18 December, 2020

Five Books I Spent My Fall Reading

Taking up a new job really changed my reading habits. While it didn't take away so many hours, it did refocus how I spend them. Much of what I read these past three months was computer-coding material for work – dense manuals of instructional, logical language that I picked through intently, deliberately, often doubling back in recursive bouts of questioning, of either the text or of my own coding aptitude.

Besides this, though, there were "real" books. Really good "real" books, even. First was The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion, translated and with commentaries by the beloved Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. In its original Sanskrit, this sutra is known as Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita: the Diamond Sutra. It chronicles a discussion by the Buddha about the emptiness of teachings and of concepts in general. Some call the Diamond Sutra confounding. Followers during the Buddha's lifetime were unsettled by the section of the teaching that reads, "Tathagata [the Buddha] means the suchness of all things [dharmas]. Someone would be mistaken to say that the Tathagata has attained the highest, most fulfilled, awakened mind, since there is not any highest, most fulfilled, awakened mind to be attained." Referring back to his own teachings, the Buddha went on: "This is why the Tathagata has said, 'All dharmas are, in fact, Buddhadarma.' What are called all dharmas are, in fact, not all dharmas. That is why they are called all dharmas."

It's about the idea of a thing versus the thing itself, not mistaking the map for the destination, and not getting all tangled up in motives... I think. Anyway, The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion might not be a thick book, but this essential Buddhist text packs a lifetime's worth of teachings into its few pages.

The debut novel of Dutch poet Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, in a very different way, has a lot to say. The Discomfort of Evening won the 2020 International Booker Prize. A preteen farm girl's depression and desperation in the wake of her younger brother's death held some interest for me, but the Booker Prize-win attracted me more than the novel's synopsis did. Booker winners are typically excellent. The Discomfort of Evening is a very good, very dark book about the ways in which repression and isolation ruin lives.

Susanna Clarke's amazing first novel, the fully realized fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, with its historical richness and intricacy, blew me away. I looked forward to buying and reading her next, but nothing else by the reclusive British author seemed forthcoming. A profile of Clarke I read this year in The New Yorker revealed that she suffers from a mysterious condition and spends days at a time shut away in a dark bedroom. Nevertheless, a new book was finally coming: Piranesi, Clarke's first novel in sixteen years. I mentioned the New Yorker article to several people and, without telling me beforehand, the generous Emily C. made Piranesi a surprise gift. (Thank you, Emily!) And what a gift! Mysterious, magical, startlingly funny, and somehow both simple and labyrinthine at once, the novel held me rapt from start to finish – well worth the wait.

Then came my birthday, when even more books flew in. For three of them I have my mother to thank. (Thank you so much, Mum!) The first of those was a book-length philosophical essay by John Gray, entitled The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry Into Human Freedom. In well under 200 pages, Gray traipses through subjects as seemingly diverse as Jewish mythology, the novels of Philip K. Dick, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, Aztec history, prison, reality television (which Gray describes as its own sort of prison), Gnosticism, AI, and the surveillance state – all in service of his wildly entertaining, thought-provoking discussion of whether or not humankind has free will. No spoilers!

Also from Mum was Hermann Hesse's classic Steppenwolf, which had been on my list for a decade. Maybe because of my own Buddhist studies, I spotted shadows of the dharma in the Eastern philosophies vaguely espoused by the author. Only shadows, though. Hesse's book is a novel, not a 2,500-year-old sutra. As a general rule, a person should avoid works of fiction whose purpose is purely to preach (the Chronicles of Narnia, for instance, or anything by Ayn Rand), and, unfortunately, what Hesse seems to have attempted with Steppenwolf was less to tell the semi-autobiographical story of sad old Harry Haller than to promote a particular way of living.

A tantalizing Murakami novel still sits waiting for me. I've already started reading the long-awaited Sandman Omnibus, Volume III, as well as a fat collection of various writings by Montaigne. When these appear in my next reading post, three months from now, they're all but certain to get rave reviews.

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