Thursday, November 17, 2005

Books and Inspiration

If you're looking for an internet portal that helps you tap into the zeitgeist (at least with an American, broadly liberal flavour), Slate is a good place to start. There's scholarly argument, polemic and media commentary. You get both contributions to, and analysis of, the current debates.

Yesterday they began a feature series on "How to Save the American University", getting a range of prominent academics to put forward their views on what students should be learning and how they should learn it. The articles are definitely worth a read if you're at all interested in these questions.

I like Steven Pinker's idea that science teaching should be organized by "content rather than discipline: the physical universe, rather than physics or astronomy or chemistry; living things, rather than biology; the human mind, rather than psychology or neuroscience".

It's only belatedly that I've become interested in scientific topics, as I've come to see their interconnectedness and relationship to things that are meaningful to me. Maths and science were never going to be my strong points, but I think I could have got more engaged at a younger age if they had been made part of a narrative the way Pinker suggests.

As it was, when there was no answer to *why* a parallel circuit behaved differently from a series circuit, or what the implications of radioactive decay were, I just glazed over and tried not to breath too much of the lab's ammonia fumes.

Elsewhere, I agree with K. Anthony Appiah's suggestion it wouldn't be a bad idea for humanities majors to learn some stats, and am intrigued by Alison Gopnik's proposal of a revolution in learning practice.

However, the best thing in this series so far is a piece on "My First Literary Crush", with a raft of noteworthies describing the book which most changed their life in college. Frighteningly worthy, most of them.

Reading this made me wonder what book most inspired me in my university years, and after some thought I'm afraid to say--walking cliche that it makes me--I couldn't go past On the Road. As with about a million other wannabe bohemian college kids, it made me jump out of my seat, punch my fist into my hand and shout "yes!".

I guess that explains why the people featured here followed a sensible, structured, pathway into their current careers as writers, editors and journalists, while I raced off to work in carnivals in Canada and wind up penniless in Guatemala, convinced I just had to Know Time, then write it all down on one 36-foot long piece of paper.

Searching for something less cliched, the book which first made me appreciate journalistic non-fiction as a literary form was Vincent Bugliosi's account of the Manson family murders, investigation and trial. Not by any means a great work, I suppose, but I was gripped by the way that individual facts pieced together to form the narrative, and how the deadpan retelling of the events and characters' back stories created a picture of late-1960s California, paradoxically more vivid for the authorial restraint.

It seems that at university I mostly read the compulsory stuff, drank beer and goofed off. I would do better on the "books that influenced my life" thread if I were allowed to include the times before and after formal study. And perhaps in another post I will.

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Cecilia said...

Great post, Simon. I've also belatedly come to appreciate the interconnectedness of the scientific world and how it shapes how we live our lives. I sort of regret my early rejection at school of anything non-humanities based.

Yes, Vincent Bugliosi's book ("Helter Skelter") is excellent. I think you borrowed it from me actually. Personally, I've reread it a couple of times. In a similar vein, another book that is also gripping reading and (perhaps unintentionally) vividly depicts California a few years later (early/mid 70s) is "Every Secret Thing" - Patty Hearst's account of her abduction by and subsequent life on the run with "revolutionaries."

I think "On The Road" might have subconsciously influenced my own international wanderings, but oddly enough, I've never felt inclined to reread it. I think if I did read it again, my pragmatic, practical side might now feel inclined to scoff...

I can't say that any book "changed" or influenced my life that much, despite having been a prolific reader for most of my youth. The one that is seared in my mind as affecting me the most deeply is a book Dad has called "Shoot to Kill". It is an account by a British soldier (SAS, I think) of his time serving in Northern Ireland. Obviously, much of the subject matter is pretty bleak, but I remember it as being an incredibly moving account of self realization.

BTW, Simon, at university you didn't just read the compulsory stuff, drink beer, and goof off. You also played pool a whole lot.

Simon Bidwell said...

"BTW, Simon, at university you didn't just read the compulsory stuff, drink beer, and goof off. You also played pool a whole lot"


Yes, I've never been inclined to re-read On the Road either--I didn't want to spoil my memory of how it made me feel. Also had been put off by the number of dickhead wannabe Kerouacs I met particuarly in Europe, and had a nasty feeling that in hindsight some of it was chauvinistic and patronising (e.g. the bit in Mexico).

However, on a couple of occasions recently I've needed to search out some quotes from OTR for research purposes and noted that the prose still has the electric, inspired quality that carried me (and so many others) away on the first reading. Sober re-reading also shows that there's a darkness and sadness there that's not always acknowledged.

I believe time will show that Kerouac tapped into something deeper and the popular view of OTR as just a celebration of white boy hedonism says more about its readers than the book itself.