Since I’m sort of between binge-reads (of Golden-Age mystery writers) and binge-watches (of whatever Barbara tells me to watch), I decided to start at the upper left-hand corner of my Oddball & Nonfiction bookshelves and proceed in direct order, writing up each of these books as I finish them; not skipping any; and deciding whether or not they belong in the last 1,000 books I will ever need.
Am I going to actually get the number of books I own down to 1,000? Who knows. But a few months ago, I looked at my life expectancy and realized that (with space for future discoveries and much-loved re-reads) it was unlikely that I would need more than a thousand books to get me through to even a vast old age. But which thousand? Well, obviously my Georgette Heyer historicals (29 books), and my 11 favorite P. G. Wodehouses, plus the Aubrey- Maturin novels and 30 Modesty Blaise GNs and Screwtape Letters and Silverlock and well, there’s a lot of them that I don’t even have to think about. Without actually doing a count of the books I turn back to over and over again, I expect there are a couple hundred, right off the bat.
But am I going to reread Deep Survival again? If I am not, why am I dragging it around, until my memories of it fade and it’s just 9.1 ounces at the bottom of a box? (Plus, it’s available for under fifteen dollars, any time I feel the need.) And if I am going to reread it again, why not now?
Hence this read-through of all my books, which will be slow and sporadic, since at any moment I could decide I need to watch all fifteen seasons of Supernatural in order or something. I will itemize them, give any useful or interesting insights I want to stockpile somewhere accessible, and (perhaps) make a decision about keeping the copy.
So the first book is Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, from Laurence Gonzales. Why was this on a shelf that otherwise includes Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog and Bradshaw’s Illustrated Hand Book to London and its Environs from 1862? Who knows? Maybe because it didn’t belone anywhere. Anyway, a fantastic book about how accidents happen, analyzing them at quite a deep level, and why some people survive and some don’t. The writing is often gorgeously elegant.
I remember when I read this a few years back it gave me some new tools for thinking about various traumatic times in my past, but it also gave me these:
Most complex systems (like airplanes and marriages and your car) “…are continuously in failure mode.” Things break all the time. Lightbulbs need to be replaced; oil needs to be changed, bickering over clearing the table after dinner happens. These mostly aren’t critical failures — things are replaced or corrected or can be ignored — but they are failures, and because they are happening all the time, sometimes one is critical. Statistically, sooner or later, your engine will blow out on the highway — unless something else breaks first. (Which it usually does.)
Carl von Clauswitz: A constant challenge in waging was is “countless minor events” that “conspire to decrease efficiency” so that “one always falls short of the goal. These difficulties happen over and over again, and cause a sort of friction.” Every system, complex or simple, is continually pushed away from its ideal state by friction within each part and between parts. The results of this friction are impossible to calculate. You can’t perfectly overcome friction by pushing harder.
Getting lost is actually five stages: 1. You deny you’re disoriented and press forward, attempting to make your mental map fit what you’re seeing. 2. You realize you are actually lost; your brain floods and actions become unproductive, frantic, and dangerous. 3. You start to build a strategy for finding something that matches your mental map (instead of discarding your mental map and accepting the promacy of the actual world.) 4. You deteriorate as this strategy fails you. 5. You become resigned. This prioritizing of your mental map or the perceived reality, and then panicking and doubling down, happens in life, as well.
An emergency takes one or many days; surviving starts on Day One of the emergency and lasts ’til the end of your life.
Is this one of the thousand? I don’t think so, in part because I can always find it again in a bookstore somewhere. I like the lessons it imparts, but I think I have internalized what I am going to get from it.
Next book: Bradshaw’s Illustrated Hand Book to London and its Environs.