Harems, Parties, and Understanding

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December 17, 2020 by libroshombre

            Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “A man’s library is a sort of a harem,” and booklovers know a person’s personal library reveals much about the owner.  Reading a recent NYTimes.com article titled “What’s Fauci Reading?  We Take Another Look at Celebrity Bookshelves” compelled getting out the magnifying glass and examining the accompanying photograph of Fauci sitting in front of his bookshelves.  Books were stacked on top of books and family photos, baseball cards, and small mementos propped in front.  In short, Fauci’s shelves closely resemble mine, even down to the baseball cards.   

Former national security chief Susan Rice’s bookshelves appeared equally active, sported a rolling ladder to reach the upper shelves, and included a number intelligence-related books, like “Warnings,” by Clarke and Eddy (“these two veterans of the White House National Security Council tried to offer, in this 2017 book, a way to anticipate the unexpected calamities that seem to come from nowhere but have huge repercussions — like, yes, pandemics”) and “Spycatcher,” by Peter Wright (“Another intelligence officer’s account, this one from the former assistant director of MI5. It is full of untold Cold War stories”).

            Fauci’s current reading matter included “The Gentleman from Ohio” the autobiography of Louis Stokes, the African-American Congressman and Civil Rights pioneer, “Natural: How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science,” and “The LoFrisco Family Cookbook,” containing  Sicilian recipes from Anthony LoFrisco, a noted attorney whose family immigrated from Sicily, like Fauci’s.  Having ample opportunity during the Covid-19 crisis to hear Fauci and assess his background and demeanor, he’s certainly made my ever-evolving “Best Extended Dinner Companions” list.  I’ve endeavored for some time to create an ideal gathering that would be limited to eight intellectually stimulating, good natured dinner companions to ensure everyone’s active participation wouldn’t be diminished, but how to keep it down to eight?

            The idea came to me while reading the memoirs of Usama Ibn Munqidh, the 12th century Islamic knight and an unparalleled raconteur.  He, 17th century Samurai Musashi Myamoto, explorer Richard Burton, and Samuel “Dictionary” Johnson were quick additions and reluctant exclusions; the first two because of the language barrier, and the latter for their overblown egos and repugnant social graces.  The party’s attendees must understand and get along with each other, so Ben Franklin, Mark Twain, Samuel Pepys, and Australian adventurer Hubert Wilkins  easily made the cut, but Krazy Kat creator George Herriman and Charles Schulz of “Peanuts” fame, despite fascinating personalities, were too shy and private.  The distaff side includes author Fanny Burney, Paula Poundstone, and art critic Sister Wendy, and maybe Dorothy Parker.

            Rice’s reading of “Spycatcher” reminded me of spy-novelist John le Carre’s biographical novel, “The Perfect Spy,” and autobiography, “The Pigeon Tunnel,” which brim with fascinating vignettes, encounters, and revelations.  George Orwell claimed that creative writers can be at their best for 15 years tops, but le Carre, an actual British intelligence officer for MI5 (counterintelligence) and MI6 (foreign intelligence) “wrote espionage novels at a high level for nearly 60 years,” according to the NYTimes.com critic.  “Even if you are largely immune to the appeal of spy stories and genre narratives, Mr. le Carre’s books deliver a sting.  So much incisiveness was inserted into pained understatement.”  Unfortunately, he falls in the same noncommunicative group as Herriman and Schulz.

However, another idol, Richard Feynman, an exuberant live-wire by any standards, especially among his fellow quantum physicist and geniuses, has to be included.  Feynman was a renowned communicator.  “The Feynman Technique: The Best Way to Learn Anything,” a recent online article by Farnam Street, explains Feynman’s four steps to learning and communicating.  Feynman described “two types of knowledge”: knowing the name of something, and really knowing that something.  In school we’re taught the names of things but we often don’t fully grasp the concepts behind them, so Feynman devised “four simple steps” for determining the edges of your understanding and expanding them.   First, “teach the subject to an eight-year-old.”  Write down all you know about the topic as if preparing to teach it to a child, excluding all jargon and complicated words.  This forces a deeper understanding and reveals the gaps in your knowledge.  Second, review the basic source material until those gaps are filled.  Third, organize your thoughts into “a simple story that flows.”  Now your understanding’s on firmer ground, but, to be sure, try it out on someone uninformed on the subject (“preferably an eight-year-old”).

“The 50/50 Rule (How to Retain and Remember 90% of Everything You Learn” by Thomas Oppong describes Feynman’s two-pronged approach to remembering: repetition and “connecting new information to existing knowledge” by learning half the time and sharing what you’ve learned the other half.  Feynman, “The Great Explainer”, was famous for describing complex subjects in easily digestible ways by employing the “testing technique.”   When reading a dense book, he forced himself to stop halfway through and jot down his notes.  Our brains are designed to forget unnecessary information, and writing notes helps build and reinforce recollection pathways.  But pen and paper are required because keyboard typing happens too fast for retention to occur.    What better time to test the testing effect than when isolated in a house full of messy, but intriguing, bookshelves?  To paraphrase Shakespeare, “my library is dukedom large enough.”

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