The End of October

The End of October
© 2020 Lawrence Wright
482 pages

christalive

COVID-19 gotcha down? Cheer up! It could be worse. A lot worse. Like…the US president dying on live television, bleeding from the eyes worse.   The End of October was published shortly before COVID-19 went viral (hurr hurr hurr),  and when it popped up on my radar in late March its author lamented that he’d gotten so much right.  Well, time will tell, but so far Saudi Arabia and Iran haven’t triggered World War 2 as DC and Moscow back their favored brands of psychopaths,  so we’re ahead of the game. And the internet still works!  The End of October is a truly depressing medical thriller about the rise of a pandemic, possibly originating in a bioweapon, and the complete collapse or even destruction of global civilization. It is captivating, all-too prescient, and something you should avoid like the plague (hurr hurr) until we’re in the clear.

It all started in Indonesia, in an startlingly deadly outbreak of the flu in a concentration camp for homosexuals.  A physician attached to the CDC & and the World Health Organization investigated,  only to realize to his horror that this was a novel strain of flu altogether, and that people had already been filtering in and out of the camp, potentially spreading it abroad. One of them happened to be on the way  to perform the Hajj, a global gathering of Muslims in Mecca.   Our CDC doctor and his colleagues desperately work to impose a quarantine, then to understand and defeat the threat it poses,  but geopolitical stresses complicate matters and make the situation far worse for everyone.  The good doctor is ultimately stranded on a US submarine, while things go to hell in a handbasket the world over.  On the homefront, we follow his wife and kids as they witness society falling away around them.   This particular track of the novel is especially harrowing, and not helping matters is what we learn about the doctor’s backstory — his family’s previous run-ins with virulent diseases.

As a story, The End of October is excellent: it’s an unusual kind of thriller,  drawing on a medical mystery and the search for truth. Its characters are uniformly interesting and sympathetic people, including the Saudi royal who is utterly torn about how to respond to the blossoming horror in Mecca, and the looming war with Iran.  But boy, is the middle of a pandemic a bad time to read a book like this.  It’s interesting to compare what Wright predicts and what we’ve done:  our global response has been more aggressive than the response of  societies in the novel, as people continue meeting in person for the most part, and PPE is only mentioned when people are dealing with known vectors like their dead neighbors.    I don’t now what my reaction to this would have been had I not read it during all this COVID uncertainty, but I suspect it would have been one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read regardless.

In short, it’s a good read….but you’ve been duly warned.

 

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Darth Plagueis

Darth Plagueis
© 2012 James Luceno
498 pages

uei

Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the wise? ….it’s not a story the Jedi would tell you.   Beginning decades before The Phantom Menace, and culminating in its end,  Darth Plagueis follows the career of an ambitious Muun to realize the Sith’s Grand Plan:  the downfall of the Republic, the destruction of the Jedi, and the creation of a new order presided over by the Sith alone.  The prequel trilogy was driven by Palpatine’s manipulation of events to fully realize the plan, but long before that greatest of villains was pulling the strings, his master Plagueis was building the theater.  A story of political intrigue and subtle manipulations,  Darth Plagueis is a captivating look into the rise of Palpatine, who takes over the story even though it’s his master’s name on the cover.

According to Revenge of the Sith,  Plagueis was a dark lord of the Sith so powerful and so wise that he could manipulate the Force to stop those he loved from dying.   We are introduced to him as he kills his own master, Tenebrous, and devotes himself to his twofold work:   continuing and perhaps concluding the Grand Plan of the Sith,   and conquering death itself.  Plagueis has little love for the Rule of Two,  which keeps masters and apprentices in perpetual war with one another:  it is his hope to create a stable order in which two share in the power, each allowing for the other’s immortality.   In tapping the power-hungry and sociopathic Palpatine to be his co-conqueror, however, he….chose…poorly.

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As depicted in Star Wars Battlefront II (2017)

Plagueis, despite the chaos he creates, is a fairly sympathetic — the kind of villain who is courteous to waiters, you might say.  He’s curious about the world, and regards the chaotic-evil of many Sith as beneath him.  Young Palpatine, however engages in courtesy only as a manipulative trick: he regards himself as the king of the beasts, and proves himself in private to be The Emperor —  in all his cruelty and arrogance —  at heart long before he had achieved the power.   Here also we see the genesis of the events of later movies — Count Dooku’s disenchantment with the Jedi order,  whose total faith in their own righteousness sees them walk into blunder after blunder — and  the extraordinary request of Jedi Master Sifo-Diyas  that a clone army be created for the service of the republic.  Even  the leadership  of the Trade Federation under the cringy, brainless Nute Gunray is explained.

On the whole, Darth Plagueis makes for fun reading, explaining a lot of the backstory of the prequels and giving certain characters more depth.  Plagueis’ understanding of the dark side of the force is of interest, and I wonder if Luceno was channeling some particular philosophy or school of thought on Earth to inform it.   There’ an awful lot of business & political manipulation here, though,  making the non-Sith chapters a slow burn, and if the prologue of Phantom Menace sends you to sleep,  be forewarned that there’s a lot of debate about taxation, trade routes, business privileges, etc.

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In the Garden of Beasts

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin
© 2011 Erik Larson
432 pages

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In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt needed a man for a post no one wanted to fill: US Ambassador to Germany.  He found one in  William Dodd,  a southern academic who had interests in serving as a diplomat.  Dodd hadn’t expected a high-stakes posting like Germany, but resolved to do his utmost to promote the ideals of a liberal democracy and American interests.  Although Hitler and his Nazi party had already acquired a reputation for thuggishness,  Dodd viewed humans as essentially rational, and thought the man could be reasoned with —  and if not, the demands of high office would surely check his excesses.   Instead of influencing Germany to turn away from the path of horror it pursued — first at a snail’s creep, then headlong —   Dodd could only watch in bewildered despair as Hitler’s domination of Germany  became complete.   His frequent warnings that Germany was changing for the worst, and that Hitler was preparing to dominate Europe as his thugs now controlled the country, went unheeded.    In the Garden of Beasts is an interesting if unnecessarily salacious chronicle of the Dodd family, as they witnessed Germany’s transformation into a nightmare-state.

I found Dodd himself a very sympathetic man; a soft-spoken academic, a historian of the Old South who viewed its plantation elite with derision,   not admiration; a committed Jeffersonian who practiced frugality in spite of his government appointments,  even moderating his use of the telegraphic cable system to  minimize costs.   His prudent simplicity was out of place in Germany,  increasingly dominated by flashy decadents like Goering and Rohm.  Although Dodd quickly found sympathetic minds in Germany — many were uncomfortable with Hitler’s constant harping on the Jews, and his extralegal influence through militant organizations like the S.A. —     through his eyes we see a Germany where Hitler is plainly on the ascent. All of society is being ‘coordinated’ to support and promote the Nazi message;    Germans themselves, like the Chinese a decade later, are being molded by fear  to become tyrants of one another, bullying one another into conformity.  When Hitler institutes a violent purge of the S.A,  also using the opportunity to silence dissidents, any hope Dodd has for pulling Germany from the brink is lost.    Increasingly in poor health from his alienation in Germany, and frequently undermined by those in the State department who believe he is needlessly antagonizing Hitler,  it was a mercy for Dodd to finally resign and return to his farm. He probably would have done much earlier had he known his daughter was bedding the head of the Gestapo,  a Soviet functionary with ties to the KGB, and various and sundry others.  First enamored of the Nazis, then of the Communists, she cuts a very poor figure — though she must have been most charming to have so many men trying to get a sliver of her attention.

Dodd’s daughter’s sex life constitutes far too much of the book for me, being more interested in the slow corruption of Germany. I appreciated how early this book is set;  usually when I read histories of WW2, the SA are quickly covered in Hitler’s rise,  but they’re major players here  — and absolutely hate-able. The SA constantly parade through Berlin and beat those who fail to stop in their tracks, and they’re such odious thugs that the reader practically cheers their demise during the night of the long knives .  (Or at least, he would if Hitler weren’t also using the occasion to disappear a few critics, and intimidate his last significant opponents into silence.)   Although I can understand why the US was reluctant to be drawn into yet another European bloodletting,  Dodd was a persistent and credible witness that the world would soon be at war whether it liked it or not.

 

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Re-read: The Ethical Assassin

The Ethical Assassin
© 2006 David Liss
336 pages

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A few weeks ago for TTT,  I mentioned David Liss as an author who made me smile, and happened to think  about the first novel I read by him, The Ethical Assassin.   It would prove to be an outlier, because everything else I read by Liss was historical fiction, usually thrillers with a business or political angle.  The Ethical Assassin, however,  was practically contemporary — set in the 1980s.   It wasn’t the first time I’ve thought about Assassin over the years, as it was a work that combined philosophy, satire, and a crime thriller with good effect.  Last week I decided to re-read the book to see how I responded to it, nine years later.

The Ethical Assassin opens with a young bookseller named Lem Altick standing in a trailer, dumbfounded as his two most recent customers are shot dead before his eyes. Their assassin, Melford Kean,  proves affable, assuring Lem that  he’s in no danger…provided doesn’t try to  create a fuss. Rest assured, Kean says,  those two deserved it.  As Lem and the reader experience more of the story, we tend to agree: “The Bastard” and his speedfreak girlfriend were mixed  up in a racket that spanned from animal-stealing to meth-dealing,  in cahoots with a closet pedophile and a cop who likes to pull over women and demand sexual favors in return for not giving them tickets on trumped-up charges.

All that’s fairly dismal,   and if there weren’t something worthwhile in all this, I would have never taken to the book back in 2011:   I’m not one for reading about depravity. But Assassin had a philosophical  curve to it. Kean & Lem were not able to go separate ways, but were forced by circumstances to work together against a mutual threat. As they work,  Kean engages Lem in debates about morality and ideology,  and we learn that he’s a vegan activist whose ire was tripped against this gang primarily because of their various animal abuses — from stealing pets for lab tests, to using a confined pig farm to mask their meth lab.

The question that has made this novel stand out for me, though, is Kean’s query to Lem, something of a test: why do we have prisons?  Kean and Lem argue about them, with Kean pointing to high recidivism of the system  and the idea that prisons serve as academies of crime,   sending people deeper into criminal activities.  Those who ‘serve their time’ are societal pariahs, often barred from useful employment — is it surprising  that they resort to earning money through illicit means, like narcotics? In the end, Kean suggests that DC promotes prions because they increase criminal tendencies, effectively converting people who might push for meaningful reform into common criminals,  easy to dismiss.

Although The Ethical Assassin is still amusing and thoughtful, this time around I was far more aware of how  awful most of the characters were — not badly written, but just awful, awful people, and the philosophical interest doesn’t  redeem it. I probably won’t be reading this one a third time, but I’m glad I revisited it for the humor at least, and it reminds me that I need to finish reading his 17th century crime/business thriller series.

 

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How do you read? A bookish meme

Ruth from A Great Book Study recently posted a survey I thought of interest, so I’m participating.  Feel free to join in!

Do you have a certain place at home for reading?

I favor a cozy chair in the living room late in the evening, once my roomates have gone to bed and it’s not as noisy. In the mornings and evenings when it’s cooler, I also enjoy sitting on the porch.   In college,  I had a ‘reading tree’ on the quad, where I’d sit in the mornings and evenings.

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Every time I visit the Montevallo campus, I visit this tree. I like it more than most people!

Can you stop reading anywhere, or do you have to stop after a chapter or certain number of pages?

I usually try to end at a new chapter, or an easy-to-remember page number.

Bookmarks or random slips of paper?

I can never retain bookmarks, so it’s whatever I have on hand….or, if the book is mine, I DOG EAR THE PAGES! Mwah hah hah hah!

Multitasking: music or tv while reading?

Television and I are not  agreeable roommates.   I’ve been known to put on music while reading, usually something ambient like peaceful classical music or smooth jazz.

Do you eat or drink while reading?

Always on the drinking — usually water or coffee, but sometimes hot tea. I find that eating while reading leads to page stains and weight gain, so I usually resist the urge.

Reading at home or everywhere?

Everywhere.   In college I was known for always carrying a book with me to the dining hall,   and just last night I read while in the drive-through line of place offering carryout.

Do you read ahead or skip pages?

I skim through scenes that aren’t doing anything for me or the story — sex scenes, for instance.

Break the spine or keep it like new?

N/A, because what few physical books I do buy are usually used.  These days most of  my reading is via ebooks.  (Quite a change from nine years ago!)

Do you write in your books?

Very rarely.  If I’m feeling particularly combative I’ll scribble notes in a book I’m arguing with, but it’s rare. Marking a book up makes something inside me scream.

Whom do you tag?

I’m going to copy Ruth and leave it to whosoever!

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Wisdom Wednesday: A Psalm of Life

Today’s wisdom is more inspiration, as this poem came to mind often while reading 12 Rules for Life.  I first heard the poem on YouTube, read by Paul Scofield (he had magnificent force for narration),  and have grown to appreciate it more and more as the years wear on. Its author, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was an early American poet who is most known for his poem about the ride of Paul Revere.

longfellow

What the Heart of the Young Man Said to the Psalmist

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Finds us farther than to-day

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave

In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Lethe dead Past bury its dead!
Act — act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again

Let us, then, be up and doing
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving,  still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

 

 

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Ten Books that I haven’t bought (yet)

Today’s TTT is a freebie, so I’m looking at books I’ve previewed (that is, had Amazon send me a kindle freebie of) but haven’t bought.

damnedoldcoyotes

Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History, Dan Flores. This was more of a  “I want to look at this book later” kind of preview.  I’ve never heard a good thing said about coyotes, so I’m interested in a book about them.

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The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics.   I definitely want to read this one, but I’m forbidding myself from buying more books until I have made more progress on Mount Doom.

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Killer High: The A History of War in Six Drugs, Peter Andreas.  Definite TBR. My thinking is  that I’ll permit myself to buy a new book for every five TBR books I dispatch.

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The Shahnameh: The Persian Epic as World Literature, Hamid Dabashi. From the title I was hoping this would be a study of the Shahnameh, a copy of which I own and intend to read. From what I’ve heard of it, its cultural importance in Iran is huge, as if it were the Greek classics, Shakespeare, and stories of King Arthur and George Washington all rolled into one.   The reviews of this particular title, however,  indicate that it’s less about the Shahnameh and more about Dabashi’s grievances with the category of world literature in general.

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America’s Other Army :The US Foreign Service.    A probable-TBR, but not a lock-in.

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Cold War in the Islamic World:   Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Struggle for Supremacy.  Dilip Hiro.    A possible-TBR, but  there’s a lot of competition in the geopolitics/foreign policy area.

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A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America, Oscar Martinez.  An account of how Central America became so destabilized.  Martinez’ The Beast covered similar ground, on the horrors that narco-wars  have visited on Mexico,  and I’m waiting until my memories of that one are less salient.

gooodboidf

Good Birders Don’t Wear White: 50 Tips from North America’s Top Birders, various.  In the spring Amazon decided — after I read several books on birds and bought a pair of binoculars — that I was a birder, and for several weeks it recommended birding books to me obsessively.  This one caught my eye, but I was planning for Read of England at the time.

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Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia.  I’m interested in learning more about Russian culture, but this one is an absolute unit of a book.

wars

Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation.  I enjoy reading about video games and their history (I’m a child of the eighties and nineties, after all,  but this one wasn’t engaging enough to purchase.

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The Splendid and the Vile

The Splendid and the Vile: A Sage of Churchill, Family, and Defiance during the Blitz
© 2020 Erik Larson
464 pages

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“Nothing could have been more beautiful and the searchlights interlaced at certain points on the horizon, the star-like flashes in the sky where shells were bursting, the light of distant fires, all added to the scene. It was magnificent and terrible: the spasmodic drone of enemy aircraft overhead; the thunder of gunfire, sometimes close, sometimes in the distance;  the illumination, like that of electric trains in peace-time,  the guns fired; and the myriad stars, real and artificial, in the firmament. Never was there such a contrast of natural splendor and human vileness.”  – John Coville, Private Secretary to Winston Churchill

The Splendid and the Vile is an intimate history of the first year of WW2, told principally through Winston Churchill’s personal and professional household’s perspective.  Taking office as World War 2 was just beginning, Churchill saw Britain through some of its darkest hours —   months in which Britain stood alone, its continental allies subdued by the ferocity of Blitzkrieg, and its great ally the United States not yet engaged.  In those hours the church-bells were still, waiting in dread silence for signs of Hitler launching his promised- and planned-for invasion of the Isle.  Throughout all that fear and uncertainty, though, life went on — couples fell in love,  common citizens dusted themselves off and picked up the pieces,  and gardens were tended. All the ordinary work of life continued apace.   The Splendid and the Vile offers a look into that year of the war as it was lived, sometimes day-by-day — drawing on the diaries of Churchill staff, family, others not associated. We jump, too, across the Channel, where Hitler & co nod with satisfactions at the quick consolidation of power in western Europe, and prepare for the real battle:  the invasion of Russia.    Here there is also interest; the decadent oafishness of Goering, which somehow won him fans instead of derision,  and one of the war’s odder stories, that of the deputy fuhrer taking off for Britain in hopes of securing a treaty with an old friend of his in the English nobility.  Although it suffers a bit from the sheer amount of people covered,  I thoroughly enjoyed this on-the-ground review of Churchill’s first year.   Although the PM is only one voice out of the many which feature here,  there’s no doubt in my mind he was the man for that hour —  who helped the British find their own courage, and endure until the Axis began making their fatal mistakes.

Related:
London at War, Phillip Ziegler
Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Defeat into Victory, Michael Korda
With Wings Like Eagles: The Battle of Britain,  Michael Korda

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Harvard and the Unabomber

Harvard and the Unabomber: The Education of an American Terrorist
Original title: A Mind for Murder
© 2003 Alston Chase
352 pages

unabomb

Ted Kaczynski was hunted fruitlessly by the FBI for eighteen years, until finally being done in by his own need to spread his message.  However exceptional his mind, however, Alston Chase argues here that Kaczynski’s philosophy was one espoused by many of his generation —  that it was one fomented by the educational culture that Kaczynski’s cohort were immersed in at Harvard.  Subtitled The Education of an American Terrorist,  Chase’s work is an outstanding and thorough review of not only Kacynski’s life but of the intellectual and cultural currents that exacerbated his alienation — as well of the brutal psychological experiments, funded by the CIA, that no doubt galvanized him into violent reprisal against ‘the system’.

Chase opens with the FBI’s investigation of the UNABOMB case, then shifts to Kaczynski’s background as the son of working-class intellectuals who pushed their son to excel, heedless of the consequences. The better he performed in school, the more of a social misfit he became — especially after he skipped grades and entered college two years early.   At home, he’d been pushed in opposite directions — his parents demanded academic achievement, which isolated him, and yet chided him for being estranged socially. At Harvard, his isolation did not improve;   he was placed in a residence for especially gifted minds, but he and his housemates all lived solitary lives, and were separated from campus life on the whole.

His university studies offered no hope of a meaningful life; the general studies curriculum which had been drafted to ground and strengthen students in the western tradition was instead used to subvert it.  Instead of understanding the US government as being based on natural law, for instance, students were taught that the government rested merely on power;  that only statements which could be independently verified held any meaning, making beauty and much of the human condition irrelevant.  Everything that  students had previously taken for granted — morality, religion, culture, the rule of law — was  being actively dismantled. Although the tools of science were being used to render everything else meaningless, there was little hope to be found in science itself, for the students were being steeped in Cold War dread that technology would destroy the world. The growth of ecology indicated that even if the world did not end in a bang, it would end with a whimper as  human activity disrupted every natural system which sustained it.

Kaczynski is not the only subject of Harvard and the Unabomber, however, for Chase also introduces us to the strange figure of Henry Murray,  a scientist associated with the OSS/CIA and Harvard, a man fascinated by sex and violence (especially together), who called for volunteers to participate in philosophical discussions, and then subjected them to experiments that haunted the memories of many of its subjects years later.  What Harvard allowed its students to be subjected by a professorial spook under its aegis is so embarrassing and incriminating that they sealed their records after Chase began his review of them.  The section on the CIA’s obsession with mind control — and its contributions to the drug eruption of the sixties — is fascinating and  indicates how long that particular organization has been dominated by the dark side of power. (Stephen Kinzer recently produced a history on this particular episode in CIA History: Poisoner in Chief.)

Kaczynski’s treatment in the MKULTRA program left him psychologically troubled, increasingly fixated on revenge against ‘the system’, especially the psychologists who purposed to find ways to better manipulate people within society to conform. His course was already set before he began teaching professionally;  that job he engaged in only to raise funds for buying land to escape society.   Montana did not offer him peace, however;  instead Kaczynski was steeped further in rage against airplanes,  loggers, snowmobilers, and the like, and began looking for relief in striking back.   His ‘environmentalism’, Chase suggests, was a spin tactic;  the budding propagandist against the industrial system wanted public support, and going green struck him as an approach consistent with both his criticism and the student movements of the seventies.

Harvard and the Unabomber is a fascinating cultural and intellectual history of the late fifties and early sixties, a time when social unrest was beginning to simmer.  Chase and Kaczynski lived parallel lives — attending Harvard around the same time, and then lived in rural retreats — so his insight into the culture that Kacynski was immersed in is particularly helpful.   Although understanding what Kaczynski different is the most valuable contribution made by this book, it’s also generally helpful in putting into perspective the usual narrative lies about Kaczynski — that he was a mental case early on,  for instance, and that he had isolated himself in the middle of nowhere.  Reporters on the Unabomber case talked to people who barely knew Kaczynski, not his friends; when Chase began doing his own interviews, he found that the ‘rural recluse’ lived four miles from town,  right off a main road, and was favorably remembered at the local library.

Harvard and the Unabomber is impressive work, a serious evaluation of Kaczynski, his work, and his times which  offers insight into what really destabilized an otherwise brilliant mind.

 

 

 

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Wisdom Wednesday: Rise and Shine

Today’s reading comes from Marcus Aurelius,  who has shamed me out of slumber many a winter’s morn. Aurelius was the last of Rome’s “five good emperors”, and produced a work called The Meditations which has been lauded through the centuries; I’m quoting a modern translation of his work called The Emperor’s Handbook.

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In the morning, when you can’t get out of bed, tell yourself:  “I’m getting up to do the work only a man can do. How can I possibly hesitate or complain when I’m about to accomplish the task for which I was born? Was I made for lying warm in bed under a pile of blankets?”

“But I enjoy it here.”

Was it for enjoyment you were born? Are you designed to act or to be acted upon? Look at the plants, sparrows, ants, spiders, and bees, all busy at their work, the work of welding the world. Why should you hesitate to do your part,  the part of a man, by obeying the law of your own nature?

“Yes, but nature allows for rest, too.”

True, but rest — like eating and drinking — has natural limits. Do you disregard those limits as well? I suppose you do, although when it comes to working, you are quick to look for limits and do as little as possible. You must dislike yourself. Otherwise, you’d like your nature and the limits it imposes. At the same time, you’d recognize that enjoyment is meant to be found in work too and that those who enjoy their work become totally absorbed in it, often forgetting to eat or drink and seek other forms of enjoyment. Do you think less of your life’s work than the sculptor does his sculpting,  the dancer his dancing, the miser his money, or the star his stardom?  They gladly forgo food and sleep to pursue their ends. To you, does the work of building a better society seem less important, less deserving of your devotion?

 

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