Sobriquet 32.2: Repost

An old post from an abandoned weblog:

I have been listening to Paul Auster's reading of The Book of Illusions on and off for the past few days and I am loving it. Written in the voice of a recently-widowed professor of Comparative Literature at a fictional Vermont college, Auster's quasi-metafictional novel chronicles David Zimmer's life following the death of his wife and children in an airplane crash. Throwing himself into research for a critical study of an obscure silent film comedian, Zimmer attempts to find a way to live with his loss. Although he manages to find a measure of solace in his work, Zimmer cannot seem to escape the gaping void left by his family's tragedy. Slowly, awkwardly, Zimmer removes himself almost entirely from his colleagues and purchases a secluded mountain home in southern Vermont. His detatched churlishness a poor guise for an aching soul, Zimmer's old friends try to reach him and, failing to do so, find themselves wounded by the man's increasingly misanthropic behavior. Then the wife of Hector Mann, the silent comedian about whom Zimmer wrote his critical study, sends him a letter and the depressed academic finds himself reluctantly drawn back into human society. Add to this the generally-accepted theory that Mann (who seemingly vanished into thin air during the Depression) has been dead for half a century, and we've got a splendidly mysterious set-up for another of Auster's beautifully imaginative novels.

I'll write more when I finish listening to the novel.

Another book I have been impressed with is Steven Hawking's A Brief History of Time. I've only recently managed to overcome the aversion to mathematics and hard science resulting from a largely subpar pre-college education, and am uncomfortably ignorant of the hidden workings of the world, so I have been seeking to make up for that ignorance by becoming something of an autodidact. Hawking's is perhaps the perfect writer for someone in my position. He is erudite without resorting to overly technical language, good-humored, open-minded (resisting the temptation to take pot-shots at religion like some of his colleagues, Hawking takes special care to discuss science as compatible with faith), and genuinely enthusiastic. Like a good teacher, Hawking manages to channel his own passion so powerfully that folks like myself cannot help but love turning the pages of his book.

I recall being taught math and hard science as a high schooler in perhaps the least interesting way possible. Teachers would teach us equations without ever providing a good reason for doing so. After we left checkbook balancing behind, math no longer seemed to have even the slightest relevance to everyday life. The general approach teachers took to math, chemistry, and physics instruction in my school seemed to be "solve problems to solve problems." Never once do I recall a teacher taking the time to explain how or why learning the methodology would help us learn new, exciting things later. This approach felt like running on a treadmill because the treadmill is a treadmill, not because exercise could improve our health or that running could be enjoyable. It was just that absurd "do it to do it" mentality that permeated the hard sciences...and it pushed people away. It was only in a college history class that algebra was explained as the science of balance.

If only my teachers had read something like Hawking's book, they'd have realized that simply by beginning a course of study with the big questions science and math allow us to ask, the philosophically-minded students would eat up all the graphs and equations knowing just where those tedious problem sets could actually lead them.

That's how well-written A Brief History of Time actually is. It makes the reader want to pick up all the books tossed aside as boring all those years ago and read them cover-to-cover.


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