A pretty good collection of David Foster Wallace essays, but it suffers by comparison to Consider the Lobster, which was in my opinion consistently be...moreA pretty good collection of David Foster Wallace essays, but it suffers by comparison to Consider the Lobster, which was in my opinion consistently better. The best parts are sublime, hilarious, cutting, and Wallace has the ability of great writing talents to cast in words a thought, an idea, a feeling that you've had but have never consciously bubbled into the forefront of your mind. But the essays here tend to be a little more repetitive and desultory, and one of them I considered to be a fairly unreadable stinker.
The essays on Michael Joyce/the pro tennis circuit ("Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry...") and David Lynch ("David Lynch Keeps His Head') were my two favorites. (Unfortunately by comparison for the former, Wallace has two better essays on tennis: the wonderful "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart," from Consider the Lobster, and "Roger Federer as Religious Experience," which you can find on the NYT's website.) "Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All" and the eponymous essay are similar explorations of weird American cultural experiences and are funny but spend a bit too much time hammering the same nails. The one essay I found truly dislikable, probably the first instance of Wallace's writing that I've found so, was "E Unibus Pluram," an incoherent, bullshitty blather about the role of TV in pomo literature. (less)
A passably entertaining account of an imagined apocalypse in which a large portion of the world's population turns into zombies and the remaining peop...moreA passably entertaining account of an imagined apocalypse in which a large portion of the world's population turns into zombies and the remaining people fight for survival in a global war. It is constructed through recorded "oral accounts" with survivors, in the style of some nonfiction history books. Obviously when I picked this up I was not looking for the next Pulitzer winner but just some good ol' blood and guts and fun; unfortunately it did not always live up to these hopes.
The best parts of the books are not actually about the zombies themselves but about the human response to a doomsday scenario. Against the admittedly unrealistic backdrop of an undead invasion, the author crafts interesting reactions from governments and ordinary people, survival methods, and adaptations of fighting technique to the new threat. The zombies are actually almost tangential here, existing solely so we can see the human response (they're pretty stock horror-movie creatures anyway).
Unfortunately the plot was not particularly good. The characters' retold stories were often corny, and not in a fun kitschy or pulpy way (which is what I wanted), but an overwrought, even melodramatic way. Admittedly the plot in a book like this only exists as a scaffolding from which to hang the descriptions and visions, but the scaffolding that is there distracts by taking itself too seriously. You've got to have a fine touch to write accounts about zombie attacks and make them seem heartfelt without being eye-rolling, and Brooks doesn't quite have it. Maybe it'll look better in the movie, which is apparently in the works already. (less)
The first chapter of this book, "PanOpticon," is one of the most gleeful, wonderful new pieces of writing that I've come across in some time. I don't...moreThe first chapter of this book, "PanOpticon," is one of the most gleeful, wonderful new pieces of writing that I've come across in some time. I don't want to give anything about it away, but suffice it to say that after reading it I was ready to devour not only the rest of the book, but everything else David Mitchell has written (I've also read Cloud Atlas but nothing else).
The rest of the book, perhaps inevitably, could not clear the immensely high bar set by the first chapter. It doesn't fall off right away, but engages in a slow decrescendo until by the end of the book I thought I was reading something relatively ordinary. The book continues in the weird and imaginative vein established early on, with colorful characters, mood swings, and interludes (such as the reading of a letter) where the story's world shifts completely. You couldn't make this into a play, the set would have to change every five minutes.
While the story is ostensibly about one Eiji Miyake's search for his father, the parental quest is something of a MacGuffin. The real fun is getting to sit behind Eiji, endearing wallflower, reluctant adventurer, relentless dreamer, and one of the more likable protagonists I've encountered. Perhaps this is why the story starts strong and tails off as it does; as the book is forced to wrap up its boondoggle plot driver, it loses some of its fun and coherency. Nevertheless a book worthy of your time. (less)
Single review for the Chronicles of Prydain, as they are similar in style and quality and could have been produced as a single large volume of five su...moreSingle review for the Chronicles of Prydain, as they are similar in style and quality and could have been produced as a single large volume of five sub-books.
The Chronicles of Prydain are children's books. Some children's books hold up well when read by an adult, but these are definitely for kids and do not carry any added depth. The adventures are amusing but flat. You might smile at Eilonwy's sass and moxie and Fflewdur Fflam's tall tales. But you're probably also going to cringe at Taran's extreme earnestness and do-goodery, or Gwydion's noblest-of-all-nobles nobility, and maybe you'll tire a bit of Gurgi, who is Prydain's very own Jar Jar Binks. If you're reading this and you're already grown up, it might be too late to get full enjoyment out of these books.
The Welsh mythology Alexander spins into the stories adds some nice color, and in fact now having read these books (I read the first two when I was much younger, and the last three for the first time recently) I am interested in reading the Mabinogion, the Welsh medieval folk stories from which Alexander drew much inspiration. I suspect a grown-up audience might find these richer and rawer, just as a grown-up audience might prefer reading the Bible over one of those bowdlerized "children's Bible stories" collections.
Try these if you haven't hit your growth spurts yet, but for my time and money I'd rather have simply re-read the Lord of the Rings. (less)
An engrossing read that follows the medical history of Lia Lee, a second-generation Hmong child struck with severe epilepsy, and the clash of her trad...moreAn engrossing read that follows the medical history of Lia Lee, a second-generation Hmong child struck with severe epilepsy, and the clash of her traditionalist family against the scientific methods of American medicine. Lia's story is perfect because she is a child, too young to make medical decisions for herself and consequently situated uncomfortably at the juncture between her parents' right to nurture her as they see fit and the state's obligation to protect her life. Anne Fadiman's writing is excellent most of the way, observant and exciting, but it runs out of steam towards the end, turning from a great analysis of a cultural divide into a somewhat corny celebration of "spiritual" Eastern traditions that could only have been written by a Westerner. Still a no-doubt recommendation.
I'm a man of reason and logic, so I view this book not as a suggestion that formalized scientific medicine and spiritual healing go hand in hand (I place full stock in the former and zero in the latter), but as an analysis of what I think of as the "resetting password" problem. In theory, security systems that require periodic resets of their users' passwords are safer than those that do not. In practice, though, it is a great hassle for users to keep resetting their passwords, and so they resort to generating them in patterns and/or writing them down on a pad of paper, both of which make the system drastically less secure. The takeaway is that we should design systems with realistic human behavior in mind, even if that would be suboptimal under some other (unrealistic) assumptions of human behavior.
Likewise, in order to treat patients from other cultures properly, Western medicine must take into account how they will react to instructions, rather than treating them according to a preconceived pattern of behavior that might be more typical of other Westerners. As is noted by Lia's doctors in retrospect, this may have meant that Lia should have been treated in a way that one would consider slightly suboptimal for a born-and-raised American patient. The prescriptions might have been simpler, or perhaps some time at the outset might have been devoted to making the family feel more comfortable about the medical practices. Even if it translated to a delay in treatment or some other type of suboptimality, it would have helped in the long run, especially given that Lia's illness was a chronic one.
It is this kind of meta-thinking about medical treatment that made the book interesting. I don't suppose I'll ever care very much for alternative forms of medicine or anything of that nature, and although Lia's story does imply positive things about traditional Hmong healing, I remain of the view that these types of activities' best service is to put the patient at ease and to facilitate compliance with his or her doctors. But of course the views that count are not mine but the doctors' and the patient's, and the patient's most of all. You don't go to war against disease with the patient you wish you had, you go to war with the patient you've got. (less)
A book of sharp little twists and the usual thematic obsessions of Philip K. Dick: reality, perception, and free will. If you like that kind of stuff...moreA book of sharp little twists and the usual thematic obsessions of Philip K. Dick: reality, perception, and free will. If you like that kind of stuff you'll like this, if you don't care for it then maybe you won't, but I think most readers will have a generally good time. There are at least four short stories in this collection that were later turned into big-budget Hollywood films.
Even the very worst of the stories at least have some kind of bizarre oddball concept or idea to share with you: a carnival from outer space, an ethereal being that can only be perceived by taking a drug, a plasma alien narrator whining to an intergalactic bureaucracy. So you never feel like any of the reads was a waste of time; the worst that happens is that the ideas get thrown out there but don't go anywhere.
The difference between the good and bad stories is Dick's ability to explore the idea he's throwing out there to a satisfying degree (and in part whether he can stop himself from going into action-movie mode). I'll particularly highlight "Foster, You're Dead" as a story that does this well. It takes a fresh little twist on a believable future (especially during the Cold War when these were written), gives you human characters with human foibles and desires, and ends with a tremendous tweak of the reader's nose. There are a few other stories that do this well; this one was my favorite of the lot.
Best stories: "Beyond Lies The Wub", "Foster, You're Dead", "Imposter" [sic], "The Minority Report" (considerable differences from the movie). (less)
A collection of unfortunately mediocre sci-fi short stories heavily themed around sexuality, the sometimes-cooperative sometimes-antagonistic relation...moreA collection of unfortunately mediocre sci-fi short stories heavily themed around sexuality, the sometimes-cooperative sometimes-antagonistic relationship between men and women, Lovecraftian monstrosities (I don't like Lovecraft either), and the destruction of human society and culture (this happens in several stories). Some good ideas to chew on, but baked in a medium of poor writing: wild run-on imagery that seems designed to confuse, highly one-dimensional characters, long rants to stir up drama.
Good stories: "The Screwfly Solution" is a decent horror, and I think (as best I can, seeing as I am a man) is a stark explication of the fear of misogynist violence that women face regularly in their lives. "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" is thoughtful and for me was the best of the stories that explicitly primarily tackled feminism - it was of the quality that I was hoping the entire volume would be. "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side" was short and punchy, and "Slow Music" was the opposite, a little winding but pleasant, with much more human characters than found in many of the other stories.
Bad: I bear particular antipathy towards "Love Is The Plan the Plan Is Death," which I found nearly unreadable and boring and which had little in the way of interesting ideas. "With Delicate Mad Hands" was one long fantasy-rant with no substance. "On the Last Afternoon" was aimless and felt like a story that was written to meet a quota. I thought the baseline of quality was low, and most of the stories that I did not highlight in either this or the previous paragraph were not terrible, but generally not very good. (less)
I was given this book for work. It's an enthusiastic recommendation of emerging markets investments, with chapter-by-chapter profiles on many firms fr...moreI was given this book for work. It's an enthusiastic recommendation of emerging markets investments, with chapter-by-chapter profiles on many firms from EM countries that have succeeded and how they did it. Van Agtmael does share some very interesting and enlightening bits about these companies, but he also has a tendency to hit the same somewhat points over and over again, and in a bad, repetitive way, not a good, theme-establishing way. "Obsession" with quality, pride in your product - I don't need to be told such things are important to a firm's success, everyone knows that. I want more details, more differentiation, more exploration into why these are uniquely worth discussing when you put an EM spin on the story. The last chapter, in which he talks about his approach to investment strategies, is good. (less)
One of Stephen Jay Gould's books that collect popular science essays he's written over the years. I find his writing to be an alternation between high...moreOne of Stephen Jay Gould's books that collect popular science essays he's written over the years. I find his writing to be an alternation between highly fascinating passages and tedious stretches. Some of his essays cover great topics - the huge slime mold out in Michigan, the history of eugenics thinkers, etc. - and some are on minutiae that I just found incredibly dull. On a more detailed level you see the very same alternation: paragraphs of great insight interspersed with distracting and meandering tangents that Gould's editor should really have insisted on cutting. And on an even more micro level you see the same thing: measured and eloquent diction mixed with a Dickensian propensity towards verbosity. So this book gets three stars, although you can really decompose that into half of one and half of five. Best essays are the first (which is a wonderful ode to the natural human love of science), one on fossilized magnolia leaves, and one on eugenics and the Nazis. Be warned that some topics appear repetitively, as this is a collection of essays written at separate points in times by the same person. (less)
I picked up this book because of the rather striking epigraph in The Blind Assassin. This is a book about Iran during the last days of the Shah, befor...moreI picked up this book because of the rather striking epigraph in The Blind Assassin. This is a book about Iran during the last days of the Shah, before he was toppled and replaced by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Ryszard Kapuscinski is an openly literary writer of nonfiction; the back cover says that he "brings a mythographer's perspective and a novelist's virtuosity" to his subject; his Wikipedia article mentions Adam Hochschild describing his work as "magic journalism," in comparison to fictional magic realism. So you have to take that into account when you pick him up - don't expect a dispassionate retelling of the facts. But if you accept this then you have a pretty decent book o your hands.
The story is told through a series of vignettes, like peeling through a memory, or seeing paintings at a museum. Some are extremely vivid. The one that sticks with me most is when Kapuscinski meets a man who was tortured by the Shah's secret police in cruelly creative fashion: he is strapped to a chair that gradually moves towards a white-hot iron wall until he admits wrongdoing. While retelling his story he breaks down crying and pleads, "God... why have you chastised me with such a terrible deformity as thinking? Why have you taught me to think, instead of teaching me the humility of cattle!"
The vignettes are excellent but Kapuscinski sometimes oversteps the bounds of his abilities. He is a great storyteller but not a great analyst. For example, when he directly describes what he believes to be the Shah's vision of a Great Civilization, the writing is weak and a bit outlandish. But when he gives a concrete instance of the Shah's ambitions, describing the Shah's splurge on infrastructure and subsequent massive waste from horribly inadequate planning, it is a memorable and funny story.
A very short book that you could read in a day. (less)
A novella incidentally about a man's murder, and more specifically about the residents of a small imaginary Latin American village. The death is discl...moreA novella incidentally about a man's murder, and more specifically about the residents of a small imaginary Latin American village. The death is disclosed in the title and the opening sentence, and the story slouches towards its inevitable conclusion. Through the prism of the murder and its motive, Márquez examines the lives and dreams and interactions between the townspeople. A bit of a psychological study; indeed one of the questions implied by the story is why the murder was allowed to happen at all.
I enjoyed the book, but at first I was worried that I hadn't "got" something about it - a hidden meaning, symbolism, etc. Perhaps I still haven't. But I don't think this is necessarily Márquez's main concern; I think it's a book driven by the humanity and dimensionality of its characters, where you hold the men and women Márquez creates in your mind's eye and let the richness of their construction wash over you. Solid writing, as you might expect from an author of this caliber, though without enough lingering ideas for me to warrant the fifth star. (less)
The follow-up to the brilliant work The Selfish Gene. Only the last few chapters actually focus directly on the extended phenotype concept, which was...moreThe follow-up to the brilliant work The Selfish Gene. Only the last few chapters actually focus directly on the extended phenotype concept, which was disappointing to me, as I thought it was one of Dawkins's more intriguing ideas introduced in this book's precursor. Those chapters are indeed the best and most interesting; much of the rest is spent defending the selfish gene concept from criticisms and making small but not especially revelatory touch-ups on the basic theory. It's still very good subject matter (perhaps excepting the chapter on outlaw genes, which was very tedious and not compelling), and Dawkins's incredibly clear and logical prose alone is worth your time. But you should read The Selfish Gene first, and treat this as "for further reading." (less)
The fourth PKD book I've read, and definitely the best. It imagines a future ("future," since the book is set in the imagined 1990s) where people with...moreThe fourth PKD book I've read, and definitely the best. It imagines a future ("future," since the book is set in the imagined 1990s) where people with telepathic and anti-telepathic powers align in business outfits and sell their competing services to customers, and where the recently departed are kept in half-alive states and gradually phased out of life in a controlled fashion. Several anti-telepaths are brought onto a large and secretive job, where something goes wrong, and either their boss is killed, or they are killed but not their boss, or maybe none of them are, or even all of them - something odd begins to happen that I will not describe further to avoid spoilers.
I casually enjoyed the other PKD books I've read, but this stands out from them because it is written considerably more tightly. The themes he hits on here are the same as those in his other books: reality vs. perception, memory, balance, genuineness vs. ersatz. But he cuts down on his tendency to meander along these themes in different ways without connecting the dots cleanly, and the result is a more powerful ideological punch. The plot is also very exciting, mixing the usual sci-fi thriller with a bit of almost horror-like suspense.
An aside: I disliked the very last chapter, which I thought was essentially a throwaway to generate a cliffhanging ending, but maybe it was consistent with the natural ending in some way I didn't understand. If anyone has read this and can explain how it's not a throwaway, I'd love to hear it. (less)
I recently re-read this book because I felt like I didn't have enough magic and enchantment in my literary life. What I wrote in my first review back...moreI recently re-read this book because I felt like I didn't have enough magic and enchantment in my literary life. What I wrote in my first review back in 2007 holds: Invisible Cities feels more like poetry than prose. The book consists of 55 descriptions of fictitious places as imagined to have been described by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan. From time to time Polo and the Khan converse as well, but these are filler/fodder as far as I'm concerned; the joy in reading this book is in the cities.
The cities are the stuff of fantasy: a city suspended on a web over a valley, a city that periodically moves and leaves webs behind where it has been, a concentric matryoshka-doll city where new versions of itself grow from within. I still find the prose beautiful, although I think as I've aged I've started to favor more direct, less baroque styles of writing, and no one should come to this book expecting an economy of words.
Since writing my original review, I've spent five more years living in one of the capital-C Cities of the world, New York, and have only grown to love the urban life more and more. If you've ever felt the same way, ever been stirred by floating through masses of humanity and forests of glass and concrete and simply breathing in the richness of activity and speech and motion that pervades a city, I humbly recommend this book to you. (less)
Wow - every 20-30 pages of this book something happens where you say to yourself "I can't believe that happened." Ghost Wars is a history of US involv...moreWow - every 20-30 pages of this book something happens where you say to yourself "I can't believe that happened." Ghost Wars is a history of US involvement in Afghanistan from the anti-Soviet uprising in the 1980s up to the day before the WTC attacks. I think it's essential reading for anyone to understand what's going there. There are so many twists and turns, so many parties involved and alliances forming and breaking, and so many dollars and arms changing hands. If it were written in a more literary style about less well-recognized events, you might be excused for thinking it was some kind of spy novel.
The biggest lesson of all is that the Middle East never was and never will be an "us against them" story. There were and are the Taliban, al Qaeda, Afghan communists, Massoud's Northern Alliance, Saudi royals, Iranians, the CIA, the Defense Department, the State Department, Soviets, countless mujahedin warlords, etc. At various points many of the parties involve either change their allegiances outright or shift their focus from one enemy to another. And embedded in every friendship was some difference of motive, to the point where one's friend's friend could easily be one's enemy.
In any case, the book was really amazing, a touch on the wordy side in its efforts to be comprehensive but that's all. Through exhaustive research, Steve Coll gives you an omniscient, bird's eye perspective, giving a steady authorial guide through the geopolitics by sprinkling a little history with a careful recounting of the events and quotes from people on all sides. You can really see the clashing motives, the decisions made and left unmade, and a steady unfolding of events towards the crushing ending.
The book stops short a day short of 9/11 but sadly provides a hard finish that is all the worse because everyone knows what is to come next. The quote on the cover, from the NYT, is spot on: "...makes the reader want to rip the page and yell at the American counterterrorism officials... and tell them to watch out." If your knowledge of American involvement in the Middle East and South Asia is murky and vague like mine was, this book will have your eyes about a million times wider when you finish. (less)
On Wall Street, as with other industries, there are a few books that are regarded as essential reading; this collection of folk financial wisdom is on...moreOn Wall Street, as with other industries, there are a few books that are regarded as essential reading; this collection of folk financial wisdom is one of them. Although technically a work of fiction by writer Edwin Lefèvre, it is heavily based on the life of Jesse Livermore, a famous trader of the late 19th and early 20th century (who grew up in the same town as me!). Through relating personal anecdotes of his adventures in the markets, Livermore/Lefèvre discusses his own lessons and rules in trading discipline.
Reminiscences of a Stock Operator was written in 1923, so it's obviously not entirely fresh in terms of its description of market structure, but the discussion of market psychology is still very relevant. The book does not tell you what to buy or sell, but offers many great rules for good trading discipline. To borrow one of Lefèvre's turns of phrase, it's a discussion of tactics, not strategy.
I personally do not agree with all of the rules, and honestly the Livermore character contradicts them from time to time (and great traders know when to break their rules anyway). But I do strongly agree with two of the recurrent themes behind them: one, to be dispassionate about you trades and not to take a gain or loss personally, and two, to accept your own fallibility and stop yourself when a position starts going sour, even if you still like the rationale behind it.
After starting off with the Livermore character's first forays into trading as a youth, the book does become a little repetitive, consisting of war story after war story without much in the way of structure. This got a little boring for me, so I suppose for a reader who is not already interested in financial markets, it could get really boring. If you do not think this will be a concern, then I thoroughly recommend this book. (less)
Like much of this book's target audience, I am only familiar with the Bible to the extent that it was taught as a religious text in church. (I went to...moreLike much of this book's target audience, I am only familiar with the Bible to the extent that it was taught as a religious text in church. (I went to church when younger but am not religious at all now.) Therefore it's hard for me to judge whether this book is necessarily a good introduction into biblical scholarship, as I am not familiar with the field in general, any opposing schools of thought, or any debate regarding the merits of the evidence used in the writing.
That having been said, Who Wrote the Bible is informative and engaging. "The Bible" here refers specifically to the books of the Torah, Genesis through Deuteronomy, with shorter mentions to a few others, all in the Old Testament. The author, Richard Friedman, depicts the Torah as the stitched and edited product of several other works written many years apart, each of which was influenced by its author's time and place in the history of ancient Israel and Judah.
Sometimes the evidence feels a bit stretched and speculative, particularly when offering up potential authorial motives; Friedman sometimes obviates the problems associated with this tack by offering many of them that perhaps don't mean as much individually but are harder to ignore when combined. This sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. For example, I think this is effective in the section discussing the person who he thinks combined the Torah into its final form, but not as much when discussing the "D" source. Even when not entirely convincing, the book is thought-provoking, which I appreciate, and it certainly wasn't shy about presenting theories.
Although this may be less appealing to a purely popular audience, I wish he had gone over some of the more objective analyses and evidence in greater depth. For example, I would like to know more about lexical studies of ancient languages and how different grammatical forms have been used to pick out different authors, and also more about archaeological finds. (I thought the scroll seal was really neat but unfortunately it's discussed for all of two pages.) Being unfamiliar with the details of the evidence, I sort of have to take whatever Friedman says at face value; having him step through those details, particularly the less interpretive and more scientific pieces, would have really helped.
Still, the book taught me a lot about what modern scholars know about the Bible (but not really modern scholars; this book is over 20 years old now) and was fun to read. And it did a nice job weaving the reader between the printed word and the context of history. (less)
Offers a lot of food for thought, although sometimes a bit dry. Thaler is better known now as the co-author of Nudge, but back in 1992 he compiled thi...moreOffers a lot of food for thought, although sometimes a bit dry. Thaler is better known now as the co-author of Nudge, but back in 1992 he compiled this book reviewing the current (at the time) economic literature regarding consistently reproducible examples of non-rational human behavior. It's not quite a popular economics book, as there are many passages where he simply details the findings of various economics papers, but it's also much more engagingly written than your standard academic treatise.
And the anomalies are for the most part very interesting. I think the ultimatum game is the simplest, most succinct example of the type of irrationality that Thaler is looking at. To give away a small bit of the book, the ultimatum game is a two player game where one offers the other some fraction of a dollar (or $100, $1000, whatever). If the other person agrees they both get their respective fractions, but if the other person refuses then no one gets anything. A mechanically rational second player will take any offer, as it's better than nothing, but that's not what people do in reality, nor do real human first players usually offer the lowest possible amount.
Many of the anomalies run along this line: mechanically rational model predicts one thing, experiments and empirical data predict another, what kind of model of human deviation from rationality would produce such a result? The book is split into several chapters, each of which explores a different anomaly. Some of the chapters are co-authored, and between them and the papers cited, you'll find a lot of famous names in this book, some of whom have grown in fame since this book's publication (to name a few: Larry Summers, Janet Yellen, Brad DeLong, and now-Nobel laureates Daniel Kahneman and George Akerlof). The chapters I enjoyed the most covered intertemporal choice (people discount the value of having or losing something in the future in inconsistent ways) and status quo bias (people tend to prefer the status quo and will show an irrational preference for maintaining it).
I think this stuff is pretty fascinating. The main drawback of the book is that this fascinating stuff is sometimes presented dryly, at times reading like a laundry list of economic papers. I suppose this was sometimes deliberate because neither he nor the field of economics at large had a good answer to explain the irrationalities being discusses, and so he simply tried to present as much about it as possible. But deliberate or not, the book suffers a bit for these tendencies.
When Thaler breaks out of academician mode and writes "for" the reader he becomes much more enjoyable, but there is a bit of legwork to do when reading this book. If you're willing to do this legwork you'll be rewarded with a nice, if slightly dated (surely there have been many advances since 1992?) survey of economic modeling of human behavior beyond simple rationality. (less)
This book is probably the first time that I've found Dawkins to be anything short of immensely fascinating. I've already read and thoroughly enjoyed h...moreThis book is probably the first time that I've found Dawkins to be anything short of immensely fascinating. I've already read and thoroughly enjoyed his earlier books The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype, and The Blind Watchmaker covers a lot of the same ground, albeit in a more popularly accessible and less intellectually challenging manner. Would I have enjoyed the book more if it were the first by him that I'd picked up? Possibly. But even if that were the case it would not change the fact that it looks rather pale in side-by-side comparison with its predecessors.
My somewhat negative comments aside, Dawkins's expository skills at their weakest match what many writers have at their strongest, and he is always worth reading simply for the pleasure of well-written prose, if nothing else. The first several chapters are quite good, particularly his computerized simulations of evolution; the demonstration of how quickly "random" changes can be directed towards a specified goal is excellent. As someone who does not study biology professionally, the intermittent examples of real-life animal adaptations are always interesting to me.
The latter half of the book, in my opinion, consist too often of Dawkins arranging and then burning straw men. Maybe I'm already too convinced of the points he was trying to make, and consequently this part of the book is not "for" me. But there is a whole chapter on a discussion of punctuationism that I thought merited a few pages at best and that I felt was already well understood by reasonable people (maybe it wasn't so back then). And this is followed by a chapter on different approaches to taxonomy; Dawkins describes and disparages one in particular that seems so unreasonable that I wonder if he is unfairly simplifying it. I guess he'd tell you the former, but whether it's the former or the latter, it doesn't make for good reading. The latter third of the book bogs down in this sort of mire.
If you don't find The Selfish Gene very approachable, you might try this as a sort of Dawkins-lite. But if you can, I'd recommend skipping this and going straight to the books that made him famous. (less)