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READING -- Notes on books recently read

A surprising number of people have responded to the list of all the books I've read (which I thought would be of little interest to anyone but myself). Many have asked my opinions of what I've read; so, starting now, I'll try to jot some notes while they are fresh in my mind.

For some fullblown book reviews, see 

Richard Seltzer, 

Virginia Woolf on Women

The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins

Les Trois Mousquetaires by Alexandre Dumas

How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker

Troika by Stepan Chapman

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

Gain by Richard Powers

The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Widow for a Year by John Irving

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

The Other Herodotus

SiFi Thoughts Prompted by The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen

Full House by Stephen Jay Gould

Love Warps the Mind a Little by John Dufresne

When a Novel is More than a Novel

Net Gain by John Hagel and Arthur Armstrong

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Why I'm addicted to Robert Parker, despite and because of all his faults (1/22/98)

Kurt Vonnegut

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Daniel Defoe

How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton

Anticipation in Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett, How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton, The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker, and The Dilbert Future by Scott Adams

The real story of Around the World in 80 Days

Virginia Woolf on Women (read Aug. 1999)

I made the mistake of reading Orlando before A Room of One's Own. Room... must come first, for it clearly and dramatically shows the challenges that women writers have faced throughout history. With that context, Orlando -- which by itself is baffling, sometimes boring -- provides further insight into the same issues: the role of women and how it has changed over time. Reading Orlando first, I was left with just a few nuggets of insight spotted on the roadside (like the fact that the climate of England and London in particular seems to have changed radically from the 18th to the 19th century -- going from sunny and bright, to foggy, overcast, and wet -- perhaps due to the pollution of the Industrial Revolution).

The copy of Room of One's Own which I read is my daughter Heather's. She read it for class at Sarah Lawrence, and it is punctuated with her underlinings and comments, which makes Virginia's Woolf's insights more immediate, confirming that they, in fact, still ring true.

But Room... is not just a sociological essay about women, it is also a provocative work of literary criticism. It can help a man to better understand the challenges that women have faced and still face today; but it also helps me to see the works of a variety of writers (from Shakespeare to Kipling) in a new light.

I hope the experience of having read these books helps me to better and more fully portray women in my own works. And I also hope to heed the lessons in how to better fill my own roles as father and husband.

The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte (read September 1998)

I stayed up all night, reading nearly all of this one in a single sitting -- I couldn't stop. Yes, it sputters a bit at the end, but I was intrigued throughout. Like The Club Dumas, this is a mystery on two levels, at two different time periods -- 1470, when a painting of a chess game was created, and the present-day, when murders occur as the earlier mystery comes to light, through analysis of the game portrayed in the painting. If you are into chess and especially Smullyan's retrograde analysis, and into Hofstadter (author of Godel, Escher, Bach), you'll love this book. 

Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins (read September 1998)

This zany, provocative tale consists of three interwoven elements: contemporary humans, inanimate objects some of whom have been around for thousands of years, and human history (seen through the "eyes" of the objects). Is this a trend -- making inanimate objects characters? (see Troika below) As in Half-Asleep in Frog Pajamas and in Jitterbug Perfume, Robbins does a remarkable job of pulling in esoteric historical, religious, and anthropological information, to add an aura of magic to present-day events, without being tedious or heavy-handed or preachy. It's just plain fun (while mocking and throwing new light on our favorite beliefs and icons -- all that we might hold dear).

Les Trois Mousquetaires by Alexandre Dumas (read August 1998)

This delightful, ironic, comic tale is far different in the French original than in the numerous Hollywood adaptations and even than the standard English translation (Penguin). D'Artagnan is introduced as an "18-year-old Don Quixote." He has a crooked nose and rides a horse as pathetic as Quixote's Rozinante. His father is alive and has never been to court. The sword his father gave him is broken by p. 5. He is very naive, but is quick to learn. He has exalted romantic notions of bravery and honor and love, but is very ambitious and more in love with his idea of himself than with the women who cross his path.

The King's musketeers are a bunch of drunken bums, always getting into trouble, and acting the part of gigolos (asking for and expecting money and jewels from the rich married ladies they court. The King is an idiot. The quest that the musketeers go on is a farce (that they take quite seriously). They are the defending the honor of the Queen who has been flirting with the prime minister of France's greatest enemy, England; and although they are the "king's" musketeers, they are working for the Queen against the King. The Queen also is a Spaniard, who has written to her brother in Spain asking his to go to war against France. Buckingham is a pompous conceited ass. He gets a kick out of seducing ladies and would like to think of himself as irresistible. He tries to impress the Queen by saying he is going to start a war between England and France just so he will be sent to Paris as ambassador to negotiate the peace when it's over, and that will give him an opportunity to be near her. She is very impressed with this absurd gesture of passion.

These brave mustketeers are willing to sacrifice their lives for the good of the Queen (or the King) -- they are quite serious (and quite impressed with their own valor and seriousness) -- but the quest is a windmill.

In the first half of the book (the adventure of the Queen's diamonds), the style of the narrative is delightfully ironic. Occasionally D'Artagnan (by far the most intelligent of the musketeers) get a whiff of the irony "He was amazed at what fragile and unknown threads the destinies of a people and the life of men are sometimes suspended from." This part of the book has far more in common with the works of Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Twain, and Cervantes than with adventure/suspense novels of the vein of Tom Clancy.

By the second half (the tale of de Winter), the characters of the musketeers (and even of their lackeys) have been firmly established, and the story takes off. But the underlying irony continues -- the Queen and Buckingham and Louis XIII are all frivolous fools whose shenanigans lead to the deaths and miseries of many ordinary well-meaning, honorable, and brave people, and that Richelieu is actually the savior of France, and a very reasonable, if devious man. Richelieu has nothing personal against D'Artagnan. He recognizes D'Artagnan's abilities as a man who can devotedly follow orders, and would like to recruit him. As for de Winter, her personal wickedness is essential for saving France -- she brings about the assassination of Buckingham (whom the Puritans, with good reason, consider to be satanic) and hence ends the war between England and France (saving many lives). So questions of personal morality are often at odds with national goals and the needs of the many.

Note, too, that D'Artagnan is no saint nor is he a genius. Despite his flashes of insight and tactical cleverness, he has no grasp of the overall international political situation, of the large-scale implications of his acts of personal bravery and personal loyalty (only Richelieu seems to understand that.) His "love" for Constance is very much a la Don Quixote -- he is in love with an idea of himself being in love: knight serving lady. He hardly knows her. And after her second kidnapping, there are long stretches when he seems to completely forget about her (allegedly because he doesn't know where she is and hence can't take direct action to save her). He is fascinated by de Winter, and is passionately drawn to her in the flesh, despite himself. In order to get to her, he is willing to lie and trick and use people (including her), without any scruples. His treatment of de Winter's maid (Ketty) is incredible. He seduces her, tells her he loves her, etc., all in order to get into bed with de Winter. And at the end of the book, with both Constance and de Winter dead; there is no mention at all of what became of Ketty. 

How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker (read August 1998)

Vivid, credible insights into everyday phenomena. Nuggets like an evolutionary explanation of "morning sickness," the notion that leafy plants foods have natural carcinogens and other toxins, convincing debunkings of behaviorism, Freud, and Dr. Spock. The overall theoretical framework is well presented, but it's those nuggets (many dozens of them) that will stay with me.

Troika by Stepan Chapman (read August 1998)

The success or failure of a novel often depends on whether you can identify with the characters. In this case the challenge is to define what is meant by a character -- what kind of being is it? and was it? and will it be? "Souls" move from body to body. They dream, and their dreams are not necessarily related to any reality. The language carries the reader along; and, to some extent, you get intrigued trying to determine what is happening and what kind of entity it is happening to and where and why. The problem is that there are simply too many variables to keep straight.

The book's strength is in trying to pull off a tour-de-force. But it doesn't quite work -- the challenge is simply too great. Best are the dreams, which are like standalone bizarre sci-fi stories. In those you do get involved with a "character" and a tangible situation; and each of those dreams contributes to your understanding of and confusion about the overall situation.

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie (read August 1998)

It begins with comical digressions in the vein of Tristram Shandy (beginning long before birth). The style often reminds me of John Irving, especially his Son the the Circus which happens to also be set in India, but mostly for caricature characters and wild complex plot elements leading to the most unlikely events, and also the maiming of main characters, which are all typical Irving. At the same time, the exuberance of language and the passion for the history and politics and destiny of one's native land reminds me of Gunter Grass. And the outlandishly described and memorable characters are worthy of Dickens. But the story is slow, abominably slow. It just doesn't move forward.

Part of the problem is a failing of my own, rather than the author's -- the history and politics are quite foreign to me and hence many of the references and much of the emotional impact is lost. This is a book that could/should be reread after reading up on the modern history of India.

I did, however, savor those instances where Indian culture, history, and politics are intertwined with elements from popular Western culture -- e.g., I'm intrigued by the notion of someone in Kashmir having his image of his homeland flavored by memories of the movie Lost Horizon.

Gain by Richard Powers (read August 1998)

At first this book reminded me of The Good Husband by Gail Godwin (with regard to caring for someone dying of cancer) and The Road to Wellville by T. Corghessan Boyle (with regard to business greed and, in particular, a business enterprise at turn of the century). But the dying woman knows very well that the products she used which led to her cancer were things that she really wanted. While angry and while willing to share in the proceeds of a class action suit, she knows that she couldn't have given up everything; she feels ambivalent -- it wasn't entirely the fault of the company that produced the products. There's a sense in which no one is guilty -- it was human nature (and the nature of business) that led to the growth and evolution of the corporation; and it was human nature that led to the consumption of that company's products. So rather than turning into a rather trite indictment of industry, this becomes an insightful exploration of human nature (where the good is inextricable from the bad), and amazingly, Powers gives us a glimpse of salvation, where the end result of all this human endeavor becomes not just a very sick world with everyone dying of cancer, but rather a cure for cancer. The ending is typical Richard Powers -- another scientific grail, this one the cure for cancer, and it will be found.

The Club Dumas Arturo Perez-Reverte (read July 1998)

Echoes of Eco. This book had me repeatedly thinking of The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum -- with arcane scholarship at the heart of the mystery and its resolution. It also had me thinking of Byatt's Possession. You could talk about the genre of "meta-novels" -- novels about other novels, where literature is the subject matter of literature, where fiction borders on academic criticism. This one, however, has an interesting twist -- two stories in one. The Dumas plot -- which the title induces you to focus on -- is a red herring. And the real plot deals with satanism and magic, a la Anne Rice. The Dumas alone would have been mundane, with a resolution that makes all wild and other-worldly sequence of events turn out to be just the activities of a club distorted by a confused and paranoid observer. And another tale along the lines of Anne Rice's Taltos and innumerable TV episodes and made-for-TV movies would have been an incredible bore. The salvation of this intriguing book is that even after the revelations, vestiges of supernatural mystery still cling to the Dumas story -- e.g., Richelieu's fascination with satanism and Dumas' almost diabolical success as a novelist. After reading this one, I couldn't help but want to finally read the original Three Mustketeers (which I am now enjoying).

A Widow for One Year by John Irving (read June 1998)

This book repeatedly asks the question "what is fiction about?" Is the source of characters and events personal experience or imagination? Four main characters are authors (Ruth, Eddie, Marion, and Ted). We see how their experiences and their fictional transformations of those experiences are intertwined, with stories inside stories. The stories these characters tell and write are important in moving the main plot along, e.g., Marion's mystery novels, Ruth's novel with the scene in Amsterdam, Ted's use of his children's story writer reputation to seduce young mothers. Sometimes the retelling of an event as an event itself (for instance, telling about the Tommy/Timmy accident) and it is a new event for each person it is told to. (The telling of a story is an event in a story, as is telling about that telling of a story...) Also, two other important characters are avid readers (Minty and Harry) whose lives are deeply affected by what they read.

The property on Long Island also plays an important role in the story. Its changing physical layout becomes intertwined with the characters and the action. For instance: the photos of Timmy and Tommy on the walls, then just picture hanger hooks, then new photos of Ruth, then the photos gone and the holes filled in and painted over; first the back yard is rough and wild and untended, then when Marion leaves, Ted adds the swimming pool, shower and privet hedge; the squash court becomes a suicide scene, then an office, and will probably be used in new ways as Marion moves back at the end). In other words, the property is both a physical given and a human construct. The layout leads to events that affect people's lives (the memories of pictures and picture hangers; the four-year-old Ruth wandering into the master bedroom and seeing her mother with Eddie); and their experiences lead them to change the layout.

The characters and the incidents are consistently engaging. There's anticipation and surprise, humor and pathos from start to finish. This is Irving's most consistently brilliant and well-crafted novel. It is also a book about the craft/life of writing fiction. This is the mature work of an excellent writer -- one who began with graet talent and promise and now write with mastery.

The stories in his previous books centered around humorously improbable events and grotesquely exaggerated characters -- like the conception of Garp and the bear in Hotel New Hampshire. Widow feels real and immediate. Here Irving seems to extract more meaning from the events he recounts, rather than rushing on to tell of more events. Here he creates a fully wrought story, rather than a series of uneven but often brilliant sketches.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (read 7/20/96)

Brilliant details and minor characters and digressions, but they overwhelm the storyline. Memorable characters (a la Dickens, or Irving, or Pynchon), but not a single one with warmth and humanity. Minor figures are given amazing, complete and totally bizarre pasts, but the main story with its numerous interrelated threads is never resolved.

Many of the details resounded for me in particular because the setting so carefully described is Boston -- a very recognizable Boston even though most of the action is set about ten years in the future. Also, one of the major (unresolved) plot threads is the quest for an "entertainment" (a futuristic next stage beyond movies/videotapes) referred to as the "samizdat" (which happens to be the name of my company -- meaning "self-published").

This is a science-fiction novel with all the flavor and feel and nitty-gritty smell and taste of the present. It is presented in a series of seemingly jumbled strokes. Gradually the picture becomes clearer, the imaginary history between 1996 and the time of the story gets filled in; and we are gradually introduced to bizarre elements of technology and politics long after the terminology was first used.

Much of the story (and the innumerable digressions) revolves around drugs and alcoholism. And this is paralleled by story elements dealing with "entertainment" and its affect on the mind (and soul). It both cases, it's as if the mind has hidden switches and compartments and stimuli of particular kinds can produce massive, grotesque, and yet predictable results. (Like the mind is a machine, and there are important aspects of its operation that up until now have remained unknown.) This aspect of the plot is reminiscent of Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle and the rampant spread of the ridiculous "religion" of Bokonism.

The band of legless, terrorists who had deliberately lain in from front of trains to lose their legs, is reminiscent of the self-mutiliation of the Alice Jamesians in Irving's Garp, who deliberately cut out their own tongues.

The fascination with technology, and the exuberant multiplication of subplots and digressions, is reminsicent of Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.

Some of the most bizarre and amusing aspects of the invented history ring frighteningly true in terms of human nature, including the notion of "subsidized time" (the government selling the names of years to commercial sponsors) and the "concavity" (a large tract of land from Maine to upstate New York rendered uninhabitable as the dumping zone/reprocessing zone for the waste from the rest of the nation).

The extended metaphor of preparation for professional tennis (and the secondary comparisons to serious chess) leads to a series of provocative insights into human nature.

The mythic image of the mind-boggling dangers of perfect beauty is presented credibly as the other side of the coin of Medusa-ugliness.

The opening scene (where young Hal is interviewed for admission to a college which is very interested in him because of his exceptional tennis talents but is skeptical of his academic ability) is handled brilliantly, pulling us into the middle of the story very quickly. But the very puzzle that was raised by that scene is never resolved, in the nearly 1000 pages of narrative.

This reads like the work of someone with incredible talent, who simply didn't finish writing the story. He just left all the plot strings hanging -- instead of pulling them all together and tying them up neatly as Irving and Pynchon and Dickens would do. The result for the dedicated reader is enormous disappointment.

-- Richard Seltzer

Response from Keith Martin

From: Sent: Wednesday, January 08, 1997 3:09 PM

Greetings from another reader/list-maker! (

I was somewhat flummoxed by your review-of/notes-on Infinite Jest. In contrast to your view, I thought that Wallace pulled things together fairly well, though it wasn't at all obvious, and it certainly wasn't handled in an orthodox manner.

The key to the whole novel, as you mention, is the opening scene, where Hal is being interviewed. On page 17, at the top, Wallace writes (as Hal): "I think of John N.R. Wayne, who would have won this year's WhataBurger, standing watch in a mask as Donald Gately and I dig up my father's head."

I can't remember the passage, but elsewhere it is mentioned that all of J. O. Incandenza's master tapes were buried with his remains, in the Concavity. Hal is tripping (overdosing, perhaps) on DMZ at the interview, and he's thinking about how to fend off the A.F.R. invasion. A lot of this is hazy for me, since I read the book six months ago, but it seems to me that the only real loose end is how does Hal know Don Gately?

I rather enjoyed Infinite Jest on several levels. I love Wallace's prose; his verbal acrobatics are great fun, if a bit longwinded.

I found Hal to be a much more sympathetic character than you did, as well. I also enjoy the type of book where the conspiracies are slowly revealed (I'm halfway through JaneSmiley's Moo, and I have no idea what the plot's about -- Helprin's Memoir from an Antproof Case was somewhat puzzle-like as well).

Anyway, that's not the real reason I wanted to write. I was in Wordsworth's on Monday and saw a trade paperback of Steve Erickson's Arc d'X, which looked interesting. I was particularly intrigued by the cover blurb by Thomas Pynchon.

I know nothing about Erickson's work, and I see that you have recently read Arc d'X, so I thought I might ask you for some comments about Erickson in general and Ard d'X in particular.

It seems we have a fair amount of overlap in 20th century American literature "likes". I've become a fan of Richard Powers, Nicholson Baker, and Thomas Pynchon, among others. I'm going through your lists looking for reading ideas (Corelli's Mandolin and Smilla's Sense of Snow are already on my bookshelf waiting to be read, along with some Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Joyce (Ulysses), but it looks like there's lots of other good stuff in your extensive lists).

I've only been tracking my reading for two years, and in fact I haven't been reading "good" stuff for all that long (In high school and college, I was a big consumer of Stephen King, Anne Rice, Tom Clancy, and Michael Crichton), but I'm 25 and a computer scientist, so it's not that much of a disgrace that I've only recently started to read worthwhile stuff. Ouch, that sentence was long.

I'd appreciate any specific recommendations if you find the time to peruse my "have read" list. I was about to recommend Mark Helprin to you, but I see you've already read AntproofCase. That's a great one.


The Other Herodotus (The History read 1/21/97)

Of course, I read selections back in high school. So I presumed that I knew what Herodotus was all about. Then in reading/seeing The English Patient, which quotes very different kinds of selections, I began to suspect I had majorly missed the mark.

On finally reading from cover to cover, I discovered that the story of the invasions of Greece by Darius and Xerxes takes up a very small part of the book, at the end. Yes, that part has some dramatic scenes, some quotable quotes, and is "history." But most of Herodotus is anecdotal anthropology and travelogue and a delightful collection of rumors and traditions. The heart of the book isn't the history, it's the digressions. That's where you get the flavor of the times, a sense of what it might have been like to live in the fifth century B.C.

Eye openers:

o The physical territory of Greece was but a small part of the Greek world, long before Alexander conquered and hellenized. Considering how slow and difficult transportation was, it's truly remarkable the cosmopolitan nature of that Mediterranean world. There are Greeks and Greek influence all over Egypt -- and the influence of Egypt on Greece was strong. In fact, it's very difficult to say where one culture ends and another begins -- there is little correlation between political boundaries and cultural boundaries.

o The Greeks come across as a semi-nomadic people, frequently taking to their ships en masse, abandoning one territory/city and going off to conquer and settle territory somewhere else in the Mediterranean. They are nomads of the sea. They are like hermit crabs, shedding one shell and then taking over another, or sometimes growing another. There are Greek settlements all along the coasts of Africa, Italy, and Spain, and on almost every island -- not just in the Aegean and Ionian Seas, but also Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica.

o The oracles, particularly the oracle at Delphi, play a key role in determining when, where, and how populations move. Anyone contemplating "colonization" consults the oracles and anyone involved in a territorial dispute brought on by colonization consults the oracles as well. Greek peoples seem to be constantly at war with one another and shifting alliances for the flimsiest of reasons -- whether because of a bribe and/or because of some bizarre cultural insult (with obscure precedents in the distant, legendary past). But all trust the same oracle(s) and fear the wrath of gods should they desecrate temples or holy places (regardless of whether it is a god that they themselves hold in high esteem).

o Some religious/cultural traditions are very local and others are held in common. The Spartans, for instance, are repeatedly constrained from participating in key battles/events because of local festivals/ceremonies which make little sense to other Greeks. (e.g., don't send troops to battle Darius' army at Marathon, despite the urgent pleas of the Athenians). But all respect the tradition of the Olympics -- even with Xerxes horde advancing on them.

o The Persians were not so totally foreign to the Greeks as the Darius/Xerxes passages alone would lead one to believe. There were many Greeks at the Persian court. Many Greek colonies and mainland cities were Persian allies, or simply considered the Persians as another player in their local deadly games of coup and conquest and colonization. It was not just a matter of right and wrong, democracy against the evil empire. The Persians invaded at the prompting and request of various Greeks who wanted their help to advance their own personal ambitions. And even Athens seriously considered switching sides and allying with the Persians.

o The Greeks often colonized voluntarily. A dissident faction would, with the full support of the local political powers, gather people, ships, and supplies and go off to conquer or found a city somewhere else. Or facing the threat of conquest, an entire city make take to its ships and sail off over the horizon with only the scantiest notion of its destination, and opportunistically taking root at the first likely looking landfall.

o Peoples conquered by the Persians were often forced to colonize. Darius would take soldiers captured in war or the entire populations of conquered cities and resettle them on lands hundreds of miles away. he would give the leaders of his conquered enemies estates and wealth in his own territory, and would resettle some of his own people or subject peoples on the newly conquered land. This approach and the Greek voluntary colonization led to a continuous cultural churning and cross-fertilization. I had thought of the ancient world, with its limitations of transportation, as consisting largely of isolated parochial communities -- like rural mountain towns in the 19th century. Instead it was this vast mixing bowl -- turning and turning and turning again.

o There were enormous cultural differences that persisted despite this churning. The traditions and beliefs with regard to marriage/sex and religion/death differ as widely from one city or one small country to the next as they did from island to island in the South Pacific in the 1920s. And on the fringes of the "civilized" world, where there was less churn, and about which far less was known first-hand, the differences much greater and some of the common practices were much more brutal by today's standards. In particular, I was interested to read of a nation where the women as well as the men were warriors, where a woman had to kill a man in battle before she had the right to marry.

o When I think of the Mediterranean world in the 5th and 4th century BC, the only woman's name that comes to mind is Aspasia -- the brilliant courtesan, who inspired Plato and others. I was surprised to read in Herodotus about Artemisia -- ruler of a small nation allied with Xerxes. Apparently, the Greeks were somewhat scandalized to see a woman as a warrior/ruler (despite their legends of Amazons). But Artemisia was one of the most effective generals in Xerxes vast army.

-- Richard Seltzer

SciFi Thoughts Prompted by The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen (read December 1996)

The subtitle is tough to swallow -- "Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions" -- but the book itself is remarkably readable, explaining fascinating and difficult concepts in simple language. You come to see the give and take and evolution of evolutionary theory right up to the controversies of today, where theories which seem quite similar and are built on the same base of scientific evidence can lead to different public policy stands, with enormous consequences for natural habitats and the species that live there.

But what is uppermost on my mind is not what I read there, but what the reading prompting me to think about. I had not before realized that evolution depends on the existence of isolated populations. Only if members of a species become isolated from one another for extended periods of time -- for instance by an island splitting off from a continent -- will a new species evolve, adapted to the new physical circumstances. As long as there is a common gene pool, variations will be relatively minor, mutations will be drowned, and the species will remain relatively unchanged for vast periods of time. So, in this context, there is evolutionary value to an instinct for colonization -- for breeding groups migrating vast distances and setting up residence in a new area, with no expectation of ever returning or communicating with the original group. (This is my interpolation.)

Presume that there is a planet in a distant star system that has reached the pinnacle of advanced civilization. The entire planet is settled. The peoples are at peace with one another, and have arrived at a stable and sustainable population level. (I'm thinking in terms of the game "Civilization" carried through to its limit.) Thanks to their advanced technology, they have the capability for space travel. But there are no other habitable planets without reasonable distance. So their space travel has been limited to scientific, exploratory missions.

Say the rulers of this planet arrived at the kind of understanding of evolutionary process shown in this book. Then they might realize that despite their accomplishments, their civilization and their genes are are great risk. Because their species on that planet represents a single gene pool, there are no significant variations and there will be no further evolution. Hence they are at risk of a single unpredictable natural catastrophe wiping them out entirely (since none of them would have evolved variant biological characteristics enabling survival.)

Then they might well arrive at the conclusion that they should send forth space-going colonists in all directions, with no desire or expectation that they would ever return. Then their space-going colonies and eventually the colonies their descendants might spawn on planets many light years away would naturally evolve. So hundreds of thousands of years hence there would be not just one species on one planet, but rather dozens or hundreds of species that had evolved from that single species, scattered through the universe and ensuring the perpetuation of the genes.

With this scenario in mind (and not going into the enormous technical difficulties involved in any kind of space colonization), it occurred to me that the likelihood that Earth will come in contact with intelligent beings from elsewhere in the universe is far greater than I would have otherwise believed.

Before, based just on the kinds of motivation I was familiar with, it seemed extremely unlikely that in the vastness of space there would occur such an encounter. Given the vast distances involved and the limitation of the speed of light, conquest made no sense at all, for there would be nothing gained by conquering another world several lifetimes away from your own. And the notion of colonization to reduce population pressures made no sense because 1) a society that advanced would certainly have found the means to control population growth and 2) the numbers of individuals who could be put on an Ark-like space ship would be very limited in comparison with the total population and hence would provide minimal population relief.

But with this new motivation -- preservation of the genes by creating opportunities for continued evolution -- I could easily imagine any and every advanced planet in the universe sending forth colonizing ships in every direction.

NB -- in this scenario, the limit of speed of light and the vast distances between stars with habitable planets have evolutionary value.

-- Richard Seltzer

Response from Bliss Bruen

From: Bliss Bruen <> Date: Thu, 23 Jan 1997 13:54:28 PST

Will pass your missive on to Jim who teaches evolution from the Big Bang to Modern Man the wonder of the western world. We and many of our caring neighbors [in Durango, Colorado] have been painfully aware of the impact of fragmented habitat on remaining species isolated and dwindled too few, for far too long out here where the last of the big (sufficiently sized) parcels of land are being grabbed up and divided and developed for urban emigres like me. That's what's got to stop - the realtors and developers raise my ire and blood pressure and I'm in a holding pattern of safety; circling and watching from a distance, holding back from the town meeting forays which really take the energy and time away from every last other thing one hopes to do for her/his family or self.

Will read your thoughts on Dodo etc. Herodotus etc and get back to you on a variety of levels and topics. The Darwinian views spin round this house on a daily basis. Creationists are in the woodwork; if they'd only accept science as a methodology we could talk. David Quamman wrote an interesting essay on Francis Crick and a 1973 paper in the journal Icarus in which Crick put forth the interesting hypothesis that life first came to Earth 4 billion years ago on a spacecraft of some sort sent by another civilization somewhere in the universe - see Quamman's book: Natural Acts. The idea was called Directed Panpermia and microorganisms were the life form of choice for the great transgalactic voyage. He developed the idea because he couldn't accept the primoridal soup and lightning flash recipe for the origin of life on Earth. Great essay. Deals with the pros and cons of Crick's argument - except for one omission: which I now cannot recall. ( oh yes, it merely begs the question - or pushes it back into another corner and time period of the universe, doesn't it?) Any way there's some humorous speculation as towhy the intelligent life forms would want to send forth their DNA. Crick, I believe, did not put forth an answer.

Response to Response

From: Richard Seltzer <> Date: Thu, 23 Jan 1997 16:36:55 -0500 (EST)

Interesting. I read Natural Acts years ago, but had forgotten that essay. I just took another look. Interesting. I'm sure that notion has been purcolating in my unconscious for years.

I believe that what my notion adds is the motivation for "directed panspermia" -- that evolution might continue and the genetic inheritance be carried forward (escape from extinction).

Another from Bliss -- Darwinian value of wanderlust pioneer spirit

From: Bliss Bruen <> Date: Thu, 23 Jan 1997 15:32:42 PST

Exactly. That's what I meant - you just added at least part of the missing motivaton. At some cellular level our genes direct us toward the behaviors and instincts that have kept us among the living.

Meanwhile I'm working on cultural evolution - what's the cultural equivalent of DNA -I know, it's what anthropologists define as culture -- (man's exosomatic means of adaptation ) but what are the possibilities of speeding up the cultural evolutionary stuff. Ehrlich and Ornstein (Stanford) wrote New World, New Mind a few years back with this in mind - but I haven't seen any follow up surge of practical strategies etc.

Full House by Stephen Jay Gould (read 2/1/97)

Just finished reading Full House. (In a quiet, middle of the night house.)

It was very different than the beginning and the title led me to believe.

The subtitle -- "The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin" -- is a real misnomer. It could be better titled "In praise of bacteria." He makes a compelling and credible argument that there is no trend in evolution toward greater complexity, that human bias has led to a misunderstanding of the statistical evidence, that their is no trend toward "progress" but rather random effects. (Actually, although I don't think he makes this specific point, "survival of the fittest" is a misnomer.)

His main point is made on p. 216, the last sentence of the next to the last chapter: "We are glorious accidents of an unpredictalbe process with no drive to complexity, not the expected results of evolutionary principles that yearn to produce a creature capable of understanding the mode of its own necessary construction."

The title -- "the spread of excellence" -- seems to favor the progressive point of view that the entire book does such an excellent job of destroying.

A great book with an awful title.

-- Richard Seltzer

Love Warps the Mind a Little by John Dufresne (read 3/31/97)

This book seems to evolve as it goes along -- beginning in the humorous crazy-character mode of John Irving, moving toward the trying-to-make-sense-of-a-life-half-gone-already of Updike's later Rabbit books, and ending in trying to make sense of slow and painful death by cancer like The Good Husbandby Gail Godwin. Throughout there's an underlying love of and belief in the value of human life, with the emphasis on the lowest uncommon denominator.

You get the feeling that the author has found his voice -- that he has reached the point that with his unique perspective he can make any subject, any character, any plot engaging, entertaining, and enlightening.

I want to see the next one.


Five recent books by five favorite authors of mine have a common characteristic -- they aren't just standalone stories. They are much more rich and enjoyable when read after the authors' previous works. And they at the same time illuminate those other earlier writings.

In Amnesiascope by Steve Erickson, the main character is a novelist, with some characteristics in common with the author. And you hear occasional eery echoes of characters and situations from his earlier novels.

In Galatea 2.2 Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers, the main character is a novelist named Richard Powers who has written the same books as the author and, in passing, comments on them in their life context.

In Love Warps the Mind a Little by John Dufresne, the main character is a struggling short story writer, whose background parallels that of the author.

Raising the Dead by Richard Selzer presents itself, at first as autobiography -- recounting the author's near-death experience. Only at the end do we find out that key elements are "fiction."

Trying to Save Piggy Sneed by John Irving isn't really a novel. Rather it's a collection of long and short stories and autobiographical and critical essays. And each element is preceded by a commentary by the author putting that item into the context of his life, and in so doing putting the rest of his work into that context as well.

Each of these books is to some extent self-referential -- talking about the act of writing, hinting at incidents and personality characteristics of the author (perhaps fictional and perhaps "real"), either alluding to or directly commenting about his previous works. While telling its own story, it reminds you of the author's other works and makes you think about them differently, makes you see them not just as stories but also as events in the author's life. While a story itself exists out of time and beyond motality in a realm of its own, this book puts the act of writing that story into a human, finite, mortal context, hence giving it a new layer of meaning.

Net Gain: Expanding Markets Through Virtual Communities

Net Gain by John Hagel and Arthur Armstrong (Harvard Business School Press 1997) discusses the theory of "virtual communities." Their basic premise is excellent -- that business success on the Internet depends on building communities in which users can talk to one another and provide much of the content that attracts and holds still more users. But they don't provide the experience-based practical advice necessary to help ordinary individuals and businesses actually build communities, and they vastly underestimate the difficulty and work involved in building effective chats and forums. There is no sign that the authors ever created a Web page, much less a Web site or Internet-based business.

While they provide revenue and cost numbers and graphs for a travel-based commuity, these numbers have no basis in practical experience. For their hypothetical model, the authors presume starting capital of $15 million and they project revenues of $618 million over 10 years. But no Internet company has ever lasted that long (the Web has only been around since 1993) nor has any been anywhere near as successful as this model.

The book contains numerous quotable quotes that could be helpful in convincing a CEO or a venture capitalist of the value and importance of on-line communities. But it's like a tantalizing description of Shangri-la, without a map or directions for how to get from here to there.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Style of dialogue without quotation marks is highly annoying and sometimes confusing. There is no character to get involved with or care about. The author seems to mimic all the worst characteristics of Melville and Faunkner. Pompous circuitous convoluted diction (the sun rises -- the sun never gets around to rising). Cf. judge here and Melville's Confidence Man.

At times this book is as confusing as Confidence Man. At times it is as heavy-handedly symbolic as Moby Dick and Billy Budd.

It takes a long time (100+ pages) to get used to it, then it grows on you.

Why I'm addicted to Robert Parker, despite and because of all his faults (1/22/98)

Years ago, I read every Robert Parker mystery as soon as it came out in paperback. Then I continued to buy the books, without ever getting around to read them. After a long break, I just read three of them -- Thin Air, Paper Doll, and Chance, in rapid succession. Then I began to reflect on why I am so addicted to this author.

Parker's mysteries are like experiments in anthropology. He studies the moral codes of individuals and groups and tests those codes by bringing them into conflict with one another.

All the major good guys have their own personal codes.

Spenser's is elaborately drawn and tested.

Hawk's code is a bit foggy. He has lots of common ground with Spenser, but we know nothing about his past or and his non-Spenser-related activities are left in shadow. He is fiercely loyal to Spenser, as Spenser is to him, but it's implied that he oversteps the law, while in the shadows, and engages in activities and violence for hire that Spenser would not do himself. Much of power of his fear-inspiring presence comes from the knowledge that he is not restrained by the law or by a code as limiting as Spenser. He wouldn't hesitate to kill you if that's what he felt needed to be done.

Susan has her professional ethics and also the ethics of her relationship with Spenser. There are clear limits to what Susan and Spenser will do with and for and to one another. And that set of rules affects just how far Spenser will go in his macho flirtations with other women.

After about 15 years, now, of self-sustaining monogamy, Spenser and Susan still have not married, nor would marriage make any sense to either of them. They do not require the support of an external code. But they have in common an appreciation of one another's strong moral positions and enjoy discussing the moral complexity of situations (what they should do) and the likely behavior of other players based on an appreciation of and understanding of those player's moral codes -- both group codes and individual ones.)

The policeman Quirk has his own sense of right and wrong that often, but not always, coincides with the law. In matters relating to Spenser, due to his knowledge of and respect for him, Quirk often bends the law, allowing him a wide range of activity, unhampered by legal niceties or having to spend time explaining his actions to judges.

Spenser used to be a cop himself, but felt uncomfortable in that role. Their code as not close enough to his own personal code and was not flexible enough to meet the needs of varying circumstances for him to endure such service for long. In particular, his sense of what constitutes justice and what constitutes the end of an episode is very different from the official view.

In Chance , for instance, Spenser finishes the assignment for which he was hired in the first half of the book. Then he continues to risk his own life and spend his own money (and even gives away his entire fee) because of a moral obligation to see it through to his sense of an ending. He feels this obligation srongly, but he has difficulty explaining it logically, even to Susan, who is understanding, appreciative, and indulgent, but who might not on her own puruse the same matter with the same degree of intensity. It's his code. She respects him for that even when her own code differs.

Organized crime plays a major role in some recent Spenser mysteries -- Thin Air , Paper Doll , and Chance . Here the action gets more intense and brutal than in the early Spenser books, where the objective might be just to find a runaway child. But the emphasis here is not so much on the plot -- which can become quite contrived and difficult to believe. For instance, in Thin Air , the action centers around a Spanish-speaking gang which controls a vast stretch of a small city. The gang has its own code and law -- beyond the control of local authorities and in conflict/competition with local representatives of national mob activities. This gang has its headquarters in a bizarre tenement building that has enormous quantities of dirt on the roof, where they grow their own food, to remained self-sufficient. The old timber structure is straining under the weight, and a heavy rain takes that to the breaking point at the critical contrived moment in the story when Spenser has arranged for a competing gang to challenge them and besiege the headquarters. With that diversion going on in the background, Spenser and a Spanish-speaking ally succeed in lying their way into the building to rescue a kidnapped woman, the wife of a police-officer friend of Spenser's. It's a not very credible and ridiculously dangerous situation. There is much in the internal working for the gang community that is admirable. They have their own self-help code, to the exclusion of the rest of the world. It feels very medieval -- like a city-state from the days of Dante. But at the core of the community, a madman reigns. Much of his activity and his leadership is based on a code, based on ethnic identity, building a sense of pride and meaning among the ruins of society. But his brutality and his insane sexual fantasizing and role-playing undermine the structure of this society, which then collapses as the building collapses. The scene is very Dickens-like -- the moral corruption reflected in the physical corruption of the structure that houses it. And Parker has no qualms about breaking with verisimilitude, stretching beyond the limits of credibility to make a moral point and ensure that the "good guys," the ones with self-consistent codes, win.

Among the mobsters in Paper Doll and Chance , there are certain commonly held beliefs and rules. They operate under an overall reasonably consistent code, which is in contrast to the code of official law. They police and punish and reward one another based on this code. Individuals like Broz have their own individual codes which sometimes lead them to stretch the limits of the mob code. For instance they tend to give Spenser the benefit of the doubt out of their personal respect for him and their gratitude and sense of debt to him; and also because although his code differs from theirs, it is understandable and self-consistent, and they know exactly what they can expect from him -- how far he will go to help them and at what point he would turn them over to the law. Sometimes, their personal code involves complex and illogical family allegiance which may go against their own self-interst, the mob's best interests and the mob's sense of justice, (for instance, bending the rules and ignoring talents of loyal associates in order to advance the career of a non-good son).

Each of the major mobsters is characterized in this moral way. And Spenser's relationship with them and his willingness to help them and work with them and for them depends on his respect for and trust of them, based on their consistent adherence to a recognizable personal code. Those who have no code but self-interest must be destroyed. Those who do have a code are given some latitude, even though they may run rackets and kill people, so long as the murders they commit are consistent with their sense of justice, which Spenser respects.

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut, also, is striving to define a moral code, a sense of ethics that is complex and non-traditional. He has a gut feel for it and tests that feeling/instinct in his stories and tries to explain it in his essays. It evolves over time from a relatively black-and-white simplistic form, in the days of the Viet Nam War, to a more subtle and deeply felt code in Timequake. What had seemed whimsically paradoxical is now heartfelt. There is less need to seem clever and to use cleverness to get his message across. He is who he is and, speaking about any subject, that set of core beliefs comes through and is explicated, whether intentionally or not. Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

A clear and sympathetic (yet critical) exposition of the traditional Ibo code, showing it tested in crises, showing individual interpretations of it and challenges to it. The hero, a la Robert Parker's Spenser, has his own personal code, which leans toward a more rigorous interpretation of what should be done than just the letter of the law. And he and others are sometimes upset by other aspects of the law.

First we see the inner contradictions of the Ibo code and how it conflicts with the natural instincts/personal codes of various individuals.

Then we see the Ibo code challenged by the legal code of the English.

Note that while there are individuals among the Ibo, with their own variations on the code and doubts of it and challenges to it based on their personal sense of right, the British all just carry out the letter of the law,a nd follow their personal ambition. (In other words, in the comparison between Ibo and British codes, the deck is stacked.)

Daniel Defoe

His books tend to pose moral questions in extreme dramatic circumstances. In A Journal of the Plague Year -- how to trust one another, how to behave toward one another, when everyone is dying and when associating with others could put you at great risk. It's more descriptive than predictive -- a non-judgmental account of actual human behavior. Right or wrong, this is the way it is.

In most instances, Moll Flanders is an amoral creature. The exceptions are her strong horror of incest and her careful consideration of and sensitivity to financial matters. In contrast, those around her seem morally hypocritical -- because their actions are in contrast to their public image and their professed moral values, or because they don't feel as strongly about the incest taboo as Moll does, or because they aren't as fair and reasonable in their financial dealings and representations as Moll tries to be.

How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton

An examination of the bizarre, fascinating and, at times, paradoxical and always illuminating moral code of Marcel Proust.

This book is written simply and clearly. The insights have been digested and perhaps rewirtten many times, as Proust himself would have done. The sentences are simple and direct; unpretentious, and yet precise. He finds just hte right word to subtly, humorously, gracefully introduce you to a delicate and delicious way of looking at the world, of relating to people, and of living and writing.

The author illuminates the work of Proust while not seeming to. The style is conversational and light, rather than scholarly. There are no footnotes, no bibliography, no index. This is a personal appreciation, a delightful and idiosyncratic reading of Proust's entire opus. He never talks down to the reader and is repeatedly amusing.

Insights into the art and pleasure of reading -- its "incitements" (p. 180) and its limitations.

The beauty is in the details, how the mind works. Our eyes are opened. We are sensitized, as he says Proust does and as Proust says that artists do.

The phrases are carefully chosen to avoid anything trite or familiar, but yet they are framed subtly and smoothly, so as not to call attention to themselves. Delicate strokes.

He paints with words. One sentence is worth more than a picture.

Anticipation in Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett, How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton, The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker, and The Dilbert Future by Scott Adams

In Consciousness Explained, Daniel Dennett provides an excellent explanation of hallucinations. Normally, the mind anticipates and sensory input either confirms or denies. If sensory input is shut off or becomes random, then the confirmations and denials take the mind down false tracks, leading to the generation of wild and vivid images that bear no relationship to immediate reality.

In normal mode, anticipation of this kind means that we are ready to respond to threats and opportunities very quickly -- often acting before the related sense data has arrived at the brain, much less been analyzed and understood. That could be an enormous survival advantage (from the perspective of evolution). It's a bit like "cache" memory in computers, being ready with answers to familiar questions in RAM, without having to go through the whole process of retrieving information from the hard drive.

This works very well when change is predictable. When what happens next fits neatly into the pre-existing context. But when change is discontinuous, when something significantly new occurs, this process can get in the way of our recognizing it. Anticipation in this sense is a habit of perception -- we see what we expect to see, and it takes a major shift, a major perceptual denial of what we anticipated for us to take a good hard look at what is actually happening and make sense of it, and change our judgments and our actions and our plans.

In the How Proust Can Change Your Life, true art breaks the habit -- leads to a temporary suspension or modification of the process of habitual anticipation -- helping us to see the world as if it were fresh, with new eyes.

Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct Instinct provides an explanation of part of the mechanism involved. He talks in terms of built-in wiring in the brain and its subsequent language-specific elaboration of anticipation and habit (though he doesn't use those words). We, as adults, truly cannot hear sounds of a new language because we haven't been wired to anticipate them.

When I was visiting at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe [January 1998], anticipation played a major role in my experience. We all heard about the dangers and beauties of the Zambezi River and the Falls. The resultant fear, anxiety, excitement all led to a suspension of habitual anticipation. That meant that more sense data were noticed and saved than normal.

(The anticipation process is very efficient, making it so I can operate with a minimum of input, paying minimum attention to what is happening to me, selecting only a small part of the multitude of sense data which assails me at every minute.)

Note the change in how I'm using the word "anticipate." Normally we say that we "anticipate" an experience and that the anticipation is actually greater than, more memorable than the event itself. In fact, what we have done is suspend or tone down our habitual anticipation, which enables us to operate efficiently with just an occasion confirm/deny glance at the world, but which means that it takes a real jolt for us to notice something new.

This is the phenomenon noted by Scott Adams in The Dilbert Future, that we actually react to sounds and other sense data before the stimulus signal reaches our brain. We are making our judgments based on anticipation. hence we can judge/react at lightning speed (which is good for survival in the wild or in competitive sports; this is the "instinct", the "feel", the "flow" that comes form mastery of a skill or sport [e.g., chess]). We anticipate rapidly and accurately and in great detail, based on minimum sensory input.

Consciousness consists largely of this continuous interplay of habitual anticipation (images generated from memory and imagination) and sense data, which confirm, deny, or modify what has been anticipated.

In habitual mode, sense data are barely needed at all. And in heightened consciousness (normally associated with the word "anticipation" or "awe" or religious experience) the emphasis is on the sense data which we then allow to pour in on us in prodigious quantities at prodigious speed, providing memories to be mulled over and "explained" and interpreted over and over again, long into the future.

No wonder science is so difficult. Obviously, our hypotheses color (anticipate) our results.

The moral code is part of the anticipation/perception process, determining what you "see" as well as what you immediately presume it means.

Hence the difficulty in appreciating (directly getting involved in) works of art (writing in particular) far from your own moral code (e.g., Dryden and Corneille's plays). If the shift is slight, you make adjustments; you become used to the author's voice and perspective and suspend disbelief for the duration of reading and become involved in the story,. If the shift is major -- a significantly different contemporary culture or a culture form the past -- it will take work and study to come to understand the context in a way that the situations and reactions begin to seem real and human to you.

Works from other cultures and times are suddenly "discovered" when some element of that code happens to be in harmony with a contemporary one -- not that you appreciate the work in its original context, but rather it seems to speak to you today (often a partial experience, that selectively edits out and doesn't perceive all that is dissonant form that view in the work itself.)

The work that was "before its time" didn't speak to the people of the context when it was written. That is not a sign of pre-science, and should not be a criterion of quality.

(consider anticipation/hallucination and 3D effects and other Hollywood special effects)

The real story of Around the World in 80 Days

I finally read Jules Verne's Le Tour du Monde en 80 Jours. I had seen the movie back around 1959, when I was in junior high school. I loved the movie and presumed that that was the story and hence never opened the book. Now, having recently discovered that it's a relaxing escape to read clear and simple 19th century stories in French (having loved Dumas' musketeer series), I finally gave the book a try.

The Englishman is named "Fogg" and is continually in a fog -- it doesn't matter how far from London he ventures; he brings his fog with him. He never bothers to glance at the sights and people of the countries he passes through. He'd rather play whist.

His newly hired French servant is "Passpartout". He is curious, versatile, capable, and brave. He has his eyes and his heart open everywhere. When resourcefulness and true courage are needed, Passepartout -- not his master -- steps forward. He is the one who rescues the girl from the funeral pyre in India, and he is the one who during the attack by Sioux somehow manages to pull himself along under a moving train (a la Indiana Jones) to uncouple the engine and save all the passengers.

Fogg is a caricature of the typical Englishman, taken to extremes. He is ridiculously rational, and silent, and unflappable. Nothing bothers him, in part because he is oblivious to just about everything. But underneath the icy exterior there are hints of true humanity and generosity, starting with his giving an exorbitant sum (that just happened to be in his pocket from winning at whist) to a beggar girl at the London train station when he starts. This kind of humanity/generosity gradually becomes a more important part of his character (the ice melts) through the course of the narrative -- i.e., he becomes more French.

In fact, Fogg has much in common with Dickens' Scrooge -- not miserliness, but lack of evident human feeling at the start; and then a burst of human emotion at the end.

NB -- this book dates from 1873, just three years after the disastrous defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War. The national ego was probably at an all-time low. This is a tale of two countries, a contrast of two life styles/world views; with an indication that underneath the exterior there is a common humanity -- ground for future understanding.

By the way, in the movie, the most memorable icon was the hot-air balloon. There is no balloon in the book. Quite logically, Fogg goes by train to Brindisi (in the south of Italy) and by steamer from there to Suez. The story jumps from the train departure from London to Suez, where the interesting part of the journey begins.  privacy statement