Q4 Reading Roundup (2 of 2)

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure | This book starts with a completely absurd fictional account of the authors hiking up to some Zen master’s retreat and being granted some advice that is completely wrong. The long, unnecessary anecdote sets the stage for the rest of the book. The rest of it is good, and sad. I am glad I graduated from college over a decade ago, I am sure I’d be disgusted by campus society these days. My main issue with a book like this is that I’m not sure what good it does, other than provide confirmation of a problem will remain unresolved because the people causing the problem will not accept the book’s key points. I would happily pass along copies of this to people who could benefit greatly from its content, but those people have long un-followed me on Facebook and haven’t read much if anything I’ve passed along to them. You could build much more upon this idea, as this learned fragility flows into corporations and government from the university system, and the consequences are already frightening. Review here.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined |While this 100-chapter book took me forever to get through; I really enjoyed it, I will never write a review (of anything) as complete or thoughtful as Aschwin’s, so I will link to his.

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America | I’m still really unsure how I feel about this very lengthy and bitter-sounding history of poor whites in America. Further, while some explanation of inequality make sense to me (property ownership value compounds over generations, so if you start later you can have less inherited wealth), this tirade against a country that allegedly oppresses opportunities for the poorest whites, who are generationally poor, fails to account for the fact that millions of poor immigrants with even fewer opportunities landed in this country, dispersed and flourished. The book has no real topic order; some of her reflections on people like Bill Clinton and Sarah Palin are interesting, and her cultural critique is worth considering. Overall I was not a fan: the disjointed style and the wildly resentful tone were not particularly persuasive. Two completely different reviews, one from the Washington Post here and one from the National Review here. There is a false comparison to Hillbilly Elegy: the two books are nothing alike.

The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia (Comparative Studies in Religion and Society Book 11) | I will never forget the way this book opens, with the shelling of the National Library in Sarajevo. I consider myself a fairly rational and often unemotional person; the Bosnian War has always evoked very deep horror in me, and absent geography, I can’t think of a worse building to go up in flames than a library, though I attribute this partially to my own culture, in which burning books is taboo.

This book is similar in tone to The Serbs: it is highly critical of Serb politicians and nationalists. It is rightfully critical of the West and the UN. Its primary focus is Christoslavism, which is integral to explaining the history of the Balkans. The extent of cruelty and dehumanization and groupthink leading up to and during this war is staggering. That it dragged on for years before anyone intervened is sickening. The book details the rapid destruction of tolerance and history, and the way Serb and Bosnian Serb politicians fanned the flames of hatred. It is not unbiased, but it is very good. I wish I could say that September’s trip to BiH was fulfilling enough to stop reading books about the Balkans. It was not, and I have quite a few others I will read in 2019 before heading back to Sarajevo in June.

The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives |Not sure why or how I came across this book, it but’s a pretty diverse collection of stories by refugees in America. No real opinion, it’s always interesting to read about how other people live. Pretty good read. SF Gate review here.

The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border |This book was pretty well-received for offering a different perspective on border patrol, though I’m not sure in the end it lacks any sympathy. It’s tragic and torn; also really well-written. NY Times review here.

Q4 Reading Roundup (1 of 2)

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.

On Sameness

This opinion piece was shared with me yesterday, and it’s one worth a few more words. Its author could have said a lot more about how short-sighted the original article is, and it’s been awhile since I have written anything here.

The original article: The Unbearable Sameness of Cities
Commentary op-ed: Tragically Hipster

Without sounding like too much of a jerk, I’m mildly surprised NY Magazine published Schwindt’s article, even online. I consider myself judgmental to a flaw (it’s something I’ve tried hard to change over the years, but progress is slow, and I think I will always have a Northeastern chip on my shoulder)… but this article is astounding in its lazy judgment and generalization of strangers.

I found the Commentary piece especially charming because one of the books I read (and loved) this past summer was Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. American cities as we know them today have come full circle, with incredible revival especially in downtown districts. And on a more simplistic level, Schwindt might have had less time to focus on the Ikea light fixtures if she had taken time to speak to business owners, chefs or even the ‘young and tattooed and bespectacled’ people behind the counters. What she might have found is that today’s cities, from Nashville to Portland to Austin to Milwaukee to Sacramento, are home to people who love those places and through their commitment to their cities, add many individual pieces of passion that the cities in Jacob’s books had lost through urban planning. Anyone looking into the past at cities like Atlanta, Austin, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Seattle and even Los Angeles and New York would see vastly different human landscapes, and it’s tough to think of many things more authentic than these cities having grown into what they are today.

Reading the original article made me wonder what its writer is really looking for, as I’m not sure what is more authentic than breweries popping up everywhere with their own unique offerings (I think back to being in Denver years ago and stopping into Trve Brewing, a metal brewery erected and much loved thanks to the city’s burgeoning metal scene). Jacobs hated that people couldn’t dine out where they lived; they couldn’t buy groceries in the same block they drank a beer or did their laundry. She explained in Death and Life that restaurant traffic at night, when people were home in the neighborhood, put feet on the ground and added extra vigilance, and crime was less likely when that foot traffic existed in residential spaces where people lived.

In the Western world, prosperity has a sort of look; I mentioned this regarding Prague, and the way it’s begun to look like any other Western European capital. I’ve wondered myself if this is a bad thing, or a dull thing, or a vapid one. Overall, it’s probably a wonderful thing. The sameness Schwindt saw was prosperity, and the ease of doing business: the social capital and societal wealth of the cities and communities within them. What you read in her words is the high level of societal wealth you need to be born into to bitch about having too many restaurants to choose from, and to take the history of cities in America for granted.

More than anything, her exposé on sameness is a display of how easy it is to accumulate hypotheses based on sight alone, and how moronic it is to simply look at someone and pass judgment. Not once in this article was the content of a conversation conveyed. She did not stop once to talk to anyone, to ask important questions: ‘what are you trying to do here?’ to someone who owns a restaurant; not ‘what makes this city special?’ or ‘why here?’ to practically anyone. The real tragedy of articles like this is that there is no expression of curiosity, no desire for a depth of understanding. She wants to see authenticity, without having any real understanding of what she’s looking for.

As someone who finds myself defending New York on a fairly regular basis, I understand this constant search for authenticity. I’ve said many times I prefer New York to Boston, which always felt small and sterile and overbearing to me. I like a city with some garbage on the street here and there, some traces of flawed, impulsive humanity. When I lived in Boston, I found the emptying of its downtown at night creepy and unnatural; as though it was closed for cleaning and would reopen for regular business hours. I think the disarray of many neighborhoods in New York are beautiful and convenient, and comforting to me: everything is chaotically smashed together, and operations churn eternally. I remember moving to Boston for college and thinking it was bullshit that last call at the bar was so early; Massachusetts felt like a nanny state to me, where New York you could get a vodka tonic at 4am and a breakfast sandwich at 11pm if that’s what you wanted. These differences in culture are largely explained in a very cool book I came across, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America: New York/New Jersey’s mercantile beginnings are at odds with the Puritan “community first” underpinnings of New England. In New York, enough people want eggs at midnight to have a diner open and serving. By contrast, in Boston it seemed to me someone decided me ordering a drink at 2am was not acceptable.

But I digress. The two books in this post are well worth the read, if you’re into that sort of thing. And the NY Magazine piece is a great example of how not to live your life steeped in superiority but lacking any desire to really connect or learn. It’s hard to dispute that Jacobs (who died in 2006) would be pleased by the beautiful public spaces that have popped up in Portland; the incredible path from grunge to tech hub that Seattle has taken; the dramatic drop in crime in New York, and growing vibrancy in cities like Minneapolis, Kansas City, Nashville and Austin, which were nondescript blips on a map when she wrote Life and Death. In my lifetime, we will likely see Detroit, Pittsburgh and others rise to those same heights; it’s a shame people in my generation will bitch and moan every step of the way, too caught up with their own supposed uniqueness and authenticity to bother to delve into anyone else’s.