Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift

“Whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.”

To many of us, Lilliput is the children’s story of small people tying down a bigger person, with some mumbling about horses or political philosophy in the background. In truth, however, it is that and more: a mockery of traditional travel literature, a satirical view of government and religion, a study of human nature and corruption, even a questioning of the ethos of scientific progress and development.

Lilliput is wracked with civil strife between two parties, those who wear high heels and those who wear low heels. Neither side trusts the crown prince, of course; he wears one of each. They are also at war with another country, because one likes to break its eggs from the big end, and the other from the small: the dispute stems from a religious text which says people should break their eggs from the appropriate end, only neither side agrees which end is appropriate. A conflict reminiscent of religious feuds in his time, or political ones in ours, perhaps.

Though Lilliput, the land of little people, is the best known, the book actually covers four broad journeys: first Gulliver is relatively big, then small, then wise, then ignorant. Each country he visits has different forms of government, perceives humanity in a different light, and is flawed in their own way; in Laputa Gulliver finds a society fixated on science but unable to use it for practical ends, while with the Houyhnhnms he finds a society of horses ruled by reason and ruling the human equivalents, called Yahoos. All of them are entertaining, and readers will likely find their own favourites. For myself, I think I enjoyed most the acute observations by other societies about our own: nothing like an external perspective, whether six inches or sixty feet high, to lend objectivity.

Oh, and the egg breaking wars. “It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end.”

The Eight Gates of Zen – John Daido Loori

“Other religions thus far in history are based on the idea of a self, the idea that there exists an entity call the self. Buddhism says there is no self…My self is my body, my mind, my memory, my history, my experience. But those are aggregates in the same way that walls, ceiling, floor, doors, windows are aggregates that describe a room. They don’t address the question of what is ‘selfness’ itself, what is ‘roomness’ itself…The self is an idea. It is in a constant state of change.”

In the Oxford Bodleian library, one of the oldest libraries in Europe and a reserve library for the UK with a copy of every book published there, there are a series of doors with titles painted over them. They refer to the traditional seven subjects studied in the seven year Liberal Arts degree in Medieval England. One started with grammar, rhetoric, and logic in the first three years, and then moved to arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy in the final four. As you progressed, you could enter more of the doors.

John Daido Loori has attempted to do much the same with at the Buddhist Zen Mountain Monastery, hoping to fuse Western and Eastern Traditions in order to make Buddhism appealing and accessible to Americans. His eight gates are meditation, teacher-student relationship, academic study, liturgy, precepts, art practice, body practice, and work practice. Students at all levels study material from each of the gates, and are expected to progress in each of them as they pursue

Loori has self-consciously attempted to adapt his curriculum to the West, and for that reason I’m not sure this is the place to start if you want to read about Buddhism: I got a lot more about of Aitken’s Taking the Path of Zen. It is, however, an interesting study of how Zen practices have adapted in the US. Given that Zen is not just about climbing the mountain of enlightenment, but also descending the other side and reengaging with the world, there is perhaps justification for adapting Zen practice to the cultures in which it operates.

Taking the Path of Zen – Robert Aitken

“You will have learned how to begin, at any rate, the task of keeping yourself undivided, for it is thinking of something other than the matter at hand that separates us from reality and dissipates our energies.”

How should we meditate, if indeed we want to meditate? Many attempt a rigorous focus on their breathing, or on some mantra. Though this isn’t bad, in The Path of Zen Aitken argues it’s problematic. True meditation, he suggests, is not just about focus: that implies there are two things involved, you and the thing you are focusing on. Instead, he believes meditation is about becoming one with something, a feeling of unity with your breathing comparable to reading a great book where you lose all track of time or space. Posture, hand positions, how to count; these are useful tools to achieve meditation, but are not the point.

If this sounds a lot like the modern concept of Flow, I’d agree completely, and actually there’s a lot in this book, one of the classic introductory books on Zen, that are echoed by modern themes. The idea of requiring deliberate practice to get good at something, for example, Aitken lists as one of the three concerns of the Zen student: the other two are that being alive is an important responsibility, and that we have little time to fulfill that responsibility. Even Obama’s self-imposed routine and restriction to only blue or gray suits has a Zen correspondence, as Aitken suggests minimizing the decisions you make in life in order to maximize the energy and self you can put in any given activity.

Zen can often be portrayed as an abstract, gnomic art, filled with riddles. To some extent this is fair; students are often expected to interpret the Koans, brief parables that demonstrate some fundamental principle but often seem enigmatic or trivial at first. At heart, however, Zen focuses on meditation, which it calls Zazen, as a way to focus the mind and achieve self-mastery. Aitken’s book, meant to capture the first few weeks of a retreat at a monastery for a new student, does an admirable job presenting the information accessibly and appealingly. It won’t turn you into a Zen master, but it might help you put a foot on the path.

You can get a copy here (or in the UK or Canada) – or just sign up for the Subtle Illumination email list to keep up to date with subtly illuminating reviews!

What to look forward to…

I’m away for the coming week, so I thought today rather than posting a review I’d share what’s on my shelf at the moment, to give you something to do – reviews will presumably appear at some point! I’ll see you all next Wednesday.

Dead Souls – Nikolai Gogol

Classic of 19th century Russian literature, intending to demonstrate the flaws and faults of the Russian character. Any relation to modern international relations purely coincidental.

Scarcity – Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

Discusses how being in need or impoverished affects our psychological decisionmaking

The Vikings: The last pagans or the first modern Europeans? – Jonathan Clements

An introduction to Viking history, putting them in a wider historical context; ie, they were very open-minded in their pillaging.

Taking the Path of Zen – Robert Aitken

One of the classic introductory Zen texts: once I read this, I also plan to read The Eight Gates of Zen, by John Daido Loori.

Learning to School: Federalism and Public Schooling in Canada – Jennifer Wallner

Examines Canada’s educational system, the only industrialized country without a national department of education (it’s all done at a provincial level).

The Black Jacobins – CLR James

“They enslaved the Negro, they said, because he was not a man, and when he behaved like a man they called him a monster.”

The most successful slave revolt in history is also one of the least well known. San Domingue (modern Haiti) was the wealthiest colony of France, supplying two thirds of France’s total overseas trade and serving as the largest single market for the European slave trade. In 1791 the slaves rose up, defeating in succession their French masters, British and Spanish armies, and then a 60,000 soldier French force. They would declare full independence in 1804, and remain the only slave revolt to found a state.

The story is best known from CLR James’ 1938 The Black Jacobins, one of the first books to portray slaves not as things to whom atrocities were done, but rather men and women who had agency over their own lives: masters of their fates and captains of their souls, as it were. Their leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture, would eventually be arrested on Napoleon’s orders and die in prison, but not before beginning a revolution, inspired by the French ideals of Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité, that would end with the declaration by his lieutenant of full independence.

The book can at times be hard to follow, covering as it does eight independent sides with constantly shifting alliances; the slaves, wealthy whites, poor whites, French royalists, French counter-revolutionaries, Spanish, English, and Mulattoes. Each would make and break treaties with the others while attempting to dominate the island. I also tend to object to Marxist historians: all historians have biases, of course, but I prefer mine to at least try to minimize their biases, instead of reveling in them. If all you want is to know the history, you should read the Wikipedia article. If you want to understand the history, however, and even more understand how slaves and slavery have been seen and portrayed through history, CLR James is the place to start. From how scorched earth tactics and crippling reparations impoverished Haiti, to the end of the British Trans-Atlantic slave trade three years later, to framing 12 Years a Slave’s portrayal of slaves with agency, there is much of modern interest.

“The difficulty was that though one could trap them like animals, transport them in pens, work them alongside an ass or a horse and beat both with the same stick, stable them and starve them, they remained, despite their black skins and curly hair, quite invincibly human beings; with the intelligence and resentments of human beings.”

The National Dream – Pierre Burton

“Nothing would ever be the same again. The tight little Canada of Confederation was already obsolete; the new Canada of the railway was about to be born. There was not a single man, woman or child in the nation who would not be in some way affected, often drastically, by the tortured decision made in Ottawa that night.”

It’s easy to forget how important railways were in North American development. Without them, however, history could have been very different in both the US and Canada, not only economically but politically. Railways weren’t just a way to ship goods; they were a lifeline to remote areas, often deciding whether a particular territory would join the larger federation, stay independent, or even join another country, as the US once envisaged for the area between Alaska and Washington (now part of Canada).

Indeed, the 1885 railway across Canada is perhaps the most notable example of the influence of railways, as well as an example of just how much effort it took to get the railways built. The railway crossed thousands of miles of almost unexplored territory, with no other transport links to send construction materials or supplies; bottomless mud (one lake with a mud bottom had 220,000 yards of gravel poured into it before the contractors went bankrupt, while another had piles driven 96 feet below the surface before they hit bedrock); huge mountains; strikes by workers over the terrible conditions; constant drinking as a result of the cold; and continuous accidents and explosions from poorly handled nitroglycerine, which needs to be kept warm to be stable, not an easy task in Canadian winters.

Most of all, though, the book is about political difficulties. The politicians, the contractors, and pretty much everyone else involved in the railroads at that time, both Canadian and American, were, to paraphrase the book, up to their sideburns in corruption. False companies, bribes, patronage, sudden disappearances and falsified bankruptices: no effort was spared, and above it all the worry of some politicians that without the railway, the West Coast would never join Canada at all.

To be honest, the book goes into more detail than I think most would want: unless you have a particular interest in this period, it is perhaps not suitable for a general reader. If you are interested, however, the railways played a key role in the development of the West, and the corruption that went with it makes for entertaining, if mildly depressing, reading.

The Triple Package – Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld

“This book is about the rise and fall of groups. Its thesis is that when three distinct forces come together in a group’s culture, they propel that group to disproportionate success.”

What do the CEOs of Dell, Citigroup, Fisher-Price, and Deloitte; the majority leader of the US Senate; Ken Jennings of Jeopardy fame; Stephen Covey, who wrote 7 Habits of Highly Successful People; and Stephanie Meyer, author of Twilight, all have in common? They’re all Mormons, and, if you believe Chua and Rubenfeld, they have a triple package of a superiority complex, an inferiority complex, and impulse control, something they share with American hyphenated Nigerians, Muslims, Cubans, Indians, Jews, Iranians, Indian, Jews, Iranian, Lebanese, and Chinese, among others.

Amy Chua’s last book, Tiger Mother, wasn’t exactly unprovocative, and she’s clearly decided that’s how to sell books. This one argues that the large differences in the success of different immigrant groups in the US are due to cultural factors: inferiority, superiority, and impulse-control lead to drive and resilience. She worries though that those cultural factors, leading to material success as they do, also breed problems, such as materialism or an over-focus on competition.

It is empirically true that some groups do better in the US than others, of course. And unless we want to argue that genetics decide everything, culture likely plays a role in that. So far, so good, though a lot of people discussing the book don’t seem to get even that far. What’s less certain is exactly what aspects of culture matter, and frustratingly, the book lacks the analysis to really answer that question. The cultures listed have high performing members, yes: but do they also have low performing members? If the Triple Package increases the variance without increasing the mean, then the book’s argument takes on a very different slant, and I’d have loved some insight on whether that’s the case. I should admit I have the exact same problem with Tiger Mother’s discussion of parenting, by the way.

The book ends with a story of decline: the US has lost its Triple Package (except for the superiority complex), and suffers debt and an inability to plan for the long term. In the end, it actually feels like a very standard message: the ability to delay gratification is important, for both countries and individuals. Whether an inferiority or a superiority complex is a necessary component of that, however, I’m less sure.  If you’re like me, you’ll find the weak statistics and overzealous claims somewhat annoying, but even if it’s only as a foil, the book at least asks interesting questions.

How to be a Productivity Ninja – Graham Allcott

When you receive an email, you have four options: delete, transfer to your to-do list, transfer to your calendar, or respond. Unfortunately, most of us find a fifth: ignoring it. We have a pile of un-dealt with emails, and we’re overwhelmed by them every time we check. If we can just get to the point of a zero-email inbox, however, it’s far easier to maintain it than create it. Reading a productivity book or going to a seminar can be just the impetus needed to delete all those emails, even though most of us are perfectly aware beforehand that we’d be better off if we dealt with our backlog.

I usually find productivity books collections of fairly obvious points (see my last post), and this one is no exception. Still, I think there is still a benefit to reading them. Doing so forces you to think about your own productivity and practices: even when you could have thought of the suggestions on your own, most of us don’t spend any time on it, and so don’t. Even if you’ve already got some successful techniques, there’s also always room for tweaking. I already, for example, sort my life into broad projects and themes, with individual action items for each project filed separately. What I don’t do is set up milestones for each project, to help me track how each one is going and give me a little boost each time I get there. Seems like a good idea though: I think I’ll try it.

Allcott’s central message is that we need to work through a process of Collect – Organize – Review – Do in our lives: we gather tasks and goals, we organize them, we review the information we’ve gathered and find what we’ve missed, and then we do the tasks. David Allen, the productivity guru, has a similar system. Overall, I’d say if want a productivity book, this is a fine choice: nothing special, but not bad either. Still, I’d recommend you start with the Tao Te Ching or Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations: the original self help books!

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People – Stephen R. Covey

In part one of what will be a week of self-improvement books, we turn to a classic: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Published in 1989, it has sold 15 million copies in 38 languages, a serious bestseller. Covey has been tremendously influential, going so far as to having been invited by Clinton to Camp David for a consult.

With all that said and despite an indirect Clinton endorsement, a lot of it seems old hat. One thing I found particular interesting (as well as classical – the Stoics would have been proud): a focus on principles as a way to guide and shape our lives, instead of just techniques or skills.

Covey surveyed the past 200 years of self-improvement literature, and he points out that older self-improvement literature focused on character; readers should aim to improve their courage, humility, temperance, etc. More recently the literature has turned to personality, arguing people should improve their image and adopt a positive attitude. Covey rightly points out the flaw: if you want to be trusted, the correct method is to become trustworthy. Adopting a positive attitude or improving your image can only work for so long before you are found out. I think it’s a point worth thinking about: in the end, quick fixes of modifying appearances or adopting superficial behaviours isn’t the way to self-improvement. Improving yourself is.

Covey also came up with the phrase abundance mentality: if you believe there are enough resources to share with others, you can find win-win solutions, while if you believe only in zero-sum games, you feel threatened by the success of others, instead of enjoying it. Rachman (author of Zero-Sum Game, on the concept of win-win in international relations) would definitely agree.

If you’re interested, by the way, the 7 habits are to be proactive; begin with the end in mind; put first things first; think win-win; seek first to understand, then to be understood; synergize; and sharpen the saw.

Later this week we’ll talk about a more modern self-help book; how to be a productivity ninja!

The Art of Happiness – Epicurus

“Not what we have, but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance.” – Epicurus

What do the theory of atoms, utilitarianism, atheism, egalitarianism, Thomas Jefferson, and Karl Marx’s doctoral thesis all have in common? All were influenced by the writings of Epicurus, a Greek philosopher from around 300 BC, who has the rare distinction of being both enormously influential and almost entirely non-extant: all that survives of his extensive writings are three brief letters, two groups of quotes, and some fragments.

Somewhat oddly to modern ears, in order to talk about happiness Epicurus spends considerable time talking about astronomy, the weather, and death. Epicurus argued that pleasure is “freedom from bodily pain and mental agitation:” mental agitation is caused by fear of the gods and fear of death. He turned therefore to science as the only way to eliminate these fears and achieve a happy life.

His empirical attempts to use science to explain eclipses, earthquakes, weather, phases of the moon, and other phenomena as natural events, not bad omens, are actually extremely impressive given it was the 4th century BCE. He correctly explains eclipses and rainbows, for example, and suggests an infinite, eternal universe filled with ever moving atoms making up matter: on the other hand, we’re reasonably sure that earthquakes are not caused by wind getting stuck in the ground. His also suggests that death is the end of all sensation, and since we cannot experience pain or pleasure without sensation, death should not be feared.

With the science out of the way, his recommendation is simple: avoid pain and enjoy pleasure. In practice though, he recommended as simple a life as possible, limiting wants so that you could be just as happy poor as rich. If this sounds a bit Buddhist, it’s because it likely was; several Greeks had traveled to India, including some who likely influenced Epicurus. Friendship, he believed, was the biggest single ingredient of happiness; many physical pleasures might be pleasurable in the short term, but in the long term caused more pain than pleasure.

Given how little exists, reading Epicurus is hardly going to take you long, and there’s significant room for interpretation, as the bastardized Epicurus-unapproved modern connotations of Epicurean suggests. Still, if you’re looking for the roots of the empirical method in science, some perspective on religion and death, or just some thoughts on happiness, he’s worth a look.