Next time, Jared Diamond, NEXT TIME!!!

Some of you may be familiar with the book Guns, Germs, and Steel. It has been recommended to me by several people who I trust and who have decent judgment. It is a monster of a work, in a style that the specialists of modern day can’t really match. It’s meant to be a broad analysis of general historical trends, chronicling some ideas of why modern society developed in the place and manner that it did. And I’m sure it accomplishes this well and was interesting and informative for many highly intelligent people. But I couldn’t read it.

I am not typically a non-fiction reader.  I like the flexibility of fiction.  I feel like it allows language to be used more fully.  I feel like it’s more of an art.  But of course, that’s not always the case.  And some fiction pays no attention to language or craft.  Ultimately however, I tend to like it better for its hint of truth.  Fiction can be truer than fact.  It can also be a starting point for factual exploration.  How many times have I been reading some historical novel and wondered if an event or situation actually took place?  The interaction between creative expression and factual dates, times, and places intrigues me.  In addition, fiction avoids the perils of being proven wrong.

So, was it just the non-fiction structure of this particular book, in addition to its length, that put me off reading the whole thing?  Not exactly.  I mean, the small part of it that I did read was well-written.  However, amidst the sweeping generalizations of the early introductory materials, I found the bane of a non-fiction books – a fallacy.  While I can understand discrepancies regarding the movement of people into North America considering new information that is constantly being revealed and tested, other small details I could not ignore.  Where was steel first invented?  And if the author is wrong about one such detail, how can I trust the other assertions that are outside his specialty?

I eventually gave up on reading the book – it would take too long to check every point he made. however, the book again caught my eye on the train today when I saw a picture of the Phaistos disc inside it.  I saw the picture first – recognizing one of the most interesting and rare undeciphered scripts in existence, I was intrigued enough to lean over the poor girl reading it and look at the book title.  For those of you who are not familiar with this disc, it is the only example of what we think is a writing system (or at least some record-keeping system using characters for a discrete meaning).  We don’t know what language it may record, or what culture it is associated with, though there have been multiple guesses.  Since the disc was found in a Minoan palace, many think it originated there, but we have no evidence that it was not made elsewhere.  What could such an enigmatic relic of past civilization have to tell us about the advancement of current people through guns, germs, and steel?  Not much.  And the sensational nature of such a mysterious object included in what’s supposed to be a highly logical argument of a book does little to placate my questions about the authorial intent or accuracy of the book.  However, since I did not actually read the text associated with the disc, I cannot say that it does not add another layer of meaning to teh author’s argument.  I will have to be resigned to my unanswered questions and doubts.

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Food and looking good.

It’s always been one of standards of advertising – if something looks good, people will buy it. This is particularly true in fast food advertising. We’ve all seen the ads – tomato slices glistening with freshness, a juicy, tender-looking hamburger patty between two halves of the perfectly baked bun. And our mouth waters, despite the fact that we know our burger experience won’t be anything like that. The bread will be squished, the tomato mealy, and the lettuce half-wilted. Still, we buy into the image and the sultry, deep voice describing the delectable nature of the food choice.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this kind of advertising. The product, the perfect burger, could in some rare case be exactly as it’s pictured on television – it’s not necessarily false advertising. And I certainly don’t blame advertising companies for selling the product wholeheartedly by appealing to our most base sense – that of sight. I’m not even blaming us for responding to the advertising positively, especially if only for a moment. Still, the image of food seems to have a profound impact on us that we tend to disregard.

Take this blog post for instance. I was drawn in by the title, ‘tart and tangy’. The images were vivid, artistic, and well composed. But when i read the text itself, I felt cheated when the author initially disliked the results of her recipe. Ultimately, the review of this recipe was positive, but at the end I still felt cheated. What did the images give me that the text did not to leave this impression? Was it the artfulness of the juxtaposition of knife, plate, and empty space in the first picture? Was it the rich and vivid colors of the berries themselves? The article was what it was – a valid review of a newly found recipe. But somehow I wanted more but wasn’t sure what. Social comment? Emotive elements? Ethical appeal?

Another instance of this dissatisfaction can be seen in the Iron and Wine video, ‘Naked as We Came’.

I am oddly disturbed/moved by this video. What does it all mean? The back-and-forth of life and death, food and eating and remnants, light and rain and shadow, serve to imply some odd sort of whole message. But I still have no idea what it is. I am dissatisfied and oddly attracted to it, its vividness and gentle solemness. I want to see it again, just to try and figure out what it means, and a part of that is related to the feelings of seeing all this good-looking food just out there. And the ants. It’s a squeamish-delicious feeling, and I have the odd sensation it’s trying to tell me something about my own life.

Is this odd reaction to seeing ‘good food’ a primal instinct? Are our reactions here purely biological? Let me rephrase – yes, our reactions are biological. But are they sparked only by the natural need of sustenance, that mouth-watering reaction to certain sights and smells? Or do we have deeper, more complex reactions as well, relating to our emotions, memory, and abstract categorizations of life and what it means? Does me seeing the newest hamburger ad tempt me simply to go out and buy a hamburger, or does my reaction have some larger, unintended consequences?

Sunlight makes things better

I have recently made a commitment to myself to try and observe more of the world around me on a daily basis. It’s true, that I live in an old city, so there’s built-up infrastructure and concrete everywhere, but even the ugliest part of city life can have redeeming qualities.

Today for me it was the snow remainder. I don’t mean the still-white patches that were glowing in the sun, or the gentle drip of the melting eaves of houses. I mean the gross stuff that’s been churned up from the streets liberally coated and mixed with motor oil. It’s the kind of big messy piles that you really hope you don’t even have to walk across for fear of contamination. When the sun hits them just right, the icy surface places refract like crystals, like strange geodes embedded in a duller, more sullen rock matrix.

It made me think about the sun in general – how long-ago peoples, my ancestors, worshiped its return in spring, dancing or singing or otherwise recalling it to life and vigor. It reminds me of the way grass looks greener in the afternoon. It reminds me if I want to paint color, I should do it in the afternoon, when the angle of the light reveals the world at it’s richest. I don’t know the principles of why this is true. Like the flintknappers of the past, I don’t know the physics of the thing, I just know that if you hit the rock here, it will carry the force through to there, splitting and cracking along a certain plane of force.

When I wake up in the morning now, it’s still to a vague dawn light. It makes me want to crawl back under the covers again. But by the time I’ve gotten ready and stepped outside to walk to the bus stop, the sun is up and smiling. It puts a little jig in my step.