Dinner with the Muses: 3 of the Best Books on Writing & Creativity

According to Greek mythology, the muses were divine goddesses responsible for literature, art and the sciences. Daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, the nine muses- Calliope, Clio, Euterpe, Erato, Terpsichore, Thalia, Melpomene, Polyhymnia and Urania-were thought to bestow inspiration on deserving poets in a flash of revelatory insight.

This image of the artist as beneficiary of a generous muse persists to this day. Aspiring writers put off their novel until they’re “inspired”; poets procrastinate haplessly for years, hoping to catch sight of the mythical “a-ha” moment; painters refuse to lift their paintbrushes until they feel possessed by the rapturous urge to create, until they glimpse that magical state of being an instrument, of being a vessel. How many stories go unwritten, how many songs go unsung, how many movies go unfilmed simply because we’re waiting for the unreliable muse to show up?

It’s no secret: writing is tough. The sooner we accept that creation is not the product of providence or an accident of luck but the result of tireless stamina and hard work, the sooner we can tap our hidden potential. Though there are many extraordinary books on writing and creativity, below are 3 I hold dear. As you sift through their pages, remember the no-nonsense advice of novelist and frontiersman Jack London: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

1. Creativity: Flow & the Psychology of Discovery & Invention

creativity-flow

Called a man obsessed by happiness, Hungarian psychologist Csikszentmihalyi spent years interviewing the century’s greatest minds in search of what makes creative people tick. The result was this book.  Over the course of “Creativity: Flow & the Psychology of Discovery and Invention,” Csikszentmihalyi examines the many dimensions of the creative personality, outlines the phases of the creative process and even offers insight into the lives of inventive individuals. Those interviewed range from those we traditionally consider creative like sculptors and poets to scientists and business moguls. Some of his most impressive participants included Madeline L’ Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, Jonas Salk, creator of the first successful polio vaccine and John Reed, former chairman and CEO of Citicorp.  

What Csikszentmihalyi found was that one thing all creative personalities share is their complexity. Creative people tend to alternate between a dichotomy of opposing traits, for example playfulness and discipline, introversion and extraversion. Though the common man usually inhabits one side of the spectrum, those who are exceptionally creative seem to possess more well-rounded, fully developed personalities. For example, women in Csikszentmihalyi’s sample were shown to exhibit more stereotypically “masculine” traits like competitiveness and aggression while men were demonstrated to display more conventionally “feminine” qualities like sensitivity and cooperation.

Though “Creativity” is a work of scholarship grounded in science and supported by intensive lab work, it remains a fascinating study for the everyday reader. In “Chapter 14: Enhancing Personal Creativity,” Csikszentmihalyi uses his years of research to offer practical advice. “Another goal of this book,” he explains, “was to learn, from the lives of such men and women, how everyone’s life could be more creative.  How can our days, too, be filled with wonder and excitement?” (343). It is at this juncture of the book that “Creativity” moves from academia to self-help, from scientific inquiry to practical application. Csikszentmihalyi suggests several ways to seduce the muse and unlock our creativity, including:

1) find one thing to look forward to each day

2) name one thing, at the end of each day, that surprised you

3) name one way you surprised yourself

Novelty depends on spontaneity and dies in the monotony of routine. As “Creativity” suggests, committing ourselves to little changes each day can enlarge our thinking and challenge us to find unexpected solutions to once impossible problems: take a different route to work, find a new cafe to sit down for breakfast, say yes to an invitation out. Bottom line: do something different.

2. The Artist’s Way

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I dreaded writing this book review.  “How,” I wondered desperately, “could I possibly do justice to a book that has so completely transformed my life?”  I felt like a super fan of the Fab Four trying to commemorate the Beatles.

So what can I possibly say about Julia Cameron’s smash hit “The Artist’s Way”?  For starters, this beloved volume has illuminated my path to artistic recovery and helped countless others.  A 12-week course based on creativity workshops Cameron led in 1990s New York, “The Artist’s Way” will teach you how to:

1.  unblock your creativity so you can be an active-rather than aspiring-artist

2. cherish your inner artist and ignore that perfectionistic, mercilessly mean, critical voice she calls the “Censor”

3. reform unhealthy beliefs you harbor about creativity and adopt more realistic attitudes about the artist’s life

4. cultivate a loving, nurturing attitude toward your art and, more importantly, yourself 

Each of the 12 weeks is organized around a certain theme and is accompanied by a series of checkpoints, essays, and exercises.  In addition to working through each week’s material, Cameron asks that you 1) commit to a daily practice of morning pages and 2) take yourself on an artist’s date every week.  These are what she calls “tools of the trade.” 

Morning pages form the basis of Cameron’s recovery program and are absolutely essential to “The Artist’s Way.”  So what is this mysterious enterprise?  Morning pages are 3 pages of meandering, stream-of-consciousness style writing to be hand written first thing in the morning everyday.  “Wait, hold on one second…” you’re probably wondering aghast, “you want me to write 3 pages first thing in the morning every single day?”  When I was introduced to the practice 3 years ago, I reacted the same way.  Is it a big commitment?  Absolutely.  But nothing will transform your life more radically than this simple exercise.  

One part diary, two parts brain drain, the morning pages are your confidante, your trusted ally, a place where you can play on paper.  More importantly, they offer refuge from your inner critic, the Censor.  Writing morning pages everyday will teach you two vital lessons: if you are to write (or paint or film or design or whatever), you must 1) write in self-trust and liberate yourself from the tyrannous rule of the Censor and 2) write no matter what.  In the end, “The Artist’s Way” is a masterclass in persistence and un-selfconcious play, two qualities most crucial to the writer.

3. Becoming a Writer

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“Becoming a Writer” stands assuredly as the seminal book on writing and creativity.  The original Julia Cameron, author Dorothea Brande actually suggested morning pages 70 years before she did!  From the moment I opened its sunny yellow covers, I adored this book.  In fact, when it first arrived in the mail, I actually had to pace myself so I wouldn’t finish the whole thing in one sitting.  Brande’s style is elegant but charmingly accessible and each chapter (much like Cameron’s) is accompanied by a series of practical exercises.

Along with following a morning writing routine, Brande advises us to dedicate 15 minutes a day simply to writing.  Why just a mere 15 minutes, you ask?  Well, 15 minutes is a brief enough window for the task to seem doable, less intimidating.  Plus, even the busiest person can spare a mere 15 minutes!

But what’s the difference between this exercise and the morning pages?  Why must we do both?  The morning pages are a ritual we observe-the same time every day-and they are ugly, messy, disjointed stream-of-consciousness.  However, the 15 minute rule is more structured and meant to be completed at varying times of day.  Those 15 minutes need not be spent writing frantically to fill 3 pages (as often is the case with morning pages); they can be used to write about anything that comes to mind: a record/reflection of the day’s events, in the tradition of a formal journal, a brainstorm for an article, a profile of a character, a description of someone you just met, etc.  You can write about anything that strikes your fancy.  And because your mind isn’t dull from sleep, you can harness both sides of the mind-the conscious and unconscious, the critical faculty and the creative- to compose something more formal.

What’s really genius about this exercise is that it tricks you into thinking it’s just another casual, 15 minute task when 15 minutes is just enough to get you hooked; once you begin, you’ll usually write for hours!  It’s this initial “getting started” that frightens most writers, paralyzing them until they can’t work at all.  But when you disguise the daunting task of articulating your thoughts, you can overcome that little devil procrastination and actually put pen to paper.

The cornerstone of Brande’s philosophy is this: writing is an occasion-we must have the discipline and resolve to follow through.  “Work according to program, and not according to mood!” ordered Henry James.  No words capture Brande’s message more.  Writing can be such a wearisome task; it invites our worst fears and insecurities to paper.  But forcing ourselves to write everyday, regardless of mood, helps to dispel the prevailing (and dangerous) myth of the mercurial muse.  Many writers imagine composition as an ecstatic, almost mystical revelation-a metaphorical conspiring with the muses.  But when we view writing in this way, we absolve ourselves of the responsibility of actually doing the work.  “Oh, I can’t write today!” we moan, “I’m not in the mood!”  Time and time again, we use the myth of the muse to rationalize our own lack of follow through.  But Brande calls bullshit.  Real writers, those who cherish words and respect writing as a profession, recognize writing-like anything else-is a craft that rewards hard work.  Just as a mechanic must understand the tools of his trade-engines, carborators, coolant- writers must master words and gain experience in their field.  Putting pen to page, fingers to keys is the only way we can get such experience.  If we want to be writers, quite simply, we must write.

Another tenet of Brande’s common sense philosophy is the study of other authors’ work.  “Anyone who is at all interested in authorship has some sense of every book as a specimen and not merely a means of amusement,” Brande writes, “but to read effectively it is necessary to learn to consider a book in the light of what it can teach you about the improvement of your own work” (99).  No matter how often I preach the importance of annotating to my students, I find myself reluctant to pick up a pen and highlighter when I’m cuddled up with a good book.  Why? I suppose something about annotating makes reading feel like work.  But as Brande explains, reading critically doesn’t necessarily mean not reading for pleasure.  Nothing is more vital to the understanding (and enjoyment) of a book than reading actively with a pen handy.  Marking up critical passages and noticing patterns and themes forces us to slow down and digest what we read.  Something about going over a passage in bright pink highlighter inspires us to reflect: who are the characters?  what are they like?  what makes them tick?  what themes are emerging as important to the author?  Reading actively promotes higher-order thinking skills and gets us asking questions, which will enrich our experience of any book.

More importantly, studying literature in this way will help us refine our own craft as writers.  I always tell my students the best way to become a better writer is by examining exceptional models.  By critically reading renowned texts, we’ll be able to dissect how great authors work. How many sentences of description do they include to set a scene?  Do they reveal character directly through commentary or indirectly through words and actions?  As Brande notes, to be good writers, we must treat each book as a specimen to be studied.  Our bed or quiet corner of a cafe is our laboratory; a pen and highlighter, our microscopes, our tools.  If we approach each book like a curious scientist with an analytical eye, we can access knowledge that can’t be taught otherwise, how to set a mood, for instance, or how to make a sentence “flow.”  Reading Fitzgerald may teach us to describe our experiences non-literally while reading the classic philosophers may show us how to say precisely what we mean in very few words.  Novelists, journalists, poets, essayists, short story writers-all can be our teachers, albeit absent ones.  Just as a student must listen attentively and take exhaustive notes if he’s to excel in a course, so do we have to tirelessly participate in our reading if we are to one day walk among the writers we so admire.

We must approach every book this way-with the inquisitiveness of scientists and the diligence of scholars.  How much of a book is lost on the reader who’s lackadaisical!  As authors Adler and Doren once said, a book has much to teach us but only in proportion to how much we are willing to work.  A quick skim of Joyce will yield close to nothing in the way of knowledge.  But a careful, through analysis of particular passages might reveal his talent-and help us rise to similar literary eminence. 

4 of the Greatest Books on Happiness

1. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

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The taoists called it “wu wei,” or doing without doing. Today, we know it more casually as being “in the zone.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, father of the optimal psychology movement, officially named it flow. According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is an automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness: a psychological space in which real enjoyment is possible. In his magnum opus “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” Csikszentmihalyi outlines the nine conditions an activity must meet to bring about this energized focus: 

1. there are clear goals every step of the way (the activity is rule-bound)

2. there is immediate feedback to one’s actions

3. there is a balance between challenges and skills

4. actions and awareness are merged

5. distractions are excluded from consciousness

6. there is no worry of failure

7. self-consciousness disappears

8. the sense of time becomes distorted

9. the activity becomes autotelic

The third condition (there must be a balance between challenge & skill) has always interested me. For an activity to produce flow, it must first be tailored to our skill level: if it’s too easy, it’s boring but if it’s too difficult, it becomes frustrating and troublesome. We can only achieve a state of flow when our skills are perfectly matched to the task. A beginning surfer just learning the sport, say, could reach a “flow” state of consciousness by catching a wave that was just a little tougher than usual, but not by trying to ride a 20-footer at Waimea.

Though hedonists have championed the delights of sensual pleasure for centuries, Csikszentmihalyi and his team found that indulgence can only provide momentary joy- not lasting happiness. Rather, true contentment begins will the thrill of discovery and challenge- not the passive rewards of leisure.

The irony, of course, is that most of us search for happiness in the very mindless hedonism that makes us miserable. Exhausted from a long day at the office, most us plop down on the coach, pick up the remote and opt for yet another episode of our favorite idiotic reality show because we want to relax, we want to “zone” out after work. Sadly, passive amusements like television fail to transport us to that magical altered state Csikszentmihalyi calls flow for this very reason. Because watching television forces us into the passive role of spectator, it can never supply us with the genuine opportunities for challenge on which happiness so much depends.

So how can we apply Csikszentmihalyi’s findings to our own lives? If we want to be genuinely enthralled with life, we have to locate more opportunities for flow. Remember: flow-that blissful place where time dissipates and you both lose yourself and find yourself-depends on the right balance between challenge and skill. In other words, painting a portrait or climbing a treacherous rock face will produce flow- watching yet another tedious hour of television will not. We must have the discipline and diligence to choose the challenge of a meaningful activity over the ease of something leisurely and trivial. As Csikszentmihalyi discovered in his lifetime of research, superficial merriment or purely hedonistic indulgences can’t fulfill us in the long-term. That’s why it’s so much more gratifying to resist the chocolate cupcake and go for a run than it is to yield to the craving: resisting temptation is a challenge, it’s an obstacle we have to overcome if we want to defeat our sweet tooth and reach our goal of losing 20 pounds. For Csikszentmihalyi, this is where real exhilaration resides: in the hard, single-minded pursuit of one’s goals.

2. The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell 

the-conquest-of-happiness

In modern society, most of us suffer not from depression or dejection but from a general malaise-a feeling, as Thoreau so aptly phrased, of “quiet desperation.” In his (I think) often underrated masterwork, “The Conquest of Happiness,” brilliant philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell suggests what he calls a “cure for the ordinary day-to-day unhappiness from which most people in civilized countries suffer.” An illuminating volume, “The Conquest of Happiness” is divided into two parts: one on the causes of unhappiness; the other on the causes of its converse. 

Fundamentally, Russell’s thesis rests on a rather simple premise: unhappiness derives from self-centeredness, the endless absorption with oneself; happiness results from genuine interest in the outside world. If we are to uncover our zest for life, Russell argues, we have to be engaged with all the wonder and beauty around us. Turns out meaningful work is also an essential ingredient to contentment and happiness largely depends on one’s ability to cope with petty annoyances.

Filled with sensible advice and sound reasoning, “The Conquest of Happiness”- it seems-manages its ambitious aim to cure “ordinary” ennui. Russell brings his keen scientific mind to the task, methodically investigating every factor of well-being from family and work to excitement and boredom. Told in his characteristically lucid, astute style, Russell’s voice is wise and matter-of-fact, precise but never pretentious. Though “The Conquest of Happiness” is a work of philosophy, at its heart is not theory but common sense. Clever, practical, insightful…this is the kind of book you’ll want to read with a pen in your hand.

3. The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

happinessproject

Self-help sensation “The Happiness Project” landed on the New York Times best-seller list within minutes of being published and spent an unheard of two years topping the charts. But does “The Happiness Project” really deserve all the acclaim? What’s with all the hype? 

I don’t know about you, but the moment something’s all the rage, I can’t flee it fast enough. Game of Thrones. Pokemon Go. “Eat Pray Love.” Maybe I’m just an obnoxious contrarian at heart but the second a book’s a bestseller, I have no interest in it anymore.

I maintained this close-minded, slightly prejudiced view toward popular culture when “The Happiness Project” first hit the shelves. Because I’m deeply fascinated by positive psychology and am (like most) always on a sort of quest to be happier, Rubin’s experiment naturally appealed to me. But I protested. Like a pretentious hipster who claims to disdain Blink 182 because they’re in the top 40, I refused to pick up “The Happiness Project” because of its popular appeal.

Then, in the fall of 2012, I finally succumbed. 

On a balmy day in early September as crimson and yellow leaves began drifting to the ground, I bought a copy for $15.95 from my favorite used book store. I probably read the whole thing in 2 days. Turns out Rubin’s “The Happiness Project” lived up to the hype.

When the question of how to be happy has consumed philosophers and monks since the beginning of time, how-you might wonder-can a modern writer hope to uncover anything new about the topic?

While Rubin never purports to be original, the way she presents her findings is unlike any other book I’ve ever read. Accessible and focused on taking real, actionable steps, “The Happiness Project” traces Rubin’s year long odyssey to decipher the puzzle of how to be happier. Each month, Rubin tackles a different subject from love and leisure to money and passion and, for every topic, she aims to keep a new set of resolutions. In September, for example, Rubin’s objective is to pursue a passion. For the month, her resolutions range from the ambitious (“write a novel”) to the simple and everyday (“make time”).

In the spirit of Enlightenment thinker, writer, and fellow studious, Type-A nut job Benjamin Franklin, Rubin develops a “resolutions chart” to assess her progress toward her goals. And like Franklin, Rubin’s aims represent nothing short of a “bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection.” 

Though it seems absurd to condense the fundamentally incalculable goal of attaining “moral perfection” to checks and pluses on a chart, I think what makes “The Happiness Project” resonate with so many people is its emphasis on what can be done right nowRubin’s happiness project isn’t an overhauling of her life: she’s not Thoreau abandoning the hurried pace of civilization for the quiet seclusion of Walden Pond, she’s not Elizabeth Gilbert galavanting across three continents to sip wine in Italy and meditate in India. “I didn’t want to undertake that kind of extraordinary change,” she confesses in the introduction, “I wanted to change my life without changing my life, by finding more happiness in my own kitchen. I knew I wouldn’t discover happiness in a faraway place or in unusual circumstances; it was right here, right now.”

While not everyone can abandon their lives to join the Peace Corps, Rubin’s philosophy asserts, certainly most everyone can do simple things like fight right and clean more. With her emphasis on taking small steps over big gigantic leaps and implementing uncomplicated systems of accountability like her handy resolutions chart, Rubin offers her readers real ways to be happier in this moment…without having to do something as crazy/terrifying as moving half way across the world. Blending the wisdom of the ages with personal anecdote and cutting-edge scientific research, Rubin will remind you of man’s extraordinary ability, as Thoreau once observed, “to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.”

4. You are a Badass by Jen Sincero 

you are a badass

I’ll begin this review with three simple words: read this book.  This is one of those rare books that I can say truly changed my life…and will change yours.

The wonderful poet and diarist Anais Nin once said, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” In my mid (okay, technically late) 20s, I think I’ve reached a point in my life where this observation is unsettlingly true. If I continue to remain in the bud, if I continue refusing, as mythologist and scholar Joseph Campbell once penned, to “say a hearty yes to the adventure of my life,” one thing is certain: there are many thrilling, ecstatic, exhilarating, joyful, invigorating, earth-shattering experiences I’ll miss out on!  

In a voice that’s as outrageously candid as it is hysterical, Sincero points out that the decision to embrace your inner badass is no small matter: these are our lives we’re talking about.

 So, she asks us, will we squander the miracle of living and consign ourselves to mediocrity and quiet desperation? Or will we have the boldness to chase after our dreams with a sledge hammer?

For most people, remaining securely in the bud is safe. There’s no potential for heart-breaking humiliation or rejection or failure. Though our lives are as bland and unexciting as saltine crackers, we remain tight in the bud because it’s easy: it requires little to no effort. And most of us are lazy motherfuckers. We’re lazy and we’re eager to please and we’re scared.

Scared of what might happen if we blossom into the most exceptional versions of ourselves.

Scared of the expectations we’d have to live up to.

It’s absurd how terrified most of us are of leading lives we’re excited about; we prefer the security of the familiar to the terror of the unknown, even though we know flowers weren’t meant to be confined to their petals-they were meant to bloom.

Full of practical tips and sage advice, “You are a Badass” is a self-help book that will actually rouse you to radically transform your life-not just inspire you to half-heartedly commit for 5 minutes. “I’m going to lose 20 pounds!” we usually declare at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s, convinced of our unwavering commitment. Fast forward 6 days and we’re scarfing down Haggen Daz by the bucket full while sprawled out on the coach.

Why? What happened to our convictions?

The sad truth is that the fire to revolutionize our lives quickly burns out. Tedious day-to-day obligations-our mortgages, our phone bills-usually snuff out the grand ambition to reinvent ourselves.

Sincero empowers you with the tools to stop believing your same old lame ass excuses and start living a life you’re crazy about (all while swearing profusely and making you laugh out loud).  In “You are a Badass,” Sincero will teach you how to:

  1. challenge self-limiting beliefs and harness the power of positive thinking
  2. recognize the power of your thoughts to shape what you think is possible and manifest what you want
  3. meditate so you can connect with the Source and more fully enjoy the present moment
  4. cultivate gratitude so you can appreciate all you have now
  5. reform your self-sabotaging behaviors so you can build a life you’re actually psyched about

“Whatever you desire to do with your precious life-write jokes or rock out or start a business or learn to speak Greek or quit your job or raise a bunch of kids or fall in love or lose your flab or open orphanages around the world or direct movies or save dolphins or make millions or live in a canyon in a loincloth-” Sincero implores us, “believe that it’s possible. And that it’s available to you. And that you deserve to be/do/have it. Why not?”

How to Read a Book: A Book Review

How to Read a Book

Finally finished my copy of How to Read a Book, the seminal guide to critical reading. Though published in 1940, How to Read a Book remains as relevant as ever. Adler and Doren are adept instructors, their advice for intelligent reading both erudite and accessible. For the bibliophile or literati aspirant, How to Read a Book will make a valuable addition to your reference library.

Adler and Doren’s approach to deconstructing a text primarily rests on active reading.  For them, in reading there is a clear relationship between effort and reward: the more we engage, the more we understand; conversely, the less we participate, the less we grasp the author’s meaning:

Though, strictly speaking, there can be no absolutely passive reading, many people think that, as compared with writing and speaking, which are obviously active undertakings, reading and listening are entirely passive. Reading and listening are thought of as receiving communication from someone who is actively engaged in giving or sending it. The mistake here is to suppose that receiving communication is like receiving a blow or a legacy or a judgement from the court. On the contrary, the reader or listener is much more like a catcher in a game of baseball.”

Catching the ball is just as much an activity as pitching or hitting it. The pitcher or batter is the sender in the sense that his activity initiates the motion of the ball. The catcher or fielder is the receiver in the sense that his activity terminates it. Both are active, though the activities are different. If anything is passive, it is the ball. It is the inert thing that is put into motion or stopped, whereas the players are active, moving to pitch, hit or catch. The analogy with reading and writing is almost perfect. The thing that is written or read, like the ball, is the passive object common to the two activities that begin and terminate the process.”

There is one respect in which the analogy breaks down. The ball is a simple unit. It is either completely caught or not. A piece of writing, however, is a complex object. It can be received more or less completely, all the way from very little to what the writer intended to the whole of it. The amount the reader ‘catches’ will usually depend on the amount of activity he puts into the process, as well as upon the skill with which he executes the different mental acts involved” (Adler & Doren  5-6).

Adler and Doren’s argument is essentially this: books have much to offer us but only in proportion to how much we’re willing to work for them. The skilled reader-through his active engagement-will deepen his understanding and broaden his viewpoint of the world. Like a ruthless prosecutor, he interrogates the text and-by asking it questions and demanding answers- he gains something from his reading. The idle reader gains nothing but perhaps a few hours wasted. In order for a book to become a part of you, Adler and Doren contend, you must put forth the effort.

Though I’d call myself an avid reader, sometimes I feel I amass-as Sylvia Plath would say-very little of what I read.  For anyone who wishes to ponder loftier matters of philosophy or read (and actually understand) the canonical works of Dante or Shakespeare, How to Read a Book is an indispensable resource. Adler and Doren offer practical tips that can aid any level of reader, from the most sophisticated to the beginner. I found their “Four Basic Questions” incredibly useful as a general guide to tackling a text and especially liked how they refined this approach for specific kinds of texts in subsequent chapters. Part III is entirely dedicated to outlining these methods for different subject matter and includes discussions on reading everything from mathematics and science to lyric poetry and imaginative literature.

At times, Adler and Doren tend to over-explain the obvious, making certain chapters needlessly tedious. At others, they unfairly prioritize one subject over another (their chapter on philosophy, for example, is nearly twice as long as their chapter on imaginative literature. You’d think more people would need help navigating the complex labyrinths of plot and character). But despite these shortcomings, How to Read a Book remains a must-have for those who want to be better critical readers.

The Nuremberg Interviews: A Book Review

Nuremburg-trials-008

Started reading The Nuremberg Interviews: An American Psychiatrist’s Conversations with the Defendants and Witnesses.  A chilling book.

Leon Goldensohn, an American physician and psychiatrist, was the prison psychologist in charge of monitoring the two dozen Nazi officials on trial for genocide.  Here, for the first time, are a collection of his exhaustive notes and interviews.

Reading these interviews is unsettling, to say the least.

The majority of Nazi officials pled ignorance of Hitler’s plan to exterminate Jews, claiming the Nazi party was a haphazard, wildly disorganized bureaucracy with little communication between officers and higher ups.  No, no they didn’t know Hitler was massacring millions of Jews; they were only “doing their jobs.”  

My conscience is clear,” Karl Doenitz, grand admiral and commander in chief of the navy, told Goldensohn, “I did not participate in the brutalities or criminal actions.  My aiding Hitler in carrying on a war for my Fatherland does not make me subject to the criticism that I helped him annihilate Jews.  It is just not the case.”  

Karl Doenitz

What’s chilling about his testimony is that his logic is sound.  He didn’t directly commit a crime: he never shot a Jew, never sent a Jew to the gas chamber.  But what he (and the majority of Hitler’s henchman) failed to recognize is that-by doing nothing to stop these atrocities-they became complicit parties.  To say “my conscience is clear”- knowing the extent of the horror and destruction the Third Reich (and, in effect, you) caused- is nothing short of disturbing.  When questioned, Doenitz, along with the other two dozen or so Nazis on trial, tended to either be evasive or shift blame.  When asked whether he believed the defendants were guilty of anything or if they could just transfer all blame to Himmler and Hitler, Doenitz responded:

Let me put it this way.  I assume responsibility for the German submarines from 1933, and of the German navy from 1943.  But to make me responsible for a conspiracy is false.  Each man must be responsible for his share.”

So matter-of-fact.  So methodical.

Doenitz’s telling response opens the Holocaust up to some interesting questions: when, in fact, are we responsible?  Like Doenitz, are we only responsible for our assigned tasks, for carrying out the orders of those above us?  Or do each of us possess a weightier responsibility, a responsibility to speak out against all villainy and evil?

The Zookeeper’s Wife: A Book Review

jan and antonia

Ackerman brings her lyrical virtuoso and keen naturalist’s eye to this tale of bravery, compassion and beauty amidst the most horrifying of circumstances.

Set against the backdrop of WWII, the book opens in Warsaw during the summer of 1935.  War has yet to erupt across the continent and Jan and Antonina Zabinski are the blissful caretakers of the world renowned Warsaw Zoo.  As daylight first streams through the glass windows of the villa, Antonina rises to a gaggle of exotic animal calls: a starling gushing a “medley of stolen songs,” distant wrens “cranking up a few arpeggios,” and cuckoos calling “monotonously like clocks struck on the hour.”  These rambunctious melodies had formed the soundtrack of her life until, in the fall of 1939, Antonina heard the foreboding hum of “tens, maybe even hundreds” of planes over head.  In an evocative passage that testifies to her poetic powers, Ackerman imagines the day German bombers destroyed the zoo:

“On that clear day, the sky broke open and whistling fire hurtled down, cages exploded, moats rained upward, iron bars squealed as they wrenched apart.  Wooden buildings collapsed, sucked down by heat.  Glass and metal shards mutilated the skin, feathers, hooves, and scales indiscriminately as wounded zebras ran, ribboned with blood, terrified howler monkeys and orangutans dashed caterwauling into the trees and bushes, snakes slithered loose, and crocodiles pushed onto their toes and trotted at speed…The clotted air hurt to breathe and stank of burning wood, straw and flesh.  The monkeys and birds, screeching infernally, created an otherworldly chorus backed by a crackling timpani of bullets and bomb blasts.  Echoing around the zoo, the tumult surely sounded like ten thousand Furies scratching up from hell to unhinge the world.”

After the attack, a terrible silence descended on Warsaw Zoo.  When Poland surrendered to Germany a month later, Hitler swiftly began his campaign of terror, squashing all opposition to Nazi rule and ordering Jews into overcrowded, disease-ridden ghettos before implementing his plans for mass murder.

The Zookeeper’s Wife traces the true life story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, an ordinary couple who, despite the constant threat of exposure and death, risked their lives to save over 300 Jews.  Known as the “house under the crazy star,” Warsaw Zoo became a frequent rest stop along the route to freedom for those fleeing Hitler’s death camps.  Closets.  Cabinets.  Lion’s cages.  These were just a few places where the Zabinskis would stow away Jews.

Throughout the book, the Zabinskis’ profound adoration for nature, in all its chaotic idiosyncrasy and stunning messiness, starkly contrasts the Nazi obsession with sterility, perfection and order.  In a horrifying scene, Lutz Heck, a German zoologist and high-ranking SS official, hosts a New Year’s shooting party at the zoo.  “Drunk and full of hilarity,” Heck and his fellow rowdy SS officers kill the caged, helpless animals for no other reason but their own fun.  Antonina and her young son, Rys, could hear the blasts of gun shots through the shutters. “This is beyond politics or war,” Antonina wrote in her diary, “this is sheer gratuitous slaughter.”  While the Nazis demonstrated a disturbing willingness to systematically massacre millions, Jan and Antonina safeguarded life at all costs, even when it meant capture or death for themselves.

Ackerman beautifully juxtaposes the brutality and senselessness of WWII with the daring and valor of those brave enough to revolt against Nazi power.  Jan, in many ways, led a more adventurous life than his wife: he taught biology classes at secret universities, smuggled Jews across the ghetto to the Aryan side of the city, belonged to the Underground Army, and took part in elaborate, top secret conspiracies to sabotage the German war effort (including bombing trains and even poisoning pork sandwiches headed for the SS dining hall) .  

But The Zookeeper’s Wife really belongs to the namesake of its title.  By focusing her attention on Antonina rather than her risk-loving, activist husband, Ackerman invites us to consider the myriad ways in which normal people can impact history.  Though we often imagine history as the grand narrative of a few great men, Leo Tolstoy believed history could more accurately be described as the combined effect of the many small actions of ordinary people: “an infinitely large number of infinitesimally small actions.”  Though the Zabinskis’ remarkable story has-until now-largely fallen through the cracks of the WWII chronicle, The Zookeeper’s Wife  reminds us that ordinary people are capable of extraordinary kindness, even in the face of terror.

A moving read.

 

4 Things You Didn’t Know About Your Favorite Authors

1. J.D. Salinger Drank His Own Urine

J.D. SalingerRecluse. Eccentric. J.D. Salinger is perhaps as known for his reputation as for his work. When Catcher in the Rye was first published in 1951, it was an instant classic, topping bestseller lists and becoming a sort of misfit’s anthem for angsty teenagers everywhere. But when Salinger found fame too much, he retreated to a wooded hillside in Cornish, New Hampshire where he lived in almost total seclusion until his death more than 50 years later.  An enigmatic figure who fiercely safeguarded his privacy, he refused interviews, demanded his picture be removed from all book jackets, and notoriously blocked Sam Goldwyn and Steven Spielberg from securing the much coveted rights to Catcher in the Rye.

So with only 4 major publications to his credit after 1951, the question remains: what had the legendary author been doing all these years? According to family and friends, Salinger never stopped writing: a reported treasure trove of 10 novels remain locked away in his fire-proof safe today.

When he wasn’t writing, Salinger was dabbling in homeopathy, acupuncture and other forms of alternative medicine. But we’re not talking aromatherapy and scented candles here. Salinger would spend hours searching for the perfect cure to the common cold and even test his “remedies” on his two children, Margaret and Matthew. Rather than use needles for acupuncture, Salinger would use big, wooden dowels (rods commonly used in furniture-making). The pain was excruciating. “It felt like having a blunt pencil shoved into your skin,” Margaret said later.

And that’s not even the weirdest of his home remedies. In her tell-all book, Dream Catcher, Margaret reveals her father made a habit of drinking his own urine. Yup, urine. Urine therapy, the medicinal use of pee, has been practiced through the centuries by everyone from the Romans, who used it as a teeth whitener, to the ancient Hindus, who believed urine was an elixir for the soul. Today, advocates claim urine can cure just about anything from the flu to cancer. But before you go rushing to fill up on your own golden showers, you should know there is little evidence to confirm this interesting, if bizarre, theory.

2. Ernest Hemingway Was Raised as a Girl

Ernest HemingwayErnest Hemingway was a guy with some serious mommy issues. And we can’t say we blame him. Domineering and a bit neurotic, Grace Hemingway had always wanted twin girls. When she gave birth to Marcelline and then Ernest 18 months later, she was more than a little disappointed. Rather than give up on her dreams of matching outfits, Grace enacted her twin fantasies onto Ernest and his older sister. At first, she just dressed him up in Marcelline’s old clothes: frilly dresses, pink bows. But soon, she was forcing them to wear identical outfits and actually telling people they were twin girls. She even went so far as to hold Marcelline back a year so that the “twins” could be in the same grade. Talk about nuts. So persistent was her delusion that Ernest was a little girl that she took to calling him “Ernestine”. Ouch. No wonder poor Papa spent his life trying to prove his machismo.

3. Tolstoy Inspired the Liberation of India

tolstoy & ghandi

Known as one of the greatest novelists of all time, Leo Tolstoy was also a political activist and social reformer. Tolstoyism, as his philosophy would later be known, distrusted all forms of authority but rejected violence as an adequate  means of resistance. In addition to preaching the importance of non-violence, Tolstoy condemned private property and detested material excess, arguing instead that we live by our own labor. And boy, did he practice what he preached. Wanting to lead a simple, monastic life, he became a vegetarian, rid himself of most of his possessions, and-much to the dismay of his wife-relinquished the rights to his work. His radical political leanings made him quite a few enemies: he was spied on by the Russian secret police and, in 1901, excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church.

But soon, Tolstoy was champion for the world’s oppressed and poor. In May 1908, Taraknath Das, editor of the underground journal Free Hindustan, wrote Tolstoy asking him to contribute a piece for the paper. An anti-British Bengali Indian revolutionary, Das was an extremist who openly criticized those in favor of gradual independence for India. Tolstoy, of course, refused his request, claiming only passive resistance-not violence- could liberate India from British rule. When in 1909 a young Gandhi came across Tolstoy’s Letter to a Hindu (as it came to be called), it changed his life. Inspired, Gandhi wrote to Tolstoy and the two began a warm correspondence that would last until Tolstoy’s death. “Russia gave me Tolstoy,” Gandhi said later, “It was he who had prophesied that I was leading a movement which was destined to bring a message of hope to the down trodden people of the earth.”

4. Virginia Woolf was on Hitler’s Hit List

Virginia WoolfPlanning to invade Britain in 1940, Nazi officials prepared The Gestapo Handbook for the Invasion of Britain: a top secret manual for the occupation forces which was to be distributed to all soldiers. This frightening how-to guide contained 2 sections: the first, an alarmingly accurate account of British political and cultural life; the second, a list of 2,820 British politicians, artists, writers, and actors who were to be arrested if Germany’s invasion was successful. Coined “Hitler’s Black List,” names listed included Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard, fellow writers Aldous Huxley and E.M. Forester, Sigmund Freud, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Though it’s unlikely that Virginia and Leonard knew of their presence on Hitler’s hit list, as members of the Bloomsbury intellectual elite, they knew they were in danger. If Hitler invaded, they decided, they would kill themselves.  As they awaited Britain’s inevitable capture, the suicidal couple prepared to meet their fatal end, always leaving an extra can of gas in the garage in case they had to asphyxiate themselves. And in case poisonous gas fumes weren’t enough, Leonard always made sure to have a lethal dose of morphine handy.

Woolf did end up committing suicide, but not because of a Nazi invasion. When her lifelong struggle with depression finally caught up with her, Woolf filled her pockets with rocks, strolled to the River Ouse behind her house and killed herself on March 28, 1941. But the most tragic thing about the author’s death was how the media-like vultures picking a carcass- would distort her legacy. Soon after her untimely demise, the coroner who ruled her death a suicide misquoted her suicide note, telling reporters at The Sunday Times of London that she said-“I feel I cannot go on any longer in these terrible times”-when in fact she had said- “I feel certain I’m going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times.” Who would’ve thought a puny little pronoun would taint our view of her forever?

Convinced she killed herself because of the warthe coroner went on to tell the papers that: “Mrs. Woolf was undoubtedly of an extremely sensitive nature and was much more responsive than most people to the general beastliness of things happening in the world today.”

His commentary brought on an outraged response from Mrs. Kathleen Hicks, wife of the Bishop of London: “Sir,- I read in your issue of Sunday last that the coroner at the inquest of Mrs. Virginia Woolf said that she was ‘undoubtedly much more sensitive than most.’ What right has anyone to make such an assertion? If he really said this, he belittles those who are hiding their agony of mind, suffering bravely and carrying on unselfishly for the sake of others. Many people, possibly even more ‘sensitive,’ have lost their all and seen appalling happenings, yet they take their part nobly in this fight for God against the devil. Where are our ideals of love and faith? And what shall we all be if we listen to and sympathize with this sort of ‘I cannot carry on?’”

Thanks to Hicks’s incensed condemnation, the British public began to regard Woolf‘s suicide as a ‘sign of surrender.’ 

Furious, Leonard sent the newspaper an impassioned rebuttal. But despite his best efforts, the media continued to paint a rather unflattering portrait of his wife as a traitor. TIME magazine even reprinted the misquote in their May 5, 1941 issue a few days later.