kottke.org posts about books
The New York Times Book Review recently interviewed Fran Leibowitz for their By the Book series. She mentions Memoirs of Hadrian as the last great book she read and doesn’t like literary dinner parties.
Q: You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
a: None. I would never do it. My idea of a great literary dinner party is Fran, eating alone, reading a book. That’s my idea of a literary dinner party. When I eat alone, I spend a lot of time, before I sit down to my meager meal, choosing what to read. And I’m a lot better choosing a book than preparing a meal. And I never eat anything without reading. Ever. If I’m eating an apple, I have to get a book.
Her answer to the very last question made me laugh out loud. Buuuuuuurn.
Adam Gopnik writes about three books — Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra, A Culture of Growth by Joel Mokyr, and Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari — that address the tension between liberalism and conservatism, going back to Voltaire v. Rousseau during the Enlightenment (and even further back, to Plato).
For Mishra, elements in modernity that seem violently opposed, Zionism and Islamism, Hindu nationalism and Theosophical soppiness — not to mention Nazi militarism — share a common wellspring. Their apostles all believe in some kind of blood consciousness, some kind of shared pre-rational identity, and appeal to a population enraged at being reduced to the hamster wheel of meaningless work and material reward. Mishra brings this Walpurgisnacht of romanticized violence to a nihilistic climax with the happy meeting in a Supermax prison of Timothy McVeigh, perpetrator of the Oklahoma City bombing, and Ramzi Yousef, perpetrator of the World Trade Center bombing: the fanatic, child-murdering right-wing atheist finds “lots in common” with the equally murderous Islamic militant — one of those healing conversations we’re always being urged to pursue. (“I never have [known] anyone in my life who has so similar a personality to my own as his,” Yousef gushed of McVeigh.)
Very interesting context and a stimulating argument for the middle way by Gopnik — in his estimation, Betteridge’s law applies to the title. He didn’t care much for Homo Deus, and I have to admit, as a big fan of Sapiens, that I’ve run out of steam with this new one and found myself nodding my head at Gopnik’s objections. I’m gonna get back to it, I’m sure, but with less enthusiasm than before.
From Mark Remy, a riff on the classic children’s book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, only this time Alexander has access to a smartphone, apps, and the cloud.
At breakfast Anthony watched ESPN on his tablet and Nick watched “Zootopia” on his tablet but on my tablet the video kept freezing.
I think I’ll move to Australia, where hybrid fibre-coaxial cable networks run at up to thirty megabits per second in major metro areas.
In his new book, The Complacent Class, Tyler Cowen argues that Americans have gotten too comfortable.
In The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream, Tyler Cowen argues that more Americans are living comfortably and contently with what life has handed them. By sheltering ourselves from the new and different, it’s hard to see what is lost by standing still. But if you look at the data, we’re seeing a shift in the fabric of American society — from losses in new startups and economic growth to more instances of segregation and inequality. It’s not too late to change course and re-embrace the restlessness that has long defined America.
Cowen built a quiz that you can take to see if you are, in his eyes, too comfortable with your life. The quiz is composed of 27 questions like “In the last 10 years, how many states have you lived in?” and “Have you lived in a neighborhood for at least a year where you were the racial minority?” The quiz has four possible outcomes:
Tier 1: You are a trailblazer — You do not accept the status quo as the best outcome in life. Your ambitions will help America get out of its rut.
Tier 2: You are a striver — You embrace newness, but you need to strive harder to break the mold.
Tier 3: You are comfortable — You are interested in trying new things but not enough to create real change.
Tier 4: You are complacent — You need to get off the couch, step outside, and see what you’re missing.
I took the quiz and got “comfortable”, which seems fair enough, given the questions. I think part of that result is being introverted and part of it is family considerations that take precedence in my life over adventure and risk-taking. I wouldn’t ever call myself a “trailblazer” but I don’t know anyone who runs their own business who would consider that situation “comfortable”. “Terrifying on a daily basis” maybe.
Chelsea Clinton and illustrator Alexandra Boiger are coming out with a children’s book in May called She Persisted that highlights 13 American women who changed the world.
Throughout American history, there have always been women who have spoken out for what’s right, even when they have to fight to be heard. In early 2017, Senator Elizabeth Warren’s refusal to be silenced in the Senate inspired a spontaneous celebration of women who persevered in the face of adversity. In this book, Chelsea Clinton celebrates thirteen American women who helped shape our country through their tenacity, sometimes through speaking out, sometimes by staying seated, sometimes by captivating an audience. They all certainly persisted.
Pre-ordered. Here are the women featured:
Harriet Tubman, Helen Keller, Clara Lemlich, Nellie Bly, Maria Tallchief, Claudette Colvin, Ruby Bridges, Margaret Chase Smith, Katherine Johnson, Sally Ride, Florence Griffith Joyner, Oprah Winfrey, Sonia Sotomayor — and one special cameo.
Special cameo? Has to be Hillary Clinton, no? See also Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls (Kindle version) and Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World.
The Whole Earth Catalog was an iconic magazine and product catalog founded by Stewart Brand in the 1960s. The Whole Earth Field Guide, edited by Caroline Maniaque-Benton and released last October, serves both as an introduction to the philosophy behind The Whole Earth Catalog and as an anthology of the writing that appeared in its pages.
This book offers selections from eighty texts from the nearly 1,000 items of “suggested reading” in the Last Whole Earth Catalog.
After an introduction that provides background information on the catalog and its founder, Stewart Brand (interesting fact: Brand got his organizational skills from a stint in the Army), the book presents the texts arranged in nine sections that echo the sections of the Whole Earth Catalog itself. Enlightening juxtapositions abound.
The #1 bestselling book on Amazon right now is called Reasons To Vote For Democrats: A Comprehensive Guide. It’s by Michael Knowles, costs $8.03, and is filled with 266 blank pages. I have to admit, that’s pretty damn funny.
The most exhaustively researched and coherently argued Democrat Party apologia to date, “Reasons To Vote For Democrats: A Comprehensive Guide” is a political treatise sure to stand the test of time. A must-have addition to any political observer’s coffee table.
The follow-on joke is never as funny as the original, but you can also buy a blank book called Reasons to Vote for Republicans. (via buzzfeed)
Update: We’ve got some prior art, folks. David King published a blank book called Why Trump Deserves Trust, Respect & Admiration back in November 2016 (there’s a Kindle version, LOL). And this copy of All I Know About the Ladies by R.V. Harris looks significantly older than that. (via @alexhern & @typeter)
Update: One more round of prior art: The Wit and Wisdom of Spiro T. Agnew and Everything Men Know About Women. (via @MattyPKing & @EdwardGoodmann)
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, a series of four novels set in post-war Naples, will be turned into a 32-part TV miniseries directed and co-written by Italian director Saverio Costanzo.
Mr. Costanzo, best known for “Private” and “Hungry Hearts” (which co-starred Adam Driver), said in a telephone interview that the biggest challenge to adapting the novels for television was how “to convey the same emotions as the books in a cinematographic way.”
He added that he was writing the script with the Italian writers Francesco Piccolo and Laura Paolucci, and that Ms. Ferrante was also expected to contribute to the screenplay. (He expects to communicate with the author via email.)
The series will be filmed in Italy in Italian. The first season will cover the first book, with eight episodes of 50 minutes each. Filming is expected to begin in Naples this year and the first season is expected to air in the fall of 2018.
This could be amazing or it could be terrible. Or I guess it could be mediocre. Or anywhere in between really. [Uh, thanks for that hard-hitting analysis, Jason. -ed] (via @tedgioia)
From the New Yorker, Rebecca Solnit on how the world’s places are mostly named after men.
A horde of dead men with live identities haunt New York City and almost every city in the Western world. Their names are on the streets, buildings, parks, squares, colleges, businesses, and banks, and their figures are on the monuments. For example, at Fifty-ninth and Grand Army Plaza, right by the Pulitzer Fountain (for the newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer), is a pair of golden figures: General William Tecumseh Sherman on horseback and a woman leading him, who appears to be Victory and also a nameless no one in par-ticular. She is someone else’s victory.
The biggest statue in the city is a woman, who welcomes everyone and is no one: the Statue of Liberty, with that poem by Emma Lazarus at her feet, the one that few remember calls her “Mother of Exiles.” Statues of women are not uncommon, but they’re allegories and nobodies, mothers and muses and props but not Presidents.
For her book Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas, Solnit and her co-author Joshua Jelly-Schapiro commissioned Molly Roy to make a subway map of NYC that uses only the names of the city’s prominent women for the station names.
It’s a map that reflects the remarkable history of charismatic women who have shaped New York City from the beginning, such as the seventeenth-century Quaker preacher Hannah Feake Bowne, who is routinely written out of history — even the home in Flushing where she held meetings is often called the John Bowne house. Three of the four female Supreme Court justices have come from the city, and quite a bit of the history of American feminism has unfolded here, from Victoria Woodhull to Shirley Chisholm to the Guerrilla Girls.
Over a period of thirteen years beginning in the 1820s, John James Audubon painted 435 different species of American birds.1 When he was finished, the illustrations were compiled into The Birds of America, one of the most celebrated books in American naturalism. Curiously however, five of the birds Audubon painted have never been identified: Townsend’s Finch, Cuvier’s Kinglet, Carbonated Swamp Warbler, Small-headed Flycatcher and Blue Mountain Warbler.
These birds have never been positively identified, and no identical specimens have been confirmed since Audubon painted them. Ornithologists have suggested that they might be color mutations, surviving members of species that soon became extinct, or interspecies hybrids that occurred only once.
The specimen that Audubon used to paint Townsend’s Bunting is now in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, identified as Townsend’s Dickcissel, but no bird exactly like it has been reported, Dr. Olson, an authority on Audubon’s work, noted in an email. Ornithologists suggest that it is either a mutation of the Dickcissel or a hybrid of Dickcissel and Blue Grosbeak, she said.
And that’s not counting the ones he got wrong for other reasons:
And indeed, there are several birds painted and explained in Birds of America that are not, in fact, actual species. Some are immature birds mistaken for adults of a new species (the mighty “Washington’s Eagle” was, in all likelihood, an immature Bald Eagle). Some were female birds that didn’t look anything like their male partners (“Selby’s Flycatcher” was a female Hooded Warbler).
Audubon also painted six species of bird that have since become extinct: Carolina parakeet, passenger pigeon, Labrador duck, great auk, Eskimo curlew, and pinnated grouse. Here’s his portrait of the passenger pigeon:
There were an estimated 3 billion passenger pigeons in the world in the early 1800s — about one in every three birds in North America was a passenger pigeon at the time. Their flocks were so large, it took hours and even days for them to pass. Audubon himself observed in 1813:
I dismounted, seated myself on an eminence, and began to mark with my pencil, making a dot for every flock that passed. In a short time finding the task which I had undertaken impracticable, as the birds poured in in countless multitudes, I rose and, counting the dots then put down, found that 163 had been made in twenty-one minutes. I traveled on, and still met more the farther I proceeded. The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow, and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose… I cannot describe to you the extreme beauty of their aerial evolutions, when a hawk chanced to press upon the rear of the flock. At once, like a torrent, and with a noise like thunder, they rushed into a compact mass, pressing upon each other towards the center. In these almost solid masses, they darted forward in undulating and angular lines, descended and swept close over the earth with inconceivable velocity, mounted perpendicularly so as to resemble a vast column, and, when high, were seen wheeling and twisting within their continued lines, which then resembled the coils of a gigantic serpent… Before sunset I reached Louisville, distant from Hardensburgh fifty-five miles. The Pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers and continued to do so for three days in succession.
100 years later, they were all dead. Which may have had at least one interesting consequence:
But the sad echo of the loss of passenger pigeons still reverberates today because its extinction probably exacerbated the proliferation of Lyme disease. When the passenger pigeons existed in large numbers, they subsisted primarily on acorns. However, since there are no pigeons to eat acorns, the populations of Eastern deer mice — the main reservoir of Lyme disease — exploded far beyond historic levels as they exploited this unexpected food bonanza.
The abacus counting device dates back thousands of years but has, in the past century, been replaced by calculators and computers. But studies show that abacus use can have an effect on how well people learn math. In this excerpt adapted from his new book Learn Better, education researcher Ulrich Boser writes about the abacus and how people learn.
Researchers from Harvard to China have studied the device, showing that abacus students often learn more than students who use more modern approaches.
UC San Diego psychologist David Barner led one of the studies, and he argues that abacus training can significantly boost math skills with effects potentially lasting for decades.
“Based on everything we know about early math education and its long-term effects, I’ll make the prediction that children who thrive with abacus will have higher math scores later in life, perhaps even on the SAT,” Barner told me.
Ignore the hyperbolic “and it changed my life” in the title…this piece is interesting throughout. For example, this passage on the strength of the mind-body connection and the benefits of learning by doing:
When first I watched high school abacus whiz Serena Stevenson, her hand gestures seemed like a pretentious affect, like people who wear polka-dot bow ties. But it turned out that her finger movements weren’t really all that dramatic, and on YouTube, I watched students with even more theatrical gesticulations. What’s more, the hand movements turned out to be at the heart of the practice, and without any arm or finger motions, accuracy can drop by more than half.
Part of the explanation for the power of the gestures goes to the mind-body connection. But just as important is the fact that abacus makes learning a matter of doing. It’s an active, engaging process. As one student told me, abacus is like “intellectual powerlifting.”
Psychologist Rich Mayer has written a lot about this idea, and in study after study he has shown that people gain expertise by actively producing what they know. As he told me: “Learning is a generative activity.”
I’d never heard of the concept of overlearning before:
Everybody from actors learning lines, to musicians learning new songs, to teachers trying to impart key facts to students has observed that learning has to “sink in” in the brain. Prior studies and also the new one, for example, show that when people learn a new task and then learn a similar one soon afterward, the second instance of learning often interferes with and undermines the mastery achieved on the first one.
The new study shows that overlearning prevents against such interference, cementing learning so well and quickly, in fact, that the opposite kind of interference happens instead. For a time, overlearning the first task prevents effective learning of the second task — as if learning becomes locked down for the sake of preserving master of the first task. The underlying mechanism, the researchers discovered, appears to be a temporary shift in the balance of two neurotransmitters that control neural flexibility, or “plasticity,” in the part of the brain where the learning occurred.
“These results suggest that just a short period of overlearning drastically changes a post-training plastic and unstable [learning state] to a hyperstabilized state that is resilient against, and even disrupts, new learning,” wrote the team led by corresponding author Takeo Watanabe, the Fred M. Seed Professor of Cognitive Linguistic and Psychological Sciences at Brown.
The New Yorker has published an online excerpt of David Grann’s new book about the murders of more than a dozen Osage Indians in the 1920s, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.
Like their parents, Mollie and her sisters had their names inscribed on the Osage Roll, which meant that they were among the registered members of the tribe. It also meant that they possessed a fortune. In the early eighteen-seventies, the Osage had been driven from their lands in Kansas onto a rocky, presumably worthless reservation in northeastern Oklahoma, only to discover, decades later, that this land was sitting above some of the largest oil deposits in the United States. To obtain that oil, prospectors had to pay the Osage in the form of leases and royalties. In the early twentieth century, each person on the tribal roll began receiving a quarterly check. The amount was initially for only a few dollars, but over time, as more oil was tapped, the dividends grew into the hundreds, then the thousands of dollars. And virtually every year the payments increased, like the prairie creeks that joined to form the wide, muddy Cimarron, until the tribe members had collectively accumulated millions and millions of dollars. (In 1923 alone, the tribe took in more than thirty million dollars, the equivalent today of more than four hundred million dollars.) The Osage were considered the wealthiest people per capita in the world. “Lo and behold!” the New York weekly Outlook exclaimed. “The Indian, instead of starving to death … enjoys a steady income that turns bankers green with envy.”
Fair warning, this piece is tantalizingly short and serves more as a teaser for the book than a stand-alone excerpt, which I don’t mind because I was planning on reading it anyway.
After leaving office in 2009, George W. Bush famously turned his attention to painting. That pursuit has now resulted in a book of portraits of post-9/11 US veterans painted by Bush called Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors.
Growing out of President Bush’s own outreach and the ongoing work of the George W. Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative, Portraits of Courage brings together sixty-six full-color portraits and a four-panel mural painted by President Bush of members of the United States military who have served our nation with honor since 9/11 — and whom he has come to know personally.
The author proceeds from the book will be donated to the George W. Bush Presidential Center, “a non-profit organization whose Military Service Initiative works to ensure that post-9/11 veterans and their families make successful transitions to civilian life with a focus on gaining meaningful employment and overcoming the invisible wounds of war”. There’s a certain — I don’t know, let’s call it irony — in Bush honoring those whom he personally caused to be put in the harm’s way in the first place, under false pretenses no less.
Tyler Cowen’s new book, The Complacent Class, comes out today. In it, he argues that as a society, Americans have stopped taking risks, are too comfortable, and rely too heavily on incremental improvements of existing goods & ideas, which has resulted in a stagnation of our culture and economy. This video by Cowen is a good introduction to what he means by that.
After about the 1970s, innovation on this scale slowed down. Computers and communication have been the focus. What we’ve seen more recently has been mostly incremental improvements, with the large exception of smart phones.
This means that we’ve experienced a ton of changes in our virtual world, but surprisingly few in our physical world. For example, travel hasn’t much improved and, in some cases, has even slowed down. The planes we’re primarily using? They were designed half a century ago.
Since the 1960s, our culture has gotten less restless, too. It’s become more bureaucratic. The sixties and seventies ushered in a wave of protests and civil disobedience. But today, people hire protests planners and file for permits. The demands for change are tamer compared to their mid-century counterparts.
Time published an excerpt of the book last week:
Americans traditionally have thought of themselves as the great movers, and indeed that was true in the nineteenth century and even through most of the twentieth. But since the 1980s, Americans have become much less restless in movements across the country, and more people are looking to simply settle down and entrench themselves.
Here is this change in a single number: The interstate migration rate has fallen 51 percent below its 1948-1971 average, and that number has been falling steadily since the mid-1980s. Or, if we look at the rate of moving between counties within a state, it fell 31 percent. The rate of moving within a county fell 38 percent. Those are pretty steep drops for a country that has not changed its fundamental economic or political systems. You might think that information technology (IT) would make it easier to find a job on the other side of the country, and maybe it has, but that has not been the dominant effect. If anything, Americans have used the dynamism of IT to help ourselves stay put, not to move around.
And in a recent piece in the NY Times that mentions Cowen’s book, David Brooks references a piece by Nicholas Eberstadt called Our Miserable 21st Century:
That means there’s an army of Americans semi-attached to their communities, who struggle to contribute, to realize their capacities and find their dignity. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics time-use studies, these labor force dropouts spend on average 2,000 hours a year watching some screen. That’s about the number of hours that usually go to a full-time job.
Fifty-seven percent of white males who have dropped out get by on some form of government disability check. About half of the men who have dropped out take pain medication on a daily basis. A survey in Ohio found that over one three-month period, 11 percent of Ohioans were prescribed opiates. One in eight American men now has a felony conviction on his record.
If you need a chaser, consider this from the introductory chapter of Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari (which I’m currently reading):
For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined. In the early twenty-first century, the average human is far more likely to die from bingeing at McDonald’s than from drought, Ebola or an al-Qaeda attack.
Last week Charles C. Mann, author of the excellent 1491 (one of my favorite nonfiction books ever) and 1493, tweeted what looked like a completed manuscript of a new book, The Wizard and the Prophet. Aside from a pub date (Oct 5), Mann was coy about details in the thread and there’s not a lot of information about the book on the internet. But there is a little. From the Books on Tape website:
From the best-selling, award-winning author of 1491 and 1493 — an incisive portrait of the two little-known twentieth-century scientists, Norman Borlaug and William Vogt, whose diametrically opposed views shaped our ideas about the environment, laying the groundwork for how people in the twenty-first century will choose to live in tomorrow’s world.
In forty years, Earth’s population will reach ten billion. Can our world support that? What kind of world will it be? Those answering these questions generally fall into two deeply divided groups — Wizards and Prophets, as Charles Mann calls them in this balanced, authoritative, non-polemical new book. The Prophets, he explains, follow William Vogt, a founding environmentalist who believed that in using more than our planet has to give, our prosperity will lead us to ruin. Cut back! was his mantra. Otherwise everyone will lose! The Wizards are the heirs of Norman Borlaug, whose research, in effect, wrangled the world in service to our species to produce modern high-yield crops that then saved millions from starvation. Innovate! was Borlaug’s cry. Only in that way can everyone win! Mann delves into these diverging viewpoints to assess the four great challenges humanity faces — food, water, energy, climate change — grounding each in historical context and weighing the options for the future. With our civilization on the line, the author’s insightful analysis is an essential addition to the urgent conversation about how our children will fare on an increasingly crowded Earth.
In 2012, Orion Magazine published a piece by Mann called State of the Species, which was nominated for a 2013 National Magazine Award and is said to be “an early version of the introductory chapter” to The Wizard and the Prophet.
How can we provide these things for all these new people? That is only part of the question. The full question is: How can we provide them without wrecking the natural systems on which all depend?
Scientists, activists, and politicians have proposed many solutions, each from a different ideological and moral perspective. Some argue that we must drastically throttle industrial civilization. (Stop energy-intensive, chemical-based farming today! Eliminate fossil fuels to halt climate change!) Others claim that only intense exploitation of scientific knowledge can save us. (Plant super-productive, genetically modified crops now! Switch to nuclear power to halt climate change!) No matter which course is chosen, though, it will require radical, large-scale transformations in the human enterprise — a daunting, hideously expensive task.
Worse, the ship is too large to turn quickly. The world’s food supply cannot be decoupled rapidly from industrial agriculture, if that is seen as the answer. Aquifers cannot be recharged with a snap of the fingers. If the high-tech route is chosen, genetically modified crops cannot be bred and tested overnight. Similarly, carbon-sequestration techniques and nuclear power plants cannot be deployed instantly. Changes must be planned and executed decades in advance of the usual signals of crisis, but that’s like asking healthy, happy sixteen-year-olds to write living wills.
I’m very eager to tear into this book. The Prophets vs. The Wizards debate lies at the heart of issues about economic equality, climate change, and the future of energy (both electrical and nutritional). I see people having some form of this debate on Twitter every day, whether it’s about GMO crops, nuclear power, animal extinction, or carbon offsets.
Four years ago, Bill Gates, a Wizard to the core, talked to a small group of media about his most recent annual letter. I can’t recall exactly what Gates said — something like “you can’t tell a billion Indians they can’t have flatscreen TVs”1 — but I do remember very clearly how emphatically he stated that the way forward was not about the world cutting back on energy usage or consumption or less intensive farming. I think about his statement several times a week. I was unconvinced of his assertion at the time and still am. But my skepticism bothers me…I’m skeptical of my skepticism. Technology and progress have done a lot of good for the world — let’s talk infant mortality and infectious diseases for starters — but I am also sympathetic to the argument that the Agricultural Revolution was “history’s biggest fraud”. So yeah, I’m keen to see what Mann adds to this debate.
George Saunders has written his first novel and it’s just as unusual as his short stories. Lincoln in the Bardo is historical fiction about Abraham Lincoln mourning the death of his son Willie, who is caught between lives.
February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body.
Buzzfeed has an excerpt of the novel, which takes the form of a collection of quotes.
The boy, frustrated at being denied the attention he felt he deserved, moved in and leaned against his father, as the father continued to hold and gently rock the—
the reverend everly thomas
At one point, moved, I turned away from the scene and found we were not alone.
roger bevins iii
A crowd had gathered outside.
the reverend everly thomas
All were silent.
roger bevins iii
As the man continued to gently rock his child.
the reverend everly thomas
While his child, simultaneously, stood quietly leaning against him.
Then the gentleman began to speak.
roger bevins iii
Time to bust out the Google Cardboard: the NY Times VR team adapted a part of the novel into a 10-minute VR film.
Here’s a good interview with Saunders about the book and a review by Colson Whitehead. The book has been hovering near the top of the Amazon best sellers list since its release — it was #2 when I looked yesterday but is currently 6th, right after Orwell’s 19841 — and I’ve seen several people in my Instagram feed reading it…or at least socially signaling that they’re reading it. ;)
Philip Pullman has announced a follow-up to his acclaimed His Dark Materials trilogy called The Book of Dust. The first volume, still untitled, will be out in October and is available for pre-order on Amazon.
Philip Pullman offers these tantalizing details: “I’ve always wanted to tell the story of how Lyra came to be living at Jordan College, and in thinking about it, I discovered a long story that began when she was a baby and will end when she’s grown up. This volume and the next will cover two parts of Lyra’s life: starting at the beginning of her story and returning to her twenty years later. As for the third and final part, my lips are sealed.
“So, second: is it a prequel? Is it a sequel? It’s neither. In fact, The Book of Dust is… an equel. It doesn’t stand before or after His Dark Materials, but beside it. It’s a different story, but there are settings that readers of His Dark Materials will recognize, and characters they’ve met before. Also, of course, there are some characters who are new to us, including an ordinary boy (a boy we have glimpsed in an earlier part of Lyra’s story, if we were paying attention) who, with Lyra, is caught up in a terrifying adventure that takes him into a new world.
The Book of Circles is an upcoming book by Manuel Lima about the use of circles in information design.
In this follow-up to his hugely popular The Book of Trees and Visual Complexity, Manuel Lima takes us on a lively tour through millennia of circular information design. Three hundred detailed and colorful illustrations from around the world cover an encyclopedic array of subjects-architecture, urban planning, fine art, design, fashion, technology, religion, cartography, biology, astronomy, and physics, all based on the circle, the universal symbol of unity, wholeness, infinity, enlightenment, and perfection. Clay tokens used by ancient Sumerians as a system of recording trade are juxtaposed with logos of modern retailers like Target; Venn diagrams are discussed alongside the trefoil biohazard symbol, symbols of the Christian trinity, and the Olympic rings; and a diagram revealing the characteristics of ten thousand porn stars displays structural similarities to early celestial charts placing the earth at the center of the universe.
I have both of Lima’s previous books, The Book of Trees and Visual Complexity.
I finally got the chance to see Hidden Figures the other day. Recommended. It’s a science/space story in the vein of Apollo 13, but the twin engines of the film are the three excellent lead actresses — Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer & Janelle Monáe — and the persistent portrayal of the systemic biases of segregation and sexism. You watch this movie and think, how much higher could the human race have flown if women and people of color had always had the same opportunities as white men?1 How many Katherine Johnsons never got the chance to develop and use their skills in math, science, or technology because of their skin color or gender? Our society wastes so much energy and human lives telling people what they can’t do rather than empowering them to show everyone what they can do.
Hidden Figures was adopted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name. The film takes some dramatic license with the timing of certain events but overall is historically accurate.
The film primarily focuses on John Glenn’s 1962 trip around the globe and does add dramatic flourishes that are, well, Hollywood. However, most of the events in the movie are historically accurate. Johnson’s main job in the lead-up and during the mission was to double-check and reverse engineer the newly-installed IBM 7090s trajectory calculations. As it shows, there were very tense moments during the flight that forced the mission to end earlier than expected. And John Glenn did request that Johnson specifically check and confirm trajectories and entry points that the IBM spat out (albeit, perhaps, not at the exact moment that the movie depicts). As Shetterly wrote in her book and explained in a September NPR interview, Glenn did not completely trust the computer. So, he asked the head engineers to “get the girl to check the numbers… If she says the numbers are good… I’m ready to go.”
You can view Johnson’s published reports on NASA’s site, including her initial technical report from 1960 on the Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position.
Voracious reader Tyler Cowen has been reading about fascism recently and shares his thoughts on some specific books. It seems as though A History of Fascism, 1914-1945 and The Anatomy of Fascism are the two to start with.
Stanley G. Payne, A History of Fascism 1914-1945. One of the classics, readable and comprehensive and one of the best places to start. One thing I learned from this pile of books is how hard some of those leaders worked to have the mid-level bureaucracy on their side. The centralization often occurred at higher levels, for instance Mussolini had 72 cabinet meetings in 1933, but only 4 in 1936. The Italian Fascist party, by the way, was disproportionately Jewish, at least pre-1938.
Cowen’s conclusion after his reading? The US is not headed toward fascism:
Overall I did not conclude that we Americans are careening toward fascist outcomes. I do not think that notion is well-suited to the great complexity of contemporary bureaucracy, nor to our more feminized and also older societies. Furthermore, in America democracy has taken much deeper roots and the system of checks and balances, whatever its flaws, has stood for a few hundred years, contra either Italy or Germany in their fascist phases.
Looking over Umberto Eco’s 14 Features of Eternal Fascism, I might disagree with that. So far, the Trump administration has been working quickly to consolidate its power and the Republican-majority Congress has shown little interest in stopping them — e.g. the so-called confirmation hearings are little more than formalities when Republicans are voting as a bloc in most cases. The judicial branch has been more attentive thus far in making sure the Republicans are operating within the law (e.g. the rulings against Trump’s travel ban and the NC governor’s limitation of powers), providing the essential “checks and balances” Cowen speaks of. But the law…well, let’s just say that plenty of bad and immoral things are legal, particularly when powerful people and the governmental bodies responsible for making laws are concerned, and much depends on the intelligence and resourcefulness of the lawyers and political viewpoints of the judges involved. All it would take is a little more thoughtfulness1 on the part of Trump’s team in writing his executive orders and they can probably get much of what they want legally.
Anyway, on a broader authoritarian note, Brendan Nyham of Dartmouth College has compiled a reading list for understanding the authoritarian turn in US politics.
This lovely video from a television station in Denmark highlights the similarities we all share across seemingly impassable social, economic, racial, and religious boundaries.
It’s easy to put people in boxes. There’s us and there’s them. The high-earners and those just getting by. Those we trust and those we try to avoid. There’s the new Danes and those who’ve always been here. The people from the countryside and those who’ve never seen a cow. The religious and the self-confident. There are those we share something with and those we don’t share anything with.
And then suddenly, there’s us. We who believe in life after death, we who’ve seen UFOs, and all of us who love to dance. We who’ve been bullied and we who’ve bullied others.
Last week I started reading The Undoing Project, Michael Lewis’s book about the friendship and collaboration of psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. This passage on Tversky’s work seems relevant to this video.
From Amos’s theory about the way people made judgments of similarity spilled all sorts of interesting insights. If the mind, when it compares two things, essentially counts up the features it notices in each of them, it might also judge those things to be at once more similar and more dissimilar to each other than some other pair of things. They might have both a lot in common and a lot not in common. Love and hate, and funny and sad, and serious and silly: Suddenly they could be seen — as they feel — as having more fluid relationships to each other. They weren’t simply opposites on a fixed mental continuum; they could be thought of as similar in some of their features and different in others. Amos’s theory also offered a fresh view into what might be happening when people violated transitivity and thus made seemingly irrational choices.
When people picked coffee over tea, and tea over hot chocolate, and then turned around and picked hot chocolate over coffee — they weren’t comparing two drinks in some holistic manner. Hot drinks didn’t exist as points on some mental map at fixed distances from some ideal. They were collections of features. Those features might become more or less noticeable; their prominence in the mind depended on the context in which they were perceived. And the choice created its own context: Different features might assume greater prominence in the mind when the coffee was being compared to tea (caffeine) than when it was being compared to hot chocolate (sugar). And what was true of drinks might also be true of people, and ideas, and emotions.
The idea was interesting: When people make decisions, they are also making judgments about similarity, between some object in the real world and what they ideally want. They make these judgments by, in effect, counting up the features they notice. And as the noticeability of features can be manipulated by the way they are highlighted, the sense of how similar two things are might also be manipulated. For instance, if you wanted two people to think of themselves as more similar to each other than they otherwise might, you might put them in a context that stressed the features they shared. Two American college students in the United States might look at each other and see a total stranger; the same two college students on their junior year abroad in Togo might find that they are surprisingly similar: They’re both Americans!
By changing the context in which two things are compared, you submerge certain features and force others to the surface. “It is generally assumed that classifications are determined by similarities among the objects,” wrote Amos, before offering up an opposing view: that “the similarity of objects is modified by the manner in which they are classified. Thus, similarity has two faces: causal and derivative. It serves as a basis for the classification of objects, but is also influenced by the adopted classification.” A banana and an apple seem more similar than they otherwise would because we’ve agreed to call them both fruit. Things are grouped together for a reason, but, once they are grouped, their grouping causes them to seem more like each other than they otherwise would. That is, the mere act of classification reinforces stereotypes. If you want to weaken some stereotype, eliminate the classification.
That’s what this video did so effectively…it switched up the contexts. Rabid soccer fans became dancers, bullies became lonely people, people of different faiths were united by their believe in an afterlife. An exercise for investors and entrepreneurs building media companies and social networks (as well as people running small independent sites….I’m staring hard at myself in the mirror here): how can you build tools and platforms that give people more ways to connect to each other, to switch up the contexts in which people are able to group themselves?
Rahawa Haile is an Eritrean-American writer who spent most of 2016 as one of a very small number of black women hiking the Appalachian trail. Trail hikers are thought to be between 66 and 75 percent male, and overwhelmingly white; there’s also a long history of formal and informal racial exclusion in national parks, wilderness areas, and other outdoor spaces, through statute, violence, and “soft” racism. And in Appalachia, many of the small towns along the trail where hikers stop to get food, mail, clean clothes, and other supplies are often unwelcome or hostile to black people.
Haile brought, photographed, and left behind books by black writers at points along the trail. She explains why in an interview with Atlas Obscura’s Sarah Laskow:
In 2015, I started a Twitter project called Short Story of the Day. This was a way to say, “This is the extent that I can participate in literature at this moment.” Diversity matters to me. Many of the most celebrated short story collections are by white men, so on Twitter I published one short story a day by underrepresented groups.
When I thought about 2016—how can I participate in literature this year?—I thought, I want to bring these books places no one likely has. I want to document where black brilliance belongs. There’s so much talk about where the black body belongs. Most of my hike was saying, this is a black body, and it belongs everywhere. These books were a way of me saying, black intellect belongs here, too. I was hoping that by carrying these books and taking them to these incredible vistas, fellow people of color might say, “If those books can go there, so can I.”
In an essay for BuzzFeed, Haile lists a remarkable catalogue of the weights she carried on the trip. (Hiking, as I learned this year from Rahawa, is in large part about managing weight):
Pack: 40 ounces. Tent: 26. A pound to “love myself when I am laughing…and then again when I am looking mean and impressive.” Seven ounces of James Baldwin. Thirteen of Octavia Butler. Nine violent ounces of home, the from-from, “originally, I mean.” 7,628 feet: the elevation of Asmara, Eritrea. Rain jacket: 5.5 ounces. Options for ZZ Packer. Blues for Toni Morrison. Dragons for Langston Hughes. A river for Jamaica Kincaid. Nine ounces, eight ounces, ten ounces, six. Fifteen: the number of years I spent watching my African grandmother die in the flatness of Florida. Gloves: 1.3 ounces. Warsan Shire: 2.4. Keys to a place I call home: none. Colson Whitehead: 1 pound. Assets: zero. Resting mass of light: none. Headlamp: 3.9 ounces. Their names: endless. Trayvon, Renisha, Sandra, Tamir. Spork: 0.6 ounces. Water filter: 3 ounces. Down jacket: seven ounces. Fuel canister: four. Current atmospheric carbon dioxide levels: greater than 400 ppm. Average elevation above sea level in Miami: six feet. Therapists I can no longer afford: one. Kiese Laymon: 9.6 ounces. Amiri Baraka: 1.4 pounds. The amount black women earn for every white male dollar: 63 cents. Bandana: 1.12 ounces. Pack towel: 0.5 ounces. The number of times I’ve told myself to put a gun to my head between 2013 and 2016: 8,000-10,000. Bear bagging kit: 3 ounces. Aracelis Girmay: 6.4 ounces. Roxane Gay: 4.8. Emergency whistle: 0.14, orange, should I find myself in the midst of hunting season.
The trail, she writes, is “considered a great equalizer in most other respects” — everyone alike has to deal with rattlesnakes, rainstorms, and sore feet. “A thing I found myself repeatedly explaining to hikers who asked about my books and my experience,” she adds, “wasn’t that I feared them, but that there was no such thing as freedom from vulnerability for me anywhere in this land. That I might be tolerated in trail towns that didn’t expect to see a black hiker, but I’d rarely if ever feel at ease.” Nobody else walking the trail would have to carry the same weight.
Print book sales are increasing (slightly) while e-book sales continue to fall (sharply), says Nielsen’s Jonathan Stolper. Which means for the first time in more than four years, hardcover books are outselling e-books. Stolper lists a few factors driving the switch: the price of e-books has gone up, and fewer people are using dedicated e-readers. Even people buying and reading e-books are doing it on their phones and tablets, not Kindles or Nooks or what-have-you.
Whatever the causes for the decrease in e-book sales, the decline has resulted in something that many publishing experts thought would never happen—unit sales of hardcovers overtook unit sales of e-books. With hardcover units up 5% in 2016 over 2015, hardcover’s 188 million units sold topped that of e-books for the first time since Borders closed in 2012, Stolper said.
I have a pet theory about this, and it’s very simple: it’s about the stores. Here’s how it works.
- E-bookstores expand to country after country, publisher after publisher => sales of e-books go up.
- Borders and other chain bookstores shut down => sales of print books go down.
- Barnes & Noble and other e-bookstores shut down, leaving Amazon basically the only game in town => sales of e-books go down. (Also prices go up.)
- People stop using devices that are basically stores with readers attached, and use phones and tablets where it’s harder to buy => sales of e-books go down some more.
It’s the same boom-and-bust that we had when the new chain bookstores came through thirty years ago and gradually killed each other off! Lots of places to buy books, then hardly any places to buy books.
Meanwhile, indie bookstores are weathering the storm and big box stores are still pushing books at a discount, keeping print books afloat. Which is exactly what the publishers and a lot of other players in the market have always wanted: a high e-book prices, both to preserve a revenue floor and to keep the entire print market chain in business. And Amazon’s fine with it — they got the near-monopoly on e-retail they wanted.
Meanwhile, readers are paying more for books and have fewer places from which to buy them. As much as I like a good hardcover, that hardly feels like a win.
Buying a book is what they call a crime of opportunity. If there were more viable e-bookstores (and if DRM weren’t such a monster, there’s no reason every website couldn’t be an e-bookstore), we’d have better competition on price (collusion and market choices aside) and everyone would sell a whole lot more e-books.
Update: I screwed up the first draft of this and conflated hardcover units with total print sales. (I also forgot to include the link to the Publishers Weekly story I quoted.) To be clear, hardcovers are outselling e-books now, from the publishers covered in Nielsen’s survey. E-books have never outsold all print books — even rosy projections back in 2014, when e-book sales were about a third of the market, didn’t think they’d cross that 50/50 threshold until well into this decade. Thanks to Doug Gates who spotted the error.
Update 2: Dan Cohen pointed out a number of other factors tipping sales measurement in favor of print: “dark” but legal reading of e-books that doesn’t get counted (libraries, open e-books, DRM-free private sales by authors and indies), and increased sales of audiobooks, which eats away at the e-book market. E-readers, too, haven’t really improved much; neither have the aesthetics of the books themselves. Other readers pointed out that readers feel burned by stores and services failing.
In short, “cost” is probably the biggest factor, broadly defined — but what exactly that means and how it plays out in readers’ choices is a lot more complex than a binary choice between e-books and print.
At The Awl, Victoria Johnson fondly remembers the books of her youth that contained extra material. Like maps.
If I ruled the world, or at least a publishing company, all books would contain as much supplementary information as possible. Nonfiction, fiction — doesn’t matter. Every work would have an appendix filled with diagrams, background information, digressions and anecdata. And of course, maps. Lots and lots of maps.
The Hobbit, Winnie the Pooh, and The Wizard of Oz all included great maps that expanded the story in the mind of the reader. Near the end of the piece, Johnson notes that The Hunger Games didn’t include a map of Panem and links to this fan-drawn map (image here):
The Capitol is in Denver.
D12 is Appalachia.
D11 shares a border with D12, is one of the largest districts, is South of D12, and is primarily used for growing grain and produce.
D10 is primarily used for raising livestock. They do NOT process the livestock in D10. However, to feed an entire nation, D10 is likely another very large District.
D9 processes food for the Capitol and the tesserae; therefore, it likely shares borders with the food production Districts (D4, D10, D11).
D8 produces and treats textiles and is a factory District. It is POSSIBLE to reach D12 from D8 on foot over a course of weeks/months. Therefore, it does not cross a large body of water.
May the maps be ever in your books.
Back in November, former Obama administration official Cass Sunstein came up with a list of five books that conservatives should read to in order to learn something about contemporary progressivism. On the list is Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy by Robert Frank:
In Frank’s view, we overstate the role of individual merit and underestimate the massive role of luck in producing individual success or failure — being born into the right family, finding oneself in the right place at the right time, having a good mentor. He makes “there but for the grace of God go I” into a rallying cry.
A month earlier, Sunstein offered a similar list of books liberals should read to learn something about conservatives, including Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind:
Do conservatives have moral commitments that progressives may not even recognize? Haidt says yes, and he identifies three: authority, loyalty and sanctity. If, for example, someone has betrayed a trust, or treated a boss or a parent disrespectfully, conservatives are far more likely to be outraged than progressives.
Haidt is not himself a conservative, but he offers a sympathetic explanation of why progressives often fail to understand their political adversaries. He also shows that the moral commitments that resonate among conservatives have deep roots in human history — and that it is a form of blindness not to acknowledge and respect those commitments.
Over at Bloomberg, Tyler Cowen provides an explanation as to why Donald Trump and his staff are lying.
By requiring subordinates to speak untruths, a leader can undercut their independent standing, including their standing with the public, with the media and with other members of the administration. That makes those individuals grow more dependent on the leader and less likely to mount independent rebellions against the structure of command. Promoting such chains of lies is a classic tactic when a leader distrusts his subordinates and expects to continue to distrust them in the future.
Another reason for promoting lying is what economists sometimes call loyalty filters. If you want to ascertain if someone is truly loyal to you, ask them to do something outrageous or stupid. If they balk, then you know right away they aren’t fully with you. That too is a sign of incipient mistrust within the ruling clique, and it is part of the same worldview that leads Trump to rely so heavily on family members.
This is interesting throughout, particularly the bit about “higher-status mistruths and lower-status mistruths”.
Note that these tactics do not require a strategic masterplan.1 We know Trump acts mostly on instinct, so all the lying is just how he’s found success doing business in the past. I’ve been listening to The Power Broker on audiobook for the past few months and the similarities between how Robert Moses operated (particularly in NYC at the height of his powers) and Trump’s tactics are downright eerie, right down to the outright lies, ignoring outside counsel, and favoring short-term results over deeper long-term consequences.2 Both men had so much power and (especially in Moses’ case) capability that they could have really helped people and made a difference in the lives of millions but instead used it mainly to get their own way.
President Obama is a reader. NY Times book critic Michiko Kakutani interviewed Obama about his reading just before he left office.
Last Friday, seven days before his departure from the White House, Mr. Obama sat down in the Oval Office and talked about the indispensable role that books have played during his presidency and throughout his life — from his peripatetic and sometimes lonely boyhood, when “these worlds that were portable” provided companionship, to his youth when they helped him to figure out who he was, what he thought and what was important.
During his eight years in the White House — in a noisy era of information overload, extreme partisanship and knee-jerk reactions — books were a sustaining source of ideas and inspiration, and gave him a renewed appreciation for the complexities and ambiguities of the human condition.
During his tenure in office, the President publicly recommended 86 different books, compiled into one list by Entertainment Weekly. Here are several of them, some of which I have also read and recommended on this very site:
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Dr. Atul Gawande
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
Seveneves, Neal Stephenson
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari
The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert
Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, William Finnegan
The Power Broker, Robert A. Caro
Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois
The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
Working, Studs Terkel
Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow
The Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin
What Is the What, Dave Eggers
Our most widely read US President, for sure.
Update: I’m getting some pushback on my assertion that Obama was “our most widely read US President”. Since “widely read” seems to have multiple meanings, I should have been more explicit on what I meant. I didn’t mean that he had written the most books read by the most people (that is perhaps Teddy Roosevelt) or had read the most books (George W. Bush and Roosevelt were both voracious readers, as were Jefferson, Clinton, and Lincoln). I meant that compared to previous Presidents, Obama has read books from the widest spectrum of viewpoints and authors. Among the list of 86 (which are not the books he read in office but just the ones he publicly recommended) are books on politics (of course), science, economics, sports, and medicine, some classics, children’s books, plenty of fiction, and science fiction. Most importantly, the list includes many books written by women and persons of color. Judging by this (partial) George W. Bush reading list (which includes only two books written by women (one of whom is his daughter)), outside of Clinton and perhaps Carter, I would wager very few Presidents have read many books by women and no more than a token few books by black authors.
I’m happy and proud to announce that my pal Brian Bartels’ book The Bloody Mary will be out in a couple months.
The Bloody Mary is one of the most universally-loved drinks. Perfect for breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner, and beyond, there simply isn’t a wrong time for a Bloody.
In The Bloody Mary, author Brian Bartels — beverage director for the beloved West Village restaurants Jeffrey’s Grocery, Joseph Leonard, Fedora, Perla, and Bar Sardine — delves into the fun history of this classic drink. (Did Hemingway create it, as legend suggests? Or was it an ornery Parisian bartender?)
More than 50 eclectic recipes, culled from top bartenders around the country, will have drinkers thinking outside the vodka box and taking garnishes to a whole new level.
Brian is probably the one person most responsible/culpable for introducing me, somewhat later in life than many, to the wonderful world of spirits and cocktails. I am not a particular fan of the Bloody Mary, but I’m buying this book because Brian has yet to steer me wrong when it comes to beverages.
The American Library Association maintains a list of Frequently Challenged Children’s Books, books that people try to get banned from libraries due to their “inappropriate” content. The list includes Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret., Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, Dr. Seuss’s Hop On Pop (???), Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman, as well as the Harry Potter and His Dark Materials series. Perri Klass writes about what children can learn from these banned books.
“I think it happens in the U.S. more than in some other countries,” said Leonard Marcus, a children’s book historian and critic. “There’s a squeamishness in the U.S. about body parts I think that goes back to the Puritan tradition, and has never completely died out.” He pointed to the controversy around Maurice Sendak’s 1970 children’s book “In the Night Kitchen,” which centered on the illustrations showing the naked — and anatomically correct — little boy whose nocturnal adventures make up the story.
In the Night Kitchen? Seriously? Seriously?! That was one of my favorites as a kid and so we bought it for our kids. Come on, America…we’ve got worse things to worry about. Klass’s point here is exactly right:
When your children read books that have been challenged or banned, you have a double opportunity as a parent; you can discuss the books themselves, and the information they provide, and you can also talk about why people might find them troubling.
We’ve definitely had to do that with the Harry Potter books, the Little House books, and many other books we read together. Reading any book published before the 70s, for instance, is a great opportunity to discuss how the past and current roles of women in society.