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08-17-11: Michael Katakis and Kris Hardin 'Photographs and Words'

Lifetimes and World Lines

We can live more than one life in our single lifetime. We define our lives and ourselves by memories of the words and images of what we have personally experienced. But great art and great writing can help us create memories in words and images of events and lives that we could never experience. In the sense that all literature shows us what we have not seen, it is all travel literature. "Here is where I have been, and here is an image of what I have seen," we are told.

When we see powerful images and read great prose, we can create memories, and it is as if we have seen these places and done these things. There is no limit to our personal world. Writers and artists bring the world to us, bring history to us, and having lived around the world and through history, there is a chance, just a tiny chance, that we might make better decisions in the lives we are gifted to live.

The challenge for readers is, then, to find those who can work in both images and words effectively. Michael Katakis and his wife, Kris Hardin, are experienced travelers and writers, and Michael is a gifted photographer. 'Photographs and Words' is stunning exploration of our world on a personal level with deep political and societal implications. This is world history lived and explored on a personal level, so that readers experience the effects of great events as if they are there, on those hot, dusty plains, in those lush forests, the clattering coffee shops or the austere temples. You will know the people you meet here in words and in images as if you sat down with them to have a cup of tea. These lives will become your life. You'll join Walt Whitman. You'll contain multitudes.

There are five major sections in 'Photographs and Words' that take readers deep into parts of our world and history, small and large. "A Time and A Place Before War" explores Sierra Leone in the late 1980's, shortly before the civil war began to tear it into pieces. Here we see and live life in an African nation from the ground up. We meet the characters and people. Black and white photographs that have an almost atavistic, primitive power accompany gorgeously evoked short journal entries. There is much joy to be seen here, and the poignant reminder that it is gone, all gone, is all the more powerful. The experience here is direct. Katakis and Hardin trade off written entries, and while each speaks in a distinctive voice, there is a palpable connection between them.

The title of Kris Hardin's opening essay for "The Vietnam Veterans Memorial," "Ghosts in the Wall," gives readers an idea of a very different approach for this segment of the book. Here we will directly experience those who confront the wall and the wall itself. Some who come here are loved ones left behind, while others are survivors of the war itself. This section, then, speaks to the effect of the book itself, showing how the experience of the wall can bring the Vietnam War into the lives of those who were never there. Readers cannot help but find themselves taken on an electric journey through all levels, from the words and photographs on the page all the way into the deaths of those whose names fill the wall.

"Artifacts" is another telling title, in which art and facts, artfully combined, offer more than either might alone. Here we are given a few brief journeys around the world, from Istanbul, Turkey to Rapallo, Italy. Letters and journals and images entangle and immerse readers in the joys and troubles of this diverse world. There are no single themes here; the unifying vision is of variety.

"Troubled Land: 12 Days Across America" chronicles a journey across America in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001. At the tenth anniversary of this tragedy, Katakis offers a sweet, somber and subtly disturbing vision of a broken nation. None of the images here are the iconic photos of the events or the aftermath. Instead, Katakis gives us the edges of the aftermath. Mostly empty pews, men and women in a South Dakota restaurant. Katakis' keen vision and his sharp troubled writing offer a perception free of ideology. He is a traveler in the foreign land that his nation has become.

For all the diversity of their travels, through time and around the globe, Katakis does manage to find "My True North," that is, Kris Hardin, his wife. It's a brief homecoming, but no less evocative that the sum of the entirety of what has preceded it. The entries and photographs speak of the love that has united the couple and the book itself, and of the personal nature of all experience, no matter how far the traveler roams.

A book such as 'Photographs and Words' needs more than good source material, and the British Library delivers. In terms of words, John Falconer of the British Library and Michael Palin deliver a Foreword and an Introduction respectively that quite effectively set the stage for what's to come. The large 8 1/2" by 11" format gives both the text and the photos plenty of room to breathe. The printing and production values of the book in terms of binding and the reproduction of the magnificent photographs are all top-notch. The book is big enough to be both heavy and light. Pick it up and you feel like you have a book that is all the words "British Library" imply; heavy-duty, beautifully crafted, impeccably designed. Once you get inside, what you find is that they have used the space to give the reader space, to truly get inside the photographs and words. It's an easy book to read and immerse yourself in.

The nature of this book is unlike any other I've read, with the exception of Katakis' previous book, 'Traveler.' It is not straightforward autobiography, nor is it travel writing. The combination of photographs and words is ineluctably poignant. Katakis (for the most part) shoots black and white film, which he develops himself. This explains the painterly quality to the photographs. By virtue of their being done in black and white, however, he does something that painters and color photographers cannot do. Without the color, we have the essence; the soul of the image, imprinting itself alongside words crafted often at the time the image was taken. There's an intimacy between the husband and wife, the photographs and words, that engages readers on an almost physical level. We can indeed contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman suggested. We can live more than one life in our single lifetime. And perhaps, having done so, upon returning to our own lives, we'll know that our personal histories are part of a larger history. We might even think about what we are going to do next, and after that.

08-15-11: Ernest Cline Engages 'Ready Player One'

Reality Override

Today, filled with bad news and worse, has become indistinguishable from the dystopian visions of old science fiction. Prophets of doom have to work hard to keep up with the network news, which for many is simply unwatchable. As it becomes increasingly unlikely that things will get better, our attempts to escape the world around us will become more serious. There's nowhere in this world left to run. Those for whom the solace of reading is too much effort can find refuge in the worlds we create online.

But for all the predictions of a world immersed in virtual realities, and the actual virtual realities that we have to hand, it is the written versions and visions of virtual reality that dominate our cultural consciousness. With 'Ready Play One' (Crown Publishers / Random House ; August 16, 2011 ; 978-0-307-88743-6 ; $24.99), Ernest Cline manages — using only the English language — to create a persuasive future even bleaker than our present and an enticing alternate reality that beats both our present and his future. Start reading 'Ready Player One' and you'll quickly forget about this world, and even the "real world" that Cline creates as a backdrop. Like his characters, you'll want to spend most of your time in the OASYS.

But don't be surprised if the real world, both yours and that of Cline's future, proves to be more persistent than you would expect. No matter how much you try, reality is pretty hard to leave behind.

'Ready Player One' begins with a Kennedy-esque echo, but not a happy one. "Everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when they first heard about the contest." The contest in question unfolds in the virtual world of OASYS. Its creator, James Halliday, a cross between Howard Hughes and Steve Jobs, has died, and left his vast fortune to the first person who can find an "Easter egg" hidden somewhere in the literally limitless reaches of OASYS. Wade Watts lives in the stacks, crickety trailers piled one on top of another to form slums of the future, and he is determined to find that virtual treasure. The question for Wade is whether or not he can turn determination into destiny.

Cline's novel is an oddly sweet concoction of 1980's technostalgia, cut-and-pasted with a dire vision of what anyone today might see were they brave enough to just look around. The end has come, humanity has timed-out, and it's game over. All that's left is to enjoy the life you have left to live, and if that means spending your time wired up in a full-body haptic interface so you can game till you drop, then so be it. Cline's characters, Wade, "H" and the girl Wade loves, Art3mis, do have knack for picking their way through Halliday's maze. But in both the real and virtual world, the evil corporate competition is as ruthless as it is soulless.

Tattered ARC.
Cline's characters come from a core of genuine affection, for the world we live in, the world we used to live in and the world we're heading towards with no brakes to push. There are real consequences for their actions in both the virtual world and the real world, so we care about them even if they can't some to physical harm in the OASYS. His computer geniuses have their obvious models, but they're as flawed as the real thing, which render them sympathetic. Corporate goons are just as shallow as the real thing, and just as annoying, which works well to drive the plot at a breakneck pace.

What ultimately makes 'Ready Player One' much more than just an upscale D&D module are Cline's excellent prose, characters we love and consequences that make sense. The prose lets Cline immerse readers into a complicated technological future with almost no effort. The characters are both garishly, cartoonishly heroic in the virtual world and (sym)pathetically weak in the real world. This strange combination gives both writer and reader the best of both worlds.

The consequences of all the over-the-top action in the virtual world — battles between giant robots and iconic videogame landscapes — are significant for Wade and for the reader. We need to fight these battles now, not in Wade's time. By then it may indeed be too late. Ernest Cline's virtual prose reality is just as immediate now, in our time, as OASYS is to the characters in his future. Readers won't just be well entertained. 'Ready Player One' literally speaks to us. We'd be well advised to listen.

New to the Agony Column

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Erik Larson : "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

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