Snowmageddon hit the East Coast this week, and judging from my social media feed I think at least a few people took the opportunity to immerse themselves in books they’d not previously found time for.
I live in the Midwest, and we saw only an inch or so of accumulated snow throughout the entire week, which is nearly nothing by our standards. We also saw the end of a cold snap, with temperatures rising from the single digits, which even we consider cold, to the upper 20s, which in January constitutes a virtual heat wave. We took advantage of this very moderate weather by getting our dogs out for longer walks, which makes both them and everyone around them happier.
Despite the moderate weather, I still found myself immersed in books throughout much of the week and weekend: reading, thinking and talking books.
First, I finished a non-fiction book, What to Think About Machines that Think, that I had worked my way through slowly, over a period of several weeks. This was, for me, a hard read, because I am neither scientist nor techno-geek, and some of the essays challenged my grasp of science and technology. Nonetheless, I recommend it; I like a book that makes me think — even one that makes me work to understand it, as long as there’s a good payoff. In this case, there is. My copy is chock-full of sticky notes now, marking passages that I found particularly insightful or meaningful. Opening the book randomly to a couple marked passages, I find these:
Alongside the true, we need to think well about the good and the beautiful — and, indeed, the wicked.
~Ziyad Marar “Are We Thinking More Like Machines?”
When news of import spreads around the world in moments, is this not the awareness in some kind of global brain?
~Tim O’Reilly, “What if We’re the Microbiome of the Silicon AI?”
If those don’t whet your appetite, head out to your local bookstore or library, open a copy to a couple of random pages, and see if you don’t find something that intrigues you.
And then there’s fiction. And discussion.
What to Think About Machines that Think inspired me to write my own essay about thinking machines, but WordPress ate half of it, and I haven’t had the energy yet to recreate my thoughts. You’ll just have to wait for that a little longer.
But as I was starting to write that essay, I was invited to join a friend’s book group for a one-time event, discussing Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. Readers of this blog or my posts over at Escape Into Life probably know already that this is one of my favorite books of all time. Despite that, I’ve never before had the opportunity to discuss it at length with others who have read it. I jumped at the chance and spent a wonderful evening hearing others’ thoughts on a work that I’ve probably read at least half a dozen times. Discussing books with others is a very different experience from reading in solitude; sometimes it opens my eyes to facets I had missed; other times it challenges or crystallizes my thinking. I find that articulating my thoughts helps me bring them into better focus, and while I can do that through writing, I appreciate the give and take of conversation. Also, I think we can all benefit from the experiences and perspectives of other smart people. Thank you, friend Jack, for inviting me.
Now, just about an hour ago, I finished reading Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage, a book that is anything but colorless. It’s filled with color, in fact — and music, and water, and the chirping of birds. It’s a mesmerizing exploration that has me thinking about the human spirit, our need for community, and our willingness and ability to accept ourselves for who we are. This one has a little less magic than many of Murakami’s novels — by which I mean less fantasy, not that it is less magical to read (it’s not). If you don’t know Murakami, this might be a good novel to start you off; and if you do know Murakami, I for one don’t think you’ll be disappointed, although you might find it a bit of a departure from the magical realism of 1Q84 and some of Murakami’s other novels.
- A Modern Trifecta: Science, Technology, Ethics (on What to Think About Machines that Think)
- Bel Canto: I Have Opera Tickets
- Bel Canto Simulcast: A Quandary
- Bel Canto, An Escape into Opera (at Escape Into Life)
- “I Thought I Made You Up!” (at Escape Into Life)