The Reading File: Excerpts from interesting articles

Published Sept. 21, 2017

Coming back from death

In Outside Magazine, adventure writer Tim Cahill explains how he came to die on the banks of the Colorado River when he shot the rapids, capsized, was pulled to shore — and then his heart flatlined. Read "My Drowning (And Other Inconveniences)" in full at Here's an excerpt.

I committed to the trip (rafting down the Grand Canyon), but I never considered writing about it. Too many good stories about that journey have appeared in these pages over the years. And frankly, I didn't want to work that hard. It would be my 71st birthday on Nov. 28, and I wanted to be somewhere nice. Nice turned out to be dead.

What comes next are things I've been told. Some of these things contradict one another. I was there, sure, but I don't recall being dead. I'd like to say that I saw a heavenly light and felt myself floating toward it. But that didn't happen. I didn't see any beckoning figures or beloved pets bounding across the Rainbow Bridge. There weren't any pearly gates and I didn't even see a guy with a pitchfork. It wasn't black inside. It wasn't gray. It just wasn't there. It was nothing.

Accidental and deadly

In the New Yorker, Alice Gregory writes about "the challenge of living after you've caused another's death," explaining that "accidentally causing a death is understood to be both meaningless and overwhelmingly consequential — a gruesomely reversed deus ex machina, in which an intractable problem is introduced rather than solved." Read "Accidental Killers" in full at Here's an excerpt.

I spoke to six people who had caused accidental deaths, on the phone and in person, and the tone and the structure of their accounts were eerily uniform. They spoke quickly and compulsively, assuming the role of the sincere and reliable narrator of a realist novel. No detail seemed too small to share: the color of the sky that day, what song was playing on the radio. They spoke of losing time after the accident, and they apologized, often repeatedly, for the minutes for which they couldn't account. Near the end of their stories, they would take a moment to catch their breath and offer a statement that got at the incomprehensible enormity of it all. Then they would apologize again, this time for having spoken for so long.

Biblical neuroscience

In the Atlantic, Sigal Samuel interviews James Kugel, who has studied the ancient biblical prophets through the lens of neuroscience: "What was it about the minds of ancient Israelites that allowed them to hear and see God directly — or at least, to believe that they did? Were the biblical prophets literally hearing voices and seeing visions, understanding themselves to be transmitting God's own exact words?" Read "Reading the Bible Through Neuroscience" in full at Here is one of Kugel's observations.

I'm not sure what a Martian's view of our sense of self would be, but I think I have an idea of what ancient Israelites might say about us, once the shock wore off. Quite apart from our living in a world in which God plays no obvious part, they would be astounded at encountering a sense of self that is just huge, virtually filling the heavens. Each of us would seem to them so important, so big! Their sense of self was far more collective than ours; their own existence was tightly connected to that of siblings and cousins and clan-mates far and wide, and who they were was very much defined by who they came from as well as by their inherited social roles. All this, quite apart from semipermeability, simply made them much smaller than we are today. In fact, from this perspective the semipermeable mind was just another aspect of human smallness. I think the challenge facing religions in the West nowadays is to try to help people shrink down to a more realistic size, and then to let the divine take over where the human leaves off.

He averted nuclear war

In the Washington Post, Harrison Smith writes the obituary for a Soviet military intelligence officer who trusted his gut and averted a nuclear war when a computer system misread the sun's reflection off clouds as a U.S. nuclear missile launch. Read "Stanislav Petrov, Soviet Officer Credited With Averting Nuclear War, Dies At 77" in full at Here's an excerpt.

The satellite signal Col. Petrov received in his bunker indicated that a single Minuteman missile had been launched and was headed toward the East. Four more missiles appeared to follow, according to satellite signals, and the protocol was clear: notify Soviet Air Defense headquarters in time for the military's general staff to consult with Soviet leader Yuri Andropov. A retaliatory attack, and nuclear holocaust, would likely ensue.

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Yet Col. Petrov, juggling a phone in one hand and an intercom in the other, judged that the red alert was a false alarm. Soviet missiles, armed and ready, remained in their silos. And American missiles, apparently minutes from impact, seemed to vanish into the air.

"I had a funny feeling in my gut," Col. Petrov told the Washington Post in 1999. "I didn't want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it." He celebrated with half a liter of vodka, fell into a sleep that lasted 28 hours and went back to work.

While the "50-50" decision may have averted catastrophe, it ultimately destroyed the career of Col. Petrov,