Home | Marilynne Robinson

The cover of Robinson's HomeHome moves slow.

In this sequel to Robinson’s Pulitzer prize winning novel GileadHome takes us back to Gilead, Iowa. The plot moves as slowly as the small town it’s set in. Glory Boughton returns to Gilead to care for her father. Shortly thereafter, her brother Jack (the troublemaker) arrives. Throw in a few meetings with the Rev. John Ames, and that’s the entire plot.

Normally, this would be a criticism. Fortunately, Home is not normal! What makes this book special is the way Robinson writes about the relationships between two siblings, their father, and an aging (softening?) preacher. I’ve never understood characters the way I understand Glory and Jack. It makes me want to reread Gilead, now that I know them so well.

Since Home is written from the perspective of Glory (while Gilead was written as the memoir of the Rev. John Ames), there is not as much religious reflection to ponder. That said, Robinson’s understanding and exploration of the relationships between very different people leave the reader much to chew on.

Home is a fitting sequel to Gilead, and a fine novel in its own right. Yes Home moves slow—the perfect speed for this story.

—Marilynne Robinson, Home (Toronto: Harper Perennial, 2008).

Think Something | Slavoj Žižek

The old saying, “Don’t just talk, do something!” is one of the most stupid things one can say, even measured by the low standards of common sense. Perhaps, rather, the problem lately has been that we have been doing too much, such as intervening in nature, destroying the environment, and so forth. . . Perhaps it is time to step back, think and say the right thing.

—Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (London: Verso, 2009), 11.

The Organized Mind | Daniel J. Levitin

The cover of Levitin's the Organized MindWe are drowning in information. Levitin illustrates this with a biological example (15). Google Scholar reports 30,000 research articles on the nervous system of a squid. You can have a PhD in biology and never know all that’s been written on the topic!

This superabundance of accessible information has left us confused. We waste our time away making meaningless decisions that would not have been a matter of choice a few decades ago. This plethora of information can leave us overwhelmed. We have this vague sense that we can’t quite keep on top of everything we should know.

Daniel Levitin draws on scientific research studies as well as time management gurus to help us understand the problem. More than that, he offers practical ways for us to (as the subtitle says), think “straight in an age of information overload.”

One of the most interesting parts of Levitin’s book was his attack on the myth of multi-tasking. While we think we can do many things at once, “what we really do is shift our attention rapidly from task to task” (306). This leads to two problems:

  1. We don’t devote enough attention to any one task.
  2. We decrease the quality of our attention to a task.

Levitin is aware that self-professed multitaskers will disagree with this research. In one of the best scientific jargon-laden insults I’ve read, “a cognitive illusion sets in, fueled in part by a dopamine-adrenaline feedback loop, in which multitaskers think they are doing great” (306). Uni-taskers unite!

Multitasking is just a small part of this 500 page book (400+notes and index) in which every section had something interesting and enlightening to offer. If you want to understand more about how your mind works and how you can stay in control of the modern information torrent, Levitin is a great guide.

—Daniel J. Levitin, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload (Toronto: Allen Lane, 2014).

A Brief History of Infinity | Brian Clegg

The cover of Clegg's A Brief History of InfinityFor a theologian, infinity is an important thought. Typically, we consider God infinite and his creation (i.e. us) finite. This has serious implications concerning our relationship to him. How can the finite approach the infinite? Consider these words from the prophet Isaiah:

For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
(Isaiah 55:9 ESV)

In A Brief History of Infinity, Brian Clegg surveys how people have tried to understand the idea of the infinite from the ancient Greek philosophers through 20th Century mathematicians (and everyone in between). It turns out that pagan and religious thinkers alike have wrestled with the paradoxes of infinity for centuries.

Consider this frustrating thought experiment. Take a series of fractions. The numerator is always 1. The denominator doubles each time. With each fraction you list you get closer to 2, but never quite there. There’s an infinite space between the simple integers 1 and 2. How can this be? It’s no wonder some of the people to wrestle with infinity have lost the match and fell into madness!

Infinity (the book) is a satisfying mix of history and mathematics.

—Brian Clegg, A Brief History of Infinity: The Quest to Think the Unthinkable (London: Robinson, 2003).

Stowaway to Mars | John Wyndham

The cover of Wyndham's Stowaway to MarsI love John Wyndham’s science fiction. I have been a fan since my college days when I read The Chrysalids (in an effort to read all the books I was supposed to read in High School).

Wyndham first published this work with the title, Planet Plane in 1936 under the pen name John Beynon. It was later published as a serial novel under the names The Space Machine and Stowaway to Mars. Stowaway is one of his first works, and it shows. The plot lacks the drive and balance of his later efforts.

The story centres around one person’s drive to be the first to reach Mars and return. Of course, there is a stowaway—a woman named Joan.

It’s interesting to see how Wyndham handled gender issues. On the one hand, Joan is portrayed as a tough woman who is determined to break free of preassigned roles (in contrast to the protagonists’s earthbound and pregnant wife). Her iconoclastic role is undermined, however, as the story continues.

The philosophic role of machines and technology in society is the most interesting part of the book. The protagonist is enamored with his machines and the accolades they have won him. His wife, on the other hand, is threatened by them. Martian society has fully accepted and allowed machinery to flourish. Joan, in a conversation with the Martian Vaygan questions his acceptance of them:

‘The Machines?’ Joan repeated. ‘What are the Machines? They are the puzzle which brought me here.’ She told him of the machine which had somehow reached Earth. ‘I felt nervous of it,’ she owned, ‘and I felt nervous of your machines last night. I think that is the first reaction of all of us to our own machines. Some never get beyond it, others get used to it, but when we think of machines we feel that in spite of all they have given us and all they do for us there is something malignant about them. Their very presence forces us down ways we do not want to go.’ (149)

Joan continues to question the Martian’s apparent subservience to their machines. Vaygan later admits:

‘In a sense the machine must rule from the moment it is put to work. One surrenders to its higher efficiency—that is why it was made.’ (168)

These thoughts anticipate the work of Jacques Ellul!

Stowaway is not one of Wyndham’s great stories, but it’s still a thought-provoking read.

—John Wyndham, Stowaway to Mars (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1977).