Category: books

How to Change Your Mind

A few weeks ago I was fortunate to see Michael Pollan talk about his new book, How to Change Your Mind. He was interviewed by author Zoe Cormier, at a co-working space called Second Home in East London. Pollan is best known for books on food, including the excellent Cooked (2013), the first book of his that I read (and reviewed here). This led me to his earlier books The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) and The Botany of Desire (2001). Pollan views himself not strictly as a food writer, but as having written on food out of a broader interest in the ways in which humans interact with nature; it just so happens that agriculture is one of the most consequential ways that we do so. His earlier books were provocative and mind-opening; they changed what I ate and how I cooked. His new book seeks to open vistas of the mind in a different way. Ambitiously subtitled “What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence,” the book largely delivers on its wide remit, and I would recommend it to anyone, regardless of prior interest on the topic. Continue reading

Flourish (2011)

Psychologist Martin Seligman’s Flourish is a strange book, in that it does not deliver on any of its promises, and yet somehow remains enjoyable. You would be forgiven for assuming, given the book’s rather bold opening that “This book will help you flourish,” that the book will in fact help you flourish—which it does, sort of. The early chapters, after promising then not delivering many practical exercises, then seem to imply that the book will instead summarise developments of positive psychology beyond its original scope of “authentic happiness”—which it does, sort of. The rest is part intriguing memoir, part summary of where psychology and philosophy went wrong in the twentieth century, and part discussion of the military and education. If this sounds like a strange mixture, it is. And yet the writing remains engaging, and the book does actually give some practical advice about how to incorporate gratitude, better listening skills, and activities which are orientated towards character strengths and accomplishment, into one’s life. Because of what appears to be a lack of editorial guidance, going into it with expectations to learn anything specific is likely to lead to disappointment. But if you pick it up, as I did, with an open mind no expectations, you may find quite a few provocative facts and perspectives.

The 100-Year Life (2016)

The basic argument of The 100-Year Life, by psychologist Lynda Gratton and economist Andrew Scott, is that not enough is being done to adapt to increasing longevity. After a quite interesting chapter on how drastically longevity has changed (the 1900 US expectancy was under 50!), the book sketches out in some detail archetypes from the baby boomer, gen X, and millennial generations, imagining how their lives might play out. As is probably obvious, the younger generations face increasingly insurmountable difficulties if they try to stick to the typical education/single career/retirement (three-stage life) that worked very well for the baby boomers, who could pick any career, stick to it, invest in virtually anything, and come out with a house, savings, and an irritating sense that they had somehow been rewarded for their wisdom and moral virtue. Continue reading

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1964)

Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1964) is a work of impressive scholarship that remains extremely (and sometimes depressingly) relevant today. It traces periods of intellectual flourishing as well as the reactions against them, from the deeply intellectual Founding Fathers to the incoherent and incandescent anti-intellectual aggression of the McCarthy era. The overarching point of the book seems to be that since its inception, America has undergone cycles of anti-intellectual sentiment. These rise when expertise oversteps its bounds, and makes mistakes, or perhaps even when it is needed too badly. At other times, expertise and intellectuals can come to be valued, though a latent suspicion often remains. Overall the book is well worth reading for an understanding of how such a large proportion of America acquired anti-intellectual sentiments, as well as for providing insight into many cultural and social aspects of American life and history. Continue reading

Debt: The First 5000 Years

David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years is a magnum opus, with a scope so vast that any attempt to summarise it exhaustively, in a review such as this one, is unlikely to do it justice. This resistance to summary is partly due in straightforward fashion to its 544 page length, but length alone is an insufficient explanation for its expansive defiance—and it defies much more than mere summary. It begins with seemingly simple questions: “Must one pay one’s debts? If so, why?” The answers seem obvious, even self-evident, until, that is, one tries to justify them. Even within standard economic theory, it is not the case that all debts must be repaid: interest rates reflect the risk that the creditor assumes that the debtor might default. So whence the pervasive sense that all debts must be repaid? Very quickly one starts to see the looming spectres of moral judgment and threats of violence, in just two basic questions. With even a tiny bit of scrutiny, the complex relationship between economic questions and morality, which is central to this book, begins to surface.  Continue reading

A Fighting Chance

I recently read Elizabeth Warren’s autobiography A Fighting Chance which came out in March. Although at times it’s intensely personal, its historical and political aspects are really what make it an engaging read. It presents a compelling history of bankruptcy law in America, an overview of how financial deregulation since the 1980s has fuelled political corruption, and her often ill-fated attempts to fight these trends. It’s not quite Steinbeck, but as an epic on inequality it’s not a million miles away either, and it is definitely worth a read.
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Basin and Range

I’ve just read John McPhee’s Basin and Range for my book club. It’s not an easy book to summarize. Part itinerant tour of America’s geology, part history of geological theories, part dreamlike, hypnotic reflection on the formation of the world, it’s a mixture of nonfiction and beautiful prose that’s reminiscent of Carl Sagan. Continue reading

The Turtle Diary

Last week I read Russell Hoban’s The Turtle Diary (1975) which I quite liked. It’s an understated study of loneliness and a search for meaning in London in the 1970s, and many of its concerns remain of unwelcome relevance to today’s Londoners, however drastically the city has changed in the past four decades. The novel’s protagonists are two solitary characters, William H., a divorced man working at a bookshop, and Neaera, who writes and illustrates children’s literature. In an unlikely coincidence, both become convinced that they need personally to liberate sea turtles at the London aquarium. Despite having hardly spoken to one another, they also simultaneously intuit that the other is having precisely the same thought. Continue reading

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline

I first came across George Saunders in a New York Times piece on his new novel, and due to its high praise, I proposed his first book, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), to my book club a few months ago. I read it in two days, and even though many of the stories are a bit repetitive in theme and content, on the whole I thought it was worth a read. It’s taken me a while to put my thoughts together but here they are.

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The Untouchable

This week I finished John Banville’s The Untouchable, a moving chronicle of longing, reminiscence, and sadness. It is a book about memory and about the act of remembering, too personal to really be called a history, despite the fact that it’s based on real people and events. Memory for Banville is much sadder than it is for that most famous of literary recollectors, Marcel Proust, and not just because the concerns of The Untouchable are much graver than the frivolous happenstance of Remembrance of Things Past. Rather, it is because the act of remembering itself is a tragedy, a dirge for time irrevocably lost. From the title of Proust’s work, À la recherche du temps perdu, or In Search of Lost Time, one might expect the loss of time to be of primary concern. But in fact the emphasis is on the search, an inherently hopeful act: Continue reading