Sunday, September 14, 2008

Online reading: week of September 15, 2008

Shakespeare on the Hudson

On Sept. 18th at 8pm, WNET/Thirteen will air a documentary about the making of the Shakespeare On The Hudson production of Twelfth Night, followed by the play itself. The special is hosted by Kristin Chenoweth. More information at the link above.

An interview with Barbara Oakley: Evil Genes

Barbara Oakley is the author of Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend, if nothing else, one of the best titles of the year.
(A)though psychologists are fond of saying nowadays that personalities are formed by both environment and genetics, this is often simply lip service. Most research involves only the effects of environment on personalities—research on genetics is tacitly or actively discouraged. Academicians are as bad as fundamentalists in some ways—they believe that acknowledging the effects of genes somehow kills our free will. It doesn't, of course. Having a better understanding of what we are won't change what we are. But like religious believers who thought it might disrupt society to know that the earth revolves around the sun, some academics today don't want society disrupted by what they believe to be harmful knowledge about the effects of genes on personality. Obviously, I find this attitude repugnant. I thought that people should know what researchers have been discovering, because this knowledge can be extraordinarily empowering. That's why I wrote the book.

On a side note, some of the same genes that make for our worst, most "evil" behavior, can also make for our best behavior when mixed with a different set of genes. So there's really no way to eliminate purely "evil" genes, even if there really were such a thing.

Barry Gewen’s Proust and Us article at The New York Times book blog Paper Cuts

Like Mr. Gewen, I enjoyed Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life even though I don’t always agree with de Botton’s comments or conclusions. I doubt too many people read Proust simply to check that accomplishment off a list, although they may begin reading it with that in mind. That attitude won’t carry you through the entire work, however.

In his crucial final chapter, “How to Put Books Down,” de Botton warns us not to fetishize literature, or art in general, not to take it too seriously. It’s always something less than life itself. He quotes Proust: “Reading is on the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it: it does not constitute it.” And the final sentence of de Botton’s book is in this Proustian key: “Even the finest books deserve to be thrown aside.”

The Art of Fiction No. 198 in The Paris Review

A nice interview with Marilynne Robinson, coinciding with the release of her latest novel Home: A Novel. There is also a long article this past week in The New Yorker on Robinson and her work.


Mother Country appeared during the more than twenty-year gap between Housekeeping and Gilead. Why did it take you so long to return to writing fiction?


It was largely as a consequence of the experience of writing Mother Country that I began what amounted to an effort to reeducate myself. After all those years of school, I felt there was little I knew that I could trust, and I did not want my books to be one more tributary to the sea of nonsense that really is what most conventional wisdom amounts to. I am not so naive as to imagine that I have escaped that fate except in isolated cases and small particulars. But the research and criticism I have done have helped me to be of my own mind in some degree, and that was a feeling I had to achieve before I could enjoy writing fiction.

Great and Imperfect

A review of Hans C. Ohanian's Einstein's Mistakes: The Human Failings of Genius. It's relatively common knowledge that Einstein wasn't the first to develop the equation E=mc2, nor did he offer a full proof of it.

"Almost all of Einstein's seminal works contain mistakes," he [Ohanian] writes. "Sometimes small mistakes -- mere lapses of attention -- sometimes fundamental failures to understand the subtleties of his own creations, and sometimes fatal mistakes that undermined the logic of his arguments."

The reviewer's conclusion, "To see Einstein's wanderings not as the strides of a god-like genius but as the steps and missteps of a man -- fallible and imperfect -- does not diminish our respect for him but rather enhances it", is an outlook that should be taken with more historical figures instead of demonizing or deifying them.

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