Hello again, expats, global nomads, serial wanderers, world citizens, and internationals!
As suggested in my post of last week about mentors and muses, it being January, we have resolved to think Big Thoughts about displacement.
We all know what it feels like to venture across borders to travel and/or live. But how often do we stand back and look at the trees? Or, as Burt Bacharach and Hal David put it in their theme song for the 1966 British film starring Michael Caine:
What’s it all about, Alfie?
To help us figure it out, I propose that we turn to the works of Big Thinkers. I’m talking about the kinds of people who take the kind of life we lead — living here, there and everywhere — for granted, and are more interested in questions of what we’re all doing on this planet and can learn from each other and from ourselves, for that matter.
Against that rather dramatic background, here are 5 displaced — and displacing — reads for your consideration:
1) Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (Viking, January 2013)
Author: Maria Konnikova
Genre: Self-Help; Cognitive Psychology
Synposis: A primer on increasing one’s mindfulness, based on the lessons imparted by British master sleuth Sherlock Holmes.
Author’s displaced credentials: Born in Russia, Konnikova arrived in the United States at age 4. Though a Third Culture Kid, she has adapted very well to the American scene. She was educated at Harvard, writes the “Literally Psyched” blog for Scientific American, and is doing a PhD at Columbia University in psychology. That said, she has found a muse in an unexpected place: in the fictional works of the terribly Victorian Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Why it’s stimulating: So many of us are caught up in the literal idea of travel that we forget that the most interesting voyage of them all lies in exploring the inner workings of our own minds. But Konnikova takes us one step further. She suggests displacing ourselves into the mind of the hyper-observant Sherlock Holmes. To show us how, she does a bold thought experiment — something that most of us, especially those who are living in isolation from family and friends, would find anathema: she downloads Freedom, a program that blocks Internet access completely for a specified amount of time, and sees how it affects her writing. She is shocked by the results. Her conclusion:
Thinking like Sherlock Holmes isn’t just a way to enhance your cognitive powers. It is also a way to derive greater happiness and satisfaction from life.
How we heard about it: Konnikova’s recent article in Slate, “Do You Think Like Sherlock Holmes?”
2) The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? (Viking, December 2012)
Author: Jared Diamond
Genre: Social History
Synposis: An account of how people in traditional societies — the New Guinea Highlanders, the Inuit, the Amazonian Indians, the Kalahari San — live and what they can teach the rest of us.
Author’s displaced credentials: A polymath and one of the foremost writers of popular science, Diamond was born in the United States, got a degree from Cambridge University, and has had careers in physiology, ecology (specializing in New Guinea and nearby islands), and geography. With the publication of Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, his most popular work to date, he became known for his mastery of global history.
Why it’s stimulating: Diamond displaces us to our (not-so-distant) past by taking us to remote corners of the earth — from the New Guinea Highlands and the Amazon rainforest, to Africa’s Kalahari Desert and the Arctic Circle — where it’s possible to encounter people who are managing without air travel, telecommunications and other fruits of modernity. Pointing out that such accoutrements are extremely recent, he asks: what can traditional peoples teach those of us who live in “complex” societies about how we might live better today? As it turns out, Diamond says, we may be better off dialing down the complexity and living closer to our ancestors:
We get ideas about how to bring up our children. We get ideas about how to have a better old age. We get ideas about how not to die of cancer, heart attacks and stroke.
How we heard about it: An interview with Jared Diamond in Smithsonian Magazine.
3) The Immigrant Advantage: What We Can Learn from Newcomers to America about Health, Happiness, and Hope (Free Press, October 2011)
Author: Claudia Kolker
Genre: Social Sciences; Immigration
Synposis: An examination of some of the customs imported by America’s newest residents.
Author’s displaced credentials: A journalist and Third Culture Kid (her mother was from Mexico and father from Ukraine), Claudia Kolker once worked as a freelance reporter in El Salvador from 1992 to 1995, where she covered the Salvadoran postwar recovery as well as social issues throughout Central America, Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. She has also reported from Japan and India. She now lives in Houston.
Why it’s stimulating: Kolker was spurred to do her research after discovering that most immigrants to the United States, even those from poor or violence-wracked countries, are physically and mentally healthier — they actually live longer! — than most native-born Americans. In a work that in some ways parallels Jared Diamond’s (#2 above), her book takes us on a tour of immigrant households in the United States — Mexican, Hispanic, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Jamaican, etc. — and shows us that there are things about their values we should not only respect but emulate. I don’t know about you, but I find it refreshing to think that privileged Americans like us, who choose to displace ourselves to other lands, could stand to learn some major life lessons from the forcibly displaced. Kudos to Kolker for turning the tables!
How we heard about it: From a recent interview with Kolker on PBS Newshour.
4) On the Map: A Mind-expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks (Gotham, December 2012)
Author: Simon Garfield
Genre: Social Sciences; Human Geography
Synposis: A history of mankind’s love affair with maps, beginning with Ptolemy’s world map (one of the 100 diagrams that changed the world); moving through the “cartographic dark ages,” which lasted for about a thousand years; and culminating in our modern obsession with maps, which in fact dates from 1450s Venice, when the atlas became a craze.
Author’s displaced credentials: By splitting his life between London and St. Ives, Cornwall, Garfield could be described as a “domestic expat” within the UK.
Why it’s stimulating: “Displacement” of the sort we talk about in this blog requires constant rewriting and editing of the map you were born with — both figuratively and literally. Garfield shows us that while some of our cases may be extreme (the Displaced Nation being a prime example, with our “Here Be Dragons” obsession), mapmaking is something we humans can’t get enough of:
Maps relate and realign our history. They reflect our best and worst attributes — discovery and curiosity, conflict and destruction — and they chart our transitions of power. Even as individuals, we seem to have a need to plot a path and track our progress, to imagine possibilities of exploration and escape.
How we heard about it: From a 1 Jan 2013 post by Maria Popova on her Brain Pickings blog.
5) Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (W.W. Norton, 2007)
Author: Kwame Anthony Appiah
Genre: Politics; Philosophy; Ethics; Globalization
Synposis: An examination of the ancient philosophy of “cosmopolitanism” — the idea that all human ethnic groups belong to a single community based on a shared morality — and the influence it has had on the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Author’s displaced credentials: Appiah is the product of a cross-cultural union: his mother was an English author and daughter of the statesman Sir Stafford Cripps, and his father a Ghanaian barrister and politician, who was constantly exhorting his children to remember that they were “citizens of the world.” Raised in Ghana and educated in England, Appiah has taught philosophy on three continents and is now a professor at Princeton University.
Why it’s stimulating: Whether we realize it or not, those of us who venture across borders are making a step towards reducing our culturally isolation. We are opening our minds to seeing the world outside our own contextual walls. But how far can we actually take this? Pretty far, claims Appiah, pointing out that we humans are an inter-cultural, intertwined, and interdependent species, just like every other on the planet — replete with cross-pollinations of language, religion, art, dress, rites, metaphysical outlooks, and progeny. But if Appiah rejects the Sam Huntington view of an inevitable clash of civilizations, he is also not a universalist:
Cosmopolitans suppose that all cultures have enough overlap in their vocabulary of values to begin a conversation. But they don’t suppose, like some Universalists, that we could all come to agreement if only we had the same vocabulary.
How we heard about it: The book was a Global Niche Bookshelf pin, by GlobalNiche.net, on Pinterest.
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Whoa, are you still with me? That was quite a Head Trip! Readers, any responses to this list — any other works to suggest? Much obliged for your input! I think I’ve had a little too much stimulation for one blog post and need to give my brainbox a rest…
STAY TUNED for another episode in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)
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