The invisible gorilla

InvisibleGorilla A high-school teacher of mine, Fr. Josef Gregor, used to say, “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” I was reminded of Fr. Gregor’s wise words while reading The Invisible Gorilla. Its lessons: you don’t see as much as you think you see; you don’t remember as well as you think you do; and generally your own assessments of your competence in various areas is probably inflated. Oh, and your intuition is about as reliable as divining from pigeon’s innards.

I would write a more detailed review, but Paul Bloom, writing for tomorrow’s N.Y. Times, does a better job than I could. So if you’re interested in finding out how sharp you aren’t, read his review.

And for those who have never taken this test before: watch this video and see whether you can count the number of passes the white team makes.

15 books

(Cross-posted on The (New) Legal Writer)

John McIntyre inspired this post. John was recently let go as a copy editor by the Baltimore Sun due to the newspaper’s financial death spiral. Anyway, the idea is to list 15 books important to you. Says John, “In my case, I’ve construed it to be books that I’ve looked into repeatedly, or the 15 books I would want to pack up when the severance runs out and the sheriff shows up to turn me out of the house.” With that thought in mind, here are my 15, in the order that they pop into my mind:

  1. The Bible. Specifically, the New American translation. I can’t imagine going through life without a Bible handy.
  2. Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage. I need this book for my job, and there’s no other book I know of that covers the same ground.
  3. John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces. The best New Orleans-based novel ever written.
  4. Anthony De Mello, Awareness. This book helped me turn the corner on depression. My current happiness is a result of things I learned from it.
  5. Walker Percy, The Second Coming. I need at least one Walker Percy book on this list. Of all his novels, this is my favorite. The Last Gentleman is a close second.
  6. Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man Is Hard to Find. This collection of short stories will punch your mind in its solar plexus.
  7. Roy Blount Jr., Feet on the Street. A guy not from New Orleans gets New Orleans. And his outsider’s perspective enables him to get New Orleans in a way that most natives miss.
  8. Richard Daniels, The Heavy Guitar Bible. This book was written for would-be rock-and-rollers. In my case, it introduced me to the structure of the blues—particularly the pentatonic scale.
  9. Bryan A. Garner, The Winning Brief. Several years ago, the first edition of this book (and Bryan’s accompanying seminar) raised my brief-writing consciousness.
  10. William Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements of Style. This book does not tell you everything you need to know about writing. But I don’t know of any other book that packs so much sound advice into so few pages.
  11. Ruggero Aldisert, Winning on Appeal. Every appellate lawyer needs this book. I am an appellate lawyer. Therefore, ....
  12. Edward Good, A Grammar Book for You and I — Oops, Me! This book and one of its predecessors, Mightier Than the Sword, reveal the grammatical structure of the English language and how a writer can use that structure to maximum effect.
  13. George Gopen, The Sense of Structure. This book too aims to reveal the power of structure to a writer. While Ed Good talks about grammatical structure, George Gopen talks about syntactic and linguistic structure.
  14. Roy Peter Clark, Writing Tools. This may be the best book on writing in general that most legal writers are unaware of. Like Ed Good and George Gopen, Roy will add some tools to your writing toolbox. Or, if you’re a lawyer, he will add weapons to your writing arsenal.
  15. Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being. This is a collection of Flannery’s letters. Many of them offer simple and profound spirituality. All of them are served up by one of the south’s best all-time writers.

Henri Nouwen

When I was in seminary college in the late 1970s, I first started hearing about Henri Nouwen. But only recently have I read any of his writings. Right now I’m reading a book of his selected writings, which blows me away just about every time I turn a page. Here’s a taste, an excerpt from Bread for the Journey:

Often we want to be able to see into the future. We say, “How will next year be for me? Where will I be five or ten years from now?” There are no answers to these questions. Mostly we have just enough light to see the next step: what we have to do in the coming hour or the following day. The art of living is to enjoy what we can see and not complain about what remains in the dark. When we are able to take the next step with the trust that we will have enough light for the step that follows, we can walk through life with joy and be surprised at how far we go. Let’s rejoice in the little light we carry and not ask for the great beam that would take all shadows away.

The Seven Storey Mountain

SevenstoreymountainI’m reading The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton’s autobiography. The intelligence and beauty of the writing are breathtaking. Here’s how it starts:

“On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God and yet hating Him; born to love Him, living instead in fear and hopeless self-contradictory hungers.

“Not many hundreds of miles away from the house where I was born, they were picking up the men who rotted in the rainy ditches among the dead horses and the ruined seventy-fives, in a forest of trees without branches along the river Marne.”

To which I say, “Wow!”

1 Dead in Attic (2d ed.)


If you want to read a first-hand account of the harrowing days in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, then get yourself Chris Rose’s new book, 1 Dead in Attic. Chris is a columnist for the  Times-Picayune, New Orleans’ daily newspaper—he also happens to be my neighbor, one block up Magazine Street. His post-Katrina columns made him a runner-up for a Pulitzer. This book is a collection of those columns.

Actually this book is the second, expanded edition. The first edition, released in early 2006, was self-published—it sold 60,000 copies. This edition, much thicker than the first, is published by an outfit called Simon & Schuster.

Song for My Fathers

SongformyfathersIf you love New Orleans or its music, then you may like this book: Song for My Fathers, by Tom Sancton. It's a memoir by a white guy who grew up in New Orleans in the 1950s to 1960s; developed a taste for traditional New Orleans jazz; took lessons from George Lewis, Creole George Guesnon, and others; became a good enough clarinetist as a high-school student to be invited to join the Olympia Brass Band and to sit in occasionally at Preservation Hall; and who eventually went off to college at Harvard and embarked on a career as a professional writer. You can get a taste of Sancton's writing on this Vanity Fair web page, where you'll find an essay that, with a few additions, became the introduction of Song for My Fathers.

Gifts of depression


After my mother died last year, my siblings and I decided to donate her books (boxes of them) to charity. But in one of the boxes, I found one book that caught my eye: Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore. When I glanced at the table of contents, the title of chapter 7 caught my eye: "Gifts of Depression." I decided to keep this book for myself.

Moore believes that the dark moods are parts of our being, to be accepted and learned from rather than suppressed. "Some feelings and thoughts seem to emerge only in a dark mood. Suppress the mood, and you will suppress those ideas and reflections.... Melancholy gives the soul an opportunity to express a side of its nature that is as valid as any other, but is hidden out of our distaste for its darkness and bitterness."

Saturn Not so long ago, Moore says, "melancholy was identified with the Roman god Saturn. To be depressed was to be 'in Saturn,' and a person chronically disposed to melancholy was known as a 'child of Saturn.'" Moore suggests that if we returned to those older expressions, we might accept, even embrace, our dark moods:

What if "depression" were simply a state of being, neither good nor bad, something the soul does in its own good time for its own good reasons? What if it were simply one of the planets that circle the sun? One advantage of using the traditional image of Saturn, in place of the clinical term depression, is that then we might see melancholy more as a valid way of being rather than as a problem that needs to be eradicated.

Moore has many interesting things to say about what the dark moods can teach us. But for those of us who have been through the darkness, it may be more interesting to reflect on what we ourselves have learned or how we have grown as a result.

Letters From New Orleans

LettersfromneworleansJust before January 1, 2000, writer Rob Walker moved to New Orleans. Shortly before Katrina, he moved to New Jersey. In between, he lived in Faubourg St. John and explored the seamier sides of the city. He wrote his observations in his "Letters from New Orleans," a series of e-mails to friends and acquaintances, bringing to this task an outsider's detachment and a writer's keenness in observing people and things. Those letters are collected in this book, the first edition of which was released about a month pre-K. After reading it, I can offer this high praise about it: it's authentic. He loves this city, warts and all.