The only right I don’t take advantage of is rereading. There are just too many books out there to read that rereading seems like a wasteful indulgence. But all the more reason to try it once in a while.
I’m in the middle of David McCullough’s Truman, a 1,000-page biography (not including the end-matter). Given its girth I figured I’d have to take a break at some point. Sure enough, page 500 rolls around and I get a notification that Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is finally ready for me at the library. So I start that one and immediately love it.
Then I remember I have two forthcoming books I need to review for Booklist with fast-approaching deadlines. So now I’m in a book while reading another book, which itself is a break from another book.
Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, one of my favorite narrative nonfiction books, tells the story of four common plants and the human impulses they satisfy: the apple (sweetness), the tulip (beauty), marijuana (intoxication), and the potato (control).
His new book is How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics. Probably because I’ve never done psychedelics (or even smoked pot), I was eager to learn about them from a reputable and investigative source with an open mind. Pollan explores the history of psychedelics, how they were used in clinical trials in the 1950s before Timothy Leary and the damned dirty hippies ruined them for everyone (my words), and how modern science is discovering their powerful affects on the brain and mental health.
He also explores them firsthand, in two supervised experiences with LSD. He writes:
I’m struck by the fact there was nothing supernatural about my heightened perceptions that afternoon, nothing that I needed an idea of magic or a divinity to explain. No, all it took was another perceptual slant on the same old reality, a lens or mode of consciousness that invented nothing but merely (merely!) italicized the prose of ordinary experience, disclosing the wonder that is always there in a garden or wood, hidden in plain sight… Nature does in fact teem with subjectivities — call them spirits if you like — other than our own; it is only the human ego, with its imagined monopoly on subjectivity, that keeps us from recognizing them all, our kith and kin.
That division between the ego, the rest of human consciousness, and nature is fascinating, and something we so easily forget is constructed rather than inherent. Pollan writes how, basically, babies are tripping all the time, because their brains haven’t developed to the point of knowing the difference between the ego and the rest of existence. All is one with them, as their minds are constantly open and learning, without the well-worn neural pathways and rigid thinking of adult brains.
Sounds like hippy-dippy pabulum? You’re right. As Pollan writes about the power of ineffability in psychedelic experiences, that’s the point:
Psychedelic experiences are notoriously hard to render in words; to try is necessarily to do violence to what has been seen and felt, which is in some fundamental way pre- or post-linguistic or, as students of mysticism say, ineffable. Emotions arrive in all their newborn nakedness, unprotected from the harsh light of scrutiny and, especially, the pitiless glare of irony. Platitudes that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Hallmark card glow with the force of revealed truth.
“Italicizing the prose of ordinary experience” and “glow with the force of revealed truth” or revelation are beautiful, vivid metaphors, and metaphors are all we really have when describing the ineffable. Just read the Old Testament for proof.
I’m still not planning on doing psychedelics—books and movies are still my go-to mind-expanding drugs—but I’m grateful for Pollan’s work on deepening our understanding of them.
1. “What needs to be remembered here,” he wrote the next day, after he’d done [the trade], “is that this is $100 million. That’s an insane amount of money. And it just gets thrown around like it’s three digits instead of nine.”
2. “In retrospect, their ignorance seems incredible—but, then, an entire financial system was premised on their not knowing, and paying them for this talent.”
3. “The ability of Wall Street traders to see themselves in their success and their management in their failure would later be echoed, when their firms, which disdained the need for government regulation in good times, insisted on being rescued by government in bad times. Success was individual achievement; failure was a social problem.”
Reading Brene Brown’s Rising Strong, this quote surprised me:
Creativity embeds knowledge so that it can become practice. We move what we’re learning from our heads to our hearts through our hands. We are born makers, and creativity is the ultimate act of integration—it is how we fold our experiences into our being.
Fully agree. But I expected the first sentence to end with wisdom, not practice. Probably because my bias, whether I like it or not, is toward matters of the head. This is a blessing that can become a curse when I fail to externalize ideas and knowledge through some kind of outward expression.
It is counterintuitive that sending knowledge from the head to the heart is not the direct route it appears. To become truly meaningful, it must take the long way. Perhaps that’s why creativity is so challenging yet so rewarding.
When I realized I had yet to read a presidential biography this year, I decided to tackle one that was more obscure and therefore more likely to be shorter. For some reason, tenth president John Tyler came to mind.
I opted for John Tyler by Gary May, part of the American Presidents series of short books. I try to avoid that series because all the books are intentionally short—this one was 150 pages—and I want to feel like I’ve earned (i.e. suffered through enough pages of) every biography, you know? But I decided to cut myself some slack on this one, and I’m now 18 presidents down with 26 to go.
John Tyler proved more interesting than I expected. All I knew of him, besides “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”, was that he was the first president to ascend to the office due to his predecessor’s death (pour one out for William Henry “31 Days in Office” Harrison) and that he was a slaveholder who eventually served in the Confederacy.
He was also the youngest president (at 51) to take the oath at the time, had 15 kids between two wives (and two of his grandsons are still alive), was the first president to get married while in office, and the first to decline to seek a second term.
He also facilitated the annexation of Texas, which helped cause the Civil War. So there’s that.
One of the more intriguing episodes was when he resigned from U.S. Senate in 1836. He did it in protest of a resolution to expunge the censure of Andrew Jackson, which he’d earned from his conduct related to the rechartering of the Bank of the United States. Though a longtime Democrat, Tyler was even more strongly for states rights and therefore against Jackson’s despotism and expansion of executive power. So much so that he preferred resignation over acquiescence to federal overreach.
This also meant he was often politically homeless. Take a look at his political party affiliation history:
Notice he wasn’t affiliated with any party during his 1841-1844 presidential term. That’s because after vetoing several Whig bills (his own party, mind you) for being unconstitutional, which triggered mass resignations from his own cabinet (orchestrated by ol’ Henry Clay), the Whigs expelled Tyler from the party. He spent the rest of his administration a free agent, exerting the little influence he had on his two primary presidential passions: annexing Texas and vetoing as many bills as possible.
Tyler’s story ended just as the country’s took a dark turn. In February 1861 he was sent as a private citizen to the Peace Conference of 1861, a last-ditch effort I’d never heard of to negotiate a compromise over slavery. It failed, obviously, but it wasn’t long before Tyler was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives. He died before the first session began, thus denying him the opportunity of living to be the only U.S. president to formally give the finger to his erstwhile nation.
(Is that my Yankee showing?)
As a committed one-termer with a handful of goals (Texas and vetoes), Tyler reminds me of his presidential successor, James Polk, who got to fight the war with Mexico that Tyler’s backroom deal-making instigated. And this book fills in yet another gap in this era of forgotten presidents between Jackson and Lincoln. “And Tyler too” is about right.
Book Notes & Quotes: John Tyler by Gary May
At 51 he was the youngest president to take the oath at the time
Tyler’s father was Virginia governor and friend of Jefferson during Revolution
Attended College of William & Mary, then law school by 19 and Virginia House of Delegates in 1811
In spring 1813 his father died, he married Letitia, and joined militia but didn’t see action
Elected to Congress in 1816 at 26
Clay’s “American System” inspired by dismal performance in War of 1812, but states rights advocate Tyler voted against
Appointed to committee investigating Second Bank of the United States role in 1818’s “bank mania” of speculation and corruption; report was critical but bank survived
Voted against Missouri Compromise of 1820, which pushed him to not seek re-election
Law and farming bored him, so he won spot in Virginia legislature at 33, then became Virginia governor at 35
Virginia senator John Randolph lost favor, so Tyler selected for Senate in 1827
Hated John Quincy Adams and feared Andrew Jackson; in 1824 went Adams and 1828 Jackson
Went against Jackson’s despotism in nullification crisis and Bank controversy, despite supporting states rights
Resigned from Senate in 1836 in protest of resolution to expunge censure of Jackson’s behavior in Bank controversy
Despised the word “national” and what it represented
Whigs in 1840 had no official platform so as not to tear apart fragile coalition
Clay clashed with Harrison assuming he’d be subservient to Congress
Tyler brought 8 kids to White House, had son as secretary
Wife Letitia had stroke in 1839 and was invalid; daughter in law and actress Priscilla Cooper acted as First Lady
Clay, angling for 1844, put Third Bank of United States up for vote but Tyler vetoed
Whig activist Philip Hone called Tyler’s message “the quintessence of twaddle”
Second veto of bank triggered Cabinet resignations (orchestrated by Clay) save Daniel Webster; Clay assumed Tyler would resign but instead he found independent Whigs to serve
Whigs expelled Tyler from party after 1841 special session
Letitia died in 1842
Skirmish with Britain in 1830s at Maine/New Brunswick border dispute led to Webster-Ashburton treaty, border resolutions, and slave trade compromises
Sent first envoy to China to open for U.S. trade
Ardent expansionist who wanted to annex Texas, but slavery held it up
In February 1844 was cruising Potomac on new steam-powered USS Princeton when “Peacemaker” cannon exploded; Tyler and fiancée Julia below but casualties and carnage above, including Julia’s father
Calhoun “never happier than when he was philosophizing on behalf of slavery”
Antislavery Democratic senator leaked Texas annexation treaty; solely hinges on slavery in election year
Created his own Democratic-Republican party to act as spoiler; promised to bow out if assured by Polk that Texas would be annexed
Married Julia in June 1844 in secret; first presidential wedding in office; 30 years older than her
Funds to improve White House denied by Congress, so Julia’s mother contributed
First president to decline to seek second term
Signed Texas annexation resolution on March 1
Had 15 kids between two wives
1848 election split by Free Soil Party nominee Van Buren, and combined with Mexican war spoils states led to Compromise of 1850, which Tyler supported with Clay
Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry and attempt at arming slaves tilted Tyler toward secession
Even in early 1861 was looking for ways to prevent disunion: participated in “peace convention” in DC but turned when proposed amendment would limit slavery and when Lincoln signaled war
Oversaw transfer of Confederate capital from Montgomery to Richmond, and served in Confederate House of Representatives briefly before death in January 1861
Asserted presidential power in era when Congress tried to weaken it; used veto vigorously, showed power even without congressional support or personal charisma
Improved Britain/American relations through Webster-Ashburton treaty, opened relations with China through Treaty of Wanghia, annexed Texas
Helped create “imperial presidency” through secret service contingency funds, guarding certain records, dispatching forces
Belief he was heir to Virginian presidents dynasty led to reckless pursuit of Texas, which led to Civil War
Great profile of “golden-throated” audiobook narrator Grover Gardner and the booming audiobook industry:
Gardner’s advice to aspiring narrators is to take a digital recorder and a book, sit in a quiet room, and read aloud for an hour without stopping. “Then tell me if you still want to do it. The answer is often ‘no,’ ” he says. “If you had to break down all the components of what goes into quality audiobook narration, it’s staggering. All the things you’re juggling in your head, in the body, in your throat and your voice.
I never recognize audiobook narrators, but I always respect their art.
Despite their great intentions, those “required reading” lists of books make me cringe. Required reading usually feels like work, whether they’re from a friend, a professor, or a stranger on the internet. Pleasure reading should be based on freedom and empowerment and whim, not compulsion. Use those lists as a resource, sure, but don’t feel obliged to them.
Austin Kleon gets it right by assigning not a specific book, but a way to get one:
Visit your local library and apply for a library card. (Or pay your fines and renew.)
Ask a librarian for a tour of the library building, the online catalog, and the digital holdings. Ask the librarian to show you how to put materials on hold, how to request materials for purchase, and how to use interlibrary loan.
Check out at least one item. (So you have to return.)
I can’t tell you how beneficial these would be to you and your kids, and how happy this would make your librarians. Summer is the perfect time too; most libraries have summer reading programs for kids and adults, with prizes and fun activities.
We think of ourselves as different from other animals. We extol our own tool use, congratulate our sentience, but our needs are the same. We are creatures on a planet looking for a way ahead. Why do we like vistas? Why are pullouts drawn on the sides of highways, signs with arrows showing where to stand for the best view? The love for the panorama comes from memory, the earliest form of cartography, a sense of location. Little feels better than knowing where you are, and having a reason to be there.
— from Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age Americaby Craig Childs, a meaty and winding travelogue around North America investigating notable Pleistocene spots, like the Bering land bridge in Alaska and the woolly mammoth remains in Clovis, New Mexico.
I recently realized how fascinated I am with prehistoric people and their times: What was life like back then? How similar were Ice Age humans to us? Childs goes a long way in finding out, hiking through tundra and camping out in a polar vortex and trudging through Floridian swamps. Archaeology, anthropology, sociology, mythology, and philosophy all come into play.
“Science is useful,” he writes. “It fills in the blanks with precision, but history is ultimately more about stories and the unfolding of human whims.”
This was a star that had left behind the fiery extravagances of its youth, had raced through the violets and blues and greens of the spectrum in a few fleeting billions of years, and now had settled down to a peaceful maturity of unimaginable length. All that had gone before was not a thousandth of what was yet to come; the story of this star had barely begun.