2018 in Books

2018 in Books

Few authors, especially the unpublished, can resist the opportunity to read aloud.

2018 has shaped up to be an excellent year in reading. I somehow finished fifteen more books than I had the previous two years. Admittedly, many of my books this year were quite short; some of Plato’s dialogues are arguably more like pamphlets than books, and I read twelve of them this year. These slim volumes were, I hope, compensated by a few ponderous tomes. I stumbled through the two final books of Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization, at 1092 and 870 pages; George Santayana’s 862 page treatise on ontology; 1300 pages of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives; and finally William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, weighing in at a tedious 1614 pages. I also attempted to read a 1400 page history of New York City; but I was forced to take a break halfway through to recover from an acute overdose of urbane facts.

The two most prominent themes of this year’s reading have been art and science.

I learned about the works and lives of Picasso, Miró, and Goya, and I savored Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s sketches of brain cells, which are as much artistic as scientific achievements. I also read two books of John Ruskin’s eloquent ravings on the value, morality, and beauty of art. Henry Adams concurred with Ruskin about the superiority of medieval art, as he demonstrated in his book about Chartres. Giorgio Vasari, however, took the reverse position, arguing that the Renaissance saved Europe from centuries of barbarous art; and he proved this thesis in his reverential biographies of Renaissance painters and sculptors. But by far the most compelling book on art I read this year was a collection of Vincent van Gogh’s letters, which reveal a man of extraordinary sensitivity and intelligence.

My reading in science began with two classics in the philosophy of science: Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery and Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions—both excellent. But after learning the theory I wanted to know the practice; so I started blundering my way through the classics of the Copernican revolution. I began with Ptolemy’s Almagest, and followed this with Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus, Kepler’s Harmonies of the World, and Galileo’s Two New Sciences and Sidereus Nuncius; and I finally reached the capstone of the scientific revolution with Newton’s Principia. Looking at this list, I feel rather proud of myself; but in truth most of this “reading” consisted of flipping through pages of incomprehensible mathematics. I needed secondary sources to even achieve a basic understanding, relying on an abridged and annotated version of Ptolemy, Very Short Introductions to Copernicus and Galileo, and a popularization of Newton written by Colin Pask. And am I any the wiser for all this toil?

I had hoped to do half of my reading this year in Spanish; but with a total twenty books I did not even achieve a quarter. Luckily, many of these were excellent. Federico García Lorca’s trilogy of plays is a remarkable look at the force of tradition in rural Spain. The poetry of Antonio Machado was perhaps even more profound, with its blend of metaphysical calm and romantic sensitivity to nature. I also read two superlative novels from Spanish masters: Marianela by Benito Pérez Galdós, and El árbol de la ciencia by Pío Baroja. To do my homework, I sampled Spain’s golden age, reading Tirso de Molina’s El burlador de Sevilla, and Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna and El caballero de Olmedo. But the highlight of this year’s Spanish books was undoubtedly Don Quijote de la Mancha, which I read in the modernized version by Andrés Trapiello. Not that Cervantes needs any help, but Ortega’s and Unamuno’s commentaries on the Spanish masterpiece did widen my appreciation of that most infinitely entertaining of novels.

The two authors who most dominated my year were Shakespeare and Plato, as I labored under the optimistic delusion that I could read both of their complete works. I still have a long way to go, of course; but any time spent with these two masters is rewarding; and I hope to continue my naive ambition next year. I read very few works of English language fiction this year, of which E.M. Forster’s Howards End was the standout work. As usual, I tried to read about New York and the United States while I was home during the summer. This lead me to pick up Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, John Muir’s The Mountains of California, Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, David McCullough’s The Great Bridge, Ron Chernow’s Titan, and Alistair Cooke’s America. None of these was as revelatory as The Power Broker, which I read last summer; but each one shed some light on my vast and aggravating homeland.

The most exciting event on Goodreads this year has been my recent ascension to the most followed reviewer in Spain, with 1,700 new followers just this month. Believe me, I’ve been as baffled as you must be. The mystery was partly solved when I investigated the list of my followers, and found that a large part bear the obvious traces of fake accounts. I would like to take this opportunity to publicly assert that I have not paid for any bot service, and I have no idea why they would choose to follow my reviews. Perhaps the computers have a taste for pretentious prose.

In any case, I would like to thank my fellow reviewers and followers, man or machine, for contributing to this excellent year of reading. You support me in my own endeavors, you inspire me with your intelligence and curiosity, and you provide me a community of thoughtful readers and writers. So may 2019 be as good a year for book enthusiasts as the this one has been.



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2017 in Reading

2017 in Reading

This past year of reading has shaped up to be a great one.

One major theme this year was war. Perplexed by the prevalence of such a monstrous and destructive activity, I read several histories and biographies, particularly focusing on the First World War and the Spanish Civil War. Of the former, Rainer Maria Rilke’s and Ernest Hemingway’s novels combined with Ernst Jünger’s memoirs to give me some idea of a soldier’s life during the Great War. G.J. Meyer’s excellent overview, A World Undone, completed the picture by summarizing the background and the battles. On the Spanish front, F.G. Tinker’s thrilling memoirs of his time as a fighter pilot complemented Antony Beevor’s military history and Gerald Brenan’s historical background to the conflict. (I also went on a superb tour in Barcelona focused on the war.)

I remain both morbidly fascinated and equally baffled by warfare, and plan on continuing this theme into the next year, focusing more on the Second World War.

I also explored history more generally. To compensate for my dearth of high culture, I made my way through Grout & Palisca’s History of Western Music—a worthy overview of the subject—as well as several smaller books about individual artists—Dalí, Gaudí, Sorolla, and Picasso. Stefan Zweig’s memoirs taught me about the pre-war and interwar periods in Europe, and Tony Judt’s magnificent history of postwar Europe led me from 1945 up to the present day. Then, Joseph Stiglitz’s economic analysis shed light on Europe’s uneasy status quo. Hoping to penetrate the mysterious rise and fall of civilizations, I tackled Oswald Spengler’s phantasmagoric Decline of the West and Arnold Toynbee’s more soporific companion, A Study of History; but I remain in the dark on this question, so I content myself with the sharp prose and colorful descriptions of Lord Macaulay.

Henry David Thoreau was born 200 years ago this year, so I decided to re-read his classic account of life in the woods once more, and found myself once more conflicted. (I also visited Walden Pond, as well as a fantastic exhibition about Thoreau in the Morgan Museum in New York.) I also decided to trace Thoreau’s influence through some of his spiritual followers, both as a conservationist and as a social advocate. This led me to Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, and Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives.

This last book dovetailed with another major theme, New York City, which led me to learn about the Croton Aqueduct and the subway system, as well as to read Federico Garcia Lorca’s surreal poetry, Jane Jacob’s brilliant analysis of what makes cities succeed and fail, and Robert Caro’s wholly remarkable biography of Robert Moses—easily one of the best books of the year.

Though this year has been fairly light on fiction, I still had some literary pleasures. Among these were several Shakespeare plays, Hemingway’s short stories, Dickens’s Bleak House, and the final three volumes of Proust’s sprawling epic. But my favorite novel, and my favorite book of the year, is without doubt George Elliot’s Middlemarch, which I found to be life-alteringly brilliant. I have also read some excellent literary criticism: Orwell’s essay on Dickens, Ortega y Gasset’s essay on Cervantes, Unamuno’s ecstatic commentary on Don Quijote, and best of all Bradley’s lectures on Shakespeare’s tragedies—a model of literary appreciation.

I also used several books as jumping-off points for investigations into certain aspects of modern life. I tasted Spanish cuisine with a cookbook, I flirted with romance through Azis Ansari, I argued politics with Jonathan Haidt, I swapped work stories with Studs Terkel, and I tested the educational system through a GRE prep book, a book on classroom management, and William Deresiewicz manifesto on higher education. I also pondered the best way to live with a biography of Montaigne and a book on Stoicism, though I am still in the dark on this point.

To sharpen my travel writing I read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s wordy account of his trip through Europe in the 1930s, and George Henry Borrow’s even wordier account of his trip through Spain in the 1830s, neither of which I very much liked. Yet I relished Richard Ford’s Gatherings From Spain, and recommend it to any curious travelers to the Iberian peninsula.

My reviews have grown longer and more detailed this year, as I have incorporated more summary into my reviews in the hope, perhaps vain, that it will allow me to understand and retain more of what I read. The downside of this strategy is, of course, that many reviews are a slog to read. But on the whole I am happy with most of my reviews from this year. Of these, I am most proud of my review of Hegel’s Phenomenology, followed closely by Susan Haack’s Defending ScienceWithin Reason—two philosophy texts, as it happens.

Thanks to all of you for reading so much and for writing so well, and may 2018 be even better.

Review: Feeling Good

Review: Feeling Good

Feeling Good: The New Mood TherapyFeeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you can love and respect yourself in failure, worlds of adventure and new experiences will open up before you, and your fears will vanish.

It is an interesting statement on contemporary culture that practical, self-help books are often looked down on as lowbrow, unsophisticated, and unworthy of serious consideration. Just note how often in reviews of self-help books you come across the phrase, “I don’t normally read books like this,” or the like. Of course, skepticism regarding books of this kind is merited, especially when you take into account the amount of quackery, chicanery, demagoguery, and baloney in print. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say we have a veritable advice industry in our culture today, with a great deal of money to be made and thus lots of enterprising, unscrupulous people peddling various forms of nonsense, hoping to get rich. Self-help books now sell so well that they have to be excluded from non-fiction sales rankings, because if they weren’t the top 10 best sellers would be an endless parade of one self-help book after another.

But why are so many people willing to pay for and devour book after book, getting swept about by the ceaseless winds of doctrine, navigating their lives through fad after fad? Fashionable ways of running and ruining your life have always been with us; yet I think there is another aggravating factor at work in the present day.

Recently I read two history books, one about Ancient Greece and the other about Rome. As I learned about the philosophies of education in those societies, I noticed how central were the ideas of ethical and moral teaching. I don’t mean ethical in the narrow sense of right and wrong, but in the wider Greek sense, used by Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Epicureans—how to cultivate wisdom, how to live a well-regulated life, how to deal with the hardships and misfortunes that are so often thrown our way. These were primary concerns of pedagogy. By contrast, our current education system, as least here in the States, has deemphasized ethical teaching almost completely.

There are, of course, many reasons for this, and many of them are good ones; but I do think it leaves a certain gap in our culture that self-help books partially fill. Unfortunately, from what I can tell, many of these seem rather mediocre—or worse. But this book, by David D. Burns, is for me one of the exceptions. It is an interesting and, for me, an extremely useful book, based on a well-studied and much-tested therapeutic technique.

Burns’s aim in writing this book was to popularize the methods of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a therapeutic technique developed by the psychologist Aaron T. Beck, among others. The premise of CBT is very simple: your moods are caused by your thoughts, so by controlling your thoughts you can control your moods. At first sight, this may seem like complete nonsense; our moods come and go, and our thoughts simply take on the timbre of whatever mood we happened to be in, right? This seems to be what most people assume; certainly I did. Yet consider this scenario, which actually happened to me:

My boss scheduled a meeting with me out of the blue. I immediately started thinking that I hadn’t been doing a good job recently, so I began to panic, sure I was about to get fired. Eventually, this panic turned to indignation, as I convinced myself of the injustice of the situation, since I worked hard and tried my best. So, literally trembling with anxiety and outrage, I went to the meeting and sat down; and my boss said: “We’re giving you a bonus, because you’ve been doing so well. Congratulations!” Suddenly, all my negative feelings turned into joy.

This I think well illustrates the central idea behind CPT. All of my negative and positive emotions in this scenario were due to my interpretation of the event, not the event itself. I made the false assumption, based on no evidence, that I was going to be fired. I thought of every mistake and imperfection in my work over the last month or so, and convinced myself that I was doing poorly and that termination was imminent. Then, I persuaded myself that I wasn’t given adequate resources or support, and that the situation was unjust. And when I was finally given the bonus, I interpreted that to mean I was doing a good job and that I was getting all the support I needed—which were equally tenuous interpretations. Thus you can see how my mood was a direct product of my thoughts.

All of my negative assumption in the above paragraph contain what Burns calls “warped thoughts,” or cognitive distortions. These are irrational patterns of thinking which have been found to be common in depressed and overly anxious patients. The CBT interpretation of depression is that these thinking patterns are not caused by depression, but actually cause depression. In other words, depression results from persistent, unrealistic negative interpretations of one’s life and experience, leading one to focus solely on the bad and to feel hopeless about the future.

Burns gives a list of 10 types of warped thoughts, but in my opinion there is quite a bit of overlap in the categories. The distortions more or less boil down to the following:

—Making negative assumptions, whether about the future or about what someone else is thinking;
—Assuming that one’s emotions accurately reflect reality;
—Over-generalizing a small number of negative occurrences into an inevitable trend;
—Willfully ignoring all of the positives to focus solely on the negative;
—Thinking in black and white categories;
—Making unjustified “should” or “ought” statements about the world without considering other people’s perspectives;
—Feeling that you are responsible for things over which you have no control;
—Labeling oneself and others with vague pejoratives.

The first part of this book is dedicated to allowing the reader to recognize these types of thoughts and to combat them. This most often is just a matter of writing these thoughts down and exposing the distortions that lay beneath. Simple as this sounds, I’ve found this to be remarkably effective. As you might have guessed from the above example, I am rather prone to anxiety; and during this summer, my anxiety was getting to the point that I felt incapacitated. I was driving my friends and family nuts with my constant worrying; and nobody, including myself, knew how to deal with me.

Luckily, I heard about a site called MoodGYM, which is a website developed by the Australian National University for people dealing with anxiety and depression, using the techniques of CBT. Desperate for some relief, I completed the reading and activities on the website, and found that I felt much, much better. Impressed, I looked for books on CBT techniques, and of course came across this one.

What most intrigued me about CBT was the emphasis on accuracy. The techniques weren’t based on the premise that I was somehow damaged or filled with strange desires, nor did they include any amount of self-delusion or wishful thinking. Quite the reverse: the whole emphasis was on thinking clearly, basing beliefs on evidence, avoiding unreasonable assumptions, and seeing things from multiple points of view.

Take anger. Very often (though not always), our feelings of indignation simply result from seeing an event through a narrowly selfish lens. We don’t get the job we interviewed for, and we feel cheated; someone beat us to that parking spot, and we feel outraged. But when we consider these scenarios from the perspective of the boss or the other driver, the situation suddenly seems much more just and fair; they are pursuing their own interests, just like we are. So simply by looking at the situation from multiple points of view, and thus understanding it more fully, our feelings of anger are cooled.

When I began working through the techniques in the book, I was astounded by how often these types of distortions plagued my thinking. It would almost be funny if it wasn’t so unpleasant: I could twist any situation or piece of information into somehow reflecting negatively on my character. Everything bad in the world confirmed my negativity, and everything good only served to reproach me and to make me envious and resentful. The good news was that, when I began to recognize these illogical patterns of thought, it was extremely easy for me to correct them; and for the past month or so I’ve been feeling a great deal happier and calmer.

After teaching the reader several personal and interpersonal techniques—strategies for dealing with oneself and others more effectively—Burns moves on to examining some of the underlying assumptions that give rise to warped thinking. It turns out that these all involve equating one’s “value” or “worth” with some extrinsic good, whether it be approval, love, success, fame, or even skill. There is, of course, nothing wrong with enjoying the approval of others, the thrill of love, the sense of accomplishment, or the satisfaction of a job well done. The problem arises when, instead of enjoying something, we use it to measure ourselves.

To use a somewhat silly but germane example, how many people believe that those who read more books, bigger books, harder books, are somehow “superior” to people who don’t? I’ve certainly been guilty of this; but it is pretty clearly an absurd position when I think about it, and one that I couldn’t possibly defend on any valid moral or intellectual grounds. What on earth does it even mean to be a “superior” person?

Superiority only makes sense when we have some quality we can measure, such as wealth or strength; but when we say “superior” by itself, what quality do we mean? “Worth”? How do you measure that? You can try being clever and say “By the number of books you read” or something, but that’s clearly circular reasoning. If you are a humanist or religious, you might say that you have worth just from the fact of being alive; but then of course everyone is equally worthy and there’s no sense in feeling worthless.

In the non-Goodreads population, I suspect book addiction isn’t a big problem; more often, people feel down because they imagine that approval, love, money, or expertise is necessary to be a worthwhile and happy person. But the absurdity of this kind of thinking is revealed when you consider how many famous, beloved, rich, virtuosic, brilliant, successful people there have been, and still are, who are deeply depressed and feel worthless and hopeless. Short of torture, there are no circumstances in life that guarantee unhappiness; and the same goes for happiness. This is not to say that you shouldn’t try to change or improve your situation, only a reminder you that the way you interpret a situation is often as important as the situation itself, if not more so.

I cannot hope to sum up the entire book in the space of this review; but I hope what I have included has convinced you that it’s at least worth looking into. After all, by definition, nothing feels better than happiness.

Of course, the book isn’t perfect. Burns’s writing style is nothing remarkable, and it is occasionally tacky; but I think that it’s excusable considering that he’s a therapist, not a writer, and that he’s trying to reach a popular audience. One flaw that I thought was less easy to excuse was Burns’s exclusive focus on straight couples in his sections on love and relationships. Burns writes in a purely heteronormative vein, not even acknowledging same-sex couples, which is difficult to justify, considering the higher rates of depression and anxiety among gays and lesbians—not to mention others in the LGBTQ community. I hope this is changed in future additions.

A criticism I am tempted to make, but which I actually think is unfair, is that CBT makes people passive, accepting, and more content with the status quo. It sometimes seems as if Burns is telling people not to try to change their circumstances, but rather to accommodate themselves to them. I think this is unfair for a few reasons. No matter how powerful we may be, there will always be things in life which we cannot change and which we simply have to accept; so developing the tools to do so without frustration or anger is useful for everyone. What’s more, real depression and anxiety are not conducive to effective action. Quite the opposite: depression often makes people apathetic and anxiety makes people feel too overwhelmed to do anything. Besides, you can’t solve a problem unless you can see it clearly, and the thinking patterns associated with depression and anxiety lead to a total inability to see problems clearly and to deal with them rationally. So I think accusations that this book is somehow reactionary or that it leads to passivity are unfair.

To sum up this already overlong review, I just hope I’ve convinced you that this book might be extremely valuable to you or to someone you know. It certainly has been for me. Now I no longer feel that I am at the mercy of my moods or emotions, or that my sense of self-worth or confidence is dependent on my circumstances. And I’d say these benefits definitely outweigh the tacky cover and the corny title, don’t you?

(Oh, and if the book seems like too big a commitment, MoodGYM is pretty swell too, despite additional corniness of course.)

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