2022 By The Books: Q1
By now, most readers of this publication should have seen variations of the theme, so no need for lengthy introductions. The main change for this year is that I’ve decided to release reviews in smaller batches instead of making you wait until the end of the year for one or two very long articles. As per usual, these reviews won’t be summaries of the books I’ve read (you can find those in plenty of other places), but observations, commentary, or speculations about how some particular theme generalizes and connects to things I’ve previously encountered.
A Case Of Exploding Mangoes, Mohammed Hanif
A fictionalized account of one the most important plane crashes you never heard about. In 1988, Pakistan’s then-president Zia-ul-Haq, as well as many high-ranking generals and two foreign diplomats, died in an accident shortly after takeoff, the circumstances of which remain mysterious. That would lead one to think that it’s a very serious book — and in some respects it is — but for the most part it’s hilarious in ways that are hard to pin down.
Chaos, James Gleick
Long and tedious. Chaos theory is originally a branch of physics (applications range much wider now) that has captivated lay audiences far beyond what its relative importance could justify, and I would speculate that this is in large part due to the beautiful graphs it has given rise to.
The other reason for the enthusiastic reception — and that’s a narrative that Gleick is spinning in his book as well, which was written back when chaos theory was still a little-known niche project — is the idea that the existence of chaos has put the naïve Laplacian idea of a perfectly predictable clockwork universe to rest. Of course that’s wrong — not only had quantum mechanics already slain the demon; chaos theory actually fits perfectly into the classical paradigm. Where it greatly differs from our everyday experience of electromagnetism, Newtonian mechanics or thermodynamics is in its sensitivity to initial conditions, which makes predictions very hard, not to say impossible, in practice — but then again Laplace never much worried about the practical aspects of his thought experiment.
Now there are some important ideas that originated from the field (such as the concept of self-similarity), and chaos theorist have made noteworthy discoveries, but I think it’s fair to say that the field hasn’t lived up to the original hype. Maybe get a more recent book on the topic (Chaos appeared in 1987)? There are some annoying, if often implicit, misconceptions, such as the insinuation that chaos theory broke the hegemony of linearity (there’s plenty of nonlinear, non-chaotic systems). Plus the focus on the trajectories of individual researcher, interesting though it may sometime be, adds lots of pages but little of relevance.
The Complacent Class, Tyler Cowen
I read Marginal Revolution almost every day, so I was curious to see how Cowen does in long form (not so well). When I described the book to a friend, she was underwhelmed — is this just another instance of haves vs. have-nots, of one group of people exploiting the rest for their own benefit? There’s a bit of free-floating associating around a main theme, some no doubt tongue-in-cheek, going on — a great many phenomena that don’t necessarily come to mind immediately when one thinks of stasis. Nevertheless his analysis of societal dynamics (or dynamism) hits close to home; it’s certainly true that we like to preach it when it suits us but stability is an ever-present lure. And he’s quite right when he insists that you can’t have your cake and eat it, too — a dynamic, innovative society will foster lots of creativity and economic growth, but may well bring about its own hardships, including riots, crime and a sense of restlessness.
Straussian reading: Austrian Business Cycle theory is fundamentally correct but its scope is much greater than its creators assumed.
Educated, Tara Westover
In a strange way, this is a feelgood book — not because one would want to change roles with the protagonist, but because it so neatly fits into the worldview of the literary audience. In almost comical ways, good and evil are found where one expects to find them. Westover’s father is the archetypal villain — an ignorant, violent fundamentalist with a taste for conspiracy theories. Pathetically, no words will do justice to the monumental feat accomplished by the education system that finally succeeded in awaking the author from her dogmatic slumber. While well-written, I found many sections hard to believe — events of the sort where “one day I was throwing car pieces across our junkyard, the other day I discovered Hume and nothing was like before”. It’s not so much tat I would argue her story was made up, but that the crucial links seem to be missing.
Far From The Tree, Andrew Solomon
An account of identity politics that I could see myself getting behind, although some fundamental disagreements remain even after a thousand pages. As the title indicates, the book is nominally about parent-child relationships that are marked by an unusually large cognitive or psychological distance, but really the underlying theme is the importance creating networks and a culture around what makes them special. A recurring theme is that as society at large is becoming more and more accommodating towards e.g. people with disabilities, and science/medicine is becoming better and better treating them, the very structure that made those improvements possible — the special interest groups organized around an identity — is crumbling away, for example because of improved prenatal testing. Some of the bewildering demands made by activists (take the case of cochlear implants, which some advocates consider assault on “deaf culture”) at least begin to make sense in that light.
The subcultures (or groups) Solomon has selected are guaranteed to get lead to some raised eyebrows: Next to children with schizophrenia, autism or dwarfism we find criminals and geniuses, which should make you wonder whether the author hasn’t gotten his categories seriously mixed up, or whether he has unheartened fascinating parallels that were left unexplored before. Conservatives will be even less amused by the almost total negation of personal responsibility (that famous rush from judgment) accompanying all his vignettes. Indeed there is something to be said against his attempt to present every position with the most impartial, compassionate, nonjudgmental sensitivity anyone could muster; a cynic may conclude that the author is overly concerned by what his reader may think of him. That being said, it’s impossible not to be touched by the fate of the families he portrays — how they accepted the cards they were dealt and managed to find meaning in challenges that at first glance seem almost insurmountable.
I am undecided whether (a) not mentioning Peter Singer in the chapter on disability (he has a cameo appearance later) but (b) portraying a father of a disabled child with the same name is a special kind of joke or just a clever reference.
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
I was convinced I had read Fitzgerald already but if I did, I had forgotten everything about it. Gatsby is of course emblematic of the Roaring Twenties, and has become nearly synonymous with glamour and decadence, but those things appear in the novel only on the sidelines. In a sense, the plot is weaved around the most classic of classic unfulfilled love themes, although with some twists that do not much help to make it believable. It has everything you expect — the looming memories of the Great War, Prohibition and its profiteers, the economic recovery, the rise of the car as the means of transportation of the future — but does not succeed in recreating the particular and short-lived atmosphere that characterizes the era in popular opinion.
The Man From The Future, Ananyo Bhattacharya
If there is any one person that I truly regret I’ll never be able to meet, it would probably be John von Neumann. I have been waiting for a good biography for a long time and it’s finally here (published in February 2022). Neumann has never attained the pop culture status of, say, Albert Einstein, but the breadth of his work is stunning. If you consider that he lived through two world wars and died prematurely at age 53, this is even more remarkable. An excellent introduction to a visionary genius, mostly focusing on his scientific achievements. His passing also marks the end of the era of true polymaths, an era to which I often look back with a certain nostalgia.
Not Born Yesterday, Hugo Mercier
This is in many ways a sequel to The Enigma of Reason, which I am happy to remind readers has been my top pick last year. It’s not quite as earth-shattering as its predecessor but that may well be because many of the ideas developed here follow quite naturally from Enigma. More precisely, this book had to be written to protect the flank cast wide open by Mercier’s interactionist account of how reason developed in humans. If much of our knowledge can be traced back to ever-more sophisticated modes of communication, shouldn’t we expect cunning interlocutors to mislead us in all kinds of ways? Are not conspiracy theories, religious sects and populist movements more than proof that there must be more to the story?
Not so, says Mercier. We are in fact quite critical of external sources, to the point where we’re more likely to reject information that would have helped us than to blindly accept somebody else’s utterances. In the case of beliefs that appear patently absurd, it is often worth wondering if those who subscribe to them do in fact live by them, or whether they merely hold them “reflectively”: Might they not embrace them to signal loyalty to a group, for example? Note that this does not imply these beliefs are mere tools that can be abandoned at any moment. Rather, I would argue that the mighty forces of self-deception make us think we have found the truth, when in fact we have adapted a belief for strategic reason and now seek to reduce cognitive dissonance.
The most interesting sections are the chapters on language as signaling, about which many misconceptions exist. Talk is cheap and actions speak louder than words, but of course there’s always something at stake, namely the speaker’s reputation. Paradoxically, the better a reputation the speaker has established (say by being honest and well-informed), the more tempting it becomes to deceive the audience.
Prisoners of Geography, Tim Marshall
How much do we talk about geography when analyzing foreign policy? Not nearly enough, if we are to follow Tim Marshall, who has since drilled his preferred narrative into yet another book (The Power of Geography). Overall it serves its function as a primer on geopolitics well, but it’s not without pitfalls. First off, it’s a useful reminder that the line between a realist stance in international relations (think John Mearsheimer) and justifying imperial overreach (think, um, Mearsheimer again?) is a thin one indeed; no exquisite mental gymnastics are required to get from “Russia needs Crimea” (to gain access to ports that don’t freeze over) to “Russia has a right to occupy Crimea” — even leaving aside for a moment the fact that Russia already had access to the Black sea prior to 2014. And that segues nicely into the second mistake: Trying a bit too hard to see everything through the lens of geography. It is rather easy to find examples of countries with broadly similar geographies and yet a very different economic and military outlook.
It may have been a wiser choice to focus more in depth on one particular region, rather than devoting just a couple of pages to each major player. Possibly the most interesting chapter was the final one on the Arctic, noting that new opportunities (and dangers) are already opening up as global warming progresses.
The Unfolding Of Language, Guy Deutscher
Proponents of spontaneous or emergent order typically object to the impositions of rules “from above” and praise arrangements resulting from human action, not human design (Adam Ferguson). To make the case, they have by and large settled on language as their go-to example. So if you’ve ever found yourself wondering how much truth there is to this, well, this is your book:
“Language change joins a long list of phenomena, from traffic jams to appearances of beaten tracks through fields, which are brought about through people’s actions, but are not willfully intended by them. The transformations in language not arise from anyone’s preoccupations with large-scale landscape design, but emerge from much more spontaneous and immediate concerns, such as saving effort in pronunciations (economy) or the desire to heighten the effect of an utterance (expressiveness).”
Deutscher does a fantastic job filling in the details: Exactly how do words and grammatical structures emerge, why are we constantly under the impression that language is deteriorating, and why do schoolchildren across the world have to go through the painful process of (attempting to) learn a foreign language instead of having one universal world language to begin with? Intuitively we all know that no language was ever created by a central authority and then force-fed to its subjects, but the mechanics of emergent creation are usually less well known.