Posts Tagged ‘books’

Book Review: Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success – Not Really A Story At All

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

The sense of possibility so necessary for success comes not just from inside us or from our parents. It comes from our time: from the particular opportunities that our particular place in history presents us with.

-Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success

Prior to the partition of India on August 14, 1947, the soon-to-be official nation of Pakistan – surviving on an abated amount of the assured 750 million rupees part of a stipulation drafted by then-Viceroy Lord Mountbatten – found itself on fiscal life-support. The expenses of an inpouring exodus of Muslim refugees along with the associated costs of nation-building replaced the exuberance of being on the verge of independence, with the aberrance of being on the verge of bankruptcy. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, credited as the Father of the Nation – to this day popularly known as Quaid-e-Azam (Great Leader) – had to first play the role of Fundraiser of the Nation. The ensuing events would become the context, circumstance, and climax of a story that every child in Pakistan has heard growing up, like “the British are coming,” “We the people,” “I have a dream,” “I did not have sexual relations with that…” – OK, maybe that last one is reserved for more “liberal” households.

Jinnah tasked his newly appointed Finance Master Ghulam Mohomad with tracking down Sir Adamjee Haji Dawood, with hopes that the legendary business mogul and philanthropist would respond to his – and for all intents and purposes, Pakistan’s – desperate “SOS.” About two weeks after August 14, Mohomad, in a meeting held at the Palace Hotel in Karachi, informed Sir Adamjee of the situation to which he famously responded by speaking briefly with M.A Habib – his banker, and founder of modern-day Habib Bank – then turned back to the Finance Master and said, simultaneously handing him a blank check, “You’re problem is solved.” With the stroke of a pen (and a bridge finance secured on his personal assets), Sir Adamjee single-handedly bankrolled the new nation.

***

By all accounts, including one derived from the “story of success” offered in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 best-seller of the same name, Sir Adamjee was an outlier. Gladwell’s book, in admittedly archaic fashion, begins with two dictionary definitions:  1. something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body; and 2. a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample. Outliers – in the spirit of the ever-counterintuitive endimanché  that Gladwell captured the literary runway with – yet again presents a thesis that challenges conventional wisdom. On the book’s Q&A page, the 16-year New Yorker staff writer reveals that the “frustration” which led to the occasion of its writing was “with the way we explain the careers of really successful people. You know how you hear someone say of Bill Gates or some rock star or some other outlier – ‘they’re really smart,’ or ‘they’re really ambitious?’ Well, I know lots of people who are really smart and really ambitious, and they aren’t worth 60 billion dollars. It struck me that our understanding of success was really crude – and there was an opportunity to dig down and come up with a better set of explanations.”

And dig down Mr. Gladwell does – deep, very deep, as in World-War-II-mass-grave deep. One could crudely characterize the work as a composite of case studies featuring both familiar and unfamiliar accounts of success.  I use the term crudely because although the majority of the book is dedicated to these (typically back-to-back) narratives, which are gracefully handled with the delicate charm and idiosyncratic wit to which Gladwell owes his own success – to say that the Gladwellian ‘version’ of the “story of success” is the intellectual terminus of his anecdotal chaperone, is to mistake the destination with the vehicle. In the eclectic tradition of his previous works (The Tipping Point, Blink) Gladwell deftly draws from a diverse set of sources to support his argument: seeking to answer contrived questions such as what, if any, common factors led to the success of Bill Gates and The Beatles; the reason why Asians and math go together like the French and wine; why Christopher Langan, perhaps the smartest man in the world, is one of the least successful.

Arguably the most interesting (and coincidentally, credible) claim in the book is the general rule of thumb that an “outlier’s” level of ability – world class talent – requires 10,000 hours (roughly 10 years) of practice. What is even more interesting is the circumstances in which Gladwell’s carefully curated cast of characters come to accumulating the ‘obligatory credit’ for earning their Genius time-card – at least from his vantage point. Consistent with the overall counter-conventional-current that propels the entire work: the catalytic element here is external luck as opposed to internal drive. Chapter 3, where Gladwell asserts the 10K rule (or rather re-asserts the ideas of Anders Ericsson; who more sophistically developed the theories originally proposed by his mentor Herb Simon in the 70s), begins with the observation that musical virtuosos such as Mozart and chess grandmasters reach their pinnacle status after about 10 years.  According to Outliers, The Beatles owe their atomic rise to grueling 8-hours-a-day-7-days-a-week-gigs performed over a year-and-a-half stint at dingy clubs in Hamburg’s red-light district. “By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964,” Gladwell notes, “they had performed live an estimated twelve hundred times. Do you know how extraordinary that is? Most bands today don’t perform twelve hundred times in their entire careers.”

Paul Allen left; Bill Gates right at the Lakeside School

Similarly, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and his lesser-known but equally-if-not-largely-more-important counter-part Bill Joy serendipitously attained their transcendent programming ability and innate technological affinity by virtue of time and place. Gates attended the elite, exclusive Lakeside School in Seattle, where the Mother’s Club using funds accrued in an annual rummage sale, installed a time-shared computer terminal in 1968 – the relative modern equivalent of an official NASA shuttle simulator being donated to the astronomy club. Fortune continued to favor the young Gates by providing him late-night access at nearby University of Washington to a mainframe computer where he would sneak off – without his parent’s knowledge – to write code between the hours of 2 A.M and 6 A.M.

Joy, awarded the appropriate appellation of “the Edison of the Internet” and co-founder of Sun Microsystems, had an equivalent experience. By 1967, his alma mater, the University of Michigan, housed a then prototypical time-sharing (as opposed to punch-card) Computer Center – one of the first and very select universities in the world to do so at the time. The “difference” between the two, as Joy himself states in the book, was akin to “one between playing chess by mail and speed chess.” This was the situation he would find himself in the fall of 1971: one where “Michigan had enough computing power that a hundred people could be programming simultaneously…” However, unlike Gates, Joy showed no prior interest in computers, nor did he choose Michigan for its world-class Computer Center. The ultimate conclusion to be drawn here is, as David Shaywitz of the Wall Street Journal adroitly expresses in his review of Outliers, “[h]ad Mr. Gates attended a different high school, or had Mr. Joy enrolled at his college a few years earlier, today’s computer industry might look dramatically different.”

The remainder of the book is more or less (mostly more) a broken record remixed by a master DJ, and like the axiomatic bachelor Jabbawockee member stepping onto a dime-filled-dance-floor, I have no idea where to begin – or with who. Reviewing Outliers – or anything from Mr. Gladwell’s entire body of work for that matter – by virtue of its very raison d’être, is an enigmatic exercise. Let me preface what is to follow by explicitly expressing that I consider Malcolm Gladwell’s writing to absolutely be art, notwithstanding the BP-sized-holes that often drown away any chance of fully inhaling his arguments. When mentioning to Campus Clipper, specifically its founder, that I was struggling to complete this review, she was understandably concerned – until of course I revealed that I had chosen to dunk my literary neurons into a Gladwell mindpuzzle. This was met by an esoteric chuckle. “He’s often five-dimensional,” she said. “At the very least, at the same time,” I added.

Despite making several contentious submissions that are, quite frankly, either unsubstantiated or even flat out in contradiction with the facts, I am certain Mr. Gladwell still managed to exorcise his original “frustration.” In regards to the popular section (for readers and reviews alike) on Canada’s amateur hockey leagues (albeit unintentionally) providing the ‘man-child’ advantage to those born earlier in the year, David Leonhardt in his review for the NYT mentions contradictory research at odds with Gladwell extended argument claiming that the same pattern is observable in the classroom. In fact, two of Gladwell’s own stand-out examples, namely Bill Gates and Bill Joy, were born on October 28 and November 8 respectively.  Even further, the former nearly intentionally failed his entrance exam into Lakeside and the latter was matriculated into the University of Michigan at the tender of age of 16.

Another discrepancy worth mentioning is one outlined in a (rather scathing) review for Open Letters Monthly by Peter Coclanis (a distinguished History and Economics professor at UNC-Chapel Hill) regarding the immediately bizarre assertion that Asians – particularly East Asians – regardless of their relative global location, are culturally predisposed to excel in mathematics because of an economic legacy in rice farming. While I would personally certainly enjoy obliterating the train of thought (in rather colorful language) that Gladwell, once again artfully conducts, Coclanis – given  his expertise and work-in-progress  on the history of world rice production and international trade since the 17th century – provides a far more erudite analysis.

“For starters,” Coclanis explains, “paddy rice has for millennia been the leading food crop on Java, in Thailand, in Burma, and in the Philippines. Do these peoples also excel in math? What about people from rice-growing parts of West Africa, in the Senegambian region in particular, where paddy rice has also been grown for millennia?” He goes on by narrowing his focus in congruence with Gladwell’s own in the book, viz the regions of China, asserting that “anyone with even a cursory sense of Chinese history knows, northern China for millennia has been a wheat/millet/small grain-producing region rather than a rice region. Do Beijingers get waxed by Shainghainese on international math tests? Gladwell buries this dicey (ricey?) issue in a footnote and claims that “we don’t know” if northern Chinese are good at math. We may not, but I’m sure that bureaucrats at China’s Ministry of Education (No. 37, Damucang Hutong, Xidan, Beijing) or administrators at either of China’s top two schools—Beijing University and Tsinghua University (both in Beijing)—might have something to say on the matter.”

As Leonhardt (Sunday Book Review for the NYT) writes, the incongruity in such minutiae is “a particular shame, because it would be a delight to watch someone of his intellect and clarity make sense of seemingly conflicting claims.”

***

This brings me back to my original point, and anecdote. It is unfortunate that the commercial success of Mr. Gladwell has lent his publisher, handlers, and following in general with license to make claims like one found in the dust jacket of Outliers: “In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell changed the way we understand the world. In Blink he changed the way we think about thinking. Outliers will transform the way we understand success.” The praising phrases are a tidy example of parallel structure, yes, but also debatable – and debated – to a viral degree. I’d like to start by focusing on the peculiar, and thus consequential, choice of the verb “understand” in the line pertaining to Outliers – and also, how it relates to the book’s complete title. The book is less about rewriting the Story of Success and more about rewiring the Way We Think about Success, less about “understanding” success and more about “appreciating” it. To put it simply, Gladwell’s main argument is far more politically charged than anything found in his previous works: we give outliers too much credit. Recall the vehicle-destination metaphor. The tall tales of our modern day borderline mythological figures are not so tall after all. It is political because in many ways it not only debunks, but essentially subverts the notion of the American Dream – wherein lays the controversy. Not for patriotic, but rather patronizing reasons.

The “frustration” that Gladwell cites as his starting (tipping?) point is unfairly exploited to create the presumptive straw man that stands so central in his book(s). The truth is that a very small cohort of people – likely either delusional or severely mis-and-or-uninformed at that (probably both) – believe that Bill Gates’ intelligence alone was cashed in for 50B, that The Beatles’ rigorous performance schedule conjured the creativity needed to sell over a billion records, that Michael Jordan’s 6 rings are a direct result of a genetic anomaly. The truth is that most people believe the exact opposite – even if our romanticized formulas that produce such icons don’t agree on rigid values, nature and nurture are still always present in the equation.  We’ve all heard of the “he stole Windows from Apple” story, the manic-psychotic work ethic of unparalleled champions like Jordan (he meticulously studied weaknesses of opposing teams while on the frickin’ Dream Team and manipulated NBA team beat writers for the same purpose), of the drug-sex-alcohol-and-spiritually electric environments that have led to some of our most beloved creative lights– and perhaps the most assimilated notion of all into the zeitgeist of success: the proverbial “break.” The crucible found in every larger-than-life biography.

Returning to the story of Sir Adamjee (no, I didn’t forget), an essential omission was his prominent status among the Memon community: a well-known and Islamic people renowned for their business acumen and who can be found in the upper echelons of commerce in every corner of the globe. This was not always the case – not even close. Adamjee, lacking any formal education whatsoever, started by working for his father’s humble trading company (if you could even call it that) as a child before quickly being sent off to Calcutta where he would fend for himself, and eventually – while still a teenager – seeking to expand his horizons took a business trip to Burma. His commercial sortie coincided with the calamities of both World Wars. In a then unorthodox move, he committed his capital into stockpiling basic commodities such as jute, rice, and matches (coincidently, those popular among military personnel). In the aftermath of the German bombing of Madras there was a severe shortage of these same essential items. Likewise – as if to prove his newfound wealth was not just the result of luck and timing – during the Japanese invasion of Calcutta in WWII, with the future of the subcontinent being as predictable as a thousand coin-flips, the value of those same goods nose-dived deeper than the U.S.S Wahoo. So he bet on exporting the goods to places he thought would have a shortage via trickle-down (he understood the effects of globalization before we even knew what it was) – and he won, big, really big. For the man who proudly presented himself as a graduate of the Bhadar River (the cotton industry waste dump of his native village of Jetpur), the rest, as they say, is history.

If you ask any Pakistani Memon (identifiable by advertised net-worth, number of Toyota Camrys in the family, and the deterioration of their teeth, in no particular order or proportion) about Sir Adamjee the overwhelming response will be some variant of the following: he is our founder, our father, our mini- Quaid-e-Azam. The abridged history: in the 14th century, Yusuf Sindhi went on a mission to India and converted some several thousand Hindu families to Islam; due to persecution from the Hindus many were forced to migrate to other regions; their genuine devotion and collective cohesiveness is where the name comes from, as Sindhi called them “the Momis,” meaning the exemplary Muslims, eventually becoming “the Memons.” By 1960 roughly 100,000 Memons populated Pakistan with a similar number living in parts of India. Gustav Papanek (President of BIDE; Professor of Economics Emeritus at Boston U; past leader of Harvard University Development Advisory Service) describes their culture and values in Pakistan’s Development:

They were extremely cohesive, frugal, hardworking, well-defined into family groups and had an overwhelming commitment to their traditional occupation of commerce as either employees or self-employed. Only a handful had left their traditional pursuits to become doctors, lawyers, engineers and civil servants. Memons had an extremely high sense of community identity, spoke Gujrati and tended to be organised on the basis of ancestral residency. They were especially strict about community endogamy based on township of origin and had well organized and developed community associations to enforce marriage rules and to moderate group conflicts. They were socially conservative and religiously devout with a large number of hajis among their members. As a community roughly 100,000 Memons ranged across the entire socio-economic spectrum from very poor to very rich.

The culture of modern Memons, what Gladwell might cite as the primary source of their success (I would personally be very curious to see a case study of the group by him), was not intended to create the exclusive club of benefits they now enjoy. Based on the most foundational (and human) values of Islam, it was intended to foster values, not value. Today, Memons despite their continued success have forgotten this; which is what brings to me to my ultimate interpretation of Outliers: Gladwell is apologizing for his own success.

If you’ve read the book then you probably picked up on the latent sense that Gladwell felt as if Chris Langan should’ve been in his place interviewing him for a book on the story of success. That the ex-bouncer’s brutesque photo should be on the back. From the same Q&A page, “I’ve never been able to feel someone’s intellect before, the way I could with him. It was an intimidating experience, but also profoundly heartbreaking…” The invocation of such notions is what leads me to think that Gladwell believes our definition of success is, and has been for quite some time, both obsolete and downright wrong. Not only is it relative (to a child who treks several miles daily for clean water, the idea of someone on welfare; to a middle-school dropout, the idea of someone with a community college degree; to an Ivy League graduate, the idea of billionaire-before-thirty; etc.) but it is also subjective.

Outliers, our so-called nonpareils, are a product of the environment we have created, yes, but the real outliers are those who seek to turn that environment into a product of themselves. Men like Adamjee, who measured his success in the amount of free schools he built and scholarships awarded rather the then the value of his company on the Calcutta Stock Exchange. Who is to say that the most successful person in the world is Bill Gates as opposed to the Dali Lama? Who is to say that success is measured by the balance of cash in your bank account and not the balance of love in your heart? Measured in your personal promotion, rather than collective devotion? The answer should be obvious. The bottom line is that if success is what everyone aspires to, then we have a fundamental responsibility to define it in a set of terms where everyone is on an equal playing field. That field is no longer America. The American Dream Nightmare must be re-written. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb, whom Gladwell cites as an influence (“We associate the willingness to risk great failure – and the ability to climb back from catastrophe – with courage. But in this we are wrong. That is the lesson of Nassim Taleb.” – The Nation),  writes: “Modernity needs to understand that being rich and becoming rich are not mathematically, personally, socially, and ethically the same thing.”

***

                This infinitely ambitious challenge requires an equally ambitious Warrior of The Light. The only reason the swerving Outliers train of thought stays on the track of mostly-plausible and doesn’t derail along its natural trajectory into the Land of Apophenia is because the very talented Mr. Gladwell occupies the conductor’s cabin.  However, the information revolution that has provided Gladwell with the solid planks that he ties together with his own poorly woven ropes of idiosyncratic interpolation to build a bridge between our mind and his own, also render that bridge functionally useless. It is entertaining to walk across only so far as to admire its craftsmanship – because it is indeed a bridge that only he alone can be contracted. But it is also an important reminder of what it means to walk in the first place.

 

Mahad Zara, The University of Arizona and Columbia University, Read my blog and follow me on Twitter

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Ray Bradbury Tribute: Fahrenheit 451 – “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

“”One of the most brilliant overall jobs of social satire.”
The Nation

“My art is on its final breaths, and chances are it will be dead, buried, and forgotten before most of you walk out of here with degrees.” The seismic words fell so hard on the 400 undergraduate shoulders surrounding me in an ASU lecture mega-hall that I can still vividly recall nearly falling out of my seat. The class was titled “Mass Media & Society” and the speaker was not (to everyone’s delight) our elegant, and aging instructor – the excruciatingly eccentric “original Dr.FUN” (who literally wrote the book on how media portrays sex, love, and relationships and its consequences) – but rather a previous radio executive and disc jockey, and current “expert scholar”; which apparently included spending time in front of groups like an intro elective course at a public university. Regardless of his overt melodramatic undertone, the speaker’s sentiment was hard not to empathize with as an aspiring creative type myself. If you haven’t figured it out by now, this industry insider was – quite broadly – referring to all the “cool new shit (his words, not mine)” that was causing radio to progressively fade into obscurity until only a handful of super-stations would remain. To be more specific, his presentation focused on the greatest threat to radio since television itself: internet in cars. It doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together to realize that once moto-WiFi is as common as removable cup-holders that most people – particularly those with roots elsewhere than the state on their license plate – if given a choice out of every radio station on the planet, will pick something other than their commercial-littered local indie jukebox for the drive home.

Assuming you possess an average reader’s attention span, right now you’re probably thinking, “cool story bro (assuming you also possess an average reader’s courtesy), but what does this have to do with Ray Bradbury, his death, or Fahrenheit 451 – you know, the book this review is supposed to be on.” Beyond the painfully obvious parallel of “technology is killing art” theme that F451 is remembered for (among other reasons), here, right before my eyes – in whatever relatively infinitesimal, isolated form – was Bradbury’s meticulously crafted nightmare coming true. Something, unfortunately, that is now – given a watchful and interested eye – observable on a daily basis. It wasn’t just that technology like internet-enabled Honda’s would be the death of the “his art” (partly, yes) that precipitated the invisible tears I saw running down the side of the speaker’s face for 65 minutes. It was what that death meant for the rest of us.

Ray Bradbury is one of only a small handful of names that would undoubtedly be on every list of nominees for the Mt. Rushmore of Science Fiction (if such an awesome monument were ever to be erected). With his place among an echelon of genre juggernauts such as Arthur Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein; his influence on future masters in their own right including Ursula Le Guin ,Phillip K. Dick, and Neil Gaiman; his work garnering comparison over the years to the likes of George Orwell – with over 500 publications and a laundry list of awards; Mr. Bradbury’s passing is a significant one.

You might say it was peculiar that I found myself researching a secret bookstore called Brazenhead in New York the day it happened; a physical symptom of Bradbury’s great diagnosis. You might say it was peculiar that the day before I was sketching an idea for a piece on outdoor libraries and breathtaking bookshelves; more attempts at fighting a war that is already lost. You might say it was less peculiar that almost every writer/literary/culture/arts/creative/humane type I knew had something to say in the form of everything from status updates, Tweets, and blog entries; to using what other great writers had to say about this great writer to say what he meant to them. To say the very least, on June 6th, 2012 there was a painfully gaping hole pierced into the heart of the American cultural landscape. And while I am in no way qualified to write an ode worthy of patching even a pixel of it, I however can pay homage by using this week’s first review to re-visit one of his most paramount works.

The occasion that lead to my first reading of Fahrenheit 451 is a fairy universal one: assigned reading. Oddly enough, I originally encountered the title on my preparatory summer reading list for sophomore chemistry class (a coincidence that led to some very imaginative interpretations of the title, as I grew up around adults who strictly read, and shelved, the classics – in the most archaic sense of the term). Four-hundred and fifty-one degrees: the temperature at which paper burns. The reference to which perhaps is reason why the first thing that most people think of in regards to the book is book burning – or censorship – itself. The publishers of the mass market paperback version – Del Ray Books – certainly seemed to think so, adorning the more commercial than praising byline of “The Classic Bestseller About Censorship – More Important Now Than Ever Before.” The latter half of which is more interesting, given the edition came out in 1987, as the observation remained a consistent one over the course of the book’s 50+ year lifetime. Ironically enough, less than a fifth of the class had read the book when the first day of class eventually came. But that didn’t stop Guy Montag from – horrible pun incoming – igniting a debate that an innocent onlooker might mistake for an actual scholastic discussion. This of course, speaks less in support for the matter, and more for the subject. No one wanted to be in a generation that was too dumb to realize that it was too dumb to realize anything. Wherein of course lays the dilemma, if we ever did reach that point, how would we know?

What has always impressed me most about Bradbury’s masterpiece is the immersive world he creates. A quick survey of only a few reviews over the past half-century will tell you I am not alone. While Fahrenheit’s America is a comprehensive one that stylishly emanates the dismal and spiritless aura Bradbury intended with a visceral force, the reason its setting is so remarkable (to me anyway) is how it defies all genre conventions, yet remains one of its staple achievements. Science fiction novels are supposed to be filled with flying cars, shiny clothes that talk, sleek gravity-and-architecture defying mountains of pristine steel, ubiquitous bliss and void of disease. But there is none of this in Fahrenheit 451. In fact the only discernible difference between our world and the one Bradbury constructed in 1953 is that books aren’t banned and that firefighters are still just that – and not firestarters. Hell, are the homes that Bradbury’s characters inhabit, with their four-walled television surroundings, igloos of mind-numbing media, any different than our iPhone-tablet-notebook-cinema-3DTV-HD modern day cyber-cemented environment? In this fictional society, happiness is commoditized, allotted, and distributed; and the proliferation of books – thoughts and ideas – only reduces the supply, the quality, while also most importantly, raises the price. Perhaps Montag’s boss, Chief Beatty, says it best:

“Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy. (61)”

However, this book is not about book burning or censorship. As Bradbury himself has openly stated, it is about how television has corroded the literate circuits of society’s neurology. It is about the virus that makes it more appealing to drool upon one’s Cheetos covered flesh in a La-Z-Boy than browsing on one’s knees in some dusty library to find a relevant 10 hour cerebral journey. It is about the danger of believing in the “sense of motion without moving.” It is about the burning of culture. At their core (at least in theory), our technology is always intended to enrich the human experience. Facebook was supposed to make it easier to connect. Twitter was supposed to make it easier to communicate. Television was supposed to make it easier to tell stories. The internet was supposed to bring us all together. Even with appropriate historical deviations from these (admittedly trivial reductions) mentioned, the intentions can, more or less, be generalized as noble. And the results don’t necessarily support the opposite as the current digital-zeitgeist might suggest. Some people do use technology to enrich life, rather than permitting its erosion, as this TED talk by Stefana Broadbent eloquently, and empirically, expresses.

In other words, Bradbury’s message is not “we should say to hell with the machine”, but rather, “we will find ourselves to be hell if we become like the machine.” We allowed Facebook to turn friendship into a list of “friends” and preferring to “like” instead of love. We allowed Twitter to turn talking to tweeting. We kept watching Jersey Shore instead of The History Channel (or were inexplicably late in recognizing art like The Wire). The two sides at war here are not technology and man, but rather two forms of happiness: the hedonist and the spiritualist. Happiness doesn’t come in megabytes of data; it comes from taking mega bites out of the source. Books as they stand, both in Bradbury’s time as much as our own (though this is less and less becoming the case) were merely the review of the fruit – intended to entice. They are merely vessels for carrying the history of those who “braved the storm of life and lived” so that the rest of us may know that such a courage exists in us all. Bradbury says it best, ventriloquizing through ex-professor and Montag’s second significant mentor, Faber:

“It would be funny if it were not serious. It’s not books you need; it’s some of the things that once were in books. The same things could be in the ‘parlor families’ today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not. No, no, it’s not books at all you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us. (82).”

So, go forth and find your own cosmic sewing machine; whether it burns at 451 degrees or not. Because otherwise the same flames will consume your exposed, naked mind – and you’ll believe in the “sense of motion, without moving at all”. Chances are you can find a copy of Fahrenheit 451 sitting on one of those side-walk book buys on your way to or from work (especially during the next few weeks).

And in honor of Ray Bradbury and intelligent thinking and meaningful human interaction everywhere – take a trip out to the New York Public Library. Remind yourself of the breathtaking resource tucked away in the heart of downtown. Read Fahrenheit 451 in a way and place similar to how and where it was written. While you’re at it, either before or after, stop by BareBurger for a great bite – and take advantage of the great student discount (below) provided by your friends at #CampusClipper!

Mahad Zara, The University of Arizona and Columbia University, Read my blog and follow me on Twitter

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Book Review: About a Mountain by John D’Agata – “To whomever I did not help.”

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

"...one of the most significant U.S writers to emerge in the past few years." - David Foster Wallace

It seemed to us we we’re a very great people” – The United States of America

John D'Agata

      A week into November of last year at the University of Arizona, right around when the leaves of date palms litter the walkways all over Tucson, I found myself in a familiar place: nose wedged in a book, eyes drowned in its ephemeral words, limbs temporarily frozen and forgotten; I was lost. My wasteland: the nuclear storage fields at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. My drug: our future. My spirit guide: John D’Agata. About a Mountain is one of those rare firecrackers of books that not only sparks  widespread controversy, but does so for a reason only other writers, penetrating thinkers, acerbic comedians and unattractive vampires can appreciate – being misunderstood. It took all of 10 pages before someone who didn’t fall into one of those categories – ironically, a geology professor (who is a leader in his field, and thus remain unnamed) – was overwhelmed by what could only have been a personal agitation that superseded general human etiquette, to point out – let’s say less than eloquently – that an entire book was dedicated to fact-checking the 200 pages of brilliance that laid in my hands, and unequivocally supported a conclusion that many readers had come to: in About a Mountain, John D’Agata is at his best, and John D’Agata is  completely full of shit.

      It isn’t hard to see why. Consider the book’s opening lines, describing Las Vegas’ centennial: “If you take the population of Las Vegas, Nevada, and you divide that by the number of days in the year, there should be 5,000 people in the city and its suburbs with a birthday on the same day that Las Vegas began. On the hundredth anniversary of its founding, however, Las Vegas had only gathered twenty-nine of those people.” Alongside lines such as the dedicatory inscription at the beginning of this review – in particular, one’s seemingly intended for an exceedingly enlightened, mysterious audience somewhere in the distant future – D’Agata immediately introduces readers to his favorite (and, unsurprisingly, most misunderstood) move: bending time and place while simultaneously trapezing between the ledges of fact and fiction. It is in this uncomfortable domain of the known and unknown where D’Agata’s peculiar logic, his idiosyncratic mind, and fascinating personal experience are employed (and shine) to reexamine not only where we are, but also where we’ve been; and most portent – where we are going.

      You might have noticed that I’ve reached several hundred words without actually diving into the masterful narrative that Charles Bock of The New York Times called “unquestionably art, a breathtaking piece of writing.” A review that reprimanded – and derided – the artist only a few paragraphs later for the same reasons for which it initially protruded with admiring jaundice: “I don’t know what to think. What’s specific or representative or smudged? Pandora’s box is wide open.” What Mr. Bock fails to realize, despite his awareness of D’Agata’s explicit claim that “I[He] is in search of art” and not fact is that this was precisely the book’s purpose – one that (perhaps without the reader’s acknowledgement) it polemically fulfills.

So why should you, or anyone, really care? The overarching message of About a Mountain serves as a messianic compass as we attempt to successfully navigate our way through this precarious storm of cultural and technological chaos. More than ever, the ability to critically parse between fact and fiction, numbers and art, truth and wisdom is paramount to our continued existence; one that is worth preserving anyway. The book itself weaves an in-depth coverage of the political suave and maneuvers used to re-interpret a million year problem into a 10,000 year solution (an absolutely stunning metaphor for the pattern of thinking that has lead us here) along with the tragic story of Levi Presley – a boy who jumped off the Stratosphere tower in Vegas – and the connection of his death to D’Agata’s own experience answering calls on a suicide hotline. It is because, not despite, this discordance that D’Agata’s ambition and pursuit of art is realized. Here, the details that are debated  (resolved with end notes in later editions) – from the significant, such as the day of Levi’s death, to the minuscule, such as the actual color of hills in the Nevadan autumn – are irrelevant. Keeping up? Good. Because it is through this very deliberate and aesthetically striking ridiculing of fact, or knowledge, that any of the information is made relevant.

credit: IowaNow

      Creative Nonfiction is not journalism – D’Agata despises the term, instead championing the “essay”, invoking Montaigne’s “essai”, meaning ‘an attempt or trial’ to route the journey of consciousness throughout a narrative; a provocative stance to say the least. His elastic perspective regarding this paradigm is manifested in the titles of the book’s chapters: starting with the journalistic staples of “Who, What, How, Where and When” and concluding with a trifecta that outlaws objectivity entirely, “Why, Why, Why.” Certainly, this complex concept is beautifully articulated when he writes, “Clear that if I point to something like significance, there is the possibility that nothing real is there. Sometimes we misplace knowledge in pursuit of information. Sometimes our wisdom, too, in pursuit of what’s called knowledge.” Indeed this is a hefty price to pay for maintaining the beloved boundary, the artificial security, between objectivity and subjectivity, where intellectual vertigo and doubt are priceless casualties in the name of conventional tradition. D’Agata’s perspicacious observation is further reflected in the portrayal of back-door politicians who recommend the feasible option instead of confronting the truth with wisdom. Despite the borderline infinite data on Yucca Mountain, “a place that we have studied more thoroughly at this point than any other parcel of land in the world… still it remains unknown, revealing only the fragility of our capacity to know.”

“When we are not sure, we are alive.” – Graham Greene

While I can’t direct you anywhere in the city with palm trees year round, there are plenty of opinionated strangers everywhere. So why not grab a copy of  About a Mountain  and head to Cafe Mocha, fill up with a great sandwich, then focus in with a free Cappuccino (using the coupon below), and if you absolutely can’t help yourself, ‘fact-check’ this monumental work with their free WiFi.

Mahad Zara, The University of Arizona and Columbia University, Read my blog and follow me on Twitter

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Commuter Blues: How to Make the Most of Your Daily Ride

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

займ 10000 рублей for some students, the optimal college dorming experience is not a feasible financial option and the only choice available to them is to make a daily commute to campus. Although it is oftentimes a long, tiresome affair – Believe me I know!  I commuted almost two hours a day from Queens to the Bronx for over three years! – there are some things you can do to make the most of the time that you spend stuck in the car or on the train. That way when you do finally make it to your destination, you will have less work to do and will have more of a chance to relax after a long day of commuting and learning.

If you are taking public transportation to get to school, then your commute is probably the best time to get all of that assigned reading out of the way. So before you bolt out the door in the morning, check to see what needs to be read for your classes and try to devote your commute to completing that task. It’s a relatively easy way to get things done. Honestly, there is not much you can do on a train or a bus, so remembering to grab those books or that e-reader (i.e. Kindle, Nook, iPad) in the morning will also save you from countless hours of commuter boredom. And, on the plus side, when you finally get home, you will have less to do and can maybe even squeeze in a little relaxation time before you have to start the cycle all over again.

Even if you drive a car to school, there are still ways that you can get some of your homework done before you pull into your driveway. Although you can’t actually read a book while driving, you can listen to one. So my advice would be to see if you can find the audio book versions of those novels for English class, and listen your way to some free time.

-Christina Brower

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