General Nonfiction

February 2019: filling in notes and summaries of books read in 2018 and before.

Here’s a batch I read in Summer and Fall of 2018, listed here from right to left:

  • Lilla, Mark. 2017. The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics . New York: Harper. ★★ 1/2
    Lilla’s theme, being echoed currently by Francis Fukuyama and David Brooks and others, is that the liberal project is being undermined by identity politics, and how liberals need a new orientation into shared values that can attract voters. He advises focusing on winning elections, citizenship over personal identity, and civic education. [longer notes]
  • Gladstone, Brooke. 2018. The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time. New York: Workman. ★★ 1/2
    “On the Media” radio show co-host’s short book is an essay with themes that overlaps Kakutani’s, considering the existential question about reality and how we perceive it, and considering how Trump fits the criteria for a demagogue in trying to establish his own reality. Conclusion is that self-deception will undermine him, and that we all need to be aware the real world will catch up with whatever personal facts we possess. [longer notes]
  • Kakutani, Michiko. 2018. The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump. New York: Tim Duggan Books. ★★★ 1/2
    Long-time NYT book review (now retired) explores how we got to the age of Trump (with only glancing suggestions about how to recover). It’s partly that American anti-intellectualism, the right-wing media propaganda machine, and the internet in general — but also the cultural relativism and post-modernist attitudes from the left in the 1960s that have now been co-opted by the right. (With chapter epigraphs by PKD, Gibson, and Heinlein, among others.) [longer notes]
  • Levitan, Dave. 2017. Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science. New York: Norton. ★★★
    The author explores a dozen or so kinds of mistakes that are typically behind any politician’s use of the phrase “I’m not a scientist, but…” and illustrates each with several detailed examples. These mistakes include oversimplifying, cherry-picking, demonizing, citing disreputable websites, credit-snatching, flat out fabrication, and so on. While the author says he doesn’t try to attribute motives to most of these, the vast majority of examples are from Republicans, and — my gloss — reveal obvious motivations: to maintain the status quo, protect the interests of big business, promote xenophobic or religious agendas. [longer notes]
  • Nichols, Tom. 2017. The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. New York: Oxford University Press. ★★★ 1/2
    Nichols examines the peculiarly American strain of anti-intellectualism, noted by everyone from de Tocqueville to Asimov, that resents expertise and is proud of its ignorance, and how it’s gotten much worse in the age of the internet (with its founts of conspiracy theories and misinformation), the expansion of college attendance, the right-wing spin machine, and the confusion of experts with celebrities; culminating in Trump, who thinks he alone knows everything. All of this is a threat to democracy, and author’s conclusion isn’t optimistic. [longer notes]
  • Levitin, Daniel J. 2016. A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age . New York: Dutton. ★★★
    Complementing Ariely’s book, this summarizes how to think about numerical and journalistic claims with the aim of evaluating the world and know what is likely to be so. With discussions of statistics, surveys, misleading graphs; expertise and sources of information and counterknowledge; how science works, logical fallacies, and Bayesian thinking. [longer notes]
  • Ariely, Dan. 2008. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. New York: Harper. ★★★
    One of the earliest popular books that summarizes various findings of experimental psychology in recent decades that reveal the biases of human nature. Key point: traditional economics assumed that people are rational individuals. But in fact, humans are not only irrational, they are irrational in predictable, systematic ways. [longer notes]
  • Keen, Andrew. 2018. How to Fix the Future. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. ★★ 1/2
    A breezy book in the Thomas L. Friedman mode as the author talks to various experts around the world who grapple with the problems of high-tech’s effects on society. Contra Silicon Valley’s free market libertarianism, Keen describes, with examples (Estonia, Singapore, Oakland), five tools to make things better: regulation, competitive innovation, social responsibility, worker and consumer choice, and education. [longer notes]
  • Lightman, Alan. 2018. Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine. New York: Pantheon. ★ 1/2
    Essays that ponder science, religion, and the yearning for meaning, with some lovely naturalist writing, but mushy on the author’s desire for “meaning” outside the scientific evidence of the real world. It’s an example of the bias in human nature that searches for a story for the world that doesn’t really exist. [longer notes]
  • Gould, Roy R. 2018. Universe in Creation: A New Understanding of The Big Bang and the Emergence of Life. Cambridge MA: Harvard. ★
    A teleological plea for meaning in the universe, which sees the existence of life as evidence of a ‘plan,’ with misunderstandings about the process of biological evolution. [longer notes]
  • Frank, Adam. 2018. Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth. New York: Norton. ★★★
    A consideration of our planet’s future and reconsidering of the Drake equation, in light of the discovery of thousands of extra-solar planets and our understanding of how civilizations might become sustainable. With a revision of the ‘Kardashev Scale’ about planetary energy use, to a scale that considers how planets exist with their biosphere. [longer notes]

  • Hawking, Stephen. 2018. Brief Answers to the Big Questions. New York: Bantam. ★★
    Ten essays cobbled from Hawking’s speeches, interviews, and essays. Is there a God? Not in any traditional way. How did it all begin, is there other intelligent life, is time travel possible? With answers about Einstein, black holes, unified theories. Should we colonize space? Yes, to avoid catastrophe or a used up planet. Will AI outsmart us? It might, so we have to be intelligent about using it to our advantage. How to shape the future? Rely on science and technology, curiosity, imagination. [longer notes]
  • Feynman, Richard P. 1998. The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist. Reading MA; Addison-Wesley. ★ ★ ★
    Three essays delivered as lectures in 1963, concerning science, religion, and public credulousness. Science has three aspects: method, results, technology. Some uncertainty always remains. Similarly with values, as he reflects on why most scientists don’t believe, and how moral values are not affected by loss of belief. And about how little most people understand about our scientific age, politicians who have quick answers to complex problems, a lack of understanding of the complexity of the world, of having a sense of proportion. [full discussion]
  • Snow, C.P. 1959. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. (reprint edition Martino Publishing, 2013). ★ ★ ★ ★
    The first is a famous essay about the divide between the scientific community and the literary ‘intellectual’ community that considers it unimportant or even in bad taste to know much about science. Possibly one of the most influential and cited essays of the 20th century. The second essay is about how industrialized nations are getting richer and how poor nations have noticed and will turn to Russia if the West doesn’t help. [summary here also discusses the development in the past 20 years of a ‘third culture’ exemplified by EO Wilson’s Consilience and the “Big History” movement, plus a passage from Michael Benson’s book about 2001 about how science fiction is a blending of art and science.]
  • Pinker, Steven. 2011. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking. ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
  • Crane, Tim. 2017. The Meaning of Belief: Religion from an Atheist’s Point of View. Cambridge MA: Harvard. ★ ★ ★
    Philosopher Crane takes issue with the “new atheist” authors, Harris, Dawkins, et al, in their depiction of religion as only about claims of the supernatural (the existence of God; an afterlife). Rather, religion is about identity, about accumulated cultural wisdom about the way to live one’s life, about the ideas of the sacred and the profane. He advises atheists to accept that religion will always exist, and to tolerate believers. (He does not address, or even denies, evidence that religious faith fades with education, and with prosperity.) [full discussion, with a bit about how these ideas intersect with science fiction.]
  • Grayling, A. C. 2007. Against All Gods: Six Polemics on Religion and an Essay on Kindness. London: Oberon Books. ★ ★
    Short essays first published as newspaper pieces, about atheists, humanists, and secularists, the death throes of religion, and the alternative of humanism. [full discussion] Pointed, but not as eloquent as his later book The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism (2013) [full discussion]
  • Pinker, Steven. 2014. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. New York: Viking. ★ ★ ★
  • Wilson, E. O. 2017. The Origins of Creativity. New York: Liveright. ★ ★
  • Tyson, Neil deGrasse. 2017. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. New York: Norton. ★ ★
    Collection of magazines essays about the earliest moments of the universe, the creation of the elements, the discovery of physical laws, dark matter, dark energy, and other topics. Tyson is no Carl Sagan, or Ann Druyan, but these essays are pleasant introductions to cosmic topics, with reflections of living cosmically. [full discussion.]
  • Solomon, Andrew. 2012. Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. New York: Scribner. ★ ★ ★ ★
    I read just portions of this: the opening and closing chapters, about Solomon’s childhood and his own father, and then about his late-in-life decision to become a father, via surrogacy; and then chapters on autism (e.g. concerning the ‘neurodiversity’ movement; the relationship of autism to creativity) and prodigies (considering here only musical prodigies; parental vs. public support). Solomon is a mesmerizing writer, blending results of studies and research with actual stories of hundreds of people he interviewed over 10 years. [full discussion]
  • Krauss, Lawrence M. 2017. The Greatest Story Ever Told–So Far. New York: Atria Books. ★ ★
    This greatest story is a history of physics of the past few decades, accompanied by anecdotes of Richard Feynman, Sheldon Glashow, Steven Weinberg and others; with the theme of the discovery that the universe is not what meets the eye, and that the reality is greater than the myths and ignorance of past millennia. [general discussion]
  • Harari, Yuval Noah. 2017. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Harper. ★ ★ ★
  • Wilson, E. O. 2016. Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. New York: Liveright. ★ ★
  • Wilson, E. O. 2012. The Social Conquest of Earth. New York: Liveright. ★ ★ ★ ★
  • Wilson, E. O. 2014. The Meaning of Human Existence. New York: Liveright. ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
    A concise summary of the great scientist’s views on the big issues of science and philosophy, summarizing themes from the author’s many other books. Meaning is not about intent and design; humanity’s meaning is a summation of the accidents of history that have brought about our existence. This leads directly to questions of to what extent we direct our own future evolution. He reviews the key concept of group selection, and the inherent conflict with individual selection: “risking oversimplification, individual selection promoted sin, while group selection promoted virtue”, thus the eternal struggle within every person.

    He revisits the idea of ‘consilience’ between the sciences and humanities; the Enlightenment; the two cultures; how our devotion to stories reflects how the mind works. How the humanities explore the comfort zone of human existence, while science explores continua the humanities cannot perceive (but which some other animals do).

    Science will mature and stabilize; aliens would know the science and be interested instead in our humanities. He discusses super-organisms; speculates on the nature of intelligent extra-terrestrials, and why aliens could never invade our planet (or we theirs); reviews the collapse of biodiversity; and then reflects about human nature, about instinct, religion (built in to human experience; “regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful”; motivating the tribalism behind conflicts in the world), and free will (which he suppose exists at least for practical reasons).

    What is the meaning of human existence? The epic of our species through evolution, prehistory, recorded history, and the potential for what we choose to become.

    With some final swipes at creationism (“a triumph of blind religious faith over carefully tested fact”), Wilson concludes “If the heuristic and analytic power of science can be joined with the introspective creativity of the humanities, human existence will rise to an infinitely more productive and interesting meaning.”

    Detailed notes part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5.

  • Fadiman, Anne. 1998. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ★
    A pleasant book of essays about books, and reading, by an author who grew up in a family that reveled in books. [full discussion]
  • Harari, Yuval Noah. 2015. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harper. ★ ★ ★ ★
    This is a history of humanity, with focus on the concepts that have allowed our species to grow and occupy the planet; this is a history of ideas, not names and dates. The ideas include the cognitive revolution, 70,000 years ago; the agricultural revolution, 12,000 years ago; and the scientific revolution, 500 years ago. Harari is fond of trios, and his perspective challenges conventional wisdom; e.g. he considers religion, nationalism, and laws as examples of common myths, or ‘imagined realities’, that have enabled human society to grow, though these ideas have no physical basis in the real world. Another trio: money, empire, and religion. I find his takes problematic at times, e.g. considering humanist philosophies (secular humanism, et. al.) simply other kinds of ‘religions’ that worship humanity and not gods. Most striking is his conclusion is that humanity as we know it is about to end.

Earlier read, to be sorted eventually by theme:

  • Gilovich, Thomas. 1991. How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. New York: Free Press. ★ ★ ★
    One of the earliest books about how unconscious mental biases influence how people receive and understand information, with discussions of the Lake Wobegon effect, confirmation bias, etc.; how stories are told via ‘sharpening’ and ‘leveling’ to make them serve higher causes than accuracy; how people should develop habits of mind to correct such biases, including the value of a science education with the concepts of control groups, regression, doubt, and uncertainty. [full discussion]
  • Kolbert, Elizabeth. 2014. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York: Henry Holt. ★ ★ ★ ★
    Evidence that the expansion of the human race across the planet, over the past couple hundred thousand years, but especially over the past century (with the advent of air travel), is causing a world-wide mass extinction comparable to the five previous such extinctions evident in the fossil record. Each chapter focuses on a particular species, with vivid narratives about the American mastodon (and the very idea of extinction), historical debates about catastrophes vs uniform change over Earth’s history, and climate change and the deaths of coral reefs. As humanity spread across the globe following the last ice age, 10,000 years ago, it killed off the large mammals in Australia and the Americas. Now, with air travel, we’re bringing previously isolated species into contact daily, with sometimes disastrous results. We’re now living not in the Holocene, as traditional geological time-scales name our time, but in the Anthropocene — the era of humanity’s impact on the geological history of Earth. [full discussion]
  • Kahane, Howard. 1980. Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric: The Use of Reason in Everyday Life. Belmont CA: Wadsworth. (many editions since 1980). ★ ★ ★ ★
    This is a college textbook about the types of fallacious arguments one sees in politics, advertising, news, and textbooks — ad hominem, straw man, false dilemma, begging the question, biased statistics; the list goes on. With many examples from current news and advertising. The point is both to understand where others’ arguments fail, and to try to avoid such invalid reasoning yourself. This was the best text I ever read in college. There have been many editions since; apparently it’s a standard. Relevant now more than ever. [bit longer discussion] Note these rhetorical fallacies pre-exist more modern understanding of the psychological biases that lead people to use them, self-righteously; for those see Gilovich, McRaney, and Kahneman.
  • Carroll, Sean. 2016. The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. New York: Dutton. ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
    CalTech physicist Carroll describes the perspective we gain from cosmology and science in how we view our world and our place in it: how that understanding is purely materialistic and non-supernatural, and how that’s OK. Carroll avoids the perils of reductionism through the idea of “poetic naturalism” and the notion that we use different kinds of ‘stories’ to describe the world at different levels of complexity or levels of emergence. He discusses how current understanding of physics rules out psychic powers (and life after death), and discusses evolution and the evident lack of ‘purpose’, why we can dismiss various arguments for a god, different ways of thinking [again, Kahneman], morality and meaning of life. He concludes with a list of “Ten Considerations” (rather than Commandments), things to keep in mind while deciding how we want to live. [full discussion, including links to summaries of the book’s six section on the author’s own website, and my own summary and comments on his “Ten Considerations”]
  • Sagan, Carl. 1973. The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective. New York: Doubleday/Anchor Press. ★ ★ ★
    One of the first nonfiction books I read, and foundational in my discovery of astronomy and the perspective of how humanity lives in a vast universe greater than any parochial or religious view. Parts of this, about current discoveries in the solar system, are dated, but other chapters, on the 5-billion-year history of Earth, and the motivations for space exploration, are inspiring to this day. Other chapters, about dolphins, seem asides, but later chapters about contact with extraterrestial life, and classifications of cosmic civilizations, and mankind’s place in a universe of ‘starfolk’, are also as inspiring as ever. [full discussion of my 2015 reread, with numerous quotes.]
  • Russell, Bertrand. 1927. “Why I Am Not a Christian” (1927 lecture, published in 1957 essay collection of the same title) ★ ★ ★ ★
    Russell explains on two grounds: first, the arguments for the existence of God through reason are easily refuted, as he summarizes; second, he identifies several defects in Christ’s teachings (e.g. claims of an imminent Second Coming that never happened, his belief in the everlasting torment of Hell), and finds Buddha and Socrates more worthy of respect than Christ. He understands that most people believe in God because they have been taught from childhood to do so, and people accept religion on emotional grounds, or upon fear of the unknown. He notes how religion’s supposed morality has led to atrocities throughout history, and how advances in social and moral progress across history have been opposed by organized religion. (Reread Sept 2017; full discussion, with some prime quotes.)
  • Ellenberg, Jordan. 2014. How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking. New York: Penguin. ★ ★ ★ ★
    How to apply mathematical concepts to everyday situations that are often misunderstood by ordinary “common sense.” Among the many topics: the dangers of simple linear relationships, simplistic trend extrapolations, and proportions (with examples of political claims that illustrate these); the dangers of inference (improbable things happen a lot, in large enough samples); limits of prediction in chaotic situations; how to apply Bayesian inference (e.g. applied to the creation of the universe); the idea of expected values; balance of cost vs. convenience; the flaw of Pascal’s Wager; regression and correlation (it’s not always wrong to be wrong — you can’t wait for perfect evidence to make a decision); problems with opinion polls; various voting methods; and conflicts between what is true and what is right, when no new evidence is allowed. How to be right: try to prove your theorem by day, disprove it by night, and apply to all areas of life. A valuable supplement to books about rhetoric and mental biases. [part 1; part 2; part 3]
  • Asimov, Isaac. 1997, revised from 1983. The Roving Mind. New York: Prometheus Books. ★ ★ ★
    Collection of essays from 1983, reissued with tributes in 1997 following Asimov’s death in 1992. Asimov displays “methodical, cheerful, bluntness” (my words) in several essays about religious radicals (as much an issue in 1983 as now), dismissing the common arguments of creationists against evolution; replies to the common notion that science fiction authors (and readers) must surely “believe” in flying saucers, telepathy, and so on (they don’t); and has an efficient, logical argument about how, if telepathy existed, the world as we know it would make no sense. [full discussion]
  • Weinberg, Steven. 2015. To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science. New York: Harper. ★ ★ ★
    The Nobel physicist provides a history of science and a history of the idea of science, from the Greeks to Newton. The key theme is that “The progress of science has been largely a matter of discovering what questions should be asked.” It took centuries to realize that it was never “fruitful to ask what motions are natural, or what is the purpose of this or that physical phenomenon.” The ideas of the Greeks — earth, air, fire, water; ‘atoms’ — were poetical, never tested. There wasn’t much distinction between science and philosophy for thousands of years, and there was much rationalizing with religion (e.g. Aquinas). The breakthroughs came in the 15th and 16th centuries with Copernicus, Tycho, Kepler, and Galileo. The Church, of course, refused to look through Galileo’s telescope and banned his books. The scientific revolution climaxed with Newton, with his insights summarized in his three ‘laws.’ [And in retrospect, we can understand early attitudes toward science as reflecting biases of the human mind– assumptions, never tested, that the universe must be something beautiful or perfect by human standards.] [full discussion]
  • Thomas, Lewis. 1983. Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. New York: Viking. ★ ★ ★
    Thomas was a pediatrician and doctor and an essayist whose first book, The Lives of a Cell (brief discussion) won a National Book Award. This third volume of essays collects 24 essays in 168 pages. The title essay isn’t about Mahler per se, but how that music evoked for him imminent nuclear doom (this was the early 1980s), with two other essays about the consequences of nuclear war. Other essays are on various topics, exhibiting Thomas’ insight and wisdom: the age of science; the seven wonders of the natural world; the closing of mental hospitals; ideas about altruism; how the system defeats scientific fraud; and about the “two cultures” and the mystery of music.
    [full discussion]
  • Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Penguin Press. ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
    Social psychologist Haidt uses studies into moral sentiments around the world to develop ideas about the ‘foundations’ of morality, especially to expand the standard ‘liberal’ ideal that focuses on egalitarianism, with the idea that morality is all about care vs. harm, fairness vs. cheating, liberty vs. oppression. These are Western, educated values; in contrast, in other parts of the world, other sentiments are just as important: loyalty vs. betrayal, authority vs. subversion, sanctity vs. degradation. In Western countries, those sensitive to all six are conservative; those sensitive mostly to egalitarianism, fairness, and liberty are liberals. He considers these foundations in terms of evolutionary psychology and group selection, and examines various political issues in their light. Intuition and reasoning are both kinds of cognition [cf. Kahneman], and Haidt explores why our minds evolved this way; discusses group selection, why it went out of fashion, how its problems were solved by the earliest evolution of religion. Religion is about belonging to a group with shared beliefs, and it evolved to discourage selfish behavior (the earlier issue with group selection). Morality is about what works, not necessarily what is right, though as a policy, utilitarianism is as good as any [and thus Haidt aligns with Harris and Shermer]. And so: conservative minds react more strongly to threat and fear; liberals are more responsive to variety and new experiences. He describes the differing ‘Grand Narratives‘ of the left and the right: the struggle for equality and happiness, vs. the struggle to return to a golden past. It is much more complex than that some people are good, and others are evil. Liberalism and conservatism are a yin and yang, complementary, and both necessary.
    [intro; longer discussion; wrap-up, in which I speculate about some issues Haidt does not discuss]
  • Grayling, A.C. 2013. The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism. New York: Bloomsbury. ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
    British philosopher Grayling’s book is a worthy, graceful companion to the relatively incendiary books of the 2000s by “new atheists” Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens. He provides a reasoned discussion of the pitfalls of the religion and a defense of the life-enhancing alternative, that of humanism. He dismisses the defenses of religious apologists, and defends humanism as based on the best, most generous, most sympathetic understanding of human reality: How faith is held despite evidence, or despite the faith of those with different faiths, just as we dismiss the myths of the Greeks and Babylonians. The classic arguments for God might as well prove Zeus, as the Christian God. The portion of humanity that is not Christian are not, in fact immoral; they do not depend on the Bible and its commandments to understand what is right or wrong.The second half of the book focuses on the positive: the case for humanism. Religion, based on “superstitions of illiterate herdsmen living several thousands of years ago,” deserves no privileged place in society. Humanism is the ethical outlook that says each individual is responsible for choosing his or her own values and goals, and is responsible for living considerately of others. Grayling describes 10 criteria for living a good life, and says the meaning of life is what you make it: loving someone, raising children, succeeding in one’s field; having integrity, being honest. How morality is an objective matter, about our fellow humans, without reference to any deity.If I were to recommend one book to believers who have doubts, or to believers who simply want to understand why nonbelievers cannot accept what believers feel to be the obvious truth of their faith, it would be this one.[Quote of first paragraph: “To put matters at their simplest…”; full discussion]