Tag Archives: evolution

The Books I Read in 2017

Every year, I participate in the Goodreads Challenge, which is where you challenge yourself to read a certain number of books over the course of the year and then track your progress. Most years, I challenge myself to read either 25 or 30 books, and most years, I come close to achieving that goal, but for the last two years, I read 35 and 36 books respectively, so  I challenged myself to read 35 books in 2017.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t succeed. Instead, I read 21 (my lowest number since the annual challenge began in 2011). There’s no real reason for this, except maybe that some of the books I read were pretty damn long (my wife, who read Moby Dick and Gone with the Wind this year, thinks Goodreads should change it from number of books read to number of pages; she’s not wrong). But long books or not, I didn’t reach my goal. Thankfully, a new year’s begun.

Now, to the books!

Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy (528 pages) This non-fiction book attempts to capture nearly two-thousand years of papal history. The author, John Julius Norwich, skips a large percentage of the popes to focus on the more interesting ones, such as St. Peter (the first bishop of Rome), Innocent III (the first to put forward the principle of papal infallibility), Leo X (the first Medici pope and the man who excommunicated Martin Luther), Clement VII (the second Medici pope and Leo X’s cousin and best friend, not to mention the pope who wore the tiara when Protestantism became a separate religion, Rome was sacked by Charles V, and the Church of England broke away), Pope Joan (a legendary female pope who Norwich argues did not really exist), and others.

The subject of almost every chapter in this book could stand as a book on its own, and several chapters could have whole libraries dedicated to them. As a history of the papacy, it’s also a history of the political and economic life of the Roman Catholic Church, the Holy Roman Empire, and Europe in general.

Because of that, some of the book is a slog, and you need a machete to cut through all of the repetitive names followed by Roman numerals, but if you give up the idea that you’re going to remember the differences between all the Leopolds, Ferdinands, Clements, and Alfonsos, the book becomes a fascinating flood of corruption, intrigue, and empire.

If you have any interest in the actual history of the Roman Catholic Church (rather than the theology), Absolute Monarchs is a great place to start (the other, of course, is A History of Christianity: The First Three-Thousand Years).

Norse Mythology (304 pages) Neil Gaiman wrote this collection of Norse mythology because, in a lot of ways, mythology comes not from the tales we tell, but from the retelling of them. Thor did not exist in Asgard, but in the magical space between the storyteller and the listener, each fireside tale in Scandinavia adding to the strength of his hammer.

Gaiman’s desire to share tales that have already been shared millions of times is to be commended,  and (as I wrote in my review on Goodreads), he “writes these familiar tales in an authentic feeling way, letting loose only in those moments when the narrative requires it, but never straying too far from his source.”

When I picked up the book, however, I was hoping for more Gaiman and less Snorri Sturluson. While I didn’t necessarily want a modern take on the tales (e.g., Gaiman’s novel American Gods), I had hoped for Gaiman to take me inside the stories to provide a new perspective. Instead, I got a remarkably faithful version of these well-told tales.

I don’t hold that against him. My desire as a reader and his desire as an author may not have matched up, but the end result was still an enjoyable read, making this book as good as any if you’re just hoping for an English version of traditional tales.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (414 pages) I wrote a piece about this book when I read it back in March. I hadn’t finished the book when I’d written it, and so I left the question that motivated the piece unanswered at the end. The author, Yuval Noah Harari, essentially argues that Homo sapiens are no different than any other biological force on the planet in that we are subject to the same laws of physics, chemistry, and biology as ants, anteaters, and single-cell parameciums.

The story of our history, then, is the story of our attempt to universalize the powers of the human animal — whether through politics, economics, or beliefs — in order to overcome the laws the universe has subjected us to.

Harari ends his book with a chapter that presages his next book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. The chapter explores humanity’s attempt to overtake natural selection with intelligent design, discussing biological engineering, cyborg engineering, and the engineering of non-organic life (i.e., Artificial Intelligence).

The end result is not exactly pessimistic, but also not exactly hopeful. As he writes in the book’s Afterword, “Despite the astonishing things that humans are capable of doing, we remain unsure of our goals… We are more powerful than ever before, but have very little idea of what to do with all that power… Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one… Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”

The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers (368 pages) I gave this non-fiction book a rating of three stars when I finished it back in April, which is probably why I barely remember reading it. I started reading the book because I wanted to understand not only economics, but also the mindset that leads to insatiable greed.

I don’t think this book satisfied either of those desires, but if it did, it certainly didn’t make a lasting impression when on me. That’s why, when writing this post, I went back to the book to rejigger my memory, and in the book’s introduction, I found this great quote from John Maynard Keynes, “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men…are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

That’s why I wanted to read this book. To better understand the ideas that essentially rule our world. Maybe this book helped me (because I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time this year thinking about economics), but if it did, I can’t say exactly how.

The one thing I do remember about this book is how much of a bad-ass John Maynard Keynes was. I mean, the dude made his personal fortune by only dedicating a half-hour a day, while still in bed, to his own financial doings. The rest of the time, he was writing books on mathematics that impressed even Bertrand Russell, doing public service in Britain’s treasury department, socializing with Virginia Woolf and the rest of the Bloomsbury group, editing the Economic Journal, participating in (and then critiquing) the Treaty of Versailles, running a theatre, becoming the Director of the Bank of England, and so much more. Keynesian economics may have its detractors, but Keynes himself was pretty damn cool.

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East (577 pages) This non-fiction book tells not just the story of the famed Lawrence of Arabia, but also of the unheralded (and generally inexperienced) men and women who also played a huge role in the shaping of the Middle East.

I picked up this book following The Worldly Philosophers because, in reading that book, I realized just how little I knew about World War I. The only book about the Great War I’d  read previously was The Guns of August (which is fantastic, by the way), but that mostly covered the European theatre, and focused mostly on the first month of the war. I wanted to know more.

I chose Lawrence in Arabia because of the anecdote the author, Scott Anderson, shares in the introduction to the novel. Basically, Lawrence is called to the palace for what he imagines will be a consultation about the postwar borders of the Middle East, but instead, King George surprises him with a knighthood ceremony. He’d once written that his greatest ambition was to become knighted before the age of 30, and now that ambition was about to be realized. As Anderson writes, “Except Lawrence didn’t kneel. Instead, just as the ceremony got under way, he quietly informed the king that he was refusing the honor [and] under the baleful gaze of a furious Queen Mary, Colonel Lawrence turned and walked away.”

I might not have known anything about World War I, but after reading that intro, I had to know more about the bad-ass mofo who turned his back on a king.

The book was fantastic, and it reads like a novel. I really can’t recommend it enough.

Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World (570 pages) Lawrence in Arabia did a great job of covering the Middle Eastern theatre of the war, but it didn’t do a great job of explaining what happened at the end of the war. Paris 1919 dedicates 570 pages to the subject.

I really enjoyed this book (four stars!), but I also had some issues with it. The author, Margaret MacMillan, organizes the book by geography, focusing on the story of each region. For example, the third part of the book tells how the Balkans were divided following World War I, while chapter six focuses on Russia.

This makes the individual stories of the regions easier to follow, but the jumping back and forth in linear time makes it difficult to understand all the moving parts and how they influence each other. I don’t begrudge MacMillan for the difficulties — her subject is extremely difficult to organize, and she had to make a choice somewhere — but by the end of the book, I felt she had lost some steam.

The New Testament: King James Version (~550 pages) I started reading the New Testament in concert with Absolute Monarchs, but as anyone can see who looks through my Goodreads, I tend to read a lot about Church history. Last year, for example, I read Elaine Pagels’ research on Revelations and James Tabor’s The Jesus Dynasty. It had been several years since I’d last read the New Testament in its entirety, so I figured I’d get on that.

Mostly, I wanted to read the books that come after the four Gospels: the book of Acts, the various letters “written” by Paul, James, Peter, John, and Jude, and Revelations. Because I’d recently read an entire book on Revelations, I skipped that section in this year’s reading, but outside of that, I read them all.

And as always, I thoroughly enjoyed them. They don’t call it the Good Book for nothing.

Aftermath: Empire’s End (423 pages) The final book in Chuck Wendig‘s Aftermath trilogy, Empire’s End provides the canonical explanation of what happened to the Empire following the death of Emperor Palpatine during the Battle of Endor. The trilogy takes place between the Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, clearing up some loose ends from the original film trilogy.

I enjoyed the overall plot of Wendig’s novels, but I got pretty annoyed with his habit of writing “Interludes” that had nothing to do with the main story. At first, I found them interesting — they’re like mini-stories that take place throughout the Star Wars galaxy, and they give readers an on-the-ground experience of what it is like to live through the death of a tyrannical empire — but after a while, they just got in the way of the story of Wendig’s main characters. This was an issue with the entire trilogy, but by the third book, it was even more of a problem. We’d been with these characters for two whole books now — it’s time to leave off the Interludes and simply cut to the chase.

With that being said, if you’re a Star Wars geek like I am, these canonical books are a must read.

Max (473 pages) I came across this book in the children’s section of our local library. It’s a young-adult novel written from the perspective of a child created through the Nazis’ eugenics program.

I picked the book up because the opening chapter was written from the first-person perspective of a fetus, and frankly, I’d never come across something like that before.

The rest of the book played out well. The titular character is the epitome of Nazi eugenics, but even he comes to realize that tyranny is a malevolent force that cuts away at the sanctity of the individual. A well-done book that I’d recommend for both young and regular adults.

This Is Not A Novel (190 pages) The late David Markson is one of my favorite authors. His books, while similar in style, expand the possibilities of literature, challenging reader expectations while also delivering on the emotional promises we require from literature.

This Is Not a Novel focuses on the birth, life, and death of various artists, including the narrator, who calls himself “Writer.” The text is essentially a 190-page collection of anecdotes about artists (again, including “Writer”), but the anecdotes build up and play off each other, allowing the reader to make the kinds of connections we desire in our reading.

I picked up the book during the week my family was in Chicago, and I read it in just a couple of hours. There are no chapters to the book, and each anecdote is very short — sometimes no longer than a few words — so it’s easy to tell yourself, just one more, just one more, and next thing you know, the book is over.

If you have any interest in art and artists, definitely pick it up.

The Communist Manifesto (288 pages) As I’ve mentioned a couple of times, I taught a high-school course on Communism & Socialism in 2017. To prepare for that class, I read several books and essays from the original leaders, including the grand-daddy of the texts, Marx & Engels’ Communist Manifesto.

I’m a big fan of this book. A lot of it is Inside Baseball type-stuff, where Marx & Engels argue with other communists and socialists about the real aims and meaning of the international movement, but you can breeze over that stuff to get to the meat of the essay.

Between the two blog posts I’ve linked to above, I’ve said pretty much all I want to say on the topic for now, but I will add that I truly believe every informed American ought to read The Communist Manifesto. Marx & Engels are both strong writers, and the ideas they present in this little book become more apropos with the growing power of the American oligarchy.

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (170 pages) I picked this book up while reading several books on Communism & Socialism. I needed a break from all of the political theory, and this meditation on the meaning of life fit the bill.

The author, Elisabeth Tova Bailey, was suddenly struck by a painful illness that prevented her from getting out of bed for close to a year. In her bedridden state, a friend gave her a wild snail that they picked up from outside of her apartment. While lying in bed doing absolutely nothing, Bailey begins to meditate on the lived experience of the snail, on humanity’s need for companionship, and on life’s ability to be resilient in the face adversity.

This short book did not quite live up to my hopes for it (it reads like a poor man’s version of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek), but at 170 pages, it fulfilled my need to alleviate the political anger aroused in me by Marx, Engels, and Lenin.

Lenin: A Biography (561 pages) Another book for the Communism & Socialism class, this one took me most of the summer. I started reading it in mid-July and finished it in late August.

As the bona-fide leader of the Communist revolution in Russia and the founding father of the Soviet Union, Lenin has been the subject of hundreds if not thousands of scholarly books over the past 100 years. Choosing a single book to read can be daunting. I chose Robert Service‘s biography because he is a professor of Russian history at Oxford and the author of several others books on Russia, including a biography of Stalin and a history of 20th century Russia.

I also chose the book because it was one of the first biographies to be written after Mikhail Gorbachev “unsealed” the central party’s archives and various files and meeting minutes became declassified. It also contained research from more recently acquired correspondence from and memoirs of Lenin’s family, furthering our insight into Lenin’s motives and actions.

I was not disappointed. What results is a full and complex picture of a uniquely driven and highly focused individual. We see him playing with his neighbor’s children and feel his own loss at never having children himself. We see him raging in his deathbed as Stalin proves himself to be an unworthy successor. We see him foaming at his fellow intellectuals and inspiring the actions of crowds in a square. We follow him on nighttime walks and relax with him in the countryside. We see, in a word, a man.

Socialism: Utopian & Scientific (86 pages) Like the Communist Manifesto, Socialism: Utopian & Scientific is less of a book and more of an extended essay. Written exclusively by Engels (rather than Marx & Engels), the essay breaks down the concept of socialism, looking at it through first a utopian lens and then a historical-material one, with a long section in the middle, “Dialectics,” establishing the primacy of the latter over the former.

For Engels, when Socialism evolved from Utopianism to Historical Materialism, its “task was no longer to manufacture a system of society as perfect as possible, but to examine the historico-economic succession of events from which these classes [the proletariat and the bourgeoisie] and their antagonism had of necessity sprung, and to discover in the economic conditions thus created the means of ending the conflict.”

In other words, Socialism is not an attempt to create the perfect society. It’s the attempt to end the original conflict between humans: economic oppression. Subsequently, the dominant mode of production (capitalism) manifests as the pure expression of that oppression, one in which the only goal is the creation of surplus value, which Marx demonstrated can only arise from the exploitation of another person’s labor.

In still other words, according to Engels (one of its founding fathers), Socialism is not a positive political program but an attempt to free the vast swath of humanity from capitalist oppression (which, it will be argued elsewhere also frees humanity from the tyranny of the State, itself a mode of capitalist defense).

For a relatively short introduction to Socialism, you could do a lot worse.

State & Revolution (116 pages) Written by Lenin, The State & Revolution is Lenin’s attempt to clarify the language and ideas of Marx and Engels to better communicate what he saw as the revolutionary requirements of Communism and Socialism, especially as it relates to the proletariat, whom he defines as the spear tip of the working class, the leadership group that is most capable of directing the workers’ revolution through and into its ultimate phase, the withering away of the state and humanity’s first real taste of freedom.

If you’re interested, I put together for my students some notes on the first few chapters. It’s basically quotes from the text, but arranged so as to provide a clearer through-line for each chapter.

Lenin is not as good a writer as Marx or Engels, but his tone and his authority definitely come through. After reading the biography of Lenin I mentioned above, I found my first in-depth experience with his writing to be enriched by my understanding of him as a man. I definitely enjoyed the experience.

On Bullshit (67 pages) A small treatise written by a Princeton Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, On Bullshit has a funnier title than its content would suggest. The author attempts to analyze the difference between bullshit and lying, coming to the conclusion that while lying must have some relationship to the truth (since its function is to conceal the truth), bullshit‘s only goal is to get its audience to be impressed by the bullshitter.

Because it is generally apathetic in regards to the truth, bullshit is more dangerous than lying: lying at least acknowledges the value of the truth, but bullshit is nihilistic.

A Song of Ice & Fire (4,972 pages) Following the conclusion of the latest season of Game of Thrones, I decided to re-read George R.R. Martin’s original books: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, and A Dance with Dragons.

I loved these books the first time I read them over a decade ago, and I loved them even more this time around. I had forgotten how many changes the HBO series had made, how many characters left out and how many subplots left unopened or unexplored. I forgot that the HBO series was not only erasing minor characters or changing the locations and timing of various scenes, but it was radically altering Martin’s novels, to the point where the events of the past two seasons of television simply can’t develop over the next two or three books.

In other words, I’d forgotten that what I was watching on television was so far from Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire that I’d essentially forgotten A Song of Ice & Fire. I couldn’t be happier to have Martin’s vision be the last one I’ve experienced.

Now if only he could publish the next book (The Winds of Winter) before the final season of Game of Thrones can be released.


And that’s it. Those are the twenty-one books I read in 2017. All told, we’re talking roughly 10,660 pages worth of fantasy, history, philosophy, experimental literature, mythology, religion, and politics.

Not to mention way too many articles about Donald Trump.

God damn it, 2017.

I Joyfully Disagree

A few years ago, I had an argument with my brother that lasted a little over four hours. It started around 10pm and ended after 2am. We argued the entire time. By the time we both went to bed, we were slightly upset with one another, but thankfully, the negative energy didn’t carry beyond the following morning.

Several weeks ago, I had an argument with my cousin-in-law. It also started late at night and ended sometime early in the morning. This one involved a myriad of people standing outside at a party, but he and I started it and he and I finished it. At one point, he physically threw me up against a wall, but at no point did I feel that we were actually upset with one another.

I do this a lot.

A couple of days ago, I argued with three of my students for forty-five minutes straight, only stopping because the clock told us we had to. While one of the students grew verbally exasperated with me during the argument, and another seemed to get silently so, at no point did I feel like they wanted the argument to stop.

I do this all the time.

I’m not entirely sure where this personality trait originates. My family argued a lot growing up, and my best friend and I used to (and still do) argue all the time, but I don’t know how much was nurture or how much was nature.

I’ve even bought into the astrological argument on this one, despite telling myself I don’t believe in astrology. While I understand and agree with all of the arguments that explain why I shouldn’t agree with astrology, when it comes to being a Gemini, for me, it simply feels true.

As Astrology.com explains it:

[Talking is] not just idle chatter with these folks… The driving force behind a Gemini’s conversation is their mind. The Gemini-born are intellectually inclined, forever probing people and places in search of information. The more information a Gemini collects, the better. Sharing that information later on with those they love is also a lot of fun, for Geminis are supremely interested in developing their relationships.

Forever probing; collecting and sharing information for the pure joy of it; and developing relationships through this method — it sounds like a person who loves to argue (and who loves to blog).

The argument with my brother started because he endorsed the Confederate flag. The argument with my cousin-in-law started because he supported Judge Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court (and as a lawyer, he thought he knew of what he spoke). The argument with my three students started because they doubted that there is such a thing as altruism.

These are all good arguments.

My brother argued that the Confederate flag doesn’t have to stand for racism. It can also stand for rock n’roll in the way that Bo & Luke Duke were rock n’roll. It can stand for bad-assness, that brand of American individuality that flouts convention and shoots from the hip. After all, it comes from Confederacy not just of slaveholders, but of rebels. My brother’s argument wasn’t wrong.

My cousin-in-law argued that, when it comes to the Supreme Court, the best judges would be textualists. It’s not the Supreme Court’s job to do what it thinks is morally right. Our country’s morals and values should be democratically determined through a legislative process whereby competing interests make their best arguments and majority opinions rule the day (tempered by the minority’s right to continue the argument even when they don’t have the votes, forcing the legislature to arrive at some kind of near consensus). It’s a drawn-out and dirty way to determine our society’s values, but it’s the best method anyone’s come up with yet to balance the rights of the individual with the obligations of a society.

To best protect those democratically determined values, we want a Supreme Court that restrains itself to the values entombed in a text that the people themselves have agreed upon (through their elected representatives). The Supreme Court should not make rulings because of some kind of prevailing societal wind whose presence can sometimes only be sensed by five out of the nine judges. My cousin-in-law’s argument was not wrong.

My students argued that altruism doesn’t exist because human beings have evolved to sometimes seek experiences that will increase the flow of dopamine in the brain (altruism has been shown to be associated with dopamine). In other words, we don’t act altruistic because we’re nice people; we act altruistic because it gets us a little high. Since the unselfish acts required for altruism ultimately reward the self, the act’s altruistic origin is false. My students’ argument was not wrong.

And yet, argue with all of them I did.

I tried to explain to my brother that, while what he was saying wasn’t wrong, the violence of slavery was so horrific that its symbol should only be able to exist in history books and museums. I didn’t disagree that any individual anywhere has the right to wave whatever flag they choose to wave, but just because they have the right to do so doesn’t mean that they should. It’s a sad world when someone tells you that the flag you’re waving creates a sense of visceral fear and/or horror in their hearts, and they have all the facts of history to support their emotional response as a reasonable reaction, and yet, just because you can, you continue to wave the flag. That’s not an act of rebellion; that’s just disrespect and hate.

I tried to explain to my cousin-in-law that, while textualism sounds like a great method for interpreting the law, I’d rather have judges who share the majority’s understanding of fairness, regardless of the intricacies of the text that fairness should be based on. In addition, when a judge has a clear preference for finding for the rights of corporations over the rights of individuals (as Justice Gorsuch has been shown to do), then that judge isn’t capable of (or interested in) defending the people against the moneyed interests who have corrupted the legislative process that is responsible for those texts.

To be a textualist, then, is to be a judge who openly declares his faith in a system of laws whose creation is funded and driven by a combination of multinational corporations and the richest individuals who run them. Corporations do not need any more influence in our government than they already have, but the confirmation of Justice Gorsuch gave them not just one more representative, but one more incredibly powerful representative whose preference for the corporate interest will have an effect for generations.

I tried to explain to my students that, while altruistic acts ultimately reward the individual with dopamine, that doesn’t mean altruism doesn’t exist. For two reasons, the first of which is a question of timing, and the second of which is a question of semantics — of where you locate the meaning of altruism.

The process of altruism leading to an increase in dopamine is an evolved process, which means that at some point, some creature (possibly pre-chordates) did something altruistic, and then, and only then, was the dopamine triggered, the joyful experience of which created the drive to do something nice again, even if only to get a little buzzed again.

The same process probably happens in the development of young children: first they do something nice (probably because they were taught to), and then, and only then, can the dopamine be triggered.

But until they (chordates or children) actually commit the altruistic act, they can’t know that it will result in the joyful release of dopamine, and so, wouldn’t the impulse to altruism have to come first, rather than the reward of the dopamine?

Even if a child only commits an altruistic act because their parent(s) taught them that it’s right to do so, they must first do so not because of the reward they’ll receive (which they know nothing about) but because it’s the right thing for them to do.

The second reason is that it doesn’t actually matter how the drive to be altruistic evolved. Obviously, for social creatures such as ourselves, being altruistic makes it easier to live among the group and, hence, to survive long enough to create the next generation of altruists, which of course passes on the genes for altruism (including too, perhaps, the genes for listening to one’s elders). But this doesn’t change the fact that the person doing the altruistic act does so to be helpful.

Yes, there is a biological and evolutionary reward, but if there’s one thing that defines the human species, it’s that we’ve evolved to transcend our bodies, hence the evolutionary and transcendent gifts of language, culture, and technology. Just because something finds it origin in our biology doesn’t mean we ought to locate its meaning there as well.

The meaning of altruism exists beyond the body — this is in some ways its definition: a helpful act extending from one’s body and through which nothing good is expected in return. Just because something good is returned (the joyful flood of dopamine) doesn’t discount the fact that nothing good was expected. It’s that lack of an expectation (factual or not) that defines altruism; not the gene that floods the brain inside our bodies, but the lack of an expectation that something good will come to us from outside of our bodies.

It was a long and complex argument with many twists and turns and a healthy amount of crossover, and by the end, we seem to agree to disagree. My students are damn smart, and they know, themselves, how to make an argument.

Regardless, this is who I am: the Gemini who’s going to argue with you, not because I’m angry (rarely) or passionate (often), but because it just feels so damn fun to do.