Superfluous Matter
Books - A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

After twenty-three years and the death of the original author the fantasy series "The Wheel of Time" is complete. The series is fourteen books long (plus one novella) and weighs in at 4,056,130 words. I started reading it in high school, in 1995, so I've been paying attention to it for eighteen years. More than half of my life. I've known the characters of the series longer than most of my friends.

When Robert Jordan died in 2007 it was a bit of a shock and I was sad that I'd never learn how the series finished. But he had copious notes and even parts of the final books already written so Brandon Sanderson was able to pick up where he left off and finish the last three books. I do not have any serious complaints about the new author. He remained true enough to the original style.

I won't go into any detail about the book as I don't want to spoil it for anyone who cares. I will just say that the entire books is a climax. Each book in the series has a pretty good "exciting" part towards the end, but this book is just non-stop excitement from start to finish. Don't start reading it if you can't afford a few hours to go inexplicably missing.

Objectively the series is pretty fluffy. It's not going to change the world. I don't think I'd recommend starting it if you are already an adult. But it's been such a large part of my past that even though it got a bit annoying around book nine or ten I never doubted that I would keep reading until the end. And now that it is done I feel a small but measurable amount older.


I've blogged a lot about physical health lately, particularly diet. But I've also been reading a couple of "lifestyle" blogs: Mr. Money Mustache and Raptitude which are more about financial and psychological health respectively. Both are excellent and I encourage everyone to read them.

Mr. Money Mustache is ostensibly about early retirement (for the average middle class working family), but it's a lot deeper than that. It really comes quite close to covering the same ground as Raptitude, but from the angle of personal finance. Early retirement is easy: spend significantly less than you earn. The author of the blog retired with his wife at age 30 in order to concentrate full time on raising their son. They did this by trimming expenses down to about $25,000/year and then saving money until the passive income generated by their investments covered that budget. The interesting stuff comes as he describes where they made cuts and how those cuts actually improved their quality of life. Our society is full of ridiculous ways to spend money and it's pretty easy to argue that most of those ways do not return an appropriate amount of happiness per dollar spent. At no time does Mr. Money Mustache or his family feel "deprived." In fact they feel more free and happy every single day.

Raptitude attacks the quest for personal fulfilment in a more direct way. The author talks a lot about mindfulness -- the attempt to really experience the present moment. It's so easy to spend a whole day worrying about the future or regretting and reliving the past. But the past and present don't really exist. The past is gone and all that remains is a collection of memories in faulty human brains. The future is at best a murky unknown. The present is really the only thing there is and it is our tendency in the western world to waste it. He is not saying that one should forget the past or avoid planning for the future but that those things should not overwhelm the experience of the present.

Both blogs regularly come back to the same theme. The western world is a friggin' wonderland. The things we have access to and the comforts and freedoms we enjoy are unparalleled in human history. And all of this amazing stuff is accessible for very little money. Never has food been cheaper as a percent of income. Access to information and communications is essentially unlimited via the Internet. We can travel anywhere on earth cheaper and faster than ever before. Medical science has extended life expectancies immensely. Go back just one hundred years, a blink of the eye in the history of humanity, and the world offered so much less at a much higher cost.

And yet we take it all for granted constantly. Our sense of perspective is massively broken and we suffer for that. We take on massive amounts of debt requiring us to spend the best years of our life working to service that debt, often in jobs we don't enjoy. Our health suffers when we fail to think about the food we eat when presented with the unlimited smorgasbord that is the modern industrial food complex. The mindless accumulation of possessions has replaced real experiences and human interaction in the pursuit of happiness.

I hope to one day be half as good at life as the authors of these two blogs. In the meantime though I'm starting small. Both authors regularly issue challenges to themselves and in the spirit of that I'm embarking on a small challenge myself. Everytime I think to myself that I "have to" or "need to" do something I intend to mentally change the phase so that I "get to" do that thing.

Instead of "having" to get up early to go to work, I "get" to get up early so that I can go engage my mind and interact with interesting people at my job that pays me money. I "get" to do my morning exercises and revel in the movements of my body. I "get" to pay my taxes which let me enjoy the benefits of a modern collective society. I "get" to collect and take out the smelly compost and use the super cool tri-sorter garbage shoot in my apartment building. I don't own a car, but every time I drive one and have to wait in traffic I'll remember that I'm also getting to pilot a magical wonder box with continental range and a lazy-boy for the captain's chair.

And I "get" to write this blog post and freely express the ideas in my head.

Almost all the chores and annoyances of day-to-day life can be rephrased as privileges. Because for the minor stuff, the alternative one hundred years ago was probably a lot worse. I suspect that the bigger, harder parts of life can benefit from this outlook too but for now I'm starting small.

Books - Oblivion by David Foster Wallace

I thoroughly enjoyed Infinite Jest and ever since I've been on the lookout for more by DFW. Oblivion is a collection of eight short stories which have all the clever writing and run-on sentences of Infinite Jest but packaged up into much smaller and more manageable chunks. Not that they're any easier to read but being able to finish a story in a single sitting makes it a bit easier to wrap your head around it.

One day I want to re-read Infinite Jest but that day won't be coming any time soon. As an alternative I chose to read Oblivion through twice before moving on to my next book. The stories all seem to go in totally unexpected directions and knowing those shifts were coming helped inform my second reading. I was able to stop trying to see the shape of the story in my head and just enjoy the ride. Because the shapes, well they're not Euclidean.

The stories also leave loose ends hanging. It may be more accurate to say that they don't endeavour to tie up any ends at all and so everything is left open to speculation. The stories are satisfying, eventually, but they just...end. I was never ready for it. I suppose Infinite Jest was the same; I guess it's DFW's style. I see his works of fiction as not really stories but brief windows into interesting events with no beginning or end but just a fixed amount of time where those events may be observed. When a windows closes, things are done. And the length of time the window is open does not correspond to a traditional sense of completed narrative.

I won't go into any detail about any of the individual stories except to say that "Incarnations of Burned Children" was the most mind-breakingly frightening thing I've ever read. If you have children, probably don't read it OK? As for the rest, if you're thinking of tackling Infinite Jest but are not sure you want to make the investment then try those first. If no story makes you want to throw the book through the wall for it's abuse of what most people consider sensible fiction and you think you can tolerate a ten-fold increase in the quantity of such abuses, noting that the abuses of Oblivion are typical but by no means representative, then you just might enjoy DFW's magnum opus. Maybe.

I honestly don't think I'd recommend DFW to anyone in seriousness though. I hold my own enjoyment of them not with pride but more with some sort of weird shame. Because it's really just masochism. I can tolerate buckets of absurdity for tiny drops of magnificence or even just long pages of details about some obscure corner of human knowledge. I'm a bit strange.

2013-03 | 2013-05