You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet

In The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, Reif Larsen has created a novel with a unique blended form. The text is augmented with the drawings and comments of the narrator, a twelve-year-old boy named Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet, or T. S. The boy is a mapmaker whose interests go beyond geology and geography: he maps his whole life out as a way to organize his life and create order. With all the illustrations and diagrams, the book is a sort of graphic novel in novel form.

T. S. Spivet lives on a Montana ranch near the Continental Divide with his parents and older sister. His mother is a studious scientist in search of a mysterious insect; his father is a taciturn rancher whom T. S. doesn't feel much of a connection with. Months before the story starts, the youngest brother Layton accidentally killed himself with one of his guns while he and T. S. were mapping out sound waves. When T. S. gets a call from the Smithsonian announcing that he has won an award and a year-long fellowship, he decides to sneak away and travel to Washington by train, hoping that his young age will not be an impediment once they find out.

T. S. hops a train near his home and finds a Winnebago to travel in. He discovers that his mother's notebook that he has swiped contains a story she has been writing about the life of another woman, his ancestor Emma Osterville, a scientist who married the first Spivet man in the mid-1800's. He can see parallels between this ancestor and his own mother, who both struggled to prove themselves as scientists then gave up their profession to be wives and mothers.

When T. S. gets off the train in Chicago, he gets into some trouble in the trainyard and is attacked by a crazed man. He escapes with a wound to his chest and finds a truck driver to drive him to Washington. When he arrives at the Smithsonian, the man who called him, Jibsen, gets him medical attention then pursues his own agenda. Jibsen turns out to be a poor substitute father figure, pushing T. S. to get as much media attention as possible and completely buying into his story about his dead parents. T. S. finds members of the Megatherium Club, a sort of secret society of young explorers and scientists. Strangely, the members of the club include Dr. Yorn, the professor who sent T. S.'s drawings to the Smithsonian, and the club seems to be fully knowledgeable about his travels. In the final scene, when things can't get any stranger, T. S.'s father shows up to replace Jibsen and take his son home, and T. S. is suddenly grateful to see his father, and feels a strong connection to him for the first time.

This is an intriguing adventure story with a fascinating level of detail. T. S. has a great grasp of the world and is very perceptive with the maps that he creates. Sometimes it is clear that he is not only more perceptive than an average twelve-year-old boy but more perceptive that a twelve-year-old boy can be. At these times the author's voice peeks through. He is too fully aware of relationships, including between his mother and father, even if it is an important point to make about the story. Such are the pitfalls of having a preteen narrator.

The story within a story (of T. S.'s great great grandmother) is informative on many levels, not the least of which is his mother's imaginings of what that life was like and T. S.'s comparisons of that life to his mother's life. T. S.'s maps and charts are helpful to illustrate his own life as well as the outside world. The story of Layton's death comes together in pieces as T. S. talks about different aspects to it. There is a clear contrast between the analytical T. S. and his mother as opposed to his father who is more of a doer and less of a thinker. Yet they are all emotionally stunted. Only the older sister shows any signs of having an emotional life inside. But T. S.'s character shines through as a quiet scientist. B+

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Monday, November 16, 2009

I am a Strange Loop

Douglas Hofstadter's I am a Strange Loop is a sort of follow up to his Godel, Escher, Bach. In this volume he focuses his ideas on human consciousness: his thesis is that the patterns of symbols formed by our neural processes form the illusion of a central "I".

Hofstadter is fond of analogies, and he uses many of them to great effect. One central analogy is his experience of reaching into a box of envelopes and feeling a marble. Upon further study, he discovers that there is no marble, it is only an illusion created from the layers of paper. He continually references this experience, likening the experience of an "I" as a similar illusion that seems so real that we can't let it go.

Again he summarizes Godel's Incompleteness Theorem, and suggests that any system complex enough to represent arbitrary patterns can create a strange loop. The system (whole numbers, mental symbols) can even represent itself, which lends the loop the strange part. Thus the patterns in the brain represent themselves, perceive themselves, and from this strange dance comes something that we call consciousness, or "I".

Hofstadter uses several other analogies to illustrate his points. One of his ideas is that our personalities live partially in other people's brains, albeit with much less resolution. Thus he can feel his deceased wife's continued existence as part of him. There seems to be a good deal of sense in this idea; we may not see literally through our loved ones' eyes, but we have shared experiences and memories that make us who we are.

This book was enlightening. The author lays out a compelling case for how the simple representational capacity of the brain evolved to create consciousness, and properly dismisses any ideas of "magic" stuff that separates animate beings from inanimate objects. I enjoyed his many analogies. The book is easy to read and full of great ideas. A

Monday, November 02, 2009

The Years of Talking Dangerously

Geoffrey Nunberg is a linguist who provides commentary for NPR and national newspapers like the New York Times. The Years of Talking Dangerously is a collection of his pieces on linguistics from the last few years.

Nunberg brings a much needed perspective to our use of words. He reviews several popular words and how their use has grown over the decades. Some of the recent "word of the year" candidates get discussed, such as crackberry or truthiness.

In the second section he talks about politics and language. He brings up issues such as the redefinition of torture, the throwing around of the word socialism, and how the name Joe became symbolic for the average American citizen. An interesting piece compares the words liberal and progressive, trying to define how they are different. His conclusion is that since liberal has become a weapon of conservatives, people have moved to progressive, since their usage really can't be pinned down any better. The coarsening of political, he argues, goes hand in hand with the attitude that anybody who can't take the rhetoric is whining.

A lot of media attention is paid to the Internet (such as whether to capitalize the word itself) and its affect on language. Nunberg comments on the exaggeration around technology's affect on language, going back to the days of the telegraph. It's always interesting to discover that the alarms heard today have been heard before in history. He also talks about how patriotism is used as a weapon. "The less it costs to proclaim yourself a patriot, the less your political adversaries have to do to be accused of being patriotic--it's enough that they question the wisdom of a policy or leave their lapel pins on their other suit." I think it's important to study how words are used, especially in any discussion or argument. It's even more important when words are used to shut down discussion.

I enjoyed the insights that Nunberg brings in his commentaries. The pieces are short and easy to read, while being insightful. Nunberg shows how we come to use certain words instead of others, or why we avoid certain words--like whether the people fleeing hurricane Katrina were refugees or something else. There's a lot of meaning behind our choice of words. B+

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