12 Books About Spiritual Sustenance

Many webzines put out lists of must-read or you-should-have-read books that will enlighten you, expand you, or help you attain spiritual greatness. These sorts of throwaway articles, which editors often toss off to freelancers, read as if written by excellent MFA graduates who have learned an appreciation for good literature. Good literature is a wonderful, continuing wellspring that illumines our culture except that a good many readers stop tackling the more difficult reads after they leave school. In general we are not reading them.

Moreover, there are excellent books of spiritual sustenance that are non-fiction, even hard science. These texts are not on MFA syllabi because there is only so much one can cover in fifteen weeks a semester for tens of thousands of dollars plus the cost of books. Other voices have added their lists to the conversation as well to fill the gaps. While each discipline offers unique books, the lists are typically skewed to the boundaries of their studies. An enervating list of books that provides spiritual sustenance requires more than a lit. major or a spiritual leader or a doctor of psychology.

What follows is a different sort of list of books. Spiritual sustenance can take all sorts of forms depending on age, education, career, gender, and family life. Beware, lists engender an authoritarian urge to give the reader “the truth” of the matter – these are the ones that matter. Hopefully this collected list does not fall into the trap of giving answers when there are only directions to suggest.

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. One of the rules for writing fiction is “don’t tell me, show me.” Hesse’s novel is an excellent example that walks a reader through the search for a life of the spirit. You do not need to be a Buddhist to appreciate the novel.
Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne. Disney productions of the book need to be dismissed although the great blooper classic title from Disney press, Cooking with Pooh, is worth a mention. Milne’s classic of the imagination of a young boy and his stuffed animals is sublime. There is a reason why parents continue to read the stories to their children over and over.
Ecclesiastes by Kohelet. Yes, a book of the Bible (Old Testament), actually from the back of the Bible. The Bible is three libraries of books and all of the texts are over 2000 years old. Kohelet was included in the canon but a pious editor was so disturbed by the doubt and skepticism woven into the text that he wrote an additional chapter, Chapter 12, to mitigate the potential impiety of the first eleven chapters. Kohelet identifies the absurdities between belief in God and reality as we experience it. Nonetheless, he believes and that is the challenge of the book. Use the JPS or NRSV translations.
How We Die by Sherwin Nuland, a National Book Award winner. The last chapter is worth the cost of the entire book. The surgeon examines the science of how the human body expires with appreciation and fascination for the complexity of the process. The last chapter though. . .
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. He is a survivor of the Holocaust but refuses to be a victim. He dedicated his academic life to teaching students how he reclaimed his sanity and his sanctity for life after he emerged from the death camps.
The Blessing of the Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel. How did we stray from the elements of common sense when it comes to raising children? This book is as much about the art of life as its application with parenting.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. Cursed be those philosophy majors who have to think everything through. The novel is a journey that forces the protagonist to even question what questions he should be answering. The enduring strength of the text is that it teaches how to think about the vexing problems that confound us.
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. The children’s book that really is not a children’s book. What is selflessness and selfishness? Is there ever such a thing as giving too much?
Soul Mountain by Gao Xinjian, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. This book is meant to be read slowly as the landscapes are painted in lush, exacting detail. If you find yourself wanting to rush through the text, put it down and come back when the urge has passed.
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. Margaret learns the lessons and humanity of growing up. The text addresses coming to terms with our bodies and our fears.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery. What is truly important in life and why do the answers often bring as much pain as pleasure? Another beautiful novel that shows rather than tells us the insights and lessons.
Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges. A collection of short stories from the one-time librarian of the Argentinian National Library. This is a book for readers by a reader. Boundaries disappear, profundities multiply and slip away. When you look up from the text, you will never look at the world the same way again. The imagery is overwhelming.

Books, Erotica and Kindle (SFW)

Despite the fact that 4000 new books were published every day in 2013, 23% of the adult population of the United States did not crack open a book in 2013. The Pew Research Center published their findings with the ominous warning that the trend of non-readers is growing larger every year. Another, less reputable survey concluded that 89% of American adults did not read a book cover to cover in the calendar year surveyed. However, 31% of the adult population read eleven or more books in 2013 or at least started them. Someone is reading at least some of these new books.

UNESCO tracks the number of books published in the world by country. In 2014 2,200,000 books were published on the planet, about 6000 a day. Of that number 537,000 were published in the U.S., U.K, Australia and Canada, breaking down to 1475 books per day in these English speaking countries. Almost none of these books made significant sums of money.

Kindle Publishing, owned by Amazon, promotes the publication of books directly from the author to the reading public. The enticement for the writer is a greater share of the profits from each eBook download. An author can expect $2.80 for every book priced at $3.99. This pricing structure is a tremendous boon for an unknown author.

Until now.

Kindle is changing its payment program from dollars per download to a percentage of the dollars based on how much of the book the downloading reader of the book reads. Payment does not begin until the 10% mark. Once 10% of the book is read the author receives 10% of the total if the entire book is read. The author receives the full $2.80 (on a $3.99 book) only if the reader reads to the end of the text. Yes, Amazon tracks how many pages you read of every book you have downloaded from them. If you skip to the end of the book, cutting out chunks of the middle pages, there is an algorithm that identifies that behavior as well.

Big Brother knows what you are reading and just as important, what you are not reading. However, Amazon has opened up a vigorous platform with ever expanding room for new authors. Amazon is in the business of online retail, and Kindle and Kindle Publishing is a part of the business plan. The goal is to make money by attracting authors who will produce work that reading consumers want to purchase by download. Kindle Publishing offers a new avenue for aspiring authors to make money in the narrow and idiosyncratic (some say failing) publishing industry.

All is not functioning well on this new platform, which is to be expected. Within the broad-based and convoluted system of Kindle, there are ways to advance one’s personal priority over others with methods that have nothing to do with the quality of the writing. Another term for this sort of advancement is “gaming the system.”

This is a tail tale of sex or, more precisely, writing naughty stories. Results on the Kindle platform demonstrate the easiest way to encourage a download of an unknown book is to put forth a salacious cover. A significant population of readers are looking for the promise of an erotic story, a naughty fantasy often with particular kinks. The most prolific downloading readers of erotica on Amazon are women who enjoy fantasies of cowboys, firefighters, billionaires (e.g. 50 Shades of Grey) or werewolves followed by gay men who read everything that includes gay sex, including dinosaurs; extra points for this bestseller.

Many of these titles are hack writing – formulaic stories with poor grammar and whose length is no longer than thirty pages long. As a technical accomplishment, these books can be written in a day or two. There is no outside editing, the grammar is typically atrocious and clichéd terms such as “washboard abs” and “burning passion in his/her eyes” are the norm. There are online vendors that cater to these authors, producing the spicy book cover, which is a much better work of art than the writing, for as little as five dollars.

These writers game the Kindle system by producing tens of these books quickly, building a portfolio of fifty to a hundred titles. The last page of the book will be links to their other titles on Amazon. They further game the system by rotating pricing from free to $.99 to $2.99 and back. There is a market for these naughty books but the selection has slipped downward to the lowest common denominators allowed by the restrictions on pornography as defined by Amazon. (Amazon has clear boundaries on what is erotica and what is pornography in books.) This is the definition of hack writing, which has a long tradition in the United States from the “Dime store novels” to “pulp fiction.” Kindle is a new avenue for an old phenomenon.

Amazon wants to close these hackneyed avenues by putting in a new system that excises the profitability of these piss-poor lascivious fictions. The new remuneration system appears to favor book lengths of 300 pages or more as formatted for the eReader. As far as Amazon is concerned, there is nothing wrong with writing erotica but there is an issue with poorly written erotica.

Erotica is healthy and normative, even tales of billionaire werewolves engaging in tentacle sex with virginal lasses on their luxury spaceships as they attempt to penetrate the blockade around the mysteriously inhabited planet of a distant star system. If it gets adults who are not reading to pick up the book, it must be good, right? No human being is exploited in books unlike other forms of pornography such as photography and videos. Contrary to the Puritan view, a fantasy life is healthy, dynamic, and celebratory. A good story is also titillating if written well.

(Yes, tentacle sex is an appreciated and monetarily rewarded kink on Kindle Direct. I cannot make this up.)

A final thought, taking into account that reading dirty stories is usually a private endeavor. Reading books has typically been a solitary affair and reading erotica is typically more so. I do not want to know your kinks; I do not even want to know that you have kinks. Each should keep their private fantasies to themselves or at most, share them with their lover. With the issue of intimate privacy at the fore, is it or is not creepy that a major corporation is tracking your sexual proclivities? Eww.

P.S.: Those free naughty books – you get what you pay for, washboard abs and all.

The Favorite Book 2

The evolution of the ebook is a heated discussion. While there is the convenience of traveling with an e-reader like the IPad or a Galaxy tablet, there is a visceral loss of paper and ink. Scribbling in the margins does not work on an e-reader but hauling a bunch of books around in a backpack or a messenger bag is a series of frustrations too.

Even more, reading an ebook is a subtly different set of mental processes than a print book, especially non-fiction. In a print book, I may tag a sentence with a pencil in the margin that stands out for retrieval or further review. Often I read a sentence of which I am unsure and I let it remain unmarked although I tag the page number or the page itself in my memory, waiting to see if the next pages prove or disprove the relevancy. This is the process of reading a book and its arguments closely. If the sentence proves relevant, I will flip back a page or two because I am haphazardly counting pages as I continue to follow the argument of the sentence or the paragraph.

I find that in an ebook, the pages look altogether much more similar – the page with the large paragraph followed by the two small paragraphs blends away. Further, I am less conscious of swiping pages compared to turning pages. I lose track. Short arguments work well on an ebook but long, involved arguments are easier to comprehend on printed pages. These minor differences frustrate my long-time developing methodology for studying. The fixes that others have suggested are time-consuming and loss of time defeats the purpose.

The paper-based thesaurus is superb at presenting a lot of information quickly and taking the reading to further information just as speedily. Most online thesauri stink and fail either criterion, a lot of information quickly or access to expanded but related information just as rapidly. I say “most” because I was recently sent to a website that is a holy grail of computing promises; namely, transforming a process done with paper and ink into a better process in digital format. The ebook format excels.

Check out graphwords.com. Plug in a few common words and watch the maps blossom across the screen. Please, though, don’t blame me for all the time you spend with this word engine.

The Favorite Book

When authors are interviewed, inevitably one of the questions will be a variation of “Who is your favorite author?” or “What is the title of your favorite book?” because curious readers want to know. If the interview is published in the New York Times Book Review, the reader can guess the typical answer before reading it, choosing from the top twenty required-reading authors from English 101 and 301 at university. Modest or immodest, the author wants to inform competing authors that they are well versed in the English canon of good literature. Choosing from the canon is an intelligent and forward-thinking decision; knowledge of the canon is a prerequisite for author-in-residence and other excellent appointments. For the rest of us, however, we are less than impressed.

My own choices for a favorite book, if someone were to ask, are based on a long examination of my reading history. There are favorites from my teenage years that stick with me as well as college and graduate years. Between my office study and my house, I count over a thousand titles of which a number were brought in by the rest of the family. These past decades have been full of great titles and exciting reads. None of them qualify as my favorite.

The only criterion for my favorite book is the continual sparking of the imagination. When I crack open the same book again and again, I want to see new possibilities, new understandings and relationships. I want to be reminded how much there is still to learn. My favorite book, my only favorite that meets this high standard, is Roget’s Thesaurus.

The deadline is looming and the pile of tasks is thick but if I open this text to find a word, I can be derailed from my work in an instant. I may be looking for another noun for “gambler” but look, they have a list of all of the gambling games and another list of dice points and rolls. How does one play chuck-a-luck? Unrelated but on the same page is “bare naked fact” and it is listed under the rubric Existence. Someone decided that facts are the foundation of existence. Uh Huh.

Yep, Roget’s Thesaurus. Buried in the pages of the text is the genesis of a million novels and the opening nouns of every piece of non-fiction. Advertising taglines and poetic metaphors are lurking on any given page. For those who dream of writing a book or just hope to turn in a paper for a decent grade, there is no other text that can offer as hope, example or proof.

Carry on. (see entries 328.8, 330.15 and 360.2)

Sledgehammer Literature

Sledgehammer literature is a phenomenon in modern publications of over-the-top manipulation of emotions or actions in the text to elicit a reciprocal visceral response from the reader. While sledgehammer writing is the preferred style of political opinion writers and advocacy pundits, the same “all faucets on full” writing appears to have migrated to fiction and not political non-fiction writing as well. Authors assume that wringing every last drop of emotional pain from an event is good writing or good for sales, perhaps. Good for one or the other, the prescription of pain, wrenching emotions, brutal self-evisceration and physical manifestations of such pepper the populist lit and literary lit with gut-twisting passages.

This is not bad writing. In fact sledgehammer literature is excellent writing that produces powerful reactions in readers, leaving them shifting uncomfortably in their chairs and on their couches. Typically the purpose of walking a person through a wrenching experience is conclusion of catharsis once the resolution is complete, like the ancient Greek plays that excelled first at presenting wrenching emotional circumstances. The unique characteristic of sledgehammer literature is that there is no catharsis at the end, only relief that the passage is done or disbelief that one stuck with the text and read through it. This type of literature beats up the reader for the sake of demonstrating that the writer can beat up the reader.

Sledgehammer literature is the epitome of technique by an author. Indeed, the mark of such literature is pure technique; missing is many of the other elements of the art of writing. While an excellent novel may have a particularly painful scene, the elements of plot, pacing, character development, and description will also be well pronounced. A novel of the sledgehammer variety relies on the visceral reaction to mask the deficiencies of the other ingredients.

Sledgehammer literature is best identified by its weak appeal to suspend disbelief. When elements are missing, when characters have no more depth to them than the pain they evince in the reader, the reader is left with little else but the pain. And who wants that much suffering really?

Star Wars for the Ignorant

The Star Wars pre-trailer trailer was released and a torrent of commentary and opinion was released through every media outlet available. Rampant speculation about a big budget action film is a great way to build anticipation for another episode of a movie franchise.

Imagine the thrill of this writer, http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/02/opinion/beale-star-wars/index.html?hpt=hp_t3, who got his essay/rant posted as a link on the front page of the CNN website. Of all the points of view, insights, speculations, and ruminations that are currently available, this writer makes it to CNN. Way to go, sir! A great coup!

Except the piece is factually incorrect.

The entire article pivots off of this sentence: “But here’s the thing: George Lucas’ creation, basically a blown-up Flash Gordon adventure with better special effects, has left all too many people thinking science fiction is some computer graphics-laden space opera/western filled with shootouts, territorial disputes, evil patriarchs and trusty mounts (like the Millennium Falcon)” I cannot speak for the writers of Flash Gordon who were writing in the twenties and the thirties but I am certain about the origins of George Lucas’s creation.

George Lucas was interested in being an excellent storyteller as much as an expert cinematographer. Joseph Campbell, a professor of world mythology and a clear, concise writer, was ascendant in the sixties and the seventies. His most provocative thesis was the existence of a universal set of plot lines, which he presented in his book “A Hero of a Thousand Faces”. Mr. Lucas read this text carefully and crafted the plot of the first three movies on Joseph Campbell’s scholarship and arguments. Bill Moyers discussed the Star Wars plot at length with Joseph Campbell on a PBS television presentation titled “The Power of Myth”. (Campbell has another book using the same title.)

Star Wars, especially the first movie, was extraordinarily sophisticated on many levels, which is why the movie was so successful across the globe. Before the groundbreaking special effects and use of science fiction conventions, the story was captivating by itself.

The writer of the CNN opinion piece was ignorant. The editorial staff at CNN is guilty of the same crime. More of the shame is that the origin of Star Wars is a compelling story. Joseph Campbell’s books are still worthwhile reads although some of his conclusions have been scaled by the next generation of scholarship. Star Wars was not an accidental success although many of the actors thought as much during filming; the movie was cinematic storytelling at its best.

Lazy Binary

In an interview on NPR, Charles Blow was discussing his recently published memoir that contains traumatic subject material. He dismissed a great deal of the commentary that has surrounded the subject matter, labeling it “lazy binary.” The binary refers to the digital world of “0’s” and “1’s” that excludes the use of any other terms. The literary practitioner of the lazy binary is guilty of ignoring shades and subtlety, but also of a logic fallacy of insisting that there are two equidistant views of a controversy that resides in the middle between them.

Subtlety is not convenient. In the tl;dr (too long; didn’t read) world of digital media, readers skim rather than read through the text. Subtlety requires paying attention and following an argument step by step as it moves from broad statement to specific points of explanation. Subtlety takes time and focus. Subtlety is the victim of sound bites and twitter. Most would agree that the world does not need more sound bites.

Subtlety has a long history of being ignored or denigrated but the logic fallacy is actually more pernicious. This insistence that there are two equally worthy opposing views on any given assumption is a favorite tool of partisans, ideologues, fanatics, and hell bent capitalists. In a given circumstance, there may only be one legitimate point of view but an opposing view is given equal billing because it seems fairer or reads better. Given a forum, a self-serving ideologue can do a lot of damage.

I feel like we are discussing elementary school. Subtlety does not exist because the young minds have not developed enough. The idea that a controversy may have more than one side is also an early academic grades lesson too. So is the corollary that not all sides are equal.

Why then do we have to constantly remind ourselves now of these early lessons? Lazy binary, indeed.

Books and National Book Award Books

The 2014 list for the National Book Awards have been released. http://www.nationalbook.org/nba2014.html#.VBxJ3Vd4Vw1 Perhaps the time has arrived for a another slew of good reads because surely all of the books on the list are qualified texts. The content of these contest lists have been a debate on both sides of the English speaking Atlantic Ocean complete with accusations of judges who do not read all of the texts, unqualified readers, and the ubiquitous crossroads of greed, pride, and publishers.

Since the shift from bookstores to online purchasing and ebooks, finding reliable recommendations for books has become more difficult. Barnes & Noble puts its sponsored content first, complicating its site with different levels of paid adverts. The category may be written as “Staff Recommendations” but publishers and authors can pay to be included in that category. The bricks and mortar B&N bookstore is often a showroom for books that will be purchased online. The books laid out on the table are often in purchased slots.

The successful reader-driven sights have been purchased by for-profit companies. Goodreads.com was the largest and most popular of the reader generated recommendation sights but the website was acquired by Amazon. Amazon now controls the recommendation search engine. Alternatively, readers can seek out reviews on Social Media sites such as reddit.com/r/books but the content is skewed by the readership, which is often High School and college. There are other sub-reddits such as r/mystery and r/sciencefiction yet these sites tend to draw the highly motivated fans more than the casual readers who just want a good read because “I’ve some free time.”

The sheer volume of books available has exploded. Many are self-published; many are bland and repetitive as was always the case with pulp novels. What a joy the delete button can be. I miss the sound of a lousy paperback thumping into the bottom of the trashcan but I still get satisfaction when the “Are you sure?” screen pops up and I press “yes”.

Stealing College textbooks

The Washington Post is asking why college students are illegally downloading their textbooks for free. The simplest answer is given in the second paragraph, which states that prices have risen 82% between 2002 and 2012. Prices have risen far beyond the reasonable expectations of inflation and texts are more than reproductions of the previous year with minor changes and page shifts.

There has been a steady, publishing drumbeat that a person with a college education will earn many times more money and enjoy stronger job security than someone with just a high school degree. I believe the studies and I also see that the most likely fields of employment require at BA. The response is a push for college degrees.

Tuition in the United States are set by states in the public universities but large numbers attend private colleges and universities that set their own tuition and fees every year. In most other countries, the universities are funded by the national government, giving the government the ability to get their students into colleges. In the United States, the college system is a non-profit, market-driven enterprise, even the state schools.

The economy stinks. Federal funding for research professors has been curtailed. States trying to balance budgets have jacked up tuition rates and also curtailed college funding. Colleges respond by limiting full professors on tenure track and hiring adjuncts to teach undergraduate courses. College sports teams are doing well for the most part, generating lots of income but not for the benefit of the greater student body.

Imagine going tens of thousands of dollars in debt for a BA. or going hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt for an advanced or professional degree. On top of these bills, publishing houses want students to pay $200-$500 for a textbook of recycled material.

Really? You are surprised they are using their educations to afford their education by being internet savvy? The model is unsustainable and the stealing of etextbooks is only a symptom of the endemic problem of funding higher education in the United States.