Once inside, Oliver’s disposition brightens considerably. We head over—of course—to the hall of mollusks and stop before a case of squid, nautiluses, and octopuses. Oliver is by now positively chipper.
I ask him what he’d always so liked about them. For a moment, he stares at the case thoughtfully—the polymorphous, slightly goofy octopus, the sleek propulsive squid. “I mean,” he finally erupts, jocularly, “you can see what I liked about them.
“With octopuses,” he continues, “I suppose it was partly the face—that here, for the first time in evolution, appears a face, a distinct physiognomy, indeed a personality: It’s true that when you spend time with them, you begin to differentiate between them, and they seem to differentiate between you and other visitors.
“So there was that, this mutual sense of affection for the alien.
“And then there was their way of moving, which is jet propulsion.
“And their eyes, which are huge.
“Their birdlike beaks, which can give you a nasty nip.
“And their sexual habits—the male, you see, donates an entire sperm-filled leg to the female . . .
“That, and their ancientness . . . and their simultaneous adventurousness, how they threw off the repressive shell and moved out, to float free.
The chapter title A Visit to the American Museum of Natural History in New York and Lunch at a Japanese Restaurant would lure in any curious skim reader. The American Museum of Natural History is known world wide for their dinosaur collection. But the museum is far more than dinosaurs. It’s mollusks, squids, nautiluses, and octopuses too.
Author and biographer (and commonplace book keeper) Lawrence Weshchler describes Oliver Sacks turning “chipper” upon approaching the hall of mollusks, much in the same way a five year old would be approaching the hall of dinosaurs.
A few Oliver Sacks inspired octopus ideas:
Sacks claims that after time, you can differentiate between octopuses, and they can differentiate you from other visitors. Theirfaces and personalities intertwine. A “friendly” or “mango” face isn’t limited to human beings.
The evolutionary journey of the octopus face:
Is this true? A face would include a forehead and a chin. The common octopus as we know it today looks to have appeared during the Middle Jurassic. By the Middle Jurassic plenty of creatures would possess faces, namely the dinosaurs. Is Sack’s referring to cephalopods as a whole here? Who appeared during the Cambrian era 500 million years ago?
Octopuses’ alien qualities:
The birdlike beaks. The large eyes. The shells they left behind. The movement by jet propulsion. All traits of a creature from a sci-fi tale, no?
The founding fathers had a general physician. His name? Benjamin Rush. The name sounded familiar, but truth is I knew nothing about him. But after an introduction from Brett McKay and Stephen Fried, I wasn’t surprised to learn he kept a commonplace book.
Brett McKay: Even the founding fathers did it. Something that really… You really hit home. And it really impressed me about Rush. Ever since he was a child, very curious, this self-starter, and something that he did that a lot of young upstarts did back in 17th century, 18th century, is he had a common place book and the guy just wrote down everything. How did that mental habit shape him for the rest of his life?
Stephen Fried: He did. And you know, what’s interesting, I found… I had the same question you had, and then I looked into it and I saw that even then there’s apparently a debate about how memory works. Of course, we’re still debating that, and the debate was, do you take notes and that makes you remember, or do you listen and not take notes, and that makes you remember? Most of Rush’s teachers thought you shouldn’t take notes, but Rush took notes. And so, what’s wonderful was after a certain point, we have them. I mean, a lot of things that Rush wrote are gone, I’m still hoping they will bubble up somewhere, but his commonplace books are wonderful. And part of the value of them is, of course, he did it when he was a kid, he did it when he was a student, and then when he was in the Continental Congress, he kept them about what it was like to be in the Continental Congress.
He would write little sketches about what he thought about the people in the Continental Congress, no holds bar. So he just… He wrote a lot, and so we have a lot of it, and we’re missing a lot of it, but everything we have is… What’s really nice about it also is that he wasn’t a formal writer. So he wrote in a style that we would today think of as almost like magazine writing. And it’s part of the reason that he was such an accessible intellectual and such an accessible writer is because, his writing style and of course, his penmanship were really readable, and when you read them today, they seem quite contemporary.
Cities, on the other hand, are marked with specific architecture from specific dates, and this architecture, built by long-vanished others for their own uses, is the shell that we, like hermit crabs, climb into.
COWEN: Your brother aside, who is the best rapper of all time?
GREENE: [laughs] The best rapper of all time. Well, it depends on if we’re talking about lyrics or something else. But I’ll go with Black Thought, who my brother would say as well, who’s the lead rapper for the Roots.
COWEN: What makes him especially interesting?
GREENE: He’s prolific. He’s extremely productive. He’s very smart. He’s not lazy in the way in which he constructs his lyrics, and he manages to be both musical and a poet. This is something that my brother has struggled with early in his career. He’s a poet. He’s not a musician, and he had to learn to be a musician. Trying to combine those things is a rare gift.
I’ve been waiting months for this podcast episode. Tyler Cowen and Lydia Davis did not let me down.
For a writer of her stature, Lydia openly admits she finds very long books hard to approach:
COWEN: Do you think the late Thomas Pynchon became unreadable, that somehow it was just a pile of complexity and it lost all relation to the reader? Or are those, in fact, masterworks that we’re just not up to appreciating?
DAVIS: Since I hesitated to even open the books, I can’t answer you, because I do find — not all long books — but very long, very fat books a little hard to approach, and some of them, I try over and over. If I sense that it’s really a load of verbiage, I really don’t. I fault myself for not having the patience to get through at least one, say, late Pynchon, but I haven’t.
Don’t despair! Lydia Davis also struggled to read Ulysses. It took two cracks and a move to Ireland for her to finish:
I had a problem a long time ago trying to read Ulysses by Joyce, and started it twice, and finally read it when I lived in Ireland, which made it much easier because I had his context. That too — I suppose because it had different chapters, each of which approached the ongoing story in a very different way — I found that possible too.
I’m believing more and more, that what great books do, what the internet at it’s brightest light does, is make introductions.
Today’s introduction? The Catalan writer Josep Pla:
There’s a book by a Catalan writer called Josep Pla that’s called The Gray Notebook. That’s very fat, but I keep going back to it and delighting in it, but I’m not reading it all at once. I’m going back to it and just sort of nibbling away at it. It was an amazing project. He took an early, very brief diary of his when he was 21, I think, and it only covered a year and a half. He kept going back to it rather than publishing it. He kept going back to it and expanding it with more memories and more material, and I love that idea. Maybe that’s why I can read it.
Lydia admits the Harry Potter series didn’t captivate her. She preferred the writing in Philip Pullman’s The Dark Materials trilogy. But she understands, Harry Potter’s greatest value is hooking kids on reading:
COWEN: How would you articulate why you don’t like the Harry Potter novels?
DAVIS: That’s fairly easy, although I should have a page in front of me. It’s always better if you have the page, and you can say, “Look at this sentence, look at that sentence.” At a certain point, my son was reading Harry Potter as kids do and did. I think he was probably 11 or 10 or 11, 12, 9 — I don’t know. Also, the Philip Pullman trilogy, whose name I always forget. I thought it would be a lot of fun to read the Harry Potter books because I knew a lot of grownups were reading them and enjoying them. I thought, “This is great. There are a lot of them.”
But when I tried to read them, I didn’t like the style of writing, and I didn’t like the characters, and I didn’t like anything about them. Whereas, I opened the first Philip Pullman book and read the first page and said, “This is wonderful. The writing here is wonderful.” I really think there’s an ocean of difference. I wouldn’t put down the Harry Potter books because, as we know, they got a lot of kids reading and being enraptured with books. I think that matters more than anything, really — getting kids hooked on reading.
Brilliant and insightful. Do give it a listen or read the transcript in full here.
Pete Doctor is Pixar’s chief creative officer. Recently he sat down for an interview with economist Steven Levitt. On his People I (Mostly) Admire podcast, Steve asked Pete one of my favorite, but ridiculous interview questions. What live advice would you give the 20 year old Pete Doctor, knowing what you know now?
An excellent interview for all you drawers out there. Listen in full here.
Dana Gioia snapped my synapses when he shared this definition of the novel:
It’s hard to think of a novel that doesn’t follow this idea. I’m sure there’s some experimental four hundred pager out there, but the novels I truly know all exhibit this tension between the characters inner and outer life.
In Tolkien’s The Hobbit – Bilbo duels between his craving for comfortable Shire life and his Took instincts for adventure.
In Jeff Smith’s Bone – Fone Bone longs to return to Boneville, but harbors a secret love for Thorn who could never follow him there (Graphic novels count too right?).
Or in Jhumpa Lahiri’sThe Namesake – Gogol’s divided between the need to honor his parents and his traditional Indian heritage, and the allure of American success.
Irony threads through all of them. And novels will no longer read the same to me.
Russ Roberts and Dana Gioia’s conversation was inspiring throughout.
By drawing. By drawing cartoons. Before I could read or write I used to draw comics at school and at home. The funny thing is that I now realize that when I was in high school I had the reputation of being a writer, though I never in fact wrote anything. If there was a pamphlet to be written or a letter of petition, I was the one to do it because I was supposedly the writer. When I entered college I happened to have a very good literary background in general, considerably above the average of my friends. At the university in Bogotá, I started making new friends and acquaintances, who introduced me to contemporary writers. One night a friend lent me a book of short stories by Franz Kafka. I went back to the pension where I was staying and began to read The Metamorphosis. The first line almost knocked me off the bed. I was so surprised. The first line reads, “As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. . . .” When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing short stories. They are totally intellectual short stories because I was writing them on the basis of my literary experience and had not yet found the link between literature and life. The stories were published in the literary supplement of the newspaper El Espectador in Bogotá and they did have a certain success at the time—probably because nobody in Colombia was writing intellectual short stories. What was being written then was mostly about life in the countryside and social life. When I wrote my first short stories I was told they had Joycean influences.
Of course, Gabriel García Márquez’s writer’s origin story begins with drawing cartoons.
What is it about drawing that fuels other creative pursuits?
Alan admits, it’s OK not to read the great works everyday:
But you don’t read Shakespeare every single day and you certainly don’t read the tragedies every single day. Those are incredibly demanding for the same reason you don’t every night sit down and watch an Ingmar Bergman movie or 12 Years of Slave or something like that. You have to be able to give yourself a break from the demands of really great works of art.
Great works of art ask a lot of us and we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can rise to that occasion every single day. So, sometimes you ought to be reading Harry Potter instead of reading Shakespeare because you need a break. And I think both Bloom and Adler were reluctant to acknowledge that.
On seeing where your W-H-I-M takes you:
Yeah. So, I got this from the poet Randall Jarrell, who ended an essay that way, read at Whim. And Whim with capital W, W-H-I-M is a kind of a principle or a policy. Let me tell you how I came onto this. What would happen is that year after year after year, so I’ve been a college university teacher for 35 years now and I would have students who would come to my office and they would say, “I’m about to graduate, but there’s so many great things I haven’t read yet. Give me a list of things to read. Give me a list of books that every educated person should have read.” And they’re coming in with their notebooks and they’ve got their pins poised over the notebook. Like, “Give me these things.”
And I would think you’re just finishing up four years of school, give yourself a break. You don’t have to do this now. You don’t have to read according to an assignment or according to a list of approved texts. Enjoy your freedom. Go out there and follow your whim. And by that, I mean follow that which really draws your spirit and your soul and see where that takes you. If it turns out that you spend a year reading Stephen King novels or something like that, that’s totally fine. That’s not a problem. Read your Stephen King novels, but there are also really good novels.
But whatever it happens to be, if you’re reading young adult fiction for a year, read young adult fiction for a year. After a while, you probably got to have enough of that. But don’t go around making your reading life a kind of means of authenticating yourself as a serious person. It’s just no way to live. So, I would always tell them, “Give yourself a break. Don’t make a list. See where Whim takes you.”
How to read “upstream”:
Well, what happens is that there is a kind of an emergent structure in a way, things emerge. So, here’s one of the things that I will tell people. I’ll say, “Let’s say you really love Tolkien and you’ve read Lord of the Rings like 10 times and you’re not sure you want to read the Lord of the Rings again.” First of all, I will say, “Rereading is always a good idea. It’s always a good idea. But there may be times when you think, yeah, maybe I don’t need an 11th reading of the Lord of the Rings.”
And so, I’ll say, “Well then, let’s move upstream a little bit. Why don’t you ask yourself what did Tolkien read? What did he love? If you love Tolkien’s writing, what writing did Tolkien love and kind of go upstream of him and find out what he read.” And in that way, you’re doing something that is really substantial. I mean, learning about some new things, some important things, things that are really valuable, but you’re also kind of following whatever it is in your spirit that responded to Lord of the Rings. You’re taking it to that next level.
Yeah. So, I’ve done this before, this going upstream, but in a different way. So, my favorite novel of all time, I said this before on the podcast lots of times is Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.
And then I started reading his like … I’ve read that thing like five times, but then I was like, I’ve got to read the prequels. I started reading like a Dead Man’s Walk and a Comanche Moon. And then I started learning about that. I was like, “These Comanche Indians, I didn’t know about this.” And so, I was like, I went on Amazon and just searched books about Comanche Indians and that’s how I discovered Empire of the Summer Moon, fantastic book. It was some of the best books I’ve read.
Right. But you wouldn’t have discovered it if you hadn’t been actually reading at Whim. You were not thinking, “Oh, let me see, I’ve read this Larry McMurtry book, now I need to read all the other books that were well-reviewed that year.” Instead you were following up something that was really drawing you on. In a way, you’re just obeying your own curiosity and that’s a much better guide to reading than having a list that somebody else has given you.
And rereading a book can shake your core:
Well, what do you think the value of rereading is?
Well, there’s a lot. I mean, first of all, if it’s a really worthwhile book and books can be worthwhile in a thousand different ways, you’re never going to get everything important out of it on a first reading. But then in addition to that, you go through different stages of life. And in those different stages of life, books speak to you in dramatically different ways.
I remember once I used to teach Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina almost every year. And one year I was reading it and I came across a passage, which totally knocked me out and I couldn’t even remember having read it before. I’d taught the book six or seven times and I had completely passed over this particular passage. And it’s a passage where one of the two protagonists, a man named Konstantin Lëvin, his wife kitty has just given birth to their first child. And he picks up his newborn son and the first thing he thinks is, now the world has so many ways to hurt me. And it’s just an incredibly powerful scene.
Why didn’t I notice it before? Because I hadn’t had children before. It was as soon as my son was born, I saw that passage in a way that it would have been irrelevant to me before because it was so disconnected from my experience. At that point I thought to myself, what’s wrong with you that you didn’t notice this? Did you have to have a child in order to understand how emotionally overwhelming it is to have a child? I guess so. So, I learned something about myself there. I learned about the things that I was paying attention to and not paying attention to.
Read on a W-H-I-M.
Forge your own reading path. You don’t always need someone’s list to guide you.