Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner

Iceland: Happiness is Failure

I first became interested in Iceland when I started to read the Icelandic sagas. I initially expected them to be long epic poems similar to Beowulf. I was pleasantly surprised to find them to be like intergenerational novels with more politics and fighting and less romance than the usual American ones. I ultimately ended taking a class on Icelandic feuds so that I can recall a fair amount about medieval Icelandic legal and political structure. The only thing I initially knew about present-day Iceland is that Bjork likes to wear fake swans.

The sagas still continue to influence present-day Iceland, which has (or had) a flourishing publishing industry. Weiner comments that Iceland is a very literate and creative society. Everyone in Iceland is writing a book or a poem, forming a rock band, or wearing some kind of fashion innovation (more innovative, I suspect, than the striped briefs that blew Weiner's mind) while drinking coffee in hip cafes and eating rotting shark. He attributes much of this creative energy to Iceland’s willingness to allow people to fail at one endeavor and try again at another. People can start out as web programmers and then become bankers or carpenters as they mature and find their interests changing. Artists actually get government checks and never starve because it is believed that they can create more and better material if they don't have to worry about having a roof over their heads and food on their plate. Life-long learning is embraced.

"Having multiple identities (though not multiple personalities) is, he believes, conductive to happiness. This runs counter to the prevailing belief in the United States and other western nations, where specialization is considered the highest good. Academics, doctors, and other professionals spend lifetimes learning more and more about less and less. In Iceland, people learn more and more about more and more." (p.161)

I found this interesting because American society did not, until recently, accept failure or people who failed. Failures were dropped from the news and fired from their jobs. They were told to pull themselves together, get some career counseling, and go on with their lives after deciding on a definite, possibly very different, preferably specialized, employment path. The higher a specialized degree you earned, the more money you could command in salary. Unless you changed careers, wrote a bestseller about doing so, and had your book chosen by Oprah, you were not applauded for career-hopping and especially not for admitting to failure. Will this change in post-bailout America? Will laid-off financial workers decide to become potters or sous-chefs?

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner


Last April, I wandered into The Strand Bookstore to escape a depressing, drizzly day. While browsing the travel section, my eye was caught by the subtitle of a book – One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World. My initial reaction was to snarl that happiness wasn’t a place – it was a state of mind. But then I thought about it – is it easier to be happier in some cities or countries than in others? Do some cultures facilitate happiness more than others? Would I become a happier person if I read the book and applied Weiner’s words of wisdom to my own life? While considering this, I read part of the chapter on Iceland, which completely won me over. Iceland was obviously the perfect country. I shelled out $20.00 and took my book home, eager to get ideas from Icelandic society on how to transform my life.
The happy countries that Weiner visits (prior to 2007) include Iceland, Switzerland, Thailand, Bhutan, India, Great Britain, and the US. With the exception of Bhutan, which recently crowned a new king, all the other countries have suffered great financial and/or political unrest in the six months since I first read the book. In fact, being included in the book seems to have the same effect as being chosen "most likely to be successful" for a high school yearbook - it guarantees disaster. Now the question in my mind is whether the values that got these countries included in the book are enough to help them battle through the massive unemployment, financial meltdowns, and internal violence. I'll begin the discussion with Iceland.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

"The Devil in the White City: Murder and Madness at the Fair That Changed America" by Erik Larson

During November you have a chance to comment on and discuss this extremely popular book.

The setting is the 1893 Chicago Exposition. The book’s main characters are Daniel Hudson Burnham the architect who is credited with making it ready to open barely in time for the Opening Ceremonies and H. H. Holmes a con artist and serial killer.

The Chicago World’s Fair as it commonly became known truly was a dream and one that everyone knew would not last long. The wealthy and the poor strolled together amazed by the latest technology and beautiful objects from around the world. Outdoors they were awed by the architecture and landscaping.

At the time of the Fair’s construction there were major financial problems, the unions were demanding fair treatment and there was a very bad winter to work through. 19th century Chicago was a booming proud city that was determined to show itself off.

Many readers have found that Burnham and Holmes had traits and experiences in common.

How does Holmes match up to the serial killers of our times?

Which visitors surprised you?

There were exhibits that are offensive to us now. What about the Fair didn’t you like?

What technology at the Fair do you think had the greatest impact?

What about all the household name products that were introduced at the Fair.

Add a comment or reply to someone else’s. I wish we could all meet at the Ferris Wheel!

Additional Resources:

Google Images and Yahoo! Images have nice collections of photographs.