I read a lot of bad books this month, it seems — but the good ones were really good! Limiting myself to 4, once again, I recommend two uplifting books and two more somber ones:
- Triumph of the City – an upbeat, well-researched look at why cities work a lot better than we may think
- Getting Better – another upbeat but grounded assessment of the state of the world that does not shrink from exposing problems but also points out undeniable improvements in health and well-being just about everywhere
- Other People’s Money – a novel about the financial crisis, in which the guilty bankers live happily ever after, more or less
- Please Look After Mom – a melancholic story of a mom who sacrifices herself for her family but doesn’t get recognized for it, until it’s too late
The Longevity Project is a delightful book that uses a very long-time study conducted at Stanford University (the Terman study, named after its principal investigator), which followed hundreds of people for decades, to see what makes for successful aging. The Terman study is, of course, old, since it started in 1921, and its subject were chosen to be gifted ten-year olds, so it can’t be considered to be entirely unbiased, but it still provides a treasure to the researchers. And it turns out that those of us who live longest have the most boring lives — or I should say the most orderly lives, for a gentler label, since orderly lives mean healthy habits and conscientious health care. That it’s not tough jobs that produce heart attacks: on the contrary, people who work hard to build interesting careers live longest. And that some patterns are bad news for longevity, in particular catastrophic thinking and divorce for men (but not for women, somehow).
The book is a refreshing blend of individual vignettes, discussions of general trends, and also quizzes and specific recommendations to help us live longer, no matter what our current situation. Very well done.
Warning: rant coming. Not mine, not really, but by the author of The Net Delusion, who seems to have a particular hatred of Silicon Valley companies and the Obama administration, which he lumps together for the horrible sin of apparently believing that the Internet, smart phones, and assorted Twitter, by their very existence, will liberate the world of oppressive regimes. It’s such a silly belief that it barely deserves a full-length book, but on and on the author thunders about the idiocy of thinking that technology can promote democracy, although he does allow that the free circulation of ideas may well suggest to the citizens of failed regimes that things might be better minus their oppressors. He also shows how the very technologies that promise to liberate the world can be used by oppressive regimes to distribute their propaganda (nothing new here) and also that they can rather easily be controlled, suppressed, or used to track down opponents by the same oppressive governments — although it’s not clear at all that technology makes the persecuting of opponents any more pervasive.
The best parts of the book are when the author shares his first-hand knowledge of living outside our democratic, technology-driven bubble (he is from Belarus and has traveled elsewhere). Perhaps this is a useful book for those naive enough to think that technology by itself can topple bad government. For others, it’s all a big duh.
The Summer Without Men is full of men as the heroine, dumped by her husband, spends the summer in her Midwest hometown, helping her battered-wife neighbor (man #1: the abusive husband), sorting out the intrigues of bullying teenagers (men #many: the cute boys), and listening to her mother’s aging friends with hidden wild sides (more men, the departed husbands). She also ruminates over and over again about her own husband and their lives together, ad nauseam, but appealingly realistically, at least for the English professor she is. What made the book for me were the right-on observations of people, bodies and souls, from the persecuted teenager to her feeling-deaf husband to herself, wallowing and trying not to wallow in hatred for the other woman.
Willful Blindness sets out to describe the many ways that we humans have to ignore the obvious, because we don’t want to change our routine, because we don’t want to rock the boat, because we are just a small cog in a large machine, because we are awed by authority, or simply because out of sight can easily become out of mind. I found the book rather unsettling. Can’t we have some spine and be able to say to ourselves and to others that the emperor needs covering up? The depressing lesson I took from the book is that even though we need effective whistle blowers, their employment prospects are bleak, perhaps specifically because there are so few of them that they appear to belong to a lunatic fringe…
Let’s resolve not to succumb to groupthink.
I pushed through The Last Lingua Franca and found lots of interesting food for thought but I must say that I flipped through the pages a lot, as the author’s minute analysis of language construction can be tedious. I liked the larger story: how English is one of the languages used as global communication language, after Latin and French, and how these languages come to occupy their position through the underlying economic and military power of the nations that use them.
His argument that English is losing its grip did not convince me. But I remain ready to learn Chinese, when needed.
Free for All talks about the much-maligned school lunch and starts and end with the belief that it should be free — and, of course, healthy and vegetable rich to boot.
I’m all for vegetables (and not exactly in favor of fries and especially soda, as my long-suffering children will tell you; I’m so relieved that whatever horrors I had them suffer in the name of healthy eating do not matter in the long run, as I recently learned! but I digress). I see how perverse government subsidies and tight budgets have conspired to create a horrible school lunch. But I fail to see how making the lunches free for everyone will solve the problem, let alone how the universal free lunch could even come about, especially if it needs to include the high-quality, healthy foods the author is dreaming about.
It seems that all the inspiring examples the author gives come from the same source: a passionate individual working to change bad habits despite the silly constraints of the system. Perhaps the real solution is not the universal free lunch, but rather changes in the silly constraints coupled with more sharing of good practices?
I spent much of the school year helping a recently emigrated high school senior complete her college applications followed by reams of applications for scholarships to pay for college. And yes, thanks for asking, she was admitted to several universities despite her weak English SAT scores, and yes, she did get a scholarship on top of her Pell grants, and no, the combination does not allow her to attend a residential program, even with attending a “moderately” priced public university, and yes, she will be able to commute from home and make it work, I think, knock on wood.
Why Does College Cost So Much? talks about why college is so darn expensive, even moderately priced public universities, and shows how college costs have increased very much in line with other personal services that rely on a highly educated workforce. One would wish that the authors would pursue the angle of why college has to be so darn personal, since surely a college professor could, at least sometimes, function in a manner that’s a little different from a dentist with hands in one person’s mouth at a time! And they argue that financial aid should work better, to which I say amen.
I was looking forward to reading Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids because I think that raising children is an immensely rewarding experience (if you are a child of mine reading this: it’s because of your siblings, not you — I wouldn’t want you to get all cocky!) and that people are needlessly shy about going beyond the standard 2.1 kids per family. And I did enjoy reading the first few chapters, in which the author makes the simple points that (1) raising children is, indeed, rewarding after the fact, even if the nose-to-the-grindstone years are, well, grinding and (2) our current culture is pressuring parents to expand vast amounts of completely unnecessary energy into controlling every aspect of their children’s lives, which is exhausting and futile and should be abandoned in favor of having more children.
Because it turns out that we, clever, devoted, yet modest parents don’t make any difference whatsoever in how our kids turn out, or at least that’s what the author says, repeats, and repeats again, ad nauseam, for the next many chapters. And while I agree that there’s very little we can do (or should do!) to unmold our kids from their inborn personalities, I remain firmly convinced that hands-on parenting, in which we help the child succeed with his or her personality, not ours, is essential. Surely that point could be made more clearly.
I also wish that a more enlightened discussion of the practical challenges of raising children could have been included. It’s easy enough to wave hands and assert that three or four children are just as easy as two but who coordinates the daycare and school options? Why does school end at 3pm? Who gets to have a job that includes travel? It may be easier with a university professor’s job but most jobs are very inflexible when it comes to raising children, even without a hothouse approach.
Finally, the last several chapters are just a retread of the earlier ones, staged with gratuitous and forced dialogs that bring no value. Where have all the good editors gone?
Being With Animals starts well, with a learned discussion on how humans and animals evolved together, and how the relationship can be remarkably symbiotic. And then it goes downhill, at least for me, not an animal lover, as the author leaves the realm of academic research and dives into anecdotal stories of how individual animals are exquisitely attuned to their masters… Might work for animal lovers, though!