Reading List December 2004

The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Humankind

From corruptibility to immortality, the human condition as revealed in four very different books

The Fords: An American Epic, by Peter Collier and David Horowitz (1987). Like Citizen Kane only crazier and more outrageous and fun; everything creatively destructive about American capitalism captured in the story of one family, an industrial dynasty that endured alcoholism, family feuds, early deaths, and Cristina Ford's friendship (or more?) with Imelda Marcos in the swinging sixties. Final irony: Henry Ford, the founder, whose industry put an emphatic end to the nineteenth-century way of life, repaired in his last years to an ersatz nineteenth-century village of his own making.

Aftermath: The Remnants of War, by Donovan Webster (1996). Creative destruction without the paradox. Modern militaries have been extremely inventive in the use of poisonous gases, defoliants, and all manner of explosives, and many of this past century's fronts remain unquiet decades after treaties brought an end to the fighting. For instance, 12 million unexploded shells from World War I reside in the soil near Verdun. Since 1946 the Département du Déminage has been slowly finding and detonating these shells, and 630 démineurs have died in the line of duty. We are clever and selfless both in destroying civilizations and landscapes and in reclaiming same. A testament to all that is indomitable and adaptable, for better and for worse, in the human spirit.

Seven Nights, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Eliot Weinberger (1984). Seven meditations, on Dante's Divine Comedy, nightmares, The Thousand and One Nights, Buddhism, poetry, the Kabbalah, and blindness. Unbroken by his own now almost complete loss of sight, Borges continued the life of a public intellectual, delivering these in 1977 as a series of lectures, entirely from memory. His blindness marked a change, certainly, but not an end. "If I were a Buddhist monk," Borges says, "I would be thinking at this very moment that I had just begun to live, that all the earlier life of Borges was a dream, that all of universal history is a dream." Or a nightmare.

Infinite Life: Seven Virtues for Living Well, by Robert Thurman (2004). Thurman, the chair of the Department of Religion at Columbia University, explores the possibility that consciousness, like all matter and energy in the universe, continues infinitely, even if Western scientists haven't figured out how to measure it (and he wishes they would at least try to do so). "I'm very sorry to shake up the materialist scientist's sense of history and 'progress,' but long before Darwin and company, the Buddha and his contemporaries had already 'discovered' evolution … It involves the subjective agencies of beings, intentions, and minds. It is not merely an impersonal biological process of atoms and molecules and cells." Consciousness can be neither created nor destroyed—a thought as frightening as it is encouraging.

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The writer and director David O. Russell's latest film, I ♥ Huckabees, has just been released. His previous films are Three Kings, Flirting With Disaster, and Spanking the Monkey.

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