The Age of Anxiety by W. H. Auden, edited by Alan Jacobs

I started reading the new critical edition of Auden’s the Age of Anxiety yesterday. Or, rather, I started reading Jacobs’ foreword to the poem. So far, I am very impressed. Auden was about my current age when he began writing The Age of Anxiety (something which, in itself, seems impossible), and so far it’s eery how many of my own concerns and anxieties are addressed in the poem.


Singing the praises of science fiction

My new post at ThinkChristian.

Earlier this summer, NPR asked listeners to select the top 100science fiction and fantasy novels of all time.

By some chance, the final list began and ended with the two most acclaimed Christian novelists of the twentieth century. J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy came in at No. 1, while C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy rounded out the list at No. 100.

Read the whole thing and join the conversation.

My New Favorite Fantasy Series

Or, at least, my favorite current fantasy series. A few weeks ago, I picked up The Red Wolf Conspiracy by Robert V. S. Redick from my local library. I was looking for something decently distracting to read after being terribly disappointed by the third Thomas Covenant series, and Terry Pratchett had given Redick a very nice blurb, so I figured, “What the heck.” I read through the first one, checked out the second in the series as soon as it was available, and now anxiously await the 2011 release of the third.

What’s so good about the books? Well, the original and interesting concept certainly helps — more on that in a second — but the writing is what I really appreciate. A major part of my frustration with the new Thomas Covenant series was the overwrought writing style and the lack of distinction between a large cast of characters. Redick’s epic contains at least as many characters, maybe more, but they’re so well-imagined and visualized, there’s never a problem keeping them straight. I also never feel like I’m reading about American suburbanites in an exotic land — they truly seem like people from completely alien cultures.

As for the concept, Redick certainly echoes great fantasy and sci-fi novels, yet there’s no one fantasy world that seems to be the model. Further, most of the series (thus far) is set on board a massive ocean-going merchant ship, the Chathrand, a centuries-old vessel, the last of its kind remaining from a long-passed Golden Age. The first two novels take place in “the North,” made up a large continent, divided between two rival empires, and numerous islands and archipelagos. Humans share the world with several other intelligent species, such as the faerie-like ixchel, the glow-in-the-dark flikkermen, and a growing number of “woken” animals that have gained sentience. Once, centuries before, commerce and traffic flowed between the North and the South, but a mysterious “Worldstorm” destroyed that existence and cut the world in half.

Redick’s world is also a delight. Well-conceived, diverse, richly textured, the world feels like a unified whole with a full history. Redick doesn’t pursue languages like Tolkien — who could? — but language and culture play a central role in the story. The main character, a young sailor named Pazel Pathkendle, has been magically gifted with the ability to learn any language upon encountering it once. Divisions between nations, tribes, cultures, tongues, etc., form a central theme throughout.

I haven’t even touched on the plot yet. I won’t say more about the book, except that I’m waiting for the third book eagerly.

Making the Switch

switch3d.pngChip and Dan Heath, the brothers behind the great book Made to Stick, have a new book coming out next month — Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. The topic excited me, because my work with the Emerging Scholars Network tries to change an entrenched academic system I was lucky enough to score an advance copy. Like I expected, this book has strong advice that will help ESN change the university; I did not expect how much it would help me change my own bad habits.

The book’s basic concepts build from the idea that our brain has two distinct systems: an impulsive-but-powerful emotional brain and a clever-but-weak rational brain. The Heaths call these the Elephant and the Rider, borrowing an image from University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt. According to the Heaths, meaningful and lasting change happens by:

  • Directing the Rider with clear objectives and “bright spots”
  • Motivating the Elephant by tapping into our strong emotional desires, and
  • Shaping the Path so that the Elephant and Rider have fewer choices to distract them.

I found the idea of bright spots to be especially helpful. Instead of focusing your attention and analysis on problems, focus on the “bright spots” where things seem to be going right. The Heaths give an example of a young boy who is constantly in trouble at school, except for one class. His counselor figures out why that one teacher in the whole school can get the student to behave, then maps out the critical steps for other teachers to follow. I’m looking forward to identifying bright spots within ESN.

I’ve already decided to apply the ideas of Switch to my two most vexing work problems: making my fundraising calls and writing on a consistent basis.

For fundraising, I’ve identified a couple of ways to shape the path so that it’s easier for me to make my calls. I will prepare my list of people to call the day before and print it out ahead of time, so that my emotional energy can be spent on my calls, rather than on figuring out who to call. Then, because it’s difficult for me to get motivated to start my calls, I’m going to set an action trigger: in this case, a kitchen timer that I’ll set when I enter my office in the morning. When the timer goes off, I’m going to drop whatever I’m doing, pick up my pre-prepared list, and start my calling.

If that sounds simple, that’s the Heaths’ point. Change happens through (apparently) simple adjustments. I’ve not yet figured out a Switch-style solution to my writing problem. Perhaps a move to the library or a coffee shop to do my writing, where it’s harder for me to log on to the internet and where I feel more “wasteful” if I’m using my “special writing time” to check Facebook? That might be a good solution: I experienced a bright spot with writing when I was in graduate school by working on poetry in the school’s atrium, and the change of environment might trick my brain out of its “easily distracted” mode.

As you might imagine from guys who specialize in sticky ideas, the book is filled with great stories and easy-to-remember concepts. I found it to be an enjoyable read, not too challenging intellectually, but extremely challenging personally.

What do you want to change? What are the bright spots that are already working? How can you create more bright spots in your life?

For more information about Switch, check out the Heath Brother’s website. You can also read an excerpt online from Fast Company.

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