Summary of reading: January – March 2017

  • “The history of the Supreme Court” by Peter Irons (audio course) – a comprehensive history of the US Supreme Court, focusing on the most influential judges and the most seminal decisions it made over the years. I liked the latter parts of the book better than the former, except hearing about the lecturer’s own opinion on the cases a bit too much for my taste. I expected a more objective historic treatment.
  • “The Three Comrades” by Erich Maria Remarque – a somewhat dark, but well-written novel about life in Germany in the years after WWI. Not quite as good as the Western Front, but still enjoyable. I wonder how much money the main character would have it he just wouldn’t drink so much, but that probably doesn’t matter in the long term. I just seem to have something against books focused on drinking (this is why I find Hemingway painful to read).
  • “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right” by Arlie Russell Hochschild – Set to understand the paradox of many “red state” voters in voting against their apparent interests (in terms of public services, welfare and environmental issues), the author – a liberal Berkeley professor – went to Louisiana to befriend some of its inhabitants and to bridge the “empathy wall” between left and right. Very timely book with the recent election results. I wouldn’t say the book fully answers the big question, but it does provide some interesting and useful clues. The most insightful observation is the “cutting in line” theory, in which white, working Christian males from the south see their status in society continually eroded by granting rights and recognition to other segments of the population – blacks, women, poor folks on welfare and most recently LGBT; the latter, along with abortions go against these voters’ notion of a normative family, and makes their deepest traditions seem under attack. It’s not very clear what the actionable conclusions from this book might be, but it definitely is a good attempt to help left-wing liberals understand what drives folks on the other side of the divide.
  • “The Words We Live By” by Linda R. Monk – this is an annotated guide to the US constitution. The constitution is spread out across 270 (large) pages, article by article, section by section, interspersed with historical background, relevant supreme court cases and quotes from politicians, judges and notable activists. Very nicely put together – this book is pretty interesting to just read cover-to-cover, and can serve as a good introductory reference material to the constitution as well.
  • “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” by Wendy Mogel – nominally, this is a parenting book written by a child psychologist but focusing mostly on learnings from Jewish tradition and religious texts. In the role of a parenting book I found it fairly average – it lists some good ideas I agree with, but suffers from evanescence typical of self-help books. However, it a role of conveying the important of religion and tradition to overall family life and well-being, I found it intriguing. I doubt I can bring myself to do the leap of faith necessary to follow the author’s path, but I found these parts of the book thought provoking nevertheless.
  • “The Gene: An Intimate History” by Siddhartha Mukherjee – good, but not great, book about genetics. I was very happy when the historical coverage appeared to have ended shortly after the middle of the book, anticipating lots of interesting reading about modern research. However, at that point the author spent too much paper talking about the moral implications of genetic research, rather than focusing on the science itself. The writing is excellent, but for me this book didn’t really stand out among the crowd of other books on this subject.
  • “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” by Charles C. Mann – this book is set to attack the myth that prior to the arrival Europeans, native Americans were sparsely settled in small populations that didn’t affect the environment too much. It provides evidence and historical/archaeological research in favor of much larger populations that shaped their environment and developed highly complex cultures. The book is nice to read, but I found many of the arguments unconvincing (although I wanted to be convinced). It seems like there’s a dearth of real scientific data, and a lot of “proof” relies on badly preserved verbal accounts of various European explorers and ambiguous archaeological findings. Some of the arguments are more convincing, like the extent to which European disease decimated local populations. For some reason the book also spends lots of pages recounting various native American myths and folk stories, which feels absolutely unnecessary. It would be a better, albeit shorter book without this.
  • “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature” by Steven Pinker – somewhat long-winded treatise on the generic vs. environmental factors involved in the psychological development of humans. Lots of pages spent flaming opposing works, which may make someone feel on the scientific edge, but I personally felt wasn’t that interesting. All in all, I found this book less interesting and useful than previous books I read on this and similar topics. One notable mention is Pinker’s treatment of post-modernism in art. Specifically, it suddenly hit me that post-modernism is precisely what Any Rand was mocking in “The Fountainhead”.
  • “A Conflict of Visions” by Thomas Sowell – one of the densest and least readable books I’ve encountered in the past few years. The laconic audio narration didn’t help here. The ideas Sowell presents are interesting, with the caveat that you can never divide something so complex into two categories cleanly. It’s certainly a brave attempt at digging up the real roots of the differences between conservatives and liberals. That said, it utterly fails to explain mixed views some people hold that are part-conservative and part-liberal (myself included).

Re-reads:

  • “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck
  • “Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams” by Tom DeMarco and Tim Lister
稿源:Eli Bendersky's website (源链) | 关于 | 阅读提示

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