Category Archives: winter reading

Of Flying Machines and the Currents of the Mind

I’ve just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s wonderful biography of Leonardo Da Vinci. Written in the author’s smooth and seamless prose the book chronicles the Master’s life by delving into the notebooks that Leonardo kept constantly by his side. As you might expect from one of the greatest artists in human history the notebooks are filled with sketches of everything from landscapes to human faces and hands. What is surprising, however, is the material that is not art related – the geometry problems, records of cadaver dissections, proposed architectural projects, to-do lists, and studies of the flow of liquids, among many other things.  Isaacson magically unlocks Da Vinci’s mind, using the pages of his notebooks as a window into the thought processes of one of the most remarkable people to have ever lived.

What you see through that window is a person of astonishing observational power, tremendous talent, deep complexity, and perhaps more than anything else unmatched curiosity. Leonardo was filled with contradictions. He could be obsessively focused on a current project, yet he often lost interest in what he was working on, leaving many commissions unfinished. He was unquestionably one of the great artists of all time, producing multiple masterpieces, yet through long stretches of his life he refused to pick up a paint brush.  He was fascinated by science and physics, but he commonly made mistakes in his mathematical calculations. He was interested in large scale big picture challenges like changing the course of rivers or building the ideal city, yet he described in detail the way the wings of a dragonfly moved. In seeing what we all see Leonardo sensed in the world a profound mystery and beauty, and he spent his life observing and unlocking it.

And he intuitively sensed the interconnectedness of all things.  That the blood flow in the heart has something to do with the way water swirls and eddies, that the way the eye perceives light is part and parcel of how a painting should be shaded, that physical motion unlocks inner emotion, and the list goes on and on.  It is no mistake that during his ‘dissection’ period, on a page of his notebooks where he recorded detailed drawings of the dozens of muscles and nerves under the skin around the human mouth, there is a soft sketch of faintly smiling lips that would later appear on the Mona Lisa.  Leonardo perceived the world as a vast and beautiful tapestry where each individual thread is needed to make up the whole.  Most of us in life focus on one or the other, the threads or the tapestry, but Leonardo was able to see both simultaneously.

Last but not least, Isaacson’s Leonardo biography is filled with a deep sense of the very best of what makes us human.  That is something that can be easy to forget, especially during dark and trying times when the baser side of human nature is too visible too often.  This book was a joy to read, and best of all it pulses with hope, faith, curiosity, wonder, insight, intellect, and humanity.  In other words, what we all need, and what our world needs, more and more.

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Filed under books, history, mindfulness, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized, winter reading

The Farthest Shore

Published in 1972, The Farthest Shore  is  the third book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s beloved Earthsea trilogy.  It tells the tale of the Archmage Ged’s final quest and his efforts to restore balance, order, and magic to a breaking world. I still remember to this day reading the last pages of this novel on a cold winter night in Upstate New York, and like with any great book feeling a sense of sadness that the story had ended and the characters I was so invested in would begin to retreat into the mists of time and memory.

Ursula Le Guin died this week at the age of 88, leaving behind a legacy as one of the most beloved and respected fantasy and science fiction authors of all time.  In her clear but haunting prose she pushed the boundaries of our minds, challenging us to reimagine ideas like the power of language and gender identity, and to rethink what defines a hero, what constitutes courage, and what it means to seek balance in life and the world.

Le Guin lived a long and full life. She was a feminist and a mother and wife, a learned scholar and an author of children’s books, a lover of myth and fantasy who knew intuitively that the greatest quests are those in which we seek our true selves. She created worlds that were at the same time exotic and eerily familiar and characters that were filled with hope and courage and doubt and fear, characters who often failed, but who continued to fight for what they believed in. She reminded us that truth is often illusive and ambiguous but that we must seek it nonetheless.

The old saying is that you read the newspaper to find out what happened yesterday but you read great fiction to find out what always happens.  I would add that great fiction also reminds us of what should happen, of who we should strive to be and of what role we should hope to play in the world.  We are all, each of us in our own way, on a quest to the farthest shore.  For a time Ursula K. Le Guin was one of our great guides, helping us to find the way through darkness and to perceive the great light that is in the world.

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Filed under loss, mindfulness, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized, winter reading

Winter Reading

For many years I’ve posted a summer reading list so members of the congregation, if interested, will know what books I’ll be delving into over the summer months.  But the truth is winter is also a reading time, at least for me.  It is dark outside, the wind is blowing, the temperature is dipping.  Inside a single light illuminates a cozy room.  I sit in an armchair, with a thick sweater on, wool socks, perhaps a warm mug of tea, or even better a wee dram of fine whisky.  An open book on my lap, the pages turn one by one, and I am transported to some far off land or distant time.  As the hours go by and the candle begins to burn down and sputter, I hardly notice, for the words beckon.

I’ve loved to read since I was a little boy.  Some of my earliest memories are of flipping the pages of books, or of having my mother or my aunt read to me.  I read constantly, at every spare moment.  I could spend hours perusing the books at my local book store, eyes carefully scanning the covers, hands weighing the heft of each tome, even smelling the freshly cut and printed paper.   That early love of reading has been one of the most important and consistent threads in my life, and the pleasure I felt when opening a book as a lad is even deeper in my adult life.

And in the winter, with the longer nights and shorter days, with less time to be out of doors, there is more time to read.  So here are a few of the titles on my bedside table that I’ll be tackling in the weeks ahead:

I am currently about 200 pages in to Walter Isaacson’s magical biography of Leonardo da Vinci.  The author uses da Vinci’s famous notebooks as a window to peer into the great genius’s mind, and the reader feels as if he is walking along a Milanese city street in the late 1400s watching one of the unique minds of all time unpack the world around us.  The effect is not disconcerting, but is instead a source of wonderment and delight.

Simon Schama has published the second volume in his ‘The Story of the Jews,’ entitle ‘Belonging.’  Schama is a wonderful, anecdotal reporter of history, who writes with lively prose and joy.  This middle volume of his work (I am guessing there will be a third book taking the Jewish story into modernity) covers the period from 1492-1900.  It was a time when Jews began to realize that the world around them might never fully welcome them into its fold.  To be Jewish, Schama suggests, is to always feel as one apart.

Last on this mini-list – Phillip Pullman’s ‘the Book of Dust.’  A prequel to Pullman’s  ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, the Book of Dust traces the earliest stages of his heroine Lyra’s journey, and he explores the societal structures and social norms that drive a fantasy and parallel world that sometimes seems eerily like our own.

Last but not least, check out David Brooks (the NY Times columnist) and his two columns about the best long form essays of the year.  The articles he picks are widely varied in topic, from a story about a man eaten by an alligator to a serious investigation into the current opioid epidemic.  Yet somehow, when viewed as a complete package, the essays form a picture of where we currently are, how we got here, and where we might want to go in the months ahead.

Happy reading!

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Filed under Baltimore, Beth El Congregation, books, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, seasons, summer reading, Uncategorized, winter reading

Winter Reading List

When the days grow short, the weather cold, and the pull of a comfortable chair next to a warm fire almost irresistible, we imagine we will weather our way through various and sundry winter storms while sipping hot chocolate or tea (or a fine Islay whisky!), cuddling up, and reading.  Here are some books that are on my winter reading list.

First up, I am almost finished with Ta Nehasi Coates’ slim memoire/social justice essay/letter to his son called Between the World and Me.  This 150 page volume should be required reading for anyone who is concerned about the roiling racial tension in our society today.  With stark courage and unflinching honesty Coates describes the life shaping experience of growing up as a black man in white America.

Secondly, there are books a rabbi wants to read, and books a rabbi has to read.  Michael Oren’s Ally falls into the latter category.  It will be the topic of the Sisterhood book review on January 20, and also the topic of my talk during our annual ‘Snowbird’ program in Florida.  Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the US from 2009-2013, has written a book that traces the Israeli-American relationship during his tenure.  His premise:  although the bonds between the two countries may stretch and strain at times, they are ultimately unbreakable because of shared values and goals.

Last (but not least), the English historian Mary Beard has written a new, comprehensive (but short!) history of the Roman Empire called SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome.  The civilization, thought, and values that were at the heart of Rome’s rise are still at work in our culture today, two thousand years later.  Understanding where we’ve come from better positions us to move forward into the future with eyes wide open.

Enjoy the books!

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Filed under books, civil rights, clergy, Israeli-American relations, Uncategorized, winter reading