Sunday, January 30, 2011

Looking to the future, savoring the present

What a blast it’s been reading Feed by M.T. Anderson this week! Feed is a critically acclaimed Young Adult novel that describes the life of a teen named Titus in a time where almost every aspect of life is controlled by the feed, a transmitter implanted directly into his brain. Had I known the book was Young Adult, I might have thought otherwise about reading it, and I would have really missed out. Instead, I got Anderson’s  take on what the future might look like when we don’t just carry our laptops or smart-phones around with us, but when computers and brains are one in the same. Imagine a world in which what closely resembles Facebook advertising and personality profiling is taken to such extremes that the feed advertises not just to online actions, but to spoken words and emotions. The scary part is, it’s not such a far cry from reality. 
Even though Feed is written for younger readers, the author looks critically at the power that advertising and PR firms, global corporations like Nike, Coca-Cola, and Toyota, and major news conglomerates have in defining our reality. And as a communications nerd, I’m glad the author is encouraging his readers to see the possibly disastrous outcomes of a world in which speaking aloud is a chore, where buying something is as easy as clicking with your mind, and where writing with paper and pen is a lost art. There are certainly positive aspects to the technological revolution of the past 30 years, but this revolution has so entirely changed the landscape of communication and reality that I don’t believe we truly understand its effects yet. 
What I took away from this week was this: savor those aspects of life that may seem timeless. Jot down notes to yourself on a sticky note by your bedside table or on your desk. Write a letter to a friend who lives far away. Take a picture or draw what you see around you. Talk to people older than you and listen to their stories, because those stories will blow your mind. Look, I mean really look, at some artwork. Hold an old book  in your hands and smell the pages. Do whatever it is that keeps you rock-solidly in the present. These things are a beautiful part of life that I’m afraid are slipping away. 
For the month of February, I’ll be reading alongside my best friend in the world, Elizabeth Feenstra. In 2011, Liz is taking on a new challenge each month. Last month, she took a photo a day, and this month she’ll be reading a book a week with me! (What great encouragement!) This week we’ll be reading The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. It’s fiction, so I’m heading a bit off track from the every-other fiction/non-fiction plan, but this books been recommended to me at least four times this week, so what better way to kick off February than with a highly-recommended read!
Thanks to everyone for your encouragement and support! I love hearing your suggestions, keep ‘em coming!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

French thoughts on an American life

I’m sorry to say, but I ended up switching books this week. As sometimes happens, time and circumstance get the best of me, and there is just not enough energy at the end of the day. So instead of reading The Mother Tongue (which will remain on my booklist because the first few chapters were excellent), I decided to finish a book we had started this week in my French class called Sacrés Américains!  by Ted Stanger. Lame, I know. Alas, I really like this French book. The author, Stanger, was born in Columbus, OH, studied Journalism at Princeton and ended up living in France for the better part of his adult life. After having written his first book Sacrés Français!, which points out the humorous particularities of French lifestyle, Stanger decides to go back home to Columbus and write about his experiences back in the US from a very French perspective. The author willingly admits that the States are an entirely different place than when he left in the 70s (he is writing in 2004, in the middle of wars in the Middle East, Bush-isms, and “freedom fries”, which no doubt influenced his opinion of America).

What I’ve found really fascinating while reading this book is that, in spite of a number of negative things Stanger asserts about the US, I still feel enriched after having read it. Much as an anthropologist analyzes an ancient civilization based on its artifacts, an outsider analyzes a nation based on its laws, its people, its practices, and its culture. Stanger presents a unique view of the situation because he grew up in the States so he understands in a way how society functions, however, he comes back to his roots fairly desensitized and asks more critical questions of why things are the way they are. 
As an American who spent a time living in Paris, I would say that I’m more tolerant or even more accepting than most when it comes to critiques of the US. I’ve heard the fast-food bit, and the obesity, and the commercialism, and the neglect for the environment, et cetera. None of those critiques really bother me because I make my own choices and try to affect positive change, but I understand also that I’m only one person. But some of Stanger’s critiques were strikingly relevant to my life, especially when he talked about the Protestant work ethic and how Americans define themselves by their jobs. How often in this last week have I talked about how busy I am doing whatever it is that I’m doing, as if that somehow defines who I am or how happy or content I may be? This is something I struggle with constantly: I work so hard to excel, and at the same time I get annoyed that I don’t take time to smell the roses, or take six weeks of vacation a year like the French do. When I lived in France I absolutely loved this mindset and kicked myself for spending so much time working and studying back in the States; but here I am again, a year after I left for Paris, back in that rut again. 

Reading this book this past week made me see again that it’s really easy to get stuck in the same old routine, and sometimes what it takes is an outsider looking in to make you realize what you’re missing and what you’re doing wrong. Each book each week has taught me something new about life and about people, and it gets me out of the blinders-on mindset that everything in my teeny-tiny world is revolving around me, and I need that. The beauty of travel, and of reading, and of art, and of all these things I love is that they give me just a glimpse into another reality, one that takes me outside the quotidian and shows me that there is another way. I’m learning (and re-learning) everyday that life is made up of a beautiful, crazy assortment of experiences, and I hope that you are coming to know that, too. 

Anyway, on to next week. Although I did never quite get to Bill Bryson’s book, I’m going to save that for another week and keep going with the fiction / non-fiction routine. This week, I’ll be reading Feed by M.T. Anderson, a futuristic novel my good friend Casey recommended. Should be good! I’m excited for fiction again, which should be a nicebreak from all the school related reading I’ve been doing (wait, wasn’t second semester senior year supposed to be easy?). Have a great week everyone!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Poignant Prose and Dog-Eared Pages

Wow. I just finished reading Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Housekeeping is a novel, often considered a modern classic, that’s been recommended to me by a number of people, and I’m so glad that I finally took the time to read it. It’s probably the furthest thing from a light, feel-good read, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. There is something beautiful and poignant about Robinson’s writing style, as each word, sentence, and phrase deserves it’s proper consideration. There is something beautiful, too, about the way she states the most inexplicable, innate truths of everyday human life. So often as I read I had to go back and read over those sentences again, turning over the corner of the page so I could go back and read them once more. Here’s a beautiful little section I dog-eared, where the narrator talks about her thoughts and dreams:
“And here we find our great affinity with water, for like reflections on water our thoughts will suffer no changing shock, no permanent displacement. They mock us with their seeming slightness. If they were more substantial -- if they had weight and took up space -- they would sink or be carried away in the general flux. But they persist, outside the brisk and ruinous energies of the world.”
I’m not here to give a review of the book or a spark-notes summary, but I do want to say that if you’re someone who not only eats up a good story but likes taking time to savor a book, this one’s for you. Perhaps give it more than a week, because I wished I had more time to digest :) 
Next week I’ll be reading The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson. I absolutely love Bill Bryson because he’s just hysterical, so I’m excited to read one of his earlier books. This is all about the English language and how it came to be, and as a French/Communications language nerd, I’m looking forward to it! I’m scheduling in some designated reading time next week, because the natural procrastinator in me got so caught up this past week in the busyness going back to school and normal life that the bulk of my reading was done over the weekend. Hopefully that goes better and becomes a natural part of my daily rhythm instead of a weight on my shoulders at the end of the week. And if you think of it, ask me how my reading is going when you see me or send a text or email, I’m sure it will keep me much more accountable! Thanks :)

Sunday, January 9, 2011


It’s been a week since my last post, and I just finished Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. The book chronicles Greg Mortenson’s mission to build schools in Pakistan and Central Asia, especially for girls, in order to promote peace and combat terror of radical islamic sects. There were a number of things that struck me about the book, but the word inshallah, the title of this post, was perhaps the most striking. Loosely translated from arabic as “God willing” the word is woven throughout the book and is representative of both the high regard Mortenson holds for Islam, as well his own unassuming nature. Following a failed attempt to climb K2, Mortenson allows his own goals to be transformed as he spotted the needs around him. He never assumes that he will be able to accomplish his goals easily, but prays that, inshallah, his promises will come to fruition. For someone who is fond of planning, list-making, and over-scheduling, I need to tap into this idea more often.
If Mortenson hadn’t taken this God willing attitude towards his education projects in Central Asia, he wouldn’t have gotten very far. Early in the book, Mortenson shows up in Korphe, a rural village in the Karakoram Valley, planning to build the school he’d been working months to raise the funds for. However upon arrival, he was told by the village elders that he could not build a school until he built a bridge, because it would be impossible to bring up all the supplies without it. I can imagine that it was a humbling experience, to come into this remote village expecting to change the world and realize that the people living there really needed something else first. It’s easy to think that because we’ve planned out our lives, they can’t be changed, but Mortenson’s story shows that reality is quite the contrary. Sometimes, you have to build a bridge before you can build a school.  
“May you always see the dignity in others. Love, Granny,” says the inscription on the inside of the book I’ve borrowed for the week. Though simple, this sentiment resonated with me throughout the week, even when I wasn’t reading. Greg Mortenson and everyone else who supports the Central Asia Institute have been able to recognize that, regardless of geography, nationality, race, gender, and religion, there is dignity in everyone, and that those less fortunate deserve our attention, our care, and our compassion. It is so encouraging that heroes like Mortenson are out in the world doing good work, and I hope that I could have an ounce of the compassion and determination that he possesses. Inshallah. 
Some details I’ve knocked out about my challenge: I’ve decided that I’ll do my weeks Monday to Monday, so that with each new school week or work week (wow, I’m getting old) I start a new book. I feel that starting a new book each Monday will be refreshing, because as much as I love schedule and routine, routine can certainly get dry and monotonous. Hopefully I’ll be posting more than once a week, but if nothing else I’ll post Sunday night, reflecting on each passing and coming book. I’ve also decided that I’ll be taking someone’s wise advice to alternate between fiction and non-fiction. Although I love the captivating nature of good novel, I often pick non-fiction reads. Alternating week to week should provide a nice balance and keep me from getting bogged down by one genre or another. 
Next week’s read: Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. This book’s been sitting on my shelf for ages, and I’m sure I’ve brought it back and forth to school or on other trips at least three times. But this week’s the week!