Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Nonfiction mission

Summer reading this month has meant a nonfiction binge as the library, all at once, had five titles on my to-read list. About three weeks ago, I checked out Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, Ultimate Glory by David Gessner, When by Daniel Pink, The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers, and Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. I made it through four and a half of them -- going to need to come back to Sapiens since my renewal efforts were blocked by an unwitting rival sapient who placed a hold on my copy.

My take-aways from this informational immersion? Justice, Frisbees, time, coffee, and the sweep of history should never be underestimated. More seriously, when we can hitch the horses of our intrinsic drive to a meaningful wagon of extrinsic sense-making, we can unleash heady momentum. Stevenson, a lawyer, did and continues to do this as he exhausts every legal means to ensure his clients -- often on death row -- are treated fairly before the law. What Stevenson pours into his clients, Gessner devoted for decades to chasing flying discs, subsuming all other priorities including growing up, and harboring few if any regrets for his efforts. For both Stevenson and Gessner, pivotal moments prove the outsized influence of timing, an observation with which Pink would agree, I suspect. He distills numerous research examples in his latest book to uncover why the cliche "Timing is everything" should more accurately read "Everything is timing," and then he teaches readers moves they might make to maximize their own time. In contrast, the protagonist in Eggers' literary biography, Mokhtar Alkhanshali, takes a while to maximize his time. He's a Yemeni American who (as the story spins) drifts shiftlessly through odd jobs until finding his life's calling in resurrecting the coffee trade in his family's homeland.

In preparing this slice, I discovered another knot that ties these books together. Alkhanshali, from The Monk of Mokha, was being sued as of May for allegedly shady business dealings in the import/export world, a fact which tends to smear Eggers' mostly noble portrait. It's not the first time Eggers has been in this position. A previous book he wrote, Zeitoun, spotlighted a heroic survivor of the Hurricane Katrina flood in New Orleans, a man later accused of -- and exonerated for -- attempting to murder his wife, a case that sounds like it might be right up Bryan Stevenson's alley.

These puzzling intersections bring us to Harari's Sapiens, with its ambitious reach in seeking to build a massive jigsaw of human impacts on Earth -- and Earth's impacts on humans -- over thousands of years in the planet's run of billions. My reading only took me as far as the agricultural revolution, and we know how much more has happened since. Still, I marvel at how Sapiens presents a simultaneously celebratory and damning picture of what we people have been up to and the consequences, both intended and otherwise, which keep coming to bear.

Three weeks and a pile of books later, my brain is full, my thinking clouded. I remain humble and grateful for the power of reading (and creative writers) to connect me with people, places, and ideas, whether physically or temporally far or near.

1 comment:

  1. I have been thinking about reading Sapiens for a while. I think you have convinced me to finally check it out.