Sunday, January 8, 2012

Bookish things...

2012 has begun as a less than typical reading year in that I am participating in multiple challenges which involve long books. The result has been that I have finished just one book. So I thought I would do more of a Salon-like post, so I can touch on the many books I have in-progress.

Above and to the left is the main culprit, Our Mutual Friend. In order to keep pace so that I might post the last of five weekly posts on Dickens's birthday, February 7, I must read 200 pages per week. That's not a hardship as the book is delightful, but it is just enough to keep me from finishing anything else on the longer side. For that reason, I found I had abandoned Geert Mak's travelogue/history of post-war Europe In Europe, despite finding it fascinating and beautifully written in favor of...

A favorite of Thomas's, I decided to give As for Me and My House, a Canadian classic of life in poverty on the prairie by Sinclair Ross, a go. It is straightfoward, precise, and rich in human content while utterly bleak in setting. I dont' know yet whether it is about succumbing to the destitution or rising above it.

Friends also gave me a belated birthday present last night in the form of Nigel Slater's The Kitchen Diaries, with their notes scrawled next to certain recipes, e.g., this is really good! The many recipes are in the form of a food "diary," in that they are organized by time of year. The recipes look, for the most part, fairly simple and the photographs enticing. I can't wait to try one.

I was reminded of a reading and writing project that I had collected the books for and have been meaning to start for some time by Bookslut. It is loosely about visions of happiness and sanity and how poorly defined these are next to visions of misery and illness. It involves, at this point, the three books pictured above. Adam Phillips book Going Sane is written from the perspective of a psychoanalyst whose basic premise appears to be that the meaning of sanity is so much less fully characterized than the meaning of mental illness. The prolific Barbara Ehrenreich debunks America's tendency towards mandatory cheerfulness in Bright-Sided, something I have referred to as the tyranny of positive thinking. (Actually, I have discovered in my reading that this is not my formulation at all, I must have picked up on it). It is written, at least in part, out of her experience of breast cancer and being subjected to such tyranny. One of the best pieces I have read on this subject was in an unabashed and eloquent essay by Robert F. Murphy - The Damaged Self - about becoming quadrapelegic due to a spinal cord tumor. He writes of its impact on his sense of self, the fatalism and anger he experienced:
They daily suffer snub, avoidance, patronization, and occasionally outright cruelty...but whatever the source of grievance, the disabled have limited ways of showing it...Quadriplegics cannot stalk offin high (or low) dudgeon, nor can they even use body language. To make matters worse, as the price for normal relations, they must comfort others about their condition. They cannot show fear, sorrow, depression, sexuality, or anger for this disturbs the able-bodied. The unsound of limb are permitted only to laugh.
The last of the three books is Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist, whose purpose seems to be (having not yet read the book) to counter what is seen as a bias intellectualism has toward pessimism. He argues that food, income, and lifespan are increasing while child mortality and violence are decreasing and, as a result, people's lives are more prosperous and, therefore, better. I'm not sure whether I will buy the prosperous = happy implication I'm picking up in my as yet cursory look at this book, but it's the kind of argument that gets my dander up. Ridley is a smart writer so I'm curious to have my own biases put to the test. I think this trio will make for some interesting cross-commentary. I have no doubt that Steven Pinker's latest book could make an interesting fourth, but its focus on violence is a bit more circumscribed than I'm looking for. I'd appreciate any other suggestions you good readers might have for books specifically on happiness, optimism, and sanity that might add something to the discussion.


Christy said...

The bit about the books about positive-thinking and the excerpt from The Damaged Self reminded me of hearing Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of The Emperor of All Maladies (it's about cancer), at a book festival. Mukherjee is an oncoloist (among other titles and areas of knowledge) and an audience member asked him about the link between patients' attitude and their ability to fight off cancer. Mukherjee politely said (I'm paraphrasing) that he finds the link between attitude and wellness to be kind of bunk. He has seen patients with great attitudes die quickly and patients with terrible attitudes survive their cancer.

Ted said...

Hi Christy - Yes, the part of Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided I'm reading right now says largely the same as Mukherjee, but is good at describing the evolution of the spurious connection and why it caught on. It also makes the points that such a connection a) implies falsely that patients who don't recover are themselves to blame and that b) it is not the patient who is served by the positive attitude, it is the people who interact with the patient who find it more pleasant and less challenging to be around positive than around negative emotions.