Jesus, The New Testament and Bart D. Ehrman

I have now read five books by Bart D. Ehrman about Jesus and The New Testament.  This is rather strange considering I’m an atheist.  The books were

  • Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (2005)
  • Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them) (2009)
  • Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (2011)
  • Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (2012)
  • How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (2014)

The reason why I’m so fond of Ehrman’s books is he’s a historian writing about how Christianity came about and does not digress into theology.  I study the origins of Christianity in the same way my friend Mike studies ancient Greek literature and philosophy.  Ehrman works very hard to walk the razor’s edge seeking the academic truth of things, but in doing so, often offends the faithful. 

Most people in America who consider themselves Christians aren’t interested in the historical details of their faith—they believe because that is what they were taught growing up and never took the time to study The New Testament.  If they did, they’d find it to be a black hole of endless scholarship.   Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina and he says his classes are very popular with all kinds of people, and points out that his conclusions of historical scholarship are middle of the road, and most of what he teaches has been common knowledge for a long time in seminary schools.  Readers are often shocked by what they read in Ehrman’s books but that’s because the ideas are new to the readers, and not to historians of Biblical scholarship.

If what you know about Christianity and The New Testament is was what you learned in Sunday School you might find Ehrman’s books both fascinating and a challenge to your beliefs.  Ehrman started out as a Evangelical himself, but after years of Bible study has become an agnostic.  His books do not attack beliefs or believers.  Ehrman is the kind of truth seeker that learned the ancient languages of The Bible so he could do his own translating, and got a doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary.  Ehrman moved from believing in The Bible to becoming obsessed with how The New Testament came about.  He has written over twenty-five books on the subject, some for the general reader and others for academic scholars.

We know very little about the actual man Jesus, but through the detective work of textual analysis, anthropology and historical studies of the times in which Jesus lived, Ehrman pieces out one view of Jesus that he claims is a pretty common view among Bible historians.  This is best seen in Did Jesus Exist?  Then Ehrman explains how the followers of Jesus made him into the God we know today in the book How Jesus Became God.  Then his books Misquoting Jesus, Jesus, Interrupted and Forged explores how The New Testament and Christianity evolved in the first four hundred years after Jesus’ death.  If you read these five books you’ll have a pretty good overview of the current historical studies on Jesus and The New Testament.  Ehrman also has a number of entertaining courses at The Great Courses site.

I read these five books in the order they were written and published, but I’d recommend reading them in a different order if you are new to Ehrman.  They all cover the same big territory, but they each focus on threads of finer detail.

Did Jesus Exist?

I’d start with Did Jesus Exist? because Jesus is how everything got started in the first place.  Ehrman finds the most objection to his books by fundamentalists who believe in the literal truth of The Bible, and strangely for this book, by atheists and agnostics who wish to disprove the existence of Jesus.  There is a growing population of humanists who wish to turn Jesus into a myth, and Ehrman’s historical work undermines their beliefs too.   Basically, Ehrman walks a middle ground between the fervor of belief and disbelief.

Did Jesus Exist 

I wish the conclusion to this book was available online so I could link to it.  Ehrman explains how he attended a meeting of the American Humanists Association to receive their Religious Liberty Award and was surprised to find the non-believers spending so much time talking about religion.  He was also shocked that many of these scientific minded people have thoroughly embraced books by writers who claim Jesus is a myth.  It disturbs Ehrman because he knows the pseudo-scholarship approach to proving Jesus is a myth has as much academic validity as Creationism and Intelligent Design and these proclaimed embracers of science don’t seem to know that.

Ehrman in his book Did Jesus Exist? has to attack ideas many of his most popular fans cherish.  Ehrman’s books clearly disproves the fundamentalist view of the literal interpretation of The Bible, which agnostics and atheists love, but his scholarship also finds consistent evidence that a man named Jesus did exist.  So, in one book Ehrman undermines the faithful and the unbelievers.  Ehrman shows the same kind of airy philosophy that goes into convincing people that Jesus was a God is the very same kind of philosophical slight-of-hand that goes into making Jesus a myth.

Whether you’re a believer or disbeliever, don’t you want to know the truth?  I’m not saying the Ehrman  knows the absolute truth, but I am saying his middle of the road, conservative academic approach is more scientific and reliable than just taking other people’s word for things.  What we all need to do is learn to demand the evidence for anything claiming to be true.  And we need to learn the difference between bullshit evidence and research consensus evidence.

Ehrman embraces the study of history as if it was a science, demanding evidence.  The mythicists, as Ehrman calls the Jesus as myth people, promote their beliefs without real academic vigor.  Some only offer wild speculation, but others, some even with PhDs, do attempt to make their points with evidence, but Ehrman makes a good case their evidence is poor, and their logic weak.  It’s a fascinating book that sets the stage for his next book.

How Jesus Became God

Ehrman works to prove that Jesus did not see himself as God, or even divine, but that his followers after his death did deify him.  Ehrman carefully and academically explains the historical existence of Jesus and how Christians transformed a flesh and blood man into divine being to serve their purposes.  This is a great book for The New Testament Bible study because Ehrman spends most of his time exploring the writings of Paul, the four Gospels, Acts and other references in The New Testament to show how Jesus changed over time.  The textual analysis Ehrman makes should be obvious to anyone who just reads The Bible.  So, why haven’t most Christians noticed what Ehrman points out?

How Jesus Became God

Most people who read The Bible, read it in pieces, jumping around as it’s presented in a Sunday School lesson or sermon each Sunday.  Ehrman suggests reading it by comparing all the stories from different books about the same event.  This any reader can do.  What Ehrman brings to the table that most average Bible readers don’t have is the scholarship that explains when various parts of The Bible was written and by who.  When you plot what was said when, you’ll begin to notice that The New Testament is full of contradictions but they make sense if you look at them on a timeline.  It’s quite obvious that theology developed over time, and the theology was constantly changing.  Even within The New Testament its possible to see that Jesus went from a man to a God.  However, to fully understand this transformation requires further study of Christian theologians and their writing for the next three hundred years.  How Jesus went from human being to The Trinity took three hundred years to hammer out, and there were a lot of strange side trips along the way, especially by Christians now called heretics and Gnostics today.

How Jesus Became God sets things up nicely for the first Ehrman book I read.

Misquoting Jesus

Have you ever wondered how The New Testament was written, edited and published?  Especially since it was put together over a thousand years before the printing press.  Have you ever wondered who wrote The New Testament?  Many people think it’s the absolute word of God, as if God dictated The Bible to someone.  Have you never noticed that Bible stories have many different points of view, writing styles and often contradict each other?  Have you never wondered how something that was written almost two thousand years ago could be published consistently without errors and changes?  Have you ever tried to copy a passage in a book by handwriting?  How well did you do?


Once you learn that who Jesus was is determined by who was writing about him, then it’s easy to understand how The New Testament was put together and why.  Actually, The New Testament is very poorly edited because its far from consistent.  It leaves in evidence of earlier thinking that was supplanted by later theology.  And it becomes all too obvious that your favorite Jesus quote depends on when that portion of The New Testament was written, and what his orthodox followers believed at that time.

And as manuscripts were passed around the Roman world, copied by scribes in different locals, with different beliefs, often they were altered to reflect a particular view of Jesus.  We don’t have the original drafts of The New Testament books, but we do have hundreds and hundreds of copies that showed up hundreds of years later.  We can trace changes that were made as they circulated from community to community.  And scholars have also detected forgeries.


Have you ever heard that some of the books in The New Testament were forgeries?  For example, for over a hundred years now, some scholars believe some of the books claimed to be written by Paul were obviously not.  How did they learn that?  Plagiarism and forgery did not exist like it does today, so Bart D. Ehrman has to explain how the various books were written and how their authorship got attributed.  Back in the early days of Christianity, in the first four hundred years after Jesus died, being a famous author was not like it is today.  If you wrote something you wanted people to believe, you often said it was written by someone else, someone people would believe.


Using contextual study, and even computers to analyze style and content, it’s possible to determine if the same person wrote or did not write two different essays.  But even without the skills of a historian or a computer, it’s pretty easy to see that certain lessons from different books in The New Testament teach radically opposing ideas.  Reading Forged will show the common Bible study student how to read scripture far more closely.  This leads us to the last book I’m recommending to read.

Jesus, Interrupted

Knowing what Jesus really said is very difficult.  Most religious people assume everything printed in red in The New Testament is something Jesus actual said.  Well, historians like Ehrman would beg to disagree.  What’s so fascinating about this book is Ehrman gets to write a bestselling book pointing out contradictions in The New Testament that any careful reader should have already noticed for themselves.  I have a feeling that most believers attending church were like me as a kid.  I listened to the preacher quote a passage of The Bible and then tie in some personal experiences from his own life or people in the church, and then turn scripture and contemporary life problems into a sermon.  As a kid I never read The Bible from start to finish.  If we did, we might remember while reading The Gospel of John things said that might contradiction what we head already read in The Gospel of Mark.  Most readers don’t cross-compare, but just work to decipher scriptures one line at a time.


Ehrman teaches readers the trick of parallel reading.  Pick specific incidents in the life of Jesus, and then read about the same incident in different places throughout The New Testament.  It becomes all to obvious that the various writers had different stories to tell, and different theology to preach.  The contrast between the stories in Mark and John are startling.  Why haven’t the average Bible reader notice that?  I’m sure many have, but I think most haven’t.

If you go searching for reviews of these books at Google you can find lots of reviewers who attack what Ehrman has to say.  Now there are different kinds of attacks.  Sometimes, other scholars call Ehrman out on his scholarship.  It seems to me that in Ehrman’s newer books he spends far more writing time explaining how he made his conclusions in comparison to other scholars, in a preemptive attack on this kind of criticism.  This makes for good writing and better reading.  The other common kind of attack on Ehrman’s work is by Christian apologists who seek to defend their specific theological view.  The quality and validity of these kinds of criticism vary greatly.

Ehrman constantly reminds his reader that he is a historian and that metaphysics lies outside the scope of historical studies.  The trouble is the true believer, especially the fundamentalist, believe that their theology is the true view of history.  They assume the metaphysical is part of history.  This is what makes Ehrman’s books controversial with certain readers.

I am an atheist.  I don’t believe the metaphysical exists.  To me, Ehrman’s books are excellent explanations on how Christianity got started in a historical context.  His books also explain to me at least, when and how some Christians acquired their theological and metaphysical ideas.  True believers don’t seem to understand that all concepts, all memes, have a history.  Someone thought them up.  Where we differ is I see them as ideas and they see them as God’s word.

These five books by Bart D. Ehrman go a long way to explaining the history of certain ideas that are programmed deeply into Western culture.  No historian, philosopher or scientist will ever be able to prove or disprove the cherished metaphysical desires of believers.  However, most believers embrace their beliefs without much analysis.  Reading these five books could dissolve such beliefs because they raise logical questions that are corrosive to simple thinking.  However, there are many believers who develop very complex thought systems to maintain their beliefs.  These people will have to read Ehrman and come up with rationalizations that counter his assertions.

JWH – 7/21/14

Falling in Love with the 19th Century

Most of us live in the present, although some of us think the grass will be greener in the future, but for a few, the past has an allure that draws us back to quainter times.  Or maybe the past is seductive because it represents an archeology of the mind, explaining how we came to be.  I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s always daydreaming about science fictional futures of the 21st century, but now that I live in the 21st century, I spend a surprising amount of time mentally retracing the steps in the 19th century of how I came to be in the 20th century.

The older I get, the more I tire of CGI science fiction fantasies and crave elegant Masterpiece Theater costume dramas about Victorian life.  I occasionally like mixing science fiction with history via steampunk stories, but for the most part I love reading actual history books about 19th century science, or reading fictional observations of the time via 19th century residents like Charles Dickens, George Elliot, Anthony Trollope, or Louisa May Alcott, or I like modern fiction that uses the 19th as a setting to understand modern times through contrast and comparison with the present.


The allure of the 19th century is hard to explain, but lets start with Possession a 1990 novel by A. S. Byatt.  Byatt, like John Fowles before her, uses the trick of twin stories, with a couple in the present trying to decipher a couple in the past.  Byatt starts with two modern characters, Roland Michell and Dr. Maud Bailey coming together because Michell is researching poet Randolph Henry Ash, and Bailey is studying poet Christabel LaMotte, and they get on the academic trail that the two had an illicit affair previously unknown by all other scholars.  Ash and LaMotte are totally fictionalized, but Byatt creates them in such a way, quoting long poems, journals, diaries, letters that readers feel they are based on actual historical characters.  There’s even a label for such stories, historiographic metafiction.

Byatt is playing with us readers.  Because her story is entirely fiction she has 100% control over what we know and what her characters know.  At times, the readers knows more than Michell and Bailey because Byatt is the omnipotent narrator of her reality and writes third person narrative that lets us know what actually happen, while the poor academics all rush around to know the truth must piece it together with rare tidbits of surviving facts.  At other times, we follow behind the eyes of Michell, Bailey and Cropper, learning about Ash and LaMotte from the clues they unearth that generate endless speculation about the past.

There was a pitiful film adaptation of Possession in 2002 starring  Gwyneth Paltrow as Maud Bailey, Aaron Eckhart as Roland Michell, Jeremy Northam as Randolph Henry Ash, and Jennifer Ehle as Christabel LaMotte.  The movie is good for seeing the visual contrast between the 19th and 20th centuries, but not for much else.  All the power of the story is in Byatt’s writing, and the movie comes across as a slim summary of the story.  The trouble is, Byatt only barely hints at the richness of the 19th century in her 555 page novel.  How much you admire Possession really depends on how much you’ve read of and about the the 1850s and 1860s.  Byatt gives us a very rich taste, making her novel worthy of the Booker Prize it won, but it’s only a start if you’re going to fall down the rabbit hole of the 21st century speculation about the 19th century.


A subplot of Possession is LaMotte’s interest in spiritualism.  Most 21st century folk will not understand what spiritualism is, at least not in 19th century terms.  Beginning with the Fox sisters in 1848 a wave of fascination swept the U.S. and Europe over the idea that living people could communicate with the dead.  Strangely still, 19th century Spiritualism is intertwined with 19th century feminism.  Byatt hints at this, but for a more detailed painting I recommend Other Powers by Barbara Goldsmith, subtitled “The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and The Scandalous Victoria Woodhull.”  Byatt understood that the 19th century was an awakening for women and reflected this in Cristobel LaMotte.   LaMotte was a poet in her own right, independent, living with a woman lover, when she meets Randolph Henry Ash.  LaMotte risks everything to communicate with someone she considers her equal.  Ash and LaMotte’s poetry become their language of love.

Possession is about the many kinds of possession we fall into.  Ash and LaMotte are possessed by their love, but also by their art.  Michell and Baily are possessed by the need to know Ash and LaMotte.  We, the reader are possessed by the need to understand why we love fiction, and why the 19th century entices us.  One clue for the last thing is the recent science series Cosmos.  Many of the episodes were about 19th century science and scientists.  The 1800s was a tremendous age of discovery, especially by gentlemen scientists.  Charles Darwin exploded on the Victorians like an H-Bomb.  On The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin came out in 1859, the mysterious year of Possession.

Darwin made the Victorians doubt God. LaMotte was a believer, but Ash was not, or at least a serious doubter.  LaMotte was daring far more than Ash.  Byatt makes Ash more interesting because he’s an amateur scientist.  I think it’s the amateur scientist that is one of the great appeals of the 19th century to modern people.  It was an era where individuals could still figure out the mysteries of reality on their own.

The Invisible Woman by Claire Tomalin

Right around this time too, Charles Dickens began his affair with Ellen Ternan, which was also during the time he wrote Great Expectations (1861).  This affair was chronicled by Claire Tomalin in her book The Invisible Woman (1990) and made into a movie last year.  It seems there’s a certain amount of demand for stories about Victorians having affairs.  The Victorian times are when women awoke to see themselves as equals to men, both in mind and body, but it was also a time when people in general began to question the religious view of reality.


Which ties in two other books, both by John Matteson, Eden’s Outcasts and The Lives of Margaret Fuller, which are about Americans during this same time period, and two very important women, Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Fuller.  Once you start on the quest, it’s endless.  I could link book after book that I’ve read about the 19th century because they all amazingly fit together like puzzle pieces.  That’s the difference between reading science fiction about the future, and reading about the past.  Science fiction provides an infinity of possible futures that don’t fit together, whereas the appeal of reading history is every new book adds more pieces to the puzzle of what was, making my mental picture of the time more detailed and precise.

We can never know the future, but then, we can only know the past in fragmented clues—a hazy view.  We think we know the present, but do we?   But which is more enlightening?  Studying the past tells us how we got to the present.    Studying the present overwhelms us with details.  Studying the future only helps us know what we fear about the present and maybe hope to find in the future.  In terms of acquiring satisfying details that make us feel like we’re learning something real, studying the past seems to offer us the most philosophic bang for the buck.  Studying the past makes us feel wise.  Whether that wisdom is real or not, is hard to judge.

Reading Possession inspires me to read the English Romantic and Victorian poets, to study the Pre-Raphaelite painters and writers, to look at illustrations of Victorian decorative arts, read about the scientists, painters, architects, and study their drawings.  One of the cool thing about people from those times is they kept wonderful diaries and illustrated them with their own drawings.

Like I said, this is a rabbit hole.

JWH – 6/16/14 (Happy Birthday Susan)

Forgotten Science Fiction: All Flesh Is Grass by Clifford D. Simak

I’m not sure how many young science fiction readers know about Clifford Simak.  When I was growing up, he wasn’t a top tier SF writer, but a legendary author of City and Way Station.  He was loved well enough for the Science Fiction Writers of America to select Simak as their third SFWA Grand Master.  If you look at his list of novels, there’s not many famous ones besides City and Way Station.  He won a Hugo for Way Station, and Hugos for the novelette “The Big Front Yard” and his short story, “Grotto of the Dancing Deer,” which also won a Nebula.  I remember seeing Simak at a science fiction convention when he was pretty old, and was surprised by how little attention he got from the younger fans.  I thought he was great.


Clifford Simak wrote a different kind of science fiction.  A kinder, gentler science fiction.  His characters were adults, ordinary people from the mid-west, and his stories often had the feel of small any town America.  City, a fix-up novels of  eight short stories written from 1944-1951, was a hauntingly beautiful series of tales told by intelligent dogs and robots about the legends of long gone humans.  You just don’t get more sense of wonder than that.

I read several of his “other” novels from the SFBC in the 1960s, but I’ve forgotten those.  Then in recent years I’ve read The Visitors (1980) and Cosmic Engineers (1939) for the Classic Science Fiction online book club.  I really liked The Visitors for its unique take on an alien invasion.  So for this month, we’re reading All Flesh is Grass from 1965.  It’s one of Simak’s many novels that don’t even have an entry in Wikipedia.


That’s too bad, because All Flesh is Grass is pretty good, and it has an interesting distinction – it’s about a small town that wakes up to find itself enclosed in a dome—yeah, like the Stephen King novel and TV series, Under The Dome, from 2009.   King had started his novel in 1972 and tried again in 1982.  I have no idea if King knew about the Simak book, but they have similar themes too—being cut off from the world makes people act different, and of course, there’s the mystery of who put the dome over the town and why?

I’ve always been fascinated by authors who think up similar ideas separately and then to see how they execute them.  Often the idea itself dictates much of the story.  If you were going to write a story about a group of humans enclosed in a dome,  wouldn’t you pick a small town?  Wouldn’t you use ordinary people, but involve the local politician, police and doctor?  Wouldn’t everyone be wondering why, and be upset because of the disruption in their lives?  Wouldn’t there be scenes of outsiders and insiders talking to each other at the wall?  I did search the internet to find an essay on dome stories, but didn’t find one.  I did find several forums where people mentioned other dome stories.  It’s a growing micro-sub-genre.

All Flesh Is Grass is a difficult book to describe.  Note the covers.  The top one is from the first edition hardback.  The second is the 1978 paperback edition I read.  But look at the cover from this British edition.  They obviously want to promote the book as science fiction, but it’s not your typical SyFy adventure story, so the publishers tacked on a cover that visually translate science fiction to the contemporary mind.


There are no space ships in All Flesh is Grass.  It’s about a failed real estate agent, Brad Carter, who lives in a small town, Millville,  that gets caught up in a mystery one day when he’s driving out of town and his car hits an invisible barrier.  Like The Visitors, All Flesh Is Grass is about a different kind of alien invasion, and if you look at the first two covers you will get hints as to what the invaders are like.  But they don’t invade Earth in spaceships.  Simak’s story feels more like one Ray Bradbury would have written in the 1950s, with a touch of Philip K. Dick.  It’s a kind of science fiction that has disappeared—as far as I know.

When I was growing up and reading science fiction in the 1960s as a teen, certain books had a quaintness to them.   Authors like E. E. Smith, Edmond Hamilton, and Ray Cummings wrote stories that seemed very old.  They wrote pulp stories from the 1930s.  Their style of writing, common phrases, wording, slang, etc. was just old enough to feel out-of-date old fashioned.  1965 Simak reads that way now.   Not like 1930s, because the story has a definite 1950s feel.  And the ending is painfully hokey.  Yet, All Flesh Is Grass was a pleasure to read, at least for me.  I’m just curious if anyone born after 1980 would find it fun.

Science fiction seems to change every decade like society.  Pop culture is always evolving and mutating.  Reading Simak’s science fiction feels so quaint, like looking at an Amish town, or characters out of a 1940s black and white movie.  But All Flesh is Grass is still about the awe of making first contact, still about encountering something that’s very alien.  Still imagining unimagined possibilities.  Simak’s mind goes way beyond little green men in flying saucers.

Ultimately, All Flesh is Grass is slight.  A 254 page paperback that was quickly written and quickly read.  That’s the problem with most science fiction, even today—it’s churned out.  King’s Under the Dome is 1088 pages.  Modern science fiction readers want long stories, either big books, or at least trilogies.  Today we remember authors by the series they write.  The novels I’ve been writing about as Forgotten Science Fiction were stand alone stories, that were short, quickly written for a few bucks.  They were consumed and forgotten.

Yet, I remember these old SF books from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and so do a few others, like my blogging friend Joachim Boaz at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.  They are a unique art form.  The ones I like, and I think my friends at the book club like too, are the ones that use science fiction as a way to think about certain kinds of ideas.  The stories are more like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits than Star Wars or modern science fiction.  I have to admit they aren’t great literature, and maybe their appeal is only nostalgic, yet, they wonder about reality in the same way I did growing up.

JWH – 5/14/14

Michael Bishop

Joachim Boaz over at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations has asked several of his blogging friends to review the books of Michael Bishop.  Joachim explores the 1960s and 1970s looking for intellectual and philosophical science fiction books to review.  He especially loves their covers – that’s how I got hooked on his site – and collects them into visual themes.

Joachim invited me to contribute to his Michael Bishop reviews and I reviewed Brittle Innings, a rather strange novel about a 1943 minor league baseball team playing in rural Georgia one very hot summer.  The story is a lovely historical novel set during WWII, that shows a love of baseball, a literary feel for the south, and a fondness for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  In Bishop’s literary fantasy, the monster lives and ends up as a big ugly slugger playing for the Highbridge Hellbenders as Hank “Jumbo” Clerval, but the story is really about a seventeen-year-old boy from Oklahoma, Danny “Dumbo” Boles, that gets a chance to play semi-pro ball because he’s too young for the draft.  Hank plays first base, and Danny plays short stop, and together they achieve minor fame as Dumbo and Jumbo.

Michael Bishop wrote over a dozen novels from 1975-1994 that got a good deal of attention in the science fiction and fantasy genre, including winning a Nebula for No Enemy But Time (1982) and a Locus Award for Brittle Innings (1994).  No Enemy But Time was chosen for the book Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels by David Pringle.  It also made my Classics of Science Fiction list.

Joachim feels younger readers need to be introduced to Bishop’s work, and thus the series of guest reviews.  I’m very glad I read and reviewed Brittle Innings because it makes me want to go read more Michael Bishop.

no enemy but time


Philip K. Dick is Dead



JWH – 4/23/14

Don’t We All Have Personality Traits in the Autism Spectrum?

I just finished listening to House Rules by Jodi Picoult, about a boy with Asperger’s who is accused of murder.  It was a compelling story that I couldn’t turn off, not just because of the plot, but because of the details about autism.  My wife and I have a niece with autism, and I’ve met people with Asperger’s, so the topic is not new to me, but this book went deeper into the subject than any I’ve read before.  Since this book was written, Asperger syndrome has been removed from the new edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to be replace by the general term autism using a severity scale. 

This is interesting in and of itself, to think that a classification of behavior belongs on a scale.  From reading the book I’d say personality is composed of many scales, and low settings on a number of scales would add up in combination to the general diagnosis of autism.  Let’s say our personalities could be composed of 100 different traits, my theory would be the autism scale would start with low scoring on 20 or more of them.  I’m not a scientist though, just a reader.  But it seems to me there are some traits always attributed to people with autism that if singled out are sometimes seen in normal people.


The cover of House Rules is very deceptive, since the main focus of the story is Jacob Hunt, and he’s 18, weighs 180 pounds and is over six feet tall.  Jacob is normal in many respects, except his obsessions.  He’s obsessed with crime scene investigation (CSI), but cannot fathom other people.  He won’t look other people in the eye, can’t understand their body language, takes everything people say to him absolutely literally, lives his daily life compulsively around patterns – such wearing yellow and only eating yellow foods on Tuesdays, and will have full blown tantrums and disassociates from reality if he can’t get his way.

Like I said, I’m not trained as a psychologist, but I find it hard to believe that autism is one spectrum.  I know perfectly normal people who won’t look you in the eye.  I know perfectly normal people that always takes things literally.  I know perfectly normal people who are obsessed with single subjects.  I know perfectly normal people who dominate conversations and won’t let others talk.  I know people who can’t make friends.  The lists goes on and on.  Jacob unfortunately has all of these traits and more, so that the cumulative effect is he’s different from normal.

This book begs the reader to ask:  What is normal?  I can’t believe autism is a binary – black and white – diagnostic.  It’s why they use the phrase autism spectrum, but that’s psychologists just saying all the various forms of autism fit on a spectrum, as if you could catch that spectrum, or have a gene that gives you the autism spectrum.  My guess is personality is a spectrum of spectrum – like a rainbow, and very wide, and autism is just one piece of the whole personality spectrum.  I also think we all could have individual traits that function low that could fall within the autism spectrum. 

While reading House Rules I noticed a lot of my own quirks that if taken to extreme would make me weirder, but still not autistic.  But if I had enough of these low functioning traits I would be labeled autistic.  So, I’m wondering if it takes X number of traits to create the autistic spectrum.  That if autism was a readout on a spectrum, that autism number would be a composite number generated by settings on many other spectrums.  Picture a mixing board with 100 sliders with settings from 0 to 100.  My guess, and this is analogy, not science, that autism would be 20 of those sliders falling to the low side of things – say under 25.  So a profoundly autistic person, one who is very low functioning, might register 10 or lower on 60 of those scales.  Whereas a high functioning autistic might just register 20 or lower on 30 of those scales.

But by this theory, it might might be possible for normal people to register a 20 on one or two scales and still be considered normal.  In other words, when you read a book like House Rules, you might see something in yourself that helps you empathize with Jacob.  I know I did.  I’m a guy who loves his rut.  I’m nowhere near as compulsive as Jacob, but if my routines get sidetrack I feel annoyed – just not as much as Jacob.  I can handle it, but I can also sense if my slider was slid down a few numbers I’d be a lot more like him.

My point is autism might not be as far away as some people think.  In House Rules most of Jacob’s peers at school shut him out, but some of them act so badly, so lacking in empathy, that they reveal personality traits with low slider settings too.  It’s that whole cast the first stone thing.  Or maybe those little bullies belong on another scale, the psychopathic spectrum.  Right now we divide people into just a very few groups: normal, autistic, schizophrenic, psychopathic, bi-polar, etc., but what if personality is far more complex than those simple labels.  What if autism was settings on 35 of our sliders, and each of the other general personality types were similar combinations.  Wouldn’t it be possible that normal or bi-polar people might have a few settings that relate to autism?  And maybe we all might share a trait with a psychopath?

What if personality was even more complex than 100 traits?  Imagine a 1,000.  Have we even begun to understand ourselves?  I wonder if general labels are good at all?  The concept of spectrums is a step forward.  But is that even good enough?  What if personality is an array of spectrums?  Or even arrays of personality trait constellations?  Imagine personality as the main() loop in a computer program that contains thousands of subprograms.  Each with a power scale from 0-100.  Something as unique as sarcasm could be personality trait.  Imagine being a guy with a 10 on the sarcasm scale going out to lunch with four catty women who have 95 or higher on their sarcasm scales.

Reading House Rules makes me think autism is not one spectrum but many.  I have no idea if that’s true scientifically, but the book gave me a lot to think about.

JWH – 3/21/14    

2013 Year in Reading

The older I get, the more I feel my reading life is fading away.  I was born to read.  Reading has shaped and defined my existence.  So it’s scary to think that I’m running out of reading time.  Even if I live another 20 years, that’s only 1,040 books at this year’s pace.  That seems like a lot, but it’s a finite number.  Picture an hour-glass, but instead of grains of sand, imagine tiny little books falling through the narrow waist of the time.


I retired this year on October 22nd, and assumed I’d start reading books like crazy.  When I worked, I read about one book a week.  I hoped after retiring, to read two books a week – instead it’s one book every two weeks.  Damn.  That’s not what I planned at all!  I’ve only been able to catch up to my yearly average by quickly finishing off several half-read books.

As 2013 closes out, I contemplate the power of less, both having less time, but also wanting and owning less, so I can focus clearly on my goals, and I realize I need to change my attitude toward reading.  More than ever, I want to make every book count.  This might sound contradictory, but I’m thinking I need to read less too.  Instead of consuming books in great numbers, I should savor and study them.  But what if that means I have 300 books left?

In 2012 I read 49 books and I wrote in my 2012 Year in Reading that I wanted to read 12 novels, 12 science books, 12 history/other non-fiction books in 2013, and hopefully 12 of those would be published during 2013.  Well, I didn’t do so good, especially with science books – I didn’t read any science books at all!   I did read one math book.  Plus, I only read just seven 2013 books (I did read eleven 2012 books, so I’m close).  I read 24 fiction books, twice what I wanted.

When I look at the list below I realize that some books were definitely worth my reading time, but others, even ones I really enjoyed, weren’t.  I’ll rate the books I felt added much to my life with up to 5 pluses (+), but any book I didn’t rate means I could have skipped without impact.  Some of these were lots of fun, but I need more than just fun.

Books Read in 2013

Favorite Fiction

  1. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
  2. The Short Stories Volume 1 by Ernest Hemingway
  3. Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick
  4. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  5. The Long Tomorrow  by Leigh Brackett

Favorite Nonfiction

  1. Half-the-Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
  2. The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond
  3. The Unwinding by George Packer
  4. The Voice is All by Joyce Johnson
  5. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull by Barbara Goldsmith

Order of Reading

  1. Confessions of a Crap Artist (1959) – Philip K. Dick (+++++)
  2. Half-the-Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (2009) – Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (+++++)
  3. Beautiful Ruins (2012) – Jess Walters (+++)
  4. The World Until Yesterday (2012) – Jared Diamond (+++++)
  5. At Home (2010) – Bill Bryson (+++)
  6. Redshirts (2012) – John Scalzi 
  7. The Wrecking Crew (2012) – Kent Hartman (+++)
  8. The Sheltering Sky  (1949) – Paul Bowles (+++)
  9. Hull Zero Three (2010) – Greg Bear
  10. Wishin’ and Hopin’(2009) – Wally Lamb
  11. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012) – Susan Cain (++++)
  12. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull (1999) – Barbara Goldsmith (++++)
  13. The Searchers (2013) – Glenn Frankel (+++)
  14. Heaven is for Real (2010) – Todd Burpo
  15. Darwinia (1999) – Robert Charles Wilson
  16. Society’s Child (2008) – Janis Ian
  17. We Can Build You (1972) – Philip K. Dick
  18. Oz Reimagined (2013) – edited by John Joseph Adams
  19. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (2009) – Daniel Pink (+)
  20. Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triump, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive SCRABBLE Players (2001) – Stefan Fatsis (++)
  21. The End of the Affair (1951) – Graham Greene (++)
  22. Mrs. Dalloway (1925) – Virginia Woolf (+)
  23. The Fault in Our Stars (2012) – John Green (++++)
  24. The Sense of an Ending (2011) – Julian Barnes (++)
  25. Why Are You Atheists So Angry: 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless (2012) – Greta Christina
  26. The Next 100 Years:  A Forecast for the 21st Century (2009) – George Friedman
  27. The Heart of Darkness (1899) – Joseph Conrad (+)
  28. Life As We Knew It (2006) – Susan Beth Pfeffer (+)
  29. The Ballad of Bob Dylan (2011) – Daniel Mark Epstein (+++)
  30. 2312 (2012) – Kim Stanley Robinson
  31. The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) – Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling)
  32. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls (2013) – David Sedaris
  33. Door Wide Open (2001) – Joyce Johnson
  34. The Unwinding – (2013) George Packer (+++++)
  35. The Year’s Top-Ten Tales of Science Fiction 5 (2013) – edited by Allan Kaster
  36. Euclid’s Window (2001) – Leonard Mlodinow (++)
  37. The World Jones Made (1956) – Philip K.  Dick
  38. The Long Tomorrow (1955) – Leigh Brackett (++)
  39. Lightspeed Year One (2011) – edited by John Joseph Adams
  40. One and Only (2011) – Gerald Nicosia and Anne Marie Santos
  41. Po-boy Contraband (2012) – Patrice Melnick
  42. The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac (2012) – by Joyce Johnson (++++)
  43. The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) – Joan Didion (++++)
  44. Boys Adrift (2005) – Dr. Leonard Sax (++++)
  45. One Summer: America 1927 (2013) – Bill Bryson (++++)
  46. The Power of Less (2008) – Leo Babauta (+)
  47. Wheat Belly (2011) – William Davis MD (+++)
  48. The Short Stories Volume 1 (2002) – Ernest Hemingway (+++++)
  49. Distrust That Particular Flavor (2012) – William Gibson (++)
  50. Pulphead (2011) – John Jeremiah Sullivan (+++)
  51. Leviathan Wakes (2011) – James S. A. Corey
  52. Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) – George Orwell (+++++)

Reading Plans for 2014

Once again I want to read less science fiction and more science, fewer fiction titles and more nonfiction.  Of course I’d like to read all +++++ books, even if I only read half as many books total.  I find it tragic that I forget what I read so quickly.  What a crying shame it is to take in so many fascinating facts that flee my mind in just minutes and hours.  Shouldn’t I be doing more rereading than reading, studying, rather than rushing by all those scenic words?

Going through my bulging bookcases, here’s what I’m pulling down to pile beside my reading chair, hoping to read in 2014.

  • On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (2013) – Alexandra Horowitz
  • Grain Brain (2013) – David Perlmutter, MD
  • Time Reborn (2013) – Lee Smolin
  • The Goldfinch (2013) – Donna Tartt
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) – Daniel Kahneman
  • The Beginning of Infinity (2011) – David Deutsch
  • Darwin’s Armada (2009) – Iain McCalman
  • The Best Writing on Mathematics (2013) – Mircea Pitici, Editor
  • The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe is Not Designed for Us (2011) – Victor J. Stenger
  • Waging Heavy Peace (2012) – Neil Young
  • Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin
  • Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty by Morris Kline
  • Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness by John M. Hull
  • The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson
  • Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life by Daniel C. Dennett
  • Euclid in the Rainforest: Discovering Universal Truth in Logic and Mathematics by Joseph Mazur

JWH – 12/27/13

You Don’t Know Jack (Kerouac)

Jack Kerouac was born March 12, 1922 and died October 21, 1969.  Nearly all people who knew him in the 1st degree of separation has died – not all, but most.  In recent years, books by the women he knew have been coming out, revising the fiction and the facts.  Kerouac wrote roman à clef novels.  Kerouac and his friends appeared in other roman à clef novels. The same crowd also wrote and talked endlessly about their lives.  Countless biographies have been written.  Then friends and lovers started publishing their stories.  Kerouac has always been ground zero for the Beat movement, and trying to understand why is a fascinating snark hunt that ultimately reveals a lot about universal psychology and philosophy.

Recently Carolyn Cassady died.  She was Camille Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, wife to real-life Neal Cassady, who was Dean Moriarty in the book.  Carolyn wrote her own books, Heart Beat and Off the Road.  Jack Kerouac haunts me, so it saddens me to hear about Carolyn, who now becomes another of the Beat Generation ghosts.


In 2011 Lu Anne Henderson, who was Marylou in On the Road, and Neal Cassady’s first wife, had her side of the story told in One and Only.  Like Carolyn, Lu Anne was the oxygen atom to Kerouac’s and Cassady’s hydrogen atoms.  Camille and Marylou were the pivotal women of On the Road, so to get their stories is very revealing, even creating new mysteries.


Finally, there’s Joyce Johnson.  In 1999 she came out with Minor Characters:  A Beat Memoir, and then in 2000, Door Wide Open, a collection of letters between her and Kerouac, and finally in 2012 The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, a major biography.  Joyce knew Kerouac just before and after the publication of On the Road.


I often ask people:  Which would you rather do, write a great novel, or be a model for a character in a great novel?  Jack Kerouac wrote many novels and was a character in many more, and he has been the subject of many biographies.  Carolyn and Lu Anne were  featured characters in both the novels and biographies.

Jack Kerouac is a person I like to keep up with, even though he died in 1969, the year I graduated high school.  About every half decade I check out what new discoveries have been unearthed about his legend.  That’s the thing about legendary figures, they always evolve and mutate.  There is much to be learned about oneself by careful studying of other people.  Pick a person and try it out.  I find ambitious writers with lots of personal flaws to be quite revealing about life.  Jack Kerouac makes a particularly painful role model.

Most of Jack Kerouac’s novels are semi-autobiographical.  Many people read On the Road and never read another Kerouac novel – their curiosity for Beat life was quickly quenched.  A few more might go on to read The Dharma Bums, or even Big Sur or Visions of Cody, but for most readers, a little Kerouac goes a long way.  But if you’re like me, you keep reading books by and about Kerouac and the story changes as it becomes deeper.

Part of the problem is most readers think Kerouac equals the Beat Generation, and once they think they understand the Beats and reject their philosophy, because most do, they are through with Kerouac.  That’s too bad.  But to really know Jack, you have to separate him from the Beats and read him as one man trying to make literary sense of his reality.  Kerouac was on the edge of several social and literary movements, but because he was crowned King of the Beats, that’s all most people judge him by.

Some people study genealogy because they want to know about their ancestors, about their genes and blood.  Not me.  I consider myself a creation of pop culture, and I want to know my pop culture ancestors.  Who we are is our cultural history.  We’re all descendants of Judaism, Christianity, Greek philosophy, the Enlightenment, Science and a whole host of 19th and 20th century influences.  Most Baby Boomers focus on the 1960s, but to really know yourself requires getting to know the 1950s, 1940s and 1930s.  And to understand those times means studying the 1920s, 1910s and 1900s.  America is constantly changing and mutating.

I was born in 1951 and remember the 1950s.  My father died when I was 19, and I never really knew him.  He was born in 1920, and Jack Kerouac was born in 1922.  They both died miserable drunks a few months apart, both in Florida no less.  I use Kerouac to understand my father.  And to understand them both I need to understand the 1940s.

By the time the Beats got famous, their movement was already over, and had mutated into many new movements around the country. Go (1951) by John Clellon Holmes and On the Road (1957) by Kerouac, were the real Beat novels, and were about events a decade before the public discovered the Beats.  Kerouac was a character in Go, as was Neal Cassady.  Carolyn Cassady knew Kerouac in both the late 1940s and later in the 1950s, and her books, clarify the story.

The trouble with studying the Beats, is most of the documentation on them is about when they all got famous in the late 1950s.  What defined the Beats were their reaction to America in the late 1940s, but how we remember the Beats is defined by their public personalities of the late 1950s.  To understand Jack Kerouac means understanding American from 1945-1955, and even dividing that time into two parts.

Most people are shaped by their teen years, early twenties and late twenties, from 13-30.  Jack turned 20 in 1942, and 30 in 1952.  It’s those ten years that we want to get to know.  Later on, Jack tried to understand his own personal development by writing about his childhood, the 1930s.  It took a long time to get On the Road published, and by 1957 when it hit the scene, and defined the Beat Generation, Jack was 35, a burnout, living most of the time with his mother in Orlando, Florida, and committing slow suicide with a bottle.  He died at 47.  My father died at 49.  I was 19.

A good contemporary view of Kerouac in 1957 and 1958 is Door Wide Open by Joyce Johnson, a collection of letters between Johnson and Kerouac.  This is not the Kerouac of the 1940s.

There are people who never stop reading about Kerouac and the Beats.  This is hard to explain.  In a way, it’s like studying cosmology – there’s always more to discover.   First you are drawn to the excitement of rushing back and forth across America in the 1940s, but soon realize all this rushing is madness, that there is no normal life to be found.  You accept that poor Jack was a loser, a drunk, and the dazzling Neal Cassady was a low life hustler, con man, thief, and a man who would always let his wife, children and friends down, but they all loved him.

You walk away from the Beats thinking they were Nowheresville.  That’s too bad.  The real mystery is beyond the Hudson rushing across the plains at a 100 mph, the kicks, the drugs, smoking gigantic reefers in Mexican brothels, or following the mad ones Kerouac was so enamored with, but instead, we have to look over Neal’s shoulder’s to the American he was speeding by, to the couples they shared rides with, to people who own the cars they boosted, to the sane folks who saw them in the jazz joints acting like madmen.


If you’re lucky, you’ll read one of the biographies  and discover Jack is more complicated.  Slowly this Charlie Parker generation starts coming alive, and you begin to realize that the Beats weren’t Beatniks.  America is the sum of all its hidden histories, and not the history they teach you in school.  Reading books by the Beats, and books about the Beats, leads to exploring a different 1940s America than what we remember from It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), The Bishop’s Wife (1947), Miracle on 34th Street (1947) – the films by which most Americans remember America from 1946-1950, which is the time covered in On the Road.  It’s not that those great films are wrong, but they are only one facet of a multifaceted view.

All novels have a gestation period.  On the Road was published in 1957, but was about events from the late 1940s.  The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951, the year I was born, but was about the earlier 1940s.  Also published in 1951 was From Here to Eternity by James Jones, which was about 1941.  Zeroing in on On the Road’s America, isn’t easy.  It comes before The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) about 1953, but I think many readers picture Kerouac’s adventures happening around the time of its publication in 1957, just after Sputnik went into orbit, and thus the term Beatnik.  We think of the Beats as the generation before the Hippies, but in reality, they were the 1945-1950 youth, and the famous 60s generation happened between 1965-1975.  1955-1965 included the folk generation, as well as the early rock and roll kids – think Grease and American Graffiti.

By 1957, Kerouac was well on his way to being a full time drunk.  His short moment of fame gave him enough money to reignite his life and go on a few more road adventures, that were mostly lonely and pathetic.  Kerouac in Paris is very sad.

If Kerouac had an artistic vision that chronicled his spiritual quest for transcendence in America, it wasn’t about the end of the 1950s when he was famous, it was about his life between 1940 to 1955, and even earlier when he tried to reconstruct his childhood of the 1930s.  Strangely enough, the late 1950s was Ginsberg’s time, because of the Six Gallery reading in 1955, and the beginning of the San Francisco Renaissance.  Kerouac was there, but his involvement was waning.  Kerouac had been a part of a reactionary movement a decade earlier at Columbia, with his anti-academic friends.  By the mid-1950s Kerouac wasn’t a leader but a follower, inspired by younger writers like Gary Snyder, who inspired his interest in Zen, Buddhism, hiking, mountain climbing, and spiritual practices.  By then, Beats, Beatniks and proto-Hippies were everywhere.  The counter culture was a good sized snowball rolling down the hill that would become an avalanche in the 1960s.

What I want to know about is the counter culture of the 1940s and 1930s.  The radicalization of America in the 1960s didn’t start then – it started much earlier.  I think we’re currently living through times getting ready for another big social change.  Whether the 2010s will be the 1960s, when all hell broke loose, or the 1950s or 1940s when the seeds were planted, is still to be seen.

JWH – 10/6/13

A Study in Fame–Bob Dylan

Our world is awash with famous people but how many are really worth the notice?  If you live long enough you’ll watch the famous coming and going, maybe not as fast as every fifteen minutes, but its amazing how many once famous faces I can no longer match a name in memory, or tell you if they are dead or alive. Think about it, how many people can you name that have stayed famous your whole lifetime?  One of the strangest of the famous that’s haunted me my whole life is Bob Dylan.


Dylan was born in 1941, and I was born in 1951, and he started recording in 1961, so he was in the generation just ahead of mine, who made an impression us boomers as we became aware of the world around us as teens.  Fifty years on, my demographic cohorts are in their sixties, and the generation that influenced us are in their seventies.  Many of the famous people that inspired my generation are forgotten or dead – or both.

Most folks are famous for a Warhol unit of time because they create only one noteworthy event on the world’s stage.  Bob Dylan has written hundreds of songs, an astounding output of artwork, but what makes many of them memorable is how they fit into history at large.  And if you didn’t like his singing, there have been hundreds of performers covering his tunes.  At one time I had a playlist on Rhapsody with over 100 cover versions of “All Along the Watchtower.”  Part of Dylan’s fame is due to influencing so many other people.

Not only is Dylan famous, but he’s legendary, infamous, and mythic.  Although most people won’t think of Bob Dylan when they think of the concept of fame, but if you read his biographies, and there are countless bios to read, you’ll see he’s a perfect example of someone suffering the fates of fame.

Plus Bob Dylan has toured the Earth like no other person in history.  Dylan played 2,000 concerts between 1988 and 2007, and he continues to tour at the rate of about 100 concerts a year.  His constant touring, which has gotten named the Never Ending Tour, will probably end when he dies.  Just look at his tour dates and locations.  Fans now follow Dylan from city to city like hippies used to follow The Grateful Dead.  Dylan tours like Sisyphus rolls rocks.

Has there been anyone in the history of the world that has traveled to more places than Bob Dylan?  Dylan has his own artistic empire of fame.

Yet, to the average person, how many people can name a Bob Dylan song?  He’s not that famous, not enough that all 7 billion people on Earth know of him.  Currently Dylan is only #65 on one of The Most Famous People of All Time lists.  But such lists are bogus, because there’s no real way to measure fame, other than maybe counting daily Google searches.

Of people who listen to rock and roll, Dylan is famous, to people that don’t, I can’t imagine his name coming up very often.

Fame is an odd concept.  Fame is both ephemeral and lasting.  If you look at the 2013 Time 100 list of most influential people of the moment, you won’t see Dylan, and you will see many names you’ve probably haven’t heard of before either.  How many people know of Elon Musk?  You’re famous if the media takes notice of you, whether its because you’re heroic, criminal, mad, inventive, creative, stupid, or whatever catches the public’s fancy at the moment.

Some people consider Bob Dylan a rock star, others a songwriter, and others a poet.  Fame for a poet really means how often are any of your carefully crafted lines quoted or memorized?  Fame for a songwriter is measured by how often do people sing and record your songs.  Fame for a rock star is measured by how many people swoon at your image holding an electric guitar.  Poetry is a dying art form, but poetry was never popularly consumed to begin with, but some poems have lasted a very long time.  A century from now, how many rock stars will actually be remembered?  How many figures from popular culture can you remember from 1913?  That’s after Mark Twain and before Charlie Chaplin.

The Independent gave “70 reasons why Bob Dylan is the most important figure in pop-culture history” on his 70th birthday.  Will any of those reasons be valid in 2113?

Go to this list of Dylan songs at his website, and see how many titles you know.  Then click on the song name and read the lyrics.  You’ll have to decide for yourself if the words will survive like the words of the great poets of the past.  Dylan has lead a legendary life.  I’m sure there will be novels and movies based on his adventures in the future.  Some have already come out.  But his real fame will come from his songs, and the seeds they plant in minds yet born.  Byron and Keats never imagined all the thoughts thought about their lines of poetry, and we can’t imagine what will happen to Dylan’s words in the future.  But my guess is they will be put to uses in ways we could never fathom even if time travelers came back and told us.


I just finished reading The Ballad of Bob Dylan by Daniel Mark Epstein.  It was a compelling read that kept me constantly wanting to find more time to read.  Among the many biographies of Dylan I’ve read, it’s among the best, although my favorites are still Positively 4th Street by David Hajdu and No Direction Home by Robert Shelton, now in a new edition.  Reading about Bob Dylan is like trying to study cosmology, it’s a subject of endless depth.

JWH – 7/14/13

A Feminine View of an Apocalypse

I hope I’m not being too sexist here, when I review Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer.  The books seems to be a feminine take on the end of the world.  But I have read many end of the world stories, and I think they’ve always have been written by males.  Books about the collapse of civilization are a special favorite of mine since I was a little kid, and now they are becoming very popular with young adult readers.  It’s rather fascinating to read a woman’s take on the genre.

First off, this isn’t going to be a regular review, because it’s going to contain spoilers to all the essential events in the story.  Let’s just say that I found Life as We Knew It to be extremely readable and likeable, but I want to dissect it because it was such a different view on the end of the world as I know it.  It was a rather nice and civilized view, and I’m essentially asking if that’s because the author was female.  Of course, this is a YA novel, so maybe it was pulling its punches, but then I’m not sure if YA readers want to be handled with care.  Kids loved The Hunger Games, which made them sort of like Romans at the Coliseum.

Surviving a brutal world at the collapse of civilization is the core appeal of reading end of the world stories.  Like I said, I really liked Life as We Knew It, and felt it was a compelling read.  I’d recommend it to any adult or kid who loves to read YA novels, but I’m now going to pick it apart for psychological reasons.  If you haven’t read it, don’t read beyond the cover photo.


When civilization collapses all rules disappear.  Survival is the number one driving force.  And in most post-apocalyptic novels of this type, the key conflict is kill or be killed.  Susan Beth Pfeffer completely side steps this issue.  An asteroid hits the moon and brings about catastrophic changes to life on Earth.  The story takes place from May to March, beginning slowly, but ending with a brutal “nuclear winter” like winter.  The story is told by Miranda, a sixteen-year-old girl in diary form, and is about how her single mother Laura keeps Miranda, and brothers Matt and Jon alive when civilization falls apart.

One reason I love these after-the-collapse stories is they present a perfect fantasy puzzle of “What would you do?” in the same situation.  If you were sitting in your suburban home watching the news and knew that civilization was about to come to an end, what would you do?  Laura withdraws a lot of cash out of her bank and pulls her kids out of school.  She also gets an old lady neighbor and they all go on a frantic shopping spree for food and necessities.  Now this is practical, but Pfeffer presents this chaotic moment as too civilized.  Sure it’s a madhouse at the grocery story, but not crazier than Walmart at 4am on Black Friday.  And it’s a bargain, all shopping baskets can be stuffed with as much stuff as possible for just $100, so each person gets several loads.  That’s just unbelievable.

And here’s the thing, that one shopping spree lasts the family eleven months.  Even though they live near a pond, there is no mention of fishing.  Even though they live in the outskirts of town with lots of trees to cut down for firewood, there’s no mention of hunting squirrel, rabbits, raccoons, possums, groundhogs, frogs, turtles, dogs, cats, birds or anything else.  Everyone begins to starve, but they take dead bodies to the hospital.  If these people are that hungry and think they won’t make it through the winter, why aren’t they eating the dead?  I’ve been a vegetarian since 16, but hey, every real life story I’ve ever read about starving finally comes down to cannibalism.  By the time Mrs. Nesbitt died, Miranda and family should have been hungry enough to eat her.

Pfeffer evidently doesn’t believe in killing animals for food even though the family eats a lot of canned meats.  It’s strange that the boys chop wood seven days a week to get ready for winter, but never go hunting and fishing.  Nor do they go scavenging.  In Pfeffer’s world, the rule is people leave each other alone, and only plunder each other’s houses if the family dies or moves south.  But Matt, Jon and Miranda never routine scavenge homes on their own.  That’s way too civilized.  And dare I say too girly?  Life as We Knew It is way too civilized view of no civilization.  America is full of gun owners, but we don’t see guns in this story except for a couple tiny mentions.

Liberals often ask NRA members why do they need assault rifles.  Well, they are for the end of the world.  When civilization goes down the toilet, it’s a dog eat dog wild west world.  In Susan Beth Pfeffer’s apocalypse it’s a please-and-thank-you end of the world scenario.  Only nature kills, not people.

Like I said, Life as We Knew It is a gripping, well told story, even though it doesn’t fit the standard after-the-collapse model.  Is that because Pfeffer is a woman and expects the end of the world to be different?  Or does she believe young adult readers shouldn’t imagine such a brutal existence, even though they’ve been assigned Lord of the Flies for decades?   Or is her novel just a cozy story of how she thinks things should be if civilization should collapse?  Sort of a politically correct Mad Max?

Even the ending was too nice.  Miranda has decided to leave home to die in hopes of leaving more food for her younger brother who everyone thinks should be the ultimate survivor.  But at the last minute she finds a flyer from a newly set up government office that’s giving away food.  They are saved.  Civilization hasn’t completely collapse and its making a comeback.  Survival has merely been one of waiting, hoarding food, and rationing.  No one in this story fights to survive.  They struggle, they endure, they work hard, but they don’t fight.

The thing I’ve always loved about after the collapse stories is the pioneering spirit of starting over.  Of reinventing old ways of doing things to replace modern technology.  There is no invention in this story, no learning to make bows and arrows, no Gilligan’s Island professor inventing new tools out of old parts, no reading old books to figure out how to make animal traps and cure hides.  Most of all, these people don’t scavenge, steal or kill.  Nor are they preyed upon by armed hoards of starving survivalists.  Every family holes up in their own house and waits.  Ultimately, waits for the government to help them.

Hey, I’m about as liberal as they come, but I know better than wait on the government after civilization goes down the drain.   I don’t know if the collapse of civilization would be as brutal as The Road by Cormac McCarthy, but it should be as brutal as Survivors (BBC 1975-1977), a favorite TV show of mine.   My all-time favorite after the collapse story is Earth Abides by George R. Stewart.  That’s because it’s about the intellectual rebuilding of society.  Stewart shows that once civilization collapses it will be very hard to rebuild.  I’m afraid Susan Beth Pfeffer doesn’t really understand what a collapse of modern society means, or she didn’t want her story to be all about realistic brutality.  I have to give Suzanne Collins a lot of credit for having her sixteen-year-old Katniss facing realistic brutality in a honestly violent way.

Even if Pfeffer didn’t want Miranda and her family shooting guns at other people, she should have at least included a local militia protecting the neighborhoods and setting up the power behind the rule that you don’t loot your neighbor’s house unless they are dead or moved.  Pfeffer makes no suggestion that strangers would organize or work together.  Family is the only bond.  That’s odd, don’t you think?  After every natural disaster I see endless news stories about strangers helping each other.

Also I was disappointed that Miranda and her family totally depended on the phone, radio, TV and the Internet for their news, and once those systems died, they just did without.  Why didn’t they communicate more with other people?  Why wasn’t their some kind of gossip grapevine, or bulleting board news system?  Pfeffer’s characters aren’t inventors, but I think necessity really is the mother of invention, and they faced a whole lot of necessity.

I believe we all write end-of-the-world stories that reflect our own psychological make-up.  And this could be a little like taking your clothes off in public.

I’m calling Life as We Knew It a feminine apocalypse because her nonviolent view of the end of the world is so very different from all similar books I’ve read which have always been written by males.  Is that sexist or political incorrect of me?  Who says end of the world stories have to play by masculine rules?  But why didn’t Miranda try to catch fish at the pond, or the boys try to kill squirrels when they were chopping wood?

Now don’t get me wrong, I do believe most women would be fighters in real life, and probably if they wrote fictional accounts of surviving, their characters would be fighters too.  I’m just wondering why Pfeffer wrote such a polite story about a brutal time?  Is this her naked honesty of how she thinks people would behave?

In this story food only comes from the grocery store, and help only comes from the government, and desperate people never resort to using guns.  Where’s the 4th of July spirit?  I grew up watching westerns, so I guess I might be indoctrinated differently.

Maybe I shouldn’t write such a story as this, because my naked views might be loathsome.  But now that I’m old, and in declining health, it would be much different from one I would have written at 25.  I should write an after-the-collapse story about a gimpy old fart trying to survive the end of the world.  It would have a hilarious scene of a life long vegetarian killing and eating a squirrel.

JWH – 7/4/13

What Are The Best Sites For Reading Science Book Reviews?

Generally, when I discover a great science book, it’s through accident, rather than intent, and usually it’s a couple years after it originally appeared.  Popular science books seldom become beach reads that everyone talks about.  Maybe I should say never, because I can’t name one.  Even though our culture is massively tech driven, science isn’t popular like football or superhero movies.  It’s a darn shame that science books don’t get the press that Kim Kardashian does!  What I’d like is a handful of science book review sites to read weekly, and when a book gets praised on many of them, I’d know what to read right away.

Quite often I’ll visit one of my two favorite bookstores and check out the science book section and see many new science books that look appealing, but I’m afraid to buy them without knowing more.  Over the years I’ve bought several science or science history books that I later discovered were not very well received.  What I need to do is read reviews before I go shopping, so I’ll know something about the new science books.

Since Google is our best friend, I started with a search on: science book reviews.

At the top of the search results is book reviews at Science Magazine.  Ah, an obvious choice!  But before I could get too excited, I was quickly reminded that Science is rather parsimonious with its words.  You have to be a subscriber to read the full text reviews.  However, they do give yearly listings of book reviews with links to Amazon, where I can read the customer reviews.  Here’s the list for 2013.  Overall, I’d stay it’s not worth the visit though, especially since many of the book are expensive academic books I’d never buy, like The World in the Model by Mary S. Morgan, which does sounds great though.  Although I did spot a couple books I’m going to keep my eye out to find.


What Did The Romans Know? An Inquiry into Science and Worldmaking by Daryn Lehoux.


Faking It – Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop by Mia Fineman

Second in the Google returns is The Guardian:  Science Book Reviews.  Now these popular science books are more my speed.  Right off the bat it reviews two books I want to read.  However, it’s not exactly what I’m looking for either.  The Guardian provides a rather hodgepodge look at science books.  What I’d really like is a site that covers each week’s new published science/math books, pretty much like Entertainment Weekly does for movies, television, music and books.  Here’s one book reviewed at The Guardian I’ll buy when it comes out in America 8/1/13.


Farewell To Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth by Jim Baggot.

Over at American Scientist, they have a Book Review Links page that attempts to do what I’m doing here, find science book review sites.  There I found Download The Universe: The Science Ebook Review.  This is a very cool site about science ebooks, both free and priced.  I liked this site so much that I subscribed to their RSS feed in Outlook.

Another great site is, and their Library page.  It’s not really a book review site.  Title links go to Amazon, but author links go to pages about the writers, and since focuses on interviews, this often leads to book discussions.

I did stumble upon ForeWord Reviews Science Section.  One book it reviewed that intrigued me was Software and Mind: The Mechanistic Myth and Its Consequences.  But it’s priced out of my reach, and is probably outside my intellectual grasp.  But it sure does sound fascinating.  I bought The God Problem: How A Godless Cosmos Creates by Howard Bloom because of their review.  I’ve always wondered why a universe ruled by the 2nd law of thermodynamics could create such complex systems.


A book I spotted at my favorite bookstore, Before Galileo: The Birth of Modern Science In Medieval Europe by John Freely was very enticing, but I went home empty-handed to read the reviews first.  The reviews at Amazon were overall positive, but one made me worry.  It claimed the narrative was more like an annotated bibliography.  The review at Physics Today was a lot more encouraging.  However Nicole Archambeau, the reviewer, claimed she wouldn’t assign it as a textbook, but preferred The History of Science: From Augustine to Galileo.  But at Amazon, one of the two reviewers called that book mediocre.  But over at the the Wall Street Journal, Laura J. Synder didn’t fuss over Before Galileo much, but did mention a few subjects it covered that made it appealing again.  I always find books that make a case that the dark ages weren’t completely dark to be a reason to get on my To-Be-Read pile.  But if you follow my links and read the reviews, Before Galilio is a good example of why you don’t just grab an interesting title off the shelf and buy it.  I think I’ll wait to see how the Kindle edition will be priced.


Science News has a Bookshelf section on their web with reviews of many books I saw at the bookstore yesterday.  They are short reviews, and not good enough to effect a buying decision, but they do list a lot of books worthy of researching to see if they are worth buying.  You’d think just looking at Amazon’s New & Notable > Science and Math section would list all the good science and math books that are coming out, but often I see books at the bookstore that aren’t listed there.  And, Amazon annoyingly lists books I don’t think belong in the science and math section.  However, the Amazon list is one of the most inclusive of all the sources I’ve cited.  It makes me wish I could read and digest a science/math book a day, because they offer at least 365 of my-interest-worthy science and math books a year, out of the 1,031,471 that Amazon claim to have for sale.

On average I read about 52 books a year, or one a week.  At best, I read one science/math book a month.  So you see my problem?  If I’ve only got time for 12 books a year, I want to make sure they are the best ones to read.  Which brings me back to why I wrote this blog.  How do you find the best books on any topic published each year?  Normally, you have to wait until next year when all the reviewers pick their favorites.  But if you don’t want to wait, then you’ve got to find sites like I mentioned here to figure things out on your own.  I always get a kick out of picking books when they come out and then later discovered that many reviewers considered them the best of the year.

JWH – 7/3/13


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