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I just put down the witches of eastwick by updike earlier today. Frankly, I’m a bit puzzled by what I just read.
It was an odd little book for me. I feel that I “didn’t get it”. I think that there must be more. That I’ve missed the punch line and the joke’s on me. I quite liked Updike and his short stories. Loved the way he massaged nuance into his graceful little plots. How the minutiae of life becomes voluminous under his magnifying eye. Reading Updike is like looking at details through a glass filled with water. The light bends, the edges round, the meniscus thick and stubbornly earnest, an honest skin.
But Witches was different. Is different. Usually I am more sympathetic to characters but I found these witches difficult to like. No, it would be more accurate to say that I found them difficult to hate. They are not terrible women, Sukie and Jane and Lexa, although Jane is borderline. But they are selfish, childish women who are contrasted by other selfish, childish women. I understand that the book is a commentary, a jest at misogyny. It is a book about a woman’s power, about her place via three middle-aging divorcee-cum-witches. I use my Latin purposefully here.
I am not so much disappointed in Updike but in his characters. And maybe that’s how his skill persists and speaks more to my failure as a reader. I hoped these women would do more, achieve self-knowledge, act unselfishly. By the time redemption came, it was unworthy. Their whole freedom came upon divorce, yet none could free themselves of the remnants of their husbands. They took lovers, sought men, and killed for a man, and then left for men. Their whole being, despite proclamations of the power of woman, etc. was wrapped up and tied to a man. Their happiness and unhappiness were so singularly gendered. It is puzzling.
Maybe the message is no message. Maybe women are just as terrible as men – but how silly is that. People are horrible in horrible ways and they happen to be men or women or certain colors or religion. I can’t imagine that Updike would think or plan so narrowly. Maybe it’s okay that books sometimes are filled with not so great folks doing not so great things because life is the meander. Maybe morals are hope and nice to haves. And I should just learn how to read without expectation.
‘New eyes each year’
New eyes each year
Find old books here,
And new books, too
Old eyes renew;
So youth and age
Like ink and page
In this house join,
Minting new coin.
– Philip Larkin, Collected Poems
i can say that i’ve been around just long enough to recognize when i’m entering a new reading cycle. it seems to go fiction, non-fiction (like memoirs), to current non-fiction (financial crisis, design, biographies of recent figures, etc).
i’ve been on an design and tech innovation kick lately (part 3 of my cycle), possibly sparked last fall with a quick read through change by design and now spreading through to a tufte collection, don’t make me think, painters and hackers, and ultimately the steve jobs biography. and of course all of this is supplemented by an assortment of tedtalks, my favorite being hans rosling’s ‘best stats you’ve ever seen’ which actually came out 6 years ago. while on this topic of tech, i recently just got more into podcasts which are also perfect for morning commutes or easy jogs.
i just want to make a few comments on my latest reads while they’re still fresh on my mind. in order of being read:
don’t make me think – interesting, not particularly informative (now that i’m reading it about 12 years post original publication date, but i can see how he was effectively before his time – and how that time was the last decade.
tufte (collection of 4 books, visual explanations, beautiful evidence, envisioning information, visual display of quantitative information) – actually went to his talk as well. perhaps i went into the lecture with the wrong expectations, but his advice was relatively impractical. it was more or less a spiel on his achievements, how to give presentations (from poise to appropriate use of humility), and a mild advertisement of his sculpture work.
lecture aside; his books are beautiful and quite interesting in understanding the history of data visualization and also of visual integrity. they’re wonderful to read and would highly recommend anyone with any remote interest in questioning the stats he or she sees every day. it encourages you (or maybe just me?) to think just a little bit deeper and to think a little bit harder about data dimensionality.
hackers and painters, written by paul graham, who first and foremost, has accomplished great things in his field and is a decent blogger. but as a writer, well, that’s definitely not his skill set. the chapters are choppy, a bit odd, and his intro beef with the pitfalls of high school were extraneous and conceal a hurt not yet forgiven. in other areas he goes too deep with little explanation. what’s funny is i suspect he anticipates his readers to flip over to the glossary to decipher his message. his book is very onerous on the reader. in his intro he states that a reader can pick up and leave off at any chapter at any time as well as skip around. while that’s useful for a website, it’s quite different in a novel. reading a book should not be like following a blog where i dig through your archives or look up key words. i found this strategy very annoying, disruptive to the flow and pacing, and to be quite honest, lazy.
while i do like graham’s blog and have read quite a few of his articles that i found interesting or informative, the novel is a different beast and should be appreciated and the writing elevated. writing style gripes aside, what i found useful in this book is his opinion on languages it has made me think a bit more deeply about learning how to code myself.
steve jobs biography – i will have to say that this author is very easy to read and really enjoy his style of writing. i couldn’t put it down and finished it in a few days’ time. steve is kind of inspirational and while i never understood or appreciated the hype before, i sure do now. what’s really fun is the fact that i read this after reading lehrer’s imagine. lehrer has a chapter on pixar and to intersect the Jobs’ biography with the outsider view of pixar is like fitting puzzle pieces together.
whether you love or hate apple or steve jobs, you’ll definitely appreciate both a lot more post this book.
imagine and proust were a bit too malcolm gladwellian for me. i found both to be disappointingly safe. lehrer takes what you likely already suspect and then pats you on the back and tells you reassuringly, you too, can be creative just like bob dylan. yes, kanye, you are the next steve jobs. no, that was snarky of me. but lehrer’s focus on creativity’s accessibility is silly. of course you can be creative. within the context of recent pop science, it’s the restatement of the slightly obvious, mildly deep.
the range of anecdotal evidence that he uses to support his argument is compelling, interesting, but far too wide-ranging to contribute greatly to validation. when you pull from such a miscellany of examples, it essentially erases the line between fiction and fact. to be fair, any attempt at bringing a scientific approach to understanding how the brain works to the general public likely requires some imaginative (or select) storytelling.
it’s no easy feat to connect the dots between science and art in a thoughtfully written and seemingly well-substantiated manner (i appreciate his bibliography). lehrer writes well enough and the stories he chooses to tell are fascinating. perhaps what is more fascinating, albeit a bit meta, is to consider how the stories themselves are insight into lehrer himself. they are effectively snapshots into how the dots connect in his life and his thought processes.
this however, begs the question of authenticity. are the stories a retelling, a mental autobiography of sorts? or are they in actuality a carefully constructed set of arguments (e.g. cherry picked) to advance one’s position on the bestseller list? (ha, or are both instances actually the same?) in any case, i am wary of popular science for popularity’s sake. i found lehrer engaging, but not particularly convincing.
the focus on creativity’s accessibility is a layup. we’re all winners is the easy way out argument. the real impetus to creativity, as found in quite a few of the anecdotes he provides (but what he glosses over), is the value of difficult experiences coupled with opportunity. what is also notable is each creative star’s willingness to move beyond convention. this is not easy and few people are ever willing to challenge their “normal”. creativity demands a particular self confidence, it utilizes the experience of “other” — that is, “other” than your routine, “other” than what is comfortable, “other” than what is acceptable. how does one think differently if he or she doesn’t ever do differently? different or “other” is risky. for some of the folks (proust, eliot, cezanne, dylan, etc.) he profiled, that other experience often involved drugs, social isolation, heartbreak, and public ridicule. often it seems, that to be creative is to be brave, and to be brave is to be vulnerable.
my biggest take away or affirmation is the power of fiction and its ability to convey reality. but when i say fiction, i mean the term widely. to also encompass the artistic opposite of realism (cezanne). in any case, before i spin out another long post. it may be time i dusted off my proust.
i’ve been following conversations lately around the idea of combinatorial creativity. jonah lehrer is someone whose ideas i find interesting. he recently just published a book on how creativity works. i haven’t read it yet, but it’s on my list of to reads. right after proust was a neuroscientist and krug’s don’t make me think.
i’m pretty fascinated by the idea of creativity. but really, i’m fascinated by people’s fascination and really awe of the word. it’s quite a meta fascination. i find it kind of humorous, it’s as though folks treat it as talent set apart – that, that belongs to the gifted other. and by other, most folks mean “other than themselves.” and it’s really quite silly. srsly.
creativity isn’t something peculiar or sacred, it isn’t reserved for artists or poets or innovators. it’s simply a way of understanding information, accumulated over time, and internally cross-referenced in novel ways. there’s a funny obsession with the idea of novelty and an almost parallel, equally dynamically powerful backlash sentiment, that nothing is new and everything is old. who cares? discussions advance ideas, arguments like these, i find limit meaningful conversation.
as someone who dabbles in the arts, i often get labeled as an artist by friends and colleagues and receive comments along the lines of “oh you’re so artsy” etc. not to ruin my “artist mystique” – if i ever had one, but i actually don’t paint to say something novel or new so much as to play. there’s something i find very limiting in being an “adult” and very freeing in art. to be in a studio with concrete floors, molten glass, or flying paint, there’s just a lovely sense of freedom. my paintings are frequently nothing more than me making a mess and are often full-bodied messes. and there is nothing more intimate and more personal than for me or anyone, to immerse themselves completely and literally in self-expression. being an adult is overrated.
in fact, this is a wisdom i knew as child. i used to be in the habit of keeping a diary and wise seven year old debby kept notes on “what not to do to when i’m a grown up…”. to this day, whenever i work with children, i still keep these personal maxims in mind.
for some odd reason, when i was very young i also decided that 26 would be the official marker of being a “grown up”. good news — this was a faulty belief. 26 came and went away and there’s no sign of maturation yet. in any case, this was a cheesy post. so i’ll cut it short now. but creativity is really just the byproduct of curiosity + action and often is found in play — something we should remember to do even after we’re “all grown up”.
notes from the Creativity Project