Knowledge and perspective

The other day, I was at the library (where else) and there I found a magazine I have never read before, "Filter". Being a magazine for "curious people", it seems to take on any subject that is current and needs a bit of exploring.

One article that made an impression on me concerned the, to the author Christopher Friman, worrying fact that many of us have become so reliant on external memory. We no longer know our parents or partners phone numbers, we rely on GPS for finding our way and google for every fact. Are we becoming dumber? is his question. He ends his article with the interview of a man that has trained his memory and actually takes part in memory competitions. And here is where he manages to make a point that resonates with me. In my own translation:

""To compete was never my focus. That´s just for fun. I learned this for practical reasons."
"Who ruled 1764", I ask.

"It was Adolf Fredrik. He was on the throne between 1751 och 1771. After that it was Gustav the third."
"That´s actually the exact year Johan Sverkersson became king."
"Do you know that you can google this information in about four seconds?"
"When I have learned all the swedish kings I have a structure of the entire country´s history. As soon as I learn something new I can attach that to something I already know. It gives me a context. War, changes in society... I can connect all that to the kings and create a bigger picture of how Sweden has become what it is. If you know nothing and always have to google everything, you create no overall picture. Then, you have no knowledge. Just facts.""

I find this so true. Learning something that stays with you is always the first step to conquer any new subject.

To the left is part of a page from "The Oxford illustrated history of Britain", an overview of the rulers at the time in history that I am studying at the moment, the viking ravages on the poor english, exactly 1000 years ago. Who had their most useless king of all times, surely, Ethelred the Unready.

I doubt there has been, or ever will be, a film or television drama about this time in history. No heroes, just terrorists and backstabbers, all of them. And the ordinary people? Just useful for taxing or robbing. It´s not something we can relate to today, just as they wouldn´t have been able to relate to something as odd as the declaration of human rights. Thank god the perspective of the ruling classes has changed somewhat in the last millenia!


Knitting for the jungle fighters

Yes, I know I´m not writing a knitting blog anymore. But I can´t help posting this picture of a Second World War poster that was hanging in the restaurang/cafeteria at Bletchley Park, the code-cracking fair ground we visited this summer.

It´s just not that long ago. I imagine every woman in England knitting away at every spare moment. Every woman knew how to knit socks back then. Had to know. My mother-in-law, who is still with us, knit stockings for my sister-in-law in the 40´s and 50´s, that she wore to school every day. When they were worn out - usually the heel went first - she´d just re-knitt the foot.

We have other skills now. I help my mother-in-law with computer stuff. Like writing, communicating with authorities and friends, paying bills, loading the miniature audio-bookreader with two dozen books at a time. Still, I was satisfied to know, when I saw that poster, that I´d have coped then, too. I´d have knit my share of socks for the jungle fighters! Or maybe I wouldn´t have, being allergic to wool. They weren´t allergic to wool in those days, were they? (Sigh.)


My local library

I very rarely go down town without spending a few hours at our local library. It always lifts my spirits. There are all those books, of course, but there is also the artwork. These fantastic sculptures that hang as a centerpiece around which the whole space is set, are actually made of old, discarded reading glasses! Isn´t that a lovely symbolism?

The library is part of the new Culture House, which also houses an art gallery, two concert halls, a restaurant and a café. All sorts of interesting things go on here.

For most people, I think the library is a place to get away, sit quiet and read a book, a magazine, or just look out at the town below. The reading chairs are very comfortable and makes you feel almost embraced as you sink into them. And this is the view:

That´s the northern harbour and Luleå River. A hundred years ago the water would have been littered with huge sailing ships, going all the way up and down the swedish eastern coastline. There has been talk of turning the big parking spot you see part of to the left in the picture into a park, which would be really nice. If only the winters were not quite so long and cold!


Too much to read, not enough time

I got Jonathan Franzen´s new novel, "Freedom", from the library a few days ago. Like his last novel, "The Corrections", it is heavy. Fivehundredandsixtytwo pages. And, because there are other readers queing up to read it too, I have it on short-loan, which is fourteen days.

Well, I did the math. I timed myself and found I can read three pages in ten minutes. That means it will take me almost thirtytwo hours to read the whole thing. Of the days I have available I can only sit down to read at all for six of those days, if I´m being realistic. That means I have to do a bit more than five hours of reading every one of those days. I can´t do it. Even I can´t do it.

Damn. Because those first pages were really funny, interesting, brilliant even. What to do? I could do my best, try to make it by reading every single minute I have available, at the expense of everything else I want to do. Like spending quality-time with my husband, who will be traveling most weekends after this one until Christmas. I could not bother voting in the election on Sunday. I could put the book up on my to-read-list and wait for the queue to disappear, sometime in the spring. Or I could actually buy it from bokus for 121 SEK. Which is peanuts, really. Except I have this whole big stack of books I also need to read.

Why do americans write such heavy books? Do they get paid by the word?


A place where there are no feelings

Friday, a friend took me to the cinema for the first time in ages. It was a great comedy, a swedish film called "I rymden finns inga känslor" (In space there are no feelings). It is about a young man, Simon, with Aspberger´s syndrome and his quest to find his brother a new girlfriend. This film has been put up as a contender for best foreign film at the Oscars!

My friend and I are both serious introverts and we do sympathise with some of the stuff Simon is doing. For example, when he wants to escape the complications of other people´s feelings (and his own) he hides in an old washing machine, resembling a barrel, that he pretends is a spaceship in orbit around the earth. My friend whispered "I want one of those!". As we left the cinema she said her "barrel" was probably her Iphone with her favourite music. When she has her headphones on, she is in "space".

I thought about that for a while and I suppose most people, introverted, autistic or plain normal, has some escape like that, an inner or outer sanctuary. I know several who long for the hunting season every year. Unlike the summer vacations, there are no unwanted social demands on the elk hunters. They get to sit in a tower in the woods for weeks, in silence, drinking coffee, eating sandwiches. Others go jogging or skiing or pick blueberries. Some play an instrument. Some read. Some bake.

My escape is my diary. I started writing it in 1992, wanting to get some perspective on myself and my life. And for eight years, it worked as an exploratory tool, something I really studied and worked with. Then, it changed. I do not write to record my life, or discover something about myself or figure out problems. The thing is just to sit and write. It doesn´t matter what. I never read it. I don´t even care about saving the diaries anymore. It´s the process, not the result, that matters. Or, actually, the real result is that I calm down, I find peace.

What is your barrel?


A few years ago, I met a woman who was overweight and whose husband was cheating on her. Her solution to this was to stand in front of a mirror several times a day and say this affirmation: "I am beautiful and I am loved." Eventually, she joined weightwatchers and divorced him, but not before she had faced up to the reality that she was less beautiful (and healthy) than she could and wanted to be, and that he did not love her (although others surely did).

Barbara Ehrenreich has written a great piece of investigative and critical journalism titled "Bright-sided. How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America". (Swedish translation: "Gilla läget. Hur allt gick åt helvete med positivt tänkande.") Here she explores the worlds of support groups for cancer patients, motivational courses in corporations, God-wants-you-to-be-rich-evangelism, positive psychology and personal coaching. She digs into the past and displays the roots of positive thinking, that was a reaction to, but at the same time is the heir of, the old calvinist protestantism that was so influential in the shaping of the american, and much of today´s western, society.

There is nothing wrong in being positive in a general way, of course. What Ehrenreich is exporing here, however, is advanced mind-control, suggestion and self-delusion in the service of the capitalist system. This is about making people believe that they can have infinite success (money), as long as the believe hard enough that they will. And the flip-side of the coin: if you fail, it´s your own fault.

There are a lot of gurus out there today that say our thoughts alone can make things happen. Magical thinking. Undoubtedly, it can sometimes seem like things happen this way. Usually, however, our fortune is the result of hard and focused work. And when it´s not, we can be just plain lucky. Nothing wrong with that. But I suspect the force of God is actually us being creative. In our plans and actions, in our way of interpreting what happens to us, in the way that we turn something unexpected into something great. In the way we tell ourselves the story of our lives.

Any real change begins with an honest assessment of where you are. Then you need a clear vision of where you want to be. A map of your situation, an inventory of your resources. Then you can get creative. And make some real change. That´s what I believe and I´m happy to see that Ehrenreich has a similar view. I do think, though, that sometimes we are not entirely aware of our efforts. In times of chaos, depression, distraction, we can loose sight of the goals we once had, the plans we once made. Still, we work towards them as long as we do not consciously change direction. And when we "suddenly" find ourselves in that place we dreamed of, it may seem like magic.

The die-hard believers of positive thinking will not find their way to this book. But it´s a great read for anyone who gets a bit uncomfortable every time the boss arranges a "kick-off" and makes everyone listen to some old olympic medalist now touring with the story of how he became a success, or an ex-drug addict cheering "if I can make it, so can you". A healthy dose of cynicism might keep you sane.



While I was reading about the battle at Teutoburg Forrest, I got the idea to finally read "I, Claudius" by Robert Graves. I have been thinking about it for years, and I remember only one grim scene from the television series with Derek Jacobi, when Caligula (John Hurt) has tried to eat (like some other gods he knew) the baby in his wife´s (and I seem to remember she was his sister, too) belly and "woops! she died?". I was only ten or eleven at the time, I think.

I have just finished the first volume, printed in 1964. The translation is good and while Graves used modern names for geographical locations, the swedish translator has decided to use mainly the roman equivalents, believing that a swedish reader would find it odd that the romans themselves would say "France" instead of "Gaul" or "Tyskland" instead of "Germanien". Of course, the last example works better in english. However, this consideration made me rather happy I chose to read it in swedish. I do wish, though, that it had been proofread a bit better. Spelling errors are a damned irritation, whatever book.

At first, Claudius seems a bit of a bore, but at the same time, this makes the narrative so much more convincing, as this is supposed to be his inofficial, truthful, memoir, written at the end of his life, when he has, in spite of his limp and his stuttering, become emperor himself. And the stories he has to tell! I became completely engrossed by the third chapter or thereabouts and got through it in a few short evenings. Can´t wait to get my hands on Part II.

The battle at Teutoburg Forrest is in here, of course, but as the actual site had not been discovered or excavated when the book was written, in the 1930´s, Claudius´s account for it has hardly any credibility. According to him, it went on for days. In reality, it would have been over in an hour.

While the palace machinations are chilling, with emperor Augustus cruel wife Livia administering poison left and right to anyone getting in her way, I do get a lot of pleasure from the tales of how Tiberius, Drusus and Germanicus deals with their colossal armies. Perhaps I find tales of warfare so fascinating because the devastation spread by armies frightens me so.

This book was reprinted in english in 2006, and I have no doubt it has sold well, with all the television drama and film that´s been turned out about this period in history. I think someone should do the same for the swedish translation. Excellent.


An existential murder mystery

A danish author, for once, fell into my lap via the library after a very favorable review in one of my newspapers. This is Pia Juul´s "Mordet på Halland" ("The Murder of Halland"). As far as I can see, she is not translated to english, and she is principally a poet, a member of the danish academy. Not being a poetry lover, I had actually never heard of her.

This is a quick read, 160 pages of disconcerted grief after the protagonist´s husband is murdered, shot on the street outside the home. We find out, in the muddled way this woman thinks, about her complicated family situation, and we are, at the end, left with clues to who´s dunnit. Our storyteller, the berieved wife, is, however, not the least bit interested in knowing who did it. And if she can know, she doesn´t tell us, because she just won´t think it.

Every person in this book is a riddle. To themselves, to each other. As a reader, I expect the words to make up stories and in that sense this book is a riddle as well, because Juul somehow manages to write an anti-story. A lot happens between the sentences, between the words, between the chapters, that the protagonist just refuses to register. This is underlined by the fact that she, the grieving wife, is an author, she is a professional storyteller.

And I suppose that is the message of the story: there is no way we can really know what is going on. Real life is in the silence. Which is something to think about. Or should we just stop thinking? Shut up and live.

While this is a short book, I suspect I may not have given it the time it deserves. It should probably be read a bit like poetry, slowly and meditatively. Or maybe not. These poets. They confuse me...