Thursday, April 19, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 18: Carl Sagan

Science author extraordinaire Carl Sagan wrote a thought-provoking essay “The Environment: Where Does Prudence Lie?” in Billions, and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium (1997). He chooses to open it by painting a picture of the illusory beautiful facade of polluting technologies:
There’s a certain moment at twilight when the aircraft contrails are pink. And if the sky is clear, their contrast with the surrounding blue is unexpectedly lovely. The Sun has already set and there’s a roseate glow at the horizon, a reminder of where the Sun is hiding. But the jet aircraft are so high up that they can still see the Sun—quite red, just before setting. The water blown out from their engines instantly condenses. At the frigid temperatures of high altitude, each engine trails as small, linear cloud, illuminated by the red rays of the setting Sun. 
The point Sagan makes with this vivid scene stays with us through the rest of the article as he grapples with difficult, human-made challenges facing our planet.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 17: Lewis Thomas

Physician and writer Lewis Thomas leads off his renowned essay "The Lives of a Cell," which appears in a 1974 essay collection of the same name, with these sentences:
We are told that the trouble with Modern Man is that he has been trying to detach himself from nature. He sits at the topmost tiers of polymer, glass, and steel, dangling his pulsating legs, surveying at a distance the writhing life of the planet.
Thomas immediately sets a stage that we readers know he does not accept. By the next paragraph, he makes clear that "We are the delicate part" of the universe. In this and the other 29 essays in Lives of a Cell, Thomas humbles our egocentric worldview by emphasizing time and again how cells connect humans, animals, plants, and even the planet as a singular entity. He does so in the above two sentences by giving us a false sense of security that we are "pulsating" with life while all else around us is "writhing." In being set us by with this implausible scenario, we are eager to know how we should really be thinking.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 16: F. Scott Fitzgerald

Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work—the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside—the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don't show their effect all at once.
Thus begins F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1936 essay "The Crack-Up," a self-examination of the author's encounter with regret, ambition, fame, failure, retreat, collapse, resignation, and recovery, which appeared as a three-part series in Esquire ("Part 1: The Crack-Up" in February, "Part 2: Pasting It Together" in March, and "Part 3: Handle with Care" in April). 

The opening hooks readers because of its surprisingly self-pitying vantage point: the outside blows destroy one's inside, and do so dramatically. The story shifts abruptly from location to confrontation to observation to reservation to hesitation to determination, but it does so with an elegance of expression that established Fitzgerald's literary reputation. If these are the meanderings of a man dealing with a crack-up, he renders them with a flair that few of his contemporaries shared. "The Crack-Up" is worth a read for anyone looking for ideas on how to write an autobiography.