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28 JULY, 2011

A Field Guide to the North American Family: A Meditation on Humanness

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A poetic reflection on the human condition, or what fiscal responsibility has to do with freedom.

It doesn’t take long to realize fiction isn’t exactly a fixture on Brain Pickings. But A Field Guide to the North American Family, the literary debut of Garth Risk Hallberg, is a genre-bender that makes it delightfully uncomfortable to classify it as strict fiction. Through 63 interlinked fictional vignettes, each accompanied by a visual interpretation by a different artist, Hallberg tells the story of two struggling suburban Long Island neighbor families, the Hungates and the Harrisons, who are forced to adapt to a new reality when the patriarch of one family dies unexpectedly — but he uses the allegory of their specific circumstances to explore general, universally human concepts like love, happiness, belonging, freedom, and a wealth more, with equal parts poetic contemplation and ironic humor. Part photoessay, part Choose Your Own Adventure novel, part meditation on human nature, it’s a fine piece of literary innovation rare to come by and bound to stick around, the kind of book you keep returning to over and over again until it begins to feel like an intimate part of your own family.

Each double-page spread covers a specific facet of the human condition — from mortgage to mythology to midlife crisis — and features a short, poignant textual vignette on the left, with a cleverly captioned image on the right, treating each phenomenon as the subject of a National Geographic nature documentary for an effect that’s both humorous and deeply human.

Optimism

'Optimism lives so long as to seem, to the human observer, practically immortal -- but unlike that of other creatures, the development of Optimism proceeds in reverse. That is, Optimism is enormous at birth, and gradually shrinks to its microscopic adult size.'

Adulthood

'Adulthood can be distinguished from Maturity by its tendency to cling to the chrysalis. On occasion, Adulthood has even been known to disappear back into Adolescence following an unsettling foray out into the world.'

Midlife Crisis

'An erratic Maturity pattern characterizes the Midlife Crisis: it may remain a manageable size for years, only to reach its full stature in a few turbulent days.'

Holiday

'Holiday may be observed as many as eight times a year. A peaceable creature, it abhors confrontation; all conflicts within the pack are settled via high-frequency communications inaudible to the human ear.'

Depression

'Having evolved from a ruminant species known as Melancholia, Depression now dominates the animal kingdom. Its explosive growth curve remains unaccounted for, but some Family-watchers have pointed to a concurrent surge in Search for Meaning.'

Divorce

'Due to a growth curve similar to that of Depression, a robust Divorce population has become common wherever Love dwells in large numbers.'

Boredom

'Once thought to be nonexistent where Entertainment was present, this harmless parasite is now known to be present, to some degree, in every ecosystem.'

Love

'Though hardly the most visible member of its kingdom, Love has never been as endangered as alarmists would have us believe. Without it, new research confirms, the entire Family would cease to function.'

Sibling Rivalry

'The Sibling Rivalry hunts in groups of two or more. With its tremendous longevity, it may hibernate for years between periods of activity. This Rivalry, like species on other continents, tends to lose some of its vitality with age.'

Grief

'Slow to adapt to the ecological upheavals of the American century, Grief now thrives only in isolation. The study of Grief is further complicated by its nocturnal Habits, and by the fact that no Grief is like any other.'

Almost as interesting and thought-provoking as the book itself is Hallberg’s discussion of the economics of Amazon reviews over on Slate, triggered by his discovery of a strange subculture of power-reviewers through the Amazon page of his own book, namely one Grady Harp.

A Field Guide to the North American Family comes from Mark Batty Publisher, the latest chapter of our love affair with the indie powerhouse.

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27 JULY, 2011

The Beginning of Infinity: David Deutsch Explains the World

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A new way to explain explanation itself, or how science and philosophy got their start.

Since time immemorial, mankind’s greatest questions — what is reality, what does it mean to be human, what is time, is there God — have endured as a pervasive frontier of intellectual inquiry through which we try to explain and make sense of the world, the pursuit of these elusive answers having germinated disciplines as diverse as philosophy and physics. But what place does explanation itself have in the universe and our understanding of it? That’s exactly what iconic physicist and quantum computation pioneer David Deutsch explores in The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World — an important and wildly illuminating new book on the nature and evolution of human knowledge. Fluidly switching between evolutionary biology, quantum physics, mathematics, philosophy, ancient history and more, Deutsch offers surprisingly — or, perhaps knowing his work, unsurprisingly — plausible answers to everything from why beauty exists to what is infinity.

Must progress come to an end — either in catastrophe or in some sort of completion — or is it unbounded? The answer is the latter. That unboundedness is the ‘infinity’ referred to in the title of this book. Explaining it, and the conditions under which progress can and cannot happen, entails a journey through virtually every fundamental field of science and philosophy. From each such field we learn that, although progress has no necessary end, it does have a necessary beginning: a cause, or an event with which it starts, or a necessary condition for it to take off and to thrive. Each of these beginnings is ‘the beginning of infinity’ as viewed from the perspective of that field. Many seem, superficially, to be unconnected. But they are all facets of a single attribute of reality, which I call the beginning of infinity.” ~David Deutsch

In 2009, I had the pleasure of seeing Deutsch speak at TEDGlobal, where he delivered what was unequivocally the event’s most mind-bending talk, presenting a new way to explain explanation itself — a teaser for the book as he was in the heat of writing it. Stay on your toes and try to keep up:

Empiricism is inadequate because scientific theories explain the seen in terms of the unseen and the unseen, you have to admit, doesn’t come to us through the senses.” ~ David Deutsch

Perhaps most powerful of all is Deutsch’s remarkable ability to shift convictions. As Peter Forbes writes in The Independent,

Deutsch is the kind of passionate, clear-headed advocate who can change minds. He endorses Stephen Hawking’s view that we would be wise to colonise space because the asteroid that will certainly come one day might be beyond even the capacity of our nuclear weapons. I have never believed in space colonisation, thinking it an idle fantasy. With no atmosphere or ecosystem we would have to live in bubbles. But Deutsch convinces me that we could colonise the moon and, after a while, that this life would seem natural.”

The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World comes as Deutsch’s highly anticipated follow-up, thirteen years later, to his excellent The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes and Its Implications, in which Deutsch outlined the four fundamental strands of existing knowledge.

Bear in mind, this is no light beach book, nor is it an easy read, but it’s an incredibly lucid one, the kind of book that stays with you for your entire lifetime, insights from it finding their way, consciously or unconsciously, into every intellectual conversation you’ll ever have.

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27 JULY, 2011

Hurricane Story: Haunting Analog Photos of Katrina Memories

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What red glitter shoes have to do with one family’s plight to find order in chaos.

When Hurricane Katrina swept across New Orleans six years ago next month, killing 1,836 people, damaging and destroying over 76,000 houses, and leaving many homeless, photographer Jennifer Shaw found solace in capturing the turmoil with a plastic Holga camera. Hers is a story both incredible and true — from the dramatic birth of her first child on the very day of Katrina’s first strike, to her struggle with depression and her husband’s rage episodes, to their eventual return to New Orleans in time for their son’s first Mardi Gras. Hurricane Story is part memoir, part fairy tale, part poetic story of exile and homecoming, told through 46 beautiful, dream-like images and simple but powerful prose. The Holga’s rudimentary functionality, with its limited control over exposure, focus and lighting, further intensifies the story’s haunting, cinematic feel, drawing you into a seemingly surreal world that sprang from an extraordinary and brave reality.

For an ultimate cherry on top, the book comes with a poignant foreword by New York Times “Consumed” columnist and fellow Design Observer writer Rob Walker.

Any city worth living in strikes a balance between order and chaos. I guess any life worth living strikes that balance too. In late August 2005, Jennifer Shaw’s city, and I can only assume her life, tilted too far in one direction. The remarkable series of forty-six images collected in Hurricane Story tells the tale, and in doing so sets the balance right again.” ~ Rob Walker

'We left in the dark of night.'

Image courtesy of Jennifer Shaw / Chin Music Press

'My water broke at one-thirty that morning.'

Image courtesy of Jennifer Shaw / Chin Music Press

'The next morning we turned on the TV.'

Image courtesy of Jennifer Shaw / Chin Music Press

'It was impossible not to watch.'

Image courtesy of Jennifer Shaw / Chin Music Press

'We took our hurricane sideshow on the road.'

Image courtesy of Jennifer Shaw / Chin Music Press

'It was nice to have a distraction.'

Image courtesy of Jennifer Shaw / Chin Music Press

'FEMA hauled off our downed trees.'

Image courtesy of Jennifer Shaw / Chin Music Press

'It was months til the phone was restored.'

Image courtesy of Jennifer Shaw / Chin Music Press

'We got a new roof before Christmas.'

Image courtesy of Jennifer Shaw / Chin Music Press

'Anointed in glitter, we reclaimed the streets.'

Image courtesy of Jennifer Shaw / Chin Music Press

Hurricane Story comes from indie publisher Chin Music Press and is one of the most spellbinding pieces of personal history ever captured.

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