Review: Hiroshima

Review: Hiroshima

Hiroshima by John Hersey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is certainly one of the great books of the previous century. It is superlative in many respects. Most obvious is the book’s historical value, which needs no further elaboration. Hiroshima is also a stylistically innovative and influential book, pioneering the dramatic writing techniques that would come to characterize some of the best journalistic writing after the war. And Hersey also deserves praise for his stylistic restraint. Virtually no event could have been more liable to evoke overwrought prose or vain attempts to capture the broad sweep of the tragedy. Hersey’s decision to focus on only six survivors, and to narrate what they saw with simple directness, was an act of great authorial self-control.

But this book is great for more important reasons than these. The power of atomic weapons is such that most of us can barely imagine it, much less picture ourselves their victims. Thus, as with many historical atrocities, the stories of survivors bridge the gap between imagination and experience, and allow us—at least dimly—to grasp the extent of the horror. Merely being faced with the reality of the bomb is enough to make a point. Without any explicit preaching, Hiroshima utterly convinces us that weapons which wreak such indiscriminate violence and widespread destruction have no possible rational use, even in war.

Last, the book is a wonderfully humanistic document. The people in this book were struck with a weapon they did not even suspect existed. They lost their homes, churches, and businesses, and they lost parents, children, spouses, and friends. And yet Hersey shows how these ordinary people often proved capable of extraordinary heroism and resilience, not only in the immediate aftermath, but in the years that followed. I found this especially moving, as I am often ashamed of my own inability to deal calmly with petty frustrations and minor setbacks. Books like this may not make me any wiser, but they at least leave me with a little hope—for myself, and for us all.

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Review: Why We Sleep

Review: Why We Sleep

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first heard of this book from Michael Pollan’s short work on caffeine. There, he calls Why We Sleep (to paraphrase) one of the most disturbing books he had read in a while. This caught my attention. How could a book on sleep be disturbing?

From the first page of this book, I knew why. The author, Matthew Walker, is essentially diagnosing a major health crisis that is going on in front of our drooping, baggy eyes—namely, the crisis of insufficient sleep. According to Walker, virtually everything we do—how we work, how we relax, how we seek entertainment—is disruptive of sleep. And he has plenty of studies to show that, when you do not sleep enough, there are serious consequences.

In addition to the familiar cognitive impairments of bad sleep (inability to focus, lack of energy, wild mood swings), there are the long-term health risks, such as the increased likelihood to develop cancer, heart disease, or diabetes. More unfortunate still, there does not seem to be any way of getting around the familiar recommendation of eight hours of sleep per night. We cannot get by with less, and we cannot make it up on the weekend.

Indeed, the news gets worse and worse. Even moderate amounts of alcohol and caffeine can gravely affect sleep (and marijuana, too—sorry); and sleeping pills may do more harm than good. Our phones, tablets, and computers—even our indoor lights—wreak additional damage by throwing off our natural diurnal rhythms. So this pretty much eliminates all of my nightly plans.

What it comes down to, says Walker, is a cultural disrespect for sleep. I am certainly guilty of this. I have always taken pride in using the opportunity of a plane, train, or bus ride to read a book rather than to nod off, and felt secretly superior to those dozing around me. More generally, sleeping is often equated with laziness. Waking up after midday is a moral failing; taking a nap on the job is a fireable offense; and going to bed early is socially questionable. Further, many people—especially in the business world—take pride in their ability to get by on few hours of sleep. Wakefulness is productiveness. But this prejudice is, Walker contends, based on ignorance of the real value of sleep.

Sleep is a biologically basic process. All mammals, birds, and reptiles, some fish, and even insects have been observed in a sleep-like state. Lack of sleep can not only be harmful, but fatal. Some gruesome rat experiments have shown this, as does the rare disease, Fatal Familial Insomnia, in which the brain becomes incapable of generating sleep—which is inevitably fatal. Sleep is just as basic a need as food. And as you might expect from such a basic need, it is hard-wired into our evolution. Indeed, two distinct types of sleep have evolved, which accomplish different purposes: REM and (creatively named) non-REM.

As you may know, the REM stands for “rapid eye movement,” which is when we experience vivid dreams; and it alone accomplishes many things. In addition to fostering creativity by forging novel links between memories, REM sleep apparently keeps us sane (people experimentally deprived of REM sleep for long enough experience symptoms of psychosis). Non-REM is, perhaps, the more restful sort, when new memories are moved from temporary storage to a more permanent location. The two sleep types thus work together and come at predictable moments in the night: deep non-REM sleep early on, and REM closer to the time we wake up. (Short sleep thus selectively cuts down our REM sleep time.)

Walker explains the science because he wants to drive home the importance of sleep—not a luxury, or an indulgence, but a survival mechanism designed by natural selection. With this basic point in hand, Walker goes on to make several social criticisms, and at times the book almost becomes a polemic.

Take driving, for example. Everybody knows that driving drunk is dangerous and irresponsible. But Walker cites studies showing that drowsy driving is, if anything, even more dangerous. When you are sleep deprived, your brain can drift off into what are called “micro-sleeps,” which last just a couple seconds. This is quite enough time to get into a serious car crash. And this is common. Over the Christmas break, everybody I mentioned this to had a story about falling asleep behind the wheel. It has happened to me, too—a thoroughly alarming experience, which thankfully did not result in a crash. Considering this, I cannot help but agree with Walker this issue is just as deserving of public awareness campaigns as inebriated driving.

Walker is also highly critical of how the medical community treats sleep. For one, most general physicians have little training when it comes to sleep, and so are apt to prescribe sleeping pills to patients with insomnia. Unfortunately, sleeping pills merely sedate the brain without generating natural sleep, and so do not really solve the problem. Another issue is that of doctors’ timetables. From residency on, doctors are often expected to work inhumanly long shifts, even though evidence shows that sleep-deprived doctors are less effective by every measure. Another issue is patient sleep. Although sleep is highly conducive to healing, hospitals often present hostile sleep conditions (loud noise, bright lights, poorly scheduled tests), especially in the ICU, which actively impedes recuperation.

Last but not least, Walker contends that many (though not all!) children diagnosed with mental disorders, like ADHD, may really be suffering from a sleep problem, as insufficient sleep can cause many of the same symptoms (lack of focus, lack of emotional control, etc.). This neatly dovetails with another issue: schools. According to Walker, every person has a natural sleep-schedule, and teenagers tend to have a later one than adults. When teenagers are expected to get to class by eight o’clock or earlier, therefore, we are making it impossible for them to adequately sleep, in the same way most adults would not be able to adapt to a job that began at six in the morning. As a result, many teenagers are chronically under-slept. No wonder that they are so considerate and polite.

This certainly resonates with my experience. Not only did my high school start early, but most of the musical extra-curriculars took place in the hour before regular classes. This meant that I had to arrive by quarter to eight, while I hardly ever went to bed before midnight (often much later). Unsurprisingly, I was a zombie for most of my morning classes. It is easy for me, then, to concur with Walker in proclaiming these early start times for high schools to be illogical and counterproductive. Thankfully this message seems to be slowly sinking in, and some schools have begun pushing back their schedules.

This review, long as it is, hardly does justice to the content of this book. Not only has Matthew Walker written an excellent work of popular science, but he has written a quietly revolutionary work. After all, our society would really look quite different if we took our need to sleep as seriously as we took our need to eat. The world Walkers imagines is certainly a more relaxed and humane one (though, it must be said, perhaps a bit puritanical in its strictures). Imagine, for example, a world when napping during work was encouraged and when start times were flexible. Imagine getting a deduction on your health insurance for sleeping enough. A boy can dream.

There was only one moment in which I doubted the good Walker. In 2015, a study was released that tracked the sleep of three hunter-gatherer groups, and found that they slept, on average, slightly less than seven hours, rather than the expected eight. This seems to undermine Walker’s contention that the modern world is uniquely inimical to sleep. He counters that the study may only show that these hunter-gatherers are also not sleeping enough. But this seems like rather weak tea after telling us of the evils of coffee, alarm clocks, and LED lights. If those free of modern temptations can’t do it right, what hope do we have? Perhaps we are doomed. Even so, I think all of us could benefit by treating our shuteye with a little more respect. Speaking of which, it is already past my bedtime.
A fellow reviewer on Goodreads, Siddhartha, recommended an article written by the blogger Alexey Guzey that examines the first chapter of Matthew Walker’s book in depth, purporting to find many factual errors. I think it is worth going over Guzey’s points.

First, he notes that, while Walkers claims that longer sleep leads to longer life, in reality studies show a kind of U-curve, where both short and long sleep times are associated with higher mortality. Walker addresses this later on, but defends his position by stating that diseases and comorbidities often lead people to sleep more. Guzey counters that some diseases actually make people sleep less. In any case, Walker’s argument does seem fairly week to me in the absence of evidence that these longer sleep times are certainly caused by diseases. (Also it seems like circular reasoning to assert that anyone sleeping significantly longer than 8 hours must have some sort of disease. Were they presumably under-sleeping before, causing an illness that pushed them into over-sleeping?)

Guzey’s next points out that it is untrue that a good night’s sleep is always beneficial, since sleep deprivation is used as a therapy for depression. Now, to me these seems like nit-picking. One can still say it is almost always beneficial. True, Walker does discount the potential benefits of sleep deprivation therapy without much thought, but that is still a minor point since Walker is not a psychologist.

Guzey’s third point is also somewhat unfair. He points out that it is far from certain that the lack of sleep is what kills victims of Fatal Familial Insomnia. Yes, Walker uses Fatal Familial Insomnia to bolster his claim that lack of sleep is fatal, but he does admit (later on) that it is impossible to say that the lack of sleep is what actually kills in the disease, since victims suffer extensive brain damage. But Walker bases his assertion of the mortality of sleep loss on some (rather cruel) rat studies. Admittedly, we are not rats.

Another of Guzey’s criticisms is that, while Walkers is quite insistent on the eight-hour number, the National Sleep Foundation actually recommends anywhere between seven and nine hours. (And though Walkers invokes the WHO, the World Health Organization has not actually issued sleep recommendations.) This is certainly a legimitate critique of the book, since somebody who sleeps seven hours is actually within the normal range, even though they would get the impression from Walker’s book that they are underslept and at risk.

Several other factual errors Guzey point out are quite valid. It does seem true that, contrary to Walker, the WHO has not declared any sleep loss epidemic in industrialized nations. This is a serious error in itself. Guzey also calls into question whether those in the industrialized world really are getting less sleep now than people did 100 years ago. This claim, in my opinions, does deserves far more scrutiny. True, late night work emails and LED screens are recent inventions. But working on a farm or a factory is hardly more forgiving or flexible. And, again, if hunter-gatherers aren’t sleeping more than we are, perhaps the evidence of a recent sleep loss epidemic is not so strong after all.

Not having done any research myself, I can only give my two cents. I did get the strong impression that Walker consistently emphasized the most potentially dire consequences and examples of sleep loss. And, honestly, I really hope that Walker’s prophecies of doom are somewhat exaggerated, since obtaining perfect sleep while going to work, having a decent social life, keeping up with a hobby or two (not to mention the pressures of raising children—not that I have any) seems close to hopeless.

Even after all of this, I do think that this book is an important corrective to our current cultural disregard of sleep. Thank you for your time.

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Review: Johnson’s Dictionary

Review: Johnson’s Dictionary

A Dictionary of the English Language: an Anthology by Samuel Johnson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

LEXICOGRAPHER: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.

A dictionary is a marvelous thing. I discovered this during my first year in college, when I was finally asked to do some challenging reading (and when I finally decided to start doing the assigned readings). It was with some shame that I admitted to myself, after a few weeks, that I often came across a word I did not understand. Indeed, this happened with such frequency that I finally resolved to underline all of the words I could not confidently define, and then look them up. But even this didn’t seem like enough. By the time I encountered the troublesome word again, its definition would be forgotten. Thus the “Word Project” was born.

To forcibly expand my pitiful lexicon, I resolved that I would write out the definition of every unfamiliar word in the back of a marble notebook. Then, to reinforce the definition, I would flip to the front of the notebook and use the word in a sentence. Astoundingly, I actually followed through with this resolution, and carried on the habit for years—filling up two whole marble notebooks in the process, comprising thousands of words, definitions, and sentences. I even filled up the margins with lists of synonyms. (I cannot help feeling that I have gotten much lazier with time. Could I be so disciplined now?)

A few examples from the first page include: inculcate, surfeit, equivocal, corroborate, and depredation. By the time I got to the second notebook, the words were more exotic: jactitation (the restless turning of the body in illness), imago (the unconscious idealized mental image of someone), and ontogenesis (which I’ll let you look up). But I find the lists of synonyms, or near-synonyms, more interesting now. For example: petulant, peevish, tetchy, crotchety, fractious. Or: effrontery, impudence, impertinence, insolence. I could go on—synonyms are wonderful fun, at least for writers—but I shall resist.

The project was a success. My vocabulary improved markedly, to the point when I so rarely came across an unfamiliar word that I stopped bothering to write them down. (It does still happen from time to time, though.) However, my loftier goals were unrealized. You see, I had hoped that, by expanding my vocabulary, I might even make myself noticeably more intelligent. A mind with more words to express itself must, I theorized, think more efficiently. Unfortunately, that theory did not seem to hold water (half the time I don’t think in words, anyway), and my mental acuity remained unchanged. I also thought that such a project might improve my writing. And though I do think I am, at least, more sensitive to language as a result of the project, I normally prefer to use simpler words, anyway.

Even so, in retrospect the “Word Project” was one of the greatest things I ever did for my own education. The definitions of these abstruse words were, for me, a kind of key to the wider world of knowledge and literature. I would never have developed my love of books had I constantly been scratching my head at unfamiliar words. So I have a keen appreciation for any “harmless drudge” who chooses to write a dictionary. Lexicographers do the world a great service.

This volume is, of course, not a book one can use as a standard dictionary. David Crystal has edited the 2,300 pages of dense text into something more manageable, by selecting for those passages that the modern writer might find most curious. Included are words that are now obsolete, words whose meanings have significantly changed, and words with especially pleasurable definitions.

As an example of the latter, fun is defined as “sport, high merriment, frolicksome delight.” And to flatter is “to sooth with praises; to praise with blandishments; to gratify by servile obsequiousness.” As you can see, Johnson has a tendency to pleonasm in his definitions. He is also fond of expressing his opinion of a given word, in a way that no modern dictionary would. “Fun,” for example, is “a low cant word,” and many terms are dismissed as “barbarous.”

Some words have changed in surprising ways. Johnson defines punk as “a whore; a common prostitute; a strumpet,” and punctuation as “the act or method of pointing.” Yet the most delightful entries are perhaps those words which are no longer used. Often one feels that it is a shame it should be so. What is wrong with smellfeast (“one who haunts tables”), fopdoodle (“an insignificant wretch”), and mouth-friend (“one who professes friendship without intending it”)?

If nothing else, it is worth reading this anthology to fully admire Samuel Johnson’s genius and industry. Virtually nobody nowadays would undertake to write a dictionary single-handedly. And such a task would be so massive—running the gamut from scientific jargon to recent slang—that it is difficult to image anyone succeeding. That Johnson did succeed is, more than any other of his accomplishments, the reason he was so widely venerated during his lifetime. (His contemporaries more often referred to him as “Dictionary Johnson” rather than “Dr.”)

And even if his dictionary is hopelessly outdated now, it still can serve as a model of strong writing. Johnson’s definitions are a pleasure to read through—punchy, pugnacious, and punctilious—and each one is accompanied by at least one (often many more) quotation from well-respected authors. This way, the reader’s mind is expanded while her taste is refined. An elegant idea, at least. Yet if I wish to accomplish anything in this review, it is not to praise Johnson’s Dictionary—worthy though it is of praise—but to exhort you to pause, every so often, and ask yourself whether you really know what a word means. A trip to a dictionary can open up new realms of reality.

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2023: New Year’s Resolutions

2023: New Year’s Resolutions

Happy New Year! Another year has come and gone in the world—and also on this blog. In fact, I began writing here more than seven years ago! That being said, I know I have been relatively inactive this past year—I didn’t even write New Year’s Resolutions last year—which I am sorry for. In my defense, this was because I spent so much time this past year working on my new novel. At least I managed to get a few drafts completed.

Even so, one New Year’s Resolution I will make is to re-dedicate myself to this blog. I have missed writing here and, I am sure, at least a couple people (?) have missed it, too. In that spirit, here is a list of trips that I still have to write up:

Yes, it has been a productive travelling year. If 2023 is half as good in this respect, I will be fortunate indeed. I should also add the New York landmarks I visited this past summer:

  • Hyde Park & Vanderbilt Mansion
  • Lyndhurst & the Untermeyer Gardens
  • Olana & Kaaterskill Falls
  • West Point

Honestly, if I get through all this writing this year, it will be a miracle. But, somehow, I am feeling optimistic.

There are also lots of books I hope to read, much too many to name. Aside from these literary labors, I hope to continue practicing guitar and learning German. A more lucrative job would be nice, too. The most intimidating goal of all, however, is to finally run a full marathon. I took the plunge and signed up for the Madrid marathon in April. Wish me luck.