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Books Unreviewed: Anxious Among the Stars
Reading about Restlessness, Randomness, Personal Motivation, Vegetables, Paper, More.
My initial goal with Miller’s Book Review 📚 was to review every book I read in 2022. At some point I tweaked that goal to sharing a review once a week, along with other bookish diversions. I’ve succeeded in posting a review just about every weekend, but I’ve read more than I’ve reviewed. I haven’t been able to keep up with the task. So far this year I’ve reviewed 32 books, but I’ve read 54. That’s 22 books left unreviewed. I wanted to keep track of those stragglers, and I thought you might like to see the list as well. I shared a dozen unreviewed titles back in May. Here’s rundown of the 10 I’ve accumulated since then.
In Why Are We Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment, Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey explore the anxiety of modern life through the work of four French philosophers: Montaigne, Pascal, Rousseau, and Tocqueville. A choice quote:
Rousseau is like a chemist in a laboratory whose daring combinations of elements have blown up in his face: the experiment kills its author but leaves a telling residue in his beakers.
I’ve always loved Montaigne, but he also comes in for a bruising here. I’m still inclined to think his approach to life has merit. Meanwhile, my appreciation for Pascal actually dipped a bit.
Regardless, one thing that comes through the Storeys’ treatment is how much our current experience depends upon conceptual frameworks engineered by those who went before us; we either adopt and adapt what they gave us or find ourselves reacting against it, even—especially?—if we’re unaware we’re doing so. Either strategy might make sense given the context, but one or the other is unavoidable.
Several years ago I purchased a copy of C. S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image at a used bookshop while on a business trip in Colorado. I read the book on the flight home and kept on reading later that same night until I’d finished it. Lewis’ presentation of the medieval world and its worldview utterly captivated me. So I was eager to jump into Jason M. Baxter’s study of Lewis’ own medieval influences and their impact on his work, The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis: How Great Books Shaped a Great Mind. In chapter after chapter, Baxter, a Dante scholar, shows how medieval models and patterns left their mark on Lewis’ thinking and creative output. An appreciation of the books behind Lewis offers help in better appreciating Lewis himself.
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One major point of difference between the medieval and modern world are their competing views of the heavens. Lewis easily recognized the value of modern astronomy, but still cherished the medieval picture as a frame of reference. It even hides in the background of The Chronicles of Narnia. Emily Levesque’s delightful and amusing memoir of life as an astronomer, The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy’s Vanishing Explorers, leans decidedly toward the modern but does a wonderful job of explaining the recent history of the science and its practitioners. As we revel in mind-bogglers captured by the James Webb Space Telescope, it’s useful to see how we arrived at this moment and how stargazers such as Levesque busily plumb the mysteries of the cosmos.
I love science writing, and one of my favorite science writers is Leonard Mlodinow. I reviewed his most recent book, Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking, a few months back. Somehow I’d never read The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives. Not long ago, however, I remedied that deficiency. It’s an enjoyable treatment on chance and probability and how to think more accurately and advantageously about them. Here’s the bad news: Since I didn’t capture my impressions right away, I’ve lost a lot of the nuance and argument. Some of the math left me scratching my head. The good news: I’ll have to read it again. I bet I’ll enjoy it as much the second time through.
As part of my work at Full Focus, I’ve followed Ayelet Fishbach’s output on motivation and goal achievement for years now. She’s a behavioral scientist and professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. When I saw she was distilling her years of research into a book, Get It Done: Surprising Lessons from the Science of Motivation, I was quick to buy and read. Fishbach offers an compelling framework for understanding goal pursuit and what blocks our progress. Her work has application to everything from business to relationships, hobbies, and health.
I’ve got young kids and a family history of heart trouble. Bad combo. I want to be around as they grow up and become parents themselves. With that in mind, I recently read both How Not to Die and How Not to Diet by Michael Greger, the physician responsible for NutritionFacts.org. In the first book, Greger advocates a plant-based diet to stave of disease and decline; in the second, he optimizes that diet for weight loss. I found both valuable and have since multiplied my daily servings of veg, fruit, nuts, and seeds. If you are what you eat, I’ll soon be a rabbit.
Which prompts a question: Do you know the difference between a carrot and a caret?
Family forms a key ingredient in Anne Fadiman’s essay collection, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, as do plagiarism, writing in books, eating books, and proofreading—hence the carrot/caret reference. Fadiman’s 18 essays range over all aspects of bookish living, including some truly strange. Did, for instance, Sir Walter Scott really shoot down a crow and jot a note with its blood to ensure he remembered a sentence he’d been stuck on?
Writers like Scott face tremendous odds getting their books into print—what, for instance, if Scott were a poor shot, unable to scribble his note, and forgot his sentence before he got home? Such is the drama inherent to the history of books. Emma Smith’s Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers offers many fascinating and enjoyable snapshots of that long and riveting history. She structures her narrative topically, rather than chronologically, to sometimes curious effect. But surprising revelations await with every few pages, including the cringe-inducing realization that we leave dead skin cells and other DNA mementos in the books we read. How much DNA did that copy of The Discarded Image I picked up in Colorado have? And whose was it? Buyer and borrower beware.
I’ve read and enjoyed several Mark Kurlansky books over the years, starting with Salt: A World History and Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World. When I saw Kurlansky’s Paper: Paging Through History I bought it immediately. And then I let it sit on the shelf for six years. I finally pulled it down and read it a few weeks ago. What was I waiting for? Like most Kurlansky’s histories, it’s a wide-ranger, covering paper from its invention to its modern production. Kurlansky bookends the narrative with China at the beginning and end with stops in the Middle East, Europe, the Americas and all points in between. He focuses on what he calls the technological fallacy: the notion that technologies produce change in a society. Rather, he says, changes in society produce technologies. I think it’s a bit of both, but the point is important to consider, especially as it reveals why Luddites usually lose; they’re busy waging war on cultural trends far more pervasive and powerful than their isolated targets.
While I didn’t review the books above, I’d recommend them to anyone interested in going deeper than the descriptions I’ve shared. Here’s the full list as a list for easy reference:
Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey, Why Are We Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment
Leonard Mlodinow, The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives
Ayelet Fishbach, Get It Done: Surprising Lessons from the Science of Motivation
Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader
Mark Kurlansky, Paper: Paging Through History
I’ll be back next week with another review and more bookish diversions. See you soon!
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