Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Top 10 nonfiction

My great books #10: The Five Gospels

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The Five Gospels

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.

It’s hard to deny that the life and words of Jesus of Nazareth deserve to be a part of any thinking person’s education, regardless of one’s religious convictions, and to the extent that many people are uncomfortable with this, it has less to do with the teachings themselves than with the interpretations and additions that have accrued around them over time. What makes this even harder is the fact that the process of revision begins in the gospels themselves, which were written long afterward to serve an early church with urgent needs of its own. Restoring the original message to the degree that we can stands is a project of tremendous importance, and The Five Gospels, published by the Jesus Seminar, is the most attractive and thought-provoking effort I’ve seen to present those core ideas in a form accessible to readers of all backgrounds. It’s a fascinating act of communal detective work, and even if the results are far from definitive, they deserve our consideration and respect. The seminar’s methods—voting by means of colored beads, with passages marked red, pink, gray, or black in order of their level of perceived authenticity—might seem odd at first, and you could make a good case that its judgments are colored by certain assumptions, such as the idea that Jesus was unlikely to have made assertions about his own nature, and that his vision was less one of apocalypse than of making the kingdom of heaven a reality in this world. Yet every act of criticism is predicated on similar preconceptions, and the Jesus Seminar comes as close as we can to highlighting material that seems to have survived intact. The rest, as they say, is left as an exercise for the reader.

The seminar starts by identifying short, memorable passages, like “Turn the other cheek,” that seem likely to have been remembered and passed down through the oral tradition, and then uses those clues as a guide for compiling a portrait that, even if incomplete, at least gives us a persuasive starting point. And its approach is best judged by its fruits. Here, for instance, are the moral statements that the seminar marked as red:

Don’t react violently against the one who is evil: when someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other as well. When someone wants to sue you for your shirt, let that person have your coat along with it. Further, when anyone conscripts you for one mile, go an extra mile. Give to the one who begs from you. Congratulations, you poor! God’s domain belongs to you. Congratulations, you hungry! You will have a feast. Congratulations, you who weep now! You will laugh. Love your enemies. Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor, give God what belongs to God.

This certainly feels like the heart of what remains the most challenging of all ethical paths, if we’re willing to read it as closely as it demands, and it doesn’t force us to exclude the rest—only to examine it in the light of what feels like its indispensable center. Taken simply as a work of literature in its own right, the slice of the gospels that the seminar emphasizes is enough for a lifetime’s thought and meditation, and it stands as a rebuke to all of us. And underlying it all is the seminar’s stark admonition, which we’d all be advised to heed: “Beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you.”

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November 13, 2015 at 9:30 am

My great books #9: On Directing Film

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On Directing Film

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here

When it comes to giving advice on something as inherently unteachable as writing, books on the subject tend to fall into one of three categories. The first treats the writing manual as an extension of the self-help genre, offering what amounts to an extended pep talk that is long on encouragement but short on specifics. A second, more useful approach is to consolidate material on a variety of potential strategies, either through the voices of multiple writers—as George Plimpton did so wonderfully in The Writer’s Chapbook, which assembles the best of the legendary interviews given to The Paris Review—or through the perspective of a writer and teacher, like John Gardner, generous enough to consider the full range of what the art of fiction can be. And the third, exemplified by David Mamet’s On Directing Film, is to lay out a single, highly prescriptive recipe for constructing stories. This last approach might seem unduly severe. Yet after a lifetime of reading what other writers have to say on the subject, Mamet’s little book is still the best I’ve ever found, not just for film, but for fiction and narrative nonfiction as well. On one level, it can serve as a starting point for your own thoughts about how the writing process should look: Mamet provides a strict, almost mathematical set of tools for building a plot from first principles, and even if you disagree with his methods, they clarify your thinking in a way that a more generalized treatment might not. But even if you just take it at face value, it’s still the closest thing I know to a foolproof formula for generating rock-solid first drafts. (If Mamet himself has a flaw as a director, it’s that he often stops there.) In fact, it’s so useful, so lucid, and so reliable that I sometimes feel reluctant to recommend it, as if I were giving away an industrial secret to my competitors.

Mamet’s principles are easy to grasp, but endlessly challenging to follow. You start by figuring out what every scene is about, mostly by asking one question: “What does the protagonist want?” You then divide each scene up into a sequence of beats, consisting of an immediate objective and a logical action that the protagonist takes to achieve it, ideally in a form that can be told in visual terms, without the need for expository dialogue. And you repeat the process until the protagonist succeeds or fails at his or her ultimate objective, at which point the story is over. This may sound straightforward, but as soon as you start forcing yourself to think this way consistently, you discover how tough it can be. Mamet’s book consists of a few simple examples, teased out in a series of discussions at a class he taught at Columbia, and it’s studded with insights that once heard are never forgotten: “We don’t want our protagonist to do things that are interesting. We want him to do things that are logical.” “Here is a tool—choose your shots, beats, scenes, objectives, and always refer to them by the names you chose.” “Keep it simple, stupid, and don’t violate those rules that you do know. If you don’t know which rule applies, just don’t muck up the more general rules.” “The audience doesn’t want to read a sign; they want to watch a motion picture.” “A good writer gets better only by learning to cut, to remove the ornamental, the descriptive, the narrative, and especially the deeply felt and meaningful.” “Now, why did all those Olympic skaters fall down? The only answer I know is that they hadn’t practiced enough.” And my own personal favorite: “The nail doesn’t have to look like a house; it is not a house. It is a nail. If the house is going to stand, the nail must do the work of a nail. To do the work of the nail, it has to look like a nail.”

Written by nevalalee

November 12, 2015 at 9:00 am

My great books #8: A Pattern Language

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A Pattern Language

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.

I first encountered Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language—which I think is the best, most rewarding work of nonfiction published anywhere in the last fifty years—in The Next Whole Earth Catalog, in which it was the only book to receive an entire page of its own, with the enticing heading “Everything Design.” Stewart Brand’s accompanying comment, which has disappeared from subsequent editions, was equally arresting: “I suspect this is the best and most useful book in the Catalog.” And I suspect that he was right. Alexander’s magnum opus is ostensibly about architecture, but if its greatest influence has been in outlying fields like software engineering, this isn’t surprising: it’s really a book about identifying essential patterns, defining them as strictly as possible while leaving room for intuition, and building them up into larger structures from the perspective of those who use them every day. This is what creativity, of any kind, is all about. And the result wouldn’t be nearly as attractive if Alexander and his coauthors didn’t ground everything in concrete observation and pragmatic advice. The book’s core is a list of more than a thousand design patterns, from “Paths and Goals” to “Canvas Roofs,” that state a problem, lay out the logic behind the proposed solution, and close with a list of specific actions that a designer can take. Here’s one example, chosen at random, from the pattern called “Something Roughly in the Middle,” which applies as much to art as to architecture:

A public space without a middle is quite likely to stay empty…Between the natural paths which cross a public square or courtyard or a piece of common land choose something to stand roughly in the middle: a fountain, a tree, a statue, a clock tower with seats, a windmill, a bandstand. Make it something which gives a strong and steady pulse to the square, drawing people in toward the center. Leave it exactly where it falls between the paths; resist the impulse to put it exactly in the middle.

You could build an entire house—or buy one, as I did—using A Pattern Language as your only guide, and the rules of thumb that it provides are bracingly specific: light on two or more sides of every room, balconies at least six feet deep, bedrooms set to the east. Even on a point as apparently mystical as that of the Zen view, Alexander devotes as much time to the how as to the what, and his reasoning is always clear and persuasive. Not incidentally, the result is a huge pleasure to read for its own sake: I can’t think of any other book that leaves me so consistently refreshed. It’s hard not to fall under the rhythmic spell of its language, which is simultaneously rational, soothing, and impassioned, and it quickly comes to seem like the voice of a trusted guide and friend. Like most great works of philosophy, it’s full of immediately applicable insights, and the beauty of its conception is that it begins with a vision of the world on the level of entire nations and brings it down to open shelving and window seats. If it has a uniting thesis, it’s that life in buildings and other creative works emerges from a process of gradual unfolding, a recursive, iterative form of evolution that has little to do with the kind of central planning that dominates so many complex activities. And it’s impossible not to apply its lessons to all aspects of one’s life, from political engagement to writing to web design. Each entry leads to countless others, while also inviting sustained thought and meditation. If I could give only one book to the next president to read, this would be the one, and it’s also the work, above all others, that seems to offer the best tools to construct a meaningful life of one’s own.

Written by nevalalee

November 11, 2015 at 9:19 am

My great books #7: The Biographical Dictionary of Film

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The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.

David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film is one of the weirdest books in all of literature, and more than the work of any other critic, it has subtly changed the way I think about both life and the movies. His central theme—which is stated everywhere and nowhere—is the essential strangeness of turning shadows on a screen into men and women who can seem more real to us than the people in our own lives. His writing isn’t conventional criticism so much as a single huge work of fiction, with Thomson himself as both protagonist and nemesis. It isn’t a coincidence that one of his earliest books was a biography of Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy: his entire career can be read as one long Shandean exercise, in which Thomson, as a fictional character in his own work, is cheerfully willing to come off as something of a creep, as long as it illuminates our reasons for going to the movies. And his looniness is part of his charm. Edmund Wilson once playfully speculated that George Saintsbury, the great English critic, invented his own Toryism “in the same way that a dramatist or novelist arranges contrasting elements,” and there are times when I suspect that Thomson is doing much the same thing. (If his work is a secret novel, its real precursor is Pale Fire, in which Thomson plays the role of Kinbote, and every article seems to hint darkly at some monstrous underlying truth. A recent, bewildered review of his latest book on The A.V. Club is a good example of the reaction he gets from readers who aren’t in on the joke.)

But if you leave him with nothing but his perversity and obsessiveness, you end up with Armond White, while Thomson succeeds because he’s also lucid, encyclopedically informed, and ultimately sane, although he does his best to hide it. The various editions of The Biographical Dictionary of Film haven’t been revised so much as they’ve accumulated: Thomson rarely goes back to rewrite earlier entries, but tacks on new thoughts to the end of each article, so that it grows by a process of accretion, like a coral reef. The result can be confusing, but when I go back to his earlier articles, I remember at once why this is still the essential book on film. I’ll look at Thomson on Coppola (“He is Sonny and Michael Corleone for sure, but there are traces of Fredo, too”); on Sydney Greenstreet (“Indeed, there were several men trapped in his grossness: the conventional thin man; a young man; an aesthete; a romantic”); or on Eleanor Powell’s dance with Astaire in Broadway Melody of 1940 (“Maybe the loveliest moment in films is the last second or so, as the dancers finish, and Powell’s alive frock has another half-turn, like a spirit embracing the person”). Or, perhaps most memorably of all, his thoughts on Citizen Kane, which, lest we forget, is about the futile search of a reporter named Thompson:

As if Welles knew that Kane would hang over his own future, regularly being used to denigrate his later works, the film is shot through with his vast, melancholy nostalgia for self-destructive talent…Kane is Welles, just as every apparent point of view in the film is warmed by Kane’s own memories, as if the entire film were his dream in the instant before death.

It’s a strange, seductive, indispensable book, and to paraphrase Thomson’s own musings on Welles, it’s the greatest career in film criticism, the most tragic, and the one with the most warnings for the rest of us.

Written by nevalalee

November 10, 2015 at 9:00 am

My great books #6: The Whole Earth Catalog

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The Next Whole Earth Catalog

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.

The Whole Earth Catalog—or, as Steve Jobs famously called it, “Google in book form”—was a product of a time and place that is close to my heart: the Bay Area of the late sixties and early seventies, centered in particular on Berkeley and Sausalito. Stewart Brand conceived of it as a book, modeled on the L.L. Bean catalog, that would provide resources for exploring a range of issues that remain relevant today, notably sustainable living, simplicity, and ecology in its original sense, which spans everything from planetary environmentalism to the humblest forms of home economics. In its book recommendations, accompanied by a running commentary that articulated an entire theory of civilization, it gave readers the tools to investigate space exploration, personal computing, art, literature, anthropology, architecture, health, backpacking, mysticism, and much more. As a work that unfolds endlessly onto others, it’s been the most influential book in my life by far. Of the five titles that I mentioned here last week, I owe my discovery of three of them to browsing in the Catalog, while a fourth, The Complete Walker, features prominently in its pages. (Strangely enough, Brand and his colleagues never seem to have taken any notice of The Anatomy of Melancholy, which played much the same role in the seventeenth century that the Catalog did in the twentieth, as a kind of clearinghouse of ideas and excerpts for curious readers.)

Taken simply as a guide to the world’s greatest bookstore, it’s an essential part of anyone’s reading life. (The edition to get is The Next Whole Earth Catalog, which is so massive and packed with information that leafing through its pages feels like an adventure in itself.) But its larger vision is what lingers. The Catalog is both a guide to good reading and a window onto an interlocking body of approaches to managing the complicated problems that modern life presents. In its physical format, with double spreads on everything from computers to ceramics, it naturally emphasizes the connections between disciplines, and the result is an atlas for living in boundary regions, founded on an awareness of how systems evolve and how individuals fit within the overall picture. Its intended readers, both then and now, are resistant to specialization; interested in technology as a means of enabling choices; and inspired by such practical intellectuals as Buckminster Fuller, Gregory Bateson, and Stewart Brand himself, who move gracefully from one area of expertise to the next. Browsing through it even for a few minutes is enough to rekindle your belief in serendipity and the possibilities that the world presents, and although it has inspired a number of worthy successors, notably Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools, the original remains irreplaceable. It turned me, for better or worse, into a generalist. And it’s still the model I try to follow whenever I wonder what my life should be.

Written by nevalalee

November 9, 2015 at 9:00 am

My great books #5: The Complete Walker

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The Complete Walker III by Colin Fletcher

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.

The other day, I mentioned my recurrent fantasy of selling my possessions, leaving home, and traveling the world with a backpack. For all the usual boring reasons, I never came close to doing it for real, and curiously enough, aside from a few minor exceptions, I was never even inspired to do the next best thing—I’ve never been a backpacker or hiker. This is despite the fact that Colin Fletcher’s The Complete Walker is probably the nonfiction book I’ve reread more frequently than any other. (There are several editions, all of which have their charms, but the one I’d recommend that you read for your own pleasure is the third, since it’s the longest and most comprehensive version that Fletcher wrote on his own.) Unlike certain other critics, I love the “Economy” chapter of Thoreau’s Walden precisely because it’s so fussily specific: Thoreau devotes so much attention to the balance sheet and homely practicalities of his little experiment that you’re almost convinced that you could do it yourself. Fletcher’s book has much the same appeal: it’s basically an encyclopedic survey of the subject of backpacking, particularly of the equipment involved, and after you’ve read one of his exhaustive treatments of packs, flashlights, or space blankets, you may not be ready to set off on your own, but you’ve been furnished with ample material for dreams.

The more I revisit The Complete Walker—and I seem to go through the whole thing, piece by piece, every couple of years or so—the more it strikes me as a genuine but unsung literary masterpiece, a model of clarity, wit, readability, and good humor. Fletcher worries here and there that his focus on the “how-to” comes at the expense of the “feel-how,” but the pages in which he attempts to directly evoke the delights of walking itself, which is inherently impossible, are rather less poetic and interesting than his finicky weighting of the merits of various brands of camping stoves, which I could read forever. And I often think of what Fletcher says after considering the arguments of those who say that you should never go backpacking alone:

But if you judge safety to be the paramount consideration in life you should never, under any circumstances, go on long hikes alone. Don’t take short hikes alone either—or, for that matter, go anywhere alone. And avoid at all costs such foolhardy activities as driving, falling in love or inhaling air that is almost certainly riddled with deadly germs. Wear wool next to the skin. Insure every good and chattel you possess against every conceivable contingency the future might bring, even if the premiums half-cripple the present. Never cross an intersection against a red light, even when you can see that all roads are clear for miles. And never, of course, explore the guts of an idea that seems as if it might threaten one of your more cherished beliefs. In your wisdom you will probably live to a ripe old age. But you may discover, just before you die, that you have been dead for a long, long time.

Written by nevalalee

November 6, 2015 at 9:00 am

My great books #4: The White Goddess

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The White Goddess

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.

One of the odd but recurrent patterns of intellectual history is that a false hypothesis proposed by a genius is often more rewarding—or at least generates more useful material, almost by accident—than a correct one offered up by an ordinary mortal. James Frazer’s theory about the priestly succession at Nemi has been rejected by most anthropologists, but without it, we wouldn’t have The Golden Bough, which is still the greatest repository of information and insight ever published on magic, ritual, and religion. You could say much the same about the theories of Freud. And while I no longer believe in the details, or even the general outline, of the historical argument that Robert Graves makes in The White Goddess, I wouldn’t give up the resulting book for the world. It reads today like the kind of conspiracy theory we find in a Dan Brown novel, although infinitely more ingenious, and even Graves knew that orthodox scholars were unlikely to embrace his work: “Though they cannot refute it, they dare not accept it.” For the general reader, fortunately, it doesn’t really matter, because The White Goddess is unsurpassed as a lucky bag of lore, ideas, and clues for other writers to take up and pursue. I’ve found myself browsing through it whenever I start a new writing project, if only on the off chance that one of Graves’s asides or digressions will spark a train of thought that never would have occurred to me otherwise.

Read with an appropriately skeptical mind, The White Goddess is still the best entry point for the intelligent reader on a dizzying range of subjects: Celtic mythology, poetic logic, the interpretation or decoding of mythic and religious iconography, the relationship between the poet and the muse, and the role of intuition in the creative process. The difficulty of his hypothesis forced Graves to range further and delve more deeply than a scholar making a more conventional case, and the material that he tosses up casually along the way has stuck with me longer than his primary argument. (I was first attracted to the book by its back cover’s promise to provide practical answers to countless unsolved riddles of the ancient world, including Thomas Browne’s “What song the sirens sang” or “What name Achilles assumed when he hid among women”—not to mention how to untie the Gordian knot, which Graves handles in a single footnote. And his “solution” to the vision of Ezekiel lies at the heart of my novel City of Exiles.) In the end, it stands as an illustration both of intuition’s possibilities and of its limits, although it also makes mere reason seem cramped by comparison. In his poem in praise of the goddess herself, Graves speaks of “tourbillions in Time made / By the strong pulling of her bladed mind / Through that ever-reluctant element.” “Bladed mind” is really a description of Graves himself, and the tourbillions, or whirlwinds, that he created in his intractable material continue to revolve in my imagination, long after more reasonable books have faded away.

Written by nevalalee

November 5, 2015 at 9:00 am

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