Recent book reviews – June 2010
Beautiful Evidence, by Edward Tufte
Healing with Whole Foods, by Paul Pitchford
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami
Beautiful Evidence, the most recent of Tufte’s books, continues his glorious exploration of graphs, diagrams, and descriptive text with the goal of elucidating how we should present information. Touching on topics as far-ranging as sculpture pedestals and astronomical charts, Beautiful Evidence has a satisfying balance of thought-provoking theory and practical advice. Though for me it didn’t have the “weight” of his earlier book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, (perhaps only because I have already been exposed to Tufte’s basic premises,) Beautiful Evidence is an amazing book and a great read for anyone who produces works of information.
I can’t remember why I added this to my library queue but by the end of the intro, I found myself in a quandry: I agree with the book’s recommendations — the diet, the lifestyle suggestions — but I wholeheartedly disagree with the theory. Essentially, the book professes a vegetarian diet, with whole, unrefined grains and sugars, and a refreshing test-it-for-yourself-and-see approach to health. But on every page the book undermines it’s own authority with references to “eastern” concepts like “yin/yang” and “qi”. For example, “In wealthy countries, the vast majority of disease arises from excess bodily heat and dampness caused by overeating rich, greasy, highly seasoned, denatured, and/or intoxicating foods, viz., and excess of meats (especially red meats), eggs, cheese, and other dairy products…” Word… meat is bad, and yes, our problem in the US is excess. But why the mysticism of “heat” or “dampness”? At first I figured it might be a problem of semantics; perhaps “heat” is what I might call “high blood sugar”. Or better yet, “heat” refers to an altogether different concept of diagnosing and treating the body. But these attempts to remain open minded were defeated by overly simplistic damnations of GM and non-organic foods, statements like “ejaculation causes loss of minerals” (paraphrasing), and by references to “homeopathy”, a greedy sham science perpetrated on people at their weakest. I skipped to the recipes and tried making the dosa, which turned out well, granting the book three points.
Haruki Murakami is a renowned Japanese novelist and one of Hiro’s favorite authors. In this non-fiction work, Murakami talks about his attraction to running and the role it plays in his creative work as a writer. It was fascinating to read another artist’s approach to his work and to exercise, and to hear his thoughts on the subtle interactions between the two.
“No matter how much long-distance running might suit me, of course there are days when I feel kind of lethargic and don’t want to run. Actually, it happens a lot. On days like that, I try to think of all kinds of plausible excuses to slough it off. Once, I interviewed the Olympic runner Toshihiko Seko, just after he retired from running and became manager of the S&B company team. I asked him, ‘Does a runner at your level ever feel like you’d rather not run today, like you don’t want to run and would rather just sleep in?’ He stared at me and then, in a voice that made it abundantly clear how stupid he thought the question was, replied, ‘Of course! All the time!’
Now that I look back on it I can see what a dumb question that was. I guess even back then I knew how dumb it was, but I suppose I wanted to hear the answer directly from someone of Seko’s caliber. I wanted to know whether, despite being worlds apart in terms of strength, the amount we can exercise, and motivation, when we lace up our running shoes early in the morning we feel exactly the same way. Seko’s rely at the time came as a great relief. In the final analysis we’re all the same, I thought.”
I often find myself thinking that the challenges of practice, especially the essential challenges of motivation and priority setting, reveal profound insights into my habits, my weaknesses, and my fears. I loved reading about Murakami’s insights.
I was a bit surprised, however that I don’t share more with him in the way I would describe my work and my over-arching goals. I think we agree that creative work is 99% hard labor, but to some degree, Murakami sees himself as a “troubled artist”.
“But those of us hoping to have long careers as professional writers have to develop an autoimmune system of our own that can resist the dangerous (in some cases lethal) toxin that resides within. Do this, and we can more efficiently dispose of even stronger toxins. In other words, we can create even more powerful narratives to deal with these. But you need a great deal of energy to create an immune system and maintain it over a long period. You have to find that energy somewhere, and where else to find it but in our own basic physical being?”
I’ve never understood this sense of self. I don’t feel any toxin within, with which taiko helps me cope. I’ve chosen taiko deliberately, based on the pluses and minuses… almost like someone might buy a car. I fear that this means I’m not a true artist, and if this book disappointed me in some way, it was because I fear I’m not like Murakami.
Tags: book reviews