2017: Books I Liked


Well this year was a joyous one for books and I. My youngest daughter Ruby has finally started to sleep through the night (!) so I was able to sneak in quite a few more reading hours every day. I also had several long drives between Boise and Pdx that needed to be filled, and great audio books at the ready. There were just so many great discoveries this year it was really hard to narrow down just a few to talk about. 

This year my top favorites included an surprisingly moving autobiography, a critical mediation on human society, a genetic history of human species, an insane demonstration of erudition, an extended letter to a son,  and—finally—a serious and studious consideration of Darwin’s almost universally ignored second great book on evolution.  

Writing these up this year though it is clear that the 2016 election and populist stirrings throughout the world have had a profound impact on my reading schedule this year. In fact the first three works I wrote up merged into an extended reflection on identity, politics, and how far we are falling short. 

First off my surprise favorite was the hilarious and moving autobiography of the (new) Daily Show host Trevor Noah. Like many in my generation I loved John Stewart, the Walter Cronkite of our era guiding us through tough times with brilliant humor and sharp insight. Needless I was very sad to see him retire. Trevor Noah, a South African comedian who replaced him was a surprising and intriguing choice. I liked him from the beginning.  Like Stewart his empathy and intelligence shines through every comedic bit. Even so when I picked up his book on a whim and found myself enthralled it was a bit of a surprise. I knew he was a mixed race South African, which is unique in its own right so I knew there must be some sort of interesting story. But I had not realized that he grew up poor in Soweto, an outcast of both races. Nor how strong and independent his religious single mother was. In fact it is his mother that is the real heroine of his story. His deep love and profound respect shines throughout his prose. 

Trevor’s story is fascinating, and he his a hilarious narrator. His adventures from childish pranks that backfired to bootlegging dj entrepreneur days up to his present successes are incredibly entertaining. Even the heartwrenching ones of poverty like pooping on the floor, or pushing his mother’s beat-up broken car, escaping rapists were told with joyous zeal, and an egnaminity lacking judgement or anger. I  was fortunate to have chosen this as an audio version as his poignancy might not come across as honest, or frankly as noble, as his own voice conveys. And some stories are just so over the top crazy that even he seems in shock at some of them (e.g. his breakdancing friend Hitler!?!)

It is most striking just how even keel he is about his country and injustice. He doesn’t condone it, and it does angers him like it would any moral observer. But it’s not rage at the individual, just a quiet calm seeking a just system for all. Everything is just how it was, that is Life.  Let’s have some laughs, and try to do a little better.

Mother washing at the public sink in Soweto, South Africa. (Copyright (2012) Shadrach Pilip-Florea)

It is hard not to contrast Noah’s optimistic and ultimately hopeful book with Ta Nehisi Coates’s equally moving but much more downbeat letter to his 15 year old son “Between the World and Me.” The two authors are both deeply intelligent, insightful observers of our world. They both grew up in racialized poverty with strong mothers that pushed resourcefulness and education.

There is no single essayist whose posts I look forward to more than Coates. His prose is always evocative, his clarity brilliant and powerful, and his imagery is often sublime. Reading Coates is Finnish sauna followed by a dunk in a the Baltic Sea. The beautify of the writing floods you with endorphins, but the brisk slap of his hard truths knocks all idealism away. This is life. It is visceral and real and terrible and beautiful and painful and glorious and unfair. Profoundly unfair.

“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.”

Make no mistake about it Coates does not want his son to live with any illusions. The history is the history. The facts are the facts.  Things may improve in fits and starts, but then __________ (unarmed black man) is shot and the police officer goes free. Black men fill our prisons, while the women and children fill out public housing ghettos. The more things change, the more they stay the same.  The structure of America is structural violence against black men. Where Trevor Noah–and Ta-Hehisi Coates himself–would seem to embody a progressive story of structural change and hope Coates powerfully rebukes that. He marshals the racial history and his own lived life on the streets of Baltimore into a stinging argument against hope. Hope will only cause you heartbreak and more pain later, son.  Coates is a painful rebuke to those that believe that a better society is possible. Those like me.

A younger version of myself would have fought mightily against Coate’s vision. There is much to quibble with, it is sharply focused on America’s original ongoing sin, at the expense of the rest of us. Philosophically, my history is a history of ideas, where the arc of moral truth slowly but ever so surely bends towards justice. But here age has tempered me. I also know that I could be wrong. The world is not just, even if the big picture trends seem positive. And that trend can and likely will change. It might not work out at all, all of this could be a historic blip before we revert to the historic mean of oppression or Hobbesian brutish ignorance.

In accepting this possibility I come to the point where Coates most strongly resonates with me. In fact he gives me great hope.  His book is a written as a letter to his son. He is warning his son that naive hope is exactly that. Do not allow yourself to be broken by the dream of hope. But even as he slams “dreamers” and warns his son not to be a sucker. He still implores his son to:

“Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom.” 

Seek truth and it might not literally set you free, but that is not the point. Seek truth because that is our moral imperative.

If I could recommend one book that I wish the the entire country, or rather the whole world–or at least all of us men–would read it would be Tribe, by Sebastian Junger. It is the message that I think we need right now.

. Most reviews and interviews had focused on its penetrating portrayals of returning male soldiers, many with PTSD and their longing to return to their platoons.  in my reading though that was only the hook, or rather the insight that lead Junger to penetrate deeper into what humans are and need.  From there the book becomes about what kind of community all of us humans need to thrive, and how our modern society actually serves to isolates us, while devaluing our most important works, while promoting–and lavishly rewarding–rampant inequity and injustice. It’s a compelling argument that sadly has become even more true in the last few years.

Sociologists and Psychologists such as Jonathon Haidt have produced some very interesting, if somewhat disquieting scholarship which seems to indicate our political identities are rooted in how we biologically experience risk. Those that feel fear deeply lean right, while those that don’t tend to lean left.  Out of these primal emotional responses comes our later political values. This evidence seems to confirm Hume’s famous quip: “reason is the slave of passion.”  Political parties and savy campaigners exploit these reactions ever more effectively  our identity ‘tribal politics’ and showing how they have redefined our political allegiances. In fact it often seems that the red/blue culture wars are  tearing our liberal democracy apart. At such a dispiriting and divisive time I really wish we could have a national book club and everybody sit down to read and discuss Junger’s short book. 

A few points that struck me as particularly salient to today’s world. In tribal societies free loaders, criminals, and greedy people are simply not tolerated. They are very quickly ostracized from the group. However in our world that is not the case.  For example Junger draws a parallel between the lack of consequences to the financial crisis—or for CEOs as a whole class—with the obvious greed and dereliction of moral responsibilities is a central cause of the recent rise of populist anti-institutionalism in general.

Junger is also not surprised by the paradox of modern economic development, that is as our world is growing richer and physically healthier our rates of depression and dissatisfaction are also rising. We get rich and then move into giant lonely suburban homes where we put up fences to keep everyone away. We commute in giant lonely automobiles, we live in our personalized media bubbles, we work in lonely cubicles, on increasing specialized/isolated tasks. Growing more lonely and fearful every day.  Until only very recently our species lived almost entirely in groups. As we remove ourselves from the groups that once defined us, our social anxieties multiply; our neurotic tendencies overcome us. It should be noted that less than 40% of us are even lucky enough to work, increasingly only the best and most well-adjusted are judged worthy of the workforce. That percentage declines year on year.

In Junger’s view to not have a tribe, is to not have sense of identity/belonging/responsibility. It is, well, to be a sociopath. Junger is not a jingoist though clamoring for a populist nativism, rather he seems to call for something even more radical: We must remake our social systems. We must embrace our tribe. Tribe is an indictment of our modern society but it doesn’t say the answer is tribal warfare. Rather it is justice and most of all: compassion.

Personally I find Junger to be quite persuasive. We live in an era of alienation, we exalt liberty and freedom of the individual. Social liberalism, and even more strident economic neoliberalism are the philosophies of the day. On the right we exalt uberman CEOs, while the left proclaims  self-actualized woke individuals. Religious or civil leaders who call for community first politics are almost universally ridiculed (religious by the left, communitarians by the right). 

Rousseau gets it half right. Man is not born free, and everywhere is in chains but those chains give strength/meaning/identity/self-worth. Breaking those chains has come at a cost.  In my mind I supposed I tried to thread the needle between the two. I believe Maslov is right. Individuals should aim to be the best they can, but the key to the actualized bliss is both individual freedom and social obligation. Those that can find their way through that maze reach contentment. I think that is why those in lowly paid professions such as teachers or nurses tend to be happier than higher paid professions like lawyers or bankers. Their lives have meaning because their individual actions matter day to day.  But too many of us don’t matter, either we are unemployed–deemed worthless by our tribe, or we have what anthropologist David Graeber coined: “bullshit jobs”  doing work we don’t value leaving us unfulfilled and in a permanent state of low-grade depression.  

The single most interesting–and potentially the most important academic book–I read this year was Richard Prim’s The Evolution of Beauty.  It is a brilliant update to that most dangerous of ideas, Darwinism. Prim goes back to Darwin’s second book The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex where Darwin expanded his theory beyond the simple “survival of the fittest” we learn. He argued that animals–and mankind–make aesthetic mate choices. Darwin famously struggled with the peacock. How can a peacock’s tail be an evolutionary advantage. It certainly doesn’t make peacocks better hunters, and in fact impedes their ability to escape predators.  Most biologists argue that it is a sign of good health and therefore signals reproductive strength but Prim argues that this catch-all explanation which biologists use is overly simplistic and misses what is right in front of our noses: animals like beauty. In the absence of overt environmental pressure animals will make aesthetic choices even if these might not be particularly advantageous. Prim documents numerous species, mostly birds, that make similar seemingly irrational decisions. Rather than try and summarize all of Prim’s excellent arguments I would point to this much more knowledgable Nytimes book review. (And if you want to extend the thinking abit check out this Nautilus article).

Do you want to skip college, graduate school yet still learn about the origins and impacts of nearly every important idea that came about in the twentieth century?  Then Terrible Beauty: The people and Ideas that Shaped the Modern Mind  is your book. Not since the mind boggling work of language history, Empire of Words, have I been as blown away by an author’s erudition and total command of such a wide range of complex knowledge. (And I am not alone, no fewer than three of the excerpted reviews described the work as a “tour de force.”

Peter Watson maps out the progression of ideas, their influences and interactions, and identifies the historical consequences: the influence of Darwin, Picasso, Marxism and Freud senseless tragedies culminating in two world wars; the ingredients for Modernism and transition to Post Modernism; and the limitations of science in the Post Industrial age.One of the more thought provoking points he makes is that Freud and his theories have proven completely false. This struck me as one of those points that is perhaps both empirically true–there doesn’t seem to be any psychological evidence that supports his unconscious id or dream interpretation ideas–and manifestly false. Have you never read literature? gone to the movies? watched popular TV shows? studied religion? Understood an allegory?  I guess in my view all popular media–Movies, TV shows, novels, video games etc–are at some level products of our collective consciousness–and unconsciousness. More than anything it is stories that tie us together, they are the myths that bind us, the imagery and metaphors we use to understand the world. They are filtered through individual artists but they also tell us about ourselves. It seems to me that one of Freud’s most important legacies is to give us language for articulating this. Maybe he belongs in the literature criticism cannon instead of the social sciences.  

Intriguingly, Watson teases us with his own vision beyond Post Modernism, but I was fairly underwhelmed.  Hopefully more detail is being saved for a subsequent book. I do know that I have just ordered two more of his works and I am particularly excited about The German Genius. 

My next favorite work was History of World Literature – Great Courses.  Ok this isn’t actually a book, and I didn’t even read it but rather listened to a series of lectures.  But man what a great lecture series. Check out this insane syllabus! These are the seminal works of our literary traditions.  And Professor Voth is a charming story teller in his own right.  He organized the series based through tracing the evolution of literary story-telling devices through the ages. This is an aspect of cultural evolution that I had not really seriously considered before. As some thinkers like Yuval Noah Harari argue that humans great evolutionary advance is our ability to tell stories, I found this new understanding to be invaluable, and have also  for teaching.  

If left to my own predilections I don’t think I would have ever read a lot classic literature outside of the early classical epics or later big philosophical thinkers that always interested me (I have always been particularly fascinated by the German Philologists). I did not take any classical literature courses in college, nor was I particularly interested in 19th century novels.  However when I lived and traveled in China often traditional “classics” were the only English language books I could find. Desperate for more reading material I reluctantly picked some up. Now I  count this as a real blessing.  Authors such as Dostoevsky, Conrad, Maugham, Wilde, Fitzgerald, Kafka, Tolstoy, Voltaire, etc, now I consider some of the most influential works I have read. My intellectual life has been much richer for it. (Although it is somewhat dispiriting to think that if anything more contemporary were available I probably never would have encountered these works). 

The aspirational intellectual in me has always wanted to read more but now that I have a multitude of choices I almost always turn to non-fiction works and articles that I love.  However I am getting to the age where I am starting to accept I probably won’t read too many more traditional ‘classics’.  This lecture series was phenomenal in filling in a lot of major blank spaces that I still have, such as the Tale of the Genji, Faulkner, Bronte, Puskin, Mahfouz, Rabindranath Tagore.  It also gave me new takes on many of those I have read. It inspired me to read a few new works next year as well. I have just ordered Things Fall Apart and Monkey. I have to say this series was an incredible value.  Highly Recommended.

I’ve always been an avid reader of economic history.  As an empiricist I look for evidence for claims. Classical economics with its aspirations to model human relations like physics with a constant equilibrium has always fallen far short of reality.  Empire of things is a great addition to my library. At 800 pages it compiles a tremendous amount empirical evidence on how economic development was reflected in the markets and living rooms of the people who actually experienced it. The book really begins to come alive with the rise of European trading empires. Trentmann does his best to try and paint a global picture, and I found his descriptions of African and Asian households to be riveting.  However, historical records are much more detailed in the west so European does dominate his early histories. 

This was a very informative read and I particularly liked his exploration of how western society transformed from a world where to consume was a negative to a positive. Trentmann explores the etymology pointing to the Industrial revolution as the tipping point.  Obviously our consumption trends are in no way sustainable (unless perhaps we switched over to non-resource intense cultural consumption…).  As parents this is something my wife and I struggle with deeply.  Somehow we have now become the stereotypical suburban family. Two kids, two cars, dog…grass lawn.   Meanwhile my daughters are being acculturated in our rampant consumer society. I take pride in how much the love to do art, rather than watching the ipad… but that means more disposables…  One of my daughters favorite activities when we travel is sticker books where she uses sticker outfits.  I mean this could have been designed by H&M to train them young.  We are failing at the moment. 

Now that I have been keeping track of my favorites for the last few years I am beginning to notice some trends in my yearly choices. In the winter time I tend towards critical essays, and deeper social science or history dives (Tribe, Empire of Things, Mark Grief, Ta-Hehisi Coates, Voltaire’s bastards, etc.), along with one or two novels.  In the Spring I look for some more adventurous active stories (Grann’s 1920s story of Amazon exploration), while summer time I tend to move to more sciencey stuff. (Prum, Rutherford, etc. and I always preorder the latest edition of The Best Science and Nature writing which usually arrives in July).  Then come fall I am back to some sort of exploration of ideas (Watson, Scott, Fukuyama, etc). Of course throughout the year I mix it up but this pattern has started to emerge as I reflect back. 

There are lots of other books that I loved this year. For example A brief history of everyone who ever lived – Adam Rutherford, where I learned all about our other species Denisovans and how much Neanderthal I probably have in my genetic code.  Anyway I have to get to work on a project so my writing time for this year is up at the moment.  Maybe I will come back. 

2017 Bonus: Cook Books!

This year I have a fully functioning kitchen and a little time to actually try and learn to cook. Blue Apron has been a godsend in this regard as I don’t have to go the grocery store very often anymore and don’t really have to think about 3 dinners a week, so I only really plan 2 or 3 these days.  Anyway I found two books to be incredibly invaluable in helping me learn the basic fundamentals of cooking.

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.  This book was a game changer for me and understanding flavor. There have always been particular food combinations that I have always loved and never really sure why.  For example Natural plain yogurt with a savory red meat. Or lemon on just about everything. This book taught me why.  If you cook. Buy it. 

Kenji Lopez-Alt’s The Food Lab. This book is gargantuan and I have only touched maybe 50 pages or so. However I used it as a reference guide weekly.  There is so much excellent insight into the science behind particular techniques. I also used it to plan some wonderful dinner party meals along with a particularly delicious Thanksgiving meal.  (Who know Spatchcocking was a real thing?)

Finally, Happy Holidays!

I really have no idea how I got so lucky! But man do I have so much to be thankful for!

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