A very well-written, readable and well-argued book. McKibben basically argues that we need to redefine our understanding of classic economics: namely that more doesn’t always necessarily equal better, not just for sustainable reasons (we’re running out of resources on our planet) but for personal reasons (more stuff, bigger businesses and expanding economies aren’t making us happier). It’s an interesting argument and he follows through with it pretty well with practical suggestions on how we can refocus our energies on building more local economies and communities. I really enjoyed McKibben’s discussion of behavioral economics and the science of happiness, two topics I find really interesting and know very little about. There are a few moments that are a little too “oh god, you are such an environmentalist from Vermont,” like when he suggests giving bus drivers your personal mix CDs to slap on the stereo. Also, McKibeen seems to be writing for an audience that he automatically assumes is anti neoliberal and free trade, so if you’re not, that might be a problem for you. (Disclaimer: it wasn’t for me, I’m just trying to be fair and balanced here.) However, overall McKibben does quite a good job of making practical suggestions for how to make the world a better place and how to be more hopeful in general, which is a nice change from the more general “oh-god-we’re-all-doomed” feeling of recent months.
The one part of the book that I keep summarizing and quoting to all of my co-workers and friends is the section where McKibben talks about the science of happiness. He asks the very interesting question of what was the time in our lives when most of us would say that we were happiest. For most people, they would say volunteering, with family, with friends, etc…. being around others. Being *out* of yourself and your chatty little head, and instead feeling like you’re a part of something bigger than yourself. That really hit the nail on the head for me, and put into words something I’d been struggling to articulate to myself for a while now: what has brought me some of the highest levels of joy in my life was when I felt like I was “out of myself,” part of something larger, whether in the hugeness of nature or within a community of people (like Los Embajadores in Tijuana), not as this self-internalizing super efficient/proficient utility machine.
Whether my enjoyment of finally having this particular feeling put into words actually leads to me doing or deciding something concrete remains to be seen. I think of my advisor’s advice to me of why not to go to graduate school, at least not for literature, and it really rings more and more true for me by the day. He was like “travel! Get out in the world! Work with kids!” This summer, I’m gonna garden.
Rating: Read This Book Before You Die
Keep the Aspidistra Flying (George Orwell)
An enjoyable if not earth shattering read. Orwell is the master of succinct, perfect sentences. Along with watching “Revolutionary Road,” this book definitely helped put me in a weird mindset about the whole settling down into a comfortable career and lifestyle deal, while thinking that you’re this person who’s “better” than everyone else around you. The happy ending feels a little forced; if Orwell had been truer to the tone of earlier parts of the book, the characters’ fate would have been a lot darker. Orwell said in a letter that when he wrote it, “I was half starved and had to turn out something to bring in £100,” which explains a lot. All in all, a nice fictional companion to “Down and Out in Paris and London.”
Rating: Read This If You’re An Orwell Fan
El Juguete Rabioso / The Mad Toy (Roberto Arlt)
Another book about a character whose life is really affected by money (namely his lack of it). I would have really dug this book in high school, a lot, and probably would have had a little bit of a crush on Silvio, the main character.
The Mad Toy took me a long time to get through, despite its 142 pages. I don’t really know why. I don’t exactly know what to make of this book. I’m not sure what the title refers to, for one. I guess “the mad toy” is Silvio himself, and the title refers to the way in which he often finds himself inevitably being used as “a toy” by people in power and by the mentors he consistently keeps seeking (and failing) to find. The final chapter (ominously titled “Judas Iscariot”), in which Silvio deliberately betrays a mentor/friend, can be understood as Silvio’s attempt to subvert this feeling of always feeling like a plaything to others whims, and instead claim some agency of his own (at the stake of his friend, which is troublesome).
The first chapter is about Silvio as a young boy and his adventures in inventing amateur weapons of war and his life of crime as a book thief, smuggling encyclopedias and Baudelaire out of the school library. I love the sentence that he uses to introduce an anecdote about one of his inventions, copying the language of the pirate and Dumas paperbacks he loves. “A resounding adventure was that of my cannon, and happy am I to recall it.” I like to repeat this phrase quietly to myself. It adds so much, narrating the events in our lives with a deliberate aesthetic style!
Needless to say, it says a lot about Silvio that his first career is as a book thief. He goes on to try working as a bookstore assistant, an apprentice airplane mechanic for the military, and a paper salesman, without finding much satisfaction. However, what seems to keep him going is his ability to aesthetically narrate his life and his surroundings, infusing it with what he experiences as an inexplicable joy:
I’m not crazy, one thing is certain, though… I know that life will always be extraordinarily beautiful for me. I don’t know whether other people will experience the force of life as I do, but inside me there is joy, a full, unconscious kind of joy. Everything surprises me. Sometimes I have the feeling that it’s just an hour since I arrived on earth, and everything is flaming new, fresh, beautiful. (150)
Silvio’s goals by the end of the book are to “see glaciers and mountains and clouds.” That sounds pretty good to me. The last sentence of the book is “I tripped over a chair, and kept going.” It reminded me a lot of the last sentence of Catch-22. You jump out of the way of the whore’s knife, life tangles you up and catches you off guard, but you gotta keep going.
Silvio’s final mentor figure is the policeman who receives his confession/ratting out his friend, but doesn’t arrest him. The wisdom he imparts to Silvio is “we obey a brutal law that’s inside us. That’s it. We obey the law of the jungle.” A very true thing it is, human brutality. And yet it’s not the only true thing. We feel as human beings, profoundly and deeply. What is it that drives some people to not just see life as a drudgery and a chore, life as 9-5, as a series of steps: college, job, marriage, children, retirement death? What is it that drives some people to make the conscious choice to love life, to see it as sweet?
I’d like to keep joy inside me. I’d like to aesthetically narrate my life, my day-to-day.
Love, poetry, gratitude toward life, toward books, and toward the world would send an electrical charge through the blue sinews of my soul.
It wasn’t me, but the god inside me, a god fashioned from pieces of mountain, forest, sky and memory. (123)
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön
A self-help book written by a Buddhist Canadian nun. I first heard of this book when my yoga teacher read aloud a passage at the end of one class that really connected to me. I recognized a lot of her advice from stuff my counselor gave me to read way back in junior year. She talks a lot about loving compassion, the importance of breathing in and out, exercising non-judgment. It’s not just all theoretical, there’s a lot of practical advice in her. All in all, a very wise book by a very wise lady. Even if you’re not in a time of your life where things are falling apart, there’s definitely some stuff in here that you could use.
Rating: Read This Book Before You Die
In April I also read Phillip K. Dick’s Flow My Tears the Policeman Said and Ubik, both good reads if you’re a Dick fan (hee), but not necessarily vital. I also read Faulkner’s The Wild Palms, which hopefully I’ll be able to devote an entire post to this weekend. And that was my April.