Thursday, October 28, 2010

I wish I didn't have to do that

I just went to the gym (where I ran into my very nice coworker Ray---hi Ray!) and now I have to take a shower. I am sitting here wishing that I didn't have to do that---that I could magically become clean and so get on to the other many things I have to do. I also have to do my dishes from dinner. I wish I didn't have to do that either. In fact there are many things in life that I wish I didn't have to do: get a haircut, mop my floors, shop for a dress. I like the outcome of those things but not the process.

Then I started thinking: what about my job? Do I wish I didn't have to do the things I do at my job? Some of them yes---the annoying but necessary bits. But in the main I do my job because I like to do it. I like to solve problems. I like to neaten up chaos and track down answers. I like to translate technical concepts into orderly, clear English.

Then I started thinking about my dad, a theoretical mathematician. He may be the quintessential example of liking the process rather than the outcome. If a mathematical problem is solved, if a chunk of the mathematical existosphere is ironed out, it may be attractive or even interesting, but it isn't what floats his boat. Forgive the analogy, but it's almost like the stereotypical woman you slept with who no longer interests you. Maybe a better analogy would be a crossword puzzle: a filled in crossword puzzle isn't interesting at all.

If you've read any other bits of the blog, you'll know where this is going. An essay is the solving of the puzzle. It's the figuring things out. It's not the conclusion (clean dishes) that readers want, it's the process. (Or if it is the conclusion they want, they are darn interested in how that conclusion was reached.) That's why a good essay often starts with an open question, and leads to unexpected places. That's why an essay can end with "I don't know" and still be a success.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Random Book Recommendation: Our Man in Havana

If you haven't read Our Man in Havana, I recommend it so much. It's by Graham Greene (The End of the Affair, The Quiet American) and it's both a spy novel and hilarious. There's a vacuum cleaner; that alone should make you want to read it.

Graham Greene marked some of his books including this one as "Entertainments" which means they are less serious than the others. But the writing is still beautiful and nuanced, there's still a lot to chew on, including Havana in the 1950s. Plus we can't always be reading about beautiful women who die of consumption.

Other random books I love and somehow mentally group with this one:

Robin Hood by Howard Pyle
Any P.G. Wodehouse (early 1900s lunatic British humor, the butler Jeeves, people named Gussie Fink-N0ttle that yell "what ho!")
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain (So charming and somehow sad.)

These books are all big on plot

A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe
If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Middlemarch by George Eliot
The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy (This dude sells his wife and child to a sailor in a bar in the opening pages! What more do you want in a plot?)
Ivanhoe by Walter Scott (A little melodramatic and very anti-Semitic. Swashbuckling, though, and Robin Hood makes a guest appearance!)
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

And final random recommendation for the night:

Kazuo Ishiguro wrote The Remains of the Day which is fabulous, but his The Unconsoled is also super. It starts out very disorientingly but once you get the hang of it, you will be boggled at how he nails dream-logic, where you're in your kitchen and you open the door and you are at work, and your third grade teacher is sewing the hat that you will wear for the meeting with the president that you just remembered you had. But much more serious and moving than that.