📚 November 2023's Reading Stack
a chinese classic, essays from a great living poet, a mathematical tale, a japanese surrealist
The Pecan in the Page
Ah, the pecan. The daily CLOP of them on our roof and the slightly sweet scent in our yard has got me pondering this magisterial tree a lot lately—and how much I could stand to learn from it.
At the time of writing, there are thousands of unshelled pecan embryos strewn about my backyard, and yards all over Central Texas, Georgia and New Mexico. This glorious nut, this stalwart of nutrition whose butter sells in Whole Foods at the same $14 / 8oz price tag as a mid-shelf cut of beef.
Yet the pecan has a curious, less favorable history.
The Oldsletter 🌍 📚 🧠 💡 is a reader-supported pub. Just sayin ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
The name pigan was coined by the Algonquin tribe, originally from Canada. Upon being expelled further from their native lands, the Algonquin settled in Texas and were pleased to find that beyond the state’s desert wastes laid green, hilly rivers whose banks were populated with nut trees.
Though densely nutritious, nuts were gathered almost exclusively by first peoples, where they were boiled for porridge in clay pots with corn and hearty grains. When the nutty oils bubbled to the top, like turkey soup, a crafty cook would wick the fats and store them as nut butter—food for winter, for hard times. Far afield from their role today as dainty, delicate, luxurious snacky accoutrements, American colonists once considered nuts the swine of the forest.
From the warring Comanche to the crafty Algonquin, German Texans to this bookish New England snoot, our constant, resilient, unconditional tree has provided for so many throughout its life.
I’ve been thinking lately about this arboreal patriarch of central Texas, about fatherhood, and about one tree’s seed has gone from colonizer-trash to bougie-charcuterie.
I see now that books are also, in many ways, a type of seed. They too come from trees and, once blended with ideas—seeds of the human mind—become part of a process that’s inexplicable and timeless.
Reading a book from a thousand years ago, chewing it with a modern sensibility, is like cracking open a pecan, staring up at the eighty foot limbs of its father, and understanding, in a flash, the meaning of time, of change, and of unconditionality.
So now, dem books:
Book #50 of 2023 - The Dao De Jing translated by Ken Liu
My brother likes to joke that I live on tape delay. If I discover a book or show or album it usually takes me time to start. When I saw The Dao de Jing had been re-translated by Ken Liu, however, one of my favorite speculative fiction authors and translator for one of the best sci-fi novels of the 21st century—I went innnn. How many times I’ve read the Dao de Jing, I do not know, but Liu's translation was fresh, and follows suit with the current trend of authors revitalizing ancient texts for a modern audience.1
"Between heaven and earth is a bellows,
empty but inexhaustible.
The more movement,
the more powerful the flow.”
Written some 2,600 years ago2 fewer works are as timeless as Laozi’s collection of Chinese wisdom. The book—also referred to as The Tao Te Ching—has become wildly popular in recent years, recommended by the likes of Naval Ravikant, Rick Rubin, Josh Waitzkin and Jack Ma, to name a few. It lives somewhere in between haiku and philosophy, and is best read in small chunks then meditated upon. Though at times esoteric, its spacious, airy nature makes it accessible when in the right mindset. Through balance, simplicity, and humility, says Laozi, one can harmonize with their nature, with their world. A note to all seeker-types: the fact that it continues to affect me after all these years is a testament to the viva voce of these ancient Chinese ideals.
Book #51 - Kafka On the Shore by Haruki Murakami
Reading Haruki Murakami immediately after Jonathan Franzen and Michael Chabon was a bit of literary anaphylaxis, but Kafka on the Shore proved to be—as usual for the Japanese novelist—quite the metaphysical, mind bending page-turner. Weighing in at four hundred and thirty-six pages of signature Murakami style, it’s a book where sardines rain from the sky, an old man communes with cats, and Colonel Sanders (yes, literally) is a wise philosopher. Murakami is another example of Japanese supernature being transposed into contemporary America via anime, gaming, Yu-Gi-Oh cards and, sometimes, books.
“Kafka, in everybody’s life there’s a point of no return. And in a very few cases, a point where you can’t go forward anymore. And when we reach that point, all we can do is quietly accept the fact. That’s how we survive.”
It’s more intelligent, and more gripping, than you might expect. Generally luxuriant, natural, and lighthearted—yet somehow also philosophical—this book is nothing like your traditional novel. Reading Murakami is like reading a dream: irreverent, random, yet hard not to wonder whether there is deeper meaning. Rich with references to literary giants like Sophocles, Bergson, Goethe and more, the contrast between the Kafka’s and the Johnnie Walker’s creates a blend of inner and outer darkness that wittily, jarringly, demonstrates Murakami’s view of our haughty “enlightened” commercialist age.
We’ll discuss this one on S5E5 of Good Scribes Only. Subscribe so you don’t miss 👀
Book #52 - Consolations by David Whyte
I treat this poet like rich cake—read sparingly, occasionally, savor how good he is. Whyte has long been one of my favorite living poets, but this collection is not poetry. Consolations: the underlying meaning, nourishment, and solace of everyday words is something of an alternative dictionary, a collection of 52 lyrical essays that call the reader to reconsider the deeper and sometimes counterintuitive meanings behind words like nostalgia, vulnerability, and solace. If you’re unfamiliar with Whyte, the Irish-born, now Pacific Northwesterner’s spirit of mind falls somewhere in between Walt Whitman, Hafiz, Joyce, and Socrates. In this short book, Whyte echoes Virginia Woolf’s famous line that words do not belong to us, they belong to each other, showing how fundamental they are to our understanding of the world. Really, it is we who belong to words.
“GRATITUDE is the understanding that many millions of things must come together and live together and mesh together and breathe together in order for us to take even one more breath of air, that the underlying gift of life and incarnation as a living, participating human being is a privilege; that we are miraculously, part of something, rather than nothing. Even if that something is temporarily pain or despair, we inhabit a living world, with real faces, real voices, laughter, the color blue, the green of the fields, the freshness of a cold wind, or the tawny hue of a winter landscape”
Through 52 ordinary words—the amount of weeks in a year, and maybe a subtle nod to language’s role as, like time, the substrate of human life—Whyte ennobles us, enlightening a route through which we could all follow should we choose. The path of Consolation is a path of connection, of understanding, and of a conversation only words can enable: that of two human hearts.
Book #53 - The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
I would describe this Japanese best seller and movie as gentle and heartwarming. In it, Yoko Ogawa introduces us to the surprising bond built between a brilliant mathematician whose memory lasts only eighty minutes, a housekeeper, and her child. A car accident has destroyed the once prominent math professor’s ability to create new memories after 1975. He lives in a small house on his wealthy sister-in-law’s property, solving math puzzles, taping reminder notes to himself like: “My memory only lasts 80 minutes.” The Housekeeper and the Professor tells the adventure as it sounds. It’s a comforting story of mathematical concepts, of compassion, of the transient and complex nature of memory, and of how strong one’s chosen family can become.
Final Musings of Noviembre
This month was an eclectic, unintentionally Eastern mix, and the combination reminded me that there's always new connections to make, even in the most familiar of things, words, and circumstancces.
As we approach the end of another year, I find myself thinking about the tree that hangs over my house, and all of the pecans strewn about the yard, and about yards across the country. Like those seeds, like those words in Whyte’s book, life starts from the ordinary and becomes something more.
Books have the rare and crucial ability to shift a human perspective, to show us the unseen, to remind us of the beauty in the ordinary. Therein lives the most earnest gift of a book whose pages were once a tree, once a seed, once just an idea.
Ok chicos, I’ll save my rambling for next time. Y’all go enjoy yourselves now✌️
And next time:
PS - always feel free to email me questions or thoughts for discussion, should any come to mind. Likewise, if you have a good book to recommend, please pass it along. It’s always great to hear back, especially if one of these books comes to mean something to you. Ciao!
He also finally solves the gender/master/sage debate in a way that I appreciated