Book Summary: Where Men Win Glory

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by Jon Krakauer

This is a book about doing what is right at all costs, and about putting your money where your mouth is. It’s about taking action rather than just talking about it, and about being virtuous in a corrupt world.

It’s about a man with boundless optimism and an unswerving sense of duty who lays it all on the line and gets screwed over by the very society he sought to serve. And as with so many great men and women, the media narrative spun around them is a pale and distorted reflection of the person behind the headlines.

You probably know the story: Pat Tillman, ASU football star and later NFL safety for the Arizona Cardinals, at the dawn of the Global War on Terror, is so moved by the events of 9/11 that he walks away from a $3M contract to enlist in the US Army.

Tillman is killed in action fighting in Afghanistan and his death is shamelessly used as a public relations opportunity by the Bush Administration to cast the failing war in a positive light — one fought by courageous heroes rather than the hopeless quagmire it turned out to be.

Then the kicker — soon after the adulatory media storm orchestrated by the Pentagon passes, details emerge that Tillman was actually killed by friendly fire — a fact that was deliberately covered up all the way up the chain of command, deceiving the American public as well as Tillman’s own family.

I can’t think of a better embodiment of the tragic hero than Pat Tillman. Eschewing the comfortable like of an NFL star– expensive cars and 6 months of off-season every year — Tillman was disturbed by the idea that he was physically capable but he wasn’t on the front lines. He needed to have skin in the game or he wouldn’t be able to live with himself.

Tillman knew that principle without sacrifice is meaningless. For him, paying mere lip service to “supporting the troops” rang hollow. So he took action.

Even after enlisting, becoming disillusioned with the Iraq war and refusing to ever give a single media interview despite his fame, he was steadfast in his dedication, as evidenced by his journal.

While tragic, the fact that his death was handled shamefully by the US Army all the way up to the White House provides poetic contrast to his actions. He held himself to a higher standard than the lying officers and the bureaucracy who commanded him.

Tillman’s stubborn idealism, his insistence in throwing himself into the action rather than standing on the sidelines, humility, and his dedication to speaking with his actions rather than words —  these are the things that brought him up and also the things that brought him down.

Quotes:

“I never explicitly asked him,, ‘Why are you doing this?’ Because I understood Pat well enough to already know . . . If it was the right thing for people to go off and fight a war, he believed he should be part of it.” – Marie Tillman, wife

“[If I die], I don’t want them to parade me through the streets.” – Pat Tillman

“What kind of man will I become? Will people see me has an honest man, hard working man, family man, good man? Can I become the man I envision? Is vision and follow-through enough? How important is talent & blind luck? . . . There are no true answers, just shades of grey, coincidence, and circumstance.” – Pat Tillman

 

 

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Books I’ve Read Recently

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt

Unbelievable. The energy with which Roosevelt lived his life is mind-boggling. This book taught me the value of enthusiasm and vigor. It’s a fat of life, I think, that people who attack their problems with the most energy usually win, and TR is living proof of that. This book covers his life before his presidency, and it’s incredible to see his work habits. Always making moves quickly as soon as he got a new position, always expanding his power and finding new responsibilities to take on. Seeing each job as an opportunity to excel. I think it’s easy to look at TR and assume that this attitude was in some way aided by a certain fixity of purpose or a lot of money in the bank, but the surprising truth is that he was deeply uncertain of his path at nearly every stage in this part of his life. He was also in debt, so much that he couldn’t afford to buy champagne when dining with dignitaries. The fact that this didn’t seem to put a damper on his spirits and his dedication to the ‘strenuous life’ is astounding.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler invented the hard-boiled urban private eye in this book. Full of murky crimes, dangerous dames, and lots and lots of rain, this book just oozes atmosphere. The plot is somewhat secondary in fact– it’s almost too convoluted to pay any attention to, but the writing is so good and the character so interesting that you don’t mind. I always knew this was a classic, and now that I’ve read it I can see it’s influence all over the place, in books and movies and music and art. It’s like listening to the Beatles– they sound hokey and trite until you realize that they aren’t following the trend because they invented it.

Eating the Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman

This one had a long gestation period. I wasn’t crazy about it until I went back through my notes and realize how artful and profound some of the ideas are. He does an excellent job at seeing connections between disparate pieces of society. For example, the NFL and the GOP, or Nirvana and Waco, TX. Some really fascinating insights here into sports, the meaning of celebrity, media, and culture, and with a lot of humor as well. I definitely want to read more Klosterman.

Dry by Augusten Burroughs

I read this in like 2 sittings. The writing is just so effortless and well-crafted. I was a little disappointed that this was really more of a memoir involving addiction, and not a book purely about addiction. He really doesn’t go very deeply into the nature of addictive behavior, which I think is an incredibly important things for everyone to study. We’re all addicts in one way or another, I think. But it was a great read nonetheless. I’m not the first one to compare Burroughs to Sedaris, and despite being ostensibly a book about addiction and with a plot that involves the death of an AIDS victim, this was a quick and light read.

How to Crowdsource Editing

A few months ago I was thrilled to be a part of Charlie Hoehn’s crowdsourced editing process for his new book “Play It Away: A Workaholic’s Cure for Anxiety”.

For my part, I helped refine the structure and offer feedback and crafted the narrative which ultimately became an Amazon best-seller in its category.

Aside from a smart and effective way to improve the book’s message among his target audience, it also served as a unique marketing project, generating loyalty, word-of-mouth, and Amazon review prior to launch. The author detailed the entire project here.

Book Notes: The Jungle


by Upton Sinclair

What it’s about

The Jungle is a classic, and Upton Sinclair is one of the most well known, not to mention prolific American writers of the century. I owe it to myself to read at least one of his works. The Jungle appeals to me because it seems a little subversive, like the images and ideas in it are a little controversial. And in fact they were– poverty, class warfare, and public health concerns make for a juicy read.

Why I read it

The Jungle a muckraking novel about the American meatpacking industry in the early 20th century. Themes include: the unsanitary and morally questionable treatment of the animals and the workers alike at massive stockyards and processing plants, socialism, the misfortunes and frustrations of an immigrant family who moves to America in search of the American Dream, class immobility, and corruption.My impressions:

What I thought

The descriptions of the slaughterhouse/slum Packingtown are what the book is known for, and there’s a good reason. Sinclair’s writing is like a relentless stream of facts, dense but remarkably interesting page after page. I think a lot of the emotional power of the book comes from the way he is able to sustain these grusomely detailed recounts of theworking and home lives of the main characters in such a mechanical, journalistic way. In spite of their all their discomfort and suffering, the crisp and detailed prose marches on with indifference, mirroring the unfogiving industrialism of the stockyards themselves.

The descriptions of the jobs that some characters hold in the slaighterhouses made my stomach turn. The work conditions were truly appaling, for young and old alike. I can’t imagine going to work every day and being tasked with shoveling cow intestines into a waste chute, as Jurgis did, day after day, both when the blood would freeze to your clothes in winter, and when the stench would permeate your whole being in the summer. It makes me grateful for my office job, to say the least.

Sinclair wastes no time with sentimentalism, which I like for this book. But at the same time, I got the impression that the characters were less people in charge of their own fates and more of helpless victims stuck in the massive economic system of America. It was hard to sympathize with characters who seem to have no free will, and no self-ownership at all. They all feel like puppets, who exist soley to prove the author’s point about the unfairness of capitalism. In fact, it got tiring to read about misfortune after contrived misfortune, over and over. I get it, I wanted to say– their lives sucked.

The first 3/4 is much better than then ending. The first part is full of deep, brilliant descriptions and heartbreaking tragedy. Unfortunately, the last few chapters are marred by this ridiculous plot where the protagonist Jurgis becomes a socialist. It’s not exactly subtle what Sinclair was trying to tell us, and in my opinion it weakens the book dramatically.

In short, this is a great book to read for its imagery and its ability to whisk you away to a time and a place that we don’t often think about. Don’t get too invested in the plot, because it sort of sucks and that’s not really the point anyway. Just read it and soak in the dark beauty of this industrial, gloomy atmosphere.

Further Questions:

  • What are Sinclair’s other books like? Are they all so influenced by his political agenda?
  • Interesting to see such an early condemnation of the fabled “American Dream.” Was the the first criticism of it and of industrialism?

Quotes:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

“Jurgis too had…this sense of pride. Had he not just gotten a job, and become a sharer in all this activity, a cog in this marvelous machine?”

“They use everything about the hog except the squeal.”

Book Summary: Man’s Search for Meaning

Also see: Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning

by Victor Frankl

What’s it about?

Man’s Search for Meaning and its companion, Man’s Search For Ultimate Meaning, are both the work of the same man. Do not be fooled by the New Age-y titles of these books, though– Frankl’s message is the real deal. Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who spent time in Nazi concentration camps, where he suffered immensely and lost most of his immediate family, including his wife. What is remarkable about his story is that he emerged with a profound sense of peace despite the horrors that he had experienced, and went on to a successful career in psychiatry where he helped patients with many of his insights and the lessons he learned. These books contain some of his most powerful wisdom on living life dutifully and responsibly, and on accepting one’s one unique circumstances and making the best of them.

My impressions:

Man’s Search for Meaning is one of my favorite books of all time. When I read it last year, it fundamentally changed the way I think about human suffering and about everyone’s need to find some motivational ideal in his or her life. With hints at many of the the same themes as some of my favorite ancient philosophers like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, this book moved me to my core. The first half is dedicated to a detailed an often horrific account of the author’s time in several Nazi concentration camps, and the second half describes the development of his post-war psychiatric career and the ideas he developed during that time.

“What is the meaning of life?” It’s one of the most ubiquitous questions of all human history. Frankl answers it by turning it on its head. It’s not you that’s asking the question, but it’s life itself that’s asking  it: What is the meaning of life? How can you answer? And you can only respond by having something to show for yourself. It instantly shuts down any tendency to look outward for meaning, expecting the world to answer the question for you, and forces you to turn inward and come up with your own purpose and your own meaning.


Another favorite passage describes a man who came to Dr. Frankl for treatment. His wife of many years had died, and he was overcome with severe depression.

“What would have happened if you had died first?” Frankl asked.

“Oh, for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” said the patient.

Frankl replied, “You see, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering– to be sure, at the price that you now have to survive and mourn her.”

What a beautiful thought– what a way to console yourself over the loss of a loved one. You suffer so that they don’t have to. It instantly prevents you from shaking your fist at ths sky and whining “Why me? Oh god, why me?!?!”Suffering is somehow ceases to be suffering whenever it finds a meaning. In this case, its meaning is self-sacrifice for a loved one. Why you? Because it’s better you than her, you selfish dick.


But both books are not created equal. My commentary above was based on Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl’s first book. His later Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning, I cannot speak so highly of. His first book was intensely personal, and written in a strong, yet somewhat vulnerable, personal  tone, with simple language. It moved me deeply, and I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone who struggles to find his or her place in the world.

His second book, Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning, was underwhelming. It seems like Frankl, for all his strengths, changed his tune. Instead of a simple, honest book about his experiences and his thoughts, he wrote a book that seems like it was written db y a psychaitrist for the purpose of impressing other psychiatrists. Full of jargon, silly scare quotes, and way too many Latinate words ending in -tion, -ous, -ness, and  -ication, this book failed to evoke any kind of emotional response in me. I could scaresly make it through a page without having to Google a word or seven. It was so full of jargon and technical psychiatric mumbo-jumbo that I had to repeatedly put it down in frustration. I don’t understand what happened to good old Frankl, who I feel like I knew and loved. I felt sad after reading it; it was like meeting up with an old friend, only to realize that he had changed, and that we no longer have much in common.

So read Man’s Search for Meaning. It will change your life. Skip the sequel.

Quotes

[S]omeone looks down on us in difficult hours– a friend, a wife, somebody alive or dead, or a God– and he would not expect us to disappoint him. He would hope to find us suffering proudly– no miserably00knowing how to die.

[M]entail health is based on a certain degree of tension; the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become.

…the question posed to a chess champion: “Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?” There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent. The same holds for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment…[E]veryone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.

Book Summary: Siddhartha


by Herman Hesse

What’s it about?

This book follows the life of Siddhartha, a young man living in rural, possibly ancient India, who struggles to find his place in the world. Born into a religious family, he is soon dissatisfied, believing that asceticism, or the renuncuation of his phyiscial needs, will grant him true happiness and answer soem of his philosophical questions. Eventually, he decided that a life of pleasure and sensory indulgence might give him more happiness and more answers, so he forsakes the life of a monk for it.

Siddhartha continues to wander and search for meaning in his life, never afraid to make a radical change when he feels stuck. Eventually he finds peace by accepting the totality of existence, understanding the paradox that pain and happiness are two sides of the same coin.

My impressions:

This book sort of gets pegged as a coming-of-age book, like The Catcher in the Rye or The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but that characterization misses the mark. Siddhartha is different because his self-discovery was not a quick one-off experience. It wasn’t even restricted to his youth; he was trying to find peace and understanding well into old age. Coming-of-age books always seem to carry the implication that while it may be hard to find your purpose and meaning in the world, once you gain some crucial piece of knowledge, you’re set. Ta-da, enlightenment! Of course, that’s not how life works, and this book understands that it’s an ongoing, iterative process.

Siddhartha learns eventually that the key to happiness is to accept the unity of all things, and accept the world as it is. Strong opinions are an obstacle to this understanding, especially dogmatic ones. He learns to realize that every opinion has an opposite, and that to gain true wisdom, you need to listen to both voices with a certain detachment, committing to neither.

Another thing I like about this book is that it promotes a playful approach to life. Siddhartha makes his decisions after much deliberation, but everything he end up doing seems to reflect a light touch. His understanding of the transience of life manifests itself in everything he does.

But despite all the good things about this book, I can’t say that I recommend it. For me, there is nothing new. All of the most powerful ideas can be explored more deeply in other books. It’s not quite a coming-of-age book, but in some ways it reads like one. I realize that it’s written as a parable, similar to Coehlo’s The Alchemist, but still I wanted more depth that never came. It’s just vague and New Age-y enough to be a little bit shallow, and although it’s a classic, most people are safe to skip it.

Quotes:

“He always seems to be playing at business, it never makes much impression on him, it never masters him, he bever fears failure, he is never worried about a loss.”

“[G]entleness is stronger than severity… water is stronger than rock…love is stronger than force.”

“Both thought and the senses were fine things, behind both of them lay hidden the last meaning; it was worth while listening to them both, to play with both, neither to despise nor overrate either of them, but to listen intently to both voices.”

Book Summary: Atlas Shrugged


by Ayn Rand

First of all, yes, this book gets a bad rap. Some of the ideas, when taken at face value, give fuel to plenty a tea-partier and libertarian fear-mongerer. I was afraid to be seen reading this book because I (correctly) anticipated gasps of horror, like I was reading Mien Kampf or something.

It’s a sad state when people assume that because you’re reading a book you accept the book’s message. They don’t realize that the point of reading to evaluate and explore ideas, not to reinforce them. Why would I bother reading a book if I knew I already agreed with it?

In this book, like in everything else, there are lessons to be learned.

What’s it about?

A bunch of industrialists in a dystopian version of the 1950s fight against inane government economic regulation by refusing to lend their brilliant minds to a world that doesn’t give them the respect and freedom they deserve. Rather than fight against gross injustices like income tax, they quit their jobs without a trace and live in their own secluded colony, where they watch the world fall apart as the incompetent Washington-types and assorted moochers try to run the show.

My impressions:

I am in love with the imagery of this book. The cover art, the descriptions of big business, New York, architecture, and 50s-era technology give the whole narrative an Art Deco vibe that is just brilliant. Aesthetically, I want to live in this world.

For many people, the takeaway of Ayn Rand is economic. For me, it’s deeply personal. All the protagonists are strong and attractive, and the antagonists are timid and physically ugly. Unrealistic? Absolutely. But I chose to read it as if it were a classical epic– the characters are not real and never could be, but to try to draw a direct line between them and the real world is to miss the point.

This is a book about the power of the individual, and about the glory of achieving your personal best. Dagny, Rearden, Galt, and Francisco are model humans. They’re exaggerated, but no more so than Achilles or Odysseus. They’re guiding lights to aspire to, not real people who you could grab a cup of coffee with.

I like them because they all work extremely hard for whatever drives them, and they know the importance of harshly realistic perception, strict efficiency, and direct speech. They have extreme confidence in their ideas, ambition, and resolve.

This book is a celebration of man’s ability to change the world to his liking, and to never play the victim. It reminds me how great it feels to be insanely competent, and what clarity and sense of purpose accompany a task done to perfection.

The good guys this book view life as purely transactional. Their first thought is always “what can you do for me?”, which is refreshing in a world that tries too hard to maintain a facade of charity and generosity all the time. Even in love, the logic hold. Unconditional love is wrong; love is based on mutual self-interest. You don’t love someone for no reason, or out of pity or charity. You love someone because you admire him or her on some level and because you get something out of him. You love people for his virtues. Love, just as everything else in the world, has to be earned. Entitlement of any kind is a foolish.

Further Questions:

  • Why do so many people miss the fact that this book is about personal responsibility and excellence? Why bother objecting on political grounds?
  • How can libertarian Christians possibly reconcile Rand with Jesus? Seems like a pretty sharp split.
  • Dagny and Galt’s superpower is the ability to make a decision rationally and stick with it to the end, even when emotions get in the way. How to practice this or read more about it?

Quotes:

“[P]roductive work is the process my which man’s consciousness controls his existence, a constant process of acquiring knowledge and shaping matter to fit one’s purpose, of translating an idea into physical form, of remaking the earth in the image of one’s values– that all work is creative work if done by a thinking mind, and no work is creative if done by a blank who repears in uncritical stupor a routine he has learned from others– that your work is yours to choose, and the choice is as wide as your mind.”

“I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

“Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is possible, it’s yours. But to win in requires your total dedication and a total break with the world of your past, with the doctrine that man is a sacrificial animal who exists for the pleasure of others. Fight for the value of your pride. Fight for the essence of that which is man: for his sovereign rational mind.”