Said and read – June 2021

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“They say when you’re lonely you start to lose words.”  –WeatherJenny Offill

Previous book reports: 2021 – April/May, March, February, January. 2020 – December, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for June 2021

In last month’s belated rundown on reading, I cited some of what Johann Hari has written about how we, in some part, misunderstand depression. At least insofar as it manifests as a disconnection, or a loneliness. He wrote: “Loneliness isn’t the physical absence of other people, he said—it’s the sense that you’re not sharing anything that matters with anyone else.”

And it may be in this way that we, as Jenny Offill writes in Weather, lose words. What use do we have for words as we recede further into ourselves, with ever more tenuous connections to other people? Eventually, if those connections snap, what use do we have for language?

I cannot say I have experienced ‘loneliness’ during the lengthy restrictions of the pandemic, but I do feel my connections hollowing out. Perhaps my vocabulary will follow.

Recommended

*Modern Death: How Medicine Changed the End of LifeHaider Warraich

“But as medicine strengthened our ability to live, it started to encroach on people’s right to pass.”

My favorite book in June was probably also the most difficult. Read very soon after Katie Engelhart‘s book,The Inevitable: Dispatches on the Right to Die, this book took a deeper look at the medicalization and hospitalization of death, and how death itself has become harder to come by.

“We have delayed death but have also made getting there more difficult. Nothing encapsulates the diverging directions we have taken better than the complicated story of cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR as it is commonly known as. Akin to being the antihero of modern medicine, CPR is at once a reminder of how far we have come and a reminder of how much we have left behind.”

We see reminders of modern medical ‘miracles’ all the time, such as the cardiac event on the football field at the Euro 2020 tournament. Danish player Christian Eriksen suffered cardiac arrest on live television. And was revived, and survived. But just as medicine has ushered in miraculous ways to preserve life, it is as though we have never stopped to consider to what lengths we should go to preserve life if that life lacks any meaning or quality. This book, others like it, and the broader “right to die” movement examine these challenging questions.

“Physicians found themselves in a situation they had never been in before at any point in history. With medical advances in just about every specialty and field, it seemed that medicine was finally beginning to translate dreams into reality. They had striven to buy their patients more time since the inception of their profession, but no one had anticipated what the long-term outcome of these advances would be.”

“This to me was emblematic of how in many ways modern medicine has come full circle. We started out doing everything we could to avert death, knowing that death was the enemy. In every medical decision and every megatrial, the only outcome that ever mattered was mortality. Along the way, though, in our pursuit to at best delay death, we have seen outcomes emerge such as vegetative states which are in many ways more horrendous and unnatural than even death.”

“If death has changed from being an indisputable binary fact to a contentious amorphous idea, life remains ever more complex and harder to discern. Physicians deal with life and death, but they rarely cross the chasm from the simple and concrete to the complex and abstract. We have enough difficulty differentiating sick from not-sick.”

*Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble PigMark Essig

“The world learns this lesson again and again but never fully absorbs it. Though the pig’s cleverness has been noted at least since Roman times, it seems that each era must make the discovery anew.”

Waiting in the parking lot for dose one of my long-anticipated Covid vaccine, I read the majority of this book on the humble pig. And strangely it was one of the best books I read in June, although I can’t quite explain why. Maybe just because the western relationship with the pig is such a mixed bag; maybe because we never quite coexist with the idea of pigs’ intelligence, or become, as Essig writes, quite comfortable with the omnivorous nature of pigs. If an animal will eat anything, without discernment of any kind, surely, it can’t be clean, pure or good for human consumption.

“The problem of the pig seems especially relevant today. At a time when choosing food is more complicated than ever—when buying a pork chop raises thorny questions about the environment, public health, workers’ rights, and animal welfare—it makes sense to take a look back at what has been, for several thousand years, the most controversial of foods. Why do pigs provoke feelings of disgust? Why have so many people rejected pork? The answers to those questions lie deep in the past, tangled up in the biology of people and pigs, in shifting environmental and economic conditions, and in the ways people find meaning in the foods they eat.”

The book, of course, takes a uniquely western viewpoint, claiming that “the Chinese character for “home” is formed by placing the symbol for “pig” under the symbol for “roof”: home is where the pig is”, which of course sheds an entirely different light on how pigs are viewed in different societies.

*A whole bunch of poetry

Yes, I won’t list it since this blog is mostly comprised of poetry. Day in and day out.

Other interesting stuff

*Weather Jenny Offill

“Funny how when you’re married all you want is to be anonymous to each other again, but when you’re anonymous all you want is to be married and reading together in bed.”

I want to like Offill’s writing, and I kind of do. But her writing feels like someone has scribbled down random feelings and thoughts on post-it notes and then cobbled them together as a series of their jumbled reflections on their life. It’s kind of bite-sized, making Offill easy to read, even if the fragmented subject matter isn’t always easy itself. I’ll grant that it’s different from most of what I read. But that doesn’t necessarily make it “good”.

*Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural HistoryFlorence Williams

“…it’s just as likely the female drove these developments, through lactation and the unique demands of the human infant. Just suppose for a moment, gentlemen of the academy, that breasts evolved because she needed them, not because her club-wielding cave man did.”

An interesting book discussing the human breast from all angles, from cosmetic enhancement, to lactation and to cancer, and more.

“Breasts confer both. Unlike any other organ we have, breasts do most of their developing well after birth. In other complicated organs, such as the brain, the penis, and the testes, the basic architecture is laid down at birth. But the breast has to fully build itself out of nothing during puberty. Even then, it’s not done. The gland grows new milk-making structures under the influence of pregnancy hormones. Once an infant has weaned, a switch flips somewhere and the gland shuts down and shrinks. The breast must construct and then deconstruct itself over and over again with each pregnancy. It’s like Caesar’s army, making a camp city and then breaking it down on its relentless march across Gaul. Even if a woman never gets pregnant, her breasts pack and unpack a little bit each month just in case.”

*Postcolonial Astrology: Reading the Planets through Capital, Power, and LaborAlice Sparkly Kat

“Through astrology, we are funny, sincere, and vulnerable. We use astrology to see each other.”

I thought this would be more engaging than it was. It’s not that there was nothing to keep me reading (I will, after all, stick with a book even when it means little to me). It just wasn’t a favorite.

“My motive in writing this book is to ask the question: if astrology is just as speculative as race, can we make it more responsible? Can we use Western astrology to respond to the West? The word “responsibility” has the word “response” in it. Responsibility is possible when response is possible. Race and how we construct it have not been responsive to the needs of communities around the world. Rather, race has mainly existed as a paradigm propagated by the West and used to describe the rest of the world. While race science has been central to the establishment of the modern institution, astrology has been regarded by most as a pseudoscience. As a pseudoscience, astrology is a communal practice and a silly one. It follows not only the old adage of “as above, so below,” but also “as below, so above.” The latter adage means that not only do the wider cultural contexts that we project onto virtual images, such as the stars, dictate what meanings we are able to construct from the world, but also that by changing our collective behavior, we are able to change what we see in the stars by changing ourselves.”

I did not expect that I’d find a serious book tying astrology to capital, power and labor, but this book does do so.

“The golden age is never something you find yourself in the middle of. It always shows up in reminiscences, in the golden years of one’s life. The golden age, then, is not an experienced reality but a type of eye or viewing—a type of memory.”

“Multiculturalism is not neutral. Multicultural empires exist at the expense of Indigenous sovereignty. “Natives” cannot be multicultural, while “nationals” can. The multicultural empire is oriented toward power. Multicultural empires often frame power as representational while simultaneously wielding power through surveillance. Multiculturalism, because it describes difference in terms of race, is also a theater game that is controlled by its orientation toward the white gaze because race is a vocabulary of being controlled by white power. Visibility as power, or race, reveals some things while hiding others.”

Not great reads

*God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of LawMarci A. Hamilton

“Ridding society of religion is no answer, and therefore the United States must grapple with religion at its worst as well as its best. God vs. the Gavel argues that the right balance is achieved by subjecting entities to the rule of law – unless they can prove that exempting them will cause no harm to others.”

I wanted this to be much more interesting and engaging than it was.

*Walk Through Walls: Becoming Marina AbramovicMarina Abramović

I actually had no expectation that this book would be interesting. And it really wasn’t. I am not into performance art, nor reading about the love affairs of performance artists, so this didn’t do anything for me.

I note the book now only because it struck me as quite fascinating that Abramović only got a driver’s license at the age of 62. I reflected the other day that I just passed the 30th anniversary of having my driver’s license… and it occurred to me that I don’t think I would try to learn to drive now if I hadn’t when I was young. So the idea that a 62-year-old woman would do something quite so… brave (and yes I think it’s brave) gave me a moment to consider. What would, could, should I do now that I have been too afraid to do?

*Coming Through SlaughterMichael Ondaatje

“Our friendship had nothing accidental did it. Even at the start you set out to breed me into something better. Which you did. You removed my immaturity at just the right time and saved me a lot of energy and I sped away happy and alone in a new town away from you, and now you produce a leash, curl the leather round and round your fist, and walk straight into me. And you pull me home. Like those breeders of bull terriers in the Storyville pits who can prove anything of their creatures, can prove how determined their dogs are by setting them onto an animal and while the jaws clamp shut they can slice the dog’s body in half knowing the jaws will still not let go.”

Ondaatje is hit or miss for me, and this book was a definite miss. I got no enjoyment from picking my way through it.

 

Said and read – April-May 2021

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“It is on your back you feel the loss. Your front can keep up appearances. If nothing else, your face can face itself in the mirror. It’s the nape of your neck that is lonely. You can embrace your stomach and roll yourself round it. But your back remains, alone. That is why sirens and djinns are portrayed with hollowed-out backs—no one ever presses a warm stomach from behind against them. The carving chisel of loneliness works there instead. You don’t meet loneliness. It comes from behind and catches up with us.” –“Exterminate All the Brutes”: One Man’s Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European GenocideSven Lindqvist

Previous book reports: 2021 – March, February, January. 2020 – December, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for April and May 2021

On a tear, reading book after book, the frenzy eventually comes to a screeching halt. I was instructed to read a book that was so bad, and so misplaced as a work of fiction, that I just couldn’t read. Anything. Not the book I was supposed to be reading, and not the books I wanted to be reading. It was a complete block to all motivation to read. I would get through two or three pages of the book before I just had to stop. It took weeks to finish. And once I finished the dreaded book, I ended up feeling unmotivated to read for a while. But now I am back to normal.

All of this to explain that my April and May reading chronicles are combined into one because May was a complete wash.

Now… how do I keep this as brief as possible when my list of notes is over 60 pages long? I don’t even have a sense of how to organize these things.

I apologize… it’s as random as the last two years have been.

Recommended

*Exterminate All the Brutes”: One Man’s Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European GenocideSven Lindqvist

“I read Conrad as a prophetic author who had foreseen all the horrors that were to come. Hannah Arendt knew better. She saw that Conrad was writing about the genocides of his own time. In her first book, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), she showed how imperialism necessitated racism as the only possible excuse for its deeds. “Lying under anybody’s nose were many of the elements which gathered together could create a totalitarian government on the basis of racism.”

I read this book after watching director Raoul Peck’s series of the same name, which was based on observations from this book. The book offers insight, but the series brought it together cohesively, turning visual expectations around on the viewer, narrated in Peck’s ominously gravelly but reassuring voice (it was part of the draw, really). Underpinned by a common European assumption that racism is a part of its past, and really only an American problem in the present, Peck illustrates in stark, sometimes shocking terms, that none of what we experience now would be possible without European colonialism. The aftershocks continue to shake the foundations of the society we live in – and who controls it.

“This became a new epoch in the history of racism. Too many Europeans interpreted military superiority as intellectual and even biological superiority.”

““As I see the matter, Europeans are a curse throughout the East. What do they bring worth bringing, as a general rule? Guns, gin, powder, and shoddy cloths, dishonest dealing only too frequently, and flimsy manufactures which displace the fabrics woven by the women, new wants, new ways and discontent with what they know … these are the blessings Europeans take to Eastern lands.””

“But in this debate no one mentions the German extermination of the Herero people in southwest Africa during Hitler’s childhood. No one mentions the corresponding genocide by the French, the British, or the Americans. No one points out that during Hitler’s childhood, a major element in the European view of mankind was the conviction that “inferior races” were by nature condemned to extinction: the true compassion of the superior races consisted in helping them on the way.”

“Auschwitz was the modern industrial application of a policy of extermination on which European world domination had long since rested.”

*Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese PsycheHaruki Murakami

“My conjecture is this. The Aum “phenomenon” disturbs precisely because it is not someone else’s affair. It shows us a distorted image of ourselves in a manner none of us could have foreseen. The Hare Krishnas and all the other new religions can be dismissed at the outset (before they even enter into our rational mind) as having no bearing on us. But not Aum, for some reason. Their presence—their appearance, their song—had to be actively rejected by an effort of will, and that is why they disturb us.”

I read most of Haruki Murakami’s output, but always feel that the book I read first (or that anyone read first) is the pinnacle of Murakami’s literary achievement, and everything read thereafter feels like a pale imitation. Yet, when Murakami dives into non-fiction or autobiographical writing, it’s more interesting. His book on why he runs offered insight into why he (and many runners) run; this book tries to unpack what led the Aum Shinrikyo cult to perpetrate Sarin gas attacks on Japanese subways.

“To quote from the Unabomber manifesto, published in The New York Times in 1995: The system reorganizes itself so as to put pressure on those who do not fit in. Those who do not fit into the system are “sick”; to make them fit in is to “cure.” Thus, the power process aimed at attaining autonomy is broken and the individual is subsumed into the other-dependent power process enforced by the system. To pursue autonomy is seen as “disease.” Interestingly enough, while the Unabomber’s modus operandi almost exactly parallels Aum’s (when, for instance, they sent a parcel bomb to Tokyo City Hall), Theodore Kaczynski’s thinking is even more closely linked to the essence of the Aum cult. The argument Kaczynski puts forward is fundamentally quite right. Many parts of the social system in which we belong and function do indeed aim at repressing the attainment of individual autonomy, or, as the Japanese adage goes: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.””

*Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male AmericaIjeoma Oluo

“How can white men be our born leaders and at the same time so fragile that they cannot handle social progress?”

“And when I say “white supremacy,” I’m not just talking about Klan members and neo-Nazis. Blatant racial terrorists—while deadly and horrifying—have never been the primary threat to people of color in America. It’s more insidious than that. I am talking about the ways our schoolrooms, politics, popular culture, boardrooms, and more all prioritize the white race over other races. Ours is a society where white culture is normalized and universalized, while cultures of color are demonized, exotified, or erased.”

None of what Ijeoma Oluo writes should come as a surprise to anyone who is paying attention. And with every conversation I have with men – mostly mediocre, white men for whom the world is designed – Oluo’s point is further driven home.

“…we continued talking about these white men and their unchecked anger, fear, and irresponsibility—this phrase kept popping into my head: works according to design. I thought about the white men who talked over me in meetings. I thought about the white male lead in a movie who sits in his cubicle and laments his lot, bemoaning that he was supposed to be so much more. I thought about the white men wearing swastikas in Charlottesville, angry about their own failures and shouting about the people they blamed for them.”

Moreover…

“White male mediocrity seems to impact every aspect of our lives, and yet it only seems to be people who aren’t white men who recognize the imbalance.”

“white male mediocrity is a baseline, the dominant narrative, and that everything in our society is centered around preserving white male power regardless of white male skill or talent.”

“The rewarding of white male mediocrity not only limits the drive and imagination of white men; it also requires forced limitations on the success of women and people of color in order to deliver on the promised white male supremacy. White male mediocrity harms us all.”

There’s so much more to this book that should be read in total, not just quoted piecemeal the way I do here. I have found myself getting angrier about the white male dominance as I get older, not just because I have lived longer and seen more examples of this but also because I live in a society where this phenomenon is least in evidence. It makes the idea Oluo highlights of “rather than risk seeming weak by admitting mistakes, white men double down on them” all the more clear when I see it. (The entire current UK Tory government, anyone?)

“The man who never listens, who doesn’t prepare, who insists on getting his way—this is a man that most of us would not (when given friendlier options) like to work with, live with, or be friends with. And yet we have, as a society, somehow convinced ourselves that we should be led by incompetent assholes. This patriarchal elevation of incompetence has a special flair, however, in capitalist and individualist societies like the United States. When wealthy white men hoard power among themselves, they also need a cost-efficient way to keep the masses from threatening the status quo. How do you keep the average white male American invested in a system that disadvantages him?”

“Nothing says “American” like a boy making a woman struggle so that he can seem independent.”

My only problem with this book is that there were several points where Oluo writes something like, “Studies say…” or “Many studies reveal…”, but then it’s not immediately clear what studies Oluo is referring to.

*The Forgotten Cure: The Past and Future of Phage TherapyAnna Kuchment

I’ve become a bit obsessed with phage therapy the last couple of years and now read everything about it I can. It’s a fascinating alternative to antibiotics, although it’s more complex to find just the right phage therapy to apply. It has to be more specific than antibiotics to work… and sometimes it’s the last-resort solution.

When I talk to friends in the medical profession, they often have never heard of (or have only heard of in casual passing) phage therapy. When I mention it to non-medical people, I’m greeted with skepticism, as though I am sharing science fiction as fact. But phage therapy has been alive and well, particularly in the republic of Georgia (and in the former Soviet Union) for a very long time.

“Unlike antibiotics, bacteriophages make more of themselves as they work, eventually outnumbering and eradicating the bacteria they were sent to destroy. But, while antibiotics are effective against a wide variety of bacteria, each phage is specific, meaning that microbiologists must spend days and sometimes weeks in the lab identifying the bacteria in a patient’s tissue sample and finding a phage that will eradicate it.”

“But phages are no magic bullet. Critics point out that they can cause disease as well as cure it; by mingling their own genes with those of bacteria, phages have given rise to some of our worst killers, including diphtheria and food poisoning caused by E. coli 0.157. And, just like antibiotics, they breed resistance, though phage researchers say isolating a new phage is faster and cheaper than synthesizing a new antibiotic. Rapid genetic sequencing techniques help keep out so-called “lysogenic” phages that can pass dangerous genes to bacterial cells. While some still see phage therapy as a cultish phenomenon backed by weak science, the current crop of biotech startups is beginning to prove them wrong.”

I’ve spent a lot of the last ten years studying chronic wounds, and this book addresses exactly how bad chronic wounds are.

“Infected wounds are highly resistant to antibiotics, and not always because of the presence of superbugs. Once microbes penetrate a skin ulcer, they coat themselves in a protective layer that makes it difficult for antibiotics to reach them. This sugary coating, called biofilm, is a body-armor-like mesh that lets in nutrients for the bacteria but keeps out white blood cells, antibodies and, in most cases, drugs. “Everyone is so worried about [superbugs like] MRSA and VRSA,” says Wolcott. “But the biofilm is, like, orders of magnitude of that problem, and nobody is talking about that.” Chronic wounds have a cure rate lower than that of breast, prostate, and colon cancer: around 50%. Thousands of these patients are quietly living out their lives across the United States, virtually immobilized and in unrelenting pain.”

*McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist SpiritualityRonald Purser

“Void of a moral compass or ethical commitments, unmoored from a vision of the social good, the commodification of mindfulness keeps it anchored in the ethos of the market.”

Mindfulness as a practice has overrun the western world. Can you attend a corporate seminar or read a self-help book – or anything else – without someone recommending mindfulness or forcing you to participate in some kind of mindfulness exercise?

“Mindfulness is sold and marketed as a vehicle for personal gain and gratification. Self-optimization is the name of the game. I want to reduce my stress. I want to enhance my concentration. I want to improve my productivity and performance.”

Ronald Purser’s book explores a far deeper connection between how capitalism has co-opted any real truth or value from mindfulness, being reduced to “trickle-down mindfulness” as a “cover for the maintenance of power”. It results in, as we can all see if we’re paying attention, “an obsessive self-monitoring of inner states, inducing social myopia. Self-absorption trumps concerns about the outside world.”

“The problem is the product they’re selling, and how it’s been packaged. Mindfulness is nothing more than basic concentration training. Although derived from Buddhism, it’s been stripped of the teachings on ethics that accompanied it, as well as the liberating aim of dissolving attachment to a false sense of self while enacting compassion for all other beings.”

*Wild Is the Wind: PoemsCarl Phillips

Carl Phillips. Poetry. What more do you want?

*What Can a Body Do?: How We Meet the Built WorldSara Hendren

“Disability reveals just how unfinished the world really is, in its mundane forms and in its most aspirational politics—a contemporary reality tested most acutely under conditions of global pandemic, requiring fundamental shifts between our bodies and the world, and mutual trust despite deep uncertainty.”

What makes this book important is how well it centers the things we don’t see or notice. The world is built for the able-bodied, at specific “average” sizes, useful for the typical norm (which is most often the average, white, able-bodied man). And for everyone else, everything is an adaptation.

Whether or not a person is like a lecturer called Amanda, as described in this book, who forces us to ask the question: “Who is the world designed for?” Amanda calls herself disabled, as a person with dwarfism, and stands well under five feet tall. She is asking a design class to create a portable lectern for someone of her size and scale. Unless we see the world from Amanda’s perspective, would we think of these kinds of considerations as a designer?

“The idea of normalcy—a normal, average body or mind—is so ubiquitous and mundane that it’s settled into sleep in much of our collective cultural imagination. But its history as an idealized standard for human life is much more recent than you might imagine.”

“When the average is laden with cultural worth, everything changes: what was common began to be seen as what was “natural,” and what was “natural” came to be seen as right. The cult of normalcy reached its ugliest…”

*The Inevitable: Dispatches on the Right to DieKatie Engelhart

“Here we were, in the country that spends more per capita on healthcare than any other in the world, and people were begging for a veterinary solution.”

I think a lot about the right to die/death with dignity. The US states that have passed assisted suicide laws have quietly adopted these laws into practice without much debate or fanfare once they came into force. The right to die has not led to, as the author explores, a slippery slope: “the right to die would evolve, by tiny and coercive steps, into a duty to die—for the old, the enfeebled, and the disabled”.

“What does this all mean? This hunger for absolute control—or maybe just a shred of control—at the end of life, and this revolt against the machines that sometimes sustain a spiritless version of it? It is about the desire to avoid suffering. It is about autonomy. In the American legal tradition, it is also about the right to privacy and the negative right to not be interfered with. But for most of the people I met, choosing to die at a planned moment was principally about “dignity.”

The issue continues to be one of great debate in countries where assisted suicide isn’t legal but is up for discussion. For me it’s not a debate: the option is one of mercy and choice.

*How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final ChapterSherwin B. Nuland

“But the fact is, death is not a confrontation. It is simply an event in the sequence of nature’s ongoing rhythms. Not death but disease is the real enemy, disease the malign force that requires confrontation. Death is the surcease that comes when the exhausting battle has been lost. Even the confrontation with disease should be approached with the realization that many of the sicknesses of our species are simply conveyances for the inexorable journey by which each of us is returned to the same state of physical, and perhaps spiritual, nonexistence from which we emerged at conception. Every triumph over some major pathology, no matter how ringing the victory, is only a reprieve from the inevitable end.”

“The greatest dignity to be found in death is the dignity of the life that preceded it. This is a form of hope we can all achieve, and it is the most abiding of all. Hope resides in the meaning of what our lives have been.”

*Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on PerformanceAtul Gawande

“Each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, two million Americans acquire an infection while they are in the hospital. Ninety thousand die of that infection. The hardest part of the infection-control team’s job, Yokoe says, is not coping with the variety of contagions they encounter or the panic that sometimes occurs among patients and staff. Instead, their greatest difficulty is getting clinicians like me to do the one thing that consistently halts the spread of infections: wash our hands.”

There are a lot of fascinating insights in this book – I am endlessly fascinated by the work of surgeons and physicians. While everything was riveting, what struck me most of all was the emphasis on basic things that we take for granted or don’t do, like hand-washing. It has taken a pandemic to make people wash their hands more. To understand that there isn’t a ready-made medical solution for everything.

A second point Gawande makes, which is relevant of course for medical professionals but equally so for everyone else, is the idea that our lives are about talking to strangers.

“MY FIRST SUGGESTION came from a favorite essay by Paul Auster: Ask an unscripted question. Ours is a job of talking to strangers. Why not learn something about them? On the surface, this seems easy enough. Then your new patient arrives. You still have three others to see and two pages to return, and the hour is getting late. In that instant, all you want is to proceed with the matter at hand. Where’s the pain, the lump, whatever the trouble is? How long has it been there? Does anything make it better or worse? What are the person’s past medical problems? Everyone knows the drill. But consider, at an appropriate point, taking a moment with your patient. Make yourself ask an unscripted question: “Where did you grow up?” Or: “What made you move to Boston?” Even: “Did you watch last night’s Red Sox game?” You don’t have to come up with a deep or important question, just one that lets you make a human connection. Some people won’t be interested in making that connection.”

*Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect ScienceAtul Gawande

“In medicine, we have long faced a conflict between the imperative to give patients the best possible care and the need to provide novices with experience.”

How do doctors learn to be doctors, and how is it we think it’s fair to hold them to an entirely different standard when it comes to learning? Everyone makes mistakes, but when it’s a doctor, these mistakes can be life or death.

“How often does my intuition lead me astray? The radical implication of the Swedish study is that the individualized, intuitive approach that lies at the center of modern medicine is flawed—it causes more mistakes than it prevents.”

“To much of the public—and certainly to lawyers and the media—medical error is fundamentally a problem of bad doctors. The way that things go wrong in medicine is normally unseen and, consequently, often misunderstood. Mistakes do happen. We tend to think of them as aberrant. They are, however, anything but.”

“This is the uncomfortable truth about teaching. By traditional ethics and public insistence (not to mention court rulings), a patient’s right to the best care possible must trump the objective of training novices. We want perfection without practice. Yet everyone is harmed if no one is trained for the future. So learning is hidden, behind drapes and anesthesia and the elisions of language. Nor does the dilemma apply just to residents, physicians in training. In fact, the process of learning turns out to extend longer than most people know.”

“As patients, we want both expertise and progress. What nobody wants to face is that these are contradictory desires. In the words of one British public report, “There should be no learning curve as far as patient safety is concerned.” But that is entirely wishful thinking.”

*The Knife Man: Blood, Body Snatching, and the Birth of Modern SurgeryWendy Moore

I walked past the Hunterian Museum on the campus of the University of Glasgow every day, and never once thought about who it was named after. Then I read this book. While the Hunterian is named after Dr. William Hunter, a famous Scottish anatomist, this book is about William’s younger brother, John. John Hunter is perceived widely as the father of the scientific method in medicine, the value of observation (“early distrust of the written word would make him forever skeptical of classical teaching and the slavish repetition of ancient beliefs. He always preferred to believe the evidence of his own eyes rather than the recorded views of others”) and careful anatomical studies. He was also ahead of his time in devising surgical methods.

“But through Hunter’s pervasive influence, the future practice of surgery would be based largely on the doctrine of observation, experimentation, and application of scientific evidence. When Edward Jenner tested his smallpox vaccine on an eight-year-old boy in 1796, thus establishing the practice of vaccination, which would save millions of lives, he was studiously following his tutor’s principles. When Joseph Lister tried out his carbolic-soaked lint on eleven patients in 1867, thus launching antiseptic practices that would prevent countless deaths, he was purposefully adopting his hero’s methods. And numberless pioneering surgeons down the years would similarly follow Hunter’s scientific principles in helping to render surgery safe and effective.”

Other interesting stuff

*Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys across a Changing RussiaLisa Dickey

The writer makes three cross-country trips across Russia, each ten years apart. What struck me was a very deep hatred for Barack Obama expressed throughout Russia during the writer’s last trip. It was fascinating to read about Dickey’s observations, and made me long for a time when I wanted the kind of adventure she pursued. I have still never even been to Russia.

*The MileCraig Smith

I enjoyed this because I enjoy anything that’s Scottish and focused on the independence question. But I do wonder if anyone else reading this would really like it. I’d like to think so. It’s brief but still imbues its characters with life and crisp dialogue. One wee problem; I like it when people discuss other small countries and their adaptability, their ability to thrive in independence, but lauding Iceland for halving unemployment and jailing bankers … that’s not quite the case:

“Small ships are easier to turn around Euan.” Ian said. “It’s easier for them to adapt to change. Iceland’s already halved unemployment, and what did they do? Bail out the bankers? Look after their friends in high places that fund their fucking election campaigns? No, they jailed the fuckers and invested in the people. Norway, discovered oil at the same time as us. Did they fritter it away like Westminster? No, they invested it in an oil fund that’s now worth billions!” He took another drink. A bit early for this, he thought, but might as well strike while the iron’s hot. “And look at Denmark, year after year, it tops the ‘happiest fucking country in Europe’ list. So what’s so different about us?”

A high note, though, is poking fun at the English:

£66, not bad, he thought. But every time he saw that number he was reminded of the fucking English and the World Cup win they would never, ever, shut up about.”

*Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected SolutionsJohann Hari

“Loneliness isn’t the physical absence of other people, he said—it’s the sense that you’re not sharing anything that matters with anyone else.”

The heart of Hari’s book lives here, exploring how suffering, grief and the general malaise that sometimes stalk the range of human emotion. It has, like death, become medicalized and medicated. And yet it’s all a part of the complete human experience that we are trying to dull and silence, often in ways that create more problems than they solve.

“The grief exception revealed something that the authors of the DSM—the distillation of mainstream psychiatric thinking—were deeply uncomfortable with. They had been forced to admit, in their own official manual, that it’s reasonable—and perhaps even necessary—to show the symptoms of depression, in one set of circumstances. But once you’ve conceded that,4 it invites an obvious follow-up question. Why is a death the only event that can happen in life where depression is a reasonable response?”

“But this blasts a hole in the rudder of the boat the psychiatrists writing the DSM have been sailing in for so long. Suddenly, life—with all its complexity—starts to flood into diagnosing depression and anxiety. It can’t just be a matter of chemical imbalance, as verified by checklists of symptoms. It would have to be seen as a response to your circumstances.”

“If we started to take people’s actual lives into account when we treat depression and anxiety, Joanne said, it would require “an entire system overhaul.” There are many good and decent psychiatrists who want to think in this deeper way, she stressed, and can see the limits of what we are doing right now. Instead of saying our pain is an irrational spasm to be taken away with drugs, they see that we should start to listen to it and figure out what it is telling us.”

“Thinking like this, Joanne told me, makes her believe that “we’re such an utterly disconnected culture, we just don’t get human suffering.” She looked at me, and I thought of everything she has gone through, and the wisdom it has given her. She blinked, and said: “We just don’t get it.””

Much of this revolves around the lack of connection, becoming more isolated from a sense of community or sharing.

“Protracted loneliness causes you to shut down socially, and to be more suspicious of any social contact, he found. You become hypervigilant. You start to be more likely to take offense where none was intended, and to be afraid of strangers. You start to be afraid of the very thing you need most. John calls this a “snowball” effect, as disconnection spirals into more disconnection. Lonely people are scanning for threats because they unconsciously know that nobody is looking out for them, so no one will help them if they are hurt. This snowball effect, he learned, can be reversed—but to help a depressed or severely anxious person out of it, they need more love, and more reassurance, than they would have needed in the first place. The tragedy, John realized, is that many depressed and anxious people receive less love, as they become harder to be around. Indeed, they receive judgment, and criticism, and this accelerates their retreat from the world. They snowball into an ever colder place.”

“It made me realize: we haven’t just started doing things alone more, in every decade since the 1930s. We have started to believe that doing things alone is the natural state of human beings, and the only way to advance. We have begun to think: I will look after myself, and everybody else should look after themselves, as individuals. Nobody can help you but you. Nobody can help me but me. These ideas now run so deep in our culture that we even offer them as feel-good bromides to people who feel down—as if it will lift them up.”

*The Political Thought of Abdullah Öcalan: Kurdistan, Woman’s Revolution and Democratic Confederalism Abdullah Öcalan

“Another ideological pillar of the nation-state is the sexism that pervades entire societies. Many civilised systems have employed sexism in order to preserve their own power. They enforced women’s exploitation and used them as a valuable reservoir of cheap labour. Women are also regarded as a valuable resource in so far as they produce offspring and allow the reproduction of men. Thus, a woman is both a sexual object and a commodity. She is a tool for the preservation of male power and can at best advance to become an accessory of the patriarchal male society.”

“On the one hand, the sexism of the society of the nation-state strengthens the power of men; on the other hand, the nation-state turns its society into a colony through the exploitation of women. In this respect women can also be regarded as an exploited nation.”

“All the power and state ideologies stem from sexist attitudes and behaviour. Woman’s slavery is the most profound and disguised social area where all types of slavery, oppression and colonisation are realised. Capitalism and nation-state act in full awareness of this. Without woman’s slavery none of the other types of slavery can exist, let alone develop. Capitalism and nation-state denote the most institutionalised dominant male. More boldly and openly spoken: capitalism and nation-state are the monopolism of the despotic and exploitative male.”

“ALL SLAVERY IS BASED ON HOUSEWIFISATION Ever since the hierarchical order’s enormous leap forward, sexism has been the basic ideology of power. It is closely linked to class division and the wielding of power. Woman’s authority is not based on surplus product; on the contrary, it stems from fertility and productivity, and strengthens social existence. Strongly influenced by emotional intelligence, she is tightly bound to communal existence. The fact that woman does not have a visible place in the power wars based on surplus product is due to this position of hers in social existence.”

“Gender discrimination has had a twofold destructive effect on society. First, it has opened society to slavery; second, all other forms of enslavement have been implemented on the basis of housewifisation. Housewifisation does not only aim to recreate an individual as a sex object; it is not a result of a biological characteristic. Housewifisation is an intrinsically social process and targets the whole of society. Slavery, subjugation, subjection to insults, weeping, habitual lying, unassertiveness and flaunting oneself are all recognised aspects of housewifisation and must be rejected by the freedom-morality. It is the foundation of a degraded society and the true foundation of slavery. It is the institutional foundation upon which the oldest and all subsequent types of slavery and immorality were implemented. Civilisational society reflects this foundation in all social categories.”

*Wee White Blossom: What Post-Referendum Scotland Needs to Flourish (Viewpoints)Lesley Riddoch

“Culture, oil, politics, history and size. Scots have as many reasons as any other restless nation to consider independence, although in 2014 the No argument finally proved more persuasive – or less frightening.”

This book is exactly what it purports to be: a book on what Scotland needs post-independence referendum… and what it might take to move toward independence again. The present moment is the strangest and most painful: how anyone can want to stay a part of the broken union is beyond my comprehension.

“Betwixt and between, the average Scot does not know the best of times or the worst of times. So we settle too readily for something in between. This is not to blame anyone. Social segregation means we almost all live in ghettos – quite unaware of how other people live across the great divides of class, gender, geography, occupation and sometimes religion. The referendum though has made one thing abundantly clear.”

Riddoch’s book pulls together different viewpoints, particularly those pertaining to social justice and equality, and how Scottish society mostly embraces the idea of the basic good, which is part of what is pushing it further away from the fraying ‘united’ kingdom of which it is a part.

*Stolen: How Finance Destroyed the Economy and Corrupted our PoliticsGrace Blakeley

“If the logic of capitalism is based on extraction from people and planet today, then finance-led growth is based on extraction from people and planet today and tomorrow, until the future itself has been stolen.”

Yeah, this is as horrifying as it seems. Capitalism has always been an extractive enterprise designed to feed short-term gains/profit and little else.

“Financialised capitalism may be a uniquely extractive way of organising the economy, but this is not to say that it represents the perversion of an otherwise sound model. Rather, it is a process that has been driven by the logic of capitalism itself. As their economic model has developed, the owners of capital have sought out ever more ingenious ways to maximise returns, with financial extractivism the latest fix. In many ways finance-led growth represents capitalism’s most perfect incarnation — a system in which profits seem to appear out of thin air, even as these gains really represent value extracted from workers, now and in the future.”

“The central argument of this book is that, having gorged themselves before the crash, today’s capitalists are running out of things to take. We are currently living through the death throes of finance-led growth.”

*Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and AloneSarah Jaffe

“The ideals of freedom and choice that neoliberalism claims to embrace function, paradoxically, as a mechanism for justifying inequality. The choice is yours, but so are the costs for choosing wrong.”

“Exploitation is not merely extra-bad work, or a job you particularly dislike. These are the delusions foisted on us by the labor-of-love myth. Exploitation is wage labor under capitalism, where the work you put in produces more value than the wages you are paid are worth. Exploitation is the process by which someone else profits from your labor. This is true whether you’re a nanny making $10 an hour, allowing your employer to make much more money at her higher-paid job, or a programmer at Google making $200,000 a year while Google rakes in over $7 billion. The labor of love is just the latest way that this exploitation is masked. But increasingly, workers are stripping away that mask.”

“Turning our love away from other people and onto the workplace serves to undermine solidarity. Thatcher’s statement that there was no such thing as society came after she had crushed labor unions, those vehicles not just of shop-floor action but off-the-clock sociality. If workers have a one-on-one love relationship with the job, then the solution for its failure to love you back is to move on or to try harder. It is not to organize with your coworkers to demand better. Collective action is unthinkable; the only answer is to work harder on yourself or to leave.”

*Synthesizing Gravity: Selected ProseKay Ryan

“It is easy to be sentimental about memory because of its powers to intensify. If something is remembered, it has been selected by the mind, out of an almost infinite pool of things that might have been remembered but weren’t. The thing remembered thus becomes important, simply because it has been remembered.”

I have loved Kay Ryan’s poetry, and this book of selected prose also offers gems.

“The poem is a space capsule in which impossible combinations feel casual. The body of the capsule is of necessity very strong to have broken out of gravity. It is the hard case for the frail experiments inside. Not frail in the wasted sense, but frail in the opposite sense: the brief visibility of the invisible.”

*Frangipani Célestine Hitiura Vaite

I kept this in the reading list just because you don’t hear often about Tahiti and certainly not Tahitian literature. I can’t say I cared for the book much, but I enjoyed the novelty of it.

*The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth: And Other Curiosities from the History of MedicineThomas Morris

“How long did the unfortunate John Marsh survive? Horrified and fascinated in equal measure, I could not stop reading. The answers proved to be just as intriguing. When the cartwheels had passed over Mr. Marsh’s belly, they had done so with such force that his intestines were squeezed through the inguinal canal, a narrow passage between the abdominal cavity and the scrotum. With his guts now competing with his nuts for scrotum space, as it were, the physicians had a simple task: Get them back where they belonged.”

A book of strange medical mysteries – we look back on what was standard practice and find it abhorrent. But we will undoubtedly look back and find that things that are standard practice now will appear abhorrent in the future – if you recall the scenes in the film Star Trek IV in which Bones exclaims in shock at the barbaric conditions of “modern medicine”, such as dialysis, in 1987.

*The Art of Cruelty: A ReckoningMaggie Nelson

The “compulsion to repeat” the trauma—be it in art, nightmare, or waking life—is the organism’s attempt to master the surplus anxiety that the original incursion produced. Of course, these attempts typically fail, often to catastrophic effect—in which case art can be seen as a relatively innocuous arena in which to showcase the failure—to enjoy, as Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has put it, our symptoms.”

Our capacity to be cruel, and to absorb cruelty without reaction, is endless. The book explores different depictions of cruelty (and of course makes reference to Stanley Milgram, who appears constantly across pop culture references).

“As if a test were needed of how much sadism reality television participants, audiences, and producers are willing to indulge, on March 17, 2010, French TV broadcast something called Le jeu de la mort, or The Game of Death, a faux game show which re-performed the Milgram experiment on eighty unknowing contestants. The contestants had been told that they were taking part in a game-show pilot, in which they were to administer electric shocks to other contestants when they answered questions incorrectly. A smiling host and vociferous studio audience, rather than a taciturn guy in a lab coat (as was the case in Stanley Milgram’s experiment), urged the behavior on, but the results were remarkably similar: sixty-four of the eighty contestants were willing to deliver shocks that could have killed their recipients, had there been any actual receivers.”

*Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our FuturesMerlin Sheldrake

“Our perceptions work in large part by expectation. It takes less cognitive effort to make sense of the world using preconceived images updated with a small amount of new sensory information than to constantly form entirely new perceptions from scratch. It is our preconceptions that create the blind spots in which magicians do their work. By attrition, coin tricks loosen the grip of our expectations about the way hands and coins work. Eventually, they loosen the grip of our expectations on our perceptions more generally. On leaving the restaurant, the sky looked different because the diners saw the sky as it was there and then, rather than as they expected it to be. Tricked out of our expectations, we fall back on our senses. What’s astonishing is the gulf between what we expect to find and what we find when we actually look.”

And once more a lovely and surprising connection with a Star Trek reference.

“IF ANYONE KNOWS about going fungal, it’s Paul Stamets. I have often wondered whether he has been infected with a fungus that fills him with mycological zeal—and an irrepressible urge to persuade humans that fungi are keen to partner with us in new and peculiar ways. I went to visit him at his home on the west coast of Canada. The house is balanced on a granite bluff, looking out to sea. The roof is suspended on beams that look like mushroom gills. A Star Trek fan since the age of twelve, Stamets christened his new house Starship Agarikon—agarikon is another name for Laricifomes officinalis, a medicinal wood-rotting fungus that grows in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. I’ve known Stamets since I was a teenager, and he has done a lot to inspire my own interest in fungi. Every time I see him I’m met with a flurry of electrifying fungal news flashes. Within minutes his mycological patter picks up speed, and he leaps between bulletins almost faster than he can talk, a ceaseless torrent of fungal enthusiasm. In his world, fungal solutions run amok. Give him an insoluble problem and he’ll toss you a new way it can be decomposed, poisoned, or healed by a fungus.”

“Not long before I arrived, Stamets had been contacted by the creative team behind the TV series Star Trek: Discovery, who wanted to know more about his work. He had agreed to brief them on the ways that fungi could be used to save worlds. Sure enough, Star Trek: Discovery, which premiered the next year, was laced with mycological themes. A new character was introduced, a brilliant astromycologist called Lieutenant Paul Stamets, who uses fungi to develop powerful technologies that can be deployed to save humanity in a fight against a series of terminal threats. The Star Trek team has taken plenty of license, though they hardly needed to. By tapping into intergalactic mycelial networks—“an infinite number of roads, leading everywhere”—(the fictional) Stamets and his team work out how to travel in the “mycelial plane” faster than the speed of light. Following his first mycelial immersion, Stamets comes to, dazed and transformed. “I’ve spent my whole life trying to grasp the essence of mycelium. And now I do. I saw the network. An entire universe of possibilities I never dreamed existed.””

*Men Who Hate Women: From Incels to Pickup Artists: The Truth about Extreme Misogyny and How it Affects Us AllLaura Bates

 “Except…those two parallel claims—“not all men” and “it’s all accidental”—are directly contradictory. Either it’s “not all men,” in which case we must infer that it is only a small, specific group of men, deliberately committing acts of harassment and assault (a conclusion with which I broadly agree). Or this is all about poor, blundering men, making innocent missteps in a world in which behaving perfectly respectably risks being misinterpreted beyond one’s control, in which case, presumably, we are talking about all men, since the specific implication is that it could happen to anyone. So once again, the logic falls apart.”

A disturbing but unsurprising book about incels and extreme misogyny.

““Incel logic seems to reveal a hopeless contradiction: women are simultaneously reviled for sleeping with men and for refusing to do so. One user, for example, described women as “greedy selfish evil crazed sluts, who prevent decent hard working men, from achieving their biological purpose.” But things become clearer when viewed through the lens of the most basic incel belief. At its simplest, the argument goes like this: if women’s sexual autonomy has given them wicked and tyrannical control over men’s lives, then women’s liberation is at the root of all male suffering. Therefore, the obvious remedy is to remove women’s freedom and independence and to use specifically sexual means (like rape and sexual slavery) to do so. In other words, the problem is not women having sex but women having the choice of whom to have sex with.””

*Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American WomenSusan Faludi

“There’s a name for that: backlash. We witnessed the same dynamic in the 1980s: the more women speak up and demand their rights, the more a threatened male populace lashes back.”

As a corollary to the book on male anger, entitlement and incels, we revisit Susan Faludi’s classic.

“To blame feminism for women’s “lesser life” is to miss entirely the point of feminism, which is to win women a wider range of experience. Feminism remains a pretty simple concept, despite repeated—and enormously effective—efforts to dress it up in greasepaint and turn its proponents into gargoyles. As Rebecca West wrote sardonically in 1913, “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.””

Truly awful reads

*The BBC: Myth of a Public ServiceTom Mills

I thought this book would be interesting, and it was a dry, dull slog that pained me to get through.

*The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like DirtRobert I. Sutton

You would think that a book about assholes treating you horribly would at least make you think. But this book was rather terrible.

*The Unicorn Project: A Novel about Digital Disruption, Redshirts, and Overthrowing the Ancient Powerful OrderGene Kim

Hands down, one of the worst books I have ever read. It’s meant to be fiction but doesn’t have fleshed-out, well-developed characters. It’s just surface-level vehicles who deliver information about how we might develop software better. This didn’t need to be – or try to be – fiction. It was so painful to read that it took me more than six weeks to read it.

Said and read – March 2021

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“While our coming migrations may not proceed fast enough to keep pace with our shifting climate, a growing body of evidence suggests they may be our best shot at preserving biodiversity and resilient human societies.” – Sonia Shah, The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move

Previous book reports: 2021 – February, January. 2020 – December, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for March

A lackluster month in many ways – overly long, filled with churning through the process of just trying to get things done. Reading hasn’t been the priority, and I feel its loss when I don’t have the time to indulge.

Still, I read quite a few things, but nothing really stood out.

*When the Body Says NoGabor Maté

“…people do not become ill despite their lives but rather because of their lives. And life includes not only physical factors like diet, physical activity, and the environment, but also the internal milieu of thoughts and unconscious emotions that govern so much of our physiology, through the mechanisms of stress and the unity of the systems that modulate nerves, hormones, immunity, digestion, and cardiovascular function. Much disease could be prevented and healed if we fully understood the scientific evidence verifying the mind-body unity.”

Can stress kill you… or contribute to your early demise?

“The dynamics of repression operate in all of us. We are all self-deniers and self-betrayers to one extent or another, most often in ways we are no more aware of than I was conscious of while “deciding” to disguise my limp. When it comes to health or illness, it is only a matter of degree and, too, a matter of the presence or absence of other factors—such as heredity or environmental hazards, for example—that also pre-dispose to disease.”

Dr Gabor Maté, well-known for his work on addiction, argues that stress and trauma, particularly that which has been repressed and never dealt with, can be fatal.

“A U.S. study, for example, found that women who are unhappily married and do not express their emotions have a greatly increased risk of death compared with similarly unhappy women who do not repress their feelings. Canadian research has shown that people abused in childhood have a nearly 50 percent increased risk of cancer in adulthood. Such data are manifestations of what the psychiatrist and author Daniel Siegel has termed “interpersonal neurobiology,” or what, going a small step further, we may call interpersonal biology. Our relationships help shape our physiology.”

One of the salient points in the book is one that emerges from discussion about human health more generally: we ignore the whole in favor of the part, specializing in or focusing on one thing, only to end up without insight into the bigger picture. The human body can suffer most of all from this short-sightedness and perceived lack of connection between the mind and body.

“The more specialized doctors become, the more they know about a body part or organ and the less they tend to understand the human being in whom that part or organ resides.”

Additionally, dealing with stress or trauma also requires understanding what to  do with the absence of stress: after a life lived under the weight of the burden of it, the lack of stress itself can cause another type of stress.

“For those habituated to high levels of internal stress since early childhood, it is the absence of stress that creates unease, evoking boredom and a sense of meaninglessness. People may become addicted to their own stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, Hans Selye observed. To such persons stress feels desirable, while the absence of it feels like something to be avoided.”

*Kubernetes for Full-Stack Developers – various authors

*Kubernetes for Developers – Joe Heck

So let’s start by saying that I am not a developer and even though I work in a tech environment, these kinds of books aren’t part and parcel of what I need to do or know. They are not designed for me. Not at this level of hands-on or specific depth anyway. But it’s still interesting following along passively as technology and application development change shape.

*The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the MoveSonia Shah

“Human migration is not exceptional. Long isolation did not differentiate our species into separate races. Feats of navigation are not the sole province of “white gods” from the West. The oceans can be crossed by canoe. And humans aren’t the only ones who move across the landscape, leaping over continents and oceans. Plants and animals do, too.”

Migration is nothing new – it has been done forever.

“By describing peoples and species as “from” certain places, we invoke a specific idea about the past. It traces back to the eighteenth century, when European naturalists first started cataloging the natural world. Assuming that peoples and wild creatures had stayed mostly fixed in their places throughout history, they named creatures and peoples based on those places, conflating one with the other as if they’d been joined since time immemorial. Those centuries-old taxonomies formed the foundation for modern ideas about our biological history. Today a range of fields from ecology to genetics and biogeography allude to long periods of isolation in our distant past, when species and peoples remained ensconced in their habitats, each evolving in their separate locales. This stillness at the center of our ideas about the past necessarily casts migrants and migrations as anomalous and disruptive. Early twentieth-century naturalists dismissed migration as an ecologically useless and even dangerous behavior, warning of “disastrous results” should migrant animals be allowed to move freely. Conservationists and other scientists warned that human migration, too, would precipitate biological calamity.”

Sonia Shah tells the story of migration – of animals, plants, people, explaining its additive rather than disruptive or negative force.

*Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect UnionRichard Kreitner

We tend to think of the United States as an always-united concept apart from the horror of the Civil War. But the idea of disunion and secession has always been woven into the ethos of the American experiment. It continues now, particularly during the turbulence of the last few years (the lead-up to and during the Trump presidency).

*The Invention of SolitudePaul Auster

Impossible, I realize, to enter another’s solitude. If it is true that we can ever come to know another human being, even to a small degree, it is only to the extent that he is willing to make himself known.

Amen.

Image (c) 2021, S Donaghy

Said and read – February 2021

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A vort iz vi a fayl: beyde hobn groyse ayl. A word and an arrow are alike: both make a speedy strike. The idea that words have great power and potential to inflict harm is implied in the following: Verter darf men vegn, nit tseyln. Words should be weighed, not counted.” –How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed YiddishIlan Stavans

“Mouth tissue makes an excellent urethral stand-in. For one thing, it’s hairless. Urine contains minerals that, were there hair growing in your urethra, would build up on the strands. The stony deposits are troublemakers, obstructing flow or breaking free and getting peed out in a blaze of pain. The surgeon, James Jezior, has been over at the scrub sink going at his nails. He joins us now, hands front, drying. He has blue eyes and fine sandy hair and a mischievous wit. I would use the adjective boyish, but on paper he is very much not a boy. He’s a chief (of the Walter Reed urology department), a director (of reconstructive urology), and a colonel. “Also,” says Jezior, “the mouth is tolerant of pee.” He means that the mouth is built for moisture. It’s possible to create a urethra from hairless skin on the underside of the forearm or behind the ear, but the frequent wetting from urine can degrade it. A kind of internal diaper rash may ensue. Inflammation eats away at the tissue, tunneling an alternate path for the waste, called a fistula. Now you are dribbling tinkle from a raw hole in your skin. Just what you need.” – Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at WarMary Roach

Previous book reports: 2021 — January. 2020 – December, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for February

February has historically been the slowest, darkest and most depressing month of my life – every single year. In the last few years, though, perhaps by virtue of keeping myself ridiculously busy, I have managed to avoid the worst of it. And reading helps, although as predicted, I didn’t get to read as much as I’d like in February and didn’t stumble on anything truly extraordinary during the month.

Nevertheless I have a few thoughts running through my head.

First is the frivolity of this endeavor. I read and then scribble down some things about what I read, and I try in some way to impart how important I think some of the books are. Then I look at social media channels and all the outrage about the state of the world we live in and a lot of commentary about how if you’re posting frivolous stuff rather than topical, political stuff, you’re part of the problem.

I wonder about the reasoning of this and feel like we can’t be turned-on, angry, vitriolic, political animals all the time without burning ourselves to the ground. And what good would that do? Don’t we need to reset and ground ourselves in ideas sometimes? I recognize that I am lucky to have the choice.

Another thing has nagged me as I’ve continued my years-long pursuit of sharing poetry daily. I love discovering and sharing poetry, particularly voices of poets who are not featured in our mainstream high school/college textbooks in the western, English-speaking world. And while I share poetry from Black poets and artists all the time, I dedicate a poem a day in February to sharing their voices exclusively, as part of Black History Month. Recently someone pointed out that they thought this felt “performative”, and I’ve questioned this myself. It’s a continuation of my desire to share great poetry, and I wanted to shine additional light on, in particular, the work of Black women. I sometimes feel when I share other people’s poetry – no matter who they are – that I am overstepping. Is it my place to share these things, regardless of how few people might see what I share?

This questioning isn’t terribly related to my “reading post-mortem, but it’s nevertheless what plagues me at night during those few nights when sleep is fleeting. I suppose it isn’t a bad thing to repeatedly interrogate yourself: Am I part of the problem? And if so, what can I do to remedy that?

So here we go…

Strangely I was overenthusiastic and included some of my February reads in my January book report… for example, The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly ProsperousJoseph Henrich and Wintering, which I will write a bit more about later. Oh well. What can you do with an (over)abundance of enthusiasm?

Again these aren’t in any particular order and mostly reflect various things that stood out to me rather than anything that I expressly loved.

*Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult TimesKatherine May

“However it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely, and deeply painful.”

Continuing to champion this lovely book because it fit so perfectly, and concisely, into the sharpest parts of winter, and the introduction to the first months of a new year.

“Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives that they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Winter is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximising scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.”

A passage that particularly spoke to me was May’s description of how doing everything starts to look like nothing – it just blends together. How can we keep ourselves from falling into the crevasse of a life of blur?

“The problem with “everything” is that it ends up looking an awful lot like nothing: just one long haze of frantic activity, with all the meaning sheared away. Time has passed so quickly while I have been raising a child and writing books, and working a full-time job that often sprawls into my weekends, that I can’t quite account for it. The preceding years are not a blank exactly, but they’re certainly a blur, and one that’s strangely devoid of meaning, except for a clawing sense of survival.”

*Shape Up: Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work that MattersRyan Singer

This is a strange segue perhaps, but May’s attention to “everything looking like nothing” gave me pause to consider whether all the things I do, and the way I work, could look more intentional. Productivity is one thing, but what is the point without purpose?

I don’t necessarily think the philosophy outlined in Ryan Singer’s book, Shape Up, which explains in detail how Basecamp works in six-week cycles rather than in popular but fairly meaningless two-week sprints, works flawlessly. But it tries. Aiming to swiftly develop and ship something within each six-week cycle, things move quickly without get bogged down.

Ultimately in reading this for work purposes, I saw some applicability in everyday life. That is, you can’t do everything, so why try? Why not discern what you can do that will deliver the most value to you in your life? Obviously this reasoning won’t work in every case. After all, you can’t rear children in six weeks and ship them onward while you move on to a new project. Many of life’s activities and its most fulfilling commitments are long term.

But some of the things we find ourselves taking on and saying “yes” to when we know it might be deleterious to our quality of life and in the big scheme of things won’t matter if we do them or not … we could avoid them if we thought about what matters.

*Breath: The New Science of a Lost ArtJames Nestor

If we were to wager on “what matters”, breathing would be right up there. I mentioned breathing in last month’s book report alongside this unusually inspiring book and wanted to write more about the importance of respiration and the act, rather than art, of breathing. How we take the basic inhale and exhale that mark our lives, a sign of our continued living, for granted.

How, in the middle of a pandemic characterized by breathing difficulties, could it not trigger thought about the fundamental function of breathing? How it literally flows through every single thing we do.

In January a lifelong family friend, who was just four years my senior, died quite suddenly. Again, we’re in the middle of a pandemic in which millions of people have been critically ill with this virus. But this family friend, it turns out, didn’t have Covid-19. She was admitted to hospital in December, diagnosed with pneumonia and discharged. Soon thereafter she experienced respiratory distress again, returned to the hospital, was readmitted, had been tested multiple times for Covid (all negative). Yet her condition kept declining.

From her second stay in hospital, she called my mother (the closest thing to a mother figure she had left), panicking, crying, “I’m really scared. Please tell me everything is going to be fine.” My mother reassured her, knowing of course that she couldn’t make promises but could instead try to be a calming comfort. My mother asked me whether I’d like to send a text message to this woman with whom I’d had virtually no relationship since we were children, and strangely, this entire episode dredged up some terrible memories of what a relentless and cruel bully this woman had been to me when we were children. I hadn’t thought about it in years, but suddenly, her vulnerability brought this flood of memories to mind in such a vivid way.

Of course despite the events of the past, I did send a text, letting her know I would be thinking of her and wishing her well from afar. I never received a reply, and frankly, I don’t think she was conscious much longer after that message was sent. She went downhill from that day, with the respiratory distress getting worse until she was put on a ventilator. This still was not sufficient, so she was airlifted to another hospital where ECMO was available. She did receive a diagnosis finally (a rare, and hitherto undetected, form of cancer), and died soon thereafter. Her prognosis probably would not have been good even if a diagnosis had come sooner, as the cancer was quite advanced to invade in this way. And the presentation (respiratory) coupled with timing (middle of pandemic) may have delayed getting a correct diagnosis as well.

All I could think of was that single, simple act of breathing became labored, impossible until there was no more breath.

In Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes, which I also read in January but didn’t highlight in the book report, briefly discusses the Hawaiian language and reveals the “ha” of the words “aloha” and “haole” means “breath”. Reflecting how central the idea of breath is even to the development of our languages.

*Caste: The Origins of Our DiscontentsIsabel Wilkerson

“The anthrax, like the reactivation of the human pathogens of hatred and tribalism in this evolving century, had never died. It lay in wait, sleeping, until extreme circumstances brought it to the surface and back to life.”

Wilkerson’s writing, as always, is elegant and gripping, which makes it all the more painful to be nodding along and agreeing with her conclusion that America runs under an invisible caste system. No one would acknowledge or speak it aloud, or indeed, even see it (hence its invisibility), but racism and its structures is America’s caste system. Wilkerson makes the case, describing both the meaning of what a caste system is and how/why America is one such example:

“Caste is the infrastructure of our divisions. It is the architecture of human hierarchy, the subconscious code of instructions for maintaining, in our case, a four-hundred-year-old social order. Looking at caste is like holding the country’s X-ray up to the light. A caste system is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it. A caste system uses rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranked groupings apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned places.”

“The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not. It is about resources—which caste is seen as worthy of them and which are not, who gets to acquire and control them and who does not. It is about respect, authority, and assumptions of competence—who is accorded these and who is not.”

“Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred, it is not necessarily personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.”

More generally, and most damning and true, about America as a society, Wilkerson puts into words why a whole lot of people don’t buy into the myth of the American dream. It’s an illusion reversed for a fraction of the population.

“Compared to our counterparts in the developed world, America can be a harsh landscape, a less benevolent society than other wealthy nations. It is the price we pay for our caste system. In places with a different history and hierarchy, it is not necessarily seen as taking away from one’s own prosperity if the system looks out for the needs of everyone.”

And it has only become more distant in light of recent events:

“The pandemic, and the country’s fitful, often self-centered lack of readiness, exposed “a failure of character unparalleled in US history,” in the words of Stephen Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard University. The pandemic forced the nation to open its eyes to what it might not have wanted to see but needed to see, while forcing humanity to contemplate its impotence against the laws of nature. “This is a civilization searching for its humanity,” Gary Michael Tartakov, an American scholar of caste, said of this country. “It dehumanized others to build its civilization. Now it needs to find its own.””

Does America have any humanity to find?

*The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of BalanceLaurie Garrett

“Nature isn’t benign,” … “The bottom lines: the units of natural selection – DNA, sometimes RNA elements – are by no means neatly packaged in discrete organisms. They all share the entire biosphere. The survival of the human species is not a preordained evolutionary program.”

Viruses are, as Garrett warns, black boxes. We don’t know where they next come from, how serious they will be, how infectious they are, until of course they appear. As Garrett chronicles the history of unraveling various mysterious diseases as they appeared in the world, and identifying them, she paints a dark picture of what will happen with future viruses. We’re seeing her dire warnings play out now with Covid-19, although her alarm was sounded by the HIV crisis and its cruel and slow mismanagement.

“Through the AIDS prism, it was possible for the world’s public health experts to witness what they considered to be the hypocrisies, cruelties, failings, and inadequacies of humanity’s sacred institutions, including its medical establishment, science, organized religion, systems of justice, the United Nations, and individual government systems of all political stripes.”

“If HIV was our model, leading scientists concluded, humanity was in very big trouble. Homo sapiens greeted the emergence of the new disease first with utter nonchalance, then with disdain for those infected by the virus, followed by an almost pathologic sense of mass denial that dew upon mechanisms for rationalizing the epidemic that ranged from claiming that the virus was completely harmless to insisting that certain individuals or races of people were uniquely blessed with the ability to survive HIV infection.”

“Over the last five years, scientists – particularly in the United States and France –have voice concern that HIV, far from representing a public health aberration, maybe a sign of things to come. They warn that humanity has learned little about preparedness and response to new microbes, despite the blatant tragedy of AIDS.”

The awakening of a “global community consciousness” – certainly as it relates to the ecology/shared earth/environment didn’t do much to stop climate change. And firsthand awareness of both the way HIV unfolded, and now Covid, doesn’t equal action. If anything it may engender indifference in many and an active backlash in others. As Garrett writes in the gripping chapters on HIV/AIDS: **It’s a Sin**:

“Medical research money per se was not usually a partisan matter in the United States. … But AIDS was unique. It touched every nerve that polarized Americans: sex, homosexuality, race (Haitians), Christian family values, drug addition, and personal versus collective rights and security.”

*The Shipping NewsAnnie Proulx

We are far enough removed from the film adaptation of The Shipping News that reading this feels new and isn’t marred by picturing Kevin Spacey in the lead role. Oddly I started reading this the same day as I randomly had a conversation with someone in/from Newfoundland. Not an everyday occurrence. And the book makes mention of saucisson, which was once a well-tread “thing” between a former partner and me. Actually a couple of different partners. One, from whom I learned about saucisson in the first place, attempted to bring it back into the US from France without declaring it, and when I said, “Yeah, it’s a meat product”, he indignantly replied, as if his right to bear saucisson were self-evident, “But it is my saucisson!”

The next partner understood this reasoning perfectly, also relishing the fatty joy of saucisson. He made up a tune: “Saucisson – c’est bon.” I added: “Pauvre cochon.” I am certain he would still claim that the pig was happy to give its life to be saucisson.

Back to the point: Proulx has a distinct voice. I don’t love it, but I can’t deny its pull. I come to her work late, reading mostly the books from which films have sprung. I got around to reading Brokeback Mountain last month, and the film actually hewed so closely and faithfully to the book it was almost painful.

*How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed YiddishIlan Stavans

Rosten’s approach to language is, in my view, savvy and dynamic. He doesn’t perceive it as an isolated, self-sufficient, enclosed human activity. Instead, he pushes for a more dynamic, functional conception, recognizing the constant effect politics, education, sports and entertainment, and other realms of life have on it. In other words, language is never static; it’s in permanent change, adapting to unforeseen circumstances by lending and borrowing terms and expressions from the environment. His approach, obviously, came from Yiddish itself, a stunningly resilient code whose principal source of sustenance was its flexibility and improvisational nature. To find health in the Pale of Settlement, Yiddish speakers for centuries made their lingo suit the needs of the time. They were polyglots, looking at language not only as a home but also as a way of escape: if one couldn’t do the trick, another one would. Plus, they were adept at the art of translation. To translate is to overcome the barriers of language, to cope with the circumstances by doing what chameleons do: make oneself part of an alien turf.

I was a bit disappointed with the most of this book (apart from the shared passages). I didn’t expect it to be a collection of different stuff but rather expected it to be a historical and linguistic account of the influence of Yiddish on American culture, language and life and vice versa. While the book kind of achieves that, it’s not quite the account I was hoping for.

Still there are moments when the precarious balance between a pop-culture representation of the Yiddish language, which in one way keeps it alive, however hollowed out, and the richer, deeper lived experience of the full language, which disappears with each day.

“Shortly after Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish, a hilarious lexicon of colloquialisms and locutions, was published in 1968, Irving Howe, the deacon of Jewish culture in the United States, irritably reviewed it in the pages of The New York Times. In Rosten’s book, Howe said, “Yiddish is torn out of its cultural context, its integral world of meaning and reference.” He described the book as a catalog of kitsch. He was troubled by the way Yiddish had become distant and unknown among secondhand third-generation Jews, a sign of false nostalgia and lack of authenticity. Needless to say, Howe wasn’t Rosten’s only critic. Accusations of inaccuracy were published in periodicals such as the Forverts. Even Isaac Bashevis Singer, who himself was often accused of misrepresenting Yiddish and who, upon accepting the Nobel Prize, said that the mame-loshn is the only language on earth that has never been spoken by men in power, in private conversations derided The Joys of Yiddish as impure, just as he derided mainstream phenomena like the musical Fiddler on the Roof. One periodical even nominated Rosten for a “shanda award.” (Shanda in Yiddish means shame, scandal.)”

*Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at WarMary Roach

“THE MAIN stressor of combat medicine is absent from every training simulation. No one is shooting real bullets at or anywhere near you. “Training is limited by liability,” said Siddle. He sounded a little mournful. “The high number of returnees diagnosed with PTSD suggests we are not doing enough,” scolds Colonel Ricardo Love in his paper.”

As ever, Mary Roach brings her curiosity and uniquely irreverent voice to another topic: military R&D/technology.

“THE CHICKEN GUN HAS a sixty-foot barrel, putting it solidly in the class of an artillery piece. While a four-pound chicken hurtling in excess of 400 miles per hour is a lethal projectile, the intent is not to kill. On the contrary, the chicken gun was designed to keep people alive. The carcasses are fired at jets, standing empty or occupied by “simulated crew,” to test their ability to withstand what the Air Force and the aviation industry, with signature clipped machismo, call birdstrike. The chickens are stunt doubles for geese, gulls, ducks, and the rest of the collective bird mass that three thousand or so times a year collide with Air Force jets, costing $50 million to $80 million in damage and, once every few years, the lives of the people on board. As a bird to represent all birds, the chicken is an unusual choice, in that it doesn’t fly. It does not strike a jet in the manner in which a mallard or goose strikes a jet—wings outstretched, legs trailing long. It hits it like a flung grocery item. Domestic chickens are, furthermore, denser than birds that fly or float around in wetlands. At 0.92 grams per centimeter cubed, the average body density of Gallus gallus domesticus is a third again that of a herring gull or a Canada goose. Nonetheless, the chicken was the standard “material” approved by the US Department of Defense for testing jet canopy…”

“Not only are chickens easier to obtain and standardize, but they serve as a sort of worst-case scenario. Except when they don’t.”

“This is the sort of story that drew me to military science—the quiet, esoteric battles with less considered adversaries: exhaustion, shock, bacteria, panic, ducks. Surprising, occasionally game-changing things happen when flights of unorthodox thinking† collide with large, abiding research budgets. People tend to think of military science as strategy and weapons—fighting, bombing, advancing. All that I leave to the memoir writers and historians. I’m interested in the parts no one makes movies about—not the killing but the keeping alive. Even if what people are being kept alive for is fighting and taking other lives. Let’s not let that get in the way. This book is a salute to the scientists and the surgeons, running along in the wake of combat, lab coats flapping. Building safer tanks, waging war on filth flies. Understanding turkey vultures.”

And, in tribute to all those who continue to fight against stupidity in the face of… biology (people who wish people would hide menstruation):

“In other words, it isn’t the blood that makes a tampon attractive to polar bears. It’s something uniquely . . . vaginal. Some kind of secretions that, please forgive me, smell like seals. This makes sense, does it not? When a feminine hygiene company hires a lab to test the efficacy of a scented menstrual product, the standardized odor employed for this purpose is known as a “fishy amine.” So alluring is the intensely vaginal/sealy scent of a tampon that a polar bear seems not to notice that it does not also taste like seal. In 42 of 52 instances, a wild polar bear who encountered a used tampon affixed to the top of a stake (scientific nomenclature: “used tampon stake”) ate or “vigorously chewed” it. Only seal meat was more consistently pulled from the stake and consumed. Paper towels soaked with regular blood—here again, nailed to a stake like a skull warning foolhardy jungle explorers—were eaten just three times.”

Said and read – January 2021

Standard

“Freedom is as mortal as tyranny.” – Alan Dugan, “Argument to Love as a Person”

Previous book reports: 2020 – December, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for January

Escaping the clutches of a diseased 2020 didn’t provide the respite one would hope for. There was death before and death after, the arbitrary threshold of one year ending and another beginning meaningless. Loss sometimes means remembering – and memories can be bitter, painful and unexpected.

To iron out the jagged edges of reality, books continued to work their magic.

Time feels as though it has accelerated, and I pack every day with so much that January (and all its books) feels like years ago already. For that reason, and in the interest of brevity (haha I hear you laughing as you scroll and scroll and scroll to the never-appearing end of this; there’s nothing brief about this book report), I’ll briefly mention books here without any kind of format (I tried to categorize my previous book reports). I don’t have the focus, time or energy to create categories. There were just too many books overall in January, so I’ve excluded some that were very engaging, wonderful books that just …didn’t end up making this list.

It’s all stream of consciousness now.

*A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution – Jeremy D. Popkin

No explanation. I just liked it. The French Revolution. What’s not to like?

*Trace: Memory, History, Race and the American LandscapeLauret Savoy

“History as taught to me in grade school tried to box all that is known of a fixed past into a universal, sequential story. A story that was innocent, independent, impelled. A story beyond human manipulation. … But that sense of history neglects our relationships to each other and to what is ‘known’ and ‘not known’ of the past. How and why do we know what we know? Who is doing the (re)collecting then telling?”

A beautiful book itself, but it struck me at the time I read it because Man’s Search for Meaning was cited. I had just finished re-reading Man’s Search for a second time before picking this up, and it added a certain richness and depth as an accompaniment. Then again, the more you read, the more there are pieces interwoven with other works and ideas, so considerable overlap isn’t unexpected. If you read enough, you discover that there are source materials that writers across disciplines return to, and Frankl happens to be one, appearing also The Upside of Irrationality, another book I consumed in January. Hannah Arendt is another. These repeated references stand to reason because they continue to make sense, and resonate deeply with more universal truths and clarity.

This is something I love about reading: interconnectivity. It is almost like a tonic or antidote to bite-sized, sensational, fast-paced and often fake “news”. An historical record that we can draw upon, question and interpret within a kind of shared intellectual milieu that’s always being built upon and enriched.

Trace explores memory and sense of place as well as point of view: what is history, who gets to tell the story?

“What to remember, what to forget. Colonial historian Bernard Bailyn writes that memory’s ‘relation to the past is an embrace. It is not a critical, skeptical reconstruction of what happened. It is the spontaneous, unquestioned experience of the past. It is absolute, not tentative or distant, and it is expressed in signs and signals, symbols, images, and mnemonic clues of all sorts. It shapes our awareness whether we know it or not, and it is ultimately emotional, not intellectual.”

Of course reading a lot eventually leads to drawing parallels with other aspects of pop culture. I recently watched the HBO series How To with John Wilson, and it touched on the subject of, and subjectivity of, memory. The human mind distorts memory to the extent that we can be 100% convinced that something happened the way we remember. And yet it didn’t. Sometimes this mass misremembering extends to large groups of people, which is often called “the Mandela effect“. Wilson examines this, diving into some unusual communities who do, despite being shown they are misremembering, continue to believe they are right, but that their memories took place in some kind of alternate or parallel universe. Yes, Wilson’s show is that kind of rabbit hole.

On a more personal level, I often have to remind myself that just because I’ve shared an experience or relationship with another person, my memory of it is an entirely different reality. The larger canvas of history is no different.

“That inhabiting the same time, sharing a past, doesn’t mean sharing common experiences or points of view was never clearer than on the tour of Walnut Grove. We live among countless landscapes of memory in this country. They convey both remembrances and omission, privileging particular arcs of story while neglecting so many others.”

*The Artificial Silk GirlIrmgard Keun

““Why do you laugh this silvery laugh, you sweet creature?” And me: “I’m laughing because I’m happy.” Thank God men are far too full of themselves to think that you could be laughing at them! And he told me he was an aristocrat. Well, I’m not so dumb to believe that live noblemen are running around in the streets these days.”

A German must-read, banned by the Nazis, focused on a young woman dreaming of being a starlet but never quite satisfying that — or any — hunger.

“If you’re human, you have feelings. If you’re human, you know what it means if you want someone and they don’t want you. It’s like an electrified waiting period. Nothing more, nothing less. But it’s enough.”

*The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American CapitalismEdward E. Baptist

For anyone who doubts slavery ever ended and wants to know how the American capitalist nightmare machine was built (and on whose labor and at what human cost). Which, frankly, should be everyone. But sadly won’t be.

*Smoke but No Fire: Convicting the Innocent of Crimes that Never Happened Jessica S. Henry

Henry immediately tells the reader that she knows a great deal about wrongful convictions. But even she, armed with the statistics, was shocked (as most readers would be) to discover that one-third of “all known exonerations involve people wrongfully convicted of crimes that never happened”. Yes… crimes that never happened at all.

What?!

“No-crime convictions start with the fictional narrative that a crime occurred. That fiction can be based on honest error, tunnel vision, lies, or corruption, but in every case it is an illusion manufactured from whole cloth. The entire criminal justice system then steps in to process an innocent person where no wrongdoing occurred—and somehow, the error is undetected at every stage of the proceedings. Society has no recognizable interest in spending the time, energy, and resources in identifying, prosecuting, convicting, and punishing a criminal suspect for a crime that never happened. Yet we do. More often than anyone could have imagined. No-crime convictions are based on phantom crimes. But for the wrongly convicted in no-crime cases, they are all too real.”

*Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our OwnEddie S. Glaude

“It is exhausting to find oneself, over and over again, navigating a world rife with deadly assumptions about you and those who look like you, to see and read about insult and harm, death and anguish, for no other reason than because you’re black or black and poor or black and trans or…For me, the daily grind consumes.”

A beautiful book, visiting places and steps James Baldwin took in forging his identity against a backdrop of both historical and present-day racism and the lie (a thematic signpost returned to several times) that America is driven by some kind of inherent goodness or redeeming quality. Baldwin, and through this exploration, Glaude, have exposed the rotting core of this lie.

“Narrating trauma fragments how we remember. We recall what we can and what we desperately need to keep ourselves together. Wounds, historical and painfully present, threaten to rend the soul, and if that happens, nothing else matters.”

*The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People’s EconomyStephanie Kelton

As usual my reading is all over the place. A lot of stuff about systemic inequality, but the rhetoric of why this is the way it must be rests on misleading arguments about debt, and more frequently, deficit. The system is broken, and we think about it, are taught about it, and discuss it in ways that betray our lack of understanding about it, according to Kelton.

“MMT radically changes our understanding by recognizing that it is the currency issuer—the federal government itself—not the taxpayer, that finances all government expenditures. Taxes are important for other reasons that I will explain in this book. But the idea that taxes pay for what the government spends is pure fantasy. I was skeptical when I first encountered these ideas.”

“The economic framework that I’m advocating for is asking for more fiscal responsibility from the federal government, not less. We just need to redefine what it means to budget our resources responsibly. Our misconceptions about the deficit leave us with so much waste and untapped potential within our current economy.”

Reading Kelton’s book took me back to a public sector economics course I took over 20 years ago. Our professors hammered the idea home that deficits don’t really matter. And, like Kelton, I struggled with this idea. Having been indoctrinated into the idea that lowering the deficit is somehow a worthy economic goal, accepting the idea that people do not, as Kelton writes, “deserve” to ask more from their government because it’s fiscally irresponsible.

“In a now-famous speech from 1983, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher declared that “the state has no source of money, other than the money people earn themselves. If the state wishes to spend more it can only do so by borrowing your savings or by taxing you more.”5 This was Thatcher’s way of saying that the government’s finances were constrained in the same way our personal finances are constrained. In order to spend more, the government would need to raise the money. “We know that there is no such thing as public money,” she added. “There is only taxpayer money.” If the British people wanted more from their government, they would have to foot the bill. Was it an innocent mistake or a carefully crafted statement designed to discourage the British people from demanding more from their government?”

I’d be genuinely interested to hear more thoughts on the assertions presented in this book. Some of them make a lot of sense, but others have been simplified to the degree that I think, “I must be missing something fundamental here.”

“Your taxes don’t actually pay for anything, at least not at the federal level. The government doesn’t need our money. We need their money. We’ve got the whole thing backward! When I first encountered this way of understanding how taxing and spending work in actual practice, I recoiled. It was 1997, and I was midway through a PhD program in economics when someone shared a little book called Soft Currency Economics with me.8 The book’s author, Warren Mosler, was a successful Wall Street investor, not an economist, and his book was about how the economics profession was getting almost everything wrong. I read it, and I wasn’t convinced.”

Thoughts?

*The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly ProsperousJoseph Henrich

“Beliefs, practices, technologies, and social norms—culture—can shape our brains, biology, and psychology, including our motivations, mental abilities, and decision-making biases. You can’t separate “culture” from “psychology” or “psychology” from “biology,” because culture physically rewires our brains and thereby shapes how we think. Psychological changes induced by culture can shape all manner of subsequent events by influencing what people pay attention to, how they make decisions, which institutions they prefer, and how much they innovate.”

Yes, yes and more yes. I had not given a great deal of thought before going into the formal study of psychology to the problem that almost everything we think we know about human psychology comes from a very limited and relatively homogenous group of WEIRD people. That is, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.

“…almost everything we—scientists—knew about human psychology derived from populations that seemed to be rather unusual along many important psychological and behavioral dimensions. Crucially, there was no obvious way to tell whether a psychological pattern found in Western undergraduates would hold cross-culturally, since existing research going back over a half century had revealed differences across populations in people’s susceptibility to visual illusions, spatial reasoning, memory, attention, patience, risk-taking, fairness, induction, executive function, and pattern recognition.”

And how wouldn’t this skew “findings” that cannot necessarily be replicated or observed cross culturally?

Reading Henrich’s book reinforced one of the takeaways from my study: if you only have access to fellow university students as your study subjects, which is almost always the case as a student, how can you credibly claim to have concluded anything? The questions I was most interested in exploring had to do with things that no student population could possibly answer. For example, the perception of risk in people experiencing geriatric pregnancies. But how would one go about finding enough willing subjects for an investigation like this within the confines of a university-length semester?

Another key takeaway: the WEIRD societies the book describes, and their psychology, are individualistic.

“But, the WEIRDer your psychology, the less inclined you’ll be to focus on relational ties, and the more motivated you’ll be to start making up invisible properties, assigning them to individuals, and using them to justify universally applicable laws.”

In any case there were other fascinating points in the book, which had come up at various points in my previous academic career as well, for example, the influence of literacy on both cultures and on the brain.

“Learning to read forms specialized brain networks that influence our psychology across several different domains, including memory, visual processing, and facial recognition. Literacy changes people’s biology and psychology without altering the underlying genetic code. A society in which 95 percent of adults are highly literate would have, on average, thicker corpus callosa and worse facial recognition than a society in which only 5 percent of people are highly literate.”

By extension, it seems culture and religion has shaped the likelihood of one becoming literate, e.g. “literacy rates grew the fastest in countries where Protestantism was most deeply established”; “In Britain, Sweden, and the Netherlands, adult literacy rates were nearly 100 percent. Meanwhile, in Catholic countries like Spain and Italy, the rates had only risen to about 50 percent. Overall, if we know the percentage of Protestants in a country, we can account for about half of the cross-national variation in literacy at the dawn of the 20th century”.

And what would my book report be without a shout-out to my beloved Scotland?

“When the Reformation reached Scotland in 1560, it was founded on the central principle of a free public education for the poor. The world’s first local school tax was established there in 1633 and strengthened in 1646. This early experiment in universal education soon produced a stunning array of intellectual luminaries, from David Hume to Adam Smith, and probably midwifed the Scottish Enlightenment. The intellectual dominance of this tiny region in the 18th century inspired Voltaire to write, “We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilization.”

*The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in HistoryJohn M. Barry

“One cannot know with certainty, but if the upper estimate of the death toll is true as many as 8 to 10 percent of all young adults then living may have been killed by the virus. And they died with extraordinary ferocity and speed. Although the influenza pandemic stretched over two years, perhaps two-thirds of the deaths occurred in a period of twenty-four weeks, and more than half of those deaths occurred in even less time, from mid-September to early December 1918. Influenza killed more people in a year than the Black Death of the Middle Ages killed in a century; it killed more people in twenty-four weeks than AIDS has killed in twenty-four years.”

Who can resist books and films about pandemics when living through a pandemic? For many, focusing on previous health crises induces greater panic, but I find these kinds of materials comforting. They describe a panic, a critical turning point in culture and understanding of disease, but ultimately provide some reassurance that humanity as a whole gets through these things. This, coupled with having a better grasp of the trajectory of the pandemic itself, provides solace of a kind, i.e. it will get better, or at least the death toll is nowhere near that of the flu pandemic of 1918. Small consolation, I suppose, for those who have experienced tremendous upheaval and loss this time around.

“During the course of the epidemic, 47 percent of all deaths in the United States, nearly half of all those who died from all causes combined—from cancer, from heart disease, from stroke, from tuberculosis, from accidents, from suicide, from murder, and from all other causes—resulted from influenza and its complications. And it killed enough to depress the average life expectancy in the United States by more than ten years.”

Certainly it’s not for everyone. But I recognize that people take comfort in whatever ways they can. I was thinking earlier about how people return to the same vacation spots, reread the same books, and eat the same favorite meals repeatedly. I, who thrive on novelty, change and constant learning and stimulation, would not enjoy this, but the depth of my understanding of people’s need for comfort and familiarity has increased, particularly during our own era’s seemingly infinite pandemic.

*Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the StoryAngela Saini

Having more women in science is already changing how science is done. Questions are being asked that were never asked before. Assumptions are being challenged. Old ideas are giving way to new ones. The distorted, often negative picture that research has painted of women in the past has been powerfully challenged in recent decades by other researchers—many of whom are women. And this alternative portrait shows humans in a completely different light.”

*Superior: The Return of Race ScienceAngela Saini

“‘In the modern world we look to science as a rationalization of political ideas,’ I’m told by Jonathan Marks, a genial, generous professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. He is one of the most outspoken voices against scientific racism. Race science, he explains, emerged “in the context of colonial political ideologies, of oppression and exploitation. It was a need to classify people, make them as homogeneous as possible.” Grouping people made it easier to control them.”

*Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First CenturyDorothy Roberts

First – read all of Dorothy Roberts’s books. Just read them. Do it.

Second:

“The emerging biopolitics of race has three main components. First, some scientists are resuscitating biological theories of race by using cutting-edge genomic research to modernize old racial typologies that were based on observations of physical differences. Science is redefining race as a biological category written in our genes. Second, the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries are converting the new racial science into products that are developed and marketed according to race and that incorporate assumptions of racial difference at the genetic level. Finally, government policies that are officially color-blind are stripping poor minority communities of basic services, social programs, and economic resources in favor of corporate interests while simultaneously imposing on these communities harsh forms of punitive regulation. These dehumanizing policies of surveillance and control are made invisible to most Americans by the emerging genetic understanding of race that focuses attention on molecular differences while obscuring the impact of racism in our society.”

I’d highlight the whole book if left to my own devices, but it’s such an important topic, and hidden behind a veneer of “science” (meaning average people don’t question, if they are aware at all), that you should read the entire book.

“Like citizenship, race is a political system that governs people by sorting them into social groupings based on invented biological demarcations. Race is not only interpreted according to invented rules, but, more important, race itself is an invented political grouping. Race is not a biological category that is politically charged. It is a political category that has been disguised as a biological one.”

*Under the Udala TreesChinelo Okparanta

The thought occurred to me: Yes, it had been Adam and Eve. But so what if it was only the story of Adam and Eve that we got in the Bible? Why did that have to exclude the possibility of a certain Adam and Adam or a certain Eve and Eve? Just because the story happened to focus on a certain Adam and Eve did not mean that all other possibilities were forbidden. Just because the Bible recorded one specific thread of events, one specific history, why did that have to invalidate or discredit all other threads, all other histories? Woman was created for man, yes. But why did that mean that woman could not also have been created for another woman? Or man for another man? Infinite possibilities, and each one of them perfectly viable. I wondered about the Bible as a whole. Maybe the entire thing was just a history of a certain culture, specific to that particular time and place, which made it hard for us now to understand, and which maybe even made it not applicable for us today. Like Exodus. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk. Deuteronomy said it too. But what did it mean? What did it mean back then? Was the boiling of the young goat in its mother’s milk a metaphor for insensitivity, for coldness of heart? Or did it refer to some ancient ritual that nobody performed anymore? But still, there it was in the Bible, open to whatever meaning people decided to give to it. Also, what if Adam and Eve were merely symbols of companionship?

*Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic: Atheists in American Public LifeIsaac Kramnick

Atheism is not typically a philosophy of nihilism stripping all meaning from human existence but a position of principled conscience grounded on commitments to reason and science and open debate. Hypocrisy is what empties the public square of moral purpose, and nothing encourages hypocrisy more than a god of convenience who finds sin not in what we do but in what our political opponents do.”

A great book. Living as an atheist, agnostic or even a non-Christian in the “godly republic” of America, the themes Kramnick wrote about here are familiar and deeply felt.

What matters in our story is how events conspired to keep nonbelievers under the same cloud of suspicion. Was it credible in the twentieth century that people who did not believe in an afterlife and divine judgment were more likely to lie than people who still believed in hell? The truth is that most perjurers in American history have happily professed religion and have freely taken an oath to tell the truth.”

Unable to chip away at the omnipresence of God in official political discourse, nonbelievers are marginalized, even stigmatized, as well, by their fellow citizens. This was true in the past and it remains true. No surprise then that candidates for public office would be silent about nonbelief.

*The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious NationalismKatherine Stewart

Christian nationalism is not a religious creed but, in my view, a political ideology. It promotes the myth that the American republic was founded as a Christian nation. It asserts that legitimate government rests not on the consent of the governed but on adherence to the doctrines of a specific religious, ethnic, and cultural heritage. It demands that our laws be based not on the reasoned deliberation of our democratic institutions but on particular, idiosyncratic interpretations of the Bible.

Along similar lines and themes as Kramnick’s book on the marginalization and demonization of atheism, here we take a look at the rise of religious nationalism. The ultimate hypocrisy, really, when America will condemn and possibly even go to war with states because they are “oppressive theocracies”. If that isn’t the pot calling the kettle black…

“‘I will occasionally mention political topics from the pulpit but not partisan ones,” he continues. “The Bible is inherently political in that it routinely speaks against people who abuse their power in order to oppress other people.’

*The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for FailureJonathan Haidt

“What is new today is the premise that students are fragile. Even those who are not fragile themselves often believe that others are in danger and therefore need protection. There is no expectation that students will grow stronger from their encounters with speech or texts they label “triggering.” (This is the Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.)”

Compassion, understanding, empathy and humanity underpin almost all of my interactions in life. One might imagine then that Haidt’s book on the coddling of the American mind, the removal and excoriation of all ideas and debate that create discomfort (at threat of violence and ostracism), would fly in the face of this commitment to compassion. In fact, no. There is ample space for sensitivity and constructive, respectful discussion. But that’s what has been lost. We are either at extremes, being as insensitive and offensive as we please, or we are tiptoeing around subjects and even words that might “trigger” someone. Is this a kind of censorship? Maybe. When it’s taken on as policy or code of conduct, probably. In individual university classrooms, where this problem has been most evident, it has become problematic to the point that professors have lost jobs and the support of their peers.

Where is the line between pushing the envelope, dissecting even the most abhorrent of ideas, to learn to argue and debate in a reasonable, fact-based and respectful manner and gross negligence toward other people and their lived experience? What else is university for than to encounter entirely different, new worldviews, philosophies and ideas? Why have people become so cocooned and fragile that they need to be protected from and encased in “safe spaces” from words and ideas?

Students were beginning to demand protection from speech because they had unwittingly learned to employ the very cognitive distortions that CBT tries to correct. Stated simply: Many university students are learning to think in distorted ways, and this increases their likelihood of becoming fragile, anxious, and easily hurt.”

Sure, I get that ideas are dangerous. But isn’t that all the more reason to make a truly safe space for diving into them more completely and find out how and why they have the power to control, to trigger, to incite? By ignoring and burying unpleasantness, we threaten ourselves, our children, and society as a whole with a kind of collective amnesia and an inability to deal with even minor hardship or trauma.

If we protect children from various classes of potentially upsetting experiences, we make it far more likely that those children will be unable to cope with such events when they leave our protective umbrella. The modern obsession with protecting young people from “feeling unsafe” is, we believe, one of the (several) causes of the rapid rise in rates of adolescent depression, anxiety, and suicide…”

No, this is not as simple as I’m making out, but it’s worth thinking about how far the pendulum has swung away from open expression and how much more harm we might be doing by shielding people, especially children, from the full range of experience. It’s like allergic response to peanuts. By protecting babies from peanuts, the argument goes, you are actually creating a greater sensitivity than if you had introduced low-level exposure earlier.

Children, like many other complex adaptive systems, are antifragile. Their brains require a wide range of inputs from their environments in order to configure themselves for those environments. Like the immune system, children must be exposed to challenges and stressors (within limits, and in age-appropriate ways), or they will fail to mature into strong and capable adults, able to engage productively with people and ideas that challenge their beliefs and moral convictions.

I don’t know what to make of the book’s account of a troubling episode at The Evergreen State College (a frequent lightning rod for matters of political correctness and free expression) in Washington State. Having studied there many years ago, I found it difficult to balance the pursuit of pure academic ideas and following them to their conclusion against entrenched political ideas/ideals both within the student body and the faculty. I loved Evergreen and the flexible approach to learning. Indeed, I could always count on other students and faculty to challenge my ideas and thinking. That was purportedly one of the founding philosophies of the school.

Yet if your narrative, field of inquiry strayed too far from safe guardrails, you could find yourself ostracized within the community. But at the same time, there are two competing narratives about what happened in the so-called “attempted student coup”. There’s the “the left turns on its own” thread and then “alt-right media infiltrates to silence student protest” thread.

Probably valid points on both sides, but there’s no clarity about what actually happened – nor will there be. As Trace (written about above) declares, a shared history or shared experience will never produce the same recollection twice. But this is, I think, where Haidt is going: we should be able to discuss and consider both sides and the nuances of these in order to understand and strengthen our theories.

*Bag Man: The Wild Crimes, Audacious Cover-Up, and Spectacular Downfall of a Brazen Crook in the White HouseRachel Maddow

“Because Agnew’s is a story of a scandal so brazen that, had it not occurred at the same time as Watergate, would likely be remembered as the most astonishing and sordid chapter visited upon a White House in modern times. Heck, in any times. Agnew’s is a tale of a thoroughly corrupt occupant of the White House whose crimes are discovered by his own Justice Department and who then clings to high office by using the power and prerogative of that same office to save himself.”

Overshadowed by Watergate and the resignation of Richard Nixon, the unambiguous and out-in-the-open corruption offensive that characterized Vice President Spiro Agnew’s career could well have served as Donald Trump’s presidential playbook.

His now-all-but-forgotten story has also turned out to be an odd historical doppelgänger, almost a premonition, for what the country would go through with the next Republican president who would face impeachment, after Nixon.

Why sermonize about the superiority of your ideas and values when it was so much more effective to attack the motives and character of your opponents, to call them names, to question their love of country.

Maddow delivers a wildly entertaining and informative book about a moment in history we’ve largely overlooked, but which tells us in no uncertain terms that history repeats and snake-oil salesmen will slither out every few years to attempt to put a legitimate face on criminal enterprise.

*Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult TimesKatherine May

Everybody winters at one time or another; some winter over and over again. Wintering is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider.

Just a beautiful book. Stop, take stock, breathe. Hibernate. Do what you need to do to accept and embrace winter.

More than any other season, winter requires a kind of metronome that ticks away its darkest beats, giving us a melody to follow into spring. The year will move on no matter what, but by paying attention to it, feeling its beat, and noticing the moments of transition—perhaps even taking time to think about what we want from the next phase in the year—we can get the measure of it.”

*Breath: The New Science of a Lost ArtJames Nestor

Evolution doesn’t always mean progress, Evans told me. It means change. And life can change for better or worse. Today, the human body is changing in ways that have nothing to do with the “survival of the fittest.” Instead, we’re adopting and passing down traits that are detrimental to our health. This concept, called dysevolution, was made popular by Harvard biologist Daniel Lieberman, and it explains why our backs ache, feet hurt, and bones are growing more brittle. Dysevolution also helps explain why we’re breathing so poorly. To understand how this all happened, and why, Evans told me, we need to go back in time. Way back. To before Homo sapiens were even sapiens.”

I wouldn’t have thought that a book about breathing would be so inspiring, but I enjoyed it and became a lot more mindful and aware of how I breathe.

*Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up BubbleDan Lyons

I remember the hubbub in both tech and mainstream media when Dan Lyons, well-known technology journalist dude in his 50s, was hired at marketing automation startup wunderkind HubSpot. It made a few headlines because it seemed to fly in the face of the “youth is power” ethos that dominates startup tech hiring. Lyons’s account doesn’t do anything to change the idea of ageist bias, or my own experience that startups are often blind-leading-the-blind crap shoot enterprises. If they succeed, it’s not usually because they are well-organized and driven by great leadership or great products. Rather:

“It seems to me that HubSpot is not a software company so much as it is a financial instrument, a vehicle by which money can be moved from one set of hands to another. Halligan and Shah have assembled a low-cost workforce that can crank out hype and generate revenue. HubSpot doesn’t turn a profit, but that’s not necessary. All Halligan and Shah have to do is keep sales growing, and keep telling a good story, using words like delightion, disruption, and transformation, and stay in business long enough for their investors to cash out.”

Some of what Lyons scoffs at (organizational terminology, generational priorities, political correctness) is just par for the course – he’s a fish out of water. Drinking the Kool-Aid isn’t on his menu. And I get that. But it’s not like this is exclusive to the startup environment. Go to any company, of any size, and you’ll get the same things. It’s just that he went very far outside his comfort zone. If one went to one of the news rooms he describes, I don’t know that they would find instant comfort there either.

Still, Lyons’s chronicle of the layer upon layer of ridiculous isn’t misplaced and it isn’t wrong. I’ve seen reflections of this in almost every tech unicorn (and wanna-be unicorn) I’ve seen, and many books about working within the early stages of various now-massive companies that once had nebulous goals and business models confirm these impressions. Also, underneath the layer of ridiculing the inexperienced labor by which he’s surrounded, Lyons gets around to making some sharp points.

This is the New Work, but really it is just a new twist on an old story, the one about labor being exploited by capital. The difference is that this time the exploitation is done with a big smiley face. Everything about this new workplace, from the crazy décor to the change-the-world rhetoric to the hero’s journey mythology and the perks that are not really perks—all of these things exist for one reason, which is to drive down the cost of labor so that investors can maximize their return.”

And

In tech, the concept of culture fit is presented as a good thing. Unfortunately what culture fit often means is that young white guys like to hire other young white guys, and what you end up with is an astonishing lack of diversity.

Once again, yep.

 

Said and read – November 2019

Standard

Think of the way that stories change each time they’re told, the way our brains are literally rewriting our experiences in the moment of recounting them, not calling them up from some established place in our cerebral cortex. It turns out that memory is not a digital file at all, not fixed in form but progressively mutable, evolving in time. Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of MemoryElizabeth Rosner

I picked up the pace a wee bit for November, mostly because I had a bit of time off. That said, I had a succession of big deadlines for the latest degree program and was helping someone else with his uni deadlines, so there was a lot of prescribed reading. As a respite from the required stuff (for example, the entire APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion and Spirituality, which incidentally was one of the best things I read all month), I escaped into quite a bit of poetry. But this is nothing new.

I’ve felt the pull of escapism a lot this month, which sends me in two different directions – one is back to my old television and film addictions and the other is to dive into more projects (online courses, new degree programs, learning more languages – did you know Duolingo finally offers basic Scottish Gaelic?).

Screen Shot 2019-11-29 at 01.50.17

Come on – just look at this wee guy!

I also have a terrible habit of getting sucked into these actor/actress/director/writer roundtable sessions that end up on YouTube around this time of year (awards consideration and nomination season). Oh, also, some bizarre pairings of actors interviewing other actors. I am always surprised – the ones I think will be interesting turn out to be self-centered idiots who start every single statement they make with the words, “For me…”, and those in whom I have no interest at all (e.g., Eddie Murphy) end up being surprising. I end up watching even those in which I have no interest because… well, once I start I can’t stop. And this seems to be the way I operate. All or nothing.

Even gripped by an escapism that makes me want to avoid human contact for days on end, I still want to engage in these stories — or create stories about people, which has driven me to start drafting non-work-related stories and to take part in some online screenwriting and creative writing courses just to refresh my memory. I’ve been too long pent up in the B2B SaaS technical marketing writing world, I guess.

Thanks to a minor injury (oh, merciless early winter ice), I have mostly been able to just stay home, just as I longed for in October. Naturally this lends itself to more reading, at last.

Here’s what you missed in the last year-plus: 2019 – October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for November:

As I pull my thoughts together on November reading, it’s actually Thanksgiving… and another year when I could not pull myself together enough to host a dinner. I say this in such a self-flogging manner, as though I have simply been an unmitigated mess. But the truth is, I have (merely) been selfish. I could have hosted a dinner — I wanted to prioritize my own stuff in addition to being an antisocial hermit. I’m only a cat or two away from being a true cat-lady hermit spinster.

Highly recommended

How does atrocity defy memory and simultaneously demand to be remembered? How do we collectively mark it and honor it—while addressing its inevitably convoluted aftermath? As we examine the inheritance of trauma within the mosaic of human history, is it ever possible to move beyond it?” –Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of MemoryElizabeth Rosner

*Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of MemoryElizabeth Rosner

I’d write more about this book except it makes more sense to encourage you to read it. Writing about intergenerational trauma (trauma being passed down through several generations) and epigenetics, Rosner asks thought-provoking questions through the lens of her own experience with Holocaust-survivor parents, expanding the field of inquiry to include genocide more broadly as well as the role of memory – individual, institutional and historical.

It’s so much more than what I’m writing here, but as usual, the book presents it all with such clarity and is a moving work on its own – and by far the best thing I read this month.

Can you effectively make someone remember what he or she prefers to forget? If memory is a kind of spectrum, how do we delineate the threshold between voluntary and involuntary recollection? How to discern between deliberate denial and inadvertent amnesia? How to proceed with multigenerational café-style conversations in the near future, and beyond? Who will sit at these tables?

*The APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion and Spirituality

I greatly enjoyed reading the aforementioned APA Handbook of Psychology and Religion.  Does that mean I would recommend it to others? No, not necessarily. Not unless you’re interested in religion and spirituality from multifarious psychological perspectives. Sure, I know plenty of people who would love this – but I would not say it’s a page-turner that everyone should go find. Oh, and of course, none of my university-related reading seems to exist or make sense without reference to the Milgram experiment and Zimbardo’s prison experiment… which I wrote about last month because these references pop up constantly across disciplines and in various forms entertainment.

*The Tiny JournalistNaomi Shihab Nye

Poetry. Naomi. Need I say more?

*Dark. Sweet.: New and Selected PoemsLinda Hogan

Not that Linda Hogan. And not that sort of Linda Hogan. Hogan’s poetry speaks for itself:

The Way In
Sometimes the way to milk and honey is through the body.
Sometimes the way in is a song.
But there are three ways in the world: dangerous, wounding,
and beauty.
To enter stone, be water.
To rise through hard earth, be plant
desiring sunlight, believing in water.
To enter fire, be dry.
To enter life, be food.

Good – or better than expected

*The Sociology of ReligionGrace Davie

As with all books that are mostly academic – and theoretical – in origin, this wasn’t exactly scintillating reading for the average leisure reader. But Davie presents fascinating viewpoints on secularization theory and counterarguments to what was once perhaps an accepted, inevitable postulation that modernization would lead to a decline in the prevalence of religion.

Most interesting as an angle on this question is Davie’s discussion on “vicarious religion” and the separation of belief from belonging:

Both constituencies, however, might gain from the concept of vicarious religion and the innovative sources of data that can be used to deploy this concept in sociological enquiry. By vicarious, I mean the notion of religion performed by an active minority but on behalf of a much larger number, who implicitly at least not only understand but quite clearly approve of what the minority is doing. That is the crucial point. In terms of my own thinking, the notion of vicarious religion marks a step forward from my earlier distinction between belief and belonging (Davie, 1994).

Most striking is Davie’s assertions about Nordic participation in the church – it’s more belonging than belief that keeps them affiliated. Actual, active participation varies; I’ve reflected on this quite often, particularly when “confirmation” season rolls around each spring. Everyone with appropriately aged children invests significant time and money into giving their child a lavish confirmation – and this important rite of passage is done largely because it’s what’s done and it is crucial to a sense of belonging. But has very little to do with religious faith or active participation in the church.

The separating out of belief from belonging has undoubtedly offered fruitful ways in which to understand and to organize the material about religion in modern Europe. Ongoing reflection about the current situation, however, has encouraged me to reflect more deeply about the relationship between the two, utilizing, amongst other ideas, the notion of vicarious religion. My thinking in this respect has been prompted by the situation in the Nordic countries. A number of Nordic scholars have responded to the notion of believing without belonging by reversing the formula: in this part of Europe the characteristic stance in terms of religion is to belong without believing.5 Such scholars are entirely right in these observations. Nordic populations, for the most part, remain members of their Lutheran churches; they use them extensively for the occasional offices and regard membership as part of national just as much as religious identity (more so than in Britain). More pertinently for the churches themselves, Nordic people continue to pay appreciable amounts of tax to their churches – resulting amongst other things in large numbers of religious professionals (not least musicians) and beautifully maintained buildings in even the tiniest village. The cultural aspects of religion are well cared for. This does not mean, of course, that Nordic populations attend their churches with any frequency, nor do they necessarily believe in the tenets of Lutheranism. Indeed, they appear on every comparative scale to be among the least believing and least practising populations in the world.6 So how should we understand their continuing membership of and support for their churches? How, in other words, is it possible to get beneath the surface of a Nordic, or indeed any other, society in order to investigate the reflexes of a population that for the most part remain hidden? An answer can be found on pp. 128–30. By paying attention to the place of the institutional churches at the time of personal or collective crises, it is possible to see more clearly the role that religious organizations continue to play in the lives of both individuals and communities. Or, to develop the definition of ‘vicarious’ already offered, it is possible to see how an active religious minority can operate on behalf of a much larger number, who implicitly at least not only understand but quite clearly approve of what the minority is doing. Under pressure, what is implicit becomes explicit.

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can DoDaniel T. Willingham

We think of reading as a silent activity—consider a hushed library—but sound in fact lies at its core. Print is mostly a code for sound.

As part of an ongoing project I’m attached to, I do a lot of research into literacy and what will activate, or excite, kids – or people in general – to read more. What are the barriers to reading? I enjoyed this book because it got into the psychology and some of the linguistic questions that surround how we think about reading, and possibly more importantly, how we learn to read. And from there, what fuels further reading?

Willingham writes about a kind of “tripod” on which a reading habit can stand: the three legs of which are the ability to decode easily, to comprehend what is read, and to be motivated to read. Each is a separate and quite different challenge – and without the decoding ability, which must come first, the other legs become useless. Decoding – being able to put together letters to make sounds, then words, then meanings – is fundamental to reading and a bridge to the level of comprehension required to read fluently and to enjoy it. 

Comprehension requires acquiring a broad knowledge about a lot of different things, which of course only comes with experience – and in many cases – more reading. How does one gain this knowledge? This, coupled with the conundrum of needing to grow a vocabulary, can be barriers. The education system isn’t necessarily built around these educational needs. Instead, they are geared toward scoring on a ‘reading comprehension’ test – but this is tricky.

Reading tests purport to measure a student’s ability to read, and “ability to read” sounds like a general skill. Once I know your ability to read, I ought to be able (roughly) to predict your comprehension of any text I hand you. But I’ve just said that reading comprehension depends heavily on how much you happen to know about the topic of the text, because that determines your ability to make up for the information the writer felt free to omit. Perhaps, then, reading comprehension tests are really knowledge tests in disguise.

Willingham brings up a great number of questions about developing a passion for reading and what is required to get there – well worth the time spent.

Coincidences

I can’t say that there are actual coincidences – once again – so maybe I should discard this ‘category’ (strange how we create categories when they make sense but have such trouble breaking free of them when they no longer serve a purpose).

Biggest disappointment (or disliked)

*Face ItDebbie Harry

Musicians’ memoirs don’t do much for me, and Debbie Harry’s is no exception. It’s almost like we’re better off seeing these musical icons from afar without knowing about the things they go through and think about. The ‘mystique’ or mask is ripped away, and they’re just people. Which we know, of course. But the magic of what their music gives us becomes… just that bit less magical once the curtain is pulled back. I adored Blondie from earliest childhood, and somehow reading about them, and specifically Debbie Harry, in this very personal way was interesting but felt like a scab I shouldn’t be picking at. Apart from the entire book going on a bit too long, it didn’t provide anything I felt I needed to know. Some curiosity could stand to be left alone. I’m also irked that Leibovitz was misspelled as Liebowitz.