation, more than any other, is most responsible for this mess.
“Many perceive global warming as a sort of moral and economic debt, accumulated since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and now come due after several centuries. In fact, more than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades. Which means we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries – all the millennia – that came before. ….The majority of the burning has come since the premiere of Seinfeld.”
It is also depressing to know that my adult children and nieces and nephews – and any grandchildren we might someday have – will have lives severely degraded by climate change. They will have no choice but to engage in an epic, lifelong battle.
It’s not just about sea level rise, either. If we do nothing, other catastrophic changes will “deform” every life on the planet: heat, hunger, wildfire, lack of water, unbreathable air, economic collapse, war, and masses of refugees.
“…150 million more people would die from air pollution alone in a 2-degree warmer world than in a 1.5 degree warmer one….Numbers that large can be hard to grasp, but 150 million is the equivalent of 25 Holocausts. It is three times the size of the death toll of the Great Leap Forward – the largest nonmilitary death toll humanity has ever produced. It is more than twice the greatest death toll of any kind, World War II.”
“The thing is, I am optimistic. Given the prospect that humans could engineer a climate that is 6 or 8 degrees warmer over the course of the next several centuries – large swaths of the planet unlivable by any definition we use today – that degraded middle counts, for me, as an encouraging future. Warming of 3 or 3.5 degrees would unleash suffering beyond anything that humans have ever experienced through many millennia of strain and strife and all-out war. But it is not a fatalistic scenario; in fact, it’s a whole lot better than where we are headed.”
Many people David’s age are opting not to bring children into the world. I was touched to read that while he wrote this book, David Wallace-Wells became a father. And, yes, he is hopeful.
“In the course of writing this book, I did have a child, Rocca…I think you have to do everything you can to make the world accommodate dignified and flourishing life, rather than giving up early, before the fight has been lost or won…I have to admit, I am also excited, for everything that Rocca and her sisters and brothers will see, will witness, will do. She will hit her child-rearing years around 2050, when we could have climate refugees in the many tens of millions; she will be entering old age at the close of the century, the end-stage bookmark on all of our projections for warming. In between, she will watch the world doing battle with a genuinely existential threat, and the people of her generation making a future for themselves, and the generations they bring into being, on this planet. And she won’t just be watching it, she will be living it – quite literally the greatest story ever told. It may well bring a happy ending.”
Wallace-Wells has this to say, in a footnote:
“….particular market forces have almost conquered our politics, but not entirely, leaving a bright shining sliver of opportunity; and I also believe…that meaningful and even dramatic change can be achieved through the familiar paths: voting and organizing and political activity deployed at every level. In other words, I believe in engagement above all, engagement wherever it may help. In fact, I find any other response to the climate crisis morally incomprehensible.”
Currently, my husband and I are familiarizing ourselves with climate activism in central Oregon so that we can become involved. We’ll try to make environmentally responsible lifestyle changes, too, but we agree with Wallace-Wells that political activism is now our best hope.
Here is Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, now 16 years old. She has rocketed to fame in recent months and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize:
Thoughts? Please comment! What books, if any, are you reading about climate change? How are you coping psychologically, and have you found ways to feel empowered?
Next time, I will bring you a beautifully written book of hope by Rebecca Solnit.
“‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. They honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices.’ [Thoreau]
“Solitude deprivation: a state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds.”
Just before our big snowstorm, I’d picked up a copy of Digital Minimalism on hold at the library. A few days before that, I’d finally found my way into an antique bookshop in town, where I bought a treasure I’ll share with you below. So I had plenty of reading handy once the snow began to fall and we hunkered down to stay warm. Given our circumstances, digital minimalism was an appropriate topic.
At the moment, I’m part-way through Cal Newport’s 30-day digital declutter. For me, this includes:
Staying off Facebook and Instagram; leaving no “likes,” or comments, nor looking for any
Scheduling internet time (not a lot) in advance, on my computer and not my smartphone
Deleting most smartphone apps
Writing first drafts – and some revisions – by hand, on paper. Writers are at a disadvantage, because they write with computers, gateways to distraction.
Ultimately, Digital Minimalism isn’t about deprivation, but about enrichment. Cal Newport offers a vision of how those of us who might be struggling with the digital world (count me in), especially social media, can rethink our relationship with the internet in a way that is both wise and empowering.
Newport is a young computer scientist and thought leader helping to usher in a more considered, evolved era of digital literacy. (I loved his book, Deep Work.) What he has to say largely supports Jaron Lanier, another thought leader who has called for a more humanitarian digital culture.
Digital minimalism is not a diet, a detox, or a digital sabbath in which you spend a set amount of time away from your smartphone and other digital devices, only to return to the status quo. Integral to Newport’s “digital decluttering” is adopting new, life-enhancing practices as you selectively cut back digital interactions.
This means cultivating a new skill, deepening a creative practice, or engaging in the pursuit of other personally meaningful goals. And maybe ditching your smartphone. (I had no idea, for example, that some young people are buying flip phones – the kind designed for elderly people, with large screens and keyboards!)
Cal suggests we “…prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption,” as “the value you receive from a pursuit is often proportional to the energy invested…”
Here’s what you do after your 30-day declutter:
“To allow an optional technology back into your life at the end of the digital declutter, it must: Serve something you deeply value (offering some benefit is not enough). Be the best way to use technology to serve this value (if it’s not, replace it with something better). Have a role in your life that is constrained with a standard operating procedure that specifies when and how you use it.”
Newport takes his inspiration from Thoreau and Aristotle:
“I call these activities high-quality leisure. The reason that I’m reminding you here of their importance to a well-crafted life – an idea that dates back over two thousand years – is that I’ve become convinced that to successfully tame the problems of our modern digital world, you must both understand and deploy the core insights of this ancient wisdom….
… low-quality digital distractions play a more important role in people’s lives than they imagine. In recent years, as the boundary between work and life blends, jobs become more demanding, and community traditions degrade, more and more people are failing to cultivate the high-quality leisure lives that Aristotle identifies as crucial for human happiness. This leaves a void that would be near unbearable if confronted, but that can be ignored with the help of digital noise. It’s now easy to fill the gaps between work and caring for your family and sleep by pulling out a smartphone or tablet, and numbing yourself with mindless swiping and tapping. Erecting barriers against the existential is not new….but the advanced technologies of the twenty-first century attention economy are particularly effective at this task.”
“Digital minimalism: A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”
“…we cannot passively allow the wild tangle of tools, entertainments, and distractions provided by the internet age to dictate how we spend our time or how we feel. We must instead take steps to extract the good from these technologies while sidestepping what’s bad. We require a philosophy that puts our aspirations and values once again in charge of our daily experience, all the while dethroning primal whims and the business models of Silicon Valley from their current dominance of this role.”
I’m finding that digital minimalism is hard work in terms of thought, planning, and evaluation. I don’t miss social media, and I’m wondering if it will be worth bringing back into my life. I’ll let you know how this all turns out for me.
I think that our culture is ready for a digital reset, and I hope that someday digital literacy, in which we do the hard work of picking and choosing how we use the internet and our devices, becomes a basic part of school curricula. In the meantime, it is something beneficial we can do for ourselves.
“Digital minimalism definitely does not reject the innovations of the internet age, but instead rejects the way so many people currently engage with these tools…..I’m enthralled by the possibilities of our techno-future. But I’m also convinced that we cannot unlock this potential until we put in the extra effort required to take control of our own digital lives – to confidently decide for ourselves what tools we want to use, for what reasons, and under what conditions. This isn’t reactionary, it’s common sense.”
If you’d like to know more about the devastations of social media and digital overdrive, look online for Anderson Cooper’s interview with former Google product manager Tristan Harris on 60 Minutes.
Bill Maher’s “Social Media Is the New Nicotine” is hard-hitting, but his language (as usual) can be offensive.
I’ll end with this by Joseph Campbell,which I found independently of Cal’s book:
“You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody else owes you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something will eventually happen.”
Do you use social media? How do you feel about it? Do you feel the need to cut back on your digital distractions? If so, how is that going?
The book gods have been showering me with exceptional riches lately, and plenty of time to read as I adjust to our more rural life. Here’s what’s coming up on Books Can Save a Life:
Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity and Love
Small Fry, by Lisa Brennan Jobs
All You Can Ever Know, by Nicole Chung
The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, by Elyn R. Saks
Megan Griswold’s The Book of Help: A Memoir in Remedies
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, by Rebecca Solnit
Our Most Troubling Madness: Case Studies in Schizophrenia Across Cultures, by T.M. Luhrmann (The research is fascinating; I gained brand new perspectives.)
What I’ve got on hold at the library:
Solitary, by Albert Woodfox (He’s one of the Angola 3, and his life has been a travesty of injustice. This memoir will be BIG.)
In central Oregon, where we recently moved, the exquisite Small Farmer’s Journal has been around since 1976. Publisher, editor, writer, and artist Lynn Miller’s sentiments above are quite a contrast to this passage from my recent read:
“‘The digital world… brings dysphoria – a low-level but constant heartbreak that is one of its most controversial side effects,’ wrote Virginia Heffernan in the New York Times Magazine in 2011, in an article exploring the driving force behind a growing affinity for analog….It’s still here, the persistent sense of loss. The magic of the Internet – the recession of the material world in favor of a world of ideas – is not working for everyone.” The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter,David Sax
I’ve had digital world dysphoria lately, and so I appreciated The Revenge of Analog and the chance to stop and savor some of the “real things” we all used to love, and many of us are loving still. David Sax says:
“Analog gives us the joy of creating and possessing real, tangible things in realms where physical objects and experiences are fading. These pleasures range from the serendipity of getting a roll of film back from the developer, to the fun in playing a new board game with old friends, to the luxurious sound of unfolding the Sunday newspaper, and to the instant reward that comes from seeing your thoughts scratched onto a sheet of paper with the push of a pen. These are priceless experiences for those who enjoy them.”
This post is simply a tribute to analog and a ramble through some of the analog bits in my life. I’d love to hear about yours, too, in the comments, please!
I’ll share one story from The Revenge of Analog that is especially meaningful to me, having lived in Rochester, NY for several decades and worked for a time at Eastman Kodak. David Sax’s tale of the attempted resurrection of photographic film in a small Italian village is surprisingly dramatic and harrowing. (And did you know that Kodak has just reintroduced Ektachrome?!)
Reading Sax’s story about FILM Ferrania, I was reminded of when our son got started in photography in high school using analog film. He’d spend hours in the darkroom. It made me wonder about Kodak and whether they’ve curated and archived their old film manufacturing recipes.
“What Baldini and his business partner Marco Pagni were attempting to do here, at this small, crumbling factory in this remote, bankrupt valley, was revive the production of new color still and motion picture film under the old FILM Ferrania brand.
To do that, they had to overcome every single obstacle facing an analog industry in a post-digital economy. To get FILM Ferrania to the point where it could make even a single roll of film, Pagni and Baldini needed to rescale an assembly line designed for mass-market production to a tenth of its size, with a skeleton crew, patchy knowledge, dangerous and discontinued materials, and a bare-bones budget. They had to finance and engineer the relocation of huge machines from the original film factory buildings nearby to this smaller facility, all in the few months before the demolition crew tore down those other buildings. If they missed this narrow window, the chance to rebuild FILM Ferrania would be lost forever.”
“Big Boy was an imposing five-story windowless concrete bunker the length of a city block….We climbed the staircase and passed offices that had been frozen in time….The experience of walking through a massive, perilous, abandoned factory in the dark , lit only by flashlights, is fascinating and terrifying….
The computer room, which controlled the various precision systems, from heating and cooling to the chemical mixers, sensors, and the coating machine itself, was a return to Radio Schack circa 1991. The place ran on vintage IBMs, HPs, and all manner of beige DOS relics, most with floppy disk drivers, and few with anything more recent than Windows 95.
‘The formula for automated manufacturing is stored inside these computers,’ Pagni said….
Next we sifted through drawers of blueprints, formula binders, and stacks of microfilm, which contained all the pertinent information for the emulsions, machines, and the building itself.
‘If you lose these,” Pagni said, ‘you have nothing.”
There’s lots more in The Revenge of Analog. How people are sketching and writing longhand on stationery and in journals like Moleskines and other simple, utilitarian, or ornately luxurious journals and sketch books. I learned about the newly popular way to socialize by playing board games even as my husband and I discovered a fabulous board game café in Bend.
David also talks about the rise of smaller printed magazines and neighborhood newspapers, and how the sale of vinyl record albums is a thriving part of the music industry.
Do have any analog loves? Or a favorite book about an analog passion? Tell us in the comments.
“We acquired a new team of Belgian horses from our friends the McIntoshs. Built a new woodshed and are working up twenty acres to plant early to a nurse crop of forage wheat as a shield for a mixture of Sanfoin, Alfalfa, and grasses. There are three seven-acre lands I also hope to have ready for spring planting. Of course, how well any of that goes will depend on winter weather. We have, over the last five years, experienced deep, long-term snow cover two years, and two years of open relatively dry and moderate weather, with one year of very cold temperatures. Time will tell what we are faced with this year. So the field work will have to proceed as these old bones and weather allow.” Lynn R. Miller, Small Farmer’s Journal,Vol. 42, Number 2
Coming up on Books Can Save a Life: A cross-country move pretty much decimated my writing practice for a while, but I finally have a work space set up and the beginnings of a regular writing schedule. I’ll be posting here once or twice a month. I’ve a handful of books I can’t wait to share with you: FOUR memoirs, including Megan Griswold’s funny and smashing The Book of Help. I’ll be attending her reading at a local bookstore tonight. Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance, which is a New York Times Bestseller, made quite an impression on me. I’ll be writing about Steve Job’s daughter’s memoir, Small Fry, too.
I also read an exquisite work of nonfiction by Rebecca Solnit. (Of course, everything she writes is exquisite.)
Plus, I’ll tell you about two new, important books about schizophrenia and serious mental illness.
One more thing – after reading Cal Newport’s newest book, I’ll be trying out digital minimalism in the coming weeks. I’ll tell you how that goes and more about his book, which is changing how people use social media and interact with the internet.
In The Overstory, nine strangers are summoned by trees. According to the jacket copy, they become connected in “a last and violent stand to save the continent’s few remaining acres of virgin forest.”
(This post contains a few spoilers, although so much happens in The Overstory‘s teeming universe, I don’t think these small giveaways will make a difference in your enjoyment of the novel.)
[Nicholas Hoel] “Later, he’ll wonder whether he knew already, there in the front doorway. But no: He must walk around to the foot of the stairs where his father is lying, head downward and arms bent at impossible angles, praising the floor….Upstairs, the two women curl up in their bedrooms and can’t be wakened – a late-morning sleep-in on Christmas Eve….Nick blunders through the front door, trips down the porch steps, and falls into the snow….When he looks up, it’s into the branches of the sentinel tree, lone, huge, fractal, and bare against the drifts, lifting its lower limbs and shrugging its ample globe. All its profligate twigs click in the breeze as if this moment, too, so insignificant, so transitory, will be written into its rings and prayed over by branches that wave their semaphores against the bluest of midwestern winter skies.”
[Mimi Ma] “She hears herself being paged over the airport speakers again and again. Each time she bolts upright, and each time the syllables turn back into other words. The flight is delayed. Then delayed again. She sits twisting the jade tree around her finger, tens of thousands of times. The things of this world mean nothing, except for this ring and the priceless ancient scroll in her carry-on. She wants only peace. But this is where she must live now: In the shadow of the bent mulberry….”
[Adam Appich] “Adam waits, month by month, for the choked black walnut to die and take his baby brother with it, smothered in his own clown-covered coverlet. But both live, which only proves to Adam that life is trying to say something no one hears.”
[Dorothy Cazaly] “…she drives up onto the curb and wraps the car around a parkway linden wide enough to destroy her front grille. Now, the linden, it turns out, is a radical tree…..It’s the bee tree, the tree of peace, whose tonics and teas can cure every kind of tension and anxiety – a tree that cannot be mistaken for any other, for alone in all the catalog of a hundred thousand earthly species its flowers and tiny hard fruit hang down from surfboard bracts whose sole perverse purpose seems to be to state its own singularity. The lindens will come for her, starting with this ambush. But the full adoption will take years.”
“Douglas Pavlicek works a clear-cut as big as downtown Eugene, saying goodbye to his plants as he tucks each one in. ‘Hang on. Only ten or twenty decades. Child’s play, for you guys. You just have to outlast us. Then no one will be left to fuck you over.’“
[Neelay Mehta] “…the alien invaders insert a thought directly into his limbic system. There will be a game, a billion times richer than anything yet made, to be played by countless people around the world at the same time. And Neelay must bring it into being. He’ll unfold the creation in gradual, evolutionary stages, over the course of decades. The game will put players smack in the middle of a living, breathing, seething animist world filled with millions of different species, a world desperately in need of the players’ help. And the goal of the game will be to figure out what the new and desperate world wants from you.”
[Patricia Westerford] “For the three agonizing days of the conference, people nudge each other as she passes them in the halls of the hotel: There’s the woman who thinks that trees are intelligent…..
….she can’t believe what her animal fear was willing to make her do. The opinion of others left her ready to suffer the most agonizing of deaths….Her real life starts this night – a long, postmortem bonus round. Nothing in the years to come can do worse than she was ready to do to herself. Human estimation can no longer touch her. She’s free now to experiment. To discover anything.”
We’ve all been summoned like the characters in The Overstory,I believe, but whether we answer the call, in 2019 and beyond, remains to be seen.
“Members of the German Student Union carried out the book burning with enthusiasm. At Opera Square, the students formed a human chain, passed the books from hand to hand, and then cast them into a pile. Estimates of the number of books in the bonfire pile range from twenty-five thousand to ninety thousand. As each book was thrown in, a student announced the reason this particular book was being ‘sentenced to death.’ The reasons were stated like criminal charges. …The Feuersprüche [Fire Incantations] had a party atmosphere with dancing, singing, and live music. At midnight, [May 10, 1933] Goebbels appeared and gave a raving discourse known as the Fire Speech. That same night, similar events were held in Munich, Dresden, Frankfurt, and Breslau….”The Library Book, by Susan Orlean
Calling all book and library lovers and their friends! (Especially print book lovers.) If you’re looking for a last-minute Christmas gift for the reader on your list, stop by your local bookstore and pick up a copy of The Library Book.
While she was writing The Library Book,author Susan Orlean lit a match and burned one of her tattered old paperbacks – just to see what it felt like to burn a sacred object and how easily a book could be set alight. It didn’t feel good, she said, but it was easy to burn once the book reached 451 degrees, the temperature at which paper burns: Fahrenheit 451 vanished in a small conflagration.
One of the most riveting parts of The Library Bookis Orlean’s description of the 1933 Nazi-instigated book burnings in 34 university towns and cities, conducted in part by a minority of college students who called themselves the German Student Union. I’d always imagined small bonfires sacrificing a few hundred books. Maybe because I find book burning incomprehensible, I never conceived of the vast numbers burned – up to 90,000 in one fire! – or the live music, enthusiastic crowds, and tragic number of libraries destroyed in World War II and other wars, both deliberately and collaterally.
“Books are a sort of cultural DNA, the code for who, as a society, we are, and what we know. All the wonders and failures, all the champions and villains, all the legends and ideas and revelations of a culture last forever in its books. Destroying those books is a way of saying that the culture itself no longer exists; its history has disappeared; the continuity between its past and its future is ruptured. Taking books away from a culture is to take away its shared memory. It’s like taking away the ability to remember your dreams. Destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: it is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived.”
Susan Orlean is one of the most brilliant contemporary American writers of nonfiction. She writes for The New Yorker and has authored many books; I’ve read only one other: the quirky The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession, which was made into the movie Adaptation (starring Meryl Street, Nicolas Cage, and Chris Cooper.) The book is strange and marvelous, and the movie is even stranger – perhaps not to everyone’s taste. If you love books, though, you’ll find The Library Book more accessible yet equally as passionate. Orlean is a book-lover from way back and writes movingly about her childhood library visits with her mother, who always said that if she’d had a career, she would have been a librarian.
Susan’s private book burning and those of the Germans echo and deepen The Library Book’scentral plot, which involves the tragic burning of the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986. It burned for seven hours; over 400,000 books were destroyed and 700,000 more damaged. No one is sure whether the fire was arson or an accident. The prime suspect, Harry Peak, a compulsive but likable liar and something of a tragic figure, changed his story every time he was questioned by the police. Woven into the story of the burning and resurrection of the LA Public Library is Orlean’s love letter to books, reading, libraries, and librarians.
Susan writes of her own motivation to write, one of the most eloquent and true statements I’ve ever read about why someone would devote oneself to this painstaking labor:
“I fear not just that I, personally, will be forgotten, but that we are all doomed to being forgotten – that the sum of life is ultimately nothing; that we experience joy and disappointment and aches and delights and loss, make our little mark on the world, and then we vanish, and the mark is erased, and it is as if we never existed…..But if something you learn or observe or imagine can be set down and saved, and if you can see your life reflected in previous lives, and can imagine it reflected in subsequent ones, you can begin to discover order and harmony. You know that you are part of a larger story that has shape and purpose – a tangible, familiar past and a constantly refreshed future. We are all whispering in a tin can on a string, but we are heard, so we whisper the message into the next tin can and the next string. Writing a book, just like building a library, is an act of sheer defiance. It is a declaration that you believe in the persistence of memory.”
Isn’t this why we haunt libraries and bookstores, to find those singular voices, many from the past, that for whatever reason speak to us so personally and vividly?
“You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen. It was that affirmation that always amazed me. Even the oddest, most peculiar book was written with that kind of courage — the writer’s belief that someone would find his or her book important to read. I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is, and how necessary, and how full of hope it is to collect these books and manuscripts and preserve them. It declares that stories matter, and so does every effort to create something that connects us to one another, and to our past, and to what is still to come.”
Like Susan, I’d never heard about this:
“In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned. When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize it was perfect. Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived. It is something that no one else can entirely share, one that burns down and disappears when we die. But if you can take something from that internal collection and share it – with one person or with the larger world – on the page or in a story recited – it takes on a life of its own.”
These excerpts don’t even begin to address Orlean’s fine chapters about libraries, librarians, their history, and their future. Having been a book editor and a (medical/academic) librarian, I’ve heard more than once from people who are quite sure books will disappear and that we no longer need libraries. To them, I’d say: fake news, conspiracy theories and the disruption of democracy. I’d point them to these and many, many other links:
I leave you with this arresting image from The Library Book, which takes place around the clock in my hometown of Cleveland:
“The lobby of the OverDrive headquarters [in Cleveland] is huge and high. A ten-foot-square screen that displays a world map dominates the center of the lobby. Every few seconds, a bubble pops up from somewhere on the map, showing the name of the library and the title of the book that had just been borrowed. The screen is mesmerizing. If you stand there for a few minutes, you will see that someone at a small library in Arles, France, has just checked out L’Instant présent by Guillaume Musso; that someone in Boulder, Colorado, has borrowed Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling; and that in Mexico City, someone has claimed a copy of El cuerpo en que nací by Guadalupe Nettel. It feels like you’re watching a real-time thought map of the world.”
Nonfiction November, a month-long book blogger celebration, just happens to coincide with an anniversary: one year ago my husband and I left our long-time upstate New York home and set out for the Pacific Northwest, not sure where we’d ultimately land.
And now we’re studying permaculture and Oregon’s eco-regions and learning how to take care of horses (maybe alpaca, too) on 4 1/2 acres in a small town near Bend.
On our cross-country trip, by car and train, my reading didn’t stop, of course. Does it ever? It was so much fun to curl up with a good book in a sleeper car and look up now and then to see western horizons that were completely new to me.
Book Blogger Kim @ Sophisticated Dorkiness poses these questions about what we’ve read in the way of nonfiction in 2018:
What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?
I can never pick just one favorite book. Here are four that stand out:
Educated.This is an extraordinary memoir by Tara Westover, who grew up in a family of survivalists in Idaho. Tara wasn’t allowed to attend public school, but she wasn’t home schooled either. Denied an education, she managed to gain admission to Brigham Young, and from there Harvard and then Cambridge University in England, where she received a Ph.D in history
Tara’s interior journey is just as fascinating as her outward journey from backwoods Idaho to the halls of scholarly erudition; and from fundamentalism, a dangerous brother’s physical abuse, and parental mental illness to the cultural mainstream. As we come of age, we construct a self. Tara’s coming of age was a kind of trial by fire.
Educated has proven to be a controversial memoir. Tara’s parents, through their lawyer, have said that Tara’s portrayal of the family is largely false. Memoirs can be a minefield for writers and their families.
In the months since I’ve read his book, the title seems even more urgent. The internet, and even social media, have greatly enhanced my life, but the bad currently outweighs the good. If I could, I’d withdraw from the online world completely, at least for a while. As it is, I’m trying to limit my Facebook time to when I have a new Books Can Save a Life post. I post on Instagram less frequently these days.
Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year?
It’s more like a continuation of my interest in the best nature and ecological writing, given our current challenges. Maybe what’s different this year is realizing I’m attracted to nonfiction and fiction with a strong humanitarian bent and a vision for how we might bring about a better future.
Now’s the time when everyone needs to be talking about climate change and deciding what we, personally, are going to do about it. It’s more important than ever to support our libraries, librarians, teachers, and schools. We can support our best journalists, newspapers, and news outlets, as well.
When we’re online, when passing on a link, we can make sure it’s a credible source first. We can be savvy and discerning, do some digging, and read between the lines.
It takes time to become a truly literate citizen these days – to understand exactly what we’re consuming online, how it might be manipulating us, and how to contribute to online conversations responsibly, in an informed way.
Spending time with good – and great – books can help!
Nonfiction November is being hosted by some excellent book bloggers. I’ve long enjoyed Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) and Katie’s (Doing Dewey) excellent commentary and wide-ranging knowledge about what’s being published, and I’m looking forward to exploring Julie, Sarah, and Rennie’s blogs. Stop by and visit Kim @Sophisticated Dorkiness, Julie (JulzReads), Sarah (Sarah’s Book Shelves), Katie (Doing Dewey), and Rennie (What’s Nonfiction).
What’s the best nonfiction you’ve read this year? Let us know in the comments.