Category Archives: emotion

How should you read a book?

A bookshop in Edinburgh, Scotland, photographed in June 2012.

A bookshop in Edinburgh, Scotland, photographed in June 2012.

 

Virginia Woolf’s reading advice, circa 1926 , remains witty & useful.

In the first place, I want to emphasise the note of interrogation at the end of my title.  Even if I could answer the question for myself, the answer would apply only to me and not to you.  The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.

—Virginia Woolf

Woolf around the time she wrote her essay on reading.

Woolf around the time she wrote her essay on reading.

As these opening sentences of her famous essay on reading show, Virginia Woolf is highfalutin only to those who haven’t read her. The chatty offhand charm and modesty of her essays impress and please. The humbling phase comes when you re-read, and see how simple she’s made complex matters, yet how rounded, deep, and full her expression.

I turned again to “How Should One Read a Book?” because after a while a reviewer tends to ask himself what he thinks he’s doing. What’s fair? Relevant? This weighed on me in wondering how to assess, for my recent review, Ted Kerasote’s Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs. I found this fine book marred by one major flaw in Kerasote’s judgment. I was uncertain how serious my disagreement is for the book, and puzzled by the issues it raised for reviewing in general.

Woolf, in stepping back to see the forest of literature, does provide some guidance in how to asses its individual trees:

1.    Open your mind

 At first, she says, try to move in tune with the author. “Be his fellow-worker and accomplice” rather than his critic: “Most commonly we come to books with blurred and divided minds, asking of fiction that it shall be true, of poetry that it shall be false, of biography that it shall be flattering, of history that it shall enforce our own prejudices. If we could banish all such preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning.”

Thankfully, I feel I did a good job initially of moving in tune with Kerasote. And even as my hackles rose over his letting his dog roam, I admired him for being himself. For admitting what he must’ve known would upset some readers. Granted, he doesn’t appear fully aware of how maddening his practice is to some of us, but he does explain his thinking; steadily he reveals himself throughout, which is brave in its way.

Woolf addresses this:

How far shall we resist or give way to the sympathies and antipathies that the man himself rouses in us—so sensitive are words, so receptive of the character of the author?  These are questions that press upon us when we read lives and letters, and we must answer them for ourselves, for nothing can be more fatal than to be guided by the preferences of others in a matter so personal.

I take this to mean that my faulting Kerasote on a matter of judgment—and in this case the preponderance of opinion is on my side—was within bounds.

2.    Learn to read by trying to write

Who can’t help but agree that to discern it helps to have done, or tried to do. Some great and famous editors were not great writers, just as many coaches weren’t great players themselves. But in each case they understood their chosen business from the inside.

A practitioner’s tough love, here:

Recall, then, some event that has left a distinct impression on you—how at the corner of the street, perhaps, you passed two people talking.  A tree shook; an electric light danced; the tone of the talk was comic, but also tragic; a whole vision, an entire conception, seemed contained in that moment.

But when you attempt to reconstruct it in words, you will find that it breaks into a thousand conflicting impressions.  Some must be subdued; others emphasised; in the process you will lose, probably, all grasp upon the emotion itself.

Now, she says, read the opening pages by a great novelist—she suggests Daniel Defoe, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy—and see their mastery and the great differences between their reality, their worlds, from open-air adventure to the drawing room’s subtleties to the lonely moor’s dark mysteries.

She continues:

Yet different as these worlds are, each is consistent with itself. The maker of each is careful to observe the laws of his own perspective, and however great a strain they may put upon us they will never confuse us, as lesser writers so frequently do, by introducing two different kinds of reality into the same book. Thus to go from one great novelist to another—from Jane Austen to Hardy, from Peacock to Trollope, from Scott to Meredith—is to be wrenched and uprooted; to be thrown this way and then that.  To read a novel is a difficult and complex art.  You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist—the great artist—gives you.

3. Read lesser books & even rubbish

These are those lives and letters mentioned above, works of craft—books that don’t necessarily aspire to art. They can be made to “light up many windows of the past,” but also can stoke one’s own creative musing:

Is there not an open window on the right hand of the bookcase?  How delightful to stop reading and look out!  How stimulating the scene is, in its unconsciousness, its irrelevance, its perpetual movement—the colts galloping round the field, the woman filling her pail at the well, the donkey throwing back his head and emitting his long, acrid moan.  The greater part of any library is nothing but the record of such fleeting moments in the lives of men, women, and donkeys. Every literature, as it grows old, has its rubbish-heap, its record of vanished moments and forgotten lives told in faltering and feeble accents that have perished.  But if you give yourself up to the delight of rubbish-reading you will be surprised, indeed you will be overcome, by the relics of human life that have been cast out to moulder.  It may be one letter—but what a vision it gives! It may be a few sentences—but what vistas they suggest!

And yet, we must move on, for lesser works lack the “artist’s power of mastering and eliminating.” Having failed to “tell the whole truth,” having “disfigured the story that might have been so shapely,” they can only offer facts. Not Woolf’s “purer truth of fiction.”

4. Read poetry

“The impact of poetry is so hard and direct that for the moment there is no other sensation except that of the poem itself. What profound depths we visit then—how sudden and complete is our immersion!”

Woolf cites first a heartbreaking lament from the 16th Century song Westron Wynde, which probably is even older in origin—from a fragment if medieval poetry:

 Western wind, when wilt thou blow?

 The small rain down can rain.     

Christ, if my love were in my arms,     

 And I in my bed again!

Her reading essay concludes this collection.

Her reading essay concludes this collection.

And the time to read poetry is “when we are almost able to write it,” she says, going on to cite, so as to show their differing emotional expressiveness, verses of “force and directness,” of “wavering modulation,” of meditative calm,” of “complete and inexhaustible loveliness,” and of “splendid fantasy.”

I love Woolf’s unabashed passion and how it endorses one’s own deeply personal emotional response to literature—which, after all, is made from emotion and is meant to move us, engendering an emotional response its very purpose. Like the blinded Gloucester in Shakespeare’s King Lear, we might, using our great human asset of emotion, apprehend the world fully, “see it feelingly.”

Remember always, Woolf says, that with the lever of his great power to shift our perspective, “The poet is always our contemporary. Our being for the moment is centred and constricted, as in any violent shock of personal emotion.”

5. Wait, then give tough love

Having been open to an author, once “the dust of reading” has settled we must come to judgment. One of Woolf’s most useful tips is to wait till a book, first experienced in varying impressions, floats “to the top of the mind as a whole.” And the book having revealed itself as a “barn, a pigsty, or a cathedral,” she writes, “Let us then be severe in our judgments; let us compare each book with the greatest of its kind.”

Ouch. While judging isn’t as simple as reading and receiving impressions, Woolf admits, the task must be done to complete the reading process. One may be tempted to leave this to the “gowned and furred” experts:

Yet how impossible!  We may stress the value of sympathy; we may try to sink our identity as we read.  But we know that we cannot sympathise wholly or immerse ourselves wholly; there is always a demon in us who whispers, “I hate, I love”, and we cannot silence him.  Indeed, it is precisely because we hate and we love that our relation with the poets and novelists is so intimate that we find the presence of another person intolerable.  And even if the results are abhorrent and our judgments are wrong, still our taste, the nerve of sensation that sends shocks through us, is our chief illuminant; we learn through feeling; we cannot suppress our own idiosyncrasy without impoverishing it.

 6. Learn from experts as you train your taste

Some critics, however, including gifted fellow practitioners whom Woolf enjoys for their inside knowledge, can “steady” us in this difficult task of assessment: “But they are only able to help us if we come to them laden with questions and suggestions won honestly in the course of our own reading. They can do nothing for us if we herd ourselves under their authority and lie down like sheep in the shade of a hedge. We can only understand their ruling when it comes in conflict with our own and vanquishes it.”

And though reading a book “calls for the rarest qualities of imagination, insight, and judgment,” and Woolf considers it unlikely that even after a lifetime if reading someone can “make any valuable contribution to its criticism,” ordinary readers have responsibilities and even importance.

Here Woolf winds down her metaphor-rich advice with a mystical bit I love—it’s so very Virginia in its generous sense of connection and in its vision of ultimate holism:

The standards we raise and the judgments we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere which writers breathe as they work. An influence is created which tells upon them even if it never finds its way into print.

. . .

If behind the erratic gunfire of the press the author felt that there was another kind of criticism, the opinion of people reading for the love of reading, slowly and unprofessionally, and judging with great sympathy and yet with great severity, might this not improve the quality of his work?  And if by our means books were to become stronger, richer, and more varied, that would be an end worth reaching.

And, anyway, reading is its own reward—the closest we can come to heaven on earth, she ends.

Wise, warm, and witty, our fellow reader Virginia Woolf is always so much fun.

Woolf’s essay “How Should One Read a Book?”concludes her collection The Second Common Reader and also is available free around the web by googling it.

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Filed under emotion, essay-expository, reading, REVIEW, Temp

Fiona Maazel on loneliness

A novel approach to the absurdities of mass desolation.

Lighted Globes x 

Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel

Graywolf Press, 336 pp., $26.00.

Guest Review by Lanie Tankard

We are lonesome animals. We spend all life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story . . .

—John Steinbeck, to the Paris Review

Maazel novel

A Google search for the term lonely can yield 287,000,000 results in less than twenty seconds. A Facebook Community called “Loneliness” has close to 19,000 Likes, while over 15,000 Likes appear on a Facebook Interest page with the same title. It looks like Fiona Maazel really struck a chord with this literary theme in her second novel.

The cover, with its iconic backlit image of a concert crowd wave, pulls the reader right into the anomie awaiting inside the book. When a writer as proficient as Maazel collects intriguing ideas—such as global eavesdropping in the middle of the Pisgah National Forest, the juche idea of the spirit of self-reliance in the isolated nation of North Korea, the secret world of subterranean Cincinnati, the lure of cults, and the psychology of loneliness —and combines them all into a plot that is at the same time wildly comical and perceptively forlorn . . . well, you’ve got yourself a rollicking good read.

Some authors can make you laugh out loud. Others wrench tears right out of you. Maazel blends those two abilities in a startling yet subtle way—at least for me. While reading Woke Up Lonely, I would on occasion be aware of a riotous laugh heading straight up my throat, only to be met by an equally powerful lurch of my heart just before the hysterics breached my lips. The effect muted what was about to become a loud guffaw by curtailing the initiation of tears into a sharp intake of breath instead, infusing me with a unique sense of poignant hilarity. Maazel’s artistic skill in smudging the demarcation between comedy and angst left me shaking my head in admiration time and time again.

Her first novel, Last Last Chance, also touched upon disparate societal issues viewed from an absurdist eye with acuity. I would place Woke Up Lonely in a special fiction genre, however, possibly also comprised of Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen and Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl.

The protagonist in Woke Up Lonely inspired opposing feelings in me as well. I found Thurlow Dan, known as Lo, at once both despicable and endearing. Lo is the founder of the Helix, a cult followed by throngs of lonely people. He, too, is aware of his emotional remoteness while missing his former wife, Esme, and their daughter, Ida. It’s been a decade since he saw them—and then suddenly he does.

Avid readers of Boris Pasternak will recognize the riff on a scene from Doctor Zhivago as the novel begins. Thomas Hardy aficionados may pick up on another from Tess of the d’Urbervilles at the book’s end.

The author employs a technique for revealing Esme’s backstory by having the character number the pages of a speech she’s preparing about her early life. Unbeknownst to Lo, Esme’s job has involved spying on her former husband. One of their most hilarious scenes together takes place in a limo driving through Pyongyang, DPRK, told at different points in the novel as each of them experienced it. Esme’s disguised professional vantage point over the years has allowed her to protect him covertly as she became aware that she still cared for him. Then Lo throws her a curveball by taking her agents hostage. These four spies are vividly drawn quirky characters with mind-boggling individual story lines of their own.

In explaining the reasons why people behave in unusual ways, social psychologist Elliot Aronson noted his “first law” in The Social Animal, published in 1972 and now in its 11th edition: “People who do crazy things are not necessarily crazy.”

Later, in his 2010 memoir Not By Chance Alone: My Life As a Social Psychologist, Aronson wrote: ““In this society most of us glide through life protecting ourselves; in effect, each of us wears a behavioral suit of armor, to minimize how much other people can hurt us. But sometimes we become so successful at hiding our true feelings from others that we hide our feelings from ourselves as well.”

Woke Up Lonely strikes me as a literary exploration of these very ideas. Maazel juxtaposes ribald incidents next to analytical explanations of how loneliness differs from anxiety and depression with a deft and sure hand. She draws attention to the distinctive features of individualism and collectivism within a society as they relate to loneliness.

Neuroscientist John Cacioppo, coauthor of Loneliness, has spoken widely about such concepts. Cacioppo stresses that loneliness is not a bad thing because it compels us to form connections. “Loneliness is a cue to us to reconnect, like a prompt,” he says. “Individualism is celebrated in our culture. The underlying collective is not recognized.” According to Cacioppo, the symptoms of loneliness are: “(1) You don’t have a confidant who confirms who you are. (2) You don’t have a collective identity, a social identity.”

And that’s right where Thurlow Dan’s Helix cult snags so many lonely people in Maazel’s novel. I was briefly confused a couple times amid shifts from first to third person and in the description of several characters, but never did they mar the framework or flow of this modern tragedy with its intelligently subtle humor. Maazel masterfully couches editorial observations about our culture within the dialogue of her creatively sketched characters. On page after page, I thought in bemused wonder, “How did she ever dream up these folks?”

I picked up some insights when I heard Maazel speak recently at the New Fiction Confab in Austin, Texas.

“I write because I enjoy it,” she said. “I don’t know how to do anything else but fiction writing. It’s lucky if you get to do what you love.”

She doesn’t hold stock in the old adage “Write what you know.”

“Write what you can learn about,” she said. “It teaches you about your inner life. If you’re a person who finds it difficult to confront your inner life, writing is a way to do it.”

She advised writers to “be available to the world around you. It teaches you. I use no headphones or iTunes. I use the subway to be a keen observer. Let the stories come to you. Refract them through your own consciousness.”

Afterward, I asked her how many drafts she wrote of Woke Up Lonely before it was published.

“Oh, about forty-six,” she replied seriously. “There’s no ‘would-be’ about being a writer. You’re either a writer or you’re not.”

Fiona Maazel is definitely a writer.

ChezZee x

Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.

 

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Filed under emotion, evolutionary psychology, experimental, fiction, REVIEW

A narrative of our human nature

Humans’ “emotional fossils,” the rise of ego & the hand of God: pondering life after Charles Darwin, Carl Jung & Eckhart Tolle

I asked my friend, mentor, fellow seeker, and writing posse member John Wylie to discuss the fascinating book he’s writing, qua narrative nonfiction. This also is a test of sorts to see if its exciting ideas are comprehensible to lay readers who may be totally unaware of the battles raging in the field of evolutionary psychology over what amounts to a new vision of our species.—Richard Gilbert

Guest Post by John V. Wylie

Dr. Wylie: why are we “brilliantly creative, cruel, absurd”?

Wylie: “We’re brilliantly creative, cruel, absurd.”

My book is a narrative about my own 35-year secret life exploring the evolutionary narrative of humans, and my subject matter has been the narratives of severely mentally ill patients that I was treating in my “day job” as a psychiatrist.

My first philosophical theater was a maximum security prison where I nearly got killed when an inmate slashed my face and throat. I came away from that experience, having immersed myself in the writings of Charles Darwin, with the conviction that the dominance and submission interactions so evident in prison and in apes had evolved into the authority and obedience in groups so evident in normal human society. But how did this occur?

Mental Illnesses as “Emotional Fossils”

As I worked on this question, I began to realize that the mental illnesses were “emotional fossils” revealing insight into the internal life of our ancestral hominid species. Patients suffering from the two major forms of depression and panic disorder taught me that the two most fundamental fears are separation and being trapped at the periphery of a group, as if “up against the wall of banishment.” These fears greatly intensified in hominids right from the very beginning, serving to tightly bind our ancestral kinship groups together. The central symptom of Schizophrenia—the “sacred disease”—is the experience that one’s thoughts emanate from an external source. Another thread in my inquiry emerged when recent diverse lines of evidence convinced me that our hominid ancestors lived in monogamous groups.

Putting all this together, I deduced that the entity of individual dominance “ascended” into the authority of groups dispensing justice and absolute morality; this helped to sustain and coordinate small groups of multiple monogamous families as if they were organisms. I began to see the hand of God in this transformation from the laws of the jungle to lives lived utterly within the rules of right and wrong. And to view their lives, as harsh as they must have been, to also have been Edenic. All members of a group lived immersed within a single mind that evolved for millions of years to coordinate the survival of their groups. These groups evolved passively by the emergence in each generation of the most fecund (because they were stable, because they were monogamous) and most productive permutations of mutual relationships within groups—not through competition between groups. So these creatures, our ancient ancestors, were inherently peaceful with one another.

Then I recognized that the disorder of mania (the “up” part of bipolar disorder) revealed that, 200,000 years ago, the innovation that resulted in the evolution of our own Homo sapiens species was accompanied by the development of an intensely positive feeling elicited specifically by others admiring us as individuals. The powerful drive to seek this pleasure resulted in the evolution of an endless variety of species-specific behaviors that are tantamount to competitive sexual display. The pervasiveness of this strong proclivity in humans has rendered us at the same time brilliantly creative, cruel, and absurd. An old-fashioned term for this purely human impulse is vanity.

What Mindfulness May Really Mean

So my narrative has ended up along biblical lines: God created us six million years ago with the innocence of Adam and Eve and evolved in us the power to coordinate our work under a single will for the good of our groups. But now we find ourselves in a fallen state, driven by our vanity to glorify ourselves, and worst of all to usurp the power given to us by God to wage war with one another.

I deeply connect with the writings of Eckhart Tolle. I agree with his definition of ego as that which we fear (separation and banishment) and desire (vanity). Mindfulness involves immersing ourselves in the vast spiritual subcontinent (soul, Jung’s collective unconscious) that continues as our living heritage and is the very “platform” of consciousness from which we are (self)conscious of our most recent “ego-mind.” As violent as our species’ ego has driven us to be, all of its accumulated wants have a purpose that is in the process of coming to pass.

Painfully but inexorably the undeniable movement of our history has been toward the amalgamation into ever larger groups; inevitably we’ll live as a single group as prophesied by Isaiah (and as interpreted by Tolle in his recent bestseller A New Earth). For six million years, individuals evolved to live their lives as a single organism within the minds of their small groups. Now it is our destiny to evolve into one vast spiritual creature with eternal life.

Dr. Wylie's previous book

Dr. Wylie’s previous book

Needless to say, there have been gargantuan problems in weaving together the human narrative with my own personal narrative and all my patients’ narratives, while fiercely protecting their privacy. Then there have been all the blind alleys I have gone down and the technical aspects of evolutionary mechanisms along with the narrative of the evolutionary debates that have raged during the last 35 years. My strategy has been just to pump out one manuscript after another (I’ve done eight) mainly as a way to think it all through again and again until finally I could step back and allow all the narratives to fall into place “on their own.” I’m currently polishing my manuscript and drafting a proposal for prospective publishers.

John V. Wylie is the author of  Diagnosing and Treating Mental Illness: A Guide for Physicians, Nurses, Patients and Their Families and blogs about his ideas regarding evolution and human nature at Apes, Ants & Ancestors.

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Filed under braids, threads, emotion, evolutionary psychology, narrative, religion & spirituality

Lee Child: Write What You Feel

Lee Child: Write What You Feel.

Having just featured Lee Child on using questions to propel narrative, I was intrigued with this explication of more of Child’s advice by blogger Wilson K.

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Filed under craft, technique, emotion, NOTED

Richard Russo’s ‘Elsewhere’

Narrative risks & rewards in a talky memoir about Mom.

“You do know your mother’s nuts, right?”—Russo’s father to him when he was twenty.

Elsewhere by Richard Russo. Knopf, 243 pp.

From the book's cover. Young Rick Russo and his Mom.

From the book’s cover. Young Rick Russo and his Mom.

Rather dense, slow-moving, and expository, Elsewhere isn’t a memoir I’d make students read. Smoothly written, interestingly structured, a complex portrait of mental illness, love, and lower middle class life in a wretched town, Elsewhere is a book I’d recommend, with caveats, to adults. They must be serious readers, or blessed with at least one difficult parent, or love and hate their hometown, or be writers. For memoirists, Elsewhere offers lessons in narrative structure, in the power of the reflective voice, and in how to blend diction both elegant and conversational.

Richard Russo’s focus is on his mother, who, wherever she was, wanted to be elsewhere. She most especially didn’t want to be stuck in Gloversville, New York, a depressed mill town where she’d grown up and where her son was born and grew up. If that meant following him off to college in Arizona when he graduated high school in 1967, so be it. She suffered from “nerves,” as people called it in that bygone era. When Rick Russo was young, his divorced mother was stubborn, demanding, and resentful. She worsens with age, and gradually one comes to see that this isn’t garden-variety “nerves,” or mere ego, but a shaky defense. She’s barely able to control her anxiety so she tries to control what she can.

Although Elsewhere is largely chronological, there are retrospective explanations and huge narrative leaps in which years and even decades vanish in a scant line. A writer unrolling a story this way for the first time might wonder—Can I do this? Is this possible?—but it works surprisingly well to jump ahead. Readers are hooked on the heart of the story, not on every last daily event, and most surely appreciate confident summary. Russo tells the story very much from “now,” as an adult looking back. We’re in his head more than in the experience of his younger self who lived it. The first true scene doesn’t appear until page twenty-five. The writer’s stance in the present and his reliance on voice as much as on dramatized action have a distancing effect. This made the book less emotionally involving for me even as its appealing sadder-but-wiser narrator lured me onward.

Elsewhere does have a surprising narrative pull. Somehow Russo generates suspense, probably because although we know from the start the book ends with his mother’s death, we crave the story’s particulars. Details tell the world what it lost. Though I can barely remember his mother’s name, Jean—mentioned in stray quotes by family members referring to her—his mother interests because she’s made unique and her suffering and the problems she causes made palpable. Would that Elsewhere’s elusive lessons were as simple as bringing one troubled woman to life. Legions of memoirists and novelists get their work rejected each year for lack of drama, for being boring, while they burn with their stories about difficult parents, divorces, and deaths. “It’s full of details and events!” they cry.

Yeah, but . . .

It was just the two of them—Dad abandoned the family.

It was just the two of them—Dad abandoned the family.

It’s safe to presume that Russo, the author of eight novels and the winner of a Pulitzer prize, knows what he’s doing. While he chooses a rather talky approach—like some other prominent novelists who’ve turned to memoir, he uses it to tell more than to show—he controls all elements of the narrative. And he’s telling an iconic and resonant American story of place and people. From the start, we feel we’re in the hands of a writer who knows what he has to say and where he wants to take us. Those readers who don’t close his memoir in boredom with Jean Russo will follow him. Ultimately they will be impressed by his candor, by the truly hard-earned wisdom of a dutiful, long-suffering, and humanly flawed son. The book becomes moving as Russo becomes more self-protective and then aware of it. Too late he realizes, or finally admits consciously, that his mother suffered from severe, undiagnosed mental illness her whole life.

Aside from his stature, all those other books and that big prize, why does Russo get to tell his story, and rather successfully per his strategy? First, despite memoir’s popularity it’s not unusual to hear people disdain the genre. In large part they can’t get past a very human resentment. My mother was odd too. Why should I read about yours? Agents and publishers who feel this way, but who must scout new memoirs to sell, will read five to fifty pages to see if a writer can overcome their innate reluctance if not repugnance. Is this narcissistic or boring? A writer must do many things right, but there’s no formula—neither the purely scenic approach of many bestsellers nor the tweedy mastery of literary memoirs like Vladimir Nabokov’s and John Updike’s. And of course a manuscript’s reception is influenced by the market, by the author’s stature, and by the reader’s preferences.

Finally the proof is in the reading. The thing must transcend its elements; it must get airborne; it must become art. Elsewhere meets that test.

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Filed under craft, technique, diction or vocabulary, emotion, memoir, narrative, REVIEW, scene, structure, style

Review: ‘Honeybee Democracy’

Bees give lessons for leadership and group intelligence. 

. . . [N]atural selection has organized honeybee swarms and primate brains in intriguingly similar ways to build a first-rate decision-making group from a collection of rather poorly informed and cognitively limited individuals.

Honeybee Democracy

Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D. Seeley. Princeton University Press, 264 pp.

Seeley-Honeybee Democracy

How can humans make better group decisions? We might look to the bees, says Thomas D. Seeley, a Cornell biologist who has spent his life studying the insects.

Each year, the legions of (female) worker bees in a colony must make a life-or-death decision: where to build a new home? Scouts report on prospects with their famous waggle dances, arguing for one site or another, which the other scouts check out based on directional clues encoded in the dances. A bad choice—a cavity too small to hold enough honey for the winter, an entrance too large to exclude predators—and the entire colony dies.

This stark imperative has driven bees, Seeley explains, toward dissent-free decisions:

This is what normally arises from the democratic decision-making process used by house-hunting honeybees and, quite frankly, I find it amazing. We have seen . . .  how the debate among a swarm’s scout bees starts with individuals proposing many potential nesting sites, vigorously advertising the competing proposals, and actively recruiting neutral individuals to the different camps. All this makes the surface of a swarm look at first like a riotous dance party. Yet out of this chaos, order gradually emerges. Ultimately the debate ends with all the dancing bees indicating support for just one nesting site, usually the best one.

Honeybee Democracy brought me back to childhood, when I devoured books about the natural world and was a steady observer of nature myself. It reminded me too of how little I know or have retained. Such as: the colony’s queen, who does all the reproducing, decides the sex of her offspring, and she lays eggs that produce mostly females. A nest’s 10,000 worker bees, who collect pollen for honey, and a few hundred who become scouts for new homes, all are her virgin daughters. The comparatively few large male drones are not drones at all, in practice, but lazy, well-fed inseminators of young queens, bred once on their maiden flights and fixed, reproductively speaking, for life.

One of Seeley’s salient findings is that bees try to sense a quorum (sufficient number in agreement) rather than a consensus (unanimity) when they swarm. In taking off without complete agreement they risk that the swarm may split in flight—thus endangering their queen, whose loss would be fatal for the colony’s future. But a quorum strikes a balance between speed and accuracy in decision-making for the exposed and vulnerable swarm, and in practice usually every bee gets on board and makes a beeline for the most popular site. The risk of consensus, as we know from some human groups (Seeley gives an example from a Quaker meeting, but juries came to mind for me), one holdout can overrule the wisdom of the group and prevent a decision or prompt a bad one.

As chair of his academic department, Seeley has instituted the “Five Habits of Highly Effective Groups” that he learned from bees:

Lesson One

Compose the Decision-Making Group of Individuals with Shared Interests and Mutual Respect.

 

Lesson Two

Minimize the Leader’s Influence on the Group’s Thinking.

 

Lesson Three

Seek Diverse Solutions to the Problem.

 

Lesson Four

Aggregate the Group’s Knowledge Through Debate.

 

Lesson Five

Use Quorum Responses for Cohesion, Accuracy, and Speed.

Of course, unlike humans, bees appear to lack individual egos, humans’ blessing and curse as a species. In fact, bees operate without leaders, let alone with the domineering ones who  subvert group decision-making. As a recent national failure from poor leadership, Seeley cites how the “headstrong” style of George W. Bush steamrolled his policy team into agreeing to invade Iraq in 2003. “They did little to question his thinking, engage in extended debate about the possible policy options, or delve deeply into the consequences of going to war,” Seeley writes. “In short, they squandered their opportunity to use group intelligence. We now know that the hasty and flawed decision to invade Iraq was based largely on the gut feelings of just one man, George W. Bush.”

Contrast this with Barack Obama’s “team of rivals” ideal, as enacted by his hero Abraham Lincoln, which emphasizes a dialectic arising from a buzz of dissenting opinions. Lincoln was criticized for not being headstrong enough, for hanging back, for bordering on passivity, but look at his results, the preservation of the union and the abolition of slavery. He led by acting in accordance with his sense of his advisors’ growing recognition of the right. Now our politics seem so ugly that many apparently believe our system itself is broken, even with its brilliant checks and balances against egoistic extremism, but surely that’s what many in Lincoln’s day thought too, when the invective was at least as bitter.

Listening to Obama’s second inauguration last week on my car radio as I drove into snow flurries in Ohio, my eyes stung with tears at the beauty of the progressive ideals being expressed. Some would respond to this rhetoric with hate, I suspected, and indeed they have—unlike bees, some humans will always be on the wrong side of history. Our earliest simian layer might be blamed for this: chimps are brutally hierarchical, fierce toward rivals and rival clans, and masters of the elemental two-against-one calculus of politics.

But in the animal kingdom, ants and bees, the most highly social of insects—not apes—are considered most like humans, at least in exemplifying the kind of cooperation humans strive for and sometimes achieve. And after reading Honeybee Democracy, I’m heartened by how much we’re like the bees when we’re at our best.

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This, and THAT

Assault weapons, body counts & learning to be human.

 Flagx

Semi-automatic, high-magazine-capacity firearms—assault weapons—need to be controlled much more stringently in America. Duh, I imagine women readers responding. There’s more ambivalence among men. This position is new for me, someone who grew up in a hunting family, steeped in military service and heroic special forces exploits and with a brother in law enforcement. Many if not most cops opposed or were ambivalent about the last assault weapons ban. They’re gun folk.

I’ve used firearms as tools—as a hunter years ago, and for many years as a farmer—and I understand guns as tools. I also understand the love of guns as beautiful objects with a craft that approaches art: few artifacts are as well made or invested with such fine workmanship, materials, and durability. And 99.9 percent of gun owners, or higher, pose no risk to anyone. Quite the contrary, perhaps. There’s merit in being able to defend yourself and others.

But the ease and rapidity with which assault weapons, rifles and pistols, can be fired and reloaded make them unfit to be circulating widely in a civilized society. They are why our law enforcement officers are now armed with military grade weapons that make their old standby, the .38 special revolver, look like a quaint toy. Glued to the TV over the weekend as news of the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, unfolded, I couldn’t help but think how much slower a killer Adam Lanza would have been had he been working a bolt-action hunting rifle. Or even firing the classic eight-shot Colt .45 semi-automatic handgun. Or for that matter using a semi-automatic .308 deer rifle with maybe a six-shot clip. He had multiple thirty-round magazines. Just as even gun fanatics had to accept the U.S. ban on fully automatic weapons, they can adjust to reduced clip capacities and to parameters that limit the sale of weapons of little or no use for hunting or competitive shooting.

A crackdown has been the gun lobby’s fear about President Barack Obama from the start. In their paranoid narrative, gun control has always been his hidden agenda. Before his first inauguration, gun stores could hardly keep assault rifles in stock and sold out of ammunition nationwide. I can only imagine the brisk business they are doing now. Obama did not mention gun control in his powerful speech at the memorial service for victims, but he did call for action. He is responding as a leader should and asking a question. What is the will of the people? Maybe it is to make our schools more like fortresses, but I don’t think that’s the whole answer. A silver lining in this tragedy seems to be some bipartisan movement toward restoring the assault weapons ban that expired on George W. Bush’s criminally negligent watch.

Mental health services seem a vital part of this equation. America’s system has holes in it, our ability to institutionalize the mentally ill radically limited. I have no answers there, though I’ve also heard no evidence yet that Lanza’s mother considered him ill or a threat or sought help for him. The fact is, however, that we are group animals, and even healthy loners need a certain level of human interaction. You can’t legislate that, but we might recognize formally what everyone knows intuitively and some know professionally: radically isolated people, especially if they are young men surging with testosterone, are at risk to themselves and society.

Amidst the flurry of early erroneous news reports about the shootings, we learned that Lanza’s weapons were owned and registered to his mother. That much appears true. But some of us, trying to make sense of a woman who owned weapons like that, trying to make a story—because we understand life through narrative—put two and two together: “She bought them for her son. She must have been crazy.” The story became more complex when we learned that she was a gun enthusiast who took her son to the target range. They were her guns.

Guns don’t kill, people do, goes the gun lobby trope. But I can’t help but wonder if anything like this would have happened had Mrs. Lanza had been a dog nerd instead of a gun nut. Say she had six dogs and had involved young Adam with her in Labrador retriever rescue work. Fact is, people need people, but dogs are about as good. And she and Adam and the other Lab fanatics would have had their own little society, helpful, harmless, and happy. He’d have had canine buddies and human contact beyond his mother. This is the loving alternative I picture.

Because a dog says one thing to a troubled kid; a Bushmaster .223 assault rifle says another.

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Filed under emotion, evolutionary psychology, MY LIFE