Seeing the World in a Beautiful, Chaotic New Way: James Gleick’s Chaos

ChaosI was already excited to write a post about James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science after mentioning it at the end of my post on Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

But, man, I never expected to like it this much.

Chaos is one of those rare books that permanently changes the way you understand the world. It’s only fitting, given that the science of chaos it describes changed science itself in a permanent and, in my lay opinion, healthy and beautiful way. That might sound a bit grandiose – after all, with all the different disciplines and subdisciplines of science, how could any one field change all of science?

Gleick’s book is the answer, but I can assure you that this book isn’t just for scientists or even science-enthusiasts. Like the best popular science books, this is meant for everyone, written in a straightforward style that has the structure of a novel and the insight of a philosophical treatise.

And there are three reasons in particular you should start reading it immediately.

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The Austrian Writer You Should Already Know: Daniel Kehlmann

DanielKehlmannGreat news! – I have a living author to recommend who hasn’t only consistently written incredible novels and short stories, but who has written so few that within a week (trust me, you’ll want to plow through them once you get going) that you can easily become an authority on him. He’s not an Isaac Asimov, with hundreds upon hundreds of books. No, he’s written three novels, one short-story collection, and a novella (he may have more that hasn’t yet been translated into English – I don’t know).

But why should you want to devour everything Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann‘s written? Well…

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The Original Paradigm Shift: How Thomas Kuhn Changed the Way We Look At Science

Kuhn_StructureIn an introductory essay to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, , Ian Hacking, a Canadian philosopher of science, writes, “Great books are rare. This is one. Read it and you will see.”

One way you know Hacking isn’t exaggerating is that you already know one of the key terms Kuhn exposed to popular culture – paradigm shift. We all know a paradigm shift refers to a fundamental and massive change, but did you know the term was coined in Kuhn’s Structure?

What’s really important about Kuhn’s classic isn’t, of course, the introduction of a term, but of an entirely new way of looking at scientific progress. People – including you – may still believe that science progresses in a nice, smooth, linear way as information is gathered and theories are created, tweaked, or discarded as necessary. After all, scientists are logical people, right? Why wouldn’t science progress like this?

Well, if you accept Kuhn’s answer, then you have to entirely reconceptulize how you see scientific progress, and perhaps science itself. And that, above all else, is what makes this such a great, and necessary, book.

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The Power of the Japanese I-Novel: Yukio Mishima and Osamu Dazai

I_Novel_Dazai_MishimaAnyone who has written anything knows that writing is an intensely personal act. One of the reasons certain books are so powerful is that they are honest; such stories aren’t escapist but confrontational, and we’re better off for experiencing that confrontation.

It’s little surprise, then, that Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask, is so powerful, given just how comprehensively it explores the psyche of a young Japanese man, Kochan, who, from a young age, knows he’s different. At the very least he’s homosexual, but there are moments throughout where we see a sadistic side to the protagonist’s desires. Those moments, though, only serve to make the character more sympathetic – Kochan is totally alone, unable to establish an honest, meaningful relationship with anyone. That isolation is communicated in stunning prose that makes this my absolute favorite confessional novel, bar none.

Confessions of a Mask is a great novel, but it’s not unique, and researching the cultural background of this work led me to discovering another great Japanese writer altogether.

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The Murakami Weirdness Scale: A Ranking of His Novels From the Not-So-Weird to the Downright Bizarre

Murakami_WeirdnessScale.jpgHaruki Murakami’s books are weird. I don’t mean that as an insult, just a fact – as anyone who has read his novels, nonfiction, or short stories knows, his books always have a touch of magical realism to it, taking place in the real world, but not quite.

It’s almost pointless to recommend Murakami given his immense commercial success. The release of a new novel by him is reminiscent of Harry Potter mania. He’s also had considerable critical success, often floated as a contender for the Nobel Prize.

But instead of recommending Murakami to you, I thought I’d offer a weirdness scale for his novels. This isn’t a ranking based on their quality, but purely how much magical realism pervades the works, some of which go beyond magical realism and become outright surreal.

So without further ado, here’s your guide to how weird Murakami’s novels are and hopefully you can use this to decide where you want to begin:

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Ruined Reputations: Heinrich Böll’s The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum

Boll_LostHonorOfKatharinaBlumWe all see tabloid newspapers every day, with absurd headlines and photos that are obviously fake. Many people pass them by, scoffing derisively along the way. But have you ever asked yourself how you would feel if you were the one on the cover? Maybe you’d be fine with it, since it’s obviously just trash and people will pass by and scoff, like you do yourself. But then you realize that these “newspapers” are only in business because people buy them. How many? I don’t know. But enough, and there’s a chance a few, or more than a few, are going to believe what they read.

How would you react to being publicly shamed in this way? And how far would you go to get revenge on the strangers who set out to ruin your reputation for no other reason than they wanted to make money?

This hypothetical is an all too real reality for the protagonist of Heinrich Böll’s The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, a searing indictment of what can happen to an innocent person in a world that loves a good story, whether it’s true or not.

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A Meta-Mystery: Leonardo Sciascia’s To Each His Own

Sciascia_ToEachHisOwn.jpgMost mysteries follow one of two formulas. The first is the Sherlock Holmes model, where a (typically idiosyncratic) detective solves the mystery. Details may change – Hugh Laurie’s Dr. House on the TV show House solves medical mysteries, the heroine of many Agatha Christie novels, Miss Marple, is a totally different kind of protagonist than Holmes, and J.K. Rowling’s Cormoran Strike has a military background – but really, these seemingly different characters are all brilliant, all outside the law, and in addition to solving mysteries, tend to have adventures along the way (although House’s adventures tend to be fueled by Vicodin). The second formula is the institutional, or Law and Order model, where a group, usually official in some capacity, solves the crime. Yet even here, stories in this model tend to follow the same pattern as the first.

I mention all this because I want to make it clear how much I admire Leonardo Sciascia’s To Each His Own, which manages to be a different kind of mystery entirely.

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Existentialism – It’s Not Just for France Anymore: Ernesto Sabato’s The Tunnel

Sabato_Tunnel.jpgWhen I think about existentialist fiction, I tend to think of three names: Albert Camus, Simone De Beauvoir, and Jean-Paul Sartre, all of whom are French. In fact, while I know plenty of people consider the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkagaard and Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky precursors to the three aforementioned names, to me there’s still something quintessentially French about existentialism.

After reading Argentinian writer Ernesto Sábato’s The Tunnel, I realize how wrong I was.

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The Greek Tragedy of Irish History: Tim Pat Coogan’s 1916 – The Easter Rising

Coogan_EasterRising.jpgIt’s fitting that Tim Pat Coogan’s riveting 1916: The Easter Rising draws so heavily on the past. Every country is, of course, shaped by its history, but time hardly seems to exist in Ireland in a neat past, present, and future. Centuries-, even millennia-old enmities not only inform contemporary events, but are their driving force. It’s fair to call the various uprisings, revolutions, and conflicts that have been waged on this small island merely individual battles in a long, long war that has finally (and hopefully permanently) given way to relative peace.

But, you may ask, what if I’m more into reading fiction? I usually am, too, but the bloody history of Ireland is frankly as engaging, if not more so, than any novel I’ve ever read. Ireland is a particularly literary country, too, with myths as memorable as any other nation, and a rich tradition of revolutionizing literature itself. James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and W.B. Yeats are famous Irishmen but did you know Oscar Wilde was Irish, as was George Bernard Shaw, and Bram Stoker (the author of Dracula…who incidentally married Oscar Wilde’s one-time girlfriend)?

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Satire as Scathing as it Gets: Philip Roth’s Nixonian Novel Our Gang

Roth_OurGang.jpgIt’s hard to imagine a book being shocking these days. Novels like The Catcher in the Rye, once considered obscene by many, now seems quaint and prudish in comparison to some contemporary works. And Fahrenheit 451, which also sparked a backlash, is now part of a dystopian canon that feels vital rather than something to avoid. There are obviously still parts of the world – towns, cities, entire nations – where some books are still banned, including the two mentioned above. The Handmaid’s Tale is another perfect example, where despite its critical acclaim and popular success (particularly with the Hulu series), it’s still banned in certain places.

Nevertheless, Philip Roth’s Our Gang shocked me, which is all the more impressive because it’s a political satire, and it’s hard to imagine a political book crossing any line given the times we live in.

But to be clear, Our Gang is not shocking because it uses bad words or evokes obscene or outrageous situations. It does all this and more, but what jarred me most was how brutal and intelligent the satire itself was. That, and the fact that it was so much fun to read.

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