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Stoner by John Williams

May 9, 2018


William Stoner, the eponymous protagonist of this novel, is born in 1891, the only child of stoic, hard-working Missouri farmers. Stoner observes his father’s “thick, callused fingers, into the cracks of which soil had penetrated so deeply that it could not be washed away,” and perhaps sees his own future.

Then a new school of agriculture opens at the University of Missouri, and Stoner heads off to be an educated farmer, the first of his family to attend college. But early on, in an undergraduate survey of literature, he has a transcendental moment during a reading of Shakespeare. It changes the course of his life, and he devotes his studies not to agriculture but literature. At the end of his undergraduate studies, a professor tells Stoner that he thinks Stoner would make an excellent teacher.

Life slides by in the way that life does. Events happen that seem minor at the time but reveal themselves to be a large part of the stories. Decisions made, mistakes, moments of awe. The Great War flares up in Europe and some friends go off to fight, others stay. He meets a woman with whom he has an awkward courtship, followed by marriage that flirts briefly with happiness before descending into bitter tedium. They have a daughter who Stoner adores, but who becomes a pawn in the conflict with his wife.

Stoner draws comparisons to the novels of Richard Yates, with its element of the alienation and loneliness of “normal” American lives, but I was also reminded of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a movie that elegantly and poetically captures the passage of time.

We are given, in Stoner’s first page, the full arc of his life. We are told that he entered the university in 1910, received a PhD and taught until his death in 1956.

He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library. This manuscript may still be found in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: “Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues.

An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves of their careers.

So there it is. An undistinguished life. Yet, the beauty of Stoner is that there is beauty. It is full of mundane, everyday happenings. Office politics. A cold marriage. An unsuccessful publication. A few flames of happiness tamped out by those around him. It is story that could be about the dissatisfaction of life. In fact, in another passage, Stoner’s temperament is described perfectly by a college friend, who also makes a kind of prophecy:

Who are you? A simple son of the soil, as you pretend to yourself? Oh, no. You, too, are among the infirm—you are the dreamer, the madman in a madder world, our own Midwestern Don Quijote without his Sancho, gamboling under the blue sky. You’re bright enough…but you have the taint, the old infirmity. You think there’s something here, something to find. Well, in the world you’d learn soon enough. You, too, are cut out for failure; not that you’d fight the world. You’d let it chew you up and spit you out, and you’d lie there wondering what was wrong. Because you’d always expect the world to be something it wasn’t, something it had no wish to be. The weevil in the cotton, the worm in the beanstalk, the borer in the corn. You couldn’t face them, and you couldn’t fight them; because you’re too weak, and you’re too strong. And you have no place to go in the world.

Yet the story reveals within all this gloom beautiful moments that poke through as if in defiance. Small rebellious acts of happiness. These moments happen between people—I found the most moving the period when Stoner sets up his home office where his young daughter regularly sits with him, the two reading silently—and in the elegance of Williams’ prose: “Even at midmorning the branches of the dogwood trees glistened with hoarfrost, and the black vines that trailed up the great columns before Jesse Hall were rimmed with iridescent crystals that winked against the grayness.”

A New Yorker review articulates it perfectly in this description: “It is so essentially about the dissonance between life as seen—shabby and ignominious, a joke or waste—and life as experienced, shot through with shafts of love and meaning.” It is also about life as told, particularly in literature, and an intentional resistance to that tendency. Stoner is a book that mimics real life consciously and finds grace within it. Both Stoner the man and Stoner the book refuse to go big. There are no grand gestures, yet there is victory to be had.

Stoner’s whole life has been an act of devotion to that which he loves. Stoner’s quiet academic pursuits are perhaps small, perhaps not the most exciting pitch line for a novel, but are representative of what we all seek in life. Not an absolute victory, but a calling to which we can devote ourselves wholeheartedly, with love and immersion.

Stoner has, perhaps without realizing it, escaped his fate. “Though he seldom thought of his early years on the Booneville farm, there was always near his consciousness the blood knowledge of his inheritance, given him by his forefathers whose lives were obscure and hard and stoical and whose common ethic was to present to an oppressive world faces that were expressionless and hard and bleak.”

It’s hard to describe why or how much I love this book, but I would put it on my list of favorites. The writing is fantastic, the insight into human nature so sharp, and Stoner so likable in his yeoman ethic and stoicism. Stoner sat on my shelf for several years and might have continued to do so were it not for my friend Sarah including it on her 2017 book list with high praise. So thank you, Sarah!


I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street by Matt Taibbi

April 19, 2018


What happened to Eric Garner on July 17, 2014, is plain to see in the video. The large, 43-year-old African American man is arguing with police officers over allegedly selling cigarettes on a sidewalk in Staten Island. One of the officers, Daniel Pantaleo, puts Garner in a chokehold from behind and wrestles him to the ground. He holds the chokehold for about 15 seconds. On the ground, Garner says, “I can’t breathe” eleven times as four cops work to pin Garner down.

The coroner ruled that Garner, father of six, died from compression of the neck due to a chokehold. Pantaleo said he never put Garner in a chokehold. The video shows Pantaleo putting Garner in a chokehold. Pantaleo was not indicted by a Richmond County jury.

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Taibbi tells the story of everything that contributed to this moment: the real-estate scams that contributed to the poverty of the area and the racist “stop and frisk” police tactics that exacerbated mistrust between the police force and the African American community. He tells the story of Garner, a far-from-perfect cigarette hustler who lived in and out of jail. He tells the story of the characters around the neighborhood, like Ramsey Orta, who filmed the murder and would later be harassed by police as retribution. He tells us about Pantaleo, a cop with a sketchy record, to put it mildly. In short, Taibbi gives us context.

But we also get the aftermath. Taibbi makes the point that when these things happen—whether because of an accident, a lapse in judgment, a racist cop, or just an unfortunate series of events—the reaction of the system is the same:

Police brutality cases always begin with spasms of rage or bad judgment—usually an individual police officer losing it on the streets. But before the body is even cool, the crime moves up the chain…While the cases often begin as unplanned murders and assaults committed in a heat of the moment situations by working-class cops, they end as carefully orchestrated cover ups, committed in cold blood through the more ethereal, polished institutional racism of politicians, judges and attorneys.

The system kicks in to defend the system. It doesn’t matter what the video clearly shows. Imagine if there had been no video.

Taibbi definitely has a point of view, which comes through in some of his editorializing, such as when he describes Patrick Lynch, leader of the police union Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association as a “red-faced loudmouth…who looked like a central casting caricature of a bully cop.”

But he doesn’t pull punches when describing Garner’s flaws either. Or the mismanagement of the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s a story with complex elements coming to this very simple, tragic moment of a cop killing a man on a sidewalk, then spiraling back out to a complex mess. The protests, the counter-protests. It’s ugly and sad.

This was about a month before police shot Michael Brown and Ferguson, Missouri erupted. “I can’t breathe” morphed into “black lives matter” and it seemed a story of a police shooting was happening every few weeks, followed by protests, sometimes riots.

There are many infuriating things about this story. The abuse of power and ensuing denial of the police, certainly. But also the ensuing debates, the polarized reactions that break down along expected, tired lines. The slogan of “black lives matter” met with the tone deaf “all lives matter.” Or countered with “blue lives matter,” which just reinforces the feeling that the police are the enemy of the African American community. The tribalism is so engrained, and it has only grown worse since Garner’s murder. Regardless of the details, any time an African American man is killed by a cop, the debate is predictable. But here, with Eric Garner, it’s hard to see how there was anything to debate.

The success of this book is the degree to which Taibbi is able to explore the history and the issues that led to Garner’s death as well as the movement sparked by it. It is both small and big—about a simple, flawed man and a singular moment in time, but also about a major American problem that stretches back decades and, unfortunately, will likely continue for decades more. Well worth the read.


Related read: Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

April 9, 2018


According to Brynjolfsson and McAfee, the first machine age—also known as the Industrial Revolution—started with the invention of the steam engine. The ability to reliably generate high levels of power caused rapid growth in efficiency and an explosion in related innovation. In terms of human development, the first machine age supercharged human progress on par with the domestication of animals and the printing press. It sparked revolutions in manufacturing, commerce, infrastructure, geopolitics, the makeup of our communities, our health and our environment. It ushered in new types of jobs and made others obsolete. In short, the first machine age changed pretty much everything.

Now we find ourselves at the front end of the second machine age, where computers and everything they bring—network technology, mobile technology, decentralized media, automation and AI, data collection and analysis—are creating exponential changes that will again revolutionize everything.

Brynjolfsson is the director of the MIT Center for Digital Business and McAfee is a research scientist at MIT. Both have written extensively on the impact of rapid technological development on our economy and society. Here, their main thesis is that technological innovation brings both increased bounty and increased spread.

Bounty is the abundance of goods and material wealth generated by innovation. It’s a good thing. Spread, however, is the widening inequality also caused by rapid innovation. Although society tends to benefit as a whole from innovation, that wealth is not evenly distributed. The owners of the innovations can see exponential gains while the actual labor market is disrupted and many workers are displaced. Whether it’s factory workers being replaced by machines or travel agents being replaced by websites, the rich get richer and those doing the work are out of luck.

In a “fair” economy, where innovation benefits everyone, we would expect to see a standard bell curve distribution of wealth, with long tails on both sides. Instead, what we see is a developing power law distribution, where the average income rises more rapidly than the median. In other words, the curve is fat at the low end with a very long tail on the high end. There are more super-wealthy, and the majority of the population sees relatively little lift. Reflected in a recent headline, the wealthiest 1% of Americans now own 40% of the country’s wealth, the largest amount of any time in the past 50 years. This wealth distribution is common in developing nations.

There are moral implications to this. Franklin Roosevelt said, ““The test of our progress is not if we add more to the abundance of those who have much. It is whether we provide enough for those who have little.”

But beyond the moral argument, severe inequality of opportunity has several growth-stunting effects. First, it is destabilizing. It is rare, if nonexistent, that societies of abundance and widespread opportunity find themselves in states of violent political revolution. Extreme economic inequality is politically destabilizing, and we currently see the growing strands of populism on both the political right and left, in the U.S. as well as globally.

But the authors make a more insightful point: maximizing our full potential for innovation requires that opportunity be widespread. If we fail to deliver on our promise of ubiquitous opportunity and quality education for all, we shrink the pool of potential innovators. We need a full spectrum of thinkers, regardless of their backgrounds or economic circumstances. Said another way, the next Einstein may be a kid from the projects in Baltimore, but if that kid can’t get a good education, we lose that mind. Society as a whole loses. “We waste our innovative potential if we do not provide a level playing field for all.”

We see the American education system slipping as we deprioritize it. Our ability to lead the world in technological innovation will follow.

Another obvious impact of innovation is disruption of the job markets. Here again, education will play a major role. We have to educate to the future, accepting that computers will replace many of today’s jobs but create new types of jobs in the process. A “computer” was once a human job description—until we realized that machines could do computations better. Multiples better. And as computers improve by Moore’s Law (which postulates an exponential curve to the speed, capacity and decreasing cost of computers), there’s no chance that people will be able to catch up in tasks for which computers are better suited. Ken Jennings vs IBM Watson on Jeopardy or Gary Kasparov vs Deep Blue at chess are just the modern version of John Henry vs the steam hammer. Humans always lose these contests.

That said, computers are still not suited for many tasks. Pattern recognition, creativity and the most complicated forms of communication are all good bets. As is technological innovation itself. At the end of the book, the authors include a playbook, agreed upon by most economists (left, right and center), for life beyond the second machine age. It includes re-investing in our education system, incentivizing startups, supporting research grants in science and stimulating private sector investment, among others.

This book is about an important topic. It includes some star-gazing at the marvels of our time (e.g. it’s estimated that there are now more photos taken every two minutes than in the whole 19th Century), some predictions about the future á la Ray Kurzweil and Yuval Harari, but it also has a very practical side. Not just the marvels and the implications, but a roadmap for the future. For anyone concerned about technology’s future impact on the economy, this is a great primer.

My Days With Richard by Beverly Allen

March 29, 2018


When Richard Brautigan’s eighth book of poetry, Rommel Drives On Deep Into Egypt, was published in 1970, the cover was a photo of a young model, Beverly Allen, in Golden Gate park. She’d met Richard in a café in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco not long before. They had a brief relationship, then she moved to Europe. They corresponded by letter for a while, then eventually drifted apart.

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This book is a short recollection of Allen’s time with Richard, followed by transcriptions of their letters. You would probably have to be fairly obsessed with Richard Brautigan to be interested in it (maybe the kind of person who’d read William Hjortsberg’s hefty bio of the author). I found it interesting, a little snapshot of Brautigan from a different angle.


In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki

March 28, 2018


I heard about this book on the Tim Ferriss Show. He and Gretchen Rubin were talking about it, and it sounded interesting. Tanizaki, a Japanese novelist, published this short book on the aesthetics of Japanese architecture and materials in 1933. In it, he compares the Japanese philosophy with that of the West. “We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one things against another creates. And he laments the ongoing movementbtoward the American tendency to light everything up, to obsess over clean and shiny metal and to in general eschew darkness.

He discusses different materials and sensations—the taste and look of food, the sound of crumpled paper and the way it reflects or absorbs light. He describes how certain materials—gold, lacquered pottery—seem alive in the shadows in a way they never would in light. And he points out that, similar to the wabi-sabi philosophy, Japanese love the weathering of objects much more than Americans.

I suppose I shall sound terribly defensive if I say that Westerners attempt to expose every speck of grime and eradicate it, while we Orientals carefully preserve and even idealize it. Yet for better or worse we do love things that bear the marks of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colors and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them.

It’s a poetic notion, the idea that beauty shines more brightly in shadow. And a good reminder that many of our assumptions about aesthetics are just cultural constructs.

Spy of the First Person by Sam Shepard

March 24, 2018


The circumstances of this book were enough to entice me. From the book flap:

Sam Shepard was the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of more than fifty-five plays and three short story collections. As an actor, he appeared in more than sixty films, and received an Oscar nomination in 1984 for The Right Stuff.

On the writing of this book:

Sam Shepard began working on Spy of the First Person in 2016. His first drafts were written by hand, as he was no longer able to use a typewriter due to complications of ALS. When handwriting became impossible, he recorded segments of the book, which were then transcribed by his family. He dictated the remaining pages when recording became too difficult. Sam’s longtime friend Patti Smith assisted him in editing the manuscript. He reviewed the book with his family and dictated his final edits before he passed away on July 27, 2017.

The book is a poetic, dreamlike recollection of an unnamed narrator. Some parts seem drawn from Shepard’s life. Travels, adventures, moments big and small woven together in allusive language that conjures a mood more than it creates a clear narrative. There are two characters, two men who live across the street from one another, one spying the other through binoculars. There is the feeling of confinement, of a body limited to a certain space, a man dependent on his family to take him to the doctor, to move him to the yard. But there is also the infinite expanse of the imagination, of remembering, of the word to conjure a life that is both limited and boundless.

There are notes in here that seem like personal messages to Shepard’s family, as when he admits, “I’m not trying to prove that I was the father you believed me to be when you were very young. I’ve made some mistakes but I have no idea what they were…Maybe we should meet as complete strangers and talk deep into the night as though we’d never seen each other before.”

There are other moments that feel like concrete memories of someone, though it’s unclear who. Like the memory of Lee Marvin floating in the water of the San Francisco Bay during the filming of Point Blank.

I don’t know Shepard well, but after reading this I plan to buy more of his works. This book belongs on the shelf next to Patti Smith’s moving M Train and perhaps Paul Harding’s Tinkers.

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Timothy Leary, Richard Nixon and the Hunt for the Fugitive King of LSD by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis

March 24, 2018


About ten years ago, I was at a production house in Los Angeles playing pool and someone said that the pool table had once belonged to Timothy Leary. I thought of the brash, chain-smoking comedian Dennis Leary. No, someone corrected me. The LSD guy.

In the early ‘70s, Nixon was right to be paranoid. There were a growing number of people who legitimately wanted to overthrow the government. Dangerous revolutionaries. Timothy Leary wasn’t one of them. He was into peace, expanded consciousness and psychedelic drugs. He had bumbled his way through various universities to a PhD and eventually lectured for a stint at Harvard. In the mythologizing he would usually be described as a “Harvard Professor,” with the insinuation that Leary had left teaching either because he’d had a bad trip and ruined his brain or had a good trip and found enlightenment. Regardless, Leary had become a figure in the counterculture, a spokesperson for the benefits of psychedelics, telling everyone they should “turn on, tune in and drop out.” Not the best influence, maybe, but relatively harmless otherwise.

But Nixon, with the war in Vietnam going down the tubes and the public turning against him, began expanding his list of domestic enemies. He set his sights on the counterculture, and Timothy Leary was a symbol of everything Nixon hated. This book dives into Nixon’s anger, his paranoia, and his misplaced obsession with capturing Leary, whom Nixon dubbed “the most dangerous man in the world.”

Leary was arrested dozens of times in the ‘60s, and in 1970 was sentenced to 20 years (Ironically, during his prison intake he was given the standard regimen of psychological tests, some of which he’d designed himself). Six months into his stay, he escaped prison and went on the lamb. He was aided by an unwitting coalition of political groups ranging from the hippy-dippy to the downright dangerous: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love, the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, and an international arms dealer to name a few.

His run took him to Algiers where he shacked up with Eldridge Cleaver at the Black Panthers embassy, then on to various points in Europe, several times avoiding dragnets and infuriating Nixon. Leary was eventually apprehended in 1972 and sent to Folsom prison.

Regardless of what one thinks of Leary’s message as the psychedelic messiah, his story is a fascinating confluence of three major forces of the time period—the counterculture, the revolutionary movement and the government’s increasingly reckless behavior. I’ve been digging through the stories of this period for a while (Manson, Patty Hearst, Jim Jones, currently reading Nixonland), and Leary’s story fits right in. It’s full of larger-than-life characters, all misguided in their own way. His time with the Black Panthers is prime material for a miniseries.

If rather than repeat itself, history rhymes, it may do so at a rate of 50 years. It feels like our modern moment is an echo of this period. That said, it’s is pretty stark how relatively muted the revolutionary voices and the accompanying violence of today are, despite the impressions of the media.

This book can be read as a slice of that radical moment, or just a Gumpian story of a spacey dude swimming through the cosmos, trying to have a good time, ruffling feathers and bumping into downers left and right. Timothy Leary is Jeffrey Lebowski with an inflated ego and a global reputation. The cast of this story is long and star-studded: celebrities like the Beatles and Hendrix; revolutionaries like Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton; Richard Nixon, as the king who is losing his mind; and at the center of it all, Timothy Leary as the court jester.