Sunday, 9 October 2011

Bedside Reading

In the last two weeks, some books have moved off my bedside table to be replaced by others. I usually try to mix my reading so there's always about 4 or 5 books on the go together and I can shuffle between them as mood takes me. The mix is usually culture/technology; art; biography; religion and fiction (usually crime or detective). This week I've finished a technology book and Steve Marriott: All Too Beautiful, the biography of Small Faces and Humble Pie's frontman. A mod who set fashion standards in the sixties and contemporaries of The Who, Marriott's performances were legendary. He then left and went on to do it all again with Humble Pie in the US, but drugs and the excesses of the rock'n'roll lifestyle, coupled with his own self-destructive personality were to defeat him in the end seeing him playing small pub gigs up until his death at age 44 in a housefire. Possibly schizophrenic, a prima donna who carried grudges for years, but above all a white man with a black voice whose talent was instantly recognizable, All Too Beautiful is tragic in its telling of Marriott's failures and successes.

The other book that has held me mesmerised for a few weeks now has been The Shallows by a past editor of the Harvard Business Review, Nicholas Carr. The book describes how human thought has been shaped through the centuries by “tools of the mind” — from the alphabet, to maps, to the printing press, the clock, and now in our lifetimes, the computer.  Carr also weaves a fascinating account of recent discoveries in neuroscience on brain pasticity by such pioneers Merzenich and Kandel. Our brains actually change in response to our experiences and the technologies/tools we use to find, store, and share information can literally reroute our neural pathways. As a consequence there are profound changes in the way we live and communicate, remember and socialise - even in our self-concepts. By moving from the depths of thought to the shallows of distraction, the web is actually fostering ignorance. The Shallows is not a manifesto for neo-luddites, but a reminder of how far the Internet has become entrenched in our daily existence and is affecting the way we think. As a teacher, its a book that compels me to examine my own growing dependence on  technology and question my reliance on it as a teaching tool. Carr's book is one I'll be returning to again in the next few months.

The Shallows has been replaced by Hamlet's Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building The Good Life in the Digital Age by William Powers. Powers thesis is very similar to Carr's but nowhere near as complex or empirical, rather more personal and anecdotal. Both books are easy to read, but Powers' is more warm and fuzzy and tends to be more about his own personal journey through technological dependence and his questioning of how far we should go forward  or relent and try turning the clock back.  I must admit that after The Shallows I found this a little simplistic and it is lingering on my shelf at the moment until I get my head back into it. So if you've been reading the blog and noticed the change of position of books on Shelfari, this might explain why. You may also have noticed some other purchases that have appeared.

At least once a month, I haunt a little-known bookstore in the next suburb that has an excellent range of books at great prices. Today I picked up a copy of The Lost City of Z: A Legendary British Explorer's Deadly Quest to Uncover the Secrets of the Amazon' by David Grann (in perfect condition for just $3!!). Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett was the last of a breed of great British explorers who ventured into 'blank spots' on the map with little more than a machete, a compass and unwavering sense of purpose. In 1925,  Fawcett believed the impenetrable jungle held a secret to a large, complex civilization like El Dorado, which he christened the 'City of Z' and he and his son set out to find it. They vanished without a trace. For the next eighty years, hordes of explorers searched for the expedition and the city. Many died from starvation, disease, attacks by wild animals, and poisonous arrows. Others simply vanished. In The Lost City of Z, David Grann retraces the footsteps of the great Colonel Fawcett and his followers, in an attempt to solve one of the greatest mysteries. Looks like a cracking good read! It seems there's a healthy amount of ego in some of the biographies I've been reading of late - from Marriott to Fawcett and even the late Steve Jobs in the iCon bio I read earlier this year. I'll be interested to read this biography and see just how far Fawcett's self-confidence extended.
Burn brightly, Pete.

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