Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes

don't sleepDon’t Sleep There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazon Jungle, Daniel Everett

In 1977, Daniel Everett and his family went to live with a remote Amazonian tribe to translate the Bible and convert the people. Instead, Everett came out an atheist and challenging all of the standards of linguistic orthodoxy. This is his story.

Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes is part memoir, part scientific explainer, part anthropological study. Everett himself is quite an interesting character. He had an unstable and challenging childhood, but in high school met a girl, Keren, from an Evangelical, and former missionary, family. He fell for her, converted, and the two of them decided to also become missionaries. They joined a group called SIL International with a particular missionary tactic, dedicated to sending missionaries out to stay with uncontacted people, learn the language, and translate the Bible. Everett showed an amazing aptitude for languages, and by all accounts, even those who disagree with his theories, he is a uniquely gifted linguist. SIL noticed this and after their studies were complete he and his family were sent to live with the Pirahã (pronounced “Pee-da-han”), a remote tribe in the Brazilian Amazon, speaking a language that was connected to no known living language and that had stymied other translators they’d sent.

 

I remember Everett’s work making a bit of a splash when it first came out, even in traditional news sources. Well, okay, nerdy ones like NPR, The New Yorker, and The Economist, but still. Everett became the first outsider to be fluent in Pirahã, and, indeed, fluent in their culture. And here is where he began to challenge both traditional linguistics and, through his immersion in their culture and resistance to conversion, to lose his own Christian faith. It’s the linguistics part that got him the most attention. I am not a linguist, but will try to walk briefly through the debate.

The prevailing theory of linguistics, and practically the only one at the time of Everett’s studies, is that the basic structure of language is something that humans are born with. Looking at the similarities in languages, how all children acquire them automatically with no effort, at roughly the same ages, and how the complexities in our language are unique to humans and not to be found in other species that communicate, there is something specifically human about language and a ‘language center’ in our brain.

So far, this doesn’t seem like it should be controversial. Obviously, there’s something that makes us ‘different’. What starts to be a problem is that this theory, which originated with Noam Chomsky, holds that there are building blocks that will be found in absolutely every language, and that we can understand language best by studying these innate traits in very language. And that there is no need to correspond with culture or the society in which a language developed, because the same tools will be found in each. Like tenses, basic descriptive words, abstractions, and something called recursion, the ability to imbed one thought in another. An example would be, “The girl, who wore a red dress and was drinking coffee, entered the bookstore and browsed the mystery section.” In theory, you can use recursion to imbed almost infinite ideas and write Faulkner length sentences. According to Chomsky, this is one of the building blocks of human languages and must be part of a human language center, every language would have it.

And here is the problem, what made such a splash when Everett started publishing his work. The Pirahã do not have recursion. In their language, there is no way to write the above sentence. Instead, they would say, “There is a girl. She has a red dress. She was drinking coffee. She entered the bookstore. She looked at the mystery section.” Only they wouldn’t really say that, because the other key issue that Everett focused on in his linguistic and cultural studies is that the Pirahã don’t include abstract concepts.  And so they don’t have color words. They would say, “There is a girl. She is wearing a dress the color of ripe passion fruit.”

It seems like this element of recursion is a relatively small thing, but in fact, it was, and still is, controversial. Pirahã is the only language that doesn’t seem to have this. It also, as mentioned, doesn’t include abstract concepts, and so there are not descriptive words, such as colors, that exist unto themselves, only comparisons to other things. They do not have numbers other than one, two, a few, or many, something that they do share with a few other languages. Their tenses are limited, as they place an importance on immediate and personal experience, which is rather unique among culture as well. There are other pieces that make Pirahã a particularly challenging language. Pirahã also has very few phonemes (think the parts of a word that make syllables, every unique sound). Everett counts 11, the smallest known number. It’s also a highly tonal language, that can sound like singing, and indeed, much of the language can be communicated through whistling due to the importance of tones. And it is one of the few languages to have a male and female version—not male and female words like “la casa” and “los banos” the way many Latin languages do, but separate ways that a woman would talk and a man would talk. But while all of these make it a difficult language to learn and translate, it is the lack of recursion or abstraction that challenge existing theories.

The discussions on language were quite interesting. What Everett focused on, and what I was surprised to learn most Chomskyian linguists refuse to consider, is that culture informs language and language informs culture. What comes first can be a chicken of an egg question, but they both work with each other. If there isn’t an importance for something in a language, the people won’t have a word for it. And if there isn’t a word for it, people won’t identify it as important. This seems to me, as someone who’s done a good deal of social science work, as obvious, but apparently Chomsky’s emphasis on the linguistic center of the brain and commonality have suggested that language exists independent of other human experience and has nothing to do with culture. It seems as if it is a lone holdout in the sciences that hasn’t caught up to our post-Skinner world.

This book, however, goes beyond language. Everett focuses on how the lack of numbers, abstraction, tenses, etc. stem from a couple of unique aspects of the Pirahã. One of them is that they are fiercely isolationist. They have no interest in anything from an outside culture, and this includes missionaries. They trade with some individuals along the Amazon for liquor and a few other select items, but for the most part have no interest in anything brought by outsiders, including new languages, clothes, maths and sciences, or religions.

The other, as mentioned above, is their focus on immediate experience. They don’t dry fish or fruit or otherwise plan for the future (something that couldn’t exist in a northern culture, but works out in the tropics), they make planes when one comes to the village but otherwise don’t make art, they don’t have abstract words, such as colors, but would compare one thing to another—the color of a papaya, for instance, instead of pale green, and are one of the few cultures with no origin story. Everett says that when he would try to explain Jesus they would ask if he had seen Him, or if his friends had. When Everett said it was just passed down in books, they lost all interest.

Seeing how the Pirahã had no interest in Jesus or Christianity is what Everett to eventually lose his faith, and his marriage. His former wife Keren still lives in Brazil as a missionary. Everett, however, struggled on how to break through to the Pirahã and was ultimately struck by the simple fact that they didn’t seem to need Christianity, because they were fine without it, and so he turned away as well.

Don’t Sleep was incredibly interesting throughout, but I found that I had far more questions than answers in the anthropology type sections of the book than the linguistics. When describing his life with the Pirahã, Everett repeatedly says that they are the happiest people he’s ever met, which may well be true, and how wonderful their lives are. And he is clearly comfortable and at home in their life and culture, which shines through in the book. Where I think he breaks down is that he is constantly seeming to sell this life, again and again emphasizing how happy they are, how independent, how peaceful. Except that he also recounts how he watched a woman die in childbirth in the river alone because no one went to help her, independence being one of the traits of the tribe. And a harrowing story of how the tribe got drunk one night and talked about killing Everett and his family which was only averted because they didn’t realize how much of their language Everett had understood. Or the tale of one Pirahã woman who had married outside her tribe, and the other Pirahã had killed her husband and she had been forced to return. And again and again and again.

Everett tells us how happy and peaceful and content the Pirahã are, and then shows us the complete opposite. I don’t mean at all to suggest by this that the Pirahã are uniquely terrible or should be converted. Only that he seems to be somewhat blinded by his love of the culture and comfort in their society. A society that is probably on par with others in terms of misery and cruelty and violence—I mean, hey, we all have problems. I’ve since read that Everett has been criticized for being too close with the Pirahã to be truly independent in his field work, and I find that believable in terms of anthropology, although I’m not sure how much it would change his linguistic works or ability to translate.

All in all, though, while I question some of Everett’s conclusions or evaluations of the society, the book itself was fascinating on all levels. Everett is a skilled writer, and the topics here are ones that are incredibly unique and not often covered. He also, as mentioned above, touches on such a wide variety of topics that there is something for everyone, whether looking for linguistics, a travelogue, anthropology, or memoir. It’s stuck with me for a while, and that’s always a good quality in a book.

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Meet Me in Atlantis

Meet Me in AtlantisMeet Me in Atlantis, Mark Adams

What if—bear with me here—what if someone wrote a book about Atlantis that 1) was objective and not crazily hyperbolic about definitely finding Atlantis/proving the whole story is aliens/talking about time travel, 2) was skeptical yet still managed to treat Atlantis hunters objectively and with respect, and 3) was a ton of fun while discussing Plato in depth and debating the translation of ancient Greek. Crazy, you say? Mark Adams thought it was just crazy enough to work.

This was a really fun read. Adams begins by summarizing where, exactly, the mythology comes from (details that I had actually not known before): in two of Plato’s last dialogues, Timaeus and Critias, in which Plato also discusses in detail the creation of the world and the World-Soul.  As part of this discussion, his speakers also mention a past society with the following details:

  • It was a nesos, usually translated as “island”
  • It was an advanced power that sent warriors to attack Athens and Egypt 9000 years before the time Plato was writing (so about 11,000 years ago now)
  • It had a large central plain and concentric circles of some sort
  • It had a ton of really huge canals, just really enormous, and one canal leading in and out of the canals
  • It was beyond the Pillars of Heracles, probably the Strait of Gibraltar
  • They had a giant temple to Poseidon
  • They were completely wiped out through an earthquake/flood combo and were swallowed up by the waves never to be seen again.

Got all that? There’s a lot more measurements (so many measurements) for all of the canals, the size of the plains, etc. and information about how many kings there were in Atlantis, and how they had a whole thing about sacrificing bulls (leading some people to think they were Minoans), but that’s less important. Oh, and how Plato, while swearing this is totally true, has his speaker relay it as something he heard from a friend who heard it from his completely real Canadian girlfriend this Egyptian priest he knew who swears it happened.

Adams tackles all of this and sorting through what it could all possibly mean from every angle, and with a great deal of wit and objectivity. He speaks with archeologists and anthropologists, philosophers and Plato experts, and the world’s leading Antlantologists—Atlantis hunters and experts. What I loved most about this book is that he approaches basically all of the theories with the same fresh, skeptical eyes. He looks into numerous possible locations for Atlantis with enthusiastic Atlantis searchers. He talks about the numerous earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis that have wracked the Mediterranean and could be the foundations for a myth, examines other flood stories, and talks about the many other unsolved mysteries of the time, like who were the Sea Peoples? He examines Plato’s obsession with Pythagoras and whether the whole thing is an elaborate number code, and even discusses the possibilities of people sailing from the Americas with an open mind examining all the evidence. It was incredibly refreshing to read something that treated many viewpoints as potentially valid and didn’t dismiss anything out of hand! (Well, except aliens and time travelers. He was rather dismissive there.)

And the book was incredibly well informed! I learned a lot. Not just a lot of crazy theories, I mean a lot of actual history and philosophy and anthropology. I have joked that I’ve about reached the limit of what History Channel and Science Channel documentaries and popular books will teach me about the world—I probably need a real course of study to learn more. But this book had all sorts of trivia I didn’t know about before. Did you know that Malta has what are possibly the earliest free standing stone structures we know of? I didn’t, because who knows anything about Malta except they had the Knights of Malta and a bunch of falcons? But I’m so glad I know about it now. (I’m going to try to work it into conversation at the next party we go to.) I didn’t know Plato was interested in Pythgoras’ weird numbers cult and may have worked bits of it into his works. And I actually didn’t know about how many times Mediterranean cities were wiped out by catastrophe! I wonder if it was a particularly unlucky region, or just one of the few that left enough clues that there was something before the flood.

All in all, there is a lot to recommend this book. Mark Adams is an engaging writer, and I breezed through this book. I was amazed at how much it taught me, and how fascinating the Atlantis mythology is. I’m not sold on the Atlantis hunt (and Adams isn’t really trying to sell anyone on it, either). It seems to me the kind of thing that has a kernel of truth but is probably a composite of destroyed civilizations. But it definitely pulled me in to the mystery, and kept me entertained for the journey.

The Fabric of the Cosmos

fabric of the cosmosThe Fabric of the Cosmos, Brian Greene

Even if you don’t know who Brian Greene is, you’ve probably seen or heard him around. He’s done two miniseries for NOVA, and two TED talks. He’s been on NPR’s Science Friday a couple of times. He did a cameo on the Big Bang Theory. And earlier this year he was on Stephen Colbert’s show with a world-record-setting Galilean Cannon. He’s also a professor at Columbia University’s Center of Theoretical Physics. While he talks repeatedly in his book about how time travel is impossible, I assume he’s found some way of developing a time turner in order to accomplish all of this.

Greene’s also written a couple of books, and this was my second time reading his second book, The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality. The Fabric of the Cosmos centers around the fundamental questions of where does everything come from, why does time move in one direction, and just what is everything made of anyway? He’s a patient author, and while I don’t think any layperson reading this will have a deep understanding of all of the different pieces of string theory and why we have all these extra dimensions lying about, I do think he does the best he can without teaching us complex mathematics. Greene also builds up to these theories, starting with Newton and moving through the history of physics and what has brought us to the current theoretical framework.

This book did make me contemplate time quite a bit and, specifically, the changes that occur as one gets older. The first time I read this book, and The Elegant Universe, I remember being fairly blown away by the ideas they contained. The second time around I found myself thinking, “Well, none of this is actually possible. Obviously quantum physics is witchcraft.” I exaggerate slightly, but at a certain point in theoretical physics its hard to see it as pure science anymore. When we’re trying to explain the world in ways that can’t be observed or experimented on, with math that isn’t completed yet and in fact has to be changed up constantly, that one can just add an extra dimension to (string theory had 9 space dimensions and 1 time dimension, then someone united the different theories with M-Theory but to do this you need 10 space dimensions and 1 of time) without substantively altering the theories, and theories predict all sorts of things that by all accounts don’t exist, it’s hard to accept this as the final descriptor. Maybe all off our math is wrong and can only work for classical physics, maybe there’s an as yet unidentified way of truly describing the universe. Maybe we’ve been headed down the wrong path for decades. Maybe we are all holograms?* Now I need to go lie down for a while and watch some House Hunters International until I can purge all of these mind-splitting questions.

In all seriousness, the book is fascinating, but the questions it raises are mind-boggling. I also found myself with a lot of additional questions that I assume there are answers to, or at least have been contemplated since they seem obvious, but the book didn’t address.  I’d love to attend a seminar on all this.  My questions are:

  • How is it possible that particles only ‘decide’ where they are when they are observed, as is the case in quantum physics. I know we’ve shown it’s the case, but don’t they interact with the world constantly? The question Einstein raised about quantum mechanics is, would anyone argue the moon isn’t there when we’re not observing it? But surely even if no human was looking at the moon, it’s being ‘observed’ by birds, gravitons, dark matter, solar radiation, etc. What does the interaction of the rest of the world have to do with quantum mechanics? This must have an answer, but I haven’t seen it.
  • Greene, and other physics explainers I’ve seen, make much of the fact that physics equations work the same forwards in time and backwards in time. Basically, there is no reason, based on the laws of physics, that your egg couldn’t put itself back together and jump back on the counter. Which seems to indicate a basic flaw in the laws of physics to me, but never seems to bother scientists. Greene explains that the big bang caused us to begin with a highly ordered universe, and that the entropy is constantly building, and that’s why we have the arrow of time. But 1) he explained earlier that entropy is just as likely to *have been* than to *be in the future*, so that still doesn’t seem to explain the arrow of time, and 2) even if that explains it for the universe as a whole which is moving to a more disordered state, that still doesn’t explain why it is the case for every single piece of the universe constantly and forever. TL;DR What’s up with time, anyway?
  • Dark matter? Seriously, what is up with that? And now there’s extra unexplained stuff besides dark matter? I’m going back to House Hunters.
  • Greene goes into detail about the potential shapes of the universe (spheres, saddles, or flat) before detailing that it may not matter because the universe is so big, possibly infinite, that it’s more or less flat where we are. Nope, you’ve gotta do better, physicists. We’re trying to determine the shape of dimensions smaller than a Planck length (1.616229 x 10-35 m), an inconceivably small distance, but so-big-it-may-as-well-be-flat is the best we can do for the universe? That doesn’t cut it for me.
  • Despite what I just said, though, that criticism only works if the universe is finite. If its infinite, doesn’t it actually have to be flat? Otherwise, where is the ‘middle’ where it starts to curve for either a saddle shape or a sphere? Is this something that can be answered mathematically, but not pictured? Or does infinite mean flat?

 

I have a lot more questions, too, but they’re more along the lines of how all these extra dimensions fit in, questions I think are still somewhat unanswered, and even if there is an explanation, its only one that exists in theoretical maths^, not anything that can be translated to our world.

Green’s book won’t turn you into a theoretical physicist overnight, but I do think his work is some of the most interesting and accessible on modern physics. Even if it does leave me with more questions and answers. His most recent book, Hidden Reality, explores other dimensions more seriously, so I may have to pick that up. Even if I still think it’s all impossible.

 

*Briefly, the strength of the gravity of a black hole and the amount of entropy don’t correlate with the volume of a black hole, but only with the surface area. Which shouldn’t be the case! But it suggests that at a certain point it’s the ‘projected’ part of the hole that has an effect on its surroundings. This alongside some suggestions that we may actually be a three-dimensional brane wrapped around other dimensions makes it possible that we interact more as holograms than solid beings, a theory Greene thinks has legs. I think the obvious explanation is Elon Musk is right and we’re in a simulation.

^Not an error. I’ve been listening to a lot of British podcasts lately.

Twitter and Tear Gas

twitter and tear gasTwitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protests, Zeynep Tufecki

Protest is the new brunch, here in Washington, DC. There’s plenty to protest, after all, and it’s easy to find one even for someone who wasn’t that involved before January 20, 2017.  A list of public events in Washington, DC will easily turn up half a dozen lunch time or after work protests for this week alone. The question that doesn’t always get answered, though, is what comes next.

For any engaged activists, Zeynep Tufecki’s book should be required reading. A Turkish national and long time activist and scholar–she’s been at encuentros with the Zapatistas and was part of the Battle of Seattle–Tufekci is broadly supportive of  left wing protests and uprisings, but wary of the new tools that we’re using. She celebrates how many people can be turned out for a march, or to show up in Gezi Park or Tahrir Square, or how activists can find each other, but is painfully aware of the limitations and new challenges these tools provide.

The primary limitation, as Tufecki, points out, is that 1) when activism is easier, it has less meaning–those of us who are activists know this already. A form e-mail has very little weight, since all politicians know it took two seconds to send. A call is better. A personal meeting is best. We’re seeing now an ease to turning out hundreds of people at a time that lessens the impact. 2) The work that went into organizing protests previously, the dozens of meetings, the hours of planning, the discussions, the time spent together, was valuable in and of itself in terms of building trust and building leaders. When we lose that, it makes it harder to move beyond the protest part of the movement.

Tufecki’s analogy here is how modern mountaineering equipment and oxygen tanks make it easier for a novice to climb Mt. Everest. More people than ever before can climb up the mountain, and it maintains impressive, even if less impressive than it was 70 years ago. But when a novice climbs, they’re less likely to be able to adapt or succeed if the run into trouble, even minor trouble that a more experienced mountain climber could overcome. Because someone with more experience and practice has developed the muscles and knowledge they need. Similarly, when a protest encounters a challenge or needs to enter its next phase, those organizing muscles are useful to adapt and move forward.

Twitter and Tear Gas is an incredibly insightful, and well researched, document of the new challenges that activists truly interested in change need to overcome. Tufecki celebrates some of the changes, including how much easier it is for activists to find each other, and the way that social media was able to break through some of the censorship that existed in middle Eastern and other countries. She’s very clear on the issues, though. One is that protest has an attraction in and of itself that brings people together, but it has limitations in moving things forward. There can only be sustained change if there is a goal and people know how they are going to achieve those goals. Instead, protests are attracting attendees who want change but don’t think that voting or participating in institutional options will ever change anything, a common thread among attendees at Occupy Wall Street and Tahrir Square, making it difficult to do anything besides protest. Additionally, protests that have sprung up suddenly with no central leadership or plan, which she refers to as “adhocracies” have the challenge of moving forward. She details how when the Turkish government wanted to negotiate with protestors at Gezi Park the movement couldn’t identify anyone, leading the Turkish government to invite people–meaning the leaders were decided by the government, not the movement.

She is also very clear on the power of protests. They can bring additional attention to an issue, as happened in the Arab Spring. They can also introduce activists to one another. She cites a fascinating study showing that after the initial Tea Party protests that happened around the United States, locations that had heavy rain–which depressed protest attendance–saw less subsequent turnout from Republicans than areas that had good weather, which swung Republican in the next election to a greater degree. Tufecki points out, however, that there was a clear engagement with attendees after the protests. She cites another study showing that while Tea Party members may be uninformed about what policies would actually do, or the actual statistics on immigration, crime, and so forth, they were more educated than many career politicians on the intricacies of how legislation was made, when the votes were, who was on each committee, etc.

As shown in the above example, the limitations of networked protests are ones that can be overcome, with effort, by movements. More challenging are the direct negatives of social media. Having only one or two companies with such control over spreading information is a huge challenge, as we already know. Facebook’s “real name” policy, one enforced only when there is a complaint, means that anyone can be targeted and have to jump through hoops to prove their name. Even more important, it means that LGBT activists, activists in oppressive governments, and others can be outed placing their lives at real risk. Twitter has its own issues regarding harassment, as almost everyone knows. One tweet noticed by the wrong person results in death threats, rape threats, doxing, and threats to one’s family. Twitter is unwilling to step in and put up meaningful barriers, pushing many people off of the platform, and giving others pause before they are engaged in advocacy.

And, of course, the way that social media can be used to push false information. Twitter and Tear Gas came out in 2017, but was written in the preceding two years. Given that, it’s a bit squirm inducing to read about how Turkey, Tunisia, and even China have moved from straight censorship to instead working to muddy the waters, pushing their own versions of stories, questioning media leaders, and seeking to make it difficult to know what’s happening by producing hundreds of questionable news articles. And reading of how Russian troll armies spread disinformation about NATO ahead of Sweden’s NATO vote was enough to send chills down my spine. What was incredible here was learning how every thing that was done to undermine the US elections was well known and documented in other contexts even before 2016, and yet we were fully exposed with no precautions, no challenges to the way Facebook did business, and no, or minimal effort, to track down and close down Russian trolls and bots.

There were areas I found lacking. She is a student of activist movements and history, clearly learning from US movements as well as others, and given that I would have hoped for a bit more on how people have overcome such issues before. The US has faced threats to trust in our institutions before. We were lied into a war before. Radio changed the way we interacted with the world once again, giving people more access to the outside world but also quickly taken up by people like Father Coughlin spreading vile lies. Pamphleteers and snake oil salesman showed that not everyone could be believed. What changed? Did the fever break on its own, or were their concrete steps that helped? If the latter, how can we adapt those steps for today’s world? And in general I would have liked more suggestions for change. Her chapter on the challenges of Twitter seemed to boil down to, “It’s good and bad, it’s hard to know what to do.” A position with which I sympathize, but I also know there are many people thinking about how to overcome that challenge and it would have been helpful to have an overview of some of their thoughts.

Overall, though, I thought this was an incredibly useful and insightful book that should be spread far and wide. In an era where we have five calls, Facebook Town Hall, and dozens and dozens of organizations to send us action alerts, while at the same time a bill polling at 12% passes the House and is stopped by the Senate by only 1 vote, it feels as if we are more connected and more separated from our elected officials than ever before. Twitter and Tear Gas helps to identify the new challenges we face so that we can organize more effectively and start to move forward and make change. Read this book before your next brunch.

Disarming Beauty

Disarming-Beauty-3D_7-1Disarming Beauty, Julián Carrón

Disarming Beauty is a series of essay by Julián Carrón, the current leader of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic organization based in Italy that started in the 1950s. These essays lay out much of the philosophy of Communion and Liberation, primarily the belief in a true encounter with Christ as the foundation of Christianity and the encounter with the perfect human of Jesus Christ as essential in letting us recognize and experience ourselves as human.

After reading some fairly glowing reviews of the book, I had high hopes. I ended up disappointed once I picked it up. For one, this collection of essays reads, well, like it is a collection of essayx. I had trouble finding the through line, how everything connected in the book. Where there was a point that was emphasized, that of the encounter with Christ, it was repeated several times, rather than built upon. The same phrases and arguments were presented again and again, rather than having a book that grew its main thesis.

My other issue is that, given the number of essays here, there were some areas that were lacking. The book hammers on the individual encounter with Christ, with Christ as the perfect human, and the idea that no institutions can be perfect (which I agree with), and that the Enlightenment’s failure was in thinking that laws could be set up to perfect humans with no other internal impetus to be better. It is very much an existential Christianity, that criticized the Western emphasis on individualism while repeatedly saying that it’s up to each individual to recognize Christ and try to be more Christlike, because no one else will do it for you.

For a Catholic organization, this seems off, though. If this is the case, where does the Church come in? Where does community and Communion come in? How do Church doctrines fit into this? I understand from my other readings that Communion and Liberation very much believes in building a community and in encountering Christ through the Church, but that did not come out in this book. It was almost, dare I say, Protestant, in its assistance that we each have an individual—which could also be described as personal—encounter—or relationship, one might say—with Christ. I do truly believe that a personal encounter and acceptance is essential, and that it does come from within, but that a key part of being a Christian is being within community as well. And especially when writing on Catholicism, this community and Church teaching is a key part of our faith, I would have liked to have read how, in his view, that interacts with the individual.

Fr. Carrón is an excellent writer, and I think most of the individual essays (although not all) are quite good, and I’d probably enjoy reading one in a magazine or some such. And, as a friend put it, it’s easy to get caught up in the “loftiness of the language” in the essays and feel you’re really being pulled along towards something. In the end, though, I didn’t find the end of what I was being pulled towards, only another repetition of what I’d read earlier. Each essay on its own is fine, but for me, this book seemed less than the sum of its parts.

The Road to Little Dribbling

road-to-little-dribblingThe Road to Little Dribbling, Bill Bryson

I believe I have mentioned once or twice that I will read anything Bill Bryson writes.  So when I saw Road to Little Dribbling on a “Buy 2 get the 3rd free table” only a few weeks before going on a family vacation, well, how could I resist?

One of Bryson’s earlier books is Notes from a Small Island, about his time as an American expat living in Britain.  Oddly enough, I have never read that particular book.  This is probably because once my to-be-read collection exceeded two shelves, the only new books I acquire are from the library book sale, gift-receiving and gift-giving* occasions, and the two for three table at a bookstore.  That’s a shame, as Little Dribbling is a successor to Notes and references it on several occasions.  It wasn’t at all difficult to follow the newer book, mind you.  I just wish that I could have caught all of the call backs.

Notes from a Small Island was written after Bryson, originally from Des Moines, IA, had been living in Britain for a few years.  He’s ended up marrying an English girl and living and working in Britain for over 20 years, with occasional breaks to live in the US.  In Little Dribbling he is preparing to officially become a British citizen, and so decides to travel from one end of the island to the other.  His rules in the beginning of the book were that he would go to new places rather than just recapping his travels in Notes, but he seemed to also spend an awful lot of time recapping his travels from Notes.

I always enjoy Bryson’s writings, and when he is good he is very, very good.  He has a dry wit, an eye for details that others would miss, obvious delight in the things he enjoys, and a liberal dosing of random information and trivia that I always find fascinating.  A reviewer once criticized one of my favorites, One Summer, America 1927, as a “unusually slight…highly amusing encyclopedia” and its hard to disagree, but that’s what I buy the books for.  In this book alone I learned about the odd British craze of holiday camps, the oldest hominid in Britain, how the green belt system works, the arrangement of municipalities in the country, and loads about railroad history.  Who doesn’t want that in their vacation reading?

For all that, though, this wasn’t my favorite of Bryson’s books.  For one thing, while I do enjoy reading about the parts of Britain that he loves-and a walking tour there does sound absolutely lovely, now I want to go on one-it did start to get a bit redundant.  I lost track of exactly how many places there are the loveliest scene he’s ever beheld.  I know how he feels, though.  Every bend in the drive around the California coast will take you to the most breathtakingly beautiful sight you’ve ever seen in your life.  A wonder to drive, but if I’m describing it at some point I would run out of adjectives for “gorgeous” and “spectacular” and start to bore you.

And sometimes the book swings too far in quite the opposite direction.  I regret to note that in his old age Bryson has turned into a bit of a curmudgeon.  He’s always been a bit of a curmudgeon, and sarcastic complaints about society turn up always.  They’ve moved away from creative and humorous and more towards “get off my lawn!” space.  There is actually a complaint about what kids today wear in this book, as well as the rather unoriginal observation that pop culture is vapid.  I feel that he could do better.

Lastly, it was a bit odd reading this book now, one month into the Trump administration, a year after Brexit, and realizing it was written in 2015 as these things are beginning to get started but we still thought they wouldn’t happen.  Bryson is never really political, other than in the commonsensical way people in the midwest used to be-a belief that things should work properly, that they require a bit of involvement and money in order to do so, that people should treat each other decently, and more or less mind their own business unless there’s a reason not to.  But these are all controversial statements now, and his irritation with shortsighted austerity programs, and extremely gentle defense of immigrants-after all, he is one-are impossible to read without thinking of where they in context of a society that will continue down that road.  At least for me.

For all that, though, this book was still an enjoyable distraction.  I read it while on vacation and watching three small children, and it was good for that.  Not so taxing that I couldn’t read it while my attention was divided, and not so light that I forgot to pick it back up.  Perhaps not Bryson’s best, but all in all worth the purchase price.

 

*I often buy my husband books that I’d like to read.  Usually I also think he’ll like them.

 

Proust Was a Neuroscientist

Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lproust-was-a-neuroscientistehrer’s first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist aims to make the argument that artists may understand the human condition even better than scientists.  In particular, neuroscience—probably an easy place to make the case, seeing as how relatively young neuroscience is compared to other disciplines and how little we still know about the brain.  It’s not a bad idea, and I generally agree that art can be another way of knowing and explaining the world in a different way from science that the Western World should have a great deal more respect for-that’s why I picked up the book.  But in this case, the execution was severely lacking.

The book starts with Lehrer—a Rhodes scholar who studied both neuroscience and humanities as an undergrad—taking a break to read some Proust, as so many of us do.  While reading A la recherche du temps perdu he was struck by Proust’s discussion of eating a madeleine being transported to a scene from his childhood.  Now, far be it from me to question the origin story for this book, but if there’s one thing any cultured intellectual type person knows about Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past it’s that it’s really, really long.  And if there’s a second it’s that the taste of a madeleine and tea returns him to the happiness he felt as a child.  However it happened, that passage made him think of how neuroscience has since proved how closely scent is tied to memory, but that Proust was onto it far earlier.

I found the discussion tying Proust’s discussion of how his memory worked to scientific research into memory intersting, but the book never made a strong argument for why we should care outside of an intellectual curiosity.  And the book struggled to defend its thesis-that art often predates science.  Most of the relationships seemed quite tenuous, some of them just seemed wrong.  According to Lehrer, because she said that to be alive is to grow, George Elliot’s books suggested that our personalities are in flux and we are constantly growing and changing.  I’m not entirely sure that she’s the only author who has suggested such a thing, but I am entirely sure that she wasn’t actually arguing that our neurons can repair themselves (a relatively recent discovery) or that our brain is constantly making new neural pathways.  I doubt that what she was saying was even particularly controversial at the time, and certainly not arguing against science.  It just seems a bit of a stretch to say she’s predating official neuroscience.

Elsewhere we have strong connections, but Lehrer never takes the step to show why art may better explain the world than science.  Gertrude Stein’s poetry is highlighted to show that she understood that there were innate building blocks to language long before Chomsky proved that there was a universal grammar.  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_grammar).  The problem here is that, as Lehrer himself points out, Stein studied psychology and studied writing and language in particular, so it seems odd to make the point that it’s where art and science are clashing.  (There’s also the small problem that the theory of universal grammar has found itself under criticism recently and may not be true.  But I suppose if you had to wait for the science to be settled you could never write about neuroscience.)  What seems undoubtedly true, though, is that Stein found writing and poetry to be a better medium for her to explore the realities of language that psychology.  Why would this be?  Was it purely the hostility of the male students and teachers?  Had science not caught up with what she had to say?  Did she find art to be a better and more useful medium?

Stein seems as if she should be a great jumping off point for a discussion of how art can be used to explore a concept that science may not have explained.  And in other cases perhaps art explores new areas of conscience, describes the human experience in a different way than science does.  Art and science can be complementary paths to helping us understand the world, and art can express truths that we all know but that science has not been able to prove, or has not yet found a way to explore.  This seems the reason that science should actual share more with the humanities.  Instead, Lehrer seems on the verge of actually constructing an argument for more respect for art, but stops short and gets too distracted coming up with crazy coincidences and chasing false comparisons.  Ultimately, we’re left with a few mildly interesting connections and nothing else.  There’s just no there there.