November: Books and Bruises

“Would it be possible for you to not type for a while?”

My brother-in-law asked me this absurd question this weekend after examining my wrist. He is a doctor so when I told him that for the past week I had sharp shooting that my wrist and fingers, he immediately strapped a brace on my arm and told me to lay off the typing.

Apparently I have a strained ligament in my right hand. What a perfect thing for a writing and cooking enthusiast! Limited use of their hands!

Arm

But before I temporarily hang up the blogging towel, let me leave you with the November reading list! (A bit late, I know. But at least now we all know why).

1. Cooked, by Michael Pollan
November to me only means one thing: Thanksgiving! It is by far my favorite holiday of the year. Delicious food, football, and family. In my family, each of the aunts brings something new to the table. One aunt brings flaky spinach puffs and spicy cranberry sauce, each infused with her Middle Eastern heritage. Another uses her Italian upbringing to make indulgent pumpkin cheesecake and buttery baked stuffing with sausage. All these traditions and histories come together in the kitchen, and in Cooked, Pollan discusses the importance that cooking and eating together has now, as well as the role in played in allowing societies to form and evolve.

2. Othello, by William Shakespeare
November is a very tumultuous month. Political elections draw battle lines in many cities, and the weather is happy to mimic that sentiment. Some days are bitter cold with icy wind ripping the leaves from the trees; others are warm and clear, with sunlight brightening every color in the lingering fall leaves. There is endless ebb and flow ever present in the natural world. In much the same way, Othello explores the duality of the human mind.

Happy Reading! Hopefully next month I will be allowed to type with two hands without wincing…

But in the mean time… goodbye yoga mat, hello bookshelf!

What I Learned from Poe and Stoker

Well October is officially over, and I’m extremely grateful for the end in my obligation to watch horror films. But I must admit, my foray into the realm of horror fiction was much more fruitful than I imagined. This year, my spooky Halloween reads included The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, and Dracula. The reason I chose these two books was that they were all stories I was familiar with, and that have been adopted in countless ways by popular culture. In a way, the originals have become a bit overdone due to the continuing adaptations made from them (especially Dracula) and the fact that they are studied by just about every student in the country (this is more Poe).

I wanted to go back to basics, study the pure original beasts of these tales, shedding any expectation and anything I knew about them. I wanted to read them for the first time again.

It wasn’t easy, especially when reading Poe who was by far my favorite poet when I was in High School. I was so familiar with his work that I didn’t find it scary…rather, I found it beautiful. I was able to focus more on the cultural notions and emotions behind the work, and not just their fear factor. Here’s what I discovered:

1. Unlike Jonathan Harker, people today are generally good at recognizing danger. Ask anyone, especially any woman, about any time they ever had to walk alone at night. Maybe they had to stay late at the library in college, maybe walking back from the subway station…It’s creepy! Every shadow between you and your door could be housing a potential attacker or thief…unless you’re Jonathan Harker. I’m sorry, Mister, but you had plenty of chances to escape the clutches of the Count. Your need for adventure is a bit too large…and you are in serious need of a RAD class.

2. There are only three basic things that we truly actually fear: Darkness, Distance, and Death. Perhaps you could argue these things are all connected. After all…being dead means you’re likely in a dark place far away from others. Maybe not, I couldn’t tell you. Think of any Edgar Allan Poe work that you’ve read. Any at all. Chances are that all three of these themes are represented there. Upon reading these works intentionally this time around, I realized it would be foolish to view his tales and poems are scary. I don’t plan on cutting up relatives and putting them in the floorboards, nor do I plan on knowing anyone names Lenore…so I can pretty much avoid those scenarios. Poe’s excellent use of imagery and playing on our fears, rather than reality, is what makes his work so scary. I think in general these fears boil down to one overall worry in life: being alone.

3. Opening locked doors is never a good idea. Seriously Jonathan Harker! It’s locked for a reason!

4. Animals are pretty darn smart. If you are traveling in an unknown land, with a driver who won’t show his face, after plenty of people have told you to turn back (yes, Jonathan, I’m talking to you!)…and for some reason need another sign that you shouldn’t be here, pay attention to the animals. So the ferocious, wild wolves are afraid of your host? Chances are you should be too.

5. Do everything you can to avoid large old stone buildings/castles, especially when located near the sea or in the mountains. This is the real nature of fear and stupidity all in one. Today we are privileged enough to have most of our buildings be made of high-grade materials…not stone. But take for instance, Dracula’s castle: Stone. Recall Poe’s poem “The City in the Sea”: stone. And what about the lovely poem: “The Valley of Unrest”: Stone! And don’t forget about Annabel Lee and her kingdom by the sea.

I know it’s not an exact science, but I must admit, my October reads were a bit more instructive than they were chilling. I can certainly appreciate how scary they were to their original audience. After all, if I had never heard of Dracula before and read this book, I’d be pretty freaked out (though I’d still know before Jonathan Harker did that it was a bad idea to spent the night with a mysterious wolf-controlling night crawler). And Poe…no doubt nobody in his time had ever fathomed such horrors. They were more concerned with things like War and disease and crop failures…not rogue birds and masquerade parties. Still…the fact that we can learn a lot from “outdated horror” teaches us that fear is not always cultural: there are something that everyone fears, and that may not ever change.

Simplify, Simplify: Walden and the Search for Meaning

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I cannot think of any book that had taught me more, but simultaneously frustrated me, than Walden. After reading the first chapter alone, it was clear to me that Henry David Thoreau is highly misunderstood and taken for granted by those who read his work today.

My friends and relatives asked me repeatedly to remind them why I actively chose to read such a thing. People assumed that because it was old, it was boring; if it was about nature, it was hippie propaganda…and boring.

Refusing to believe that there was nobody else out there who enjoyed this, I checked the ever-useful Goodreads.com to see what other people (people who actually enjoy reading) had to say. While I didn’t read every review, a few words stood out to me: “Smug”, “like bran flakes”, “could never be friends with him”, “phony”.

That last one got me. People felt Thoreau was insincere in his years at Walden because he simply wasn’t removed enough from society. He was but two miles from Concord center, and could even hear the train whistle in his quiet little cabin. He borrowed tools to build his home from his neighbors, frequently entertained visitors, and even strolled into town himself on occasion. And to some readers, this behavior was just too “social” and “dependant” for Thoreau to consider himself a “survivor” and adventureman. But to these skeptics I say just this:

Walden is not about surviving with nothing; it’s about thriving with less.

Thoreau’s retreat into the Concord woods was not an exercise in isolation, or abandonment of society. It was an escape from the fruitless labors and pointless excess of city life and an attempt to discover peace and simplicity in a rapidly evolving nation. While Thoreau certainly expresses love and reverence for the nature that surrounds him, his musings from Walden Pond pertain more to agriculture and economics more than the flowery, rough-and-tough image that most people have of him.

In the opening chapter, “Economy”, Thoreau explains his move to the woods through a financial, almost business-like, perspective. He views his neighbor’s constant toil to make a profit as futile, since no matter how hard they work neither their land nor their products are truly there. Every dime goes towards paying off the mortgage or some other loan, and this lack of ownership over one’s labor is (in the words of Karl Marx, not Thoreau) “alienating” and therefore lacks value beyond it’s basic price.

“The twelve labors of Hercules were triflings in comparison to those which my neighbors have undertaken; for they were only twelve, and had an end; but I could never see that these men captured or slew any monster or finished any labor.”

It’s not like Thoreau went on vacation to the woods. He had a great deal of work to do, from building his own home to growing his own food. And while it was exhausting and often difficult, he sincerely felt that he got more personal benefit from his work than his neighbors did from theirs, despite the lack of help or companionship. He was quite dissatisfied with modern economics and the notion or working towards and invisible end. But while he opted out of conventional lifestyle, Thoreau’s distrust of modern society is perhaps strongest at the level of external appearance. He seems to be generally distrusting of people who desire material wealth and opulent or showy clothing.

“I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.”

He feels as if the internal material must be severely neglected if so much attention is to be placed on the outward appearance, and that such fanciful items are masks that prevent people but recognizing the utility and aesoteric beauty of the people and things wearing them. Fancy clothes in particular are simply another item which we never truly own, as they cost a lot of money but hide the true self. While we may financially possess the clothes, we do not possess ourselves.

“I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”

Certainly this idea has many modern implications, and though Thoreau did not realize the extent that technology would reach in today’s world, he absolutely foresaw the effect it would have on our society.

“Our inventions are wont but pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things.”

While Thoreau’s discussion of economics are perhaps the most instructive, he spends ample time in Walden discussing the spiritual benefits on a frugal and purposeful life. In my favorite chapter of the book, “Solitude”, he begins the feel lonely and questions whether or not a human neighborhood is actually necessary, and starts feelings insane. At the same moment, it begins to rain…and this simple response from nature to his worries washes all his doubts away.

“In the midst of the gentle rain while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at ones like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since. Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me.” (pp. 106)

This borderline mystical experience with nature reveals Thoreau’s true intention in retiring to the woods. Not to be alone, or reject society, but to appreciate and connect to something beyond fast trains and silk gowns and high profits.

I have a lot more to say about this book, but for now I want to leave you with this thought: Once start wanting more there is no limit to how much we will continue to want. In today’s world it is easy to get more and bigger and faster and richer. Value and meaning therefore comes when we decide to minimise…Or as Thoreau would say, “simplify, simplify”.

Photo Credit: http://www.allposters.com/-sp/Live-The-Life-You-Have-Imagined-Henry-David-Thoreau-Quote-Poster-Posters_i8831946_.htm