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Books I Finished in January
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The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life By: David Brooks
The Chapo Guide to Revolution: A Manifesto Against Logic, Facts, and Reason By: Chapo Trap House
Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose By: Deirdre Barrett
My Life and Work By: Henry Ford
My Inventions By: Nikola Tesla
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin By: Benjamin Franklin
Loserthink: How Untrained Brains Are Ruining America By: Scott Adams
The Library Book By: Susan Orleans
In general my posts don’t mention much in the way of personal details, but by revealing the entirety of what I finished reading in a given month, these book review posts are about as personal as it gets. And after realizing that it’s jarring too jump right into a review (particularly on audio). I thought I’d take the briefest moment at the beginning of each of these monthly round-ups to engage in some narcissistic navel-gazing. Which is what I just did… So I guess I’m done for the month!
Okay, I will say that I recently discovered the beauty of caffeine naps. In its canonical form you drink a cup of coffee then take a 20 minute nap. The caffeine kicks in right at the end of the optimal nap, and you’re doubly alert. I had heard of these before and even tried them, but since I don’t drink coffee, my caffeine intake was too slow (sipping coke) to make it work, but I got some super concentrated caffeine, and now I take a shot of that before my nap and the overall effect of the nap plus the caffeine is amazing.
I- Eschatological Reviews
By: David Brooks
This book is a defense of community, religion, and civic interdependence and a denunciation of hyper-individualism, selfishness, and the cult of authenticity. Given that I am largely for and against the same things as the book, it has a lot to recommend it. And because of this overlap, in general I’d say it’s a necessary book with a good message. That said I have a few criticisms of it, two minor and one major. Let’s start with the minor ones:
His advice on finding a vocation fits into the mold of telling people to follow their passions, to dig deep into themselves until they have found their calling. Brooks’ version of this ends up looking more like selfless charity and less like stand-up comedy, but even so, I’m not sure it’s the advice that most people need. Also it’s very easy to overestimate how successful that endeavor is likely to be when you’re a celebrated columnist with lots of disposable income. Or even if you’re just middle class or higher. Beyond that he doesn’t do a very good job of explaining how people selflessly pursuing their special and unique vocation is different from people selfishly pursuing authenticity and fulfillment.
My other minor criticism concerns the timing of the book. Brooks divorced his first wife in 2013 and entered a second marriage with someone 23 years younger than him, and who also used to be his research assistant. He talks about his second wife at some length, and for him it makes up a big part of his “second mountain”. Now, I’m not trying to imply that there’s anything skeezy going on there. Brooks goes into great detail about how chaste the courtship was and how slowly and carefully they proceeded. And I’m convinced it was exactly as he described, also what he’s saying about community and religion continues to be true and worthwhile. My criticism would be that his overarching credibility suffers from the timing of things, and the prima facie appearance of it all. It’s hard not to come away with a subtext of “You too can start climbing the second mountain by trading in your boring wife of 28 years for a second hotter wife!”
What This Book Says About Eschatology
You may have initially suspected that this book would have nothing to do with eschatology, but it both does and doesn’t, which is my major complaint with the book. By calling this my “major” complaint I do not mean to imply that it was the place where Brooks made the biggest mistake, or said the most untrue thing, but rather that he made a major assumption along with a major omission. But most people writing in this space make the same assumption followed by the same omission, so it’s an error shared by a lot of people. His assumption is that the decline in religion and community and civic interdependence can be solved by small measures, books like the one he just wrote, community programs that duplicate families governmental interventions. And perhaps such measures can eventually reduce the decline. But that’s far from guaranteed, and Brooks’ omission is to ignore that discussion. Because, in the end, figuring out how to solve the problem will be what matters.
The decline of family, religion, and community that Brooks speaks of has been going on for a very long time, and the causes of that decline are deeply entrenched trends which seem largely resistant to simple fixes (like books from New York Times columnists.) Of course like most of these books, it's full of examples and anecdotes of people rebuilding communities, creating replacement families, and crafting effective substitutes for religion, and all of these people have my profoundest respect, but it’s essentially impossible to imagine that such programs can scale up to the point where they fill the gaping abyss which has opened up over the last several decades. Brooks’ and others like him seem reluctant to confront the disparity between the modest size of the programs and the enormity of the problem they’re trying to solve, preferring, instead, to assume that if it can be done for 300 people it can be done for 300 million. We just need more people and more programs.
An example might help, one of the programs he mentions is Thread, which connects students in Baltimore to mentors and a network of other supporters. It’s clearly a great program. According to the website, in 15 years they’ve helped 527 students. That’s fantastic, and great for those 527 individuals, but it’s also just a drop in the bucket. Because on the other hand, starting in 2015, Baltimore has seen a spike in homicides, with between 100-200 additional homicides over the 2014 rate. Thread has helped an average of 35 people a year, meaning that Thread is losing the race. Even if we assume the number of people helped is greater than average recently, we still have a situation where for every person they’ve helped since 2014 at least two additional people have been murdered by the recent deterioration of the community.
The point being, one program cannot change the direction of an entire culture. Nor can a dozen. The culture itself has to change, and while the book provides lots of anecdotes about individuals changing, it presents very little evidence that indicates the entire culture is changing. And this is what’s lacking in this book, a discussion of whether incremental change is going to be enough. Because from my perspective it’s starting to seem like it won’t be. That if you want to return to the kind of community Brooks says we need, then it’s going to require something revolutionary. The question of how literally we should take the word “revolution” brings me to my next review.
By: Chapo Trap House
I first became aware of this book when my son received it for Christmas from my parents. He thinks it’s hilarious that they bought him this book, I think it shows that he’s less oppressed than he thinks. As you might imagine, I’m curious about what my son reads, particularly when it’s something political like this. After looking it up on Audible and discovering it was only 7 hours in length I decided to read it myself.
The Chapo Trap House phenomenon is largely centered on their podcast, and this book appears to be more supplementary material than the core curriculum. Since I’ve never listened to the podcast take everything I say as the view of an interested bystander, rather than someone who’s deeply informed, but, from where I stand, CTH is a group of hardcore socialists who communicate heavily through the use of satire and absurdity, but who are light on prescriptive injunctions. But if you were going to pin them down, they’re Sanders supporters, who think that capitalism has failed. When you combine political advocacy, humor, history, political science and satire you end up with a lot going on, but this snippet from a review I found on Amazon, is a pretty good encapsulation:
All I can say is that after reading this I at least have a better understanding of those who seek socialism in order to be able to work less and game more...
The book is funny, and that seemed to be their main goal, so I guess they deserve credit for that. In particular I thought their critique of how Aaron Sorkin and the West Wing had mislead people, particularly liberals, into believing that politics is the realm of reasonable debate and compromise between well meaning individuals, was particularly trenchant as well as being hilarious. Where their viewpoint and mine diverges is not in their assessment of the symptoms (I think we largely agree there) but their assessment of the underlying disease. I think the disease is complicated (see my previous 178 posts) they think the disease is capitalism.
What This Book Says About Eschatology
If we mostly agree that things are messed up, then the next question is can we fix things with incremental changes or do we just need to burn the place down and start over? It’s hard to get a read on what the CTH opinion is through all the jokes, but it feels like they’re on the “burn it all down” side of things. In particular you never got the impression that there was a point in history where socialism could have triumphed peacefully if just one or two things had been different. Rather if feels like no matter how far back you go they feel betrayed at every turn and by everybody. Perhaps William Jennings Bryan would have been the exception? I don’t know, they don’t mention him, the first president they mention is FDR, who they appear to kind of hate. In fact the only people they hate more is every other Democract president who came after him. They loathe Kennedy, they despise Johnson, they scorn Carter, and they absolutely abominate Clinton. The only president they go somewhat easy on is Obama, but you get the feeling that it’s more because of how popular he is among their audience, then because they actually think he did anything worthwhile (and in fact they have a whole list of bad things that he did.)
All of which leads to the question, if they’ve never been happy with an actual president, what is going to be different about this upcoming election? It’s all fine and dandy to imagine how your preferred candidate would have done things differently had he won, but he didn’t. In the real world the whole bit about actually getting elected ends up being pretty important. Perhaps the answer is that Sanders finally appears to have a chance, and one supposes that their hope is that Sanders will get elected and finally bring about the massive wealth redistribution they’ve been longing for, but if so I think they’re being horribly naive. Unless Sanders is part of some giant blue wave that sees the defeat of over half the Republican Senators standing for election in 2020, he’s going to have a hard time doing anything particularly radical. And of course this assumes he actually gets the nomination and from there wins the presidency.
As of this writing it seems like he has a decent chance at the nomination, at a minimum he’s pulling away in Iowa, so I guess we’ll see what happens. There’s definitely a part of me that wants to see him as the democractic candidate, because it will be a great test of something that people on the far left and the far right have been saying for years. Because getting the nomination is just the first step, after that you have to win the general. Sanders will have to beat Trump and this is where things get interesting. People like the CTH guys feel that it’s a myth that far left candidates can’t win. That Sanders actually has a better chance of beating Trump than a moderate like Biden. And further, that moderate Democrats do all the things moderates are supposed to do and they still get slaughtered when the election comes. (See Clinton and the 1994 midterms.) There’s a lot that can be said about that, but it’s mostly speculation. (Though with Corbyn getting slaughtered in the last UK election I feel like there’s more evidence they’re wrong than that they’re right.) But it will be interesting to “run the experiment” and see what happens if Sanders does get the nomination. The CTH guys better hope he wins, because if a far left candidate gets nominated and loses to Trump, then we’ll never see another one.
Which brings us to the idea that they may have given up on an electoral solution, and are already moving on to a revolutionary solution (thus the title). Or that this is what they intend to do if Sanders doesn’t get the nomination or if he does and then loses, and if that’s the case, then that’s an entirely different matter, and a very different form of advocacy. One I’d want to see coming from as far away as possible, and this may be my primary reason for reading the book, I wanted to see if I was first up against the wall when the revolution comes. My son assured me that I won’t be, and he also promised he wouldn’t turn me in for a struggle session either. I guess that’s the best I can expect during the inevitable proletarian rebellion.
By: Deirdre Barrett
I’m fascinated by the idea of supernormal stimuli, and when I discovered there was an entire book written on the subject, it seemed an obvious decision to pick it up and read it. Well it may have been an obvious decision, but it wasn’t the correct one. I can not recommend this book to anyone.
I can imagine certain of my readers jumping to the conclusion that the reason I didn’t like the book is that Barrett doesn’t agree with me that pornography is a supernormal stimuli. That is not the case, but to be honest I would have preferred that flaw to the many flaws the book actually possessed. It would have been fine had she disagreed with me about pornography (though I’ve yet to hear of anyone talking about supernormal stimuli who doesn’t identify pornography in that category) if the book had otherwise been an interesting and in-depth discussion of how supernormal stimuli affects the modern world, but the book was strangely superficial, disorganized and most of all preachy.
I’m not interested in spending a lot of time on a book I didn’t like, but I will provide a couple of quick examples of what I mean. First there was her chapter on food. Which spent about 5% of it’s time on the supernormal stimulus angle and the other 95% of it castigating people for their poor eating choices and making dietary recommendations (including hypnotism). The castigation seems particularly odd if the whole point of her book is that humans have a built in evolutionary/genetic weakness for bad food.
As a second example, there was a chapter on war. Here the breakdown was even worse, she spent 99% of her time on an anti war screed, and barely mentioned how it tied into supernormal stimuli at all. Basically there were a couple of sentences about how propaganda might be supercharged in the modern world, but nothing beyond that. Also she seemed to be declaring that modern wars were especially bad, a point belied by Steven Pinker, and his Better Angels argument. Which would not be worth remarking on if there wasn’t a blurb from Pinker on the dust jacket.
In general the book seemed less about supernormal stimuli and more about things the author personally found annoying with a nod towards supernormal stimuli to lend a veneer of science to her rants about fat people and war mongers. These rants were further undermined by entirely lacking any sense of scale. Barrett seemed just as incensed by the fact that youth soccer games involve more logistics and less exercise than they used to, as she was about spikes in violence from increased territoriality.
I had high hopes for the book, but I was mostly disappointed, though only mostly, not entirely, which brings me to the next section
What This Book Says About Eschatology
I almost didn’t put this book in the eschatology section, even though I think supernormal stimuli pose a unique and subtle danger to civilization and society. But there is one point Barrett brought up that I thought bore further examination. She went into the idea of neoteny, when a creature carries adolescent qualities into adulthood. And in particular the process whereby species gradually become infantilized. Which is connected to the process of domestication. She related the well-known experiment of Dmitry Belyaev’s domestication of the Siberian foxes. Where it became obvious that neotenous attributes are shared across species, which led to the conclusion that Humans are neotenous versions of other primates. That we have self domesticated over thousands of years.
I take two points from this, the first is one more criticism. If this particular supernormal stimuli has been going on for thousands of years, where does Barrett get off on singling out the modern world? Where’s the inflection point? I can think of many, but Barrett seems curiously uninterested in drawing a line between what’s new and potentially fixable and what’s been going on for so long that we probably just have to accept it. And curiously when she does call out an inflection point, it’s generally in the latter category. For example pointing out Jared Diamond’s claim that agriculture is the worst mistake humans ever made. Well possibly, but it’s too late to do anything about it now.
The second point, if we are self-domesticating, can we take it to far? And can we hasten this domestication through technology? I assume that dogs are easier to train with leashes and fences, to say nothing of shock collars. And does a well trained and well domesticated dog run after cars, disappear into the woods for days, or land on the moon? No. And it seems possible that our own domestication has taken all of those things off the table as well, particularly landing on the Moon again.
II- Capsule Reviews
By: Henry Ford
I may or may not have mentioned the little old lady of my acquaintance who’s a voracious reader, and who provides me with a steady stream of recommendations. I almost always take her recommendations because they’re generally excellent. This time around she recommended the Autobiography Collection: Henry Ford, Nikola Tesla, and Benjamin Franklin on Audible. It was a very interesting listen, though I might call it one of her rare misses. There’s a reason Ford and Tesla were famous for things other than writing, and Franklin left out most of the good stuff. Still reading primary source documents is an important exercise, and I’m glad I did it.
The first book was Ford’s autobiography, and it was probably the most interesting of the bunch. To begin with, you really come away from it feeling that Ford and Steve Jobs were formed from the same mold. Both were uncompromising industrialists who had a firm vision of what their product needed to be, and they didn’t pay any attention to those who criticized their vision. In Ford’s case, his vision was to work on a single car model until he had perfected it, both in terms of features, but even more importantly in terms of price. That was the Model T. And it revolutionized transportation and manufacturing, in ways that are probably difficult to imagine today. Of course, as you may have heard, he took this idea of focusing on perfecting a single model to such an extreme that he only allowed it to be manufactured in a single color, and one wonders what would have happened if, at the end of the day, he had been a tiny bit less draconian. Perhaps this was impossible, perhaps it was only his singular focus that allowed him to succeed, and if he was the kind of guy who would have allowed a red Model T, he would have been the kind of guy who could have never come up with the Model T in the first place.
His sense that he knew exactly how things should be done was not limited to cars. He was interested in politics, healthcare, antisemitism, economic theory, and the dangers of automation. These topics are too deep to get into, but it was interesting to hear him dismiss people’s worries that automation was going to cause unemployment using the same arguments people use today. Which either means such worries are groundless because they always turn out to be wrong, or that the arguments need to be updated to cover very different forms of automation. Forms that bear very little resemblance to the assembly line.
By: Nikola Tesla
I’m sure that Tesla was an amazing inventor. I’m sure that his genius is underappreciated even to this day, but I am equally sure based on his autobiography that he had some pretty serious psychological issues. For example:
During that period I contracted many strange likes, dislikes and habits, some of which I can trace to external impressions while others are unaccountable. I had a violent aversion against the earrings of women but other ornaments, as bracelets, pleased me more or less according to design. The sight of a pearl would almost give me a fit but I was fascinated with the glitter of crystals or objects with sharp edges and plane surfaces. I would not touch the hair of other people except, perhaps, at the point of a revolver. I would get a fever by looking at a peach and if a piece of camphor was anywhere in the house it caused me the keenest discomfort. Even now I am not insensible to some of these upsetting impulses. When I drop little squares of paper in a dish filled with liquid, I always sense a peculiar and awful taste in my mouth. I counted the steps in my walks and calculated the cubical contents of soup plates, coffee cups and pieces of food--otherwise my meal was unenjoyable. All repeated acts or operations I performed had to be divisible by three and if I missed I felt impelled to do it all over again, even if it took hours.
Franklin is definitely an interesting character, and this is a great book. I just felt like I’d already heard it all in one form or another. I imagine that most people already know about his program for developing virtues. (Franklin could very well be the first lifehacker.) We also read about his success as a writer, printer, creator of the first public library, etc. But what I really wanted to read about was his experiences during the Revolutionary War. I know he was in France for most of it, but he did help with the Declaration of Independence, and he had plenty to do in France. It seems pretty clear that if he hadn’t secured a military alliance with France that the Revolution would have failed. Unfortunately his autobiography contained next to nothing on these subjects.
It was a good book, even a great book. And Benjamin Franklin was truly amazing on top of all that, I suppose most of my disappointment was because I expected one thing and ended up with something else. If you go into the book with more modest expectations it’s probably well worth your time.
By: Scott Adams
I realize that Scott Adams is not everyone’s cup of tea. And I can sympathize with that. Every time he made a claim that starts, “As a trained hypnotist…” I had to resist the urge to stop the audiobook, ask for a refund, and take dilbert.com out of my bookmarks. But if you can get past the self-promotion (and let’s be honest, is it even possible to have a platform these days without it?) Then Adams is actually a pretty objective, intellectually humble guy, who frequently not only admits that he could be wrong, but identifies the bias he’s most likely suffering from. And out of this comes a fairly clear-eyed view of the modern world and its discontents.
If you’re one of those who’s wondering what the heck is going on, and you want to hear from someone who makes a cogent case for Trump without being crazy. This is about as good as it gets.
By: Susan Orleans
Susan Orleans wrote the Orchid Thief, which was turned into the movie Adaptation by Charlie Kauffman and Spike Jonze. I love Charlie Kaufmann movies, “Adaptation” included, so there was already a predisposition to look on this book favorably. Then hearing that it was a meditation on libraries in general sealed the deal. It does actually have a plot on top of all that. It concerns the horrible 1986 fire in the central Los Angeles library, and the man who was charged with causing it.
In the end there are definitely better books that weave several stories into one (for example The Devil and the White City) and there are probably better meditations on libraries (though I’m not aware of any). But The Library Book does a pretty good job of combining the two, and it’s an easy, comfortable read on top of that.
I’m sure there are other places to find the story of Oedipus, but these are the earliest stories which have survived and they may be the best. Which means they’re also basically the most tragic as well. The story of Oedipus and his family is pretty bleak stuff and Sophocles milks it for all it’s worth, so if you’re the kind of person who likes tragic tales these plays are for you.
Beyond that, as was the case with the Eumenides by Aeschylus, the plays also form something of an origin story for Athens. This time around it wasn’t quite as explicit but the Athenians are once again the heroes, and they’re heroic because of their commitment to impartial justice.
Finally, in Oedipus at Colonus it’s obvious that Oedipus has been sanctified and made wise by the enormity of his tragedy. And I’m not sure if that is a profoundly deep insight about the nature of Greek Civilization, or if it’s something that’s everywhere and I just never picked up on it, or if it only applies to Oedipus specifically, or if I’m actually completely wrong about this idea in the first place. Probably, I’m wrong about so many things.
The other day someone sent me a book out of the blue. I’m not even entirely sure who it was. But if you’d like me to review a book leave it in the comments. Though, I will say your chances are higher if you also toss in a buck or two as a donation.