“What is it about options that is so difficult for us? Why do we feel compelled to keep as many doors open as possible, even at great expense? Why can’t we simply commit ourselves?” – Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions – Dan Ariely
Once more I have not managed to read as much as in previous years, and this makes me a bit sad. I hope to pick up more books starting in March.
Thoughts on reading for February:
“What holds true for a conversation holds equally true for reading, which is—or should be—a conversation between the author and the reader. Of course, in reading (as well as in a personal conversation) whom I read from (or talk with) is important. Reading an artless, cheap novel is a form of daydreaming.” –Fascism, Power, and Individual Rights: Escape from Freedom – Erich Fromm
I was surprised to find that a book I stumbled on accidentally as a part of my psychology studies was quite engaging. Essentially Ariely explores decision-making, and how we think we are being perfectly rational as we make decisions. Many influences come into play, often largely invisible, unconscious forces, and Ariely and colleagues have run a number of experiments to examine some of these influences and the irrational conclusions of our decisions. It’s fascinating stuff looking at how, for example, something is framed, changes our perception of its value or importance, whether it is negative or positive.
Most of all I enjoyed the parts about how humans love to collect more and more options, leaving all options open, but forego in many cases, the truly important or most valuable outcomes, in an effort to never have to make a choice or let go of the endless options before us (stuff like online/app-driven dating presents this dilemma with great immediacy). Strangely, Ariely cites Erich Fromm, the only other thing of significance I finished reading in February, on the topic of too many options, too much opportunity.
Good – really good
*Fascism, Power, and Individual Rights: Escape from Freedom – Erich Fromm
*To Have or To Be? – Erich Fromm
*The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness – Erich Fromm
On some level, I am disappointed in myself for reading so few books in February, but I do try to remind myself that the Erich Fromm volume I’ve just finished reading is actually several books within one volume.
Fromm has been coming up in my readings on psychology, philosophy and some other more New Age type reading I did over two years ago when I started my mission to read more (I started by reading some books a friend had asked me to read to her and record a very long time ago, which included these “New Age” type books). These antecedents coupled with my own curiosity and the relevance of these theories given the current political and social climate gave me a reason to get through these books, which weren’t always easy. I found it best to read these when I was a captive audience and basically had nothing else to do but focus, i.e. on plane journeys. Most recently I was flying between Frankfurt and Glasgow, and a flight attendant scared the shit out of me by standing very close behind me, staring over my shoulder (without my realizing it) and almost whispering in my ear, “That’s the smallest font! You must have excellent eyes.” But apart from that strange interruption, I was able to read these books in peace.
It was perhaps most interesting to see Fromm’s assertion in Escape from Freedom: “The United States has shown itself resistant against all totalitarian attempts to gain influence.” Perhaps so, at the time of writing. Fromm was not blind enough to think the situation static: “Yet all these reassuring facts must not deceive us into thinking that the dangers of “escape from freedom” are not as great, or even greater today than they were when this book was first published. Does this prove that theoretical insights of social psychology are useless, as far as their effect on human development is concerned? It is hard to answer this question convincingly, and the writer in this field may be unduly optimistic about the social value of his own and his colleagues’ work. But with all due respect to this possibility, my belief in the importance of awareness of individual and social reality has, if anything, grown.”
As Fromm examines the societal shifts that came about as a result of the shift from economic systems of the medieval era to what is now capitalism, we see echoes of the kinds of questions being raised in how we live (and in many cases suffer) today:
“In one word, capitalism not only freed man from traditional bonds, but it also contributed tremendously to the increasing of positive freedom, to the growth of an active, critical, responsible self. However, while this was one effect capitalism had on the process of growing freedom, at the same time it made the individual more alone and isolated and imbued him with a feeling of insignificance and powerlessness.“
He also writes at length about something that is one of my personal annoyances – boredom (or “insufficient inner productivity”). He argues that this belongs to the kind of society we live in, the creation of the need for constant stimulation and the disintegration of man’s place in society (having a role and knowing what he should be doing):
“Chronic boredom—compensated or uncompensated—constitutes one of the major psychopathological phenomena in contemporary technotronic society, although it is only recently that it has found some recognition. Before entering into the discussion of depressive boredom (in the dynamic sense), some remarks on boredom in a behavioral sense seem to be in order. The persons who are capable of responding productively to “activating stimuli” are virtually never bored—but they are the exception in cybernetic society. The vast majority, while not suffering from a grave illness, can be nevertheless considered suffering from a milder form of pathology: insufficient inner productivity. They are bored unless they can provide themselves with ever changing, simple—not activating—stimuli.”
On so many levels, the readings are deep and difficult and range across so many different subjects from history to linguistics, from philosophy to the nature of love or collective versus individual identity; it is hard to summarize here (and is probably not even necessary – if you’re interested in these kinds of things you will seek this out).
Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof
It took a long time to get into this book, but once I did I enjoyed it and was able to reassess the style that made it hard to “crack”. It does not immediately come across as linear and is hard to insert oneself into, but once you do it’s got quite rich language and a wholly new perspective. It is possible one I will need to read a second time to appreciate fully.
No great coincidences this time.
Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)
I don’t think I really read anything disappointing… boring textbooks don’t really count since they are useful and required, even if they don’t ignite creativity or excitement in the way that fiction or poetry might.