Oops, it’s now December. And, the time of year The Economist and New York Times publish their best of the year: both contain some really great ones. Because I’m lazy and my readership is deliberately limited, I’m only covering Oct-Dec. I’ve read over 100 books this year: ain’t nobody got time for that shit. I will supplement my laziness with other peoples’ reviews — sometimes negative ones — and all reviews are limited to one paragraph, in classic millennial TL;DR style.
Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress | I am currently reading this, but figured I’d include it anyway. Quite honestly I find this a bit boring, but it’s not Pinker’s fault, it’s mine; I read too many books that end up confirming my world view (I don’t necessarily mean to) and am familiar with (thus far) all of his included references. Many sweeping societal views are deeply flawed: one that I find consistently bothersome is the belief that today’s world is worse. This book is filled with the work of Kahneman & Tversky; Johann Norberg and many others who have commented on this erroneous belief and why people believe this. This book was not widely loved and admired, for obvious reasons. Here’s a positive review, and here are two critical ones, one from the New York Times, and one from Vox (a site I reference because it tends to occasionally feature writers who are not sanctimonious assholes). The New York Times review is particularly interesting, as the group of people who would be inclined to agree with the reviewer’s argument (‘things are overall better, but not individually’) are the same ones who would bleed upper-middle and upper class individuals for the sake of the argument that collectively, society would be better if they paid more taxes. This book is simple, even for Pinker; thus far it reads as a light, data-centric but emotional argument defending prosperity. Some current issues, especially societal polarization, are glazed over. Chapter 4, about how progressives hate progress, made me laugh, though it was cynical laughter, and a point driven home by my own personal experience of gifting Johan Norberg’s Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future to some of my most progressive friends a number of years ago… not one of them has read it. I like Pinker’s books for the references to other books; this one was a bit light on that as well. I will always read his books, this one is my least favorite, but only due to standards set by his previous work. As an aside, I’m surprised no one has mentioned the subtle silver lining to the current ‘life sucks more than it used to’ narrative: it could, and likely will, in some instances, perpetuate further progress. Gratitude is not required to raise the bar even higher in the future.
Is Shame Necessary?: New Uses for an Old Tool | I wasn’t a huge fan of this when I began reading, but by the end I was pleased I did. While her distaste for libertarians is obvious throughout the book, I think she makes some good arguments for the high utility of shame, and its misuses, as well as further opportunities to wield it to change corporate behavior (and possibly public policy, but not holding my breath). I was pleased to see a pet issue of mine featured in many chapters: big agriculture (her specialty is environmental protection, and it is a much larger source of ire than industrial farming). Her lack of interest in including the presence of government subsidies seems to fall in line with her political views; shame has diminished utility in agriculture, pharma, biotech and many other industries where government subsidies exist, and she could have made a better case for the shame brought about by modern writers like Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, which increased consumer demand for organic food and humanely reared meat, both of which were incredibly difficult to find 15 years ago. Shame has also not worked for American airlines, where consumers can only purchase sub-par services due to government constraints on supply and competition. Environmental protection shaming will also not help protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, due to the relationship between ASRC and the government; the ideas are good, and the book is thoughtfully written, but I think there’s a limit to the power of shame where government and lobbying are involved. It’d be impossible to shame the postal service for arbitrarily closing yesterday due to the GWB ‘day of mourning,’ but consumers could shame a grocery store for doing the same. For that reason, there is a lot of disparity in the power of shame. Chicago Tribune review of two books on shame; I chose this one instead of the other.
The Incurable Romantic: And Other Tales of Madness and Desire | This was an impulse buy following reading The Economist review. Read with a lot of scrutiny; its style echoes Psychopathia Sexualis, in a way, and to the writer’s credit, many of the stories encompass mental issues I’ve never heard of (and I am a person who spends hours scrolling through articles and photos of infectious disease and obscure mental and physical illnesses). I don’t love his writing style, he has a way of weaving his general psych knowledge into the chapters and then being self-deprecating in a way that annoys me, but the mental problems he covers in the chapters are really interesting. These characters are fascinating and deranged; it’s difficult to ignore their innocence, the author displays a lot of empathy and curiosity, traits which, when combined, are not always attractive or unbiased.
American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good | I read this because I read the one below, which blew my mind to some degree. Woodard is not the first to divide America into ideological regions, but his book helped me answer some of my own questions: I spent a long time ruminating on the underlying causes of feeling unimpressed living in Boston, yet having undying love and admiration for New York: this writer’s theories on the subcultures of the US really fascinated me, and a lot of American Character refers back to his former work, though the author spends an awful lot of time railing on the apparently stupid libertarian ideals and making fun of Hayek. He comes to a fairly reasonable conclusion: that we need a blend of ideologies for real progress. Overall, the book below is the better read, but American Character is an easy read that gave me things to think about. Bonus points for the Ceaușescu reference. WSJ review here. Side note, it surprises me so many authors believe there is an adequately straight solution: I find it highly likely, especially due to so many regional subcultures and states’ rights, that America will always oscillate between federalist and anti-federalist, between excessive laissez-faire and over-regulation. It’s especially American to fight and bitch and argue about everything, and to run constant experiments in different states and regions. The squabbling has been a pretty important part of our so-called exceptionalism.
My Struggle, Book 3 | I loved Book 1 and 2 of this series, I found Book 3 to be boring but probably necessary. Thankfully it is shorter than the others. Much of this revolves around the author’s relationship with his father, and the fear conveyed in this book adds a lot of context. I love the order of this series so far… only in book 3 does he return to his childhood. I had no idea how I would feel about the series as a whole, the books take absolutely forever to get through. I’m “reading” this with Audible. The reader is theatrical, which is an incredible and probably underappreciated feature of the audio version: Scandinavian languages have a completely different cadence, and this feature doubtless increases my enjoyment of the material. A somewhat monotonous Book 3 has not dissuaded me from continuing, and Book 4 is coming up in the queue quickly. I imagine this is the kind of work you either love or hate. I expected to hate it. I’m linking to the Book 6 review in The Economist, where the reviewer implies the high readership is perhaps partially attributed to his “craggy good looks.” This one sentence in an otherwise insightful review earned The Economist another pissed off note from me; after all, it would be taboo to make a statement like that about a female author. His outrageous honesty, in all things relevant and irrelevant, is what makes this an incredible project, especially for a Norwegian (though his honesty would be even more scandalous if he were a Swede).
Part 2 of this roundup coming before the end of the year. I promise.