Books, ideas, frameworks

My recent road trip left me with a lot of time for thinking about, among other things, books. In the “old” days, which were not that long ago, such a trip would mean buying / reading a few books over the six weeks I was on the road. It also meant planning how to get the books while traveling, how to carry them and where to leave them (or who to give them to) when I was finished, This trip, that whole routine was gone.

Such a “book free” journey was long in the making. During this past such journey, I started wondering, is the change for better or worse? Upon first examination, it appears to be a loss. But upon further examination, I am not so sure I can make such a simple, sweeping declaration.

The first question is, what has changed? Obviously, I now have a laptop computer with me, so I am more inclined to work than read. Similarly I now download the NY Times onto my iPhone, so I get my newspaper electronically. So technology has been a major factor in the displacement of books in my life. Also, for better or worse, I have less free time than I used to. The good news is that my business goes well. The bad news is that I have less time to intellectually “putter around” with ideas the way you can when you read a good book.

So what are some of the books I have read previously while traveling and what was it about each book that transformed my thinking? (This list is by no means exhaustive and is highly subjective.) In no particular order:

Holidays in Hell by P.J O’Rourke, where the author does an amazingly humorous job of conveying the weirdness of traveling in the third world in general and conflict zones in particular. The book is detailed, funny and truthful. So much so, that in one book the author created a new book genre. Then he shut out all his potential competitors, whose work would simply pale by comparison.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy is ostensibly a novel about life in village India. The book conveys the drama, misery and pathos of life in rural India. It does so in writing that is both empathetic and evokes great imagery in the mind’s eye of the reader. It is one of the most “visual” books I have ever read. I have heard that from enough other people that it is not just my “prejudice” towards India that makes me feel that way about that book.

During my time in Vietnam I kept thinking about two books, The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama and Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy by Robert S. McNamara, James Blight, Robert K. Brigham, Thomas J Biersteker and Col. Herbert Schandler.

The Fukuyama book argues that history is of course, a series of events, which will never “end.” But history is also a competition (or maybe a debate) between differing political systems. History tests out ideas and bypasses the ones that fail. Feudalism, for example, may have functioned well for a time, but as a viable governing system it failed the test of time. With the demise of the Soviet Union, the last big competition between ideologies was largely settled, with market-based democracy the winner. The end of that competition is the “end of history” that the author refers to in his title. Though Vietnam is a so-called communist country, they are embracing capitalism quickly and deeply. Their experience argues that one kind of history, the competition between differing political systems, has indeed largely ended.

The McNamara book is day-by-day history of the Vietnam War, primarily but not exclusively focused on the American involvement. Using American, Chinese and Vietnamese documents, the author(s) assemble an in-depth narrative of how all sides were acting as the war unfolded. The lack of communication and the level of mistrust and misunderstanding is, of course, appalling, doubly so knowing how many lives will be wasted over the course of the war. Going through Vietnam, I was reminded again and again how the Vietnamese certainly do not hold a grudge against Americans, despite the war.

Early on in my India work, I struggled through a particularly dense academic text, Contemporary India: A Sociological View, edited by Satish Deshpande. One particular chapter introduced me to the concept of “Inter-subjectivity.” One accepted definition (of many) is “…shared understanding that helps us relate one situation to another.” It is like empathy but slightly different. Specifically, it means that I accept that I could be in your position, having your experience. The piece that I read in that book argued that Indians are very low on the Inter-subjectivity scale. Because of the caste system, most Indians (consciously or otherwise,) do not think they could be in the same position/have the same experience as the other person nearby them. This kind of disconnect bodes badly for the future of India’s civil society, according to the sociologist I was reading.

This idea completely reshaped my thinking about India. What I learned continues to shape my thinking as I consider other cultures, such as Vietnam. Partly because of their experience with Communism and with Buddhism, the Vietnamese are almost the opposite of the Indians in terms of Inter-subjectivity. The average Vietnamese probably does think they could very easily be the person next to them, whether that person is much better or worse off.

When I was working on my project on the complexities of the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians I drew heavily on two books. The Yellow Wind by David Grossman and Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land by David Shipler. The latter was full of information that really helped me understand the reality of the relationship I would eventually end up photographing. The former was less factual but more important because it gave me more of an emotional, human and metaphorical framework to use when I was looking at that same relationship. Both books are ostensibly non-fiction, though Grossman is a novelist by trade and so his book has the novelist’s touch.

Looking back I see that good books served as ways to help me consider big ideas during a given trip. They helped me avoid getting caught up in the day-to-day stuff that fill up most journeys. Books helped me understand my projects in the making and frame exactly how I was going to approach them. Over the years I learned that the process of framing my approach to a project required a kind of alchemy. I would mix together my reading-based knowledge of the topic, my awareness of how the topic had previously been photographed, stir in my actual experience of the issue on the ground and the final outcome was my framework or my approach to the topic.

With current project on foreclosures, that framing was the hardest part. The approach I settled on is uniquely my own, rather than just being built on top of the work of others. That is something of a change for me. The good news is that I really “own” that, in terms of how invested I am in the work and how much more than most of my other projects this work reflects my own thinking. The bad news us that by not using a commonly accepted a framework, I may have created a project that is harder for others to fully appreciate.

Only time will tell if I took the “correct” approach, if the “Foreclosed Dreams” work will stand the test of time. The same thing can be said about the hundreds of books I have read over the years. A few memorable one stuck out as having changed my thinking forever. One can only hope that my better photo-essays will have similar transformative powers for those who see them.

One response to “Books, ideas, frameworks”

  1. How about reading on a Kindle or other e-reader? No question of weight or space. I realize time is part of the issue, but you can carry a whole library with you. And thanks for your annotated biblio. Holidays in Hell sounds like something I need to check out!

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