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amreading Commonplace Book ideas music Thinkers

Favorite Passages: Chicago

All quotes are from: Words Without Music: A Memoir. By Philip Glass

The chapter Chicago – expands upon Glass’ time at the University of Chicago.

He was accepted there young (15 years old). Despite his age, he adapted to his new surroundings well. His formal education was first class. Primary sources were studied. The faculty – Harold C. Urey, David Reiesman, were top of their fields. This was the University of Chicago after all.

But what this chapter presents is, Glass’ education outside the classroom, was as important as his formal one.

His hunger to absorb the local music was relentless. Too young to get into Jazz clubs, Glass would stand outside to listen to the music:

Fifty-Seventh Street was built up with restaurants and bars, and the South Side jazz clubs, like the Beehive, were on Fifty-Fifth Street. Of course I was too young to get into some of the places I wanted to go, since I was fifteen and looked fifteen. By the time I was sixteen or seventeen I had gotten a little bit bigger, so I was able to go to the Cotton Club, nearby on Cottage Grove, and also the clubs downtown. Eventually, the people at the door got to know me because I would stand there – just listening – looking through the window. Finally, they would say, “Hey, c’mon kid, you come on in.” I couldn’t buy a drink, but they would let me sit by the door and listen to the music.

Throughout the chapter he mentions “distractions”. These were gatherings, meetups, and informal classes which would contribute to his his lifelong education.

Another distraction from the regular course work was that there were some professors who offered informal classes, usually in their homes, on specific books or subjects. For these classes, no registration was required, no exam given, and no student was turned away. This practice was, I believe, understood and tolerated by the university itself. Now, why would you spend your time as a student (or professor, for that matter) this way, when there were reading lists that needed to be completed? Well, the answer is that some of the classes were unique and otherwise not available. They were not offered officially, were known by word of mouth, but were quite well attended. I went to an evening class entirely on one book – Homer’s The Odyssey-once a week for at least two quarters, taught by a classics professor named Charles Bell. These kinds of “private” courses given within the university community, though not generally known, could be sought after and found. That in itself probably accounted for their appeal.

This theme of independent study continues. Glass reflects on his music-listening club that formed. He and his buddies gathered to seriously listen to obscure classical music. The group included buddies from Baltimore, but also somehow Carl Sagan?! Yes that Carl Sagan. Things that aren’t prestigious

An informal group of us spent significant time just listening to music. This might have merely been causal listening, but it turned out to be surprisingly significant later on. My listening companions were, among others, Tom Steiner and Sidney Jacobs-my pals from Baltimore-as well as Carl Sagan, the future astrophysicist and cosmologist. This group undertook a superserious study of recordings of Bruckner and Mahleer. It should be remembered that in the early 1950s, this school of music was virtually unknown outside of Europe. In the next decade conductors-especially Leonard Bernstein-would make their work widely popular in the States, but that was yet to come. In any event, we spent hours and hours together listening to recordings-often difficult to obtain even in Chicago-by Bruno Walter, Jascha Horenstein, and Wilhelm Furtwangler.

The University of Chicago provided Glass with an environment to explore. There he could to go deeper on his niche tastes in music. He could absorb the classics outside of the lecture hall. He could cultivate friendships with fellow brilliant weirdos. For a world without the internet, this was vital to his development as a composer.

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amreading Commonplace Book ideas science Thinkers writer's inspiration

Favorite Passages: Home

All quotes are from: On the Move: A Life. By Oliver Sacks

In the final pages, of the final chapter of On the Move, Sacks returns to one of his favorite topics – writing.

Journaling was essential for Sacks. He always kept a notebook close:

I started keeping journals when I was fourteen and at last count had nearly a thousand. They come in all shapes and sizes, from little pocket ones which I carry around with me to enormous tomes. I always keep a notebook by my bedside, for dreams as well as nighttime thoughts, and I try to have one by the swimming pool or the lakeside or the seashore; swimming too is very productive of thoughts which I must write, especially if they present themselves, as they sometimes do, in the form of whole sentences or paragraphs.

On using journals as method for talking to one’s self:

My journals are not written for others, nor do I usually look at them myself, but they are a special, indispensable form of talking to myself.

Sacks strays away from the tortured writer narrative. His attitude towards writing is similar to Ray Bradbury.

It’s a pleasure. It’s a joy. It’s an elixir to the chaos of life.

The act of writing, when it goes well, gives me a pleasure, a joy, unlike any other. It takes me to another place – irrespective of my subject-where I am totally absorbed and oblivious to distracting thoughts, worries, preoccupations, or indeed the passage of time. In those rare, heavenly states of mind, I may write nonstop until I can no longer see the paper. Only then do I realize that evening has come and that I have been writing all day.

And after seventy years writing is still fun!

Over a lifetime, I have written millions of words, but the act of writing seems as fresh, and as much fun, as when I started it nearly seventy years ago.

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amreading Commonplace Book ideas science Thinkers writer's inspiration

Favorite Passages: A New Vision of the Mind

From On the Move: A Life. By Oliver Sacks

Dr. Sacks describing his meeting with the Noble Prize winning physical chemist Gerald M. Edelman:

He then abruptly took his leave, and looking out the window, I could see him walking rapidly down York Avenue, looking to neither side. “That is the walk of a genius, a monomaniac,” I thought to myself. “He is like a man possessed.” I had a sense of awe and envy-how I should like such a ferocious power of concentration! But then I thought that life might not be entirely easy with such a brain, indeed, Edelman, I was to find, took no holidays, slept little, and was driven, almost bullied, by nonstop thinking; he would often phone Rosenfield in the middle of the night. Perhaps I was better off with my own, more modest endowment.

Dr. Oliver Sacks

While Edelman’s drive and single focus is admirable. Sacks goes further, admitting his envy for Edelman. Sacks recognized that while Edelman’s abilities were desirable, there was a freedom in his less “focused” life.

Sack’s intellectual work, a combination of working with patients, writing books, traveling, love for cephalopods, taking piano lessons in his seventies wasn’t “focused”. But it was rich.

A more modest endowment can have benefits.

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amreading Commonplace Book ideas science Thinkers writer's inspiration

Favorite Passages: Voyages

From On the Move: A Life. By Oliver Sacks

Dr. Sacks opens the chapter – Voyages with a reflection on his father’s work ethic and subtle career advice.

At one time, my father had thought of a career in neurology but then decided that general practice would be “more real,” “more fun,” because it would bring him into deeper contact with people and their lives.

This intense human interest he preserved to the last: when he reached the age of ninety, David and I entreated him to retire-or at least, to stop his house calls. He replied that home visits were “the heart” of medical practice and that he would sooner stop anything else. From the age of ninety to almost ninety-four, he would charter a mini-cap for the day to continue house calls.

Dr. Oliver Sacks

After reading this passage Paul Graham’s essay How to Do What You Love came to mind. In that essay, Graham argues one should build a career (I’d argue a life) based on genuine interests, rather than prestige.

Sack’s father intuitively understood this. A neurologist does hold a higher status in society than a general practice doctor. And certainly more than a general practice doctor making house calls. But it was in that general practice, meeting the needs of his fellow man, that Sack’s father built a meaningful life.

I wonder if Dr. Sacks (sr.) had chosen Neurology, would he have had the same enthusiasm and stamina to continue working into his ninety’s?

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amreading Commonplace Book ideas science Thinkers writer's inspiration

Favorite Passages: City Island

From On the Move: A Life. By Oliver Sacks

After 3 months, I’ve returned to Dr. Oliver Sacks’ memoir – On the Move: A Life.

Reading each page is skiing downhill. A smooth, lightning shot of a journey that slaloms through Dr. Sacks’ curious life.

It’s been a joy.

From the chapter, City Island:

Especially in our early days, I sometimes felt terrified of his directness – terrified in particular, that he would find my writings, such as they were, muzzy, dishonest, talentless, or worse. I had feared his criticisms at the beginning, but from 1971 on, when I sent him Migraine, I was eager for his reactions, depended on them, and gave more weight than those of anyone else.

Dr. Oliver Sacks

Even Dr. Sacks feared critique of his writing. Especially from his friend and correspondent the poet Thom Gunn.

But as much as Gunn’s directness terrified Dr. Sacks, he valued Gunn’s feedback of his writing more than anyone else’s.

Sacks understood Gunn’s feedback would improve his writing.

Sacks also describes Gunn in the opening of the City Island chapter as a tremendous walker:

Thom was always a tremendous walker, striding up and down the hills of San Francisco. I never saw him with a car or a bicycle; he was quintessentially a walker, a walker like Dickens, who observed everything, took it in, and used it sooner or later in what he wrote.

Throughout On The Move, Sacks introduces us to new characters as if you’d be joining them for a Friday dinner party.

Sacks’ detailed descriptions of their character quirks reveal their humanity.

P.S. I want to be considered a tremendous walker!

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amreading Poems writer's inspiration

He could not stop writing poems


But no matter how many babies he delivered,

no matter how many sick people he cured,

Willie could not stop writing poems.


A River of Words is a short, illustrated book about the life of Dr. William Carlos Williams.

His life, as both doctor and poet is inspirational.

I keep this book close by.

You should too.

From: A River of Words

Written by: Jen Bryant

Illustrated by: Melissa Sweet

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amreading Poems writer's inspiration

Poet Donald Hall in one question


INTERVIEWER

I would like to begin by asking how you started. How did you become a writer? What was the first thing that you ever wrote and when?

DONALD HALL

Everything important always begins from something trivial. When I was about twelve I loved horror movies. I used to go down to New Haven from my suburb and watch films like Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Wolf Man Meets Abbott and Costello. So the boy next door said, Well, if you like that stuff, you’ve got to read Edgar Allan Poe. I had never heard of Edgar Allan Poe, but when I read him I fell in love. I wanted to grow up and be Edgar Allan Poe. The first poem that I wrote doesn’t really sound like Poe, but it’s morbid enough. Of course I have friends who say it’s the best thing I ever did: “Have you ever thought / Of the nearness of death to you? / It reeks through each corner, / It shrieks through the night, / It follows you through the day / Until that moment when, / In monotones loud, / Death calls your name. / Then, then, comes the end of all.” The end of Hall, maybe. That started me writing poems and stories. For a couple of years I wrote them in a desultory fashion because I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to be a great actor or a great poet.

Then when I was fourteen I had a conversation at a Boy Scout meeting with a fellow who seemed ancient to me; he was sixteen. I was bragging and told him that I had written a poem during study hall at high school that day. He asked—I can see him standing there—You write poems? and I said, Yes, do you? and he said, in the most solemn voice imaginable, It is my profession. He had just quit high school to devote himself to writing poetry full time! I thought that was the coolest thing I’d ever heard. It was like that scene in Bonnie and Clyde where Clyde says, We rob banks. Poetry is like robbing banks. It turned out that my friend knew some eighteen-year-old Yale freshmen, sophisticated about literature, and so at the age of fourteen I hung around Yale students who talked about T. S. Eliot. I saved up my allowance and bought the little blue, cloth-covered collected Eliot for two dollars and fifty cents and I was off. I decided that I would be a poet for the rest of my life and started by working at poems for an hour or two every day after school. I never stopped.

One question in and I already have to recommend the rest of this interview.

From: The Paris Review Issue 120, Fall 1991

Interview by: Peter A. Stitt

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amreading Football/Soccer writer's inspiration

Soccer in Random Places: The Dangerous Book for Boys and the joy of practice


With libraries and bookstores closed I’ve returned to my own shelves. During a session of pull-any-book-off-the-shelf and read game, I stumbled on this excerpt from The Dangerous Book for Boys.

Titled: The Rules of Soccer, it reminded me of the joys of practice.



Soccer is the example, but the idea of practice, daily practice, applies to any discipline:

It’s an old, old phrase, but “practice makes perfect” is as true today as it was hundreds of years ago. Natural-born skill is all very well, but it will only take you so far against someone who has practiced every day at something he loves.


Further reading:

How I practice at what I do – by Tyler Cowen

People who have not yet succeeded but maybe they will – by henryeoliver

Learn Like an Athlete – by David Perell

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amreading Uncategorized

Marginalia Yo

I dig the marginalia in my used copy of A Moveable Feast as much as the original text. It makes me think of the books history, of the previous owner.

Was he or she a grad student? An aspiring writer? A college freshman trying to pass Literature 1?

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amreading Poems

New Years Walt Whitman Special: Great are the Myths pt.11


Great is language….it is the mightiest of sciences,

It is the fulness and color and form and diversity of the

earth….and of men and women….and of all

qualities and processes;

It is greater than wealth….it is greater than buildings or

ships or religions or paintings or music.


Let Walt Whitman bring in 2020.

Happy New Year!

From: Leaves of Grass 150th Anniversary Edition (Penguin Classics), pgs.158