Friday, March 27, 2009


You never know what you'll find when you open a book.

I'm reading Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely (Harper Collins, 2008), and even though it should be a dry treatise on the psychological causes of our insistence on repeating the same mistakes, I find it a most enjoyable experience.

Maybe it's because Dan Ariely shows that our instinctual understanding (or at least my instinctual understanding, as writer) of human motivations and urges, is not as flawed as we might fear. And that the extreme reactions we like to showcase in our stories, at the point of crisis, are not as far-fetched as a cool, rational mind would like to make them.

And maybe it's because the author of Predictably Irrational is himself an excellent writer, a rare gem in the world of academic prose. He doesn't just provide information, and the names of the researchers involved in the experiments he describes, he entertains his public with the work he obviously loves and performs with a passion.

What have I learned so far in this book? That expectations do trump reality -- your senses will be betrayed by your mind. That ownership gives things more value than they're worth -- value is not a static, objective concept, but a scale that depends on variables as intangible as the moment when you decide how much you care for the thing you're considering selling or buying.

I can't help but wonder, as I read this book, how a Zen master would walk through life. Would he be as predictably irrational, or would his rational self govern him at each step? Could a human attain enough self-control to stop and consider every decision with a quiet, if not cool mind, before launching himself into reckless action?

Some days, I wish I was that Zen master. Other days... I just don't know. Whenever you gain something, you also lose something. And the grass is always greener...

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Book Lists

I came across another one.

You know them. The lists of "classics" you "should have read" if you're a "book nerd."

Considering that I'm just a few pages and a stand-up performance short of a PhD in literature, you'd think I'd cross off every book on every such list.


My lists of books read, unread, to-be-read, and never-to-look-at are just too odd.

Sure, I do have War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Le Comte de Monte-Cristo on my lists.

I also have a French collection: Zola, Balzac, Sartre, Camus. I'll have to put it into some order... some day.

The fact is, I've done my "serious" reading in graduate school. And before. When I had classes. And papers due. You know, grades.

What do I mean by serious reading? My good author friends, do no make faces! It does not mean "good" reading. It means obligatory, not-by-choice reading.

I read War and Peace for fun, but Anna Karenina as obligatory reading (although it ended up being fun). I read Crime and Punishment for fun, but Chekhov as obligatory reading. Some of the authors and titles shifted from one category to the other. Some didn't. Some I revisited. Some I ignored pointedly after I closed the book once I was done with the assignment. Some I could almost burn (if I could ever bring myself to destroy a single book). Some I'd take with me to a deserted island.

Now lest these authors and titles start impressing you, I will admit that I also enjoy graphic novels, comic books, and manga. I am an old-time fan of science-fiction and fantasy. I couldn't survive without my regular dose of genre novels. I read all of the Harry Potter books, but none of the Stephenie Mayer ones (timing, I guess). And yes, I am a big fan of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

The point is, there is no bad reading.

There is such a thing as not pushing yourself, as limiting your curiosity. When my first child was little and I felt my reading was going by the wayside, I joined a book club -- just a few friends who got together for coffee and chatting. We decided on a book and talked about it. Nothing formal, but I read some authors I wouldn't have discovered otherwise. And I enjoyed the books.

I pushed myself out of my comfort zone.

We should always do that. We should push ourselves. Be curious. Opening a book is a great way to take a risk without risking danger. And a library is a wonderful place to open a book without opening your wallet.