Books

Does reading make you smarter?


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From PATRICIA VIEIRA
Assistant Professor, Georgetown University
Aljazeera

Reading has myriad effects, but it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how it influences each person and harder still to translate this impact in terms of quantifiable gains

In a meeting at the university where I teach, a colleague bemoaned that, after years of research in Writing Studies, no one had yet found a sure path to turn students into good writers. It may not be a magic solution but the answer to the problem is out there: it is reading! The correlation between an avid reader and a proficient writer is well known to parents who encourage their children to read from early on and to schoolteachers who strive to instill in their students a love for literature. But if the reading-writing connection appears to be a truism, it is trickier to assess the broader impact of literature in our lives. Does literature make us good and, conversely, is it good for us?

Are we happier after finally finishing The Magic Mountain? Will all murderers repent once they read the uplifting ending of Crime and Punishment? Will we become smarter by going through the Collected Poems of TS Eliot?

Cooked Books…


cooked-cover

From THE GREENHORNS

A Natural History of Transformation

In Cooked (Available For Rent April 23 at Mulligan Books), Michael Pollan explores the previously uncharted territory of his own kitchen. Here, he discovers the enduring power of the four classical elements—fire, water, air, and earth— to transform the stuff of nature into delicious things to eat and drink. Apprenticing himself to a succession of culinary masters, Pollan learns how to grill with fire, cook with liquid, bake bread, and ferment everything from cheese to beer.

In the course of his journey, he discovers that the cook occupies a special place in the world, standing squarely between nature and culture. Both realms are transformed by cooking, and so, in the process, is the cook. Each section of Cooked tracks Pollan’s effort to master a single classic recipe using one of the four elements. A North Carolina barbecue pit master tutors him in the primal magic of fire; a Chez Panisse–trained cook schools him in the art of braising; a celebrated baker teaches him how air transforms grain and water into a fragrant loaf of bread; and finally, several mad-genius “fermentos” (a tribe that includes brewers, cheese makers, and all kinds of picklers) reveal how fungi and bacteria can perform the most amazing alchemies of all. The reader learns alongside Pollan, but the lessons move beyond the practical to become an investigation of how cooking involves us in a web of social and ecological relationships: with plants and animals, the soil, farmers, our history and culture, and, of course, the people our cooking nourishes and delights. Cooking, above all, connects us.

Book Review: ‘The God Argument – The Case Against Religion and for Humanism’ By A.C. Grayling…


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From ANDREW DOYLE
HuffPost

According to Catherine Pepinster, A.C. Grayling’s new book The God Argument is a “stern, unrelenting and unforgiving” attack on faith, a “vilification of theists” written in the style of “an angry Old Testament prophet.” Grayling, we are told, is guilty of “railing at religionists” such as the theist philosopher Alvin Plantinga, whose version of the ontological argument for the existence of God causes Grayling “to see red.”

At this point, those of us familiar with Grayling’s work might begin to smell a rat. Typically so measured in his tone and tolerant in his outlook, what could have happened to transform him into this pugnacious, fire-breathing polemicist?

Well, nothing. Because The God Argument is about as far removed in tone from Pepinster’s account than it is possible to imagine. It is, in fact, one of the most dispassionate overviews of the atheistic stance yet to appear. Pepinster is of course entitled to her opinion, but readers should be aware that her review is of a book that does not exist outside of her imagination.

In ‘Life After Life,’ Caught In The Dangerous Machinery of History…


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From MEG WOLITZER
NPR

[Available for rent $2 at Mulligan Books... DS]

Flannery O’Connor said short stories need to have a beginning, a middle and an end, though not necessarily in that order. But what about novels? Kate Atkinson seems to believe there can be a beginning, a middle and an end, and then another beginning, plus several more middles … and why not have a beginning again?

What she’s done in her masterful new book, Life After Life, is prove that what makes a long piece of fiction succeed might have very little to do with the progression of its story, and more to do with something hard to define and even harder to produce: a fully-realized world. Atkinson not only invites readers in but also asks them to give up their preconceptions of what a novel should be, and instead accept what a novel can be.

When I started Life After Life, I have to admit, I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep going. I was disoriented, and I thought maybe the problem was me

Dr. Paul Lee: Alan Chadwick and the Origins of the Organic Movement in California…


“It has taken me over thirty years to write this book. It tells the story of my starting the first organic garden at a university in the country, with Alan Chadwick, in 1967, who E. F. Schumacher called the world’s greatest gardener. I recount the gardens Alan developed after UC Santa Cruz; Saratoga; the Zen Center Farm at Green Gulch; Round Valley in Covelo, California; and Carmel in the Valley in West Virginia.

“I develop the philosophical background of Alan’s work and practice: the biodynamic and French Intensive systems he amalgamated. Biodynamics was developed by Rudolf Steiner in the early decades of the last century under the influence of Goethe who was Steiner’s great inspiration thanks to Goethe’s botanical studies. Goethe to Steiner to Chadwick represents the Vitalist tradition in defense of the integrity of organic nature as opposed to the Physicalist tradition of modern scientism reducing organic nature to matter.

“After we started the garden I had to find out why organic nature had been undermined by industrial society and why it had to be recovered and reaffirmed. Why did ‘organic’ have to become a buzz word? Why did industrialized and mechanized and commercialized food and flower production take over, supplanting natural and organic procedures? Why did they start calling factories plants? I tell you why. In my book!

A letter to the “New” Atheists…


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From SUSAN JACOBY
Excerpted from The Great Agnostic (2012)
[Available at Mulligan Books & Seeds]

There is no such thing as a new atheist. You know this of course, and are usually careful to give ample credit to your predecessors. They made you possible, by waging the battle for reason and freedom of conscience at considerable risk to their own lives and liberty — whether by speaking out against the received opinion of their times or by the scientific investigation that led to a natural rather than a supernatural explanation of how our entire universe, including human beings, came to be. The names of Copernicus, Galileo, Giordano Bruno, Spinoza, Voltaire, Paine, Humboldt, and, of course, Darwin are frequently on your lips and in your books, as well they should be. Upon the shoulders of these giants rest the efforts of all whose aim is to make gentle the life of this world rather than to seek paradise in some hidden world beyond nature. So why is Robert Green Ingersoll usually absent from your honor role?

I would not expect you to mention Ingersoll if you were promoting the idea that America is, after all, a Christian nation founded by Christians who intended to establish a christian government. But you are all dedicated to the advancement of the same secular values

Book Excerpt: The problem of excessive scale…


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From DMITRY ORLOV
Club Orlov

This is an excerpt from The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivors’ Toolkit coming in May.

In his excellent book The Breakdown of Nations the maverick economist Leopold Kohr makes several stunning yet, upon reflection, commonsense observations. He points out that small states have tended to be far more culturally productive than large states, that all states go to war but that big states have disproportionately bigger wars that kill many times more people, and that by far the most stable and advantageous form of political organization is a loose confederation of states, each so small that none can dominate the rest. Kohr arrives at his conclusions by a process of reasoning by homology (viz. analogy) by analyzing many of the problems of modernity as different manifestations of the same underlying problem: the problem of excessive scale.

Most people can relate to the concept of optimal scale on an intuitive, visceral level; we know when something is abnormally big or abnormally small, and we tend to dislike abnormality. The exceptions, be they midgets or giants, are considered freaks. In living things

Books: Pot Goes to Florida, and Vice Versa…


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From JANET MASLIN
NYT

New Comic Novels From Dave Barry and Tim Dorsey

[More Carl Hiaasen below... DS]

Dave Barry has written a comic novel that features lost luggage, beaches, hapless tourists from Michigan, exotic animal life, drugs, wild mix-ups, laughable oldsters and the trademarked zaniness of Florida. Not at all coincidentally Tim Dorsey’s new comic novel features these same ingredients, although Mr. Dorsey’s hapless tourists come from Wisconsin.

What is it about journalism in Florida that helped Mr. Barry (The Miami Herald), Carl Hiaasen (also The Herald) and Mr. Dorsey (The Tampa Tribune) segue into writing such funny fiction? And what is it that makes their material so similar? Even if you know exactly which of them wrote “Hurricane Punch,” “Tricky Business” and “Tourist Season” (Mr. Dorsey, Mr. Barry and Mr. Hiaasen), it’s hard to miss the overlaps in their humor. It’s also hard to complain about too much of a good thing.

Mr. Hiaasen, who still writes an opinion column, understandably delivers the most barbed, issue-oriented humor.

How the rich and greedy stole the American dream all for themselves…


From DAN FROOMKIN

Who stole the American Dream? The short answer to the question in the title of Hedrick Smith’s new book is: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Wal-Mart.

But the longer answer is one heck of a story, told by one of the great journalists of our time.

In his sweeping, authoritative examination of the last four decades of the American economic experience, Smith describes the long, relentless decline of the middle class — a decline that was not by accident, but by design.

He dates it back to a private memo — in effect, a political call to arms — issued to the nation’s business leaders in 1971 by Lewis F. Powell, Jr., a corporate attorney soon to become a Supreme Court justice. From that point forward, Smith writes, corporate America threw off any sense of restraint or social obligation and instead unstintingly leveraged its money and political power to pursue its own interests.

The result was nothing less than a shift in gravity. Starting in the early 1970s, every major economic trend — increased productivity, globalization, tax law overhauls, and the phasing out of pensions in favor of 401(k)s — produced the same result: The benefits fell upward.

Smith, a 1970 Nieman Fellow, is at his very best as he examines, one by one, the key economic shifts of the last 40 years and shows that in each case the money flowed to the very richest Americans, particularly those on Wall Street, while impoverishing the middle class.

Nowhere was that more blatantly the case than in the housing sector. We are all well aware of how the bursting of the housing bubble has left many middle-class Americans without the nest egg they were counting on for their retirement.

Planting Rebellion: Seed-saving as a subversive act…


From TWILIGHT GREENAWAY
Grist

“In the course of getting a plate of food to our table, we’re paying a lot of attention to the farmer, the chef, the farmers market — all of that is as it should be, but we pay very little attention to the thing that starts it all, the seed.” That sentiment comes from Janisse Ray, farmer and author of the new book The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food.

And it’s true; for many of us, seeds are a mysterious, invisible piece of the food puzzle. While we’re busy thinking about how to fix our food economies, seeds often slip through the cracks. And we’ve lost an almost unfathomable amount of genetic diversity as a result; depending on whom you ask, anywhere between 75 to 95 percent of our fruit and vegetable varieties have been lost for good. Highly functional, often bland, hybridized and genetically engineered varieties have taken over the commercial market — as opposed to the more delicate, complex heirloom varieties with stories and names attached, such as Dragon Tongue beans, Country Gentleman sweet corn, and May Queen lettuce — and Monsanto, Dupont, and Syngenta now own over half of the world’s seeds.

So, you might say Ray’s book has appeared just in time. In it, she makes a compelling argument for seed-saving as a subversive act that has the potential to undermine industrial agribusiness and takes readers to the farms and gardens of people around the country who are growing, collecting, and swapping seeds.

“Our grandparents and great-grandparents were caretakers of seeds. Now we rent them,” she told me in a recent interview. Eighty-eight percent of corn is genetically engineered, for instance, says Ray, and it has been engineered so that it’s impossible to save.

Transition: Manifesto for a post-growth economy…


America the Possible

From YES!
Transition Voice

Editor’s introduction: Gus Speth has been a co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advisor to presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, the head of the United Nations’ largest international assistance program, and Dean at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

“Right at the time I should be settling into a rosy retirement,” Speth says, “I find I am instead quite alarmed about the appalling future we’re on track to leave our grandchildren.” His new book, America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy, is about how transformative change can come to America, what life would be like in the attractive future that is still within our power to build, and what we need to do to realize it.

In this excerpt adapted from America the Possible, Speth takes on the tricky issue of post-growth prosperity. For more specific details about the policies under discussion here, check out the book.

We tend to see growth as an unalloyed good, but an expanding body of evidence is now telling us to think again. Economic growth may be the world’s secular religion, but for most it is a god that is failing—underperforming for most of the world’s people, and creating more problems than it solves for those in affluent societies.

Americans are substituting growth and ever more consumption for doing the things that would truly make us and our country better off. Psychologists have pointed out, for example, that while economic output per person in the United States rose sharply in recent decades, there has been no increase in life satisfaction.

David Byrne on How Music and Creativity Work…


From MARIA POPOVA
Brainpickings

[How Music Works by David Byrne available at Mulligan Books. -DS]

“Presuming that there is such a thing as ‘progress’ when it comes to music is typical of the high self-regard of those who live in the present. It is a myth. Creativity doesn’t ‘improve.’”

Great times and tall deeds for David Byrne this week: First his fantastic collaborative album with St. Vincent (which made a cameo on Literary Jukebox), and now the release of How Music Works (public library) — a fascinating record of his lifetime of curiosity about and active immersion in music. But rather than an autobiographical work, a prescriptive guide to how to listen, or another neuropsychological account of music, what unfolds is a blend of social science, history, anthropology, and media theory, exploring how context shapes the experience and even the nature of music. Or, as Byrne puts it, “how music might be molded before it gets to us, what determines if it gets to us at all, and what factors external to the music itself can make it resonate for us. Is there a bar near the stage? Can you put it in your pocket? Do girls like it? Is it affordable?”

Among the book’s most fascinating insights is a counterintuitive model for how creativity works, from a chapter titled “Creation in Reverse” — a kind of reformulation of McLuhan’s famous aphorism “the medium is the message” into a somewhat less pedantic but no less purposeful “the medium shapes the message”:

I had an extremely slow-dawning insight about creation. That insight is that context largely determines what is written, painted, sculpted, sung, or performed. That doesn’t sound like much of an insight, but it’s actually the opposite of conventional wisdom

Art, Independence and Spirit – Van Gogh, Brenda Ueland


From BRENDA UELAND
Excerpted from If You Want To Write (1939)
Still in print
[Repost]

If you read the letters of the painter Van Gogh you will see what his creative impulse was. It was just this: he loved something—the sky, say. He loved human beings. He wanted to show human beings how beautiful the sky was. So he painted it for them. And that was all there was to it.

When Van Gogh was a young man in his early twenties, he was in London studying to be a clergyman. He had no thought of being an artist at all. He sat in his cheap little room writing a letter to his younger brother in Holland, whom he loved very much. He looked out his window at a watery twilight, a thin lampost, a star, and he said in his letter something like this: “It is so beautiful I must show you how it looks.” And then on his cheap ruled note paper, he made the most beautiful, tender, little drawing of it.

When I read this letter of Van Gogh’s it comforted me very much

The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy…



From DAVID STREITFELD
NYT

Todd Rutherford was 7 years old when he first understood the nature of supply and demand. He was with a bunch of other boys, one of whom showed off a copy of Playboy to giggles and intense interest. Todd bought the magazine for $5, tore out the racy pictures and resold them to his chums for a buck apiece. He made $20 before his father shut him down a few hours later.

A few years ago, Mr. Rutherford, then in his mid-30s, had another flash of illumination about how scarcity opens the door to opportunity.

He was part of the marketing department of a company that provided services to self-published writers — services that included persuading traditional media and blogs to review the books. It was uphill work. He could churn out press releases all day long, trying to be noticed, but there is only so much space for the umpteenth vampire novel or yet another self-improvement

What Happens While You Sleep and How It Affects Your Every Waking Moment…


From MARIA POPOVA
BrainPickings

“We are living in an age when sleep is more comfortable than ever and yet more elusive.”

The Ancient Greeks believed that one fell asleep when the brain filled with blood and awakened once it drained back out. Nineteenth-century philosophers contended that sleep happened when the brain was emptied of ambitions and stimulating thoughts. “If sleep doesn’t serve an absolutely vital function, it is the greatest mistake evolution ever made,” biologist Allan Rechtschaffen once remarked. Even today, sleep remains one of the most poorly understood human biological functions, despite some recent strides in understanding the “social jetlag” of our internal clocks and the relationship between dreaming and depression. In Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, journalist David K. Randall — who stumbled upon the idea after crashing violently into a wall while sleepwalking — explores “the largest overlooked part of your life and how it affects you even if you don’t have a sleep problem.” From gender differences to how come some people snore and others don’t to why we dream, he dives deep into this mysterious third of human existence to illuminate what happens when night falls and how it impacts every aspect of our days.

Most of us will spend a full third of our lives asleep, and yet we don’t have the faintest idea of what it does for our bodies and our brains. Research labs offer surprisingly few answers. Sleep is one of the dirty little secrets of science. My neurologist wasn’t kidding when he said there was a lot that we don’t know about sleep, starting with the most obvious question of all — why we, and every other animal, need to sleep in the first place.

But before we get too anthropocentrically arrogant in our assumptions, it turns out the quantitative requirement of sleep isn’t correlated with how high up the evolutionary chain an organism is:

Lions and gerbils sleep about thirteen hours a day. Tigers and squirrels nod off for about fifteen hours. At the other end of the spectrum, elephants typically sleep three and a half hours at a time, which seems lavish compared to the hour and a half of shut-eye that the average giraffe gets each night. […]

Humans need roughly one hour of sleep for every two hours they are awake, and the body innately knows when this ratio becomes out of whack. Each hour of missed sleep one night will result in deeper sleep the next, until the body’s sleep debt is wiped clean.

What, then, happens as we doze off, exactly? Like all science, our understanding of sleep seems to be a constant “revision in progress”:

Complete article here
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Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community and Bringing Decision-Making Back Home…


From DAVID SWANSON
New. Clear. Vision.

Susan Clark and Woden Teachout’s new book, Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home (Chelsea Green, available Oct. 10, 2012), offers the civil equivalent to slow food. The goal of both is not slowness for its own sake, but quality, health, sustainability, and the pursuit of happiness.

We all know that the federal government ignores us most of the time, state governments nod in our direction once in a blue moon, and local governments listen to us quite often. So, there is an argument to be made for moving decision-making powers to the local level and engaging there.

The focus of Clark and Teachout’s book is on how to engage with local democracy, and toward what ends. Adversarial campaigning may not work. What gets you on television at a Congressional “town hall” could just alienate your neighbors at a real town hall. A deeper understanding of democracy than just the desire for Washington, D.C., to follow majority opinion once in a while involves the realization that we are all better off if all of our viewpoints are considered. We all know that in small discussions the result can be greater than the sum of its parts. The same is true in local politics. New ideas can arise through exchange and disagreement; a synthesis that considers the needs of more than one group can be better for all, longer-lasting, and strengthened by the depth of its public support.

Seeking to engage with others and involve those who disagree with us looks like a disastrous approach to those who work on political advocacy at the national level (except Democrats, to whom it looks like a brilliant innovation guaranteed to work on the very next attempt). Treating national officials like friends will usually get you sold down the river. When we were occupying Washington, D.C., last fall and holding consensus-based eternal dialogues in the shadow of the Capitol, we were excellent and improving at the skill of deciding which building we would shut down tomorrow or who was going to help make dinner. But saying just a few words out loud, no matter how politely, in a “public” hearing on Capitol Hill would only serve to get us thrown in jail, and often did.

Worse, however, than trying to take slow democracy national may be trying to take national politics local. A town hall in a small town in Vermont can be ruined by following the proper conduct to get yourself on Fox News or CNN. Shouting and name calling don’t usually advance discussions outside of politics. Why should they be helpful within it? Slow Democracy looks at numerous examples from around the country and outside of it in which local governments are finding ways to more deeply involve residents in deliberations and even decision making. The results are not just decisions that carry broader support, but also in many respects better decisions.

Why can this be done locally and not on a larger scale? The right wing fears big government and the left big corporations, the two of which have merged. Both fears are very well placed.

A Twenty-First Century American Sacrifice Zone…


From TOMDISPATCH
Excerpt

[Available for rent at Mulligan Books... -DS]

The book itself is a unique all-American road trip, part riveting text by Hedges, part comics by Sacco.  It takes the reader through the most extreme “sacrifice zones” in a country that is slowly hollowing itself out.  In this excerpt, the two road warriors have made it to an area of West Virginia where coal mines, dangerous as they were, once supported town life, but more recently have either mechanized or closed down.  This particular community, Gary, West Virginia, writes Hedges, has “fallen into terminal decay.  There are today 861 people in Gary. There were 98,887 in McDowell County in 1950.  Today there are fewer than 23,000.  The countywide per capita average income is $12,585.  The median home value is $30,500.  Gary’s rutted streets are lined by empty clapboard houses with sagging roofs.”

Hedges himself has written a TomDispatch introduction to the excerpt, which follows…

A World of Hillbilly Heroin
The Hollowing Out of America, Up Close and Personal

During the two years Joe Sacco and I reported from the poorest pockets of the United States, areas that have been sacrificed before the altar of unfettered and unregulated capitalism, we found not only decayed and impoverished communities but shattered lives. There comes a moment when the pain and despair of constantly running into a huge wall, of realizing that there is no way out of poverty, crush human beings. Those who best managed to resist and bring some order to their lives almost always turned to religion and in that faith many found the power to resist and even rebel.

On the Pine Ridge Lakota reservation in South Dakota, where our book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt opens, and where the average male has a life expectancy of 48 years, the lowest in the western hemisphere outside of Haiti, those who endured the long night of oppression found solace in traditional sweat lodge rituals, the Lakota language and cosmology, and the powerful four-day Sun Dance which I attended, where dancers fast and make small flesh offerings.

In Camden, New Jersey, it was the power and cohesiveness of the African-American Church. 

Wendell Berry: Letter to Wes Jackson…


From WENDELL BERRY
Home Economics (1982)

[This evening, August 3rd, will be our second First Friday of Neighbors Reading at Mulligan Books downtown Ukiah, 6-7pm. We share favorite passages from favorite books around topics of community, transition, resilience, or anything else, as part of the second semester of Mendo Free Skool. We video the readings for Community TV and invite your participation. I will be reading from one of my favorite authors, Wendell Berry... passages from an essay The Family Farm, from his book Home Economics. What follows is the opening essay from that book... -DS]

Dear Wes,

I want to try to complete the thought about “randomness” that I was working on when we talked the other day.

The Hans Jenny paragraph that started me off is the last one on page twenty-one of The Soil Resource:

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