In December 2008, I stared up at one of the great marvels of the world, the gleaming Taj Mahal. And I felt – nothing. Curiosity about its fabled history, yes. But other than that, all I felt was ambivalence about posing for pictures in its imposing foreground and a certain reluctance to leave my shoes unattended as I toured the palace itself.

I should have been awestruck. The Taj Mahal is stunning, a brilliant feat of engineering and craftsmanship, design and artistic grandeur. But the problem was, this wasn’t the first time I’d seen it, or even the second. Over the years, I’d seen the iconic structure in countless photographs, documentaries, and movies. By 2008, I’d encountered the great edifice so many times from the comfort of my couch that now, having traveled halfway around the world to gaze upon it, I was wondering what we would have for lunch.

It’s shameful, I know. But I suspect I’m not the only guilty one.

Recently, a friend told me why she couldn’t stand modern literature. “I hate the descriptions,” she said. “They’re flowery and over-blown and just plain weird.” Although I enjoy contemporary fiction, I knew what she was referring to. While authors of the past could devote full paragraphs to describing fields in bloom or dank urban alleys, they generally used concrete, sensible words. Contemporary writers tend to rely heavily on metaphors, or else they describe things in odd, non-literal ways. In her novel A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore uses the term “a papery caramel of leaves” to describe the wet waste that lined the roads. Whoever thought of soggy, caked leaves as caramel? And yet I think the description gives us something – a sense of color, of texture, and a fresh perspective.

It occurred to me that modern writers are faced with an interesting challenge, namely jaded readers who have seen (if not experienced) it all. Readers like me who can look upon the Taj Mahal without being awestruck. Not only are we more well-traveled than days of yore, but we’re exposed to places all over the world by way of screens large and small. In movies and through television we have seen rainforests and polar expeditions, villages from Scotland to Africa to Guatemala, Texas rodeos, Manhattan sex clubs, Roman amphitheaters, ocean floors, mountain peaks, and even the surface of the moon. No wonder we’re jaded. And no wonder fiction writers today have to sweat and toil to describe the world in a different way if we are to take note of it at all.

I’m torn about the vicarious exposure we get to our world through TV and movies. It’s a strange sort of life without living, experience that is like reality without actually being real. On the one hand, it gives us access to other places, times, and ways of life, showing us things we may never otherwise see. It can educate us, but I think it also steals something from us – the freshness and newness of discovery. I don’t want to be jaded, so I’m going to take this as a challenge. I’m going to push myself to experience each new surrounding fully, to open my eyes and look. More than that, I’m going to challenge myself to touch, taste, and smell the world around me. As yet, technology doesn’t stimulate those senses in our living rooms and movie theaters, which means the real world has got that market cornered.

Science and Literature: Strange Bedfellows?

Something I’ve been thinking about lately: what do science and literature have in common? On the face of it, nothing. One is dedicated to making stuff up; the other is all about not making stuff up. I would have abandoned the question, or probably wouldn’t have asked it at all, if it weren’t for the fact that these two fields have been the intellectual passions of my life. Am I a splintered human being, or is there something that unites them?

Science is fundamentally a list of rules, like a lengthy version of the Ten Commandments. However, these rules dictate, down to the most minute of scales, how our universe IS. And as boring or unintuitive as each rule may be, their interplay and repercussions are stunning. I think scientists are drawn to the field because they appreciate this beauty and because they want to uncover a new, equally beautiful truth that has never been known before. Maybe every scientist is Moses; certainly there are some who think they are.

Moses Complex aside, I believe that fiction tugs on authors for the same reason that science lures scientists. And in some ways, the fields serve the same purpose. I know, I know – pipe down, you scientists. It’s true. Good literature should put us inside thoughts and situations we haven’t imagined and provide perspectives that reality doesn’t afford. In doing so, it should reveal its own beautiful truths. Why? Because we don’t always see truth through truth; sometimes it takes fiction to make us understand.

Recommendation and Regret

I couldn’t sleep last night and it was all Lowboy’s fault.

I was reading the novel Lowboy by John Wray. Click here for its review in the New York Times.

The book is about a 16-year old boy with schizophrenia on the run in the New York subway system. It’s a fantastic read – fast-paced yet poetic, and short enough to consume in a few days.

One of the interesting footnotes about this book is that the author wrote most of it on the NY subway line while listening to heavy metal guitar. Another is that he did a unique (albeit slightly awkward) reading from the book to other passengers on the train. Here’s a great interview of the author in a recent NPR podcast.

So that was my recommendation. Now for the regret.

The driving force of the novel is the threat of violence. The main character of the novel, Will Heller (a.k.a. Lowboy), has nearly killed someone before, has attacked others, and is now unmedicated and on the loose in public. I enjoyed the book immensely, but I couldn’t help feeling sad that it reinforced the public misconception that people with schizophrenia are violent.

This is not a criticism of the book; literature isn’t and shouldn’t be a public service announcement. A doctor in the novel even mentions that most patients with schizophrenia aren’t violent. Still, the young patient in this story is transformed into a terrifying figure.

Groups like NAMI and NIMH need to continue educating people about mental illness. The public needs to know that most people with schizophrenia aren’t violent and most violent people don’t have schizophrenia.

If patients are going to find treatment and recover, they’ll need the support of people in their lives. They will need our kindness, not our fear.

Gutenberg Would Have Been Proud

I swam in books today. Just backstroke and sidestroke; I’ve never been too good at freestyle.

Today was the LA Festival of Books, put on by the Los Angeles Times. Each year, over 100,000 people show up at UCLA to celebrate books – fiction, nonfiction, picture books, cookbooks, what have you. Panels of authors discuss their work and their process, tents brim with used books, stages host readings and interviews and musical performances.

I know some of you think LA is a screen-only city, low on culture and literacy, and I’m not going to lie- this place really is overflowing with large breasts and tiny dogs. But for all that, LA does have books and art and people who care enough to talk about them. In fact, a panelist and publisher from Brooklyn said that New York would never draw such large crowds to discuss books. He said the literati out there are more insular and snobbish. We Angelenos share. Of course, we also enjoy better weather while we’re doing it.

In an age of shrinking books sales, withering local bookstores, and library cutbacks, reading has only become more solitary with time. (Oprah and her ladies excepted.) We watch movies and television in groups, small or large. We throw Superbowl and Oscar parties, get sloshed and eat pizza. It’s a great time. But a party in honor of paper and ink: that’s something pretty special.

I think we should all take a moment to recognize Gutenberg and his nifty movable type. (Thanks, buddy.) The same for kindergarten teachers and parents who spelled out C-A-T for us a million times. And a holla to LA for occasionally surprising the rest of the country with its smartitude.

A Fascinating Life

I am going To The Lighthouse. This will be my first time reading Virginia Woolf. I’ve been wanting to read her for a while, but the more I learn about her life, the more I want to know.

A couple interesting facts: Woolf was a member of the Bloomsbury group, a cluster of brilliant intellectuals and friends in early 20th century Europe. They were painters, writers, art critics, publishers, and economists, many of them famous to this day. They were also stunningly sexually and romantically liberated. Not how we picture Brits in the early 1900s, right? But the people in this group had open marriages and engaged in love affairs with men and women alike. They weren’t plagued by jealousy, despite the many changes of lovers within their clique. This may be an enlightened way to experience love (obviously they were mighty smart), but I don’t think it would work so well for the rest of us, at least not here in the US. We watch too much Jerry Springer and Dr. Phil and soaps and live mired in too much passive-aggressive melodramatic narcissism. Not that I’m judging. The same goes for me, even without Jerry and Phil. I am not about to share my fiancé.

But more than Bloomsbury’s wacky romantic escapades, I’m interested in Woolf’s mental illness. From adolescence on, she showed symptoms of severe bipolar disorder (a.k.a. manic depression.) She’s another example of a haunted genius, a fascinating pattern from a neuroscience perspective. It’s painful to read her letters and diaries, which show the depth of her depression. In the end, she filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in the Ouse River. Even today, we lose many of our creative icons to suicide, despite the availability of treatment options. It reminds us that the human mind is complex and contradictory, and we have so much left to learn.

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