Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A.J. Jacobs, The Know-It All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, 2004.

The Know-It All is not as good as The Year of Living Biblically. There’s no bias in my reasoning, that I can identify: they’re both eminently enjoyable books, filled with musings about what it is to live. Jacobs’ more recent book, though, has a stronger narrative, a clearer through-line that gives shape to his experience in a way that the A-Z nature of this earlier book lacks.

I bought The Know-It All after L. gave me—and I so enjoyed--The Year of Living Biblically as a present. Jacobs spends a year reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica. More than anything -else, I was struck by how much I am occasionally like Jacobs: enjoying the sharing of obscure, only vaguely relevant bits of trivia and arcana. It can be compulsive.

While it was a meaningful experience for Jacobs, his summary of what he learned takes only a couple of paragraphs. Throughout, he shares interesting experiencing, tidbits of knowledge, and how he makes sense of the experience. Yet while having knowledge helps one in many ways (I’ve always wanted to know everything), I was bemused by the framing of the book, that of a quest to become smarter. It seems too trite, too simplistic a frame: this problem may well explain why I found The Year of Living Biblically to be that much more powerful a quest for meaning than The Know It-All.

It’s an enjoyable book, and worth a read. You’ll pick up all sorts of interesting and completely useless bits of knowledge: Nathaniel Hawthorne was obsessed with the number 64; women in Peru wear yellow underwear on New Year’s; that the name of eggplant “comes from the white egg-shaped variety” (which may explain to my sister why the Brits insist on calling the eggplant that we know an “aubergine”); that “Etruscans sometimes wrote boustrophedon style, in which the direction of writing alternates with each line—right-to-left, then left-to-right”; that Mormons were the first settlers in Las Vegas... I expect you’ll get a bit better at Trivial Pursuit, reading it—though better still if you repeat Jacobs’ experiment!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Shalom Auslander, Foreskin’s Lament, 2007.

Reading this blog, you’d be forgiven this week if you think I pick what book to read next based on my compulsive listening to NPR’s This American Life. I first heard Auslander on an episode about the ten commandments. He described a period of his life when the rabbinical instructors at his Hebrew school yelled at him if he dared write his name on anything—from an atlas to a lunch bag: “Name of the Creator!” It’s a story both moving and sad; his voice, which sounds vaguely reminiscent of Eeyore, makes it impossible not to feel deep empathy for the mistreatment Shalom endured—and yet he tells the stories in a way that is funny, and wry. He happened to be on an episode of Tapestry the other weekend, so I placed a hold on his new book. I raced through it.

Foreskin’s Lament is a memoir about his relationship with God. He writes that his relationship with God “has been an endless cycle not of the celebrated ‘faith followed by doubt,’ but of appeasement followed by revolt; placation followed by indifference; please, please, please, followed by fuck it, fuck You, fuck off” (71). It was hearing that idea on Tapestry that made me want to read the book. Let me quote Auslander again, and try to explain what it is that I mean:
I do not keep Sabbath or pray three times a day or wait six hours between eating meat and milk. The people who raised me will say that I am not religious. They are mistaken. What I am not is observant. But I am painfully, cripplingly, incurably, miserably religious, and I have watched lately, dumb-founded and distraught, as around the world, more and more people seem to be finding Gods, each one more hateful and bloodthirsty than the next, as I’m doing my best to lose him. I’m failing miserably.
I believe in God.
It’s been a real problem for me. (71-72)

There are two things here which intrigue me. The first is that Auslander is not of the Sam Harris / Richard Dawkins school, suggesting that what’s wrong with the world is religion. He’s not convinced that religion won’t lead to the sort of abuse that he experienced, that Harris and Dawkins claim is normative and rail against. Rather, Auslander is quite clear: what’s wrong is how faith has been lived out. Maybe there’s a better way to live it, though likely not. So how do you survive with it? Secondly, there’s an intriguing notion, better described elsewhere when his wife Orli offers a felicitous description of an infelicitous upbringing: Auslander was theologically abused, by parents, teachers, and his societal group as a whole. Without suggesting any sort of equivalence, this latter idea made me wonder about people who have been brought up within a faith tradition and have fled it. Do they do so only because they perceive no relevancy, no connection? Or is there something else, some trauma or injustice, something which has driven them away? And in this latter case, what is the appropriate response of the faith community? Saying “It wasn’t us” or “That’s not who we are now” isn’t any more satisfying than saying “We’re sorry you went through that” to the injured. What is the justice making response, if any?

Reading Auslander, I’m left with more questions than answers. I don’t have a response to his writing that feels in any way adequate. I am genuinely sorry that he has such a tortured relationship with God, and that he had such an upbringing that has left him in this state. He’s very clear in his writing that what he experienced is not Judaism; and yet he’s far from sure that any faith--even one that turns again and again to the Shema--can escape such perversions. I was amused and engaged as I read his book; I felt drawn in, and present to his stories.

Ultimately, I’m left with something he said in the Tapestry interview. Tragedy, he argued, is the human response to the events of our lives: abject dejection, a sense that no good is entirely possible, that we’re too trapped by fate. Humour, in contrast, is God’s perspective: the way of looking back over events and seeing that there’s more than pain and suffering. It’s an interesting way of thinking about the two modes, and as Auslander plays with this idea, he privileges comedy in a way I’ve not encountered before.

It’s a book well worth a read; I hope it will leave you with more questions than answers, just as it left me.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Dan Savage, The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family, 2005.

I first encountered Savage when I read, at the urging of a former co-worker, a couple of Savage’s advice columns: Savage Love. While far more entertaining than most such columns, I wasn’t hugely excited. Then I heard him on one of my addictions: the NPR show This American Life. Surely, if Ira Glass likes the guy’s writing... I was hooked. Even Savage’s voice works well, drawing you into his stories.

It was one of those stories which inspired me to get this book out from HPL. Savage was talking about his son’s opposition to Savage marrying his boyfriend Terry, and I found myself in tears by the end of that act of TAL (which you can listen to here). When I learnt that there was an entire book devoted to the musings, I placed a hold.

It is a book that is by turns touching, vitriolic, foul-mouthed, pensive, inquisitive; it is an incisive commentary on the state of the United States, with some travelogue-esque sections that made me remember de Tocqueville. At its heart, though, it’s a book about what family is and means. Savage’s own large family, whose various members have adopted diverse varieties of familial models, provides much fodder for Savage attempting to make sense of one question: should he and Terry get married? I didn’t cry again, reading it, but I found myself feeling a number of moments quite intensely. One such moment, well worth years of future consideration, is about our relationships in neighbourhoods: how they’re constructed, how we attempt to escape them, how we re-create them in later life. One large Catholic family, rooted in one area of a city for a number of generations offers a treasure trove for thinking about individuals, families, and communities.

So, it's a book I'm glad that TAL pointed me toward. I promise to let it pick my books for me even more frequently.