Review: Ish­mael

Ish­mael by Daniel Quinn
My rat­ing: 5 of 5 stars

Any sto­ry that explains the mean­ing of the world, the inten­tions of the gods, and the des­tiny of man is bound to be mythol­o­gy. You think of mythol­o­gy as a set of fan­ci­ful tales. The Greeks did­n’t think of their mythol­o­gy this way. Sure­ly you must real­ize that. I’m talk­ing about liv­ing mythol­o­gy. Not record­ed in any book — record­ed in the minds of the peo­ple of your cul­ture, and being enact­ed all over the world even as we sit here and speak of it. So you see that your agri­cul­tur­al rev­o­lu­tion is not an event like the Tro­jan War, iso­lat­ed in the dis­tant past and with­out direct rel­e­vance to your lives today.

As we, the Tak­ers, see it, the gods gave man the same choice they gave Achilles: a brief life of glo­ry or a long, unevent­ful life in obscu­ri­ty. And the Tak­ers chose a brief life of glo­ry, bring­ing the whole thing to the point of col­lapse in only five hun­dred gen­er­a­tions. Man is the trail­blaz­er, the pathfind­er. His des­tiny is to be the first to learn that crea­tures like man have a choice: They can try to thwart the gods and per­ish in the attempt — or they can stand aside and make some room for all the rest.

I had to face it: I did­n’t just want a teacher — I want­ed a teacher for life. Over the next decade, he taught me all he knew of the world and the uni­verse and human his­to­ry, and when my ques­tions went beyond his knowl­edge, we stud­ied side by side. Some­one has to stand up and become to the world of today what Saint Paul was to the Roman Empire. Is it real­ly so impos­si­ble in an age when a stand-up com­ic on tele­vi­sion reach­es more peo­ple in ten min­utes than Paul did in his entire life­time? In my expe­ri­ence, you nev­er real­ly know how you’re going to han­dle a prob­lem until you actu­al­ly have it. —Daniel Quinn

A hum­bling account of the extant homo species’ extent of mythol­o­gy in its every­day lives and it’s blind­ing unaware­ness of it. The sto­ry we tell our­selves about us, maybe dif­fer­ent than we pre­sumed and may be coloured by hubris. A sense of con­trol is always what we desired, but in there lies a big assump­tion; that we can sim­ply keep on tun­ing things with­out let­ting the inter­play of sys­tems set­tle in their bal­anced states. Like Icarus, the man that should not fly too high in the sky because of the heat of the sun, nor too low near the sea, because of the damp­ness that clogs his feath­ers. The sun’s heat in the atmos­phere gets ever warmer, slow­ly melt­ing our wax. So too, is the damp­ness of the sea reach­ing greater heights with ris­ing water lev­els and more evap­o­ra­tion. All that makes the zone where Icarus can still fly with­out per­ish­ing to com­pla­cen­cy or hubris speed­i­ly small­er, until both he and we meet one of those lim­its. A good exam­ple of how fic­tion­al­iz­ing sto­ries can help us exam­ine our naive nar­ra­tive, to see where it will leads us and lets us choose whether we want to take cor­rec­tive action or that we rather enjoy our the brief moment of glory.

I give “Ish­mael” five stars.

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Review: Why We Swim

Why We Swim
Why We Swim by Bon­nie Tsui
My rat­ing: 4 of 5 stars

At the time of Lord Byron’s Helle­spont swim, he had pub­lished some poet­ry but had not yet estab­lished him­self as one of the great Roman­tic poets. His suc­cess­ful cross­ing, though, got his muse talk­ing, and he pro­duced “Writ­ten after Swim­ming from Ses­tos to Aby­dos,” a satir­ic poem in homage to the swim and to the Greek myth of Hero and Lean­der. Lean­der, a young man from Aby­dos, falls in love with Hero, a priest­ess of Aphrodite who lives in a tow­er in Ses­tos. Every night, Lean­der swims the four miles of the Helle­spont to vis­it Hero, guid­ed by her lamp. One night the lamp blows out, and he drowns, over­come by the waves and cur­rents. She throws her­self from her tow­er to join him in death.

Byron, how­ev­er, escaped with a bout of fever and chills, but for all his jaun­ty tone, he felt that swim­ming coaxed him out of melan­choly, opened up his cre­ative stores, and gave him access to his best self. In truth, the Helle­spont became a touch­stone for him and the stre­nous swim was what loosed his imag­i­na­tion. In time, “Byron­ic” would be a label for our most pas­sion­ate seek­ers, swim­mers, and artists. Byron came to rep­re­sent a “con­cen­trat­ed mind,” as well as “high spir­its, wit, day­light good sense, and a pas­sion for truth—in short a unique dis­charge of intel­lec­tu­al vital­i­ty.” — Bon­nie Tsui

This well-trav­elled sto­ry men­tions the myr­i­ad moti­va­tions peo­ple have to jump in the water. Togeth­er these tales make a good case for swim­ming in the open water and why, see quote above, it makes for a more reward­ing dive. Rang­ing from the Ice­landic hero, Guðlau­gur Friðþórs­son to the Greek Hero, and from the Japan­ese Samu­rais to the Oceans Sev­en Swim­mers. Each bring their own inspir­ing aspect to the table and the total sum makes swim­ming out­doors an admirable and worth­while endeav­our. The key is to not be afraid of the water’s depths, its dark­ness and its poten­tial to draw you down. Ulti­mate­ly, you’ll arise from the water anew; that’s what John would do with you.

I give “Why We Swim” four miles stars.

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