September 10, 2019
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Book Recommendation: How To Do Nothing by Jenny Odell

In Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, she makes a strong case for moving away from the capitalist idea that we need to be constantly optimizing, producing, and innovating. Instead, we should turn our attention back to our actual place in the world and try to reconnect with people, animals, and our bioregion in a way that repairs the harmful results of behavior capitalism has encouraged and even required of us.

With the rise of internet culture, student and credit card debt, the gig-economy, environmental and social crises, and late stage capitalism, we find ourselves increasingly burnt out and restricted. As a group, humans are disconnected and fractured. We spend so much time working or distracted by the internet and media that we regularly forget to look up.

According to Odell, removing ourselves from the attention economy and invasive addictive technology for a time allows us to refocus our attention. Her book does an amazing job at illustrating how powerful our attention is, both for destruction and for building. She uses successful acts of activism from the past as examples of the positive power of our combined sustained focus. Unfortunately, our attention is currently being drained from us at a rate impossible for us to maintain, hence the constant overwhelmed state. Due to that, we no longer know how to focus together as a group on shared goals.

Odell champions the idea that not every space, be it physical, digital, or mental, needs to have what capitalism would consider a net gain. Not every idea or thought needs to be profitable. Sometimes the important work is not that of optimizing, but of sustaining. To undo the harm of constant “innovation”, humans can learn instead how to be stewards of the spaces around them, offering only the amount of support needed for it to maintain a stable existence.

Odell brings in ideas from environmentalism, art, technology, psychology, philosophy, sociology, and more to illustrate her points. Part of the beauty of How To Do Nothing is watching Odell seamlessly blend together these multiple concepts into a cohesive message. Odell, a visual artists and professor at Stanford, is both highly academic and engaging in her discussion. How To Do Nothing is incredibly well researched without being dry.

Odell’s arguments feel plausible and urgent. This is important for a book discussing what might be considered by some as a breakdown of society. Those who read How To Do Nothing will see their world in a new light and, if Odell has been successful, be inspired to make changes to how they exist in it.

You can checkout Odell’s How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy from the JKM Library today!

June 17, 2019
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Book Recommendation: The Stranger

Image from Goodreads

Imagine it’s 1942. You’re French. Einstein has already refuted the absolutist notions of time and space, Darwin’s findings have nearly dismantled creationism, and Freud has speculated that there’s a subconscious realm where much of the mind’s processes are at work. Nietzsche fathomed nihilism, addressing the question: what would happen to a post-religious society? Worse yet, the Nazis have risen; you’ve been warring with Germany for three years.

Albert Camus published his debut novel, The Stranger, in this context. The soccer-loving philosopher writes an apathetic, emotionless protagonist who searches for meaning in a meaningless world. Camus prescribes a set of absurdist strategies for dealing with love, grief, and violence. In short, he suggests one ought to refrain from investing in such matters.

Though Camus personally rejected the term ‘existentialist,’ he is often grouped with his existentialist contemporaries. Like them, Camus rejected the notion of a universal purpose. No overarching truth or religion suits existentialists, nor do they accept the notion of a comprehensive moral code befitting to all. Fundamentally, they believe human flourishing is a myth; life is nothing more than a waiting room, and the room is full of hardship, loss, and setbacks. Ironically, from this rejection of Meaning arises a new purpose. The existentialists’ simple commandment is to treat life as something to conquer. Do not get bogged down with other people or expectations or feelings or morality. Existentialists urge: do what you want to do, precisely when you want to do it.

All of these philosophies are instantiated in Meursault—a man who traipses around avoiding his feelings to a nearly sociopathic degree. He makes sense of his world by suspending his passions. In the opening pages, for example, when the reader discovers that Meursault’s mother has died, the protagonist treats the event as a mild annoyance. One might expect that this degree of flippancy could only arise from someone who despises his parentage. Yet Meursault does not seem angry. Rather, he appears dispassionate, reacting as if his own mother were not the one dead.

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October 31, 2018
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Book Recommendation: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Image taken from Amazon.

Looking for something spooky to read under the covers with some tea tonight? Look no further than Shirley Jackson, the master of creeping dread and spooky suspense. You may know Jackson’s famous short story The Lottery from high school, or perhaps you have watched the recent Netflix reimagining of her classic The Haunting of Hill House. Her works are often described as horror, but the subtlety of her writing gives it something more universal. Her themes often focus on the dark side of domestic life and isolation, and they often feature agoraphobia and critiques of the expectations of traditional society.

Jackson also wrote nonfiction about what it was like to be a mother and manage a home, something she considered to hold its own degree of horror. Jackson also felt that she and her family were considered outcasts in her small New England town, and they experienced anti-Semitism in the insidious manner one sees in “civilized society”.  Toward the end of her life, she became so painfully agoraphobic she wouldn’t leave her bedroom. Much of what makes her fiction work horrific is because it is Jackson’s true-life experiences expressed through a fantastical lens, and as such there is something recognizable in it to all of us. We see how easy it could be for us to slip into some kind of madness, or for the precarious society around us to suddenly turn vicious. It is not gore or jump scares that make Jackson’s work terrifying, it is how she exposes the truth and ugliness in us all.

For this fall, I wanted to recommend a lesser talked about Jackson classic: We Have Always Lived in the Castle. This short (under 200 pages) novel is dark, twisted, unconventional, and incredibly beautiful. We enter into the lives of Mary Katherine (Merricat) and Constance Blackwood, two young women who live isolated in their large house with their wheelchair-bound uncle, Julian. The fractured family fell into disrepair after arsenic in the sugar bowl killed the rest of the Blackwoods half a decade ago. The only two who were not poisoned in the incident were Merricat and Constance, while Uncle Julian did not ingest enough of the poison to kill him. Constance, having been put on trial and then acquitted of the crime, now suffers from such extreme agoraphobia that she cannot leave the house. Uncle Julian is so much diminished from the poisoning that he struggles to keep one foot in reality. He depends on his nieces to care for him, which they do lovingly. The town is happy to keep them isolated, making disparaging comments and singing a haunting little nursery rhyme about the murders whenever Merricat comes near. And it is only ever Merricat that leaves their extensive grounds to go grocery shopping and run quick errands.

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August 13, 2018
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Book Recommendation: Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe

 

Image taken from Amazon

Lori Jakiela opens her memoir with a line as humble as the title, describing her memoir “primarily a work of nonfiction.” What follows is a dramatic account of Jakiela’s search to make contact with her biological family after the death of her adoptive parents. Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe is an evocative story of one woman’s yearning for closure, love, and family.

The presentation of these ideals are developed through Jakiela’s description of loss. She articulates her pain in ways that are acute, poignant, familiar. Her pages are decorated with mediations on a particular grief—the kind of unique sorrow that stems from her identity as an adoptee. Through her attempts to contact her native family, for example, she continues, with insistence, to refer to her adoptive family as her “real” family.

Some craft elements will engage readers from the start. Jakiela, a native Pittsburgher, describes a setting that Chatham students will find pleasantly relatable. More uniquely, Jakiela subtly challenges storytelling conventions through experimental use of dialogue. She presents uninterrupted, staccato quotes and repetitive dialogue tags, both of which reveal a one-of-a-kind style—clever and intentional in its pacing.

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