Looking for books, articles, podcasts and documentaries to prevent brain stagnation
January 2, 2008 9:15 AM   Subscribe

In the spirit of this post, what have you read or seen lately (or not so lately) that has changed your mind?

I'm looking for some mind-expanding reading, viewing and listening for the new year. Thanks!
posted by Alison to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
It didn't necessarily change my mind about anything, but it was definitely mind-expanding: A Long Way Gone
posted by mpls2 at 9:32 AM on January 2, 2008

I read the excellent Dovid Katz book, Words On Fire: The Unfinished Story Of Yiddish, which cannot truly be said to have changed my mind about anything. But given that the subject (superficially, at least) has nothing at all to do with me particularly, it's a compelling history of a people, culture and language full of weird twists and turns that touches upon all sort of subjects I wouldn't have suspected. It's one of those books that ties together a bunch of disparate strands of ideas and knowledge, and it's very readable too.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 10:14 AM on January 2, 2008

Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous
posted by Roach at 10:25 AM on January 2, 2008

As much as I don't agree with Ken Wilber's theories, and don't particularly like his writing style, his book Boomeritis made me question a lot of my own assumptions. I definitely came out of it feeling like I had some new perspective, not because of any particular argument he made, but because it brought up ideas that inspired some tangential introspection for me.
posted by vytae at 11:23 AM on January 2, 2008

This isn't a book. But taking beginning micro and macro economics classes and seeing how economics actually works has helped to completely rework some of my beliefs about how economic policy should be run.
posted by Anonymous at 11:44 AM on January 2, 2008

I don't have anything in particular to suggest, but reading business cases that explore bad business decisions has changed my perspective on "corporations" and made them a lot less scary. Incompetent, yes, and maybe that's scary in itself; but definitely not scary on an Illuminati level.
posted by mazatec at 12:04 PM on January 2, 2008

John Cowper Powys' A Glastonbury Romance got me thinking about God and the soul in an emotional, non-detached way for the first time in a long time. Didn't really change my mind per se, but got me into a mind state that was unusual for me.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 1:29 PM on January 2, 2008

When I was an undergraduate (80s - early 90s), I trained to be a theatre director, but all the time, I wasn't sure why I was doing so. I knew I loved stories, and I knew I was more of an interpreter than an original-story creator, but ... why theatre? Why not film? Mostly, I stayed with theatre out of inertia. I'd been a theatre-geek in high school, so it was easy to keep going down that route. Problem was, I was getting less and less content doing that. Inertia doesn't work very well when you're aware of it. I needed a better reason. I needed to know what made theatre special.

If you ask an actor, he'll say, "performing in front of a live audience." And that makes total sense, if you're an actor. Sure, that's the thrill. How can a camera ever compare to that? But for a director, theatre can seem like a sickly younger sibling to film. With film, a director can do anything! In theatre, he's constrained by sets, actors (who may violate his directions once the show actually opens), etc. And most of the theatre I saw was bastardized film. Since most young directors were raised in front of the TV, they learned their aesthetic from it. So all of my colleagues were trying to come up with tortured theatrical equivalents of cuts, closeups, etc. WHY? Why not just switch to film, where you could do all that stuff easier and better?

Then I saw Andre Gregory's "Uncle Vanya."* (That's "My Dinner With Andre" Gregory.) I was in New York, visiting a friend. Another friend called me and said, "Hey, I got invited to this rehearsal, but I can't go. They only let a few people in, so I feel bad. It's tonight. Can you go in my place?" I didn't have anything else to do, so I agreed.

As it turned out, Gregory had been rehearsing this production for FIVE YEARS. Not continuously, but whenever the actors (Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore and others) were free, they'd meet at Gregory's apartment and work on it. They had no plans to ever open it. It was a workshop. An endless workshop. But every now and then, they invited a few people to see a rehearsal. You HAD to be invited. So I got really lucky.

They performed in street clothes using beat up rehearsal furniture. But they knew their characters and the story SO well, within five minutes, I could have sworn they were wearing Turn-of-the-Century costumes. It was certainly the best, most nuanced "Vanya" I'd seen. But that wasn't the amazing part. The amazing part came the next night.

Though I'd only been invited for that one performance, I loved it so much that I went back the next night (they were doing two "open rehearsals" and this was the second, after which, it would go back to closed workshop mode). I begged to be let in again. Gregory took pity on me and added a chair. The second performance was a revelation!

It was completely different from the first. They didn't change a line of text, but everything else changed: the way they said the lines, the places they moved when they said them, etc. Lines that had been played for comedy the first night were dead serious this night, and vice versa. Yet both interpretations seemed totally true to the story.

Here's one example: in a famous scene, Sonya begs Doctor Astrov to stop drinking. He agrees to stop. From that point until almost the end, there are no lines in which he (or anyone else) talks about him drinking. (At the very end he accepts "a little vodka" from a servant.) The first night I saw it, Sonya begged Astrov not to drink; Astrov thought about it, took a deep breath and then said, "Alright, I won't drink any more!" And he kept his word until the end.

The next night, Sonya asked him not to drink. He responded immediately, as if he was humoring a small child, "Alright, I won't drink any more." Then he chuckled. A few minutes later, while he and Sonya were still talking, he causally poured himself another drink. Sonya saw, of course, and -- without altering the literal wording of any of the lines -- it colored their interactions for the rest of the performance.

That's just ONE example. The evening was full of this sort of thing. Here was a group of actors who knew their story SO well, they were able to play with it like jazz musicians. I was stunned. I was utterly changed. THIS, I thought, is what makes theatre special. Theatre is -- or can be -- Free Will to film's Determinism. A film will always play out the same way, every time you watch it. Theatre should be different every time! Even for an audience member who only sees the show once, it should feel alive and dangerous and capable of going off in any direction. I realized that this is why I so enjoyed their performance the FIRST night. I didn't know that they were doing it differently every night, but I subconsciously sensed how alive and organic it was.

For the first time, I understood my job as a director: it's to lead a "jazz orchestra" that improvises around standards. That is, my job has two aspects:

1) To make sure the whole company understands the items that MUST be hit the same way every night. If you pervert certain moments, "Hamlet" is no longer "Hamlet." I am the guardian of the story, and I must compel people to stick to it.

2) As guardian of the story, it is also my job to see all the possibilities it contains. And between those must-hit goal posts, explained above, I must compel my cast to improvise. That means I must make them know -- know in their guts -- the story as well as I do. I must keep them loose. I must keep them continually exploring new possibilities. I must keep them doing this, not only during rehearsals, but all the way through performances to closing night.

I started working this way, and I haven't stopped. I formed a whole company around this philosophy. It's the soul of my work and the reason I keep working. Would I ever have found my way to such work if I had been too busy that night to take a friend up on an offer?

*There's a sort of filmed record of Gregory's rehearsals: the film "Vanya on 42nd Street." It's great, and I recommend renting it. But it's different from what I saw. The film was directed by Louis Malles, based on his personal response to Gregory's work. Malle was enchanted by the paradox of "Uncle Vanya" in modern dress. Hence, he called his film "Vanya on 42nd Street!" He did subtle things in the film to push this theme, such as having the actors drink "vodka" out of I HEART NEW YORK cups. None of that sort of thing went on when I saw it. Yes, they used street clothes and modern props, but all of their clothes and cups and tables were really simple. Nothing with writing on it. Very quickly, at least for me, the non-desrcript stuff became invisible. And I was transported to late 19th-Century Russia. And, of course, as it's a film, it will be the same every time you watch it.
posted by grumblebee at 1:51 PM on January 2, 2008 [14 favorites]

The Obesity Myth really changed the way that I read and evaluate articles and studies about food, diet, and weight (which are everywhere).

This is not a topic that MeFi handles well. I hope that there will be no snide comments about me posting this.
posted by decathecting at 4:11 PM on January 2, 2008

grumblebee, that comment is awesome; thanks!

Alison, I really believe an attitude is far more important in any effort to open one's mind than any recommended text, recording, performance, or what-have-you, can ever be. As an example, one of the books I find most enlightening, year after year, is The World Almanac. Its usefulness has lessened somewhat as I spend more time online, using Wikipedia and Bartleby for a lot of the fact-checking and browsing I used to rely so much on the Almanac for, but it's still so compelling somehow to have so much compiled in such a compact space, arranged in a way that encourages me to feel as if I can actually grasp some of the depth and wide, wacky craziness the world encompasses. But The World Almanac can hardly serve as a recommendation for a mind-changing guide, can it?

I dunno. From personal experience, I can say John McPhee's gigantic opus, The Annals of the Former World, which tells a series of stories about the way geologists view the world, helped me to appreciate the vastness of time in a much more direct way. It helped me to imagine what a million years means, and what a billion years means, and to recognize how great the difference is between the two in a visceral way, so it's a part of my sense of reality now. (Here is a lengthy review where the writer's relationship to McPhee is something like mine: respect tinged with awe.)

Theodore Zeldin wrote a book called An Intimate History of Humanity that opened up new ways for me to think about my relationships to historical people, historical times, and so on. It's no exaggeration to say it changed my life.

E. C. Pielou wrote The Energy of Nature, and its clear, patient, deft illustrations and descriptions of the ways energy interact in the world made a huge difference in my ability to imagine stuff like storms or earthquakes. I'm still not good at it, but I understand a lot more about what it means to be good at it, and I can now appreciate it when people who are good at imagining the structure of the world can also describe it and make it available to me.
posted by cgc373 at 8:38 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

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