An excellent book: The Thing with Feathers

Noah Strycker’s book The Thing with Feathers has been sitting around in our house for about a year. While looking to find some reading to do away from a screen, I turned to it yesterday and today. I’m in the middle now, just having finished the chapter on what penguins fear. The book is written very well, conveying a lot of knowledge in a captivating way. Another book to add to the list of examples of good nonfiction writing. It may come in handy to have such a list if and when I get going with a long-postponed dream of mine to popularize some really promising bits of economic theory (a tall order, I know).

Unlike many other books I start reading, I am sure to finish The Thing with Feathers.

On having finished the book Sapiens

I have written here about reading Harari’s book Sapiens. I have finished the book since that post appeared. Now, separated from the time of finishing the book by a few days, in which I spent a lot of time reading graduate student dissertation proposals and writing lecture notes, I thought I would write down my lingering impression from the book.

This impression is bleak. The various revolutions Harari talks about left individual members of Homo Sapiens less well off than before, with the Agricultural Revolution as a prime example. Even worse were the effects of these revolutions (Cognitive, Agricultural, Industrial) on other species on planet Earth.

A secondary impression I got was one of a fundamental tension between Harari’s portrayal of history as proceeding without regard to what is good or bad, for humans or other species, and constantly talking about effects of historical changes as good or bad. I am perfectly content to read normative statements in a book on history (or economics, as a matter of fact), but I want a clearer idea of the author’s ethical convictions. Harari does not elucidate a moral philosophy, but one seems to be in the background, one that I would have liked to be made clearer.

Reading history – Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

I have always wanted to make more time to read history books and often they disappointed me when I did make the time. A few times I come across a book that takes a magisterial view of history and yet is written in such an engaging way that I want to read it to the end as soon as I can. Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari is one of these books. I am currently about three quarters of the way into it and I should finish it soon. (Yes, I’ve been promising more reading, and posting, about environmental economics. But along the way I thought a wider historical view would help me grasp the topic of impending environmental catastrophe better. Hence, I returned to this book, which I had only tasted briefly before, whereas this weekend I really got into it.)

So far, it strikes me as a tremendously well-written book. Yes, I don’t think Harari has everything about economics and game theory down right; the few references to these topics I found so far were generally accurate but somewhat misleading in their details. But he sure has the concept of money well understood, when he states that “money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised” (page 180). I am looking forward to getting to the chapter on Capitalism tonight; only the chapter on the marriage of science and empire is between my bookmark and that.

Science colleagues and friends, this is what it takes to succeed, beyond hard work, good ideas, and luck: really direct, spellbinding, convincing writing. One more reason I am going to finish this book is as a case study on how to write serious subjects well. Maybe I can emulate it. This very blog is a place for me to practice.

Sunset rumination

Sunset. I have taken many photos of the sunset from the guest room window, and, lately, from the bathroom window. Reading dystopian novels, as I have been doing lately, albeit slowly, might be connected to my sunset obsession by an over-eager psychoanalyst. I share Nabokov’s opinion about such analysts however. So I will keep shooting the sunset as art. I will only think of it as presaging the coming ecological disaster and the twilight of civilization when I am in a really dark mood. During the day, I will do what I can to convince people, using my knowledge, talents, and position, to do their bit to avoid the disaster. During the night, I may post more rambling paragraphs like this one.

And now, please excuse me as I return to Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer, a book lent to me by my friend Troy, which somehow has captured me more than I expected before I started it.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel

I just read, in ebook form, The Buried Giant, Ishiguro’s just-published novel. Many years ago I read his An Artist of the Floating World, and more recently his The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go. As did these other novels, The Buried Giant exerted its magic and compelled me to put some work aside to finish it. Also as the other novels, it is lingering in my mind and will probably do so for quite a while. It made it very easy for me to create a film of the novel in my mind; I would not care to have it disrupted by the movie that will probably be made. I recommend this novel heartily. It’s a deep study in the personal and social functions of memory and its absence.

I don’t have too much to say that will be different from what reviews I have read already said. It’s a departure for Ishiguro to write in Arthurian legend style, but then again to make a career in English literature is a departure for someone born in Japan, to begin with, and his other books have always broken with the styles of their predecessors.

So how dare I read a novel in the middle of the semester? Well, it’s my spring break and I am spending altogether too much of it working and shoveling snow, so I think I earned it!