Taking Stock

29 May

I started this blog in October of 2012, coinciding with the launch of the first volume of my novel SANFERMIN. And now I am calling a halt at the point where I have finally succeeded in producing (in ebook format at least) a single complete omnibus edition. It’s showing on Amazon for the Kindle. The book was the original excuse for starting to post blogs. But in the end that boiled down to a proforma announcement of the release of the latest volume. The blog became its own reason for living. At the beginning I was posting three times a week. After a couple of months of that I eased back to a pair of posts each week. I experimented with length and approach and subject matter and I basically relayed the first thoughts that entered my head on the topic whatever it was. From reading other blogs with their strings of comment which usually degenerated to misspelled abuse, I determined that I would not spend my time moderating comments. If anybody really wanted to discuss a particular post, they could take the simple steps to send me a message.

The reason this seems to be a natural breathing rest is not only the launch of the omnibus edition, but something else. These blogs average a page plus apiece – a short form style. I make a distinction between these comments on the run and the more formal style of long form essays. And what has come up, sooner or later, confronts all blog writers. You run out of things to say. I imagine the well will fill again somewhat. But I am freeing myself from the self imposed schedule of twice a week posts. (I have a whole new respect for newspaper columnists, particularly those who publish daily.)

So to make this a send off post, let me address the subject of books that are game changers. Books that alter lives and history no matter their intrinsic artistic worth. UNCLE TOM’S CABIN was a game changer in American history. Darwin’s ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES ushered in a scientific revolution that is still being debated today.

Of course there are books that get heralded on publication as ground breakers. But they usually end up in the remainder bins. ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE for example. Anybody remember falling for THE GREENING OF AMERICA? I don’t hear too many people discussing Robert Ardrey’s THE TERRITIORIAL IMPERATIVE any more.

Anyway these are a few of mine. The ones that in whole or in part have made up my apprehension of the world and the business of living.

The first book I remember having a mind altering effect on me was Colin Wilson’s THE OUTSIDER. To my adolescent mind, it seemed like an instant roadmap of how to decode the business of living. The basic notion that most of us are riding bicycles with flat tyres. And it is not so hard to learn to pump them up once one is aware of the problem. Wilson, after his Outsider series drifted into writing about the occult which was far more profitable than his volumes of philosophical enquiry. But I will always be grateful for those basic insights that came through despite all the errors and garbled quotes.

Another person working in an adjacent field was Abraham Maslow. Where shrinks like Freud and Jung and Adler spent their time studying and working with troubled people, Maslow deliberately set about studying people who were mentally healthy, happy and productive – able to access peak experiences easily. An obvious notion now but it was revolutionary when he proposed it.

Karl Popper was the philosopher who dealt with concrete matters – not how many logical positivist angels could dance on Freddie Ayer’s nose. He wrote of the Open Society and its enemies (Plato for one). He was the philosopher who made real sense of the world.

Viktor Frankel and MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING. A book that had earned its right to speak in blood. Frankel had been to the bottom in a German concentration camp. Yet he found hope in the world.

Jared Diamond has written a number of well known books. The most illuminating one for me, altering ones views on  geographical fate and culture is GUNS AND GERMS AND STEEL.

Every so often a theory comes along that gets embraced by some and rejected by others. Darwin’s work falls into this category. Do you immediately cry “Eureka” on being presented with the concept of evolution or do you reject the notion that the human race was sprung from a primate ancestry that we share with chimpanzees? Such a polarizing theory is Chaos theory. I read James Gleik’s book on the subject when it came out and felt a sense of instant acceptance. Quantum mechanics and Schrodinger’s cat, big bang and string theory. I could never quite ‘get’ them. But Chaos theory. Yes, it fit.

Of the ancient Greek philosophers, I respond not to Socrates (except for admiring his forensic debating skills) but to Epictetus, a Stoic who stood for acceptance of whatever fate laid upon you. If you don’t want to take  him straight, there is a very entertaining explanation of his thinking and influence in Tom Wolfe’s A MAN IN FULL.

There of course are books that deal with smaller topics than how to make sense of the universe. I hold no brief for Malcolm Gladwell – except to note that in one book he was genuinely onto something. THE TIPPING POINT on how influence travels through society.

David Quammen’s book SONG OF THE DODO. Paul Colvinaux’s WHY BIG FIERCE CREATURES ARE RARE. Edward Tenner’s brilliant book WHY THINGS BITE BACK – all about the unintended consequences attendant upon every change or innovation in our world. Taleb’s BLACK SWAN.

For the poetry in anthropology, anything by Loren Eisely. Try THE UNEXPECTED  UNIVERSE.

Works I am still grappling with. E.O. Wilson’s works on consilience and sociobiology (or as I understand it, what ants have to teach us). Douglas Hofstadter’s GODEL, ESCHER AND BACH  (best dealt with in short doses).

That’s not so many books in a life. There are gaps in my world view that one could no doubt drive trucks through. But these are the lenses through which I view my surroundings. If I  had to describe my beliefs, nail my colours to the mast, I would go with the phrase – “phenomenonological existentialism”. It’s as good as any.

I don’t suppose that the gates are shut. A friend recently sent me a tome by Julian Jaynes. The title (wait for it) – THE ORIGIN OF CONSCIOUSNESS IN THE BREAKDOWN OF THE BICAMERAL MIND. I feel a faint twinge of trepidation. Is my mind about to get messed about with again? Adjustments are harder to make with age (witness my incompetence with streaming, tablets, smart phones, apps et al). But I do know there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in anyone’s philosophy.

See you down the road.

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