Sunday, March 1st, 2015

In a recent episode of his podcast, Clay Jenkinson was discussing Thoreau and Walden. He focused in on the idea of “living deliberately”, a concept I could not help but conflate with some form of minimalism. It’s an idea that has been resonating with me lately as I have found myself increasingly discomforted by all the stuff I have dragged into my tiny house through the years. It’s almost overwhelming.

And I think, “How did it come to this?” and I have to admit that it is because I have not been living deliberately. When I see a new and shiny toy, I grab it to satisfy that immediate want — but I give no thought to where that thing will fit into my life in one or two or ten years.

The move towards replacing physical artifacts with bytes has helped tremendously. My Kindle has so many more books on it than I would be able to store as physical copies. Our iTunes library is expanding while our groaning DVD shelves are happy to not be called to further service. But these still come with an economic cost that I don’t always fully consider in the sense of living deliberately. And that doesn’t even begin to factor in the psychic costs of my nagging worry that Amazon or Apple will flip a switch one day and all my “investment” in those books and songs and movies will vanish in less than a puff of smoke.

So this deliberate living (in a minimalist possession style anyway — I will save thoughts of things like food for another day) starts to sound pretty good when I take a hard look at where my time and energy and money goes.

But how to start? There are two clear points: there is the commerce side where I bring possessions into my life and there is the other side where I have to live with them. The commerce side is more of a regular habit that must be handled with a new commitment each day. But the housing-life-possessions side — Ah! Now that presents and immediate and severe challenge.

SO I star taking stock: what do I need to be happy? I need a good chair to read in. And a good sofa for when I need a good lie-down. And a good TV. And a couple of good boxes to plug into that TV.

I need a good computer. And a good phone — these are how I make my living. I don’t need a good tablet (finally! A concession!) But I do need my Kindle.

I need a good pen and some bottles of ink and good paper and a good notebook, but I have at least convinced myself to stop buying more of these things for now. Even though I really want some.

And the list goes on (I haven’t even gotten to my small whisk[e]y collection…). I believe my definition of “minimal” may need to be calibrated. And that can no doubt turn into a life-long pursuit of contemplating and refining that definition. But one thing is decided not on the list of things I need and it breaks my heart.

I don’t think I really need all these books.

Our house is basically a library. We have filled it with shelves. We have filled those shelves with books. We have stacks of books. We have piles of books. We have bags of books. Our storage closet is filled with boxes filled with books. When we buy books now (and we buy books!), we can give only small thought about an organizational system as the pressures of reality force us to put them wherever there is an empty space or (in some cases) where we can convince gravity to look the other way.

I married someone who loves books as much as I do and it is glorious. And I love books a lot. I love reading them. I love holding them and smelling them. I love running my eyes along their colorful spines and reading their titles — each one an invitation. I love being surrounded by them and just existing in their presence. But I have to wonder: how much of that could be satisfied by a trip to the library? How much space at home am I sacrificing and is it worth it?

But…

I don’t know if I can get rid of them. Each fiction book is a miniature universe, filled with possibility. I can’t throw away an entire world so callously! My non-fiction books are even more valuable for they are filled with knowledge and the potential for self-betterment!

I find myself paralyzed by sentimentality and I do not know if I can overcome it. Even for books I have not opened in decades or technical books that are staggeringly outdated, I don’t know if I can stand to part with them.

I may have failed at deliberate living before even starting — and that is before discussing any of this with my spouse (a vital piece of any lifestyle experiment!). Perhaps I am doomed to live more like Jefferson (but without the astounding intellectual gifts that allowed him to gain enough status to mostly get away with it in his lifetime).

But I have a secret. None of those books on our shelves is Walden. I’ve never read it. I think I shall and maybe Thoreau will speak to me and help me overcome my own worst instincts.

But when I read Walden, I think I shall get a copy from the library.

Sunday, March 1st, 2015

Chindi
Chindi by Jack McDevitt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is a certain genre of science fiction where human beings find a massive and ancient alien artifact or ship. They explore that artifact while being completely ignored by the it and whatever attendants it may have (automated or otherwise). They marvel at the age and history and unfathomable alienness of the thing. Then they leave, having found more questions than answers but opening the eyes of our species to a new level of cosmic wonder.

When done well, books in this genre can be a page-turning adventure story about a group of people overcoming tremendous obstacles — all set against an amazing and rich backdrop. When done poorly, books in this genre become monuments to how much math the author has done to arrive at something fantastical yet plausible.

This book was done well. The characters are fleshed out and engaging. The ancient artifacts are compelling and they leave the reader with the same questions that it leaves the book’s human civilization: “Who built this? Where are they? Can we find them? Can we talk to them? Can we learn from them?” The other relics of other civilizations our heroes find have their own shades and layers of mystery, leaving the reader with even more questions and idle fantasies while painting a picture of an and well-populated galaxy. The adventures are fast-paced and exciting. The AI is charming.

And ultimately, the chief adversary of the humans in Chindi turns out to be the hubris of members of their own team. Which, in a book that chronicles the self-destruction of countless other civilizations, serves as a solid theme and a good reminder to not do that.

This book was both satisfying and entertaining. I look forward to finding other entries in the series.

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

The Big Sleep
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sherlock Holmes. Miss Marple. Jessica Fletcher (hush, you!). And Phillip Marlowe. These great detectives of our culture have long been cemented — in thousands of pages and hours of film — as icons of our culture. Yet I had somehow never actually experienced Chandler before. I’ve only really ever been exposed to the hard-boiled detective genre through tributes and pastiches like Star Trek‘s Dixon Hill or “special episodes of shows like Castle or Psych. I was excited to turn to an original and classic like The Big Sleep.

I was not disappointed but I was also not prepared. As a fan of detectives like Holmes, I expect my detective stories to follow certain patterns of evidence and deduction. Marlowe doesn’t really go for that sort of thing. There is even a nice moment where he explains that he doesn’t do that because, in reality, the police don’t miss many clues when they are really looking — it was a lovely reprimand from an author from seventy-five years go.

Instead, The Big Sleep focuses on the who instead of the how or why of detecting. Chandler was not so much interested in building a proper mystery as he was in having Marlowe deliver the perfect mot juste when questioning a suspect. And if the story’s resolution doesn’t make perfect senses, does it really matter so much if you had a good time getting there?

Once I embraced the differences between this and every other detective novel I’ve ever read, I was able to come on board and enjoy the ride.

Monday, February 16th, 2015

The Monkey Wrench Gang
The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am no fan of the environment. Indeed, I am far more of an antifan. I long for the day when we are forced to flee to giant domed cities where we can finally solve the problems of insects and animals and humidity and sunburn and angry plants and all the other little evils waiting to strike in “the environment”. I am also not a fan of terrorists. I hate them even more than I hate the environment.

All of which is to say that I am not the target audience for this book in which the main characters are all eco-terrorists and the plot follow their eco-terrorist activities as they attempt to spread unnecessary mayhem across the Southwest. I am not even in the neighborhood of being the audience for this book. Had the author known me, I am almost certain that he would not have been able to find any use for me. And I am pretty sure that I would feel the same about him.

So it was a tremendous surprise when I started liking this book. I’m not saying that it’s a great book. And I wouldn’t recommend it. But I was expecting this review to be a long catalog of the book’s faults without a kind word for it.

And while there are certainly many faults to list (the most prominent being the weird notion that having a character pee is the height of comedy…), my heart just isn’t in it.

The book is fine. Even entertaining. It didn’t make me sympathetic to eco-terrorists but that would be a pretty tall order for a novel. So whatever.

It’s fine.

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015
Link: WonkBlog: Yes, the Federal Reserve has enormous power over who is president