Even the statues read

One of the things I look forward to in the summer time is catching up on the reading I don’t have time to do during a busy academic year. (Yes, the bitter irony is true: those of us who became English majors because we love to read too often find ourselves making a living reading student papers, not the books gathering dust on our shelves.) To me, a perfect summer day involves a trip to the library to browse shelves stocked with books free for the borrowing: so much insight and knowledge, all of it freely available to anyone with a library card and a willingness to share. Surely heaven is a library with shelves as endless as the days are long.

Here are my Goodreads reviews of five books I’ve already read this summer, my reading list leaning heavily toward the random and well-recommended.

Nose in a book

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, by Rebecca Solnit

A fascinating exploration of how people actually behave in the aftermath of disasters and why some disasters lead to an upsurge of community while others lead to social chaos. Solnit shows through sociological research and numerous anecdotes how the belief that the masses naturally panic during disasters is a myth created in large part by social forces trying to stay in power and fueled by media hype.

If given the chance, Solnit suggests, strangers will go to extraordinary lengths to help one another, finding a redemptive and even euphoric sense of camaraderie and community in the immediate aftermath of disaster, when social barriers are broken down. This spirit of community is ruined, however, when government and law enforcement treat the public as if they were more dangerous than the disaster itself, as happened in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, when officials deemed it more important to protect property from imagined looters than tend to actual evacuees.

Solnit suggests that if government and law enforcement officials trust the people they are sworn to protect, the public can be a powerful ally in rebuilding and recovering in the aftermath of disaster.


Not Working: People Talk About Losing a Job and Finding Their Way in Today’s Changing Economy, by D.W. Gibson

The premise behind this book is simple: travel across America, talk to unemployed folks from all walks of life, and let them describe in their own words the day they lost their jobs. What emerges from these stories is both heartbreaking and oddly reassuring, a reminder to all who have been downsized that “you are not alone.”

Many themes emerge from these stories: in a struggling economy, seniority and job loyalty matter little, age discrimination exists, and we no longer live in a world where you can expect to work for (and retire from) a single company for your entire professional career. (Several of the people Gibson interviews had been laid off not just one but several times.)

One of the most remarkable aspects of Gibson’s book is the surprising lack of self-pity. Although his interview subjects are brutally honest in describing the emotions that unemployment evokes, none of them linger on the question of “Why me?” Instead, a strong sense of human dignity emerges as individuals strive to make sense of disappointment, and a surprising number of those interviewed describe the compassion they felt for the HR personnel and middle managers who delivered the bad news. The economy might be struggling, but human decency lives on.

Books to read, places to go

Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, by Eric Klinenberg

The story of the deadly 1995 Chicago heat wave is fascinating enough, but don’t expect Eric Klinenberg’s book to be a popularly-accessible page-turner. Klinenberg’s book was written as a dissertation in sociology, so its methodology and supporting evidence are sound, but it seems to have been revised only minimally (if at all) for a lay audience.

The upshot of Klinenberg’s analysis of what led to so many deaths in Chicago in July, 1995 is that living along leads to dying alone, as getting out of sweltering tenement apartments and single-occupancy rooms–the kind of accommodations peopled by the urban poor and elderly–is essential for survival in a heat wave. In order to get out of their rooms and apartments, however, both the poor and elderly need to have welcoming (and cool) places to go, they need to feel safe walking their neighborhood streets and sidewalks, and they need to feel connected with (or at least trusting of) their neighbors and surrounding communities.

Klinenberg’s book is illustrated with indelible images of the disaster, including photos of emergency workers removing victims in body bags from locked, air-tight apartments: visual proof that it’s neither the heat nor the humidity that kills in a heat wave; it’s the social isolation.


The Faraway Nearby, by Rebecca Solnit

The Faraway Nearby is a collection of loosely related essays, and it took me a couple of essays to appreciate the strange and subtle web Solnit weaves among disparate topics such as Alzheimer’s disease and the artic, Frankenstein and leprosy, breast cancer and Icelandic fairy tales. This is, in other words, a book that gradually grows on you, so be sure to give it time.

The connections Solnit draws mostly work, but there are places where her far-flung associations fall flat: some of her remarks about her mother seem too raw and unfinished—embittered tattle-telling more than art—and at times the litany of places Solnit has traveled to and friends she’s known seems designed to underscore how charmed and fortunate her life has been. Boasting in a memoir is never becoming, and Solnit shines most brilliantly when she focuses on topics outside herself, such as the lives of Che Guevara, Mary Shelly, and the Buddha.

This is, I suspect, a book that merits re-reading, with the intricate weave of interconnected essays becoming more smooth and subtle with each encounter.


The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, by Oliver Burkeman

Despite the hyperbolic subtitle, you don’t have to hate positive thinking to like Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote. The book sets up (and then necessarily knocks down) a straw man in its opening description of the most extreme forms of self-help and positive thinking: fans of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided will rejoice. But as much as Burkeman would deny it, The Antidote is itself a kind of self-help book, replacing the optimistic enthusiasms of positive thinking with a philosophy more realistic and reserved.

Much of Burkeman’s book is presented as contrarian common sense: everything you’ve ever heard about goal-setting is wrong, for instance, and it’s healthy (not detrimental) to contemplate worst-case scenarios and embrace failure. But substituting Burkeman’s way of thinking for positive thinking is, in the end, still just thinking. Burkeman argues that positive thinking doesn’t work because eliminating negative thoughts is as impossible as intentionally not thinking about polar bears: the more you try to force unwanted thoughts out of mind, the more you fixate on them. This is true enough, but Burkeman offers no real insight into how you’d replace positive thinking with the more stoic, nonjudgmental mindset he advocates. His philosophy is sound in theory but lacking in practice.

Anyone who has practiced any stripe of Buddhist meditation will find much of Burkeman’s philosophy very familiar, as what he’s basically talking about is nonattachment to ideas, likes, and dislikes. By book’s end, however, I’d gotten the slightly queasy feeling that self-help books typically leave me with, after I’ve remembered that reading about a sensible-sounding philosophy is akin to eating empty calories: a too-easy binge that doesn’t nourish long-term.

The Antidote, like other self-help books, reads quickly and easily, and it gives the false reassurance that if you simply change the way you look at the world, suddenly you’ll be tranquil and content. But the problem with replacing positive thinking with some other sort of thinking is that (as we Zennies like to say) understanding can’t help you. Reading a book about changing your mind is like reading a book about cooking: the ideas therein might whet your appetite, but they can’t replace an actual meal.

Burkeman briefly mentions going on a weeklong silent Vipassana retreat but makes no other mention of meditation practice, Buddhist or otherwise. Filling your head with the sensible ideas Burkeman outlines is fine and good, but if you want to live by those ideas, establishing a spiritual practice—something Burkeman doesn’t address—is also necessary.


And speaking about reading a book about cooking, I’ve almost finished Michael Pollan’s Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, so expect a review of that here or on Goodreads sometime soon. Tasty!