More Book Thoughts from My Prison Diary



{8/16/08} Finished Stephen King’s Bag of Bones, a fine but ultimately disappointing ghost story. The disappointment is with the overdrawn villains and some illogical plot points. Of the latter: a ghost assaults our hero with a 400 pound desk, but fails to make use of the many knives in the kitchen or the knitting needles mentioned among the flotsam; our hero is assaulted and nearly killed by drowning by two old and frail villains, receiving many cuts and bruises which are not noticed in the next scene with his love interest. King has done this before. Other points seemed obscure and/or unbelievable. Anyway, it held my interest and provided some goosebumps along the way.

Much better was Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, about the hiking of two greenhorns on the Appalachian Trail. The adventures and dialogue are very funny and entertaining, but there isn’t that much here about nature, i.e., observations of plants and animals. Very good reading indeed for someone contemplating buying a backpack—an unromantic (usually) look at hiking.

He points out something I hadn’t appreciated before: eastern woods are much more varied—have many more species of trees, and I guess, of shrubs, than western forests.

He also reminded me of something I had long forgotten: “the perfect moment.” Here’s how he expresses a similar thought: “…on each walk there comes a moment when I look up and notice, with a kind of first-time astonishment, the amazing complex delicacy of the woods, the casual ease with which elemental things come together to form a composition that is—whatever the season, wherever I put my besotted gaze—perfect. Not just very fine or splendid, but perfect, unimprovable.” p. 393.

My old thought was that the statement, “What a perfect moment this is” tends to be self-fulfilling. One can always look around and find something, if only the sky, that is perfect and beautiful. Not quite the same, and perhaps rather more difficult in a prison cell. Too Pollyannaish? No.

He did have some harsh words for Thoreau, but later quoted him. He had special praise for The Thru-Hiker’s Handbook by Dan “Wingfoot” Bruce.

{8/17/08} In comparing the villain in Bag of Bones to Iago, I see that Iago is more interesting because he is more creatively evil, more devious. Nothing interesting at all, really, about Max Devore. He’s amazingly nasty, but cardboard and scarcely credible. Iago is unbelievable, probably, but deliciously evil, thoroughly evil. Enough. King is talented and his best is perhaps brilliant, but Shakespeare is genius, the best ever.

{8/19/08} Finally finished Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People. It’s an odd book. He says a lot about architecture and even gardens, but does not mention computers. He praises Richard Nixon and calls him, perhaps with some justification, a victim of a “liberal media” witch hunt. He praises LBJ’s social programs, disparages those of FDR (except Social Security). In many ways he sounds like an unusually sensible Republican, if there can be such a thing. All in all, an entertaining (!) history of the U.S., but I wouldn’t care to read it again.

Gave up quickly on Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. A very different kind of story for him—little girl lost in the woods—but I couldn’t get into it. I didn’t find the characters at all interesting, alas.

Started on Crime and Punishment, which I read decades ago. It’s dismal.

On looking over the list of books I want to buy, I find that few will change my day-to-day life as much as a radio would—so I’m going to buy a radio tomorrow. I’m hoping it will help lighten my depression, which has been a real burden lately—like, since [my late wife]’s last letter. I absolutely dread a bad call by the judge in [my son]’s case; it would just about kill me. [9/16/12 Oh, what the future holds!]

Couldn’t I make more of an effort on the Hap novel, for the sake of my tenuous relationship with [my son]? As well as to, possibly, get him thinking about a writing career, or at least thinking about reading and books in a different light.

Also finished Mark Twain’s Roughing It, a usually interesting, often very funny (though not quite often enough), sometimes slow memoir of his seven years’ journey through the Old West and Hawaii. Interesting details of gold and silver mining, vivid recreation of a long Stagecoach ride, etc.

|69| In my Walden commentary, #26, I said that Walden is one of the few reading experiences that changed my thinking in important ways, and as a final thought I listed Fritz Perls, John Holt, Bertrand Russell, and Tolstoy. Certainly it would not be far wrong to say that most of my opinions and scientific and intellectual (?) models came from books. But to link this opinion or practice to that particular book or even author, I don’t know that I can do that even once. Also, to that list I should add Jonathan Kozol and Noam Chomsky. The least of these (in the sense of being formative of my opinions!) is surely Tolstoy; despite much reading of his works, we are not in much agreement anywhere…though I certainly consider his Confession to be required reading. Add Lin Yutang to the list, and Walter K. [Kaufmann]

{8/21/08} Read Kafka’s Trial, a peculiar nightmare of a story told in a rather flat and dull way. Or maybe the problem isn’t so much the style as the story itself—nothing makes much sense to me in this fantasy world. (It’s not supposed to, perhaps.) It’s sort of the “sizzle” of 1984 without the “steak.” Fortunately it’s not a very long book or I likely wouldn’t have finished it. I find that dream sequences in novels are never a high point, and are more often just plain dull; well, here’s a “dream novel.” Too much “talking heads,” low excitement level, no beauties of language, flat affect!

I’m also rereading Crime and Punishment and not enjoying it much, but I’m hoping.

{8/22/08} I think maybe people see their choice as between “universe as a machine,” and “universe as God” or creation of God—and they can’t have a relationship with, cannot expect mercy from, and cannot love a machine. This (if “true”) has almost nothing to do with reason or rationality, and everything to do with emotion and “fear of the dark.” [Maybe other causes too, of course.]

Those of us who are content with “universe as machine” could be said to be suffering from a kind of autism.  I, indeed, would generally prefer to work with a computer instead of a person.

Or maybe we just think of ourselves as bad children who don’t want to be judged and punished (or even forgiven) by Big Daddy in the Sky.

{8/23/08} Read David Grinspoon’s Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., New York, 2003, 2004, pb. Fabulously interesting look at the possibilities and probabilities of intelligent life in the universe and of contact with aliens. Perhaps a bit too laboredly |69B| humorous at times and a bit glib about the possibilities of interstellar travel, but these are mirror quibbles. Good sense and good science throughout. Some stimulating quotes:

“Photosynthesis is so pervasive and essential to life on earth that it is not inaccurate to describe the biosphere, as did Russian biogeochemist Vladimir Vernadsky in 1926, as a continuous, thin film enveloping the planet, within which sunlight drives matter through incessant transformation.” p. 123

“Bacteria have survived for three million years in Siberian permafrost at 15 degrees below zero with no sunlight, air, or food.” p. 129 He gives other examples of life surviving under extreme conditions.

“One critter’s poison is another one’s fuel.” p. 138. Prompting me to note, we breathe plant shit! Later he says, “Organisms around the planet will evolve to take advantage of each other’s wastes.” p. 274.

“…what if we discover aliens who are so alien that we cannot tell if they are ‘intelligent’ or not? How should we treat them? What rights would they have? In my house and yard, I’ve used chemical poisons to kill wasps and rodents, and traps to remove other pests. Chemical warfare and kidnapping are both appropriately seen as criminal acts.” p. 258

“Life on earth is no accidental collection of organisms lucky enough to find a hospitable planetary home. Rather, life has largely created the world we know. Life, we are learning, has altered many of Earth’s basic physical properties, investing the air, the rocks, and the water with qualities they would not possess on a dead world.” p. 268

Quoting Bertrand Russell: “When one admits that nothing is certain one must, I think, also add that some things are more nearly certain than others.” p. 374

Attributed to “Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic?” in Bertrand Russell on God and Religion, by Al Seekel, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 1986, p. 85.

“Globalization must happen if we are to survive long term with high technology. The question is how we do it and what values dominate. Will globalization simply empower massive corporations to control earth’s resources in a short term orgy of profit, the future be damned? Or will humanistic and multigenerational values prevail?” p. 397n.

|70| He quotes H. G. Wells, that we are in a “race between education and catastrophe.” p. 398

“The problem of survival is not fundamentally technological. It is spiritual and moral. It is evolutionary. Technical solutions may provide temporary Band-Aids, but they do not save us from our nature. If we want to be one of the survivors [among biospheres], we must create a global society where curiosity is tightly bonded to compassion, and where (this is hardest to picture) not a lot of people want to do violence to others. You’re probably not going to like this next thought, but one solution would be to just surrender to the machines.” p. 399. Prima to the rescue! But maybe we could also program ourselves—i.e., improve our educational efficiency, as in Brave New World, perhaps?

Two additional notes I made while reading this book: biophilia vs. religion, and: why not breathe through your mouth? Because you don’t push food up your nose.

Biophilia vs. religion does not offer much hope, I’m afraid. Biophilia cannot replace religion—it would have to be or become a competing religion, and that’s not how religions are born. [11/1/18:  As if I know anything about this.]  We’d be better off getting the Pope to preach about stewardship, if he hasn’t already done so.

The problem is that stewardship and “saving the earth” aren’t sexy—they are like brushing your teeth, something unpleasant (?) you have to do to avoid catastrophe. They don’t offer hope and personal salvation to the desperate mass of men. And that seems to be what gets the SCs fired up and maybe the New Age idiots.

{8/27/08} I have theorized that what makes books valuable and important—the best of the best—is human experience. If this is so, then W.O.W. may be in trouble, because in looking over this journal, I find much theory and many “book reviews,” but not that much human experience. And until I can actually do the experiment, this is likely to remain the situation.

But the theory, good as it may be in explaining why Sophocles remains important while Aristotle is dry as dust, doesn’t necessarily explain everything. What’s valuable about Walden, Shaw, Wilde, Emerson, and most of Russell is only in part, and often not at all, “human experience,” but more often the style, the author’s voice and |70B| persona, and what he specifically has to say about things. One looks in vain for deep insight into human beings in Gulliver’s Travels—though some of the satire does show us ourselves in a new light.


Copyright 2018 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

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