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Best Non-Fiction of 2019

When social distancing stopped being the exclusive domain of introverts and curmudgeons, I resolved to catch up on Orwell and Austen and all those books piling up on my nightstand. 

Only to find myself consuming too much Cabernet Sauvignon, liking every other Facebook post, and binging on Tiger King instead. 

It can be a frustrating time to be alive. But it does not have to be. As long as you do not imitate my sorry ways and read something worthwhile.  But like what, you may wonder? Let me present to you a non-scientific list of the best books I’ve read last year. This is four months late but probably never more timely. 

As was the case last year when I wrote about the best books I read in 2018, I have selected five non-fiction books because:

  1. Non-fiction is better – and stranger – than fiction. Don’t believe me? Read the Washington Post.   
  2. This is 5tern.com. 
  3. Even numbers may be orderly but odd numbers are, well, odd in the most  interesting way.
  4. You do not have time for 7. 
  5. IDK. I wanted five reasons for selecting five non-fiction books  but am hopelessly stuck at four.

Anyway, in no particular order, here goes:  

Sprawlball

Kirk Goldsberry’s book is a gorgeously written and illustrated ode to the most beautiful game known to mankind. Full of pithy sentences and frame-worthy infographics, the trained cartographer brings granular clarity to modern basketball by integrating and mapping shot charts to show how it’s evolved over time, for better and worse, to eliminate the mid-range shot. 

If you want to understand how Mitchell Robinson, Trae Young, and Luka Doncic are the future of basketball, and why Karl Malone’s pick-and-pop, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s skyhook, and Michael Jordan’s fadeaway jumper are historical relics unlikely to be replicated, Goldsberry is your man. 

Whether you are an occasional fan or a diehard obsessive, his visual and verbal depictions are candy for the eyes, catnip for the mind, and worth checking out. 

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

Michelle McNamara was obsessed with serial murderers. Which is just an interesting way of saying she was obsessed with justice. And the best part? She administered it by sleuthing psychopaths from her laptop and giving unsolved mysteries unexpected endings. 

Do not say you were not forewarned, though: this is not a book conducive to sleeping or working. I couldn’t do either when I opened the book. Finishing up a day later, I remember staying in the bathtub for an extra beat when I was supposed to be grading papers, staring at that tiny black spot on the ceiling, not wanting to get out and get with life.

“You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark,” you threatened a victim once.

Open the door. Show us your face.

Walk into the light.

McNamara’s depictions of evil terrify;  her clarity and compassion mesmerize; her search for light and right inspires. 

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

With a 912 page biography of Frederick Douglass that didn’t feel half that long, David Blight does a masterful job of capturing Douglass as who he was – a human being and a fascinating, self-made, towering genius.

What to the Slave is the 4th of July.

Douglass was born into chains but “prayed with [his] legs” by escaping, traded bread for education, shined a searing light at the “gross injustice and cruelty” of slavery through writing, speaking, and organizing, and supported women’s suffrage en route to becoming the most photographed American in the 19th century.  Which is why the Obamas are reportedly working on making a NetFlix movie based on this book. 

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

Not to imitate my 7th grade English teacher, but read the book before you watch the movie.     

King of the World

When I looked at the posters of Muhammad Ali on my dorm wall when I was an undergraduate student and imagined his boxing fights and his battles outside the ring, it was always in black and white. He fought boxers and won. He refused to go to Vietnam and won. He punched and changed the world. 

But David Remnick’s lyrical narrative of Cassius Clay’s early years brings color to his journey – to the 1950s and the 1960s in which he grew up, and to the Muhammad Ali we remember today.   

So many characters and moments are vivid in my imagination, several months after reading the book. The blistering stare and punching power of Sonny Liston. The soft eyes and wisdom of Floyd Patterson. The greatness of James Baldwin. The intellect of Malcolm X and his tragic friendship with Ali. The public enmity and private allegiance between Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. The curious exhortations of Elijah Muhammad. The unrepentant racism and petty meanness of sportswriters, political leaders, business owners, and so many ordinary (banal!) people.

And Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.? Muhammad Ali who shocked and changed the world? He was a fascinating human being, full of convictions and contradictions. He was tolerant and judgmental, insightful and dogmatic, charismatic and austere, an integrationist and a separationist, disciplined and impulsive, progressive and old-fashioned, all at once. 

Today, “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” emblazoned on that famous photograph of Ali standing over Liston is no longer a black & white poster in my head. Thanks to King of the World, it is an intensely hued illustration of how an energetic human being rhymed, gloved, and paved his way through a tumultuous age to make it his own. 

Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning has been described as one of the 10 most influential books in America and one of the 25 books that we’ve gotta read before we die. 

But know what? We should read about Frankl’s internment at a concentration camp and his form of psychotherapy – logotherapy – long before we die. 

In the book, he connects the particular with the general, anecdote with theory with extraordinary simplicity to illuminate how meaning is the fundamental quest for human beings.

Several (i.e., five) takeaways:

  1. Contrary to popular opinion, it is healthy to strive and struggle. Absent this tension, meaning is unlikely to be at its most meaningful.
  2. Suffering is unique. Not in that nobody else suffers because everybody suffers. But unique in the sense that while there are millions of snowflakes, there are no identical snowflakes. It is incumbent on us to find special meaning in our pain, to make it a vehicle to something more lasting, whether it be dignity, discovery, or discipline.
     
  3. Accepting personal responsibility is the path to well-being. It is not about blaming ourselves but about choosing the right mindset, which is entirely up to us. Even in the most atrocious of settings in the face of some of the most sinister plans ever known to mankind, Frankl points out nobody and nothing can take away the ability “to choose one’s attitude…to choose one’s own way.”
  4. Good and evil are rooted in personal choices, more so than group affiliations. As Frankl observes, there were decent Nazis and indecent prisoners at the concentration camp, leading him to conclude that there was no pure race but two races of people: the indecent and the decent. 
  5. The future is more important than the past; others than the self. In contrast with Freud, for instance, who favors psychoanalysis to focus on the self to uncover dreams and unload anguish, Frankl makes a profound case that it is often more helpful to stop navel-gazing and to focus on what has yet to come. 

So, what next? One is personal and the other professional. From now on, I will try to remind myself that it is my responsibility to choose how I wish to respond to a situation and find meaning, no matter how trivial or onerous.

The other is to cultivate the search for meaning in my students. Frankl cites a Johns Hopkins study which found that over 80 percent of college students were more concerned about finding their purpose in life than making money. Over 70 years later today, a cursory review of public opinion polls show a similar percentage in our youth. Not to mention the highest occurrence of anxiety and depression in any generation ever. 

The least I can do, as a professor, is to encourage them to find meaning by creating work, experiencing something or somebody, or choosing our attitude by which to face hardship that cannot be avoided.

And by recommending them to read this book. 

***

What about you? Have you read these books? If so, what did you think?  Do you have a book to recommend for 2020? If so, hit me up and let me know.  

Until more soon, stay well and stay the fuck at home, curmudgeon or not. 

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Wondering Why, Why, Why

The writer and baseball statistician, Bill James, once asked, “Do people really believe there’s something different about the eyes of murderers?” Being somebody who overthinks for a living, the question stuck in my mind for a while, inching over my thoughts like a measuring worm, but I didn’t have much to say on the subject until recently.

When I was assistant coach of men’s basketball at Gallaudet, we recruited a 18-year-old from southern Virginia. He was 6’5” and athletic with a memorable gait. He ran with feet turned in, like that ungainly bird, and sinewy arms pumping to the Heavens. When he was exhausted out of his mind and told to run sprints after practice for missing study table? He would put up a vigorous but futile self-defense, mutter “Damn, Coach!”, and then heave his arms harder and higher with his neck craning back to the skies, dripping sweat and snot.

He had wobbly eyeglasses that would fall off and break about every time he played. Each time, he would nonchalantly tape them back together and keep balling. When he dove for loose balls and hustled for steals in pick-up games, notwithstanding the condition of his eyeglasses, it was clear as day how he averaged 29 points, 18 rebounds, and 9 blocks his senior year of high school.

But this is not really why I remember him. He had a natural intellect and relentless curiosity that made him the first-ever (and only) student in Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind history to take AP Calculus. Graduating with a 3.9 cumulative GPA, he earned a academic scholarship to attend Gallaudet and major in Accounting. His interests went beyond mere numbers, though. He would read this Kurt Vonnegut quote on my office door before coming inside to discuss it with a curious look and a crooked smile:

“Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;

Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why?’

Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;

Man got to tell himself he understand.”

He introduced himself to his teammates on the first day of school by dunking in his Timberlands, which garnered “you can play” hoots. But little did they realize it was because he couldn’t afford basketball shoes. As they say in the South, where he grew up, he was so poor, he could barely afford to pay attention.

Showing up to class? Listening to the professor? A dollar for a soda? $5 for a foot-long at Subway? $20 for a required NCAA physical check-up? A new pair of eyeglasses, let alone basketball goggles? He couldn’t afford any of these. Looking back, though, it is rather obvious these weren’t the only things for which he did not have the financial means.

He would stay in his dorm room for weeks with the lights turned off. When he wasn’t sleeping, he showed clear signs of difficulties concentrating and remembering details. Re-reading former conversations with him, he had complained of being “down and stressed.” We told him that he was depressed, that there were mental health services on campus that could help him, and that there was light at the end of the tunnel.  

The coaching staff stopped by his dorm room several times to urge him to get counseling services, often to find his dorm room all dark and him sullen. He brushed us off each time, claiming that it would not help and that it would cost too much time and energy. In his farewell email before leaving school mid-semester — we never got the chance to say goodbye in person — he wrote that he wanted to be “as free from systems and policies as possible.”  

After his departure from school, whenever I watched a bespectacled player dive for a loose ball, looked at that framed picture above my office computer of him smiling with his arms wrapped around his teammates, or read that Kurt Vonnegut poster on my door, I would think of him.

And I wasn’t the only one. Several times after leaving school, the coaching staff tried to contact him but never heard back with the exception of an assistant coach who received a terse response. Then, finally. But for all the wrong reasons.

In January, two years ago, the Roanoke Times reported that he was arrested for murdering his audiologist with a steak knife, that he was found near the scene with blood on his hands and in his car, and that he told the judge in his arraignment hearing that he is “tired of America” and wants to die as soon as possible, because he “never wants to see a human being again.”

After exchanging e-mail with him from prison, who has since been found guilty to first degree murder and sentenced to life,  and finding out that he was off his medication that day, I still wonder. As Vonnegut would put it, “Why, why, why?

What should we have done differently? Did we try hard enough to give him the support that he needed and surround him with role models with whom he could relate? What was he thinking when he left the university? That morning he drove to the audiologist’s office? Was he thinking at all? How do the systems and policies that he was so desperate to flee compare to those of prison?

And his eyes? His curious eyes may have been stuck behind eyeglasses stuck together by adhesive tape, but were they any different from ours? His crooked smile in that pre-game team circle? Was it a glimpse of the happiness that he woulda, coulda, shoulda had if he had received the support he needed and stayed in school?  

Reading the newspaper articles and Facebook posts, and talking with those who knew him at college — all of us asking “Why, why, why?” — we have a grating tendency to throw around simple-sounding theories to explain what happened and how it could have been avoided.

But I wonder. Are our explanations more self-serving than not, simply so that we can claim that we understand, and then move on with our lives? Can the totality of his unimaginable experience — what he went through all his life — and the choices leading to that tragic day really be summed up with a neat explanation? Or does that distract us from the complexities of life and the hard work that must be undertaken if we want to make the world a better place?

We do not discuss the messiness, the inscrutableness of the strange world out there enough at colleges and universities where we have fancy looking student learning outcomes that address knowledge and inquiry, and in our popular culture where we valorize provocative questions, grand predictions, and sweeping explanations in 140 characters.

Yet, what about the timeless virtues of humility, compassion, and friendship? Do we absorb and practice these fundamental values enough? Seeking to understand and explain the world out there is imperative. But this is also a strange day and age where we are more connected than ever and yet feel more alone than ever, and where we virtue signal more often than we practice virtue. As much as we must prepare the minds of our future leaders, it is not the be all and end all.

Picturing that fateful morning the audiologist said goodbye to her family before heading to work, and that moment captured in time when he was smiling with his teammates in the pre-game dance circle, I wonder (there we go again) if we spend too much time with the lights turned off, wondering aloud about the world by that eerie blue glow, dividing life neatly between light or dark, and telling ourselves that we understand.

But do we spend enough time coming to terms with the uncomfortable truth that life is infinitely complex and often without rhyme or reason? That there is the capacity of good and evil in our eyes? That the best we can do is sometimes to stop trying to explain, label, understand, and solve everything, and instead, to seek out special moments of human connection, such as when a curious student with pigeon toes, a crooked smile, and eyeglasses taped together with scotch tape enters your office to ask why, why, why?