Contented Reader

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Archive for June 2015

Neverending Stories Books, Franklin, PA

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Some people, when they go on vacation, look for natural beauty – where can they go hiking, and experience trees and plants different from the ones at home?  Probably one walk in the woods is about as pleasant as another one, but somehow, doing it in a faraway woods seems more exciting than doing it in the park five miles from home.  And maybe it is – you might see some new plant or animal you’ve never seen before.

Some people, when they go on vacation, look for shopping destinations.  In the age of the internet, there’s rarely any reason to actually leave home to go shopping, but still, going shopping in new stores feels like increasing the chances of discovering some new treasure in a way that browsing on Etsy doesn’t.

Me?  I rarely travel without visiting a bookstore.  Some trips have destination bookstores, like The Strand in New York, or Forbidden Planet in London, or Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash in Red Bank, New Jersey – two of those are bookstores that I went to considerable inconvenience to visit.  But even when there isn’t a destination bookstore, I always keep my eyes open.

A person might think that, in the age of the internet, there’s no reason to seek out new bookstores, but there’s something special about a bookstore that you can’t get online.  Sure, yes, I can log onto Amazon and get whatever book my internet friends just told me about.  I can even get it delivered electronically by Kindle or Overdrive, and be reading it within minutes of wanting to read it.  But it’s often in a bookstore that the serendipity happens, browsing with an open mind and stumbling on some new favorite that I never knew I needed until I saw it.  Besides, I like being in bookstores.  Being surrounded by books makes me feel safe and relaxed and happy no matter where I am.

On my vacation to visit family in Pennsylvania, I stopped at Neverending Stories Books, in Franklin.  What a great town Franklin is.  It’s not big, but a person could have a very pleasant day browsing around in its shops.  We had just the morning, so we looked at alpaca socks and hats at Hatched, and had tea and coffee at Bossa Nova, and bought delicious snacks at the Corner Cupboard.  The highlight, as usual for me, was the bookstore.

Neverending Stories startled me somewhat by being in the basement.  I walked in the door, and at first, there was no bookstore.  It only took me a moment to work out that I should follow the broad wooden stairs down, and the first thing I saw was the ‘free books’ shelf.  Then the store itself, a quirky, long shape in which the space was used well.  To the left, used fiction and children’s books, with books hanging on the wall in bookbox picture frames as well as neatly arranged on shelf.  To the right, used nonfiction, and a good comic book section.  In the middle, local authors and new books. There was a display table front-and-center that I suspect might have housed the summer reading assignments for the schoolchildren of Franklin, PA, but I didn’t ask.

The young person on duty was friendly without being pushy, and I didn’t even really need to ask to know that she wasn’t just a hireling, but the proud owner whose personality shone through all the little touches that make a locally owned bookstore so much more fun to visit than a big chain.  We chatted briefly, then she showed me to the day’s treasure – a ginormous pile of back issues of Lapham’s Quarterly,  She was selling them for the astonishing bargain price of $1 each!  Don’t go to the store to look for them, I bought all of them except a handful that I already have.  I am so excited!  In a summer when I don’t have much money to spend, new books I couldn’t otherwise afford!

I’ll definitely make a point of heading down to the basement bookstore again when I am in Franklin.

Written by Contented Reader

June 30, 2015 at 9:52 pm

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by Christian Rudderdataclysm

Crown Publishing, 2014

When I checked this book out at the library, I was expecting a completely different book.  I like the one I got a lot better.

I thought I was borrowing a book about the dangers of ‘big data.’  Watch out!  Web sites are collecting your personal data and selling information to companies and governments!  There’s nothing you can do, and the consequences are dire, dire, dire!  I already know that, and, like most Americans, have decided to accept the dire consequences as a reasonable trade for being able to have instant access to my second-cousins’ political conspiracy theories.  If I hadn’t given in to Big Data years ago, I probably would have no idea whatsoever that President Obama has already constructed the concentration camps in which Christians and Republicans will be incarcerated after he refuses to give up the presidency in 2017 (or so my distant relative once claimed on Facebook).  Information like that is well worth giving Amazon full access to all of my hopes and dreams.  That’s the book I thought I was borrowing.  I wasn’t that excited about it – in fact, it was with a certain reluctance that I took it off the shelf – but I wanted to give it a chance, because it was recommended by someone whose opinions I respect.

This was a completely different book than that.

Christian Rudder works for OKCupid, which means that he has access to massive amounts of data about people’s lives.  In the course of looking for a date, people post their pictures and tell something pretty close to the truth about themselves.  Rudder also has access to the other data – what people actually do on OKCupid, and how it does or doesn’t correlate with what they say is true about themselves.

This book is an exploration of the some of the data that the internet has gathered, and what we can learn from it.  Rudder doesn’t judge the existence of the data.  He’s doing something different: he’s using it to describe who we are.  Would it surprise you to learn that, although most men say that they’re interested in dating someone around their own age, most men of all ages are really trying to get with a 20-year-old?

No, that didn’t surprise me, either.  It also didn’t surprise me that Belle and Sebastian is the Whitest Band on Earth, or that a lot of people who claim not to be racists don’t really like black people very much.  I was fascinated by the way Rudder uses Google data to make what seems like a very reasonable guess about the percentage of the population that is gay (that’s a number that’s really hard to pin down, I know), and the ways American attitudes about race adjusted when President Obama took office.

His writing style was really several notches above most of the pop-nonfiction books I read, too.  I admit that I must be an elitist, because I wasn’t expecting a math/computer guy to be such a good writer.

I would read this again.

Written by Contented Reader

June 24, 2015 at 4:38 pm

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Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations

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Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations

By Jules Evans

New World Library, 2013

In my college humanities courses, I studied a little bit about philosophy.  I learned the names of important philosophers, and to summarize their teachings, and in some cases, I learned how those philosophers influenced the literature and politics of their time, or were influenced by them.  As far as I remember, I didn’t learn that philosophy could be a tool for improving myself and my life in college.  That, I learned on my own.

About five years ago, a post on Boing Boing, of all places, led me on a journey of discovery of ancient Greek philosophy.  Epictetus and Epicurus became my guides to a new way of living and thinking, and I kept their writings on my desk at work for several years, reading and re-reading them, and applying their advice to my life.

From Epictetus, I learned classical stoicism, starting with the utterly simple and utterly transformative idea that in life, there are things that we can control and things that we can’t control, and that the best approach to life is to take firm action regarding the things we can control, and accept the things we can’t control without resisting them or complaining about them.  That was the advice I used to transform my life at work, as I tried to stop complaining about the aspects of my job I couldn’t change and empower myself to make changes to keep my pile of ungraded papers and my roomful of unruly students within self-defined limits of what I was willing to put up with.

From Epicurus, I learned that happiness is the goal of every human being, and that happiness can be very obtainable when we allow ourselves to enjoy simple, easy-to-get pleasures and let go of the desire for expensive, harmful pleasures.  I learned to ask myself questions like, “Is the amount of pleasure I’m going to get from this likely to be greater than the amount of discomfort and trouble it’s going to cause?” and “What would feel good right now?”  I stopped buying stuff, and started enjoying library books, sunshine, parks, and rice.

Between them, Epictetus and Epicurus made a lot of aspects of my life better.  But I felt like I was the only person who had discovered their secret.  Their names sound like something you vaguely remember studying in college, like homework, not like self-help or pleasure reading.  It didn’t take me long to realize that no one wanted to know what I’d discovered, so, in good Epicurean spirit, I just quietly used it and enjoyed it and let go of my need to fix other people.

This book – Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations – reminded me of how much my life was transformed by those two philosophers, and told me something I didn’t know: that there are other people who have also had their lives transformed.  Each chapter discusses an important philosophical approach, explains how it can be used to make a person’s life better, and introduces a person or group of people influenced by that philosopher.  All over the world, it turns out, people like me have been finding help and meaning and self-improvement in the works of the ancients, and have been forming tiny communities of like-minded people to share what they’ve learned.

Evans also spends a significant amount of time connecting ancient philosophy – especially my old mentors Epicurus and the Stoics – with the modern practice of cognitive behavioral therapy.  He claims that CBT has borrowed many of the ideas and practices of the Stoics and Epicureans, but in a stripped-down form, and that many people might benefit from using the old writers as a supplement to their therapy.

This book would be a great starting point for someone who wants to learn more about how ancient philosophy can make a person’s life better.  For me, it was a great refresher course, with an introduction to some voices I hadn’t heard before, and ideas for where to read further.

Written by Contented Reader

June 22, 2015 at 5:40 pm

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