October 16, 2019

Reading Uncertainly: ‘The Meaning of Human Existence’ by Edward O. Wilson

Who are we?

Edward O. Wilson, the eminent Harvard biologist and noted student of ants, describes our strange species in a remarkable and memorable book. In 15 brief, succinct and challenging chapters, each less than 10 pages, he suggests that, at once, we are far more and far less than we imagine.

His is a daunting title but the contents live up to expectations.

First, far less: homo sapiens have existed through a modest six millennia, a mere blip in the 13-plus billion years of our universe, the 4.5 billion years of this earth and the 400 million years of other “species on earth.” And this earth is but a “mote of stardust near the edge of our galaxy (an estimated hundred billion star systems make up the Milky Way galaxy) among a hundred billion or more galaxies in the universe.”

And even among the other species here on this planet, “how bizarre we are as a species … we are chemosensory idiots” when compared to most of them. “Our species is almost unconscious of most stimuli.”

But we are unusual.

We have the “capacity to imagine possible futures, and to plan and choose among them,” the “ability to invent and inwardly rehearse competing scenarios of future interactions.”

Dr. Wilson compares the “humanities” to “science.” The humanities tell us “what,” “the particularities of human nature back and forth in endless permutations, albeit laced with genius and in exquisite detail,” while science increasingly is needed to tell us “why.”

Are we trapped in our own egos?

In Chapter 11, The Collapse of Biodiversity, we seem to be knocking off many species, only to find more.  But “ … without nature,  finally, no people!” “The human impact on biodiversity, to put the matter as briefly as possible, is an attack on ourselves!” This re-confirms the famous Pogo adage, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Wilson suggests we remember the acronym HIPPO: Habitat loss; Invasive species; Pollution: Population growth; and Overharvesting. These may be the most important challenges our species face.

Has the human creation of religions helped? Wilson is dubious.

Religion’s “history is as old or nearly so as that of humanity itself. The attempted resolution of its mysteries lies at the heart of philosophy.” But “the great religions are also, and tragically, sources of ceaseless and unnecessary suffering.”

He adds: “the true cause of hatred and violence is faith versus faith, an outward expression of the ancient instinct of tribalism. Faith is the one thing that makes otherwise good people do bad things.” Many will find this offensive but it is a considered opinion, backed up with solid examples. Wilson summarizes thus, “the best way to live in this real world is to free ourselves of demons and tribal gods!”

He returns to the balance of science and the humanities; the latter describe “the human condition,” while science “encompasses the meaning of human existence.”  We are “an accident of evolution,” from herbivore to carnivore, from wanderer to static, from small families to multiple “tribes.” And “when an individual is cooperative and altruistic, this reduces his advantage in competition to a comparable degree with other members, but increases the survival and reproduction rate of the group as a whole.” No wonder we have conflicting views of how to respond …

Dr. Wilson’s conclusion: “Are human beings intrinsically good but corrupted by the forces of evil, or the reverse, innately sinful yet redeemable by the forces of good? Are we built to pledge our lives to a group, even to the risk of death, or the opposite, built to place ourselves and our families above all else? Scientific evidence, a good part of it accumulated during the past twenty years, suggests that we are both of these things simultaneously. Each of us in inherently conflicted.”

“If the heuristic and analytical power of science can be joined with the introspective creativity of the humanities, human instinct will rise to an infinitely more productive and interesting meaning.”

After each chapter, I had to stop and reflect on Wilson’s ideas, taking many notes.

And I plan to re-read it in its entirety next year.

Editor’s Note: ‘The Meaning of Human Existence’ by  Edward O. Wilson, was published by W. W. Norton  & Co., New York, 2014.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Identity’ by Francis Fukuyama

Stanford University’s Francis Fukuyama always challenges our minds. From his The End of History and the Last Man, addressing our futures after the end of the Cold War (1992), and continuing with The Origins of Political Order (2011) and Political Order and Political Decay (2014), two monster 600+ page tomes, his newest, and briefest (a slim 183 pager!) is Identity.

Who on earth are we? Fukuyama sees we humans as trying to manage, simultaneously, two conflicting pressures. The first is “isothymia,” — “the demand  to be respected on an equal basis with all other people,” and “megalothymia” — “the desire to be recognized as superior.”  This disparity has “historically existed in all societies; it cannot be overcome; it can only be channeled or moderated.”

He continues: “Contemporary identity politics is driven by the quest for equal recognition by groups that have been marginalized by their societies. But that desire for equal recognition can easily slide over into a demand for recognition of the group’s superiority.”

His themes are thymos (the third part of the soul), recognition, dignity, identity, immigration, nationalism, religion and culture. He calls on many earlier observers: Socrates, Luther, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Hobbes, Locke, Mill, Nietzsche, Herder, Adam Smith, Sartre, Freud, and Kahneman, arguing that the demand for dignity, “should somehow disappear is neither possible nor desirable.” Resentment at indignities remains a powerful force, a “craving for recognition” we must learn to understand and balance.

National identities are “critical for the maintenance of a successful political order.” They begin with a “shared belief in the legitimacy of the country’s political system, whether that system is democratic or not.” They include physical security, quality of government, economic development, “a wider radius of trust,” and strong social safety nets, all of which eventually make possible “liberal democracy itself.”

His chapter on religion and nationalism is particularly challenging. Can people who share a particular culture and language be subsumed into a global belief system (Hinduism; Buddhism; Communism; Islam; Christianity)? Probably not, but these systems continue to try. The advent of social media makes “identity” now the property of groups, not individuals.

Fukuyama cannot resist a comment of Trump, a “political figure who almost perfectly describes … narcissism: narcissism led Trump into politics, but a politics driven less by public purposes than his own inner need for public affirmation.” And “Trump (is) the perfect practitioner of the ethics of authenticity that defines our age: he may be mendacious, malicious, bigoted, and un-presidential, but at least he says what he thinks.”

“What is to be done?” he asks.  One, ”confusion over identity” is a “condition of living in the modern age.” Two, a “pan-European identity may someday emerge.” Three, “education is the critical ingredient”, but it must include a process of universal not parochial values, economic mobility, interdependence, and a growing exposure to other humans and their customs.

We humans seem to be simultaneously breaking down walls and building new ones!

Editor’s Note: ‘Identity’ by Francis Fukuyama was published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York 2018

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘The Soul of America’ by Jon Meacham

This is an engrossing reflection on past American leaders, elected and publicly acknowledged, and how they have shaped our peculiar, yet resilient, form of governance.

Meacham leads us in a thorough review of our history: early (and conflicted) visions, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, its aftermath (Reconstruction, the Klu Klux Klan), Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and our entry into world affairs, the Depression, FDR, McCarthyism, Martin Luther King, and LBJ. Throughout he gives us the sense that all human beings, and, indeed, our so-called “leaders,” are both selfish and altruistic, often at the same moment.

We are both hopeful and fearful. It is, again, a story of trying to organize ourselves when we are simultaneously rational and irrational.

Meacham is a storehouse of relevant quotes from earlier observers. As an example, his last six pages cite 28 comments of others, often at length.

But his narrative ends with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Yes, that was a momentous achievement, but our scrambling did persist thereafter. As Sean Wilentz, in his New York Times review on June 10, 2018 explained, “Suddenly we are thrust back into the present with little understanding of how we got here from there”. What has gone wrong, or has, indeed, anything gone wrong? Are we simply, as so often in the past, struggling to find reasonable courses of action, both domestically and internationally?

Perhaps an answer lies in his quote of Eisenhower on leadership: “It’s persuasion – and conciliation – and education – and patience.” But are we ready, even willing, to accept that rational guidance?

Throughout, the author cites our very human compulsion to accept ”the most ancient of institutions, a powerful chief” connected to “the more modern of institutions, a free, disputatious populace.” Can they work together? Is our system really worthwhile (a strong executive, balanced by an equally strong legislature and judiciary)?

I continue to look with envy at a system almost as old (created in 1848), the one in Switzerland: seven rotating presidents, each serving a one year term, with a strong Assembly and local cantonal legislatures. And the Swiss employ four languages! It works and it has much less publicity …

Meacham’s five concluding “ideas”: (1) Enter the Arena, (2) Resist Tribalism, (3) Respect Facts and Deploy Reason, (4) Find a Critical Balance, and (5) Keep History in Mind.

Keep listening, reading, and thinking!

Editor’s Note: ‘The Soul of America’ by Jon Meacham was published by Random House, New York in 2018.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly?  ‘Doing Justice’ by Preet Bharara

This is an entrancing, literate, and thought-provoking review of the experiences of the former U. S Attorney for the fabled Southern District of New York, now on the faculty of the NYU School of Law.

 “Justice is a broad and hazy subject”, he writes. “It is one of the most elusive and debatable concepts known to mankind, and disagreements over its meaning have spawned revolutions, religions, and civil wars.”  He argues its importance as “it seems preferred these days to demonize one’s opponents rather than engage them, to bludgeon critics rather than win them over. There is creeping contempt for the truth and expertise. Rigor is wanting everywhere. We swim in lies, never corrected … This moment in America (is) alarming.”

This is an odyssey of Bharara’s own experiences, focusing on many legal cases, a continuing search for “justice” found in engaging stories of human frailty. He argues for balance: “I have not only a healthy skepticism for the potential guilt of any suspect but also the necessary converse, skepticism of the innocence of any person.”  He adds, “the key is to make sure that prudent hesitation does not turn into paralysis and that responsible aggressiveness does not turn into recklessness.”

 His chapter on “Confirmation Bias”, natural to all of us, argues that every conclusion must be subject to challenge and revision.”  That on “Curiosity and Query” suggests that “dumb questions” are often the best to ask. That on “The Principles of Interrogation” note that “patience and humanity outperform threats and brute force every times” as proven in experience at Guantanamo. That on “Continuity and Change” concludes that “mindless adherence to old ways is, I think, worthy of mockery. Tradition is good and useful and grounding. But lazy habit and knee-jerk hostility to change are not tradition: they are an intellectual strati jacket.”

 Bharara presents his thoughts because, he argues, today “a crisis persists in public discourse and political debate. It is coarse and vicious and tone-deaf. Truth is a victim of self-interest and extreme tribalism, as are decorum and respect. The very notion of civility — and even the need for it – are hotly debated. Meanwhile the political tribes insulate themselves more than ever.”

This worried lawyer concludes with some cogent counsel: (1) “Justice, as I keep repeating, is done by human beings.” (2) Much of the time, your most important job as a lawyer is not to talk; it is to listen.” And (3)  “ …  probability is not certainty, and the uncertainty is always palpable.”.

I have a young grand-daughter, who has expressed interest in the law: I’m sending a copy of Preet Bharara’s challenging book to her to encourage that interest.

Editor’s Note: ‘Doing Justice’ by  Preet Bharara was published by  Alfred A. Knopf, New York in 2019.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly: ‘The Sense of Style’ by Steven Pinker

Every day we use words to communicate, in voice, letters, emails, reports, and even tweets. But do others really understand us?

Perhaps it is time to refresh our use of the English language. Steven Pinker, a renowned Harvard professor and author, suggests “the effective use of words to engage the human mind” (my italics), in his latest book.

“Style still matters,” he argues. It gets messages across, earns trust, and, perhaps most important, adds beauty to the world. We need to develop our “instinct for language,” coming from both reading and conversation, avoiding both the overly rigid rules of semanticists and simultaneously, the confusing colloquialisms of day-to-day communication. Trash such as “like” and  “you know”!

Pinker is an engaging writer. He begins by recommending a re-read of three earlier commentators on language: William Strunk and E. B. White’s immortal The Elements of Style (1959), Henry Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1926), and Theodore Bernstein’s The Careful Writer (1968).

But Pinker moves on from those writers, as does our language. Today, he cites the common problems of overuse of jargon, abbreviations, and technical vocabulary. He reminds us of Strunk and White’s repeated urging for simplicity. Avoid passive sentences and lengthy phrases. Use the active sense. Be brief.  Paragraph breaks: not too many and not too few. Avoid the “prissy use of quotation marks.”

One writer’s problem today is how to avoid the overuse of masculine nouns, when we are cautioned to use feminine or neuter. Pinker follows his own advice, alternating in each chapter, using masculine first as the object and then the subject, then the feminine, avoiding altogether the ugly and confusing neuter words.

For many years, I’ve followed the counsel of Occam’s Razor (the simpler answer may be correct). Pinker introduces Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” I’ll use this in my next critique of politicians.

Pinker meanders a bit in his chapters on diagramming sentences (too complex; I prefer my own ear) and coherence (do we really need to understand the wars between prescriptivists and descriptivists?) These chapters are often overly detailed, although rich in examples.

By far his best chapter is his longest (117 pages), “Telling Right From Wrong”. It is a detailed discussion of possibilities, often with no “right” answers. Examples: split infinitives; shall versus willthat and whichwho and whom; “very unique”; plus a section on words as seen and used by purists and relativists. How do you define and use decimate; convince; presently (one of my pet peeves); adverse versus averse; bemused; data (singular or plural?); fortuitous; irregardless (ugh!); parameter; tortuous; and the use of serial commas.

More damn fun and Pinker will change your habits. Enjoy stringing words together and above all, be coherent.

Editor’s Note: ‘The Sense of Style’ by Steven Pinker was published by Viking, New York 2014

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Elastic’ by Leonard Mlodinow

This author writes, “ Today we consume, on average, a staggering 100,000 words of new information each day from various media, . . . a tidal wave of data . . . an unprecedented torrent of chaos . . . . “ It is his exploration of how human minds work when confronted with incessant and confusing change.

He challenges us to consider new ways of thinking, ways to use our brains, in light of this flood:

·      “the capacity to let go comfortable ideas and become accustomed to ambiguity and contradictions.”

·      Then “willingness to experiment and become tolerant of failure.”

·      Leading to “elastic thinking, a nonlinear mode of processing in which multiple treads of thought may be pursued in parallel”.

Mlodinow challenges, indeed encourages, our genetic ability to “make great adjustments”, contradicting centuries of fixed dogma handed down by soothsayers, priests, popes, imams, philosophers, and the millions who accept fixed ideas in return for a modicum of mental certainty. He suggests we become “neophiliac”, “attracted to both novelty and change.” For many of us that is a tall order, but Mlodinow makes a convincing argument. As he says, “The good news, as we face increasing novelty and accelerating change inn human society, is that although the changes are disruptive,. . . . Most of us have a good dose of neophilia in our genetic inheritance”.

Here’s how he explains it, “We tend to make quick initial assessments of issues based on the assumptions of the paradigms we follow. When people challenge our assessment, we tend to push back. Whatever our politics, the more we argue with others, the further we can dig I, and sometimes vilify those who disagree. Then we reinforce our ideas by preaching to the choir—our friends. But the mental flexibility to consider theories that contradict our beliefs and don’t fit our existing paradigms not only can make you a genius in science; it is also beneficial in everyday life.”

Mlodinow encourages “the symphonies in idle minds”, noting that our “unconscious minds” are at work all the time: “the brain is active even when a person is not engaged in conscious thought.” He goes on to encourage, therefore, “mindfulness,” those moments when we avoid deliberate though, when we can pause, reflect, and let the mind roam. Don’t even look at your cell phone for 24 hours! “Take a few minutes in the morning after you wake up to simply lie in bed” and “stare at the ceiling” – relax the mind. He also makes several references to the techniques of Buddhism, especially its Zen approach. For those so interested,, do try Robert Wright’s  Why Buddhism Is True (2017).

His suggestion: “history—and ordinary human life—is full of opportunities missed by not recognizing that change has occurred and that the previously unthinkable is now doable.”

This fascinating writer concludes: “ To be successful today, we must not only cope with the flood of knowledge and data about the present; we must also be able to anticipate the future, because change happens so rapidly that what works now will be dated and irrelevant tomorrow. The world today is a moving target.”

So open up our minds. And, if you are receptive, try some of his earlier words: Feynman’s Rainbow (2003); The Drunkard’s Walk (2008)and Subliminal (2012).

Editor’s Note: ‘Elastic’ by Leonard Mlodinow was published by Pantheon Books, New York 2018.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ by Yuval Noah Harari

“I’m not trying to predict the future,” Yuval Harari argued in an Edge (an international group of the curious – see www.edge.org) discussion with Daniel Kahneman (March 5, 2015). “I’m trying to identify the horizon of possibilities that we are facing.”

Professor Harari, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an Oxford PhD, wrote this incredibly imaginative alternate view of the entire 200,000-year history of our species, Homo sapiens, on this earth, a mammal with a uniquely large brain. He suggests we have survived and prospered, perhaps too much, through the use of myths: “large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths,” even though we now know, “there are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.”

Harari re-thinks just about every “myth” that confuses our practices as human beings.

This “history” challenges our numerous “misconceptions” by stepping back from all we thought we knew, separating the growth of human existence through three “revolutions” of human existence: the cognitive (when we learned to think and communicate), the agricultural (when we shifted from nomadic movement to a more sedentary life), and the scientific (when we began asking “why” and “how.”).

In doing so he manages to skewer, with both rational argument and good humor, most of our cherished beliefs. And how little we actually know about our predecessors, saying, “a curtain of silence shrouds tens of thousands of years of history,” simply because of our lack of language and surviving relics.

What about the disappearances of many earlier species? We’ve been taught that climatic conditions or perhaps asteroids were the causes. Harari argues that we, homo sapiens, are more likely responsible for their demise than crashes or dramatic climate changes (ice ages, he notes, have occurred about once every 100,000 years). Our earth’s climate “is in constant flux” and most species have been able to adapt.

But many could not adapt to us!

As a student of risk management, I was interested to learn that our Agricultural Revolution, beginning about 12,000 years ago also increased our concern about our future, linked with the new “fundamental uncertainty of agriculture.” That is when we constructed “an imagined order.” Harari cites both the Code of Hammurabi (circa 1776 BCE) and the American Declaration of Independence (1776) as “imagined orders” that enabled “us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society.”

Acceptance of these “imagined orders” became “ embedded in the natural world and shaped our desires.” They “existed within the community network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals.” Imagined orders both free and imprison us …

They are, Harari argues, how humans “organized themselves into mass cooperative networks.”  They result in “imagined hierarchies” and “unjust discrimination” such as the Hindu caste system and the Babylonian separation of human beings into “superior men,” “commoners,” and “slaves.”

But, for example, do the “fundamental values” of equality and individual freedom (liberty) contradict each other? Harari suggests they do but that “this is no defect. Such contradictions are an inseparable part of every human culture. In fact, they are culture’s engines, responsible for the creativity and dynamism of our species.”

Money is also a shared myth. It is wholly imaginary but it does create healthy inter-dependence. Money is a “purely mental revolution” to “represent systemically the value of other things for the purpose of exchanging goods and services.”

Today, “more than 90 percent of all money – more than $50 trillion appearing in our accounts — exists only on computer servers.” Bitcoin, indeed! Money is the “apogee of human tolerance,” based on two “universal principles: convertibility and trust.”

Harari steps back and also studies religion, “a system of human norms and values founded on a belief in a superhuman order.” Religion moves from animism, to polytheism, to monotheism, to dualism, to socialist humanism, and, most recently, to evolutionary humanism. It appears to be a human construct.

Questions always remain: “Are we out of the global economic crisis, or is the worst yet to come? Will China continue growing until it becomes the leading superpower? Will the United States lose its hegemony? Is the upsurge of monotheistic fundamentalism the wave of the future or a local whirlpool of little long-term significance? Are we headed toward ecological disaster or technological paradise?”

Our most recent “revolution,” the Scientific, says Harari, began on July 16, 1945 at 05:29:53 with the explosion of the first atomic bomb. It also coincided with the explosion of population: 500 million in 1500 and 7.3 billion in 2015. One of the keys to our scientific progress has been “our willingness to admit ignorance,” leading to insatiable curiosity and constructive, mathematical observation. But we also have an “obsession with military technology.”

Is it time to “rethink the idea of continual progress?”

Are we obsessed with “growth?” Harari answers, “For better or worse, in sickness and in health, the modern economy has been growing like a hormone-soused teenager.”  But is perpetual growth an illusion or “will this idea burst like all bubbles?”

His reply: “When growth becomes a supreme good, unrestricted by any other ethical considerations, it can easily lead to catastrophe.” Or will “ecological turmoil endanger the survival of homo sapiens itself?” Will only rats and cockroaches survive our insanity, as also suggested by Elizabeth Kolbert in The Sixth Extinction?

And what about “the pursuit of happiness?” Harari suggests a biological approach to happiness, that our natural system releases serotonin and other organic compounds to produce “ephemeral eddys of good fortune,” but never long-lasting and always returning us to a median level of euphoria. “Happiness” is, to him, entirely subjective, despite the story of Huxley’s “soma.”

How will it all end? Will advancing technology produce cyborgs of all of us, enabling individuals to “live” for hundreds of years, or will we simply destroy our species, leaving smiling cockroaches?

Harari’s last questions are: “What do we want to become?” and “What do we want to want?” Unanswerable, of course, but we are innately curious and creative!

Editor’s Note: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari is published by HarperCollins, New York 2015.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Why Homer Matters’ by Adam Nicolson

Our son, a teacher of English and a sailor, recommended this new study of the Homeric poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. I had read them in the Robert Fagles translations, the first in 1996, the second a year later. Nicolson’s learned and lyrical commentary brings these 4,000-year-old stories into a fresh perspective of how memory, epic and history are important to us.

He argues that Homer “makes the distant past as immediate to us as our own lives.” In addition, the author is an accomplished sailor, adding to his understanding of Odysseus’s peregrinations throughout the Mediterranean.

These poems present a “plunging perspective into the ancient,” seeking “a form of reassurance that in the end there is some kind of understanding in the world … a braided stream of possibilities pouring into the present out of the past.” Nicolson adds, “no place for Homer is more filled with tragedy than the beach, ”a point of transition for the Greeks transforming themselves from a land-based horde to sea-faring seekers.”

But who was Homer?

Nicolson suggests, “there was no human being called Homer; his words are the descendants of memory and power, the offspring of the muse who had a beautiful voice.” Stories were created, then passed along from generation to generation through memory and song, always modified to fit more current conditions.

“Homer was an ancient inheritance in the eighth century BC … already a thousand years old … The Homeric poems, or at least versions of them, were written down … perhaps about 725 BC, or maybe as much as a century later.” And even then successive scribes often altered the written versions. “Homer is haunted by the threat of transience, by the way memory fails and meanings drift in the face of time.”

To Nicolson the Iliad is “ … a tapestry of sorrow, in which the noncity is set against the city, where the marginal and contingent confront the settled and the secure … the loved against the abused, the creative against the destructive forces of life.” And, yes, even today!

The Greeks attacking Troy were northerners, Indo-Europeans, “their roots in the steppelands of Eurasia … semi-nomadic pastoralists” exhibiting “the hero complex: maleness, heroic individuality and dominance.”  Their theme: “… we are all vagabonds on earth, nothing belongs to us, our lives have no consequence and our possessions are dross. We are wanderers, place shifters, the cosmic homeless.” The settled, affluent, and wealthy Trojans didn’t have a chance.

Much of this recurs in the Odyssey: “the heart of the poem is this contingency, the absence of any over-riding permanence,” the continuous search for meaning..

Nicolson’s frequent allusions to sailing are almost elegiac. Here is one about the Odyssey: “They won’t be wrecked on the illusions of nostalgia, the longing for that heroized, antique world, because . . . to live well in the world, nostalgia must be resisted; you must stay with your ship, stay tied to the present, remain mobile, keep adjusting the rig, work with the swells, watch for the wind-shift, watch as the boom swings over, engage, in other words, with the muddle and duplicity and difficulty of life. Don’t be tempted into the lovely simplicities that the heroic past seems to offer.”

Solid counsel for some of our politicians today!

While the Homeric poems illustrate the horrific mores of some 4000 years ago, “ . . . the usefulness of violence, the lack of regret at killing, the subjection and selling of women, the extinction of all men in a surrendering city or the sense that justice resides in personal revenge,” “what is valuable and essential in these poems is the opposite of that: the ability to regard all aspects of life with clarity, equanimity and sympathy, with a loving heart and an unclouded eye.”

Homer “provides no answers, ”… but simply illustrates, “the complexity of life, the bubbling vitality of a boat at sea, the resurgent energy, as he repeatedly says, of the bright wake starting to gleam behind you.”

To conclude: “So now, each time the wind fills in, and you roll your headsails out and get the main up, and you feel the boat starting to gather way, to pick up its skirts, unable to resist the pull of the wind, you will know something essential of the Homeric world. Here under the bow you can listen, like the Phaeacians carrying Odysseus home, to the water surge and fall, that repeated hoosssh-hoosssh of a hull at speed.

And here, as you make your way between the blue islands, the boat heeled far over and the curves of the headsails bellied out to leeward, you can begin to know and sense the power of possibility in the well-balanced, well-benched ship, equipped with all it needs, acquiring the world, stretching the idea of what it means to be alive, leading men to adventure, home or war.”

Isn’t it time to read Nicolson and reread the Iliad and the Odyssey?

Editor’s Note: ‘Why Homer Matters’ by Adam Nicolson was published by Henry Holt & Co., New York 2014.
Felix Kloman
About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.
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Reading Uncertainly: ‘The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World’ by Maya Jasanoff

Having read all of Patrick O’Brian, plus his biography (see LymeLine, Feb. 22, 2018), and having read most of that other great author of sea stories in the 20th Century, Joseph Conrad, it was only natural to launch into this latest study of him by Harvard’s Maya Jasanoff.

Josef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski was as compulsive a reader as O’Brian, but this Pole added global travel to his years. Born to Polish parents in the Ukraine in 1857, he followed his banished father to Nizhny Novgorod in Russia (this city was where Count Alexander Rostov ended in Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow: see my review in LymeLine, Dec. 17, 2017!), he returned to Poland, then went to sea from France and ended an English gentleman and author.

Jasanoff’s thesis is that, “Conrad watched the emergence of the globally interrelated world …” first from Eastern Europe, then from various sailing ships in the Far East and Africa, and finally from southern England. While early on he was “obsessed with becoming a sailor” he also found that, “in books he could travel the world.” For a life at sea, Conrad wrote “There’s rarely something to look at, there’s always something to see. People are always asleep, people are always awake. You’re never alone, you’re always isolated.”

Two delightful bits that recalled to me my few years at sea: (1) “Having matured in the surroundings and under the special conditions of sea life, I have a special piety toward that form of my past …” and (2) “For utter surrender to indolence you cannot beat a sailor ashore when that mood is on him, the mood of absolute irresponsibility tasted to the full.”

Jasanoff concludes thus with her linkage of Conrad to our increasingly interconnected world, “What Conrad had made me see, I realized, was a set of forces whose shapes may have changed but whose challenges have not. Today’s hearts of darkness are to be found in other places where civilizing missions serve as covers for exploitation. The heirs of Conrad’s technologically displaced sailors (steam replacing sail) are to be found in industries disrupted by digitization. The analogues to his anarchists are to be found in Internet chat rooms or terrorist cells. The material interests he centered in the United States emanate today as much from China.”

So perhaps it was only natural that I turned again to Conrad himself in A Personal Record, first published in 1908 when he was 50-years-old. Some jewels:
“It is better for mankind to be impressionable than reflective. Nothing humanly great—great, I mean as affecting a whole mass of lives—has come from reflection.”
“Only in men’s imagination does every truth find an effective and undeniable existence. Imagination, not invention, is the supreme master of art as of life. An imaginative and exact rendering of authentic memories may serve worthily that spirit of piety toward all things human which sanction the conceptions of a writer of tales, and the emotions of the man reviewing his own experience.”
And, of course …
“Books are an integral part of one’s life.”

Editor’s Note: ‘The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World’ by Maya Jasanoff was published by Penguin Press, New York, 2017.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly: ‘The Fifth Risk’ by Michael Lewis

Is our government too bloated, too intrusive, too expensive?

Is it a “swamp” that needs to be drained if we are to survive?

Michael Lewis, the author of such jewels as Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Big Short, Flash Boys (see my review of 12/15/2014) and The Undoing Project (see my review of 1/22/2018), has been stimulated by the election of Donald Trump and Trump’s “willful ignorance” and “subsequent incoherence” to step back and take a serious look at a few departments of our government.

Lewis has selected the work of the Departments of Energy (controlling nuclear waste), Commerce (predicting the weather), and Agriculture (assuring food safety), and using in-depth discussions with selected government servants illustrates what is seldom acknowledged – the long-term contributions of much of what goes on at the federal level.

Part of the problem in Lewis’ word is that we have ”two million federal employees taking orders from four thousand political appointees. Dysfunction is baked into the structure of the thing …”

He leads this analysis with the words of John MacWilliams, the Department of Energy’s “first ever chief risk officer.” MacWilliams offers his top four risks as the threat of nuclear disaster, North Korea, Iran, and protecting our electrical grid from cyber-terrorism.

But topping all four is the broader inadequacy of “project management” in the US. MacWilliams states, “managing risks (is) an act of the imagination. And the human imagination is a poor tool for judging risk … They (humans) are less good at imagining a crisis before it happens—and taking action to prevent it.”

Lewis goes on to explain, “ … the risk a society runs when it falls into the habit of responding to long-term risks with short-term solutions,” results in, “ … the innovation that never occurs, and the knowledge that is never created.” He concludes, “We need doubtful and forever curious students of possibilities.”

Lewis’ answer is that the long-term and continuing government work of managing the risks of nuclear waste, unusual weather, and food safety has been successful … if not exceptional.

But is this work threatened by the current administration?

To Lewis, “Trump’s budget … is powered by a perverse desire—to remain ignorant.” And that seems to have led to “a rift in American life … between the people who are in it for the mission and the people who (are) in it for the money.”

So what is “risk”?

Lewis quotes David Friedman, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who says, “Risk is uncertainty about the outcome.” We can never be certain of what will occur, but we can certainly try to be.

And that leads to his final sentence, “It’s what you fail to imagine that kills you.”

A most provocative and coherent analysis.

Editor’s Note: ‘The Fifth Risk’ by Michael Lewis is published by W. W. Norton, New York 2018.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly: ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ by Mohsin Hamid

How would you respond to a bearded gentleman greeting you in Lahore, Pakistan, with these words: “Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance?” Followed by these, “Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America. I noticed that you were looking for something, more than looking, in fact you seemed to be on a mission, and since I am both a native of this city and a speaker of your language, I thought I might offer you my service.”

Mohsin Hamid, a native Pakistani, a graduate of Princeton University, and a former employee of a financial services firm in New York, serving clients in the Philippines, and Chile, who now lives and writes in Oxford, has created a character with similar experience to his own.  The character greets this American in his native city, wines and dines with him, all while delivering his life story.

We read only the words of Changez, the name of the narrator and guide, telling us of how his views of the United States and its inhabitants have been materially altered by events at the turn of the century. It is an increasingly critical analysis. What do we citizens of this country, protected by two oceans and enormous wealth, really know what others around this globe think of us?

Consider these quotes:

“ … my ability to function both respectfully and with self-respect in a hierarchical environment, something American youngsters – unlike their Pakistani counterparts – rarely seemed trained to do.”

 “I had always thought of America as a nation that looked forward; for the first time I was struck by its determination to look back …  What your fellow countrymen longed for was unclear to me – a time of unquestioned dominance?  Of safety?  Of moral certainty? I did not know — but that they were scrambling to don the costumes of another era was apparent.”

 “Yes, my musings were bleak indeed. I reflected that I had always resented the manner in which America conducted itself in the world; your country’s constant interference in the affairs of others was insufferable. Vietnam, Korea, the straits of Taiwan, the Middle East, and now Afghanistan: in each of the major conflicts and standoffs that ringed my mother continent of Asia, America played a central role … (and) finance was a primary means by which the American empire exercised its power.”

 “It seemed to me then … that America was engaged only in posturing. As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world. So that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums … “

This is a compelling and enlightening one-sided conversation, leading to a 
stunning conclusion.

As the author himself comments in an addendum to this novel, “I believe that the core skill of the novelist is empathy: the ability to imagine what someone else might feel. And I believe that the world is suffering from a deficit of empathy at the moment …  We need to stop being so confused by the fear we are fed; a shared humanity should unite us with people we are encouraged to think of as enemies.”

Incidentally, Hamid has written a second novel, Exit West*, which received solid reviews here and in Europe. I’ve read it, but I consider The Reluctant Fundamentalist his jewel.

Challenge your thinking!

Editor’s Notes:  i) ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ by Mohsin Hamid is published by Houghton Mifflin & Harcourt, New York 2007

ii) ‘Exit West’ by Mohsin Hamid was the Eastern Connecticut ‘One Book One Region’ selection for 2018.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Essays After Eighty’ & ‘A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety’ by Donald Hall

“I teeter when I walk, I no longer drive, I look out the windows … My circles narrow. Each season my balance gets worse, and I sometimes fall. My fingers are clumsy and slow with buttons. I have problems with memory, sure, but it’s short-term memory … My summer nights are NESN and the Boston Red Sox. I enjoy multiple naps.”  So did the New Hampshire poet Donald Hall define life after 80!

I know, I know … I’m about the same age.  I too enjoyed Sidney Bechet when I was younger (a famous New Orleans jazz hero for you younger lads and lasses).  I too listened to Robert Frost in person (he “said” his lines at my high school in 1950 and 1951).  And I too have tried my hand at poetry (the haiku).

Some years ago, I was advised that one should not read a book until one is the same age as when the author wrote it. I let that pass, but now, after becoming immersed in Hall’s two last books, I suspect the advice may be sanguine. But that doesn’t mean that my younger readers should avoid these two volumes. No, not al all …

In these brief, enjoyable, humorous, and always challenging essays (Hall writes that he decided at eighty to dispense with his renowned poetry, after he served as the United States Poet Laureate, shifting to the essay). He describes poems as “ . . . image-bursts from the brain-depths, words flavored by battery-long vowels” that challenge our brains and imaginations, “ . . . delicate rhythms with forceful enjambments and an assonance of dipthongs.” These essays, fortunately, are less poetic!

I enjoyed especially his warnings on writing: “Don’t begin paragraphs with ‘I’” (I failed that one!). “Avoid ‘me’ and ‘my’ when you can. . . . Avoid the personal pronoun when you can. . . . “ and “don’t be afraid of contradiction: it is the cellular structure of life. . . . The emotional intricacy and urgency of human life expresses itself most fiercely in contradiction”.

Death, of course, is on his mind. “There is only one road” and “Of course all of us will be forgotten” but these essays demonstrate a life lived to the fullest, with humor and good feeling for his years in New Hampshire.

Donald Hall died quietly in Wilmot, NH on June 23, 2018. Do read these brief, succinct and poetic essays: perfect for the aging mind, as well as for those advancing inexorably to old age. Enjoy every moment!

Editor’s Note: ‘Essays After Eighty,’ 2014, and ‘A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety,’ both by Donald Hall were published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New  York, respectively in 2014 and 2018.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly: ‘The Origins of Creativity’ by Edward O. Wilson

I will admit, right at the start, that I am an admirer of Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard biologist and professor emeritus. I’ve read and been stimulated by many of his earlier works: Half-Earth (2016), The Meaning of Human Existence (2014), The Social Conquest of Earth (2012), and Anthill (2010).

So too with this most recent work. It is a paean to the humanities and science, and “why we are both supremely advanced and supremely dangerous,” leading to ”creativity (as) the unique and defining trait of our species; and its ultimate goal, self-understanding” and “the innate quest for originality.”

We are a questioning species, constantly asking what, how, and why. Wilson argues that “it should be axiomatic that education of the young consists of a wisely chosen balance between science and the humanities,” avoiding the current over-emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics).

He recounts two previous “enlightenments,” the first around 500 B.C. with the Greeks, including Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and the second from 1600 to 1800, with Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Voltaire. Today, he sees a possible Third Enlightenment with the marriage of the humanities and science. This wedding can help improve our natural instinct for empathy, “the intelligence to read the feelings of others and predict their actions” using our capacity for language to “recount episodes of the past and those imaginable into the future.”

This is a work of challenging questions (what, why, when, and especially how), also posing possible answers merging science and the humanities through Wilson’s knowledge of paleontology, anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology, and neurobiology. He also cites literature, music and painting to illustrate his argument.

His conclusion: “Scientists and scholars in the humanities, working together, will, I believe, serve as the leaders of a new philosophy, one that blends the best and most relevant of these two great branches of learning”.

Editor’s Note: ‘The Origins of Creativity’ by Edward O. Wilson is published by W. W. Norton, New York 2017.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process’ by John McPhee

“Hunt through your mind for a good beginning. Then write it. Write a lead.”  There, I found it …

As a semi-intoxicated reader of most of John McPhee’s 32 books, I launched into these eight mesmerizing essays on the art (and work) of writing as soon as they were published late last year. McPhee, a Princeton graduate (1953), a lecturer and writing advisor at the University, and a long-time contributor to The New Yorker, dissects the challenging process of converting ideas to understandable prose with erudition, clarity, and, above all, good humor.

The key is to write …

“Young writers find out what kinds of writers they are by experiment … Put words to paper as frequently as you can. Keep thinking.

McPhee states, “Whatever you do, don’t rely on memory.” How true! When I wrote an autobiography some years ago, I found my old letters, calendars, and notes all too often corrected an errant memory. As McPhee notes, “Writing is selection” and “Factual writing is also a kind of treasure hunt,” looking for nuggets through piles of old papers, adding, “Writing is a matter strictly of developing oneself. You compete only with yourself. You develop yourself by writing.”

Other astute observations McPhee makes on the writing process are:

  • the “considerable tension between chronology and theme … chronology usually dominates.”
  • “ … a basic criterion for all structures: they should not be imposed on the material. They should arise from within.”
  • “The approach to structure in factual writing is like returning from a grocery store with materials you intend to cook for dinner. You set them out on the kitchen counter and what’s there is what you deal with, and all you deal with.”
  • Finally, “the essence of the process is revision.” Hence at least draft #4!

One suggestion hit me personally: “The title is an integral part of writing, and one of the most important parts, and ought not to be written by anyone but the writer of what follows the title.” All three of the books I’ve written began with a title in mind.

But the title of one of my books, Mumpsimus Revisited, was so confusing to a possible publisher that I had to self-publish that one. It referred to the importance of being able to change your mind when you should. It came from a European story of a medieval monk who used the word “mumpsimus” in his reading of the Eucharist, rather than the correct “sumpsimus.” He refused to change. My book began with an acknowledgement that, when I found myself in error, I quickly made the correction!  But I refused to alter my title!

McPhee gives us an entertaining, thoroughly enjoyable, and knowledgeable guide to not only writing but also everything we read.

Try it … and keep writing!

Editor’s Note: ‘Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process’ by John McPhee was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2017.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? “Et Cetera, Et Cetera” by Lewis Thomas,

Awhile back, a conversation at Ashlawn Coffee in Old Saybrook brought up the word “blight,” in connection with a new committee in Old Lyme.

What, indeed, is “blight”?

Is one person’s “ugly condition” possibly a delight for someone else? That brought up the word “Blighty,” a word referring to England, possibly from Urdu and no connection whatsoever with the word “blight.” So do some words we use infrequently mean the same to all of us?

That question, nagging my brain, led me back to a book I had read almost 30 years ago, Lewis Thomas’s Et Cetera, Et Cetera, in which this medical doctor explores the derivation of many of our common words, with great humor and erudition.. Consider: animus, pessimism, snare, sleep, fastidious, scrutiny, pupil, hair, googol (not Google, I might add!), free, music, ethics, and Gaia.

Fascinating.

From their origins in Indo-European, Greek, Latin, and other languages, to today’s usages, these words have evolved almost as much as we homo Sapiens.

Take, for example, the word “presently.”  Some 300 years ago, it was used by the English to mean now or at this moment. Then, in the 18th and 19th centuries in “Old Blighty,” English novelists used it in the sense of the near future. That persisted into the 20th century, but in the last 50 years “presently” seems to have begun to revert to its original sense in many vocabularies.

As Dr. Thomas notes with the word “delight,” “But there is no lasting light in delight; its cognates carry soft warnings of the shadow just ahead.”

His introduction opens our minds to the delight of language: “the mark of being human is speech and the ready use of metaphor, and the evolutionary development of this trait is told, in part, by the history of words … I keep forgetting words. But forgetting is part of the fun, allowing the pleasure of looking them up and being flabbergasted all over again … I turned into an obsessed collector, picking up and storing in the untidy attic of my mind words upon words.”

More salient quotes: “ … something over 90 percent of the remarks made in a day’s turning are essentially idle sounds …  indicating presence, politeness, interest if interest is wanted, readiness to talk,” and  “ … the immense role played by small-talk in keeping discourse going.”  As such, “language is itself the most exhilarating of games, an endless contest in which we are engaged in all our lives, pure fun for the mind.”

Can we as human beings actually learn to live together?

Thomas is cautious about our future: “Right now, because of the noisy triumph of individualism in the last two centuries, and especially because of our collective follies since 1914, we seem to ourselves to have lost the game altogether, on our way to extinction. Good. We will need a few more decades of deep discouragement, casting about for ways to change our behavior toward each other, and then perhaps the notion deep in our collective consciousness will take hold, and we will start changing without realizing that we are transforming ourselves … letting nature, at last, take her course and relying on the language for new guidance.”

His conclusion is a bit more optimistic: we have “a brain capable not only of awareness and what we call consciousness … but we do something more than this. We record the details of our past experience and make compulsive guesses about our future … More than this, and here is our uniquely distinguishing feature, we talk to each other about these things. In short, we are unique because of language.  … The really important, far and away most important thing about human beings is human society. We are … a biologically, mandatorily, ineluctably social animal.”

Step back a moment and explore words with Dr. Lewis Thomas, and then go forth and share them with everyone else.

Editor’s Note: ‘Et Cetera, Et Cetera’ was written by Lewis Thomas and published by Little, Brown & Co., Boston 1990.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly: ‘Writing to Learn’ by William Zinsser

Almost 30 years ago my wife bought and read William Zinsser’s Writing to Learn, with a copy autographed by the author.  It has taken all that time for me to find and read this perceptive and challenging work.

Late, but perhaps not too late!

The key lies in the title: this is not a “how to” book but rather an encouragement to write, and write, and then write some more, as the critical part of the process of learning.

Zinsser, who died in 2015, wrote for the New York Herald Tribune, The New Yorker, the New York Times, taught at Yale and New York’s Fieldston School, edited the Yale Alumni Magazine, and was extensively published.  His key point is “ … writing is a form of thinking … ”  He never stopped doing both.

Writing, he explains, “clarifies half-formed ideas.”  It is thinking on paper.  As our thinking constantly changes, so too should our writing, and, “ … the essence of writing is rewriting,” in the form of the alteration and clarification of our thoughts.

He describes his “liberal” education: Deerfield Academy, Princeton University, the U.S. Army in the War in Europe, newspaper reporting, teaching at Yale, being Master of Yale’s Branford College; and then even more writing, as a lifelong “linear and sequential” process.

Lovely quotes: on rewriting: “I heard the scratching out of words that is the obbligato of a writer’s life,” and on academic writing:  “It’s a language squeezed dry of human juices – a Sargasso Sea of passive verbs, long and generalized nouns, pompous locutions and unnecessary jargon.”

His Chapter 5 describes his pet Crochets and Convictions: information and noise; obscurity; voice and tone; brevity (“Brevity is one sign of a well-organized mind.”); jargon; killer nouns (“the pomposity of bureaucratic language”), lifesaving verbs (be active, never passive), and the illiteracy of the elite (corporate over-writing is “scandalous in its flatulence.”)

As Zinsser considered his thesis, he said, “I would write confidently from my own convictions and experiences – take ‘em or leave ‘em – and to illustrate my points I would present passages by writers I admired.”

And so he does …

He begins with William Strunk & E. B. White’s The Elements of Style (“read once a year”) and then on to:

  • Physics and Chemistry: Einstein, Primo Levi and Richard Feynman
  • Geology:  John Muir, Rachel Carson and John Rodgers (Yale)
  • Art: John Russell (NYT) and A. Hyatt Mayor (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
  • Natural World: Darwin, Roger Tory Peterson (a former Old Lyme resident!), and Archie Carr (University of FL)
  • Music: Alec Wilder, Virgil Thomas, and Roger Sessions.

For Mathematics he extensively quotes Joan Countryman, a teacher at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia: he says music is also “a language” and advises, “keep a journal with a running account of your work.”

And for Memoirs, he cites Lewis Thomas (Lives of a Cell): “it had never occurred to me that a memoir could be pre-natal.” It’s too bad he never read Ian McEwan’s 2016 novel of life before birth, Nutshell.

William Zinsser’s reading marathon is condensed into a 100-yard dash. Read it and write on.

One further comment: William Zinsser and his wife had a summer house in East Lyme for many years, and Caroline Fraser Zinsser wrote a short study of the 1828-1851 letters of Charles and Mary Chadwick of Lyme (he was a sailing captain), which was published by the East Lyme Public Library in 2005.

Editor’s Note: ‘Writing to Learn’ by William Zinsser is published by Harper & Row, New York 1988

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Wicked, Weird & Wily Yankees’ by Stephen Gencarella

Editor’s Note: Stephen Gencarella, the author of ‘Wicked, Weird & Wily Yankees’ will be the guest speaker at the Lyme Public Library’s Annual Meeting on Tuesday, June 26, at 7 p.m.

What a pleasure: to read an engaging book by a close neighbor (Steve and his family live just down Tinker Lane from me) and to encourage other Lymies to do the same!

Steve, a professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and the resident folklorist at the Connecticut River Museum, offers us a series of essays about unusual folk from New England, eccentric and out-of-the-ordinary men and women: hermits, healers, poets, mesmerists, fortune-tellers, prophets, reformers, bandits, visionaries, vagabonds, introverts, and misogynists.

In other words, most of us!

But what is eccentricity. The professor explains: “ … eccentricity is not an inherent quality but one always partially imposed from the outside, from the society that demarcates and gazes upon the eccentric … “[it] is always a matter of contested perspectives” and “ … tendencies to the reclusive or to the flamboyant quickly garner the label of eccentricity.”  He continues, “As tends to happen when history yields to folklore, this oddity began to grow in dimensions through the course of a century” of retelling stories of eccentrics.  And “the stories themselves are vagabonds.”

Among the locals described in these essays are a character at the Monkey Farm Café in Old Saybrook, William Gillette of Gillette’s Castle, that “Hadlyme stone heap,” and Elizabeth Tashjian, perhaps better known as “The Nut Lady” of Old Lyme.

Steve concludes with the counsel, “but that is precisely the challenge of eccentrics: to demand respect for the integrity and for the unique and unusual demands of every individual and to refuse to allow authority – however minor – to get away with discouraging people who hear a different drummer.”

We are all story-tellers!

But I was most impressed by the author’s continued use of the word “passing” as his euphemism for death: he uses it 31 times, by my count. It reminded me of that famous “Dead Parrot” skit from Monty Python, in which John Cleese presents an inert parrot nailed to a stick to Michael Palin, the man who had just sold it to him.

“E’s passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed ‘im to the perch, ‘e’d be pushing up the daisies! ‘Is metabolic processes are now ‘istory! ‘E’s off the twig! ‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!! This is an ex-parrot!”

Does this usage “passeth all understanding” (Philippians)?

I pass … but do read these entrancing stories of eccentric Yankees!

About this book: ‘Wicked, Weird & Wily Yankees’ by Stephen Gencarella was published in May 2018 by Globe Pequot, Guilford, CT 2018.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Moonglow’ by Michael Chabon

This is, at one and the same time, a work of fiction and the author’s actual family history, selectively combined and embellished. It is the story of Michael Chabon’s grandfather and grandmother, recreated as a totally engaging novel, covering more than five decades in Germany, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York City, Florida and California.  He “recreates” these two antecedents, beginning with his grandfather’s work with the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.) in Germany in the waning day of World War II, followed by the meeting with his grandmother in Baltimore two years later, and then their fractured lives thereafter.

The key lies in Chabon’s candid Author’s Note: “In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to the facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” He went on later: “To claim or represent that I retain an exact or even approximate recollection of what anyone said so long ago would be to commit the memoirist’s great sin.” And so his imagination is unleashed …

This is a history, or really even slightly connected stories about his grandparents and their lives in these United States, as they allowed their interconnected emotions to respond to ever-changing stimuli. As Chabon confesses, perhaps there is nothing such as a defined “self”: “Maybe ‘self’ was a free variable with no bounded value.”

Chabon is rich with descriptive phrases. (1) a priest’s cassock: “White dust patterned the black cassock in big splotches like continents or the spots on a cow.”

(2) “The small room was all cross-hatchings of shadow like a lesson in shading a sphere, an arc of darkness wrapped around a circle of gray with a bright spot a bit off-center.  The bright spot was my grandmother; all the light in the sad little room seemed to be radiating from her.”

And describing his father reminded me of John le Carre’s father: ” … my big-talking, sweet-talking, fast-talking father was in and out of courtrooms, tax dodges, marriages, and my life … ” And as Chabon concludes, “That was only human, the common lot. But once your dream revealed itself, like most dreams, to be nothing but a current of raw compulsion flowing through a circuitry of delusion and lies, then that was the time to give it up.” His grandfather’s was with Wernher von Braun and space exploration.

Finally, a curious note. The chapter heads are safety matches formed into roman numerals. But two matches are lit, one in Chapter XX describing an O.S.S. excursion, and the other heading Chapter XXV, when his grandfather heads off to jail.  The connection: I do not know.

A rich and completely engrossing story!

Editor’s Note: ‘Moonglow’ by Michael Chabon was published by HarperCollins, New York 2016.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year-resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Mountains of the Mind’ by Robert Macfarlane

Have you ever been mesmerized by a mountain?

I have … Mount Fuji, from the waters of Suruga Wan, Mounts Rainier and Baker from Puget Sound on a cloudless day, and even Mount Kearsarge in central New Hampshire when I actually climbed it with some of our family.

What is it about mountains that seem to entrance our minds?

Robert Macfarlane, a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, gives us a meditation on these heights, an enthralling “mental stimulation that explores why “the unknown is so inflammatory to the imagination.”  And why is it that almost every “prophet” of all our religions has ‘habitually been up mountains … to receive divine counsel”?

What is “the mesmerism of high places”?  He explains: “ … the urge to explore space – to go higher – is innate in the human mind” and “ … the visionary amplitudes of altitude felt like the approximations of divine sight  … the spell of altitude.”

He writes “when we look at a landscape, we do not see what is there, but largely what we think is there … We read landscapes” as interpreted “in the light of our own experience and memory, and that of our shared cultural memory.”  In other words, landscapes are “romanticized into being,” mountains most of all.

“Contemplating the immensities of deep time, you face in a way that is both exquisite and horrifying, the total collapse of your present, compacted to nothingness by the pressures of pasts and futures too extensive to envisage … [plus] the appalling transience of the human body.”

Macfarlane’s chapters explore geology, fear, glaciers, heights, maps, theology, and conclude, inevitably, with Mount Everest and the attempt of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine in 1924. The author himself is also a climber as well as a student of mountains.

He cites John Ruskin with the idea that “risk-taking – scaring yourself – was, provided you survived, a potent means of self-improvement.”

“This is the great shift which has taken place in the history of risk.  Risk has always been taken, but for a long time it was taken with some ulterior purpose in mind: scientific advancement, personnel glory, financial gain.  About two and a half centuries ago, however, fear started to become fashionable for its own sake.  Risk, it was realized, brought its own reward: the sense of physical exhilaration and elation which we would now attribute to the effects of adrenaline.  And so risk-taking – the deliberate inducement of fear — became desirable; became a commodity.”

Macfarlane concludes, “mountains return to us the priceless capacity for wonder.”  He continues, “In ways that are for the most part imperceptible to us, we all bend our lives to fit the templates with which myths and archetypes provide us. We all tell ourselves stories, and bring our futures into line with these stories, however much we cherish the sense of newness, or originality, about our lives.”

Finally, “at bottom, mountains, like all wildernesses, challenge our complacent convictions – so easy to lapse into – that the world has been made for humans by humans.”

So, encourage your doubts and go climb a hill!

Editor’s Note:  ‘Mountains of the Mind’ by Robert Macfarlane was published by Vintage Books, New York 2004.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year-resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Patrick O’Brian: A Life Revealed’ by Dean King

This is a confession of an addict.

In early 1993, I was urged by a long-time sailing friend to begin reading a series of novels by Patrick O’Brian about an English skipper and his shipboard surgeon set in the Napoleonic Wars.

I did.

By now I’ve read – three times, no less –all 21 of the famous Jack Aubrey-Stephen Maturin novels, plus six of his other books, plus King’s 2000 biography. And I’ve just finished a second read of this biography, learning even more about a compelling writer, now acknowledged by many as one of the two best 20th Century tellers of sea stories (Joseph Conrad being the other.)

A re-read is often even more enlightening than the first, and so it was this time.  For Patrick O’Brian was a consummate “storyteller” in both senses of the word. First, he was not “Patrick O’Brian”, an Irish novelist. He was Richard Patrick Russ, the grandson of a German who moved to London in 1842 to seek his fortune as a furrier. He served in the ambulance corps during World War II and divorced his first (Welsh) wife immediately thereafter, taking his new wife Mary (English, but divorced from her Russian husband) first to Wales and then to southern France, as his writing career blossomed.

Patrick was indeed a well-read and curious man, whose “ … love of nature, literature, and writing arrived early, whose love of solitude would endure, and whose obsession with privacy would infuse his eventual literary tour de force, the Aubrey-Maturin novels.”

But his worlds were mostly vicarious, experienced through his reading, not through actual sea experience. While his stories give us detailed and factually-correct stories of the sea and many of the battles, skirmishes, and life at sea during the wars between 1800 and 1820, plus the intrigues of life in England at that time, they were a result of his reading and research plus his remarkable memory.As far as we know, O’Brian never went to sea in any sort of vessel!

O’Brian avoided publicity whenever he could: As he had his alter-ego, Stephen Maturin, say in Truelove: “Question and answer is not a civilized form of conversation … It is extremely ill bred, extremely unusual, and extremely difficult to turn aside gracefully or indeed without offense.”

But he was, above all, a writer: “ … he found his most life-affirming moments in this fluid act of creation … For him, the creative process was largely an inexplicable one, some magical combination of conscious, and subconscious, of instinct and intellect, all clicking at once.” In addition to his English, he was fluid, “to some extent, in Italian, French, Spanish, German, Catalan and Irish and had a good background in Latin and Greek.” He also, “possessed extraordinary powers of retention and integrated this information into his lively ken.” King concludes that O’Brian had “ … an ego of iron beneath a surface of humility.”

My connection with O’Brian’s work goes beyond his novels and biographies.  Two of us went to the Princeton Club in New York City in the fall of 1993 to hear O’Brian talk about his novels and read from one of them. Mesmerizing, but the high point was when we asked him to autograph copies of his latest work. With an impish smile he proceeded to do so: one with his right hand and the other with his left!

Most of his novels have beguiling conclusions, somewhat abrupt, if only to lead the reader toward the next “installment.” But he explained his endings in a conversation about writing with Maturin and a friend one evening on the rail of a ship in the Pacific in the Nutmeg of Consolation: “La betise c’est de vouloir conclure (the absurd thing is the desire to come to a conclusion.) The conventional ending, with virtue rewarded and loose ends tied up is often sadly chilling; and its platitude and falsity tend to infect what has gone before, however excellent.”

I noted that passage when I first read it and used it for the end of my own autobiography.  King also cites it.

Mary O’Brian died in France in March 1998. Patrick O’Brian died, incongruously, in Dublin, Ireland, in January 2000. But his stories live on …

Editor’s Note: ‘Patrick O’Brian: A Life Revealed,’ by Dean King is published by Henry Holt & Co., New York 2000.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year-resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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