Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci: Reviewed and Recommended

Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read: lucidly edited and vividly written, it balances any and all aspects of such a work perfectly. I’ve been sharing excerpts from it with all of my students, and now we all eagerly await the much-ballyhooed film version starring Leonardo Dicaprio.

Besides the extremely riveting writing, the book has 150 full color illustrations and thick, heavy, glossy paper. I was wondering how such a luxurious volume could have a cover price of only $35, but found the answer as I progressed through the book–the publisher skimped on the binding, and pages started coming out in big chunks, as seen below. Deeply sad.

Other than that, every page was pure joy.

Some of my favorite passages follow:


It would have been worth an extra twenty bucks to have better binding!


On his obsession with observation


On dissecting eyeballs



On a historical meeting of three major figures


A sobering lesson for our own lives as well, I hope–Isaacson does this plenty of times


I also enjoy when Isaacson interrupts his narrative to ask readers to pause and ponder what’s going on


On the Mona Lisa


“He enjoyed the challenge of conception more than the chore of completion.” Great line.


The moral of the story

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6 Favorite Stories From President Monson’s Biography

screen-shot-2017-01-01-at-7-04-24-pmBesides these six quotes, two things really jumped out at me from To The Rescue: The Biography of Thomas S. Monson:

One is that he has known and worked closely with fully half the church presidents of this dispensation. Think about that. Obviously, it will never be true of anyone else ever again. (He is also the last living Apostle to have been part of the 1978 revelation on the priesthood.)

The other is that the tale of his decades of ministry in East Germany is truly astounding. Seriously, someone should make a movie out of this. It’s one of the most harrowing stories I’ve ever heard out of the Cold War.

Here are the six stories in the book I liked the most–they really give a well-wounded view of who he is as a man:

  • Elder Monson’s sense of humor was manifest during one particular visit to Australia in the midst of a sever drought, where he noted with some amusement the names of the stake presidents–President Percy Rivers and President William Waters. He called this to the attention of his traveling companions, one of whom reminded Elder Monson that his name was Harry Brooks. The missionaries who met him at the airport were Elder Rainey and his companion, and when he registered at the hotel, the clerk could not find the reservation until, in searching the cards, he found Thomas S. Monsoon. (page 274)
  • At another mission presidents’ seminar, he set forth a seven-step plan for productive proselyting:
  1. Reports That Reveal
  2. Handbooks That Help
  3. Meetings That Motivate
  4. Schedules That Strengthen
  5. Procedures That Produce
  6. Love That Lifts
  7. Interviews That Inspire (page 356)

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The Best Sports Story You’ve Never Read

Sports Illustrated ran this feature about 15 years ago, and posted it online last year. It’s an amazing true story of heart and community. I can’t believe there still hasn’t been a movie made of it yet. In a sleepy little Ohio community of old-fashioned Mennonites, the new high school basketball coach was, as they put it, “an unmarried black Catholic loser.” Just try reading it through to the end without choking up.

“It All Matters”

          It all matters. That someone turns out the lamp, picks up the windblown wrapper, says hello to the invalid, pays at the unattended lot, listens to the repeated tale, folds the abandoned laundry, plays the game fairly, tells the story honestly, acknowledges help, gives credit, says good night, resists temptation, wipes the counter, waits at the yellow, makes the bed, tips the maid, remembers the illness, congratulates the victor, accepts the consequences, takes a stand, steps up, offers a hand, goes first, goes last, chooses the small portion, teaches the child, tends to the dying, comforts the grieving, removes the splinter, wipes the tear, directs the lost, touches the lonely, is the whole thing.

          What is most beautiful is least acknowledged.

          What is worth dying for is barely noticed.

–Laura McBride, We Are Called to Rise


Read This, Then 2 Nephi 3

There are great doctrinal truths here, of course, but I had long been confused by the nature of 2 Nephi 3. Elderly Lehi is about to die, and he takes his youngest son aside for a moment to…talk about ancient history and prophecy about the future. That’s pretty much it. There’s really not much here that seems to relate directly to the young man himself.

Reading it again recently, I went looking for an answer. Why does Lehi spend his last words to his son lecturing about such seemingly random stuff? Here’s the answer I found:

I ended up imagining this implied context for the chapter. Read 2 Nephi 3 again after this, and see if it doesn’t open up better:

Joseph, my youngest son, you’ve already had a hard life out in the old desert wilderness, on the raging seas, and in this new jungle wilderness, and I wish I could promise that things will get easier, but honestly, they won’t. I haven’t been able to protect you much, but even that little comfort is about to be lost to you. I’m dying. After I’m gone, you will continue to face challenges in life.

But remember this:

There are three great Josephs at major turning points in history who will help advance the Lord’s work.

One was Joseph of Egypt, in the distant past. He endured serious adversity also, but founded a people who were close to the Lord. He knew of us and wrote about us.

Another Joseph will be in the distant future. He will endure serious adversity as well, but will found a people who will be close to the Lord. He will know of us and will write about us.

The third Joseph is you, my son. Just as the Joseph long before you and the Joseph long after you have their part in overcoming opposition to start new dynasties of righteousness, you have yours. Our little family here will grow to become a dispensation of a thousand years, whose story will someday go to all the world. And you’re here at the beginning, to help make sure it happens. This is your place in the story, and this is the difference you make.

The words which the ancient Joseph saw in vision and which the future Joseph will publish are the words which are being written now by our family. You’re an important part of this larger plan. 

The Joseph before and the Joseph after will know you in the eternities as their brother in this work. They are counting on you. I am counting on you. Indeed, a world is counting on you. Follow Nephi and serve with him. Make Joseph of Egypt and Joseph of America proud. Make the Lord proud. Make me proud. Good bye, my son, and fare well. I believe in you.

Running, Writing, and Life

“Most runners run not because they want to live longer but because they want to live life to the fullest.  If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog, and I believe running helps you do that.  Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life, and for me, for writing as well.”  

   –Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (ch. 4)


A Great Quote on Living Deeply

I wrote on this subject a few weeks ago, but just today I came across this quote below.  It perfectly illustrates my own take on the other quote I used in that other post.  This is exactly what I have in mind:

I don’t want to drive up to the pearly gates in a shiny sports car, wearing beautifully, tailored clothes, my hair expertly coiffed, and with long, perfectly manicured fingernails. I want to drive up in a station wagon that has mud on the wheels from taking kids to scout camp. I want to be there with a smudge of peanut butter on my shirt from making sandwiches for a sick neighbor’s children. I want to be there with a little dirt under my fingernails from helping to weed someone’s garden. I want to be there with children’s sticky kisses on my cheeks and the tears of a friend on my shoulder. I want the Lord to know I was really here and that I really lived.

–Linda Bentley Johnson, in the 1997 BYU Women’s Conference, about what kind of summing up she wanted her life to have.

(hat tip: Real Intent)

On Living Deeply

I’ve often seen this quote used as an inspiring motivator:

“Life is not a journey to the grave with intentions of arriving safely in a pretty well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and loudly proclaiming … WOW! What a ride!”

Most people would probably interpret that as, “Do a lot of what you want and have as much fun as possible.”  Not me.

I like the sentiment, but I like it because I hope to see myself ending like that as a result of achieving goals, serving others, and leaving a positive mark on the world: stuff that requires sacrifice and consistent hard work.

It reminds me of this quote from Thoreau: “I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, To put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die discover that I had not lived.”

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Think Negatively, Act Positively

There’s a slogan that goes, “think globally, act locally.”  The idea is that we should orient ourselves based on big-picture priorites–even planning to be a small part of a larger movement or community–but be sure to behave and perform with a pragmatic focus on our immediate surroundings.  It’s not a bad motto for keeping your heart in the clouds rather than your head, and your feet on the ground instead of in your mouth. 

As I start a new chapter in life in a position at a different school, I’ve been working on tempering my pessimism with charity.  I like that I’m skeptical, even cynical at times; I think it insulates me from deception and ineffective actions.  However, it also makes me slow to charity and compassion.  As I noted in an analysis of the Book of Mormon once, we’re not supposed to become emotionally calloused. 

Excessive negativity also has another down side: it doesn’t help.  It might be comfortable, but it does little to actually produce results. 

So this week I’ve developed a new philosophy that I want to guide me this year: think negatively, act positively. 

I think this is how the strong people I know must operate.  I’ve known plenty who are ruthessly realistic about the nature of life, but who face every situation with the sunniest disposition possible.  I still want the tools of cold, hard reason to rule my thinking, but I also want to be an agent of more happiness in the world.  I’ve been practicing this, and I think I’m getting better.  And best of all: unflagging, energetic optimism does something.  You can see it in how instantly it improves things.  Positivity get results.  And for a cranky, old-fashioned curmudgeon, isn’t that what matters most?

Conan O’Brien Speaks at Dartmouth’s Graduation

I’m a big Conan O’Brien fan.  After all, he did write “Marge Vs. the Monorail” and “Homer Goes to College.” 

He’s given a couple of well-publicized commencement addresses before, such as one at Harvard in 2000, and one at Stuyvesant High School in 2006.  (Stuyvesant, by the way, is the school where Angela’s Ashes author Frank McCourt worked, and wrote about in the last part of Teacher Man.  O’Brien’s speech there was collected in The Best American Non-Required Reading 2007.) 

But as good as those were, his best work is this new one–funny as always, but also incredibly moving.  I’m sure non-fans don’t consider how hard the last year and a half have been on Conan–really, imagine the stress and humiliation for a moment.  However, that ordeal has surely given him something, and he shares it here. 

Video and text of the speech are at Dartmouth’s website here.  Video is also on YouTube.

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Heroes Of The Desk

Last week, I read this great post at Faith Promoting Rumor about how one person organized a desk to optimize its practical and inspirational values as an aid to scripture study.  It made me realize that my own work area is hardly conducive to maximized effectiveness in anything. 

So I moved the computer screen off to the side to give me more room in front of me, added a bookend on the far side to hold the books I’m currently reading, and where a messy pile of scratch paper had been before is now a row of the binders I frequently use: my church binder foremost, as well as my Chinese study binder, my family history binder, my goal tracking binder, and my school materials binder. 

My favorite addition has been the display of several small pictures.  Where the post linked to above favored just three role models of gospel study, since my work area serves to meet all my areas of interest and responsibility, I put up pictures of people who inspire me in multiple areas.  These aren’t just people I look up to, but people I hope to emulate in some way.  (The closest I’ve come to this in the past is when I put a picture of my family on my steering wheel, so I can always have a reminder in front of me of what’s important, though I’ve told some it’s so that, in case I’m in a horrific car crash, I can kiss them goodbye one last time as my head slams into the steering column…)

This is still a work in progress, but tells me a lot about myself.  I have 15 pictures up now, from left to right:

  1. Thomas Jefferson: America’s Renaissance man–gifted author, libertarian leader, musician, naturalist, bookworm, etc.  I’ve been inspired by occasionally dipping into the Portable Thomas Jefferson, and when I was in Washington D.C. six years ago, the Jefferson Memorial was my favorite landmark. 
  2. Bruce Lee: another renaissance man–besides being a breathtaking martial artist, he was a groundbreaking fitness entusiast, a ballroom dancing champion, an entrepreneur, a provocative author and talented sketch artist, as well as a philosophy major at UCLA.  Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story is one of my favorite movies. 
  3. Hugh Nibley, whose profound enthusiasm for teaching, study, research, cultural criticism, classicism, languages, and unwavering loyalty has strongly influenced me in those directions as well.
  4. Bruce R. McConkie, doctrinal student extraordinaire.  McConkie bashing on blogs gets on my nerves, as he was such an undeniably serious, devoted disciple of the Lord, who put his erudition to the best possible use: serving God and helping others do the same.  I’ve written about this extensively before
  5. Lance Armstrong: I loved cycling when I was younger, and desperately want to get into it again.  Not only is this guy the paragon of cycling, but his endurance–physical and emotional (he beat cancer)–is legendary. 
  6. Jesus Christ.  Duh
  7. Ronald Reagan: His “A Time For Choosing” speech in 1964 is still the best articulation of conservative principles ever.  The Great Communicator’s skill at motivating America with humor, enthusiasm, and patriotism is lovingly enshrined in memories of my childhood.
  8. Mark Steyn: The best essayist in the world today, his wit, grasp of the world’s politics, and keen stockpile of cultural references over the last hundred years makes his prose a tour de force, a joy to be reckoned with.
  9. Rafe Esquith, author of Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire; I wanted a teacher I could relate to up there, and Esquith’s standards, energy, and focus on the classics, even when I don’t do exactly what he does, still inspire me to pour on the passion. 
  10. James Joyce, my favorite author.  He embodies my love of whimsical prose, art, and all things Celtic. 
  11. All 16 presidents of the LDS Church, from Joseph Smith to Thomas S. Monson: how could I choose?  Do I display Joseph Smith for his realistic example of consecrated discipleship?  Spencer W. Kimball for his life of humble service?  David O. McKay as the zenith of living life to the fullest with the gospel?  So in they all go.
  12. Lord Baden-Powell, founder of Boy Scouts.  I need to get outdoors more often and build more practical skills.  I love the Scouting organization, and am grateful to be involved in it, as a parent of a Cub Scout and as a leader in our Boy Scout troop. 
  13. John Swartzwelder, reclusive libertarian author of more episodes of The Simpsons than anybody else (three seasons’ worth).  A master of ironic humor and outdated references (most good Mr. Burns episodes are his), he also penned such timeless satires as “Homer’s Enemy,” “Bart’s Comet,” “The Day The Violence Died,” and “Homer Vs. The Eighteenth Amendment.”  He hasn’t written for the show for years, since he’s been focusing on writing novels…one of many reasons why the show isn’t funny anymore.
  14. Anthony Daniels, tied with Steyn for title of world’s best living essayist.  A gifted wordsmith of unparalleled insight into current affairs, he writes under the pen name Theodore Dalrymple in City Journal, among other places. 
  15. Neal A. Maxwell.  Touching discipleship + (scholarship x alliteration) = a devout role model