Book Updates

One of my favorite parts of summer is that I have the time to read things OTHER than textbooks. Here’s an account of my most recent reads, which features:

(1) Mr g by Alan Lightman (Fiction)

(2) Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg (Non Fiction)

(3) The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro (Fiction)

I was browsing Lilly Library’s “Current Lit” section when I stumbled upon Mr g, a novel by Alan Lightman. This piece of fiction is about the story of creation told from God’s perspective. It starts in the land of the Void, where nothing exists. And God, one day, decides to make time. Then space. Then the universe. God picks one universe, Aalam-104729, to focus on developing. The main antagonist (although I wouldn’t really describe him as an antagonist…more like an inverse intellectual equivalent) Belhor acts as the sounding board for God’s experiments in Aalam-104729. (Belhor, in the Biblical sense, refers to the devil.) This story sets the stage for Dr. Lightman to explore some big topics: what does it mean to be living, does an individual life have purpose, what is happiness, what is time, and what is infinity?

Rather than exploring these questions through metaphors, as most of the literature I’ve read has approached these questions, Dr. Lightman frames these questions in a more direct manner. He asks these questions through the conversations God has with Belhor. I think what I’m trying to explain can best be illustrated by an excerpt:

“I am not speaking necessarily of a grand meaning, I said, but of individual meaning. Wouldn’t you agree that each individual life has its own meaning, or at least a meaning as understood by the individual creature? Cannot each individual creature find some meaning for its own life?

What difference does it make? Belhor said, and he stared as if bored at the gyrating spheres flying through the Void….They come and go. How could an individual mortal life have any meaning? And even if the individual, the tiny ant, thinks its life has a meaning, it is only an illusion. It is only a sensation, an excess of electrical current in its tiny brain. What significance could that have for us?

But surely it has significance for them, I said. Each one of them tries so desperately to find meaning. In a way, it doesn’t matter what particular meaning each of them finds. As long as each of the creatures finds something to give a coherence and harmony to the jumble of existence. Perhaps it might be as simple as a discovery of their own capacities, and a thriving in that discovery. And even if they are mortal they are part of things. They are part of things larger than their universe, whether they know it or not. Wouldn’t you agree?” (157)

So there you have it: Dr. Lightman very directly attacking the question of whether or not living creatures have meaning. I thought that the novel took an overall very positive outlook on life and living. That even though we may be little with respect to infinity, we are still meaningful in this space and time. The novel was an interesting thought exercise, but overall, slightly more abstract than my usual taste in books.

After Mr g, I was ready for more concrete reading material…as in some non-fiction. Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg has been getting quite a bit of attention from the media, and I thought it would be a good book to read. (And it was pretty cheap at Costco, so why not!) While I identified with many points she brought up in the book, I was not particularly fond of the last two chapters. I can’t quite pinpoint what I didn’t like about the end of the book, but it carried—what I perceived to be—a weight of blame and guilt upon the female population, while simultaneously throwing the male population under the bus for being discriminatory (consciously and unconsciously). That being said, there were a lot of take away messages for me, like being more assertive, not beating myself up right after tests, “done is better than perfect”, not being a control freak, and of course, leaning into my career. I’ll address some of these more in depth here:

(1) Being more assertive: Sandberg talks about a leadership ambition gap between males and females in the first chapter of the book. She traces some of this to the difference between the behaviors of males versus females when offered new opportunities:

“During the six and a half years I worked at Google, I hired a team of four thousand employees. I did not know all of them personally, but I knew the top hundred or so. What I noticed over the years was that for the most part, the men reached for opportunities much more quickly than the women. When we announced the opening of a new office or the launch of a new project, the men were banging down my door to explain why they should lead the charge…The women, however, were more cautious about changing roles and seeking out new challenges…I have had countless conversations where women responded to this encouragement by saying, “I’m just not sure I’d be good at that.” Or “That sounds exciting, but I’ve never done anything like it before.” Or “I still have a lot to learn in my current role.” I rarely, if ever, heard these kinds of comments from men.” (34-35)

I identified with this passage, because I am apprehensive of taking on new things. This apprehension stems mostly from the fact that I’m scared. That I feel highly unqualified to do [insert whatever new task here]. One thing that I will try to work on is accepting that I don’t necessarily have to know exactly how to do something before I accept a task. Rather, decisions of taking on new tasks/responsibilities should be based on whether or not I have the willingness to learn and the time to dedicate to the task (and of course, letting go of the fear of failure).

(2) “Done is better than perfect”: Sandberg describes her realization upon having her first child that working isn’t about how many hours she spends at the office, but about becoming more efficient. She adopted this mantra of “done is better than perfect” so that she could both do her job and spend the time she needed with her newborn. This applies to me more along the lines of: not every assignment needs to be perfect. Some just need to be done so that I can spend the time perfecting the things that matter or spend time doing things that actually matter. This is something that I will definitely try to work on during the upcoming school year.

The last book I wanted to mention is a novel by B. A. Shapiro called The Art ForgerThis excellent piece of fiction was about a talented, struggling painter who makes a Faustian bargain: to forge a Degas painting in exchange for a one-woman show in an art gallery (a show which would definitely allow her career to take-off). Aside from the enthralling plot line (I couldn’t put the book down!), Dr. Shapiro questions some aspects of the art world like what makes great art great? How can we tell the real from the forgeries? How far are we willing to go for our dreams? Anyway, this post is already too long and I’m tired, so I’ll leave it at that. If anything, this was a fun piece literature that made for a supremely relaxing and pleasant tea-and-cookies-Saturday-lazy-kind-of-afternoon.