Review: Don Juan

Review: Don Juan

Don Juan by Lord Byron

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let us have wine and woman, mirth and laughter,
Sermons and soda water the day after.

The legend of Don Juan appears to be one of the most productive stories in all of literature. After its first setting by Tirso de Molina—still a classic of the Spanish stage—it has been adapted innumerable times. Molière’s powerful version may be the most famous for the theater, and Mozart’s opera is considered to be among the greatest works of music even sounded. After speaking in French verse and singing in mellifluous Italian, the infamous seducer of Seville lived on—though much altered—to speak iambic pentameter in Lord Byron’s comedic epic.

Nonetheless, Lord Byron’s use of the legend is free to the point that it may as well have been discarded entirely. The protagonist is, indeed, an attractive young man from Seville with a formidable sexual appetite. Byron’s Juan, however, is usually the seducee rather than the seducer. He does not lie to get his way, he does not have a wisecracking servant, he does not kill the fathers of his victims, and he does not meet his end at the hands of a living statue. There is none of that here. Instead, Don Juan is an attractive young boy with a good heart who runs into a lot of trouble, mainly because every woman who sees him wants him. It is a pleasant twist on an old tale.

Though a member of the Romantic age, Byron does not strike me as a Romantic poet. His poetry is witty, snappy, sharp, irreverent, and lean. There is nothing sentimental, meditative, or wistful in this long poem. Indeed, the verse is so prose-like that it is hardly even poetical. His most obvious literary forebear is not Milton or Donne, but Pope—another witty versifier. It seems strange, then, that of all the great English Romantic poets, it was Byron who was arguably the most famous and influential. Perhaps tastes did not change as much as we are prone to believe.

This epic poem has a loose and baggy structure. That is to say that it is full of holes and an awful lot of wind blows through it. Byron appears to have begun with a fairly concrete idea in mind, and the first three or four cantos are brilliant fun. Soon thereafter the poem falls apart, however—dissolving into an endlessly long aside, in which the main action is lost. The poem ceases to be the comic epic of Don Juan and instead becomes a vehicle for Byron’s own endless editorializing. This is still mostly worth reading, for Byron’s wit if not for his logic, but it is not exactly a work of high art.

Poor Don Juan is left in the lurch, and never does get to meet his final end—whatever that may have been. Byron met his own end before he could give one to Don Juan. If not for that, this poem may have gone on for twenty cantos more. But at the rate the story was progressing in the final cantos, twenty more may not even have been enough to bring this sprawling story to a satisfying conclusion. So let us be thankful for what we have. The parts that are weak are readable, and the parts that are strong are delightful.



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Review: Economics (Great Courses)

Review: Economics (Great Courses)

Economics by Timothy Taylor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Economics is one subject that causes me perpetual unease. Everybody cares about the economy, of course, and everybody argues about how it should be structured and managed. Imposing terminology is thrown around, graphs and statistics are wheeled out, and yet the situation always seems quite unclear to me. So I was pleased when Timothy Taylor framed his lectures, not as the gospel truth of economics, but as an introduction to the language of economics. Learning this language is essential if you would like to take part in this endless societal argument.

Considering the restraints of time and of format, I think that Taylor deserves praise for these lectures. In 18 hours, he manages to cover all of the major topics of micro- and macro-economics—supply and demand, price curves, government regulation, fiscal policy, etc.—in an accessible but not overly simplistic style. Further, Taylor is an engaging speaker whose enthusiasm for a potentially dreary subject helps to alleviate the dryness. Someone has got to get excited about interest rates, I suppose.

A major shortcoming of these lectures is that they were recorded in 2005, just before the enormous financial crash. Surely, a new edition is called for. Considering how much time has passed, however, I think that these lectures have held up remarkably well. For the most part, the major disagreements and issues in economics do not seem to have changed very much. Everything is here—healthcare costs, financial crashes, trade wars, deficits—which is probably not a reason to celebrate.

If Taylor can be criticized, I think it should be for inserting too many of his own views into these lectures. Some degree of editorializing is inevitable in any academic course, I think. But Taylor is quite an opinionated guide, and never hesitates to advocate for his pet policies. Admittedly this did make the lectures more interesting at times; but it also undermined Taylor’s insistence that economics is merely a way of thinking rather than a specific doctrine. To the contrary, these lectures contain very specific presumptions about and prescriptions for a successful society (hint: it is all about a free market).

Speaking more generally, it is frustrating for me the degree to which the social sciences inhabit parallel worlds. Not only do anthropology, psychology, and economics study different sorts of phenomena, but they make very different assumptions about human behavior—which often contradict one another. I was acutely aware of this while listening to these lectures, since I was concurrently reading psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which argues that the rational agent model of economic actors is fundamentally flawed. Meanwhile, my brother is reading anthropologist David Graebner’s book about the many different (non-capitalist) ways that economic activity has been carried out throughout time and across space.

Compared to psychology and anthropology, economics can seem worrisomely abstract to me—too content to rest its conclusions on untested assumptions and a priori principles. In these lectures, for example, I would have appreciated more case studies of historical examples in lieu of theoretical explanations. This would have illustrated the concepts’ usefulness far more effectively, I think.

But I am drifting off topic. As a painless introduction to economics, these lectures do an admirable job. It is a fascinating discipline with much to teach us. I am glad to have a break for now, though. A dismal science indeed.



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Review: Thinking, Fast and Slow

Review: Thinking, Fast and Slow

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.

I think this book is mistitled. For years, I assumed that it was some kind of self-help book about when to trust your gut and when to trust your head, and thus I put off reading it. But Thinking, Fast and Slow is nothing of the sort. As I finally discovered when the book was gifted to me (the ecstatic blurbs in the front pages were the first clue), this book is the summary of Daniel Kahneman’s study of cognitive errors. The book should probably be called: Thinking, Just Not Very Well.

Granted, my initial impression had a grain of truth. Kahneman’s main focus is on what we sometimes call our gut. This is the “fast thinking” of the title, otherwise known as our intuition. Unlike many books on the market, which describe the wonders of human intuition and judgment, Kahneman’s primary focus was on how our intuition can systematically fail to draw correct conclusions. So you might say that this is a book about all of the reasons you should distrust your gut.

Every researcher of the mind seems to divide it up into different hypothetical entities. For Freud it was the conscious and unconscious, while for Kahneman there are simply System 1 and System 2. The former is responsible for fast thinking—intuition, gut feelings—and the second is responsible for slow thinking—deliberative thought, using your head. System 2, while admirably thorough and logical, is also effortful and sluggish. Trying any unfamiliar mental task (such as mental arithmetic) can convince you of this. Thus, we must rely on our fast-acting System 1 for most of any given day.

System 1 generates answers to questions without any experience of conscious deliberation. Most often these answers are reasonable, such as when answering the question “What you like a hamburger?” (Answer: yes). But, as Kahneman demonstrates, there are many situations in which the answer that springs suddenly to mind is demonstrably false. This would not be a problem if our conscious System 2 detected these falsehoods. Yet our default position is to simply go with our intuition unless we have a strong reason to believe our intuition is misleading. Unfortunately, the brain has no warning system to tell you that your gut feeling is apt to be unreliable. You can call these sorts of situations “cognitive illusions.”

A common theme in these cognitive illusions is a failure of our intuition to deal with statistical information. We are good at thinking in terms of causes and comparisons, but situations involving chance throw us off. As an example, imagine a man who is shy, quiet, and orderly. Is he more likely to be a librarian or a farmer? Now consider the answer that springs to mind (librarian, I assume): how was it generated? Your mind compared the description to the stereotype of a librarian, and made the judgment. But this judgment did not take into account the fact that there are many times more farmers than male librarians.

Another example of this failure of intuition is the mind’s tendency to generate causal stories to explain random statistical noise. A famous example of this is the “hot hand” in basketball: interpreting a streak of successful shots as due to the player being especially focused, rather than simply as a result a luck. (Although subsequent research has shown that there was something to the idea, after all. So maybe we should not lament too much about our intuitions!) Another well-known example is the tendency for traders to attribute their success or failure in the stock market to skill, while Kahneman demonstrated that the rankings of a group of traders from year to year had no correlation at all. The basic point is that we are generally hesitant to attribute something to chance, and instead invent causal stories that “explain” the variation.

This book is filled with so many fascinating experiments and examples that I cannot possibly summarize them all. Suffice to say that the results are convincing, not only because of the weight of evidence, but mainly because Kahneman is usually able to demonstrate the principle at work on the reader. Our intuitive reactions are remarkably similar, apparently, and I found that I normally reacted to his questions in the way that he predicted. If you are apt to believe that you are a rational person (as I am) it can be quite depressing.

After establishing the groundwork, Kahneman sets his sights on the neighboring discipline of economics. Conventional economic theory presupposes rational actors who are able to weigh risks and to act in accordance with their desires. But, as Kahneman found, this does hold with actual people. Not only do real humans act irrationally, but real humans deviate from the expected predictions of the rational agent model systematically. This means that we humans are (to borrow a phrase from another book in this vein) predictably irrational. Our folly is consistent.

One major finding is that people are loss-averse. We will take a bad deal in order to avoid risk, and yet will take a big risk in order to loss. This behavior seems to be motivated by an intense fear of regret, and it is the cause of a certain amount of conservatism, not only in economics, but in life. If an action turns out badly, we tend to regret it more of it was an exceptional rather than a routine act (picking up a hitchhiker rather than driving to work, for example), and so people shy away from abnormal options that carry uncertainty.

Yet, logically speaking, there is no reason to regret a special action more than a customary one, just as there is no reason to weigh losses so much more heavily than gains. Of course, there is good evolutionary logic for these tendencies. In a dangerous environment, losing a gamble could mean losing your life, so it is best to stay to the tried-and-true. But in an economic context, this strategy is not usually optimal.

The last section of the book was the most interesting of all, at least from a philosophical perspective. Kahneman investigates how our memories systematically misrepresent our experiences, which can cause a huge divergence between experienced happiness and remembered joy. Basically, when it comes to memory, intensity matters more than duration, and the peaks and ends of experiences matter more than their averages. The same applies with pain: We may remember one experience as less painful than another just because the pain was mild when it ended. And yet, in terms of measured pain per minute, the first experience may actually have included more experiential suffering.

As a result of this, our evaluations of life satisfaction can often have very little to do with our real, experiential well being. This presents us with something of a paradox, since we often do things, not for how much joy they will bring us in the moment, but for the nice memory they will create. Think about this: How much money would you spend on a vacation if you knew that every trace of the experience would be wiped out as soon as the vacation ended, including photos and even your memories? The answer for most people is not much, if anything at all. This is why so many people (myself included) frantically take photos on their vacations: the vacation is oriented toward a future remembering-self. But perhaps it is just as well that humans were made this way. If I made my decisions based on what was most pleasant to do in the moment, I doubt I would have made my way through Kant.

This is just a short summary of the book, which certainly does not do justice to the richness of Kahneman’s many insights, examples, and arguments. What can I possibly add? Well, I think I should begin with my few criticisms. Now, it is always possible to criticize the details of psychological experiments—they are artificial, they mainly use college students, etc. But considering the logistical restraints of doing research, I thought that Kahneman’s experiments were all quite expertly done, with the relevant variables controlled and additional work performed to check for competing explanations. So I cannot fault this.

What bothered me, rather, was that Kahneman was profuse in diagnosing cognitive errors, but somewhat reticent when it came to the practical ramifications of these conclusions, or to strategies to mitigate these errors. He does offer some consequences and suggestions, but these are few and far between. Of course, doing this is not his job, so perhaps it is unfair to expect anything of the kind from Kahneman. Still, if anyone is equipped to help us deal with our mental quagmires, he is the man.

This is a slight criticism. A more serious shortcoming was that his model of the mind fails to account for a ubiquitous experience: boredom. According to Kahneman’s rough sketch, System 1 is pleased by familiarity, and System 2 is only activated (begrudgingly, and without much relish) for unfamiliar challenges. Yet there are times when familiarity can be crushing and when novel challenges can be wonderfully refreshing. The situation must be more subtle: I would guess that we are most happy with moderately challenging tasks that take place against a familiar background. In any case, I think that Kahneman overstated our intellectual laziness.

Pop psychology—if this book can be put under that category—is a genre I dip into occasionally. Though there is a lot of divergence in emphasis and terminology, the consensus is arguably more striking. Most authors seem to agree that our conscious mind is rather impotent compared to all of the subconscious control exerted by our brains. Kahneman’s work in the realm of judgments closely parallels Johathan Haidt’s work in morals: that our conscious mind mostly just passively accepts verdicts handed up from our mental netherworld. Indeed, arguably this was Freud’s fundamental message, too. Yet it is so contrary to all of our conscious experiences (as, indeed, it must be) that it still manages to be slightly disturbing.

Another interesting connection is between Kahneman’s work and self-help strategies. It struck me that these cognitive errors are quite directly related to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which largely consists of getting patients to spot their own mental distortions (most of which are due to our mind’s weakness with statistics) and correct them. And Kahneman’s work on experiential and remembered well being has obvious relevance to the mindfulness movement—strategies for switching our attention from our remembering to our experiencing “self.” As you can see from these connections, Kahneman’s research is awfully rich.

Though perhaps not as amazing as the blurbs would have you believe, I cannot help but conclude that this is a thoroughly excellent book. Kahneman gathers many different strands of research together into a satisfying whole. Who would have thought that a book about all the ways that I am foolish would make me feel so wise?



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Review: the Martian Chronicles

Review: the Martian Chronicles

Crónicas marcianas by Ray Bradbury

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I am not sure that I am in the best position to judge this short story collection, since the circumstances of my reading it were far from optimal. I downloaded the audio version to pass the time on a long drive, and I decided on the Spanish translation since my co-pilot would have fallen asleep otherwise. I soon discovered that listening to a foreign-language book while navigating mountain roads is not conducive to careful appreciation (or careful driving).

This is much closer to a short-story collection than to a conventional novel, but Bradbury blurred the lines a bit by adding some connecting passages to his stories (originally published separately). It is really only the setting and a vague sense of chronology that connects the separate chapters. And despite his post-facto additions, Bradbury did not achieve full consistency in his Martian world. This is not a problem, however, since I think the inconsistency adds to the stories rather than detracts. The final effect is much like an episodic TV show, which can invent itself anew with each iteration.

Bradbury has become known as a science-fiction writer; and yet these stories may be more accurately described as “anti-science fiction.” He has little interest in the details of technology, cosmology, or space travel, and even less interest in making his stories plausible or realistic. Indeed, Bradbury is not merely uninterested, but positively worried about what the future may bring. For Bradbury, Mars is not the fourth planet from the sun—with its own moons, its unique geology, its practical challenges—but a kind of parallel world where his fears can play out. Much like The Twilight Zone, these stories have one consistent message: “Be careful what you wish for.” Where other people saw the dawning of the space age, Bradbury saw only an extension of human idiocy beyond the clouds.

Arguably, this is quite a conservative message—anti-science, anti-technology, anti-change—but it also resonated with me. I remember being a little kid and contemplating the wonders that the future would bring: flying cars, tourism to the moon, miracle cures. Nowadays, this mood of optimism seems very distant. New technologies, rather than filling us with wonder, are prompting second-thoughts: automation that reduces job opportunities, face-recognition technology that only extends the surveillance state, or the unknown threat of artificial intelligence. And when I think of space travel, rather than imagining the next glorious phase of humanity’s ascent, two buffoons come to mind: Elon Musk (with his SpaceX) and Donald Trump (with his Space Force).

Well, I do not want to get too gloomy in a book review. My point is that Bradbury’s stories may indeed contain a valuable lesson: be careful what you wish for.



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Review: The Wright Brothers

Review: The Wright Brothers

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


When you open a McCullough book you know what to expect: fine prose, strong storytelling, and inspiring stories of American heroes. That is his domain, and he is the master of it. This book about the Wright brothers exemplifies all of these virtues in just over 300 pages. The audio book in particular, narrated by McCullough himself—whose folksy and yet erudite speaking voice encapsulates his ethos—is perhaps the most concentrated form of McCullough that you can imbibe.

Like many people, I was surprised at how little I knew about the Wrights. My hazy impression of their story was thus: The brothers were eccentric bike mechanics who, through a series of trial and error, managed to make some primitive flying machines, devices that could putter a few hundred feet and lift a few dozen feet off the ground. This is quite wrong. The Wrights approached the problem of flight with remarkable dedication and care. They read all the scientific literature they could find; and they performed careful experiments, documenting each step of the way. Their final product was not just some clumsy motor-powered kite, but a sophisticated machine capable of crossing the English channel and flying over the Eiffel Tower. Their creative vision was matched only by their persistence and perfectionism.

The story of the Wrights is legitimately inspiring. Having no special resources, no roadmap, no background, no support, they were able to succeed where so many other famous and wealthy inventors failed. They endured countless setbacks, both in the research and development of their craft and then in achieving recognition for their accomplishments. But in the end, two modest men from Ohio profoundly changed human life. It is a testament to their tenacity as much as to their intelligence.

It is difficult to criticize McCullough, because he does so perfectly what he sets out to do: show us how people in ordinary circumstances accomplish extraordinary things. But of course, this requires minimizing or even ignoring many aspects of a story that would attract other writers. One prominent example of this is the Wrights’ personalities. McCullough portrays them as dignified and diligent, representatives of an old-fashioned work ethic, unconcerned with fame or fortune. But in the hands of another biographer, the Wrights might not come across as so perfectly admirable. To me, they seemed curiously aloof, distant, and even repressed. The fact that Orville flew into a rage when his sister got married, for example, seems to be worth more investigation than McCullough is willing to give it. He dismisses the long estrangement as one of Orville’s “moods.”

Reading McCullough is a bit strange in today’s political climate. He was never concerned with being cutting-edge; but now more than ever he feels distinctly like a holdover from another era. As is commonly observed, American life has become deeply divided; so McCullough’s mission—to write about universally admirable Americans—seems especially quixotic. Yet McCullough’s reputation appears to have survived the late polarization relatively intact. And I think that is a good thing. True, it is wise to be wary of national mythologizers. But for the life of me I cannot find anything to trouble my conscience or divide the nation in the figures of Wilbur and Orville Wright.



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Review: Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human

Review: Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human
Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human

Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is not quite as absurd as its title would seem to indicate. If anybody worshipped Shakespeare enough to think that the Bard literally did invent humanity, it would be Bloom. But Bloom’s primary thesis is the only slightly less grandiose claim that Shakespeare, by creating the most persuasively realistic mode of representing personality, shaped our ideas of what it means to be human. This at least falls within the realm of physical possibility.

I quite like the idea of approaching Shakespeare this way, since it allows us to integrate literature into intellectual history. Surely, the great innovators in poetry, prose, and drama must have contributed to our understanding of the human psyche. And Shakespeare’s works may, indeed, represent a great leap in this respect. Unfortunately, Bloom—both by background and temper—is not really up to the task of substantiating this claim. A serious inquiry into Shakespeare’s novel modes of portraying the human would require a broad overview of Shakespeare’s predecessors. There is nothing of the kind in this book; Bloom instead gives us a series of commentaries on each of Shakespeare’s plays.

For my part, I do agree with Bloom that Shakespeare’s greatest gift was his ability to endow his characters with startling depth. And if I can judge from my own reading, this was something quite new in the history of literature, though perhaps not quite as unique to Shakespeare as Bloom asserts. Montaigne and Cervantes—two near-contemporaries of Shakespeare—also portrayed shifting and unfolding characters, and by Bloom’s own admission Chaucer had encroached on this territory several hundred years earlier.

In any case, establishing a claim for intellectual priority in inventing the human is not at all what this book is about. Instead, this book is a reader‘s guide, consisting of a close reading of Shakespeare’s 39 plays. The plays are grouped both chronologically and thematically, from the early comedies to the late romances. Bloom’s attention is admittedly uneven. To some of the minor works he devotes some ten pages or so, while Hamlet gets nearly fifty. In his approach, Bloom is a self-professed follower of Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, and A.C. Bradley—that is, mainly focusing on the character’s personalities and Shakespeare’s methods of representing them.

As you may know, this approach has been out of intellectual fashion for quite some time. Indeed, in many ways Bloom was a deliberate stick in the mud. He was adamantly opposed to reading any kind of social, political, religious, or other message in the plays, and was mostly uninterested in how Shakespeare’s own historical context shaped the play’s content. He was an old-school champion of the autonomy of the aesthetic, of literary excellence existing in a realm apart from the rest of life. You can imagine that this is not especially popular nowadays, to say the least; and Bloom, never one to mince words, is constantly taking swipes at his fellow academics. For the casual reader, this is mostly just a distraction, since most of us just want to enjoy and understand the plays a little better.

Any critic, however broad, will inevitably have strong and weak sections when dealing with a corpus as vast and varied as Shakespeare’s plays. Bloom is no different. I consistently found Bloom at his worst when he was at his most passionate. That is, whenever he felt called upon to rhapsodize over the Bard’s incomparable genius, the book devolved into a string of superlatives that did little to enrich my reading. Thus, ironically, this book is weakest when Shakespeare is at his strongest—particularly in the chapters on Hamlet, King Lear, and the Henry IV plays. Any attempt to analyze the brooding Prince of Denmark or the fat Sir John Falstaff—the Bard’s two greatest creations, according to Bloom—knocks him off his rocker.

By contrast, many of the shorter chapters on Shakespeare’s slightly less famous works are quite strong. Bloom is at his best when he is doing the work of an uncommonly good common reader—that is, merely picking up the play and noting which sections are strong, weak, moving, interesting, disturbing, etc., and then trying to analyze why. This is basically what all of us try to do here on Goodreads, and it just so happens that Bloom is quite good at it. What he is not good at is moving beyond this close, sympathetic reading to arrive at a more general conclusion.

Insofar as Bloom does have a general insight into Shakespeare’s mode of creating the human, it is the concept of self-overhearing. Unfortunately, Bloom does not elaborate on this idea very much, so it is difficult to know exactly what he means by it. As far as I can tell, the idea is that Shakespeare’s characters are never fully able to articulate what they think or feel, but their words always somehow one step behind their psyches. Put another way, Shakespeare’s characters experience a kind of self-alienation, forever trying and failing to fully articulate their own innermost selves. Thus, overhearing their own failed attempts at articulation cause them to change and grow, as they try to correct their own previous failures at self-revelation.

I think this is quite an insightful way of looking at Shakespeare’s characters, and it does pinpoint something novel about Shakespeare’s mode of representation. In most fiction, the characters either articulate exactly what they think, or they articulate the exact opposite (when they are lying, or when they are supposed to be self-deluded). But Shakespeare’s characters are far more subtle than simply dishonest or even self-deluded personas. What they say is never exactly right nor exactly wrong, but forever on the cusp, just missing the mark; and this inability to ever get it exactly right drives the kind of verbal excess that marks Shakespeare’s most powerful speeches—poetry pushing toward the ineffable.

And I do think that this captures something essential about us: that we can hardly ever articulate exactly what we think, how we feel, or what we want; and so there seems to be a disconnect between our innermost core and the outward selves we are able to project. Did Shakespeare first have this insight or did he just perfect its use in the theater? That is a question for a different kind of literary critic than Bloom.

I am spending too much time on this issue of character—since it fascinates me—even though the real value of this book does not consist in its philosophical insights. This book is an excellent companion for reading Shakespeare’s plays, since it allows you to read them alongside a very opinionated, highly intelligent, and fiercely individual reader—which is always valuable.



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2019 in Books

2019 in Books

This has shaped up to be another excellent year in reading. For the most part I kept going with themes that occupied me last year. The history of science is a prominent one. As for primary sources, the only book I completed was a short one, Christiaan Huygens’s Treatise on Light, where he analyzes light as a series of waves. Andrea Wulf’s popular biography of Alexander Humboldt technically falls within the history of science, though the book reads more like a hagiography. Much better—and one of my favorite books of the year—was Thomas Kuhn’s book on the Copernican Revolution. Lawrence Principe’s series of lectures on the history of science rounded out this category for me.

Next year, I hope to finally get to Lavoisier’s book on chemistry, Lyell’s book on geography, and Faraday’s book on electricity and magnetism. We shall see how I do.

As for philosophy, I decided to dip into existentialism. This began with Sarah Bakewell’s wonderful popular work on the subject—which was so charming, in fact, that I think it made existentialism seem a little bit more interesting than it really is. Kierkegaard’s Either/Or was the first serious philosophy book on the list; I found it brilliant, if uneven and ultimately disagreeable. Then there came Sartre’s tome, Being and Nothingness, which was ultimately even less satisfying than Kierkegaard’s book, even if it gives the reader a lot to chew over. Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus, if not precisely existentialist, still failed to make much of an impression on me.  La Rouchefoucauld’s Maximes, Baltasar’s Arte de la prudencia, and Pascal’s Pensées had much more in the way of philosophic interest and life advice than these existentialists. 

My travels dictated some of my reading this year. In preparation for a trip to Naples, I read Pliny the Younger’s letters, which include his description of the eruption of Vesuvius; before going to Istanbul, I listened to a history of Byzantium by Kenneth Harl; and in order to ready myself for Normandy, I read a book about the D-Day landings. Yet of all this travel reading, the best was Mary Beard’s book on the Parthenon, which I read a bit too late for my 2018 trip to Athens.

This year, I had a vague idea that I would finally read some books about subjects that fascinated me as a child. This directed me to Stephen Brusette’s book on dinosaurs—badly written but informative—and Bob Brier’s lectures on Ancient Egypt—both informative and extremely entertaining. In this same spirit, I read the Very Short Introduction on Human Evolution, written by Bernard Wood, a former professor of mine. I combined this reading with trips to my favorite childhood museums, the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I marvelled once again over the Tyrannosaurus fossils and the mummies. 

As usual, I tried to read about America for my summer back in the United States. This led me to some really superb books. The first was Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, a man with a story worthy of a musical, play, film, or anything else really. David McCullough’s biography of John Adams was even more enjoyable—the best book of the year, if measured in pure reading pleasure (and the television series was great, too)—while I found Jon Meacham’s biography of Thomas Jefferson quite remarkably bad. Reading about America also means reading about our wars. This led me to McCullough’s short book on the first year of the Revolutionary War, and Ken Burns’s classic documentary on the Civil War (not a book, but book-length).

This year I got around to a few works of fiction that had long been on my list: The Call of the Wild, The Jungle Book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Lord of the Flies… I probably enjoyed them in that order. Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls was much funnier than I thought it would be, given the title, and Balzac’s Père Goriot was likewise more bleakly depressing. But the two outstanding works of fiction, for me, were Stendhal’s The Red and the Black and Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, both of which I greatly loved. I should also mention Benito Pérez Galdós’s wonderful novel, Fortunata y Jacinta, which was one of my major reading challenges of the year—over 1,000 pages of literary Spanish.

A new discovery this year were the lecture series by the Great Courses. I have already mentioned a few of them: Principe’s on the history of science, Harl’s on Byzantium, Brier’s on Ancient Egypt. To this, I must add Edwin Barnhart’s excellent lecture series on the peoples of North and of Central America. The very best, however, may be Robert Greenberg’s introduction to the history of Western music, which was so good it convinced me to start going to the opera. In general these Great Courses fill a perfect niche in my reading, providing in-depth but painless introductions to topics that have long interested me, and allowing me to learn during the walks on my commute. 

But the dominating presence in my reading this year has been William Shakespeare. I read, watched, or listened to fifteen of his plays, and completed Harold Bloom’s enormous guide to the works of the Bard. I may not be convinced that Shakespeare invented humanity, but I am convinced more than ever that he is one of my favorite writers. Now that Shakespeare is done (or nearly done), I will hopefully return to be goal of reading through Plato’s works. Then I’ll have to figure out something else to do with my time.

A partially failed effort was to get more into mathematics, as a complement to my interest in the history of science. I did manage to speed my way through Morris Kline’s calculus textbook—an accomplishment I am rather proud of, even if it probably didn’t do me much good—as well as a short book on performing mental calculations (I forgot most of that already, too). I had hoped to read Thomas Heath’s Manual of Greek Mathematics, as well as some classic Greek mathematicians, but I only managed a hundred pages of the former and a small book by Nichomachus. I hope to read the rest next year.

Despite all these weighty-sounding books, two books this year represent bigger shifts in my actual day-to-day life. Peter Sagal’s book on running was part of my transition from total indolence to regularly exercising, a process that culminated in my running the Madrid half-marathon back in April. I hope to do it again this coming year. I also read a book about chess, as my amateurish interest in the game grew. I am still a very bad chess player; but the fact that I play at all is a big shift from last year, when I professed to scorn all games. Though not really a practical book, David Graeber’s book on bullshit jobs was my most cathartic read for the year, since it seemed to ratify many of my working experiences.

The only other thing worth mentioning is my attempt to turn my book reviews in a podcast. I did this for about twenty books, and then decided that it was a little silly, and stopped. Now my podcast is about life in Spain, which may be just as silly.

I will end this review on a sad note. As you may know, Ted Schmeckpeper died this year. He was one of my favorite people on Goodreads, not so much for his reviews as for his general presence. He helped to make Goodreads into a real community. Ted was also personally kind. Not only did he mail me a book from his own library, but Ted read an early draft of my novel and gave me detailed feedback. He had a rich and full life, as you can tell from his obituary. I miss him.

Review: Maya to Aztec

Review: Maya to Aztec
Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed

Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed by Edwin Barnhart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here is another excellent lecture series by Edwin Barnhart. Just earlier this year I listened to, and greatly enjoyed, his series on the civilizations of North America. Now he is on his home turf, for Barnhart is a specialist in Maya archaeology. Surprisingly, however, I thought that the lecture series got off to something of a rough start. He jumps right into the Olmecs without enough framing or background. But soon enough I got my bearings, and the rest was a delightful trip through Meso-American archaeology.

Although I was somewhat more familiar with the basics of the Mayans and the Aztecs than with the ancient peoples of North Americans, I was still astounded at the depths of my own ignorance. It is frankly incredible that you can go through the American educational system and learn infinitely more about the Babylonians, Egyptians, and the Greeks than about the Mayans and the Aztecs. Granted, much of what we know about these civilizations was discovered fairly recently. The Mayan script was only deciphered in the 1970s; and as Barnhart points out, there is so much left to be discovered, including whole cities. Barnhart himself discovered a city (Maax Na).

The pyramids, pictoral script, and ancient date of these civilizations naturally bring up associations of Egypt. Yet the comparison is somewhat misleading, since the peoples of Meso-America consisted of a patchwork of cultures, sharing obvious similarities but equally important differences, whose fortunes waxed and waned through the centuries. Egypt, by contrast, was a singularly homogenous culture. Mesopotamia is likely a better comparison in this regard. But, of course, the Meso-American cultures have many distinct features.

One of the most important is the elaborate calendar system. Barnhart, an expert on paleo-archaeology, goes into great detail in explaining the Mayan numeral and calendrical systems. What is striking is not only the great complexity of the system, but also the cultural importance of the calendar. It was used by the entire region; and its keepers—who were religious men—communicated with one another even while their own states were at war. The calendar was filled with significance and omens, and was always consulted before important tasks. Barnhart speculates that the cyclical nature of the calendar also explains why cities were periodically abandoned.

Another peculiar feature is the Meso-American ball game, which was played across the region. This ball game was not just a sport, but a kind of living metaphor for Meso-American cosmology. I am not familiar of any other examples from the ancient world of a sport being so culturally central. And, of course, there is the human sacrifice—especially among the Aztecs. It is difficult to hear about these practices nowadays; though I do wonder which area had more religion-inspired killings during this time: Meso-America or Europe?

Barnhart ends the lecture series by narrating the first European contact and the eventual destruction of the Aztec Empire by Hernán Cortés and his men. (There is a new series on Amazon about Cortés, which was made to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the fall of Tenochtitlán, which happened in 1521.) It is an exciting and a depressing story, as the work of centuries is burned or buried. But Barnhart ends on a positive note, observing the many ways that these cultures have survived, and expressing hope that the modern descendants of the Maya, the Aztecs, and the many other cultures will take control of their heritage. For my part, now I really want to go to Mexico.



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Review: Bullshit Jobs

Review: Bullshit Jobs

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Economies around the world have, increasingly, become vast engines for producing nonsense.


Reading this was cathartic. Like so many people, I, too, have experienced the suffering that is a useless job—a job that not only lacks any real benefit to society, but which also does not even benefit the company. (Lucky for me, I am now a teacher, which, for all its unpleasant aspects, almost never feels useless.) Even though I got a lot of reading and writing done on the job, the feeling of total futility eventually drove me half-crazy. So it felt liberating to read an entire book about this phenomenon.

But let me take a step back and explain the book. In 2013 Graeber published an article in STRIKE! magazine (a fairly obscure publication) about bullshit jobs, and it immediately went viral. This book is basically an articulation, elaboration, and defense of the points in that short article. Graeber notes that Keynes predicted the rise of automation to cause a startling reduction in the work-week. Yet this has not occurred. Many economists explain this by pointing to the rise of the so-called “service” industry. But this would seem to imply that we have switched from factory-work to making lattes for one another, or giving each other massages. As Graeber shows, this is hardly the case: the number of people in such jobs has remained fairly constant. What has grown, rather, is a vast edifice of managerial and administrative work.

Anyone familiar with the academic world will instantly recognize this. Universities have come to be dominated by a top-heavy administrative structure, and faculty have been forced to spend ever-increasing amounts of time on bureaucratic nonsense. The same is true in the medical field, or so I hear. Really, the story is the same everywhere: an increasingly arcane hierarchy of administrators, leading to byzantine networks of paperwork—all of it ostensibly for improving quality, and yet manifestly distracting from the real work. This kind of ritualistic box-ticking is only one of the types of bullshit jobs that Graeber investigates. Also included are flunkies (subordinates whose only role is to make superiors feel important), goons (jobs which arise from a kind of arms race, such as marketing agents or corporate lawyers), and duct tapers (who are hired to patch over an easily-fixed problem).

Obviously, one could argue all day about the typology of useless jobs. One could also argue about which jobs, if any, are useless. It must be said that Graeber’s reliance on subjective experience of his informants does introduce a worrisome element of capricious judgment. Besides this, some might say that the free market can never give rise to useless jobs, since such things would be obviously detrimental to a company’s profits. But one need only read through the many testimonies collected by Graeber to be convinced that, yes, some jobs really ought not to exist. According to surveys, around 40% of workers report that they believe their own jobs to be useless—so useless that they could vanish tomorrow without anyone minding. To pick just one of Graeber’s examples: a man works for a subcontractor of a subcontractor of a contractor for the German military, whose job is to fill out the paperwork necessary to allow somebody to move their desk from one room to another room. I do not think this is necessary.

But this raises the obvious question: If so many jobs are really useless, why do they exist? One might understand this happening in the government, but this is precisely the sort of thing that the private sector should be immune from. Well, Graeber is an anthropologist, not an economist, and so his explanations are social and cultural. He cites several factors. There is a huge amount of political pressure, from the left and the right, to create more jobs. This is natural, since being out of work means being poor, or worse. More than that, we have culturally internalized the institution of “work” to the extent that our jobs are the primary source of meaning in many people’s lives, even if they ultimately are disagreeable. Indeed, Graeber believes it is just the unpleasantness of work that makes it a source of value in our culture, as it becomes a type of ennobling suffering.

Graeber also notes the usefulness of useless jobs to the upper classes. For one, they keep people endlessly busy; and, what is more, well-paying, white-collar jobs—even useless ones—make their holders identify with the interests of the upper class. The economy then becomes a kind of engine for distributing favors and resources down an elaborate chain of command. Graeber coins the term “managerial feudalism” for this arrangement: the return of the medieval obsession with ranks mirrored by the modern penchant for inflated job titles. Now, my brief summary does not do justice to Graeber’s writing. Nevertheless, it is here where one wishes most for an economist to contribute to the argument. For even if there are forces countervailing the pressures of profit, the economy is still running on manifestly capitalist lines. So how could a sort of inefficient feudalism exist in this context?

Another point that Graeber examines is the relative pay of people with useful and useless employment. The obvious trend is that jobs which have undeniable social value—like nurses and teachers—are paid less, while jobs that have questionable or even negative social value—such as “creative vice presidents” and corporate lobbyists—are richly rewarded. Now, I do not think you need to be an idealist to see this situation as undesirable. Graeber explains this tendency by analyzing the culture of work (specifically, that useful employment is supposed to be its own reward, while useless employment requires incentives), but again one craves an economic explanation. (This, by the way, is one of the frustrations of social science: that the different disciplines operate with incompatibly different premises and methodologies.)

For my part, my own experience, combined with the many testimonies and statistics in this book, is enough to convince me that some jobs are really bullshit—even from the limited standpoint of a company’s profit. And I think that Graeber may be correct in searching for a cultural and political, rather than a strictly “economic,” explanation. After all, we humans are not exactly renowned for our rational economies. But for my part, I think he may have underestimated the role that corporate mergers have played in vastly reducing competition—and, thus, the pressure to eliminate useless jobs.

While all of this deserves analysis and debate, I think that this book is valuable if only for raising serious questions about the institution of work itself. The more that I read about history, the more I have come to see our modern ritual of work as strange and aberrant. The idea that we would all go to work five days a week, eight hours a day, year after year—regardless of whether we are making cars or filling out forms, and regardless of how much work there is on any given day—would have struck people in nearly any other place and time as bizarre.

To me, it just seems backwards to use a cookie-cutter schedule for every task (from lawyer to salesman), and then expect every member of society to adopt this basic template or risk abject poverty. Considering that the economy requires a certainly level of employment to function, and that the current social safety net could not support a large number of unemployed people anyway, perhaps it should come as no surprise that we are plagued by dummy jobs. And if you think about it, it would be an amazing coincidence if the economy—through all the structural and technological changes of the previous century—always needed between 90 to 95 percent of the working population at any given time.

Graeber’s proposed solution to this problem is Universal Basic Income—providing every person with a regular paycheck, sufficient to cover the necessities of life. Personally I think that this is a wonderful idea, and one which could greatly alleviate many of our social ills. Unfortunately, in the United States, at least, UBI seems just as likely as paid maternity leave. But whatever the means, I think it is high time to change our attitude towards work. We spend enormous amounts of time doing things we do not want to do, and, what is worse, things which often do not need to be done. What fuels this is a kind of masochistic work ethic, defining our worth by our ability to do things that we do not want to do. This ethic has so pervaded our culture that, in America at least, we take it for granted that everything form health care to our self-respect should depend on our jobs.

One of Graeber’s most interesting points is that the phenomenon of useless jobs may reveal that we are using a flawed conception of human nature. One would think that being paid to do little or nothing would be the height of happiness. But most people in useless jobs report profound feelings of unease and distress. Again, my own experience testifies to this. Though I had little work, and was paid decently, I often found myself miserable, even beside myself with a strange mixture of boredom and anxiety. Graeber has a long section on this, but basically it comes down to the way that useless work undermines our sense of agency in the world. There is a reason the gods punished Sisyphus that way. As Dostoyevsky said, having humans perform an unpleasant, uninteresting, and totally worthless task might be the most profound form of torture. In my own case, it gave me a very unsettling feeling of dissociation, as if I really could not control my own actions.

So if we build our economy on the assumption that humans, left to themselves, will choose to get the maximum reward for the least benefit, we may be building on false premises. I think that Graeber is right, and that people generally prefer feeling like they are doing something useful. This is why I think we ought not to fear that Universal Basic Income, or a drastic reduction in working hours, would lead to a society of lazy idlers. In any case, people bored at home may do something more worthwhile than people bored at work, who mostly seem to go on social media. (Graeber notes that the rise in social media use coincides with the rise of useless employment. Certainly it was true in my case, that useless employment led naturally to spending huge amounts of time on Facebook.)

This summary does not do justice to the full contents of the book. Graeber is a sharp writer and an agile thinker. Not only is he the first to really hone in on this strange aspect of the modern world, but he does so within a wide perspective. To give just a few more examples, he connects the rise of bullshit jobs with the slowdown in scientific progress and the decline in quality of Hollywood movies. Perhaps Graeber’s political identity as an anarchist helps him to avoid the basic narratives of both the left and the right, and to develop strikingly original opinions about social problems. While I am not anarchist myself, I think the institution of work deserves far more questioning and criticism. We have accepted work as the bedrock of society and the foundations of our lives’ meanings, and yet most of us do not particularly like it. If I could wax utopian for a moment, I would imagine a movement devoted to the creation of a society of leisure. I would even work for it.



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Review: The Red and the Black

Review: The Red and the Black
The Red and the Black

The Red and the Black by Stendhal

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Good heavens! Is being happy, is being loved no more than that?

Few books have so totally engrossed me as this French novel written nearly two hundred years ago. Stendhal has aged very well. The novel is just fun to read: with short chapters, simple prose, and a plot that keeps the reader constantly wondering. That the novel was not widely appreciated during Stendhal’s own lifetime shows how much literary taste has changed. Whether this change has been for the better is difficult to say. But at least we can now appreciate Stendhal’s masterpiece.

For me, Stendhal’s signature effect is the interplay of Romantic idealism and deflating realism. Like his contemporary Balzac, Stendhal catches the world in his net. Every character, scene, and situation is carefully realistic. Though hardly a political novel, Stendhal succeeds in painting a subtle and compelling portrait of his age—the dynamic between the provinces and Paris, the political clashes between liberals and royalists, the relationship between the peasants, the clergy, and the old aristocracy. His characters, while individual, are also recognizable types, which he uses to dissect and analyze the social realities of his age.

Yet acting as a great counterweight to the ballast of detail is Stendhal’s famous psychological acuteness. This turns what would potentially be a dated social study into a gripping story of universal import. For his protagonist, Stendhal creates Julien Sorel—passionate, brilliant, stubborn, naïve, calculating, ambitious, and manifestly unfit for his social station.

Stendhal, a liberal himself, could easily have written a kind of morality tale about what happens when a man of great gifts is born in the lower ranks of society, with hardly any legitimate way of advancing. This is indeed Julien Sorel’s position. This morality tale would show us a good-hearted man, doing his best to be recognized for his genius, but overcome by circumstances. Yet Julien is infinitely more interesting for being both flawed and devious. Stendhal does not only show us how society makes his lot difficult, but, far more subtly, shows us how society deforms his psyche.

Deprived of any external encouragement, Julien’s motivation must come from worldly ambition and an egoistic pride. Since his only path to advancement is through people he despises—the clergy and the aristocracy—Julien must be dishonest, hypocritical, and ever-cautious. Forced to suppress his own emotions so constantly, and forced so frequently to act against his inclinations, whenever Julien is given a taste of kindness, love, or happiness, he loses control and threatens to undo all that his calculating subtlety had accomplished.

This psychological portrait is so perfectly realized that we both sympathize with, root for, and yet see through Julien Sorel. He is extraordinary, and yet painfully limited by his surroundings. His tragedy is that circumstances deprived the world of what he could have been had he been born in a different time and place. That Stendhal could create, at the same time, a universal morality tale, a realistic sketch of society, a vivid psychological study, and a thrilling novel—complete with a burning love story—all in the simplest prose, is a testament to the author’s high art.



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