a poet on ‘memory’

I don’t think I can speak at sufficient length about the importance to the poet of avoiding or ignoring Kodak moments. If a poet seeks to make or keep memories, how will she ever know which ones contain true power, which would assert themselves on their own? Perhaps her very definition of memory would change if she didn’t get her Kodak moments developed. Maybe memory would not hold individual scenes at all; maybe it would have no detail; maybe it would not rise up–the pines of that morning in Yosemite scraping the interior of her skull; maybe it would be nacreous, layered regions of pleasure and attraction in the mind. Any sense of tint in the depth of the gleam would arise so slowly as to be imperceptible. I am speaking of the memory that might result from repetition. I am interested in the long ways of knowing, where the mind does not seek strangeness. We must be less in love with foreground if we want to see far.

from Synthesizing Gravity by Kay Ryan

Memory does not do our bidding, even when we are most intent on fixing a moment or an experience in our memory. Perhaps it’s just as well. Perhaps we should struggle less to make “perfect” memories. Perhaps we should fret less about all that we can’t remember. We must be less in love with foreground if we want to see far.

A word I’m pleased to learn: “nacreous” meaning lustrous, as mother-of-pearl. Nacreous gleams of memory, a wonderful image.

“doing” beats “disrupting” in WHY WE DRIVE: Toward a PHILOSOPHY of the OPEN ROAD by Matthew B. Crawford

Ripe seeds of invention everywhere abound, and it awaits only a certain combination of need, of circumstance and, above all, perhaps, of chance, to decide which shall germinate.
The High-Speed Internal-Combustion Engine by Harry Ricardo, 1923

“Ricardo’s “ripe seeds of invention”…begin to germinate around some settled platform…allowing a body of communal expertise to develop. The impatient optimizer may see such an inheritance as an obstacle, something to be swept away in the name of forward progress. Human beings are often bullheaded in their attachment to something suboptimal. Call it loyalty, call it perversity, or call it a cultural inheritance, this conservatism has at times been responsibe for amazing leaps forward, paradoxically enough…tradition can itself be an engine of progress. It organizes the transmission of knowledge. It also provides an idiom for some shared endeavor, and a set of historical benchmarks, such that one can imagine oneself outdoing particular human beings who came before, and who worked wthin the same basic limitations. Tradition thus provides a venue for rivalry in excellence, the kind that sometimes brings a whole community to new and unexpected places.

In this respect, I think it is fair to call hot-rodding an art form.”

This is, I’m certain, the most entertaining and engaging work of political philosophy that I will read all year. Crawford tells great stories about what we could call the “car culture’ to make serious arguments for defending the personal freedom integral to the act of driving, and the human virtues cultivated in making and doing stuff to cars. He attacks the particular threat of the autonomous car to critique the larger issues posed by the intrusion of ‘big data tech’ into our society.

Hot-rodding as an art form is a little tongue in cheek, but he’s not talking about street racing. He describes the ingenuity, creativity, and passionate pursuit of making something better, something imagined and created through a high level of craft. I’m never going to pick up a wrench let alone tear down an engine, but I can sincerely admire the skill and passion that the car enthusiast pours into realizing a personal vision.

His title is what caught my attention. Didn’t quite have me at “Drive” but he hooked me with “the Open Road”. I love to drive and I love a road trip above almost anything. The prospect of the so-called autonomous car fills me first with bafflement – who doesn’t want to be in control and enjoy the physical sensations of driving? – and then incredulity – who thinks these systems would be any more error free or secure than any other bug and hack riddled software that we know? – and then fear and outrage – are some “experts” going to force us to relinquish yet another piece of personal independence and active agency?

I feel more and more uncomfortable with what has been aptly named “surveillance capitalism” (Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism) and anxious about its relentless extension into our lives. I have no wish to be a passive engine of consumption, but it is harder and harder to defend privacy and avoid (or even recognize) the little nudges and gentle steerings that intrude into every activity.

“…the Blob that seeks to claim every nook and cranny of human experience as raw material to be datafied and turned to its own profit. What this amounts to is a concentration of wealth, a centralization of knowledge, and an atrophy of our native skills to do things for ourselves.

However one comes down on a contest such as that between…consumer convenience and a living wage, between waiting an extra five minutes to hail a cab versus spending an extra ten minutes in traffic because the streets are flooded with empty Ubers, shouldn’t these questions be decided by us, through democratic contest and market forces? That is not at all what is happening. It is more like colonial conquest, this new and very unilateral form of political economy.”

Definitely a bigger issue than keeping my car keys. That’s important too. I like to drive, I like to use the skills developed over many years and miles of driving, I like making the choice of route even if it’s not GPS “optimal”, and I enjoy (mostly) the interaction with fellow drivers as we share the community of the road.

“To drive is to exercise one’s skill at being free, and one can’t help but feel this when one gets behind the wheel. It seems a skill worth preserving.”

Reading List 2021

What I’ve read this year. I sample or skim some that aren’t included. Happily, I have lost the compulsion or sense of duty to finish every book I start.


The Dry by Jane Harper; Flatiron Books 2016
well plotted mystery, strong on local color of drought-ravaged Australia

Cold Storage, Alaska by John Straley, Soho Press 2014
very appealing story, a kindlier example of the ironic/goofy style of crime novel

The Republic of Imagination, A Life In Books by Azar Nafisi; Penguin Books 2014
she shares her insights and love of literature; focus on books that illuminate the American experience

A Student Of History by Nina Revoyr, Akashik Books 2019
author is a fine stylist, but I was left feeling like the protagonist’s thesis advisor that the promise of the early chapters was unfulfilled

Earthlings by MURATA Sayaka, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (c2018) English edition Grove Press 2020
a deeply sad, surreally comic story, a harsh critique of society’s pressures to conform

Without Ever Reaching the Summit, a journey by Paolo Cognetti translated from the Italian by Stash Luczkiw; (c2018) HarperOne 2020
meditative trek in Nepal, a pure example of a trip that is all about the journey

Synthesizing Gravity, Selected Prose by Kay Ryan; Grove Press 2020
essays characterized by humor and insight, much on the act/nature of writing

The Big Both Ways by John Straley; Alaska Northwest Books 2008
depression era story with colorful memorable characters and setting in Northwest and Alaska

The Oedipus Cycle by Sophocles, translated from the Greek by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald; Harcourt Brace and Co.

The Forger by Cay Rademacher, translated from the German by Peter Millar; (c2013) Arcadia Books ed. 2018
Final volume in the very interesting and satisfying mystery series set in Hamburg in the immediate post-war years


The Mountains Wait by Theodor Broch; 1943 Michael Joseph Ltd. illustrated by Rockwell Kent
memoir of life in northern Norway and the coming of WWII by the Mayor of Narvik

WHY WE DRIVE, Toward a PHILOSOPHY of the OPEN ROAD by Matthew B. Crawford 2020 William Morrow
engaging stories illuminate his critique of the dangers of big tech and bureaucracy to personal freedom and creativity

Patrick Melrose by Edward St. Aubyn Picador edition 2015
being a cycle of five novels: Never Mind; Bad News; Some Hope; Mother’s Milk; At Last comic and terrible, heartbreaking and hopeful, the boyhood to adult middle age of an upper class Englishman; brilliant dialogue, wonderful prose

Lord Grizzly by Frederick Manfred c1954 Univ. of Nebraska edition 1983
vigorous vivid story of the mountain man Hugh Glass, who famously survived a mauling by a grizzly bear

The Silver Branch by Rosemary Sutcliff c1957 Oxford Univ Press
one of the author’s engaging series of novels about Roman Britain

Tokyo Ueno Station by YU Miri c2014, translated by Morgan Giles Riverhead Books edition 2020
through the memories and reveries of a homeless man’s ghost we see something of the hardships of life for the poor in post-war Japan; poetic, dream-like prose

I Was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holenia (c1933) translated by Ignat Ivesy 2013 Pushkin Press edition
terrifically entertaining thriller set in Vienna

Inferno by Dante Alighieri, A New Verse Translation by Michael Palma
W. W. Norton 2002

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman, Viking 2020
so much fun, a really witty clever warm-hearted mystery

The Vanished Library by Luciano Canfora, translated from the Italian by Martin Ryle; University of California Press 1989
scholarly sleuthing untangles references and allusions to libraries in the ancient world, particular focus on the great library of Alexandria

Continue reading “Reading List 2021”