📚 October 2023's Reading Stack
two of the best living novelists, a classic tale, an average poet, a buddhist collection, a brain-breaker
The Pit Window
Last week was the US Grand Prix Formula One in Austin. The race covers 191 miles in 56 laps, which makes it a short race—enough so that there’s only a small time frame where a driver can stop for new tires. That time frame is called “the pit window.”
Each team lines up at the starting line with a plan, but that window will shift depending on: 1. the race climate 2. the driver’s ability to maintain tread on that day.
Now I know very little about cars.
So little that, back in July, I got a flat in Costa Rica and, after an hour of putzing around with a lug wrench, had to flag a stranger down for help.
Team Red Bull, on the other hand, replaces four tires in 1.98 seconds,1 and the entire process costs the car ~20 seconds. I’ll do the math for you. Team Red Bull is, oh, just 2700x times more efficient at changing a tire. (I told you I know very little about cars)
The same week as the Grand Prix, I was on a run with a friend who had just started a new job as, more or less, a surgeon’s right-hand for a particular spinal procedure. As we crossed a busy overpass, I asked him about his schedule and learned that after an exhausting ten hours split between driving and procedures, he spends the rest of his night studying for grad school and/or for new medical certifications.
He is, in a word, hustling. 💪
That was also the day of a partial solar eclipse. It was hot and moist and you could smell the pollen in the air as we ran through a world that looked as though a sepia filter had been applied. Ahead of us on the overpass, a pair of runners paused and pointed up into the sky. Without stopping, my friend and I passed a pair of polarized sunglasses back and forth to each have a look at what appeared like a “ring of fire" in the sky.
After sufficiently burning our retinas, we dropped onto the lakeside bike path and returned to the conversation. We had just witnessed the sun covered by the moon, and yet I could not get one detail of his schedule out of my head.
“So,” I asked perfunctorily, “when do you eat?”
He laughed and replied without hesitation. “I don’t really. Just lots of coffee, electrolyte drinks, and protein shakes.”
I looked over to see if he was joking (he was not).
Behind him a garish, burnt orange Camaro with a white racing stripe shouted its wares. The driver parked and two young men stepped out. They opened the car’s hood and admired the semi-alien piece of machinery that lives inside the hood of every gas-powered car. That beast which is so ubiquitous and emblematic of what grotesque power humanity is capable. That 455 metallurgic horsed monster of an engine.
Now I know very little about cars, and I know very little about medical devices.
But what I do know a thing or two about is efficiency.
My friend, and millions of his fellow hustlers—bless their souls—operate at what we optimizer-nerds call a deficit. So often, they are malnourished, under-slept, and overworked2 because, here in the west, we suffer from an epidemic of Extra, a viral infection of always-be-doing-the-most-19. A contagion of hustle.
We tattoo “less is more” on our thigh, but proceed to do the most, to sip Red Bull vodka and scream and bet on Max Verstappen as his team executes a 1.98 second museum of efficiency.
“At the risk of preaching,” I say to my friend, imprint of the obscured sun still floating across my vision, “do you think you might do more if you actually gave yourself a break?” I gestured at the Camaro. “More efficient. Like a pit stop?”
He agrees, and we proceed to run another 9 miles on just four hours of sleep and only a cup of coffee in our stomachs. Even when we know hustle ain’t the way, it has been so baked into us from such a young age, we don’t stop. Worse, we take quiet pride in not stopping. Worst of all, we write substack posts that subtly show off “the hustle.” 🤦🏼♂️
Now I know very little about quite a lot.
I’m not qualified to change your oil. I’m not qualified to be anywhere near an operating room. And I’m sure as hell not qualified to lecture anyone on the value of productive rest (sleep, active recovery, a nourishing meal, etc).
But all that not knowin’ has given me a good radar for wisdom in others, and I do think we in the west could learn from our high performing European friends at Team RedBull.
The pit window. We can never know what’s going to happen on any given day. We can never know for sure when we’re going to need a break. And we can’t ever expect to skip being tired or sick or sore. But what we can do is create a sort of pit window for ourselves—a time when we give ourselves the grace to take that pit stop. And to really take it, not just pretend.
Now I know very little about quite a lot, but I do know there’s no better pit stop than laying down in the park with your pup and one of these 📚 😉
Book #44 of 2023 - The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
If we were to erect a Mount Rushmore of 21st century novelists, there’s no escaping Jonathan Franzen’s long, spectacled, stoically circumspect, half-smiling gaze. Lauded as our era’s “genius realist,” Franzen is one of the best in show, and Corrections is widely considered his greatest novel. Contrasting the book below, this novel has nothing fantastical to it, nothing sexy, no flashy slug line to lure you in. This lack of pomp is, in fact, a deliberate feature, not a bug. Franzen’s ability to enthrall, amuse, and engage without moving far afield from what some would call mundane is a testament to his brilliance as a storyteller and social commentator. The characters are full, round, and entrancing, and proof that stories really are 85% about the people within them.
“Absolutely nothing changes except that you see things differently and you're less fearful and less anxious and generally stronger as a result: isn't it amazing that a completely invisible thing in your head can feel realer than anything you've experienced before? You see things more clearly and you know that you're seeing them more clearly. And it comes to you that this is what it means to love life, this is all anybody who talks seriously about God is ever talking about. Moments like this."
TLDR: Not for everyone, but if you like long, absurd, hilarious, staggering, novels that jaunt into the absurdities of the human experience, that anatomically and surgically, sketch family dysfunction, while maintaining a hilarious air of black comedy, then this collision between the old-fashioned world of civic virtue and new world of technology, parenting, do-it-yourself mental health care, and globalized greed, hits so close to home it may as well be a flaming bag of sh*t on your neighbor’s doorstep.3
It’s 576 pages, so I definitely recommend checking out Our episode on Good Scribes Only first
Book #45 - The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
What people mean when they say “the great American novel” I’m not sure, but I’m damn certain this book is on the ballot. Known for his lively writing, nostalgia of ‘the retro’, and deep empathy for the human experience, Michael Chabon has become one of 21st century America’s most respected voices. He’s been called “a magical prose stylist” and it shows in this sprawling, idiosyncratic, and inventive book about two Jewish boy genius New Yorkers who dream up superheroes during World War II’s Golden Age of comics. It’s a a page-turner in the ripping-plot-that-pushes-readers-forward sense, yet also contains sentences so delightful and pretty you’ll want to buy him a nice bagel with lox. Or at least a coffee. ☕️ 🥯
“All his self-denial, his Escapist purity of intentions, were forgotten in the flush of triumph and a sense of calm very like that which pervaded him after he had taken a beating. It seemed to him that his fortunes, his life, the entire apparatus of his sense of self were concentrated only on the question of what Rosa Saks would think of him now.”
-Michael Chabon, Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
To summarize: Joe Kavalier, a young Czech artist4 smuggles himself out of Nazi-occupied Prague to NYC. In Brooklyn, he finds his cousin, Sammy Clay, looking for a partner to join him in America’s newest hype cycle - the comic book. Together they get rich5 creating comics, stories, radio shows, movies, and art that draws from their own fantasies and fears. But the windfall doesn’t last.
Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize winning Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a towering, unforgettable story of romance, repression, regret and the forever-confounding American Dream. Read it. Read it. Read it.
Book #46 Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
I feel like you either know Anne of Green Gables front and back, or have absolutely no idea what the heck this children’s story is about. I fell into the latter. Apparently, Montgomery’s tale of the winningly extra 11-yr-old Anne Shirley—an orphan who is accidentally adopted and comes to live on the Cuthbert’s old-fashioned farm—has beckoned to readers and TV viewers for generations. I suppose they too, like Anne, “simply must have more scope for imagination.”
Sometimes much-loved classics can leave you wondering how it became so widely read, but I found Anne of Green Gables just delightful. Narrated by Rachel McAdams, the audiobook explores all the vulnerability, expectation, and dreams of a child. Montgomery’s classic is well written but not overbearing, and is a wonderful portrait of family, fun, fascination, and love at a time when that was all that seemed to matter. We could probably all learn a little from the small, rambunctious, imaginative, feisty, red-headed chatterbox that was Anne Shirley.
🚨 DANGER, next two books === not my fav. But the one after them === epic so hang on 🚨
Book #47 - On the Path to Enlightenment by Matthieu Ricard
This month on Jeremy as buddhist-jewish-yogi-douche…6
You know by now that I like to listen to meditation books on evening walks, and for that reason I don’t think I can give this book a fair review. It’s very clearly meant to be read in hand—it’s a compilation of short vignettes and stories from buddhist monks—but I listened to it. Thus, I found the work disorienting and not so captivating. I have no doubt that Ricard’s compilation contains the insights I’m looking for in a mindfulness book, I just couldn’t process them audibly. Too busy mind-wandering, most likely. It is, however, free with an Audible subscription so by all means decide for yourself.
Book #48 - Moving Target poems by WS Merwin
In September I had the opportunity to workshop a piece with maybe best known poet in Texas. I’ll call her The Poet with the Big Heart because she was such a wonderful, warm human being, offering critical yet encouraging and generative feedback. I’m reluctant to say she recommended this book, because I didn’t love it. Better, the Poet with Big Heart suggested Merwin not from a place of love for his work, but rather for his experimental form. The idea was for me to read his style as a ‘conversation’ with my own style. Verdict: he had a few clever turns of phrase, but I wouldn’t recommend him to the poetically inclined.
Book #49 - The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch
Ever wonder if aliens exist? Want to feel dumb and smart at the same time? How about learning absolutely nothing (consciously), but absolutely everything (subconsciously)? Feel like wondering about all the things there ever were and at the same time never understand anything ever again? The only appropriate way to transition into a write up about this book is an emphatic, plebeian, resounding OhMyGod 🤯.
David Deutsch is a genius’s genius. Stephen Pinker, Sam Harris, and Naval Ravikant are just a few of the brilliant public intellectuals who subtly worship this 70-year-old Israeli-British-physicist-wizard from University of Oxford’s Department of Atomic and Laser Physics at the Centre for Quantum Computation7 (LOL).
A contemporary of Karl Popper and Richard Feynman8, Deutsch’s Beginning of Infinity is, like infinity, virtually unlimited scope. His fundamental claim is that while problems are inevitable, they are also soluble. Though endless, the stream of problems humans face will never be impassable so long as our knowledge continues to grow. A true “rational optimist,” this book explores the nature of free will and human creativity, as well as the evolution of our species and all its big ideas. Ambitious is an understatement, but here “the father of quantum computing” succeeds in establishing deep connections between the laws of nature, the human condition, knowledge, and the potential for progress.
I wasn’t kidding with those questions. This is the kind of book you have to read and trust that your subconscious is doing the learning, for this almost 30-yr-old pre-frontal cortex ain’t retaining a dang thing 💫🤤9
In my early twenties I committed to a life of books, and that choice led me to view reading as a privilege and a practice. It occurred to me that no matter how much time I dedicate to reading, I won’t come close to closing the cover on all the great writing out there. The realization freed me up to explore books of all kinds, not just the greats. Now, even as reading time grows more scarce, I pickup whatever sounds compelling, and write whenever I can free up a moment.
Books are magic. Learning is magic. And my biggest wish is that you treat your mind with the books it deserves.
Ok friendos, jerjer hast time-vampired thee enough.
Y’all go enjoy yourselves now.
And 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.
Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
Consolations by David Whyte
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Dao de Jing by Laozi
It took me 45 minutes to replace one 🤦
Part of me does wonder how AI will effect the number of “hustlers” in the world. Might we not (with smart utility of technology in certain fields) see people accomplish more with less?
Close enough to see, not too close to be your problem. 😉
Who is also trained as an escape-artist in the lineage of Houdini
Though there is a biting commentary here about how little $ they get compared to the fat cat owners of Empire Comics
It never ceases to astound me how many of the leading buddhist teachers in the west have jewish heritage. What gives?
Whom also won the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics this year..
Physicist + amateur lock-picker and painter, Feynman is one of the most entertaining thinkers of the 20th century. His biography is nothing short of amazing