People Who Shaped My Intellectual Growth

I came across Tracy-Gregory Gilmore’s list of people who have influenced him, and I found the idea really charming. Exposure to a few different people’s ideas has been incalculably valuable to me, and I want to publicly thank them in the same way Gilmore did.

These are people I consider “remote mentors” (a concept I wrote about in August, 2016). Two writers in particular have profoundly shaped how I see the world: Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex and Ben Thompson of Stratechery. Their names are repeated on the list below, but they deserve special recognition.

In chronological order:

  • Vladimir Nabokov, who penned the infamous novel Lolita, is my favorite author. That book in particular turned me onto postmodernism and moral complexity.
  • Ben Thompson of Stratechery is a business analyst who writes about the tech industry. Reading his articles got me interested in business and economics, and I learned a lot from his commentary on incentives and the structure(s) of markets.
  • Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex is… well, professionally he’s a psychiatrist, but online he’s sort of a cultural philosopher. His essays on identity, community, and politics have been very illuminating. Everything is virtue-signaling!
  • Venkatesh Rao, creator of Ribbonfarm and Breaking Smart, is a writer in a similar vein to Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex. The label “cultural philosopher” once again feels like it fits. His area of expertise is breaking people’s mental models and then helping reconstruct them.
  • Meredith Patterson and Alice Maz are both programmers who wrote essays that helped me become more empathetic. Patterson wrote “Okay, Feminism, It’s Time We Had a Talk About Empathy” and “When Nerds Collide”. Maz wrote “Splain it to Me”.
  • Adam Elkus and David Auerbach are two polymath scholars who incisively understand the meta-politics of the cyber age (which is only just dawning, I might add).
  • Lou Keep’s Uruk Series is a phenomenal tool for understanding modern discontent and the failure cases of social control systems. Start with the essay on Seeing Like a State and then skip to the essay on witch doctors.

Last updated 8/13/2018.

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Book(s) Review: Five Novels I Read On Vacation

Shakespeare and Company bookshop
Photo by Alexandre Duret-Lutz.

Last week my family vacationed near Fallen Leaf Lake. During that time, I astounded myself by plowing through five novels. Here are quick ‘n’ dirty reviews of the five books, in chronological order…

Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov

Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov wrote my favorite book — yes, the one he’s famous for — but until last week I had never read any of his other works. My boyfriend bought three of them for my birthday in June, which I saved to read on this vacation. Incidentally, I only packed Laughter in the Dark, because I severely underestimated how quickly I would read it. Lolita took me ages to finish — it’s such a beautifully dense and detailed book — so I expected this one to be the same. Happily, Laughter in the Dark is much breezier.

The focus on an age-gap relationship makes the story evoke Lolita, but the resemblance is curiously inverted. First the male protagonist treats his paramour manipulatively, but quickly his disingenuous-ingénue mistress overtakes his abilities with the help of a former lover, flipping the power imbalance. Laughter in the Dark is rollicking good fun, assuming you’re tolerant of sordid shenanigans.

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's Son, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction

Adam Johnson recounts brutality and corruption in North Korea — who woulda thunk, right? — with an odd, generous spoonful of magical realism. The book is reminiscent of absurd action-movie capers, especially the second half, which comprises events after the main character ends up in a prison camp. (It was inevitable — goddam North Korea.) Surprisingly, Johnson’s eccentric treatment works.

The New York Times has a good plot preview, though I disagree with Christopher Beha’s charge that Johnson addresses his subject matter too lightly. Alas, someone always insists on taking excellent satire at face value. Wyatt Mason’s New Yorker review seemed more astute when I skimmed it.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Sea Dreams
Sea Dreams by Renee.

What can I say about The Old Man and the Sea that hasn’t already been noted? I’ll refrain from trying. Suffice it to say that Hemingway deserves his reputation.

“Fish […] I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.”

Sharpe’s Escape by Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell’s series of novels about English soldier extraordinaire Richard Sharpe is set during the Napoleonic Wars. Sharpe’s Escape is just as excellent as the rest of them — well-researched, exciting, even thrilling! My only complaint is the lack of multifaceted female characters, but I’ve learned to put up with that. Any lady reader who likes books by male authors must resign herself to this deficit. Anyway, I stayed up until 4am finishing Sharpe’s Escape, which is a certain type of recommendation.

Bernard Cornwell (back) acting in And Then They Were None
Bernard Cornwell (center) acting in a theatrical production of Agatha Christie’s And Then They Were None, bizarrely. Photo by SarahSierszyn [sic].

Gallows Thief by Bernard Cornwell

We had no internet at the house by the lake, but Gallows Thief was already downloaded on my phone, so after finishing Sharpe’s Escape I jumped right into Cornwell’s story of a Regency-era investigator who strives to save a man from being hanged. See also: my comments regarding the enjoyability of Sharpe’s Escape.

That’s it! I hope your summer reading is going well too.

Young girl reading a book, Central Circulating Library at College and St. George Streets, Toronto, Ontario / Une jeune fille lit un livre. Bibliothèque centrale de prêt à l'intersection des rues College et Saint-George, Toronto (Ontario)
Photo via Library and Archives Canada.

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Dropping from the Veils of Morning

Photo of a misty morning by Conal Gallagher.
Photo by Conal Gallagher.

Recently I discovered the poem “Morning” by Billy Collins. I love it in the same way that I love the peaceful verses of Yeats’ “Innisfree”. Ironically, I first read “Morning” late at night, because I couldn’t sleep and I thought poetry might soothe me. Oh well — the time was past midnight, so it was technically morning, right? Here is the poem, in full:

“Why do we bother with the rest of the day,
the swale of the afternoon,
the sudden dip into evening,

then night with his notorious perfumes,
his many-pointed stars?

This is the best—
throwing off the light covers,
feet on the cold floor,
and buzzing around the house on espresso—

maybe a splash of water on the face,
a palmful of vitamins—
but mostly buzzing around the house on espresso,

dictionary and atlas open on the rug,
the typewriter waiting for the key of the head,
a cello on the radio,

and, if necessary, the windows—
trees fifty, a hundred years old
out there,
heavy clouds on the way
and the lawn steaming like a horse
in the early morning.”

I found this poem on page 31 of Billy Collin’s collection Picnic, Lighting. The book’s title references a passage from the infamous novel Lolita. Humbert Humbert is describing his personal history:

“My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and, save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory […].”

Because of the allusion to Lolita, I know that Billy Collins loves a book that has fascinated me since I was a teenager. Enjoying one novel in common seems like a tenuous connection, but that’s the beauty of reading — sharing literature connects people in spite of material obstacles. Billy Collins is an elderly man and I’m a young woman, but we would have plenty to talk about.

That’s also why the poem “Morning” delights me. As it happens, I am a morning person who prefers to write early, although I’m not an espresso aficionado. Nothing feels better than starting work when the sun does. Waking up early has a significant impact on my mood throughout the rest of the day.

Reading this poem, I feel happy that my own feelings are so well-described by someone else — described in clear, beautiful language. That last image, of dew steaming from the lawn like sweat from a stallion, is so unexpected and enchanting. Yes, “enchanting” is definitely the right word: Billy Collins gave me a moment of magic. It’s trite but it’s true.

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