Books

June 2017: A Read Harder Challenge Update

It’s been a few months! I just wanted to do a quick check-in, since I’ve been making some (admittedly slow) progress but not always with the titles I’d planned to read.

Finished tasks have been crossed out, and the titles that were actually read are bolded and in italics. Over the next few weeks, I’ll post thoughts on some of the books I’ve finished so far.

  1. Read a book about sports.
    Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall

  2. Read a debut novel
    White Teeth by Zadie Smith
    The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

  3. Read a book about books.
    The Novel: A Biography by Michael Schmidt
    When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning

  4. Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author.
    The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Machado de Assis

  5. Read a book by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative.
    The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

  6. Read an all-ages comic.
    Princeless, Vol. 1: Save Yourself by Jeremy Whitley
    Does Giant Days from Boom Studios count?

  7. Read a book published between 1900 and 1950.
    The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

  8. Read a travel memoir.
    Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory by Peter Hessler

  9. Read a book you’ve read before.
    The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
    Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
    1984 by George Orwell

  10. Read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location.
    Desaparesidos by Lualhati Bautista

  11. Read a book that is set more than 5000 miles from your location.
    Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

12. Read a fantasy novel.
The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
Gunpowder Alchemy by Jeannie Lin

  1. Read a nonfiction book about technology.
    The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld by Jamie Bartlett
    Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software by Charles Petzsold

14. Read a book about war.
The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

  1. Read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+.
    George by Alex Gino
    Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

  2. Read a book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country.
    Noli Me Tángere by Jose Rizal
    El Filibusterismo by Jose Rizal

17. Read a classic by an author of color.
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

18. Read a superhero comic with a female lead.
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Volume 1: Squirrel Power by Ryan North
She-Hulk, Volume 1: Law and Disorder by Charles Soule
Supergirl: Being Super by Mariko Tamaki, Joëlle Jones, and Sandu Florea

  1. Read a book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey
    Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova

  2. Read an LGBTQ+ romance novel
    The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

  3. Read a book published by a micropress.
    Islamic Far East: Ethnogenesis of Philippine Islam by Isaac Donoso

  4. Read a collection of stories by a woman.
    The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector

  5. Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love.
    Li Po and Tu Fu: Poems

24. Read a book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang
Gunpowder Alchemy by Jeannie Lin

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On law, or how we view it

I’ve been reading Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bonesa nonfiction work that’s part-memoir, part-journalism, part-travel writing about Hessler’s years in China. One of the more intriguing sections I’ve recently finished dealt with the government’s crackdown on Falun Gong, a health system-cum-religion that gained millions of believers in the 1990s.

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Many of these adherents had a penchant for staging peaceful protests whenever the system received negative publicity, and their protests — highly organized, and highly effective — eventually grew to a point that the Chinese national government found alarming. Officials banned Falun Gong, rounding up leaders and arresting practitioners who mounted demonstrations in protest. These arrests quickly turned violent, and soon news of abuses and even deaths started spreading.

I mention this here because a couple of passage struck me as relevant — or at least relateable — considering the current political climate in the Philippines.

On one of Hessler’s friends, a journalist who investigated the crackdown (emphasis mine):

[…] Ian followed up by researching the Falun Gong structure, as well as the nature of the police response. He discovered that it was another instance of top-down commands: local police units were being fined for every believer who slipped through their clutches and made it to Beijing to protest. What started at the top as an idea — ban Falun Gong — materialized at the lowest levels as sheer brutality, for the stupidest, most pragmatic reason of all: money.

It’s not a point-by-point correspondence by any means, but the parallels are there. I have no idea what methods of incentive/reward the present administration is using to spur on law enforcement, but I do feel like the ruthlessness of our current drug war is animated partly by a drive to “meet quota,” as it were. Certainly there’s pressure there to report concrete results, and that coupled with top leadership’s support for so-called “necessary violence” has given us our own daily feed of “sheer brutality” at the lowest levels. What started in Malacañang as an edict — solve the drug problem — has materialized as a bloodbath.

And with that bloodbath comes a confounding apathy, which I’m afraid will only grow worse as our government sets aside (or at least talks about setting aside, loudly and vehemently) due process and the rule of law with growing frequency. Another passage from Hessler, I think, comes close to articulating why. Again, all emphasis mine:

Regardless of what kind of problem an individual had, it was his problem, and only he could do something about it. Without the sense of a rational system, people rarely felt connected to the troubles of others. The crackdown on Falun Gong should have been disturbing to most Chinese — the group had done nothing worse than make a series of minor political miscalculations that had added up. But few average people expressed sympathy for the believers, because they couldn’t imagine how that issue could be connected to their own relationship with the law. In part, this was cultural–the Chinese had never stressed strong community bonds; the family and other more immediate groups were the ones that mattered most. But the lack of a rational legal climate also encouraged people to focus strictly on their own problems.

The opposite seems to be true for most of the Philippines right now: a common response to the killings, for example, is a self-assured, “You have nothing to fear if you’re not doing anything wrong.” But regardless if it’s a lack of trust in the rationality of the system or a somewhat misplaced belief in the same, the end result seems to be a gulf between the manifest effects of law enforcement in society and how individuals imagine it might materialize in their own lives.

I’ll veer off course a bit here to point out how a lot of the support for these killings is confusing (at least to me), even contradictory. Those same assurances of safety for law-abiding citizens, for example, often come from people who support drug-related killings precisely because they’ve lost faith in the law and its apparatuses of enforcement. Better writers than me have already sketched out these strange but potent twists of reasoning; from a recent New York Times article, for example:

When people begin to see the justice system as thoroughly corrupt and broken, they feel unprotected from crime. That sense of threat makes them willing to support vigilante violence, which feels like the best option for restoring order and protecting their personal safety.

[…] “When you have a system that doesn’t deliver, you are creating, over a period of time, a certain culture of punishment,” she [Gema Santamaria, a professor from the Mexico Autonomous Institute of Technology] said. “Regardless of what the police are going to do, you want justice, and it will be rough justice.”

To me that sounds like supporting crime to stamp out crime, but that’s not how a lot of my countrymen see it. Again, from that same article:

Surprisingly, that includes increased support for the use of harsh extralegal tactics by the police themselves. “This seems counterintuitive,” Ms. Santamaria said. “If you don’t trust the police to prosecute criminals, why would you trust them with bending the law?”

But to people desperate for security, she said, the unmediated punishment of police violence seems far more effective than waiting for a corrupt system to take action.

And so, over time, frustration with state institutions, coupled with fear of crime and insecurity, leads to demand for authoritarian violence — even if that means empowering the same corrupt, flawed institutions that failed to provide security in the first place.

And this brings me back to that last excerpt from Hessler, because I think it’s also much easier to subscribe to this kind of thinking when one has the sense, however seemingly unfounded, that any authoritarian violence will pass one by. Or to put it in Hessler’s terms: that your problems are not connected to anyone else’s, and conversely, that the problems of suspects who are getting gunned down are not connected to yours. It’s not the only factor, clearly, but it helps: when you believe that others will be the ones doing the dying, that you (and your family — I can’t say much about Chinese culture, but placing a premium on family and more immediate social ties is spot-on for Filipinos, too) have no reason to fear, then why oppose violent measures that mean to cleanse the country?

I think the use of terms like “cleanse,” as if criminals had transformed irrevocably from persons to unsightly grease spots that need to be — literally — wiped out, deserves a red flag here. It’s the kind of absolutely dehumanizing perspective that makes the ideas articulated in that last Hessler excerpt all the more troubling.

Why? As we resort more and more to vigilantism and authoritarian violence, the rule of law continues to crumble — and so does any reliability or rationality in how we resolve questions of legality, of guilt, and maybe even of the right to live. And as Hessler’s observations warn us, those conditions breed apathy — or, in our case, are likely to feed the apathy that already grips many Filipinos. Who’s going to bother to push back against the widespread shift to “rough justice” and more vicious politics then? It looks as though the growth of desperate support for vigilantism and authoritarian violence also reduces the possibility of cultivating the same much-desired societies where such drastic measures would be unnecessary.

As T.H. White’s Merlyn says,

“The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love… There is only one thing for it then–to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”

On Enid Blyton, David Foster Wallace, and awareness as ethics

I had the pleasure of stumbling upon an article on morality in Enid Blyton’s work (of all things) from Aeon this week. Nakul Krishna looks into the ethical life as demonstrated by the schoolgirls of Blyton’s Malory Towers and comes out with a quote from Iris Murdoch:

‘Love,’ Murdoch wrote in an essay called ‘The Sublime and the Good’ (1959), is ‘the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.’

[…] The schoolgirl’s hell is not, as a character in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit (1944) memorably puts it, other people; her hell is the isolated self, incapable of getting outside itself. […] But Blyton, like life, can be brutal: not every character is redeemed by the end of the series, and no character is straightforwardly rid of her vices. There is only the lifelong challenge of acknowledging the reality of other people.

This calls to mind a similar train of thought from David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement speech at Kenyon College, where he cautions the graduates about the dangerous ease with which one can sink into unconsciousness.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. […] Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.

Granted, the “default settings” that he describes aren’t limited to a person’s perception of themself, as the castigated examples in Blyton’s work seem to be; DFW’s idea of “default settings” extends to cover all sorts of perspectives one might hold. Nevertheless, these default settings bring about the same kind of objectionable condition found in Blyton: isolation, residing “too tightly in [one’s] own skin” (as one character puts it) that other people cease to be real.

It’s an interesting brand of ethics, particularly in our world of virtual realities, curated feeds, and intangible communications. Faced with a glut of information and an ever-growing toolkit with which to tailor received information according to our preferences, it’s easy to build “our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms.” We can build and expand that bubble of familiarity, all the while narrowing our own perspectives; the catch, too, is that it is easier than ever to lose everything else to the constant noise that surrounds us. When we miss (or choose to overlook) something, it’s often irretrievable.

As Enid Blyton and David Foster Wallace gently remind us, too often that means losing something invaluable to the ether. As we drill down on our own concerns and beliefs and goals, we forget to acknowledge the full extent of other people’s existence. Hence DFW’s alternative:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.

Great care should be taken in how we conceive of this awareness, though. The idea of “sympathizing” with others by imagining them through our experience — by reconstructing their lives through patterns and notions culled solely from our own — can itself be a default setting that erases as much as any other automatic mindset. Throwing ourselves into a careless project of sympathy risks imposing our selves on others, thus invalidating these people’s experiences and identity. Essentially, we end up talking over the very people we aim to recognize and connect with. We ignore their personhood, reducing them to a collection of identified (or invented) points of similarity and choosing instead to talk to this facsimile of them constructed within our heads.

It is not enough to acknowledge the reality of others. Ultimately, it is necessary to arrive at that acknowledgement without filtering it through the lens of the self. We must remember and respect that our personal realities are no more important or essential than theirs; and certainly, that their realities are not mere extensions of ours.

Or, taking from Kenneth Reinhard, too often sympathy is “based on narcissistic identification, on seeing the other as ‘like yourself.'” This can easily lead to a reduction of the other, serving to extend our skull-sized kingdoms in a more insidious (and self-congratulatory!) way.

More difficult, and perhaps more valuable, is the constant effort to “[welcome] the other as Other rather than reducing him to Same.” (Reinhard)