My Quarantine Book List – March 2020

 

When we arrived at this housesitting gig in New Hampshire, our host introduced us to the house and gave us the lay of the land, including the guest room with a bookcase full of random, interesting books. From pop fiction to how to win poker hands and the stock market, to the Holy Bible and more, it seemed to have something for everyone, including me. He recommended The Book of Joy when he left to join his wife down South and I, recognizing a sign when I hear it, immediately dug in.

It was a pretty thick book but very easy reading so I flew through it. At the time, I was also really embracing the lake cabin aesthetic and curling up on the couch with a book seemed just right. After the first one, I just kept going, picking books from the shelf on gut instinct and before the month was over, I had finished four books – What?! Craziness. I’m reading again! Yay! With that same enthusiasm, I decided to put together this post as a review guide of this pretty eclectic selection I’ve read so far during the Quarantine.

But first, I want to share a bit about my love for reading, it was my everything as a kid. I read everything I could get my hands on – I’m not really sure why, maybe there’s no other reason other than I just really love stories. When I was young, my mom started bringing all of us to the library every week and we selected 10 books to read. This continued until high school and a love was born. Since then, I’ve read to teach myself how to do practically anything, to have fun and pass the time, to learn what else is out there in this big, ole world, and to appreciate and bear witness to a perfectly structured sentence.

1. The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams.

The premise of this book is a series of questions Abrams curates from people around the world about cultivating joy in our lives and, over a week-long period, interviews the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The insight from both Buddhist and Christian points of view lends a universal voice to the most human of our natures and questions about life.

Mostly, their perspectives are the same. Interestingly, one of the only differences in perspective was about people’s ability to direct our negative emotions. The Archbishop stated, “… You don’t really have a great deal of control over it. I think, far too frequently, we are too hard on ourselves … For goodness’ sake, there are things about us that we do not control” (137). While the Dalai Lama said, “ Any sort of emotion that disturbs this happiness and peace of mind, we must learn to avoid right from the beginning. I think it is a mistake just to consider all of these negative emotions, like anger or jealousy, as normal parts of our mind, something we cannot do much about” (139).

Read this 300+ page book and you’ll find, expressed in so many ways, that the basic principle of Joy is very simple, really. “The more time you spend thinking about yourself, the more suffering you will experience. The incredible thing is that when we think of alleviating other people’s suffering, our own suffering is reduced. This is the true secret to happiness” (254). Said another way, “In short, bringing joy to others is the fastest way to experience joy yourself” (261).

2. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

I used to be stupidly elitist about what books I read – they fell into 1 of 2 categories: dry non-fiction about philosophy, science, or art; or if it was fiction, it had to be a classic written by some long-dead Russian or British dandy from the 18th century. Since those days have passed, I read whatever I want.

These days, I am getting back in touch with my family’s Korean roots and understanding the dichotomy between identity and cultures of immigrants and their children. So when I spied the author’s very Asian name, Ng, on the spine of this book, I immediately dislodged the slim volume into my palm.

I related so hard to this story about a mixed Asian-American family growing up in a very white suburb in Ohio that I whizzed through it in a week and was up sobbing in the middle of the night at its conclusion. Even if you’re not Asian or Asian-American, the story of family is something that anyone can relate to.

When one of the kids passes away, the already shaky family relations really unravel in the wake of her death. The veneer of suburban family life is acutely disturbed in a massive way, and it is through these cracks in the glass that Ng introduces the reader to secrets and stories of each family member’s inner life that the others don’t know about.

These are not necessarily secrets in a sinister way but rather just the things we never tell each other out of fear or love: those insecurities, the trust, our pasts, misunderstandings, and more that are thematic in parent-child relationships, husband-wife, and sibling-sibling. And all the things we don’t say to each other engage dynamically on a whole other invisible playing field, energetically rather than physically.

For years after that, they will grope for the words that say what they mean: to Nath, to Hannah, to each other. There is so much they need to say” (283).

In some ways, we don’t even know how to define what’s going on to our very own selves. “It has been so long since he thought of his wife as a creature of want. … James will struggle to piece words to this feeling and he will never quite manage to say, even just to himself, what he really means” (251).

When we think we know someone’s entire story we make meaning out of what they might do or say because we “know” where it comes from. But the truth is, we don’t. People are a universe unto themselves and the book closes with a beautiful quote about this, “Years from now they will still be arranging the pieces they know, puzzling over her features, redrawing her outlines in their minds. Sure that they’ve got her right this time, positive in this moment that they understand her completely, at last” (291).

I would highly recommend for anyone whose family is a bit wonky, a bit weird, so basically everyone.

3. Samskara by U.R. Anantha Murthy, translated by A.K. Ramanujan

I love books about religious people, spiritual seekers, and the ascetics of this world. There’s something that attunes me to their story and their travels. While at one time, I thought I was living vicariously through their voyages and discoveries, all along I was actually on my own spiritual journey to discover the reality of who I am. When I saw the unfamiliar word, Samskara, as one of the titles peeking out at me from the bookcase, I related it vaguely to the Sanskrit language and knew this was my next read.

On the inside of the first page, there is a definition provided for Samskara taken from A Kannada-English Dictionary, 1894. In fact, there is a total of 9 various definitions but for the sake of convenience I will forgo all but the first, “1. Forming well or thoroughly, making perfect, perfecting; finishing, refining, refinement accomplishment“. For another perspective of this diverse word, an amalgam of Google’s top search results  of “Samskara, definition” gives the following: the mental impressions, recollections, or psychological imprints left by all thoughts, actions and intents that an individual has ever experienced and their past actions. Sources here and here. And lastly, another definition provided by Penguin Random House defines it as the “rite of passage but also moment of recognition“. Source here.

This story is about a holy man, Pranesha, who leads an ultra-orthodox community of families of the Brahmin caste. Collectively, they live in a neighborhood together and follow his leadership because he is the “holiest” of them- the most chaste, the one who follows all the rituals, the tedious prayers, studies the texts, and has dedicated his life to the path.

When one of their own suddenly passes away, questions about morality and cleanliness arise. Although the deceased man was a Brahmin, he outright defied their morals by consorting with Muslims, keeping a mistress, and eating meat. This meant that his body was “unclean” and if anyone prepared the body for funeral rites, they too would become unclean. Everyone turns to Pranesha for answers he does not know and so, as the days go by while the group searches for who can perform the funeral rites (perhaps the liberal Brahmins next door?), they must all fast while the corpse lays uncremated.

A distraught Pranesha goes to a forest temple in prayerful supplication to his deity and it is here, in the dark of the trees, that he runs into the mistress of the deceased and commits adultery with her. This is the first time he has touched a woman like this. In his youth, he declared himself to “renounce the world, become a sanyasi, live a life of self-sacrifice” and he had “done meticulously every act of daily worship for the gods, read and explicated the holy texts for the Brahmins” (75). His entire life, he was the one “born with … ‘Good’ nature” and “now every one of his beliefs seemed to have turned topsy-turvy” (76).

He is thrown into an existential crisis and experiences for the first time, “the desire … to tell lies, to hide things, to think of one’s own welfare” (77). He realizes that he has “lost his original fearlessness” and now, “[experiences] … a fear of being discovered, of being caught. A fear that [he] may not be able to keep a secret from others’ eyes” (96). It’s interesting this implication of fearlessness being in the same space as innocence but when “sin” is present, there is shame, fear, and lying. He leaves home to figure his shit out and meditate on his conundrum. Along the way, a stranger befriends him and pulls him into a sensual carnival in the neighboring county where he faces his question head on and discovers the way out.

This book takes a bit getting used to because there is a lot of vernacular of the times and culture, which are supported by an appendix of notes in the back of the book. Even though it felt like some of the book went over my head, I still felt like I went on some sort of journey when I finished. Something about the complexity of life and considerations of sanctity, the dark recesses of sin and shame, renewal in absolution, and the fearlessness of truth.

4. Media Control – The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda by Noam Chomsky

After reading Samskara, perhaps I needed something a little closer to home … something less heady and more tangible. What better to pop out at me than the stark words of “CHOMSKY – MEDIA CONTROL”, its font blaring at me in red, capitalized, block letters against a black spine. Noam Chomsky is a real interesting guy, read all about him on his Wikipedia page here to get an idea of what his credentials are, so I knew by reputation alone that this would be a good read.

In fact, the timing was impeccable for reading about the manipulation of popular opinion through media. The days have been growing leaner as the fire of the pandemic is stoked across the world and we settle into a near-collective lockdown. It’s still so surreal to comprehend.

Before the pandemonium, I didn’t keep up with popular media and I was still keeping my distance. I used to be a news junkie and kept up to date on all the outlets: NY Times, Hartford Courant, Wall Street Journal, BBC, MSNBC, FOX, NPR, and more. I purposefully tried to get all the perspectives but after a year of doing this, I noticed that they all basically say the same thing – either one of two opinions, liberal or conservative. It was weird so I said fuck it and now I don’t rely on media outlets for news.

Reading Chomsky’s synopsis on control by the media, I’ve learned 5 things.

  1. The power of Meaningless Slogans – “That’s the whole point of good propaganda. You want to create a slogan nobody’s going to be against, and everybody’s going to be for. Nobody knows what it means, because it doesn’t mean anything. Its crucial value is that it diverts your attention from a question that does mean something: Do you support our policy? That’s the one you’re not allowed to talk about” (26). Life’s timing is hilarious and impeccable. The day I read this part of the book, Jim and I saw a sign off a thoroughfare in New Hampshire that said “No More Bullshit – TRUMP 2020” – Meaningless slogans at work!
  2. The masses are dumb, allegedly – A dude named Walter Lippmann, who was one of the founders of modern journalism and wrote fancy papers on topics like journalism’s role in democracy, defined two classes of citizens within a democracy : the Bewildered Herd and the Specialized Class. The bewildered herd is “the big majority of the population” whose function is to be “spectators, not participants in action” (17). The specialized class is “the responsible men” “a small elite, the intellectual community” who “carry out the … thinking and planning and understand the common interests” (15-17). In order to “tame the bewildered herd”, “the manufacture of consent” was created (18). And how do the specialized class get into these positions? They do this by “serving people with real power”, the “executive group”, “private power”, the “ones who own the society” (18-19). In fact, this idea that “only a small number of people have [rationality]. Most people are guided by emotion and impulse” and “out of ordinary morality, we have to make sure that they don’t have an opportunity to act on the basis of their misjudgments” is now contemporary political science. (20) Remember that “the people who are able to engineer consent are the ones who have the resources and the power to do it – the business community – and that’s who you work for” (29).
  3. Propaganda is extremely effective and relatively new – The “first modern government propaganda operation … was under Woodrow Wilson” during World War I. The country was pacifist and not yet entangled in the war, but “the British propaganda ministry”, whose mission it was “to direct the thought of most of the world”, effectively influenced “the more intelligent members of … the United States, who would then disseminate the propaganda that they were concocting and convert the pacifistic country to wartime hysteria … It worked very well” (13). The lesson learned here that has been used again, and again, and again since then is that “State propaganda, when supported by the educated classes and when no deviation is permitted from it, can have a big effect” (13).
  4. The Democratic and Conservative Parties – “are two factions of the business party”, ’nuff said (29).
  5. The importance of organization –  The thing to transcend all these is the power of organization. It is through popular movements, “if organizations can develop, if people are no longer just glued to the tube”, “very informal movements … just a mood that involves interactions among people”, like the feminist movement, that “you discover that you’re not alone. Others have the same thoughts that you do. You can reinforce your thoughts and learn more about what you think and believe” and “it has a very noticeable effect” (40-41). When “people [think] they [are] alone … it [is] possible to proceed … without opposition” (59).

I’ll leave you with one last quote, “The issue is much broader. It’s whether we want to live in a free society or whether we want to live under what amounts to a form of self-imposed totalitarianism, with the bewildered herd marginalized, directed elsewhere, terrified, screaming patriotic slogans, fearing for their lives and admiring with awe the leader who saved them from destruction, while the educated masses goose-step on command and repeat the slogans they’re supposed to repeat and the society deteriorates at home. We end up serving as a mercenary enforcer state, hoping that others are going to pay us to smash up the world … The answer to those questions is very much in the hands of people like you and me” (65).

5. Dubliners – by James Joyce

The first and last time I attempted James Joyce, I heaved Ulysses into my lap and began reading its cryptic text. Surprised, and perhaps a bit perturbed, by how obscure the language was for me, I put it to the wayside after several irritating pages and haven’t touched it since.

This time, however, James Joyce comes to me via a slim and cheerful Irish-green covered book, Dubliners, which coincidentally is my favorite specific genre to read – short stories, vignettes, of people going about their daily lives as mundane events carry with them significant moments of love and loss, highlighted by the writer and the narrator.

The moments where a bead of sweat glistens on a brow that only the reader notices, the story behind the blouse that a character wears, or the mundane dialogue rich with history while meeting with an old friend. There are so many juicy gems of nuance to savor from these types of stories because it requires attentiveness and understanding to glean and when you do, the story really comes to life. It gives me chills, that’s how much I love it!

Where I first discovered this type of writing was with J.D. Salinger. Most people know of him because of The Catcher in the Rye, but he also wrote a whole series on the Glass family, of which I am a huge fan. Books include Franny and Zooey, Nine Stories, and Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenters. He wrote with subtlety, about seemingly inconspicuous events that, if you paid attention, told you the story.

To conclude this section, I want to leave you with a sample of Joyce’s descriptive-ass writing. He writes so incredibly beautifully that as I read, I was left speechless and in silence at times, unwilling to move on or go backward. I simply marinated in what I just read, it was so impeccable and lyrical, like strumming a stringed instrument, the words plucked like notes.

The grey warm evening of August had descended upon the city and a mild warm air, a memory of summer, circulated in the streets. The streets, shuttered for the repose of Sunday, swarmed with a gaily coloured crowd. Like illumined pearls the living texture below which, changing shape and hue unceasingly, sent up into the warm grey evening air an unchanging unceasing murmur” (49).

 


 

References:

Chomsky, Noam. Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda. 2nd ed., Seven Stories Press, 2002.

Lama, Dalai, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams. The Book of Joy. Avery, 2016.

Joyce, James. Dubliners. The Viking Press, Inc., 1967.

Murthy, U.R. Anantha. Samskara. Translated by A.K. Ramanujan, Oxford University Press, 1978.

Ng, Celeste. Everything I Never Told You. Penguin Group, 2014.

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