Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Books that Changed My Life

I just noticed that my last several posts have been lists of things I like coupled with explanations. I think I've been mentally preparing all these lists for a long time, because doing so allows me to define and refine my likes and dislikes, which ultimately helps me to know myself better. (Remember that line from Adaptation? "I decided a long time ago, you aren't what loves you, you are what you love.") This seems like a good moment to post these kind of lists because I am heading off into the unknown again.

In Africa, there were times when the experience was so overwhelming that I lost sense of myself (which is one of the mixed blessings of travel). Katie called me the other day and we were talking about all the swimming/pool paintings I've been making lately and she said "What do you think that means? That you are relaxed, or drifting or what?" And I sort of laughed but couldn't shake that thought. It is both, I do have this feeling of floating along, of the current taking me places. The best lesson I learned in Africa was that flexibility and open mindedness were our best assets, and relying on these took us quite far. I have a feeling the same will be true in China, although I think the culture shock will be much greater.

I've also been thinking about how taste is so subject to influence, the mood you are in when you see a movie, or what the plot reminds you of in your own experience, and so as I made this list, I thought about why each book moved me. What was happening in my own life, and how did this particular book align to create a paradigm shift for me? They always say a critique reveals more about the critic than the item under discussion, so take what you like from these little "reviews". All I know is these books helped me see the world a little differently, even after I was finished reading them.

The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong: I read this book in my first quarter at De Paul and found that it touched on the roots of fundamentalism in a really profound way. Her thesis is that all religions that work have compassion as their central tenant. Love for other human beings is quite difficult to practice day in and day out, because we want to be able to judge one another and establish hierarchies. So this principle is easily lost in the struggle for power and we end up with isolated fundamentalist groups that experience the modern world as an onslaught against their way of life. What I found so moving about this book was that it wasn’t condemning fundamentalism or dismissing it the way many intellectuals do. Instead, she was carefully explaining its structure and roots and I found it immensely helpful in thinking about my own upbringing more objectively. There are things worth keeping and things better left behind and these are always difficult negotiations.

Julie and Julia by Julia Powel- I read this book about a year after finishing college and it really got to me, because the author is going through a real sea change. She has come to the point where she must admit that her dreams of becoming an actress are no longer viable and she doesn’t know what to do with her life. She has become ordinary and average and discouraged. But, instead of giving up she decides to begin a crazy experiment (cooking through Julia Child's tome "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" in just 365 days.) Her husband encourages her to chart her progress on a blog (admittedly, this was the impetus behind starting my own blog) This experiment transforms her life in subtle ways. It gives her a goal and a deadline and a network of people who are observing her progress. This gives her confidence and eventually she realizes that she controls her own destiny and she changes her life. All I know is that this book came into my life at the perfect moment.

The Accidental Masterpiece by Michael Kimmelman: After reading one chapter of this book before bed one night, I turned to Eric and said “This book is going to change my life”. He laughed, but it was true. I just finished it, but it really helped to remind me of the reasons I fell in love with art to begin with. I've been going through a big time art crisis. The main symptom has been not making any art (and then coming up with a whole host of reasons why I couldn't and then agonizing over them.) I felt guilty about making art in a world where my privilege and lifestyle are the exception and millions are mired in poverty and suffering. I felt inadequate because making art initially was just really about fun and imagination, but in art school that was replaced with pretension and conceptualism that wasn't genuine for me. What I appreciated about this book was the lack of pretension, the way he uses looking at art as a metaphor for understanding life in general. That is something I can connect to. I can define my own reasons for making art, maybe they fit into the art world construct, maybe they don't. I have no doubt that this Etsy discovery is also helping to pull me out of my funk, because it is a whole community of people who are making art for fun, art that is meant to be used and enjoyed and lived with. It is a breath of fresh fresh air.

The Malaria Capers by Robert Desowitz: - This book captured the vast scope of this disease through truly great storytelling. Desowitz weaves together this snippet of history with this bit of current wisdom and this little tangential anecdote to create a truly entertaining and gripping story about the continuing toll of Malaria in the developing world despite so many advances in the west. It was the first thing I read as we dove into our documentary research and it immediately convinced us that we had found a rich and complex subject that would take us on an adventure were we willing to chase it down.

The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman: Greg suggested we read this book as preparation for China and Africa and it has been immensely helpful. It is tough for my generation to fully understand how much the internet has shaped the world we are living in. The technology has been available since we were kids and we tend to take it for granted. This book was a really helpful way to come to terms with how the internet has brought globalization to a new level and how to best capitalize on the advantages it offers. Friedman is a bit prone to hyperbole, but I loved his positive outlook. This book required me to rethink many of my ideas about globalization, particularly the impact it will have in the developing world. Friedman tends to gloss over the problems a bit, but his point that overall, globalization will benefit the world's poor is pretty exciting. I think a great many of his ideas have been validated by our experience as we travel the world. This book was also interesting as we dove into our malaria research, because you begin to understand that there are new possibilities for solving problems of poverty and illness that aren't yet being utilized by big non-governmental organizations who are used to "a world of walls".

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle: I’d read this book before but read it again after finishing school. It was actually the first "just for fun" thing I'd read in ages, during school any time for reading was devoted to textbooks and so forth. It was such a relief to read about the art of living well and by your own rules. I'm sure a lot of my fantasies about having a little cottage and a little farm come straight from these pages. The joy of living, doing things for their own sake, slowing down, it's hedonism, I suppose. Working hard, enjoying the present and the fruits of your labor are things I’m always working on. This book was a good reminder of my priorities at a moment when I definitely needed reminding.


Craftymoose Crafts said...

Just wanted to let you know that I've enjoyed reading your blog!

Anonymous said...

It's funny how books you read can shape your outlook nearly as much as your experiences.

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