About nine months ago I had the misfortune to spent five weeks travelling around Central America with nothing to do but eat, sleep, drink, tube down rivers, jump off bridges, see sites, meet great people and lie in hammocks in various youth hostels reading.
I have just discovered the notes I took from the books I read during this time, mainly in my first stop, the world-class Zephyr Lodge in Semuc Champey, Guatemala.
Friends, hammocks, adventure, sun, cheap drinks, a river, the board game Risk, and a shelf full of books to read: what more could one possibly want from life?
‘The Moral Landscape: how science can determine human values,’ Sam Harris
First up, a deep and fairly controversial non-fiction book, (of which this selection is mainly comprised, I notice), from atheist Sam Harris who sets out a vehement attack on the belief that atheism leads to immorality and relativism, and that only religion can tell us what is right and what is wrong. Some interesting statistics:
“…while there are probably no more than a hundred serial killers in the United States at any moment, there are probably three million psychopaths, (about 1 percent of the population)…”
(And for more on the fascinating subject of how these psychopaths may, in fact, be running the world today, see Jon Ronson‘s excellent ‘The Psychopath Test‘.)
“There are, in fact, more people in the United States who can’t read than who doubt the existence of Yahweh…”
Harris is critical of the DSM IV definition of ‘delusion,’ which was constructed to specifically exclude any ‘article of religious faith,’ and also based sanity on being in the majority:
“Does a lone psychotic become sane merely by attracting a crowd of devotees? If we are measuring sanity in terms of sheer numbers of subscribers, then atheists and agnostics in the United States must be delusional…”
Friends with families, (or on the verge of starting them), should probably look away now, since:
“…a famous study of human achievement suggests that one of the most reliable ways to diminish a person’s contribution to society is for that person to start a family…”
“most of the research done on happiness suggests that people actually become less happy when they have children and do not begin to approach their prior level of happiness until their children leave home…”
‘Sex, Drugs & Cocoa Puffs,’ Chuck Klosterman
A hilarious romp through pop culture from journalist Chuck Klosterman:
“…what The Sims suggests is that buying things makes people happy because it takes their mind off being alive…”
There is a Tim Key‘esque section in the middle of this collection of comic vignettes where Klosterman lists “Twenty-three questions I ask everybody I meet in order to decide if I can really love them…” which had me gasping for breath with laughter:
“Number 14: For reasons that cannot be explained, cats can suddenly read at a twelfth grade level. They can’t write, but they can read silently and understand the text. Many cats love this new skills, because they now ahve something to do all day while they lay around the house; however, a few cats become depressed, because reading forces them to realize the limitations of their existence, (not to mention the utter frustration of being unable to express themselves).
This being the case, do you think the average cat would enjoy ‘Garfield,’ or would cats find this cartoon to be an insulting caricature?”
‘Seriously…I’m Kidding,’ Ellen DeGeneres
I’ve never really seen much Ellen on TV, but finding this slim autobiog in a bookshop, and having run out of anything else to read, I’m glad I gave it a try:
“I’m crying so much I have mascara running down my face, And I’m not even wearing mascara…”
“Leaning forward in your chair when someone is trying to squeeze behind you isn’t enough. You also have to move your chair…”
“It’s so rare for people to actually set aside time to curl up with a book and read. By the way, I don’t know why you have to curl up to read a book, but that’s what people say. You can’t just say you’re going to read a book because then someone will ask, ‘Well, how are you gonna read it? What position will you be in?…”
I was lol‘ing so hard I was literally crying on the beach in Belize reading the fantasy holiday chapter at the end of the book:
“That sand bar incident was embarrassing. I wish I had asked more questions before I swam out there. It’s called a sandbar. Surely I’m not the first person to swim out there and expect a dolphin to make me a mai tai…”
‘The Lacuna,’ Barbara Kingsolver
Having recently visited Mexico, reading this Kahlo and Rivera semi-fictional piece on politics, sexuality and Latin America was a must-read after having had it recommended to me by so many people. It was very well-written, with interesting historical insight into a period of history and geography I didn’t know enough about, but it was mainly the turns of phrase Kingsolver employs, (such as calling cigarettes ‘lipsticks‘!), and which I hope are well demonstrated by the following selection:
“He hid a scornful smile under his moustache, which is not a good hiding place…”
“…they went to bed, leaving her fluttering around the parlour like a balloon of air, let go…”
“His mother had let him carry two valises: one for books, one for clothes. The clothes were a waste, outgrown instantly. He should have filled both with books…”
(A notion I whole-heartedly approve of!)
“She’d solved the mathematical problem of age sixteen by saying she was twenty. At twenty-four she’d said the same thing again, balancing the equation…”
“Grandmothers sit on blankets weaving more blankets for other grandmothers to sit on…”
“…some typed in Russian, pages of characters in that strange alphabet lined up like rows of little men doing bending exercises…”
‘Shah of Shahs,’ Ryszard Kapuściński
I am slowly but surely making my way through the complete works of historian/traveller/journalist/unpronounceable Polish legend Kapuściński’s back catalogue, and couldn’t believe my luck when I stumbled upon this slim volume on the last Shah of Iran and the subsequent revolution whilst in Nicaragua at the very end of my trip. Kapuściński’s writing and imagery is truly stunning at times:
“Money changes all the iron rules into rubber bands…”
“The forms through which a crowd can express its yearnings are extraordinarily meagre and continually repeat themselves: the demonstration, the strike, the rally, the barricade. That is why you can write a novel about a man, but about a crowd – never…”
“Iran – it was the twenty-seventh revolution I have seen in the Third World…”
That last sentence says it all: look out for him in the next entry in my Top 10 Favourite Authors series, coming soon.