“The surface is everything, below that there is nothing.”
That’s a quote from Llewellyn Powys, younger brother of better known writer John Cowper Powys...more“The surface is everything, below that there is nothing.”
That’s a quote from Llewellyn Powys, younger brother of better known writer John Cowper Powys (Porius, which is on my 2014 reading list). Llewellyn is just one of the many writers and thinkers, most of them obscure (oh, to spend some time in John Gray’s library), profiled and sampled and pressed into something new and original and wonderful: The Silence of Animals, on Progress and other Modern Myths.
I love this book. To be fair, I’m a huge John Gray fan, so I pretty much knew I was going to love it from the outset. I was right. By using the lives and words of others to build his arguments and illuminate his world view, Gray creates a haunting, moving dreamscape of thought, a ghostly fortress of logic, that carries readers along to his inescapable conclusions: progress is a myth, humans are animals (and unexceptional animals at that) and we do ourselves a disservice by hiding behind religion and other myths which prevent us from just being … and therefore being happy.
It’s not for everyone. If you enjoy having your belief systems shaken like a martini, or relish in seeing atheism called into question for falling short of the mark, or wonder if faith in science and progress is really just the recycled and misguided faith of the religious, this short, epic, sad, funny, tragic, exasperating, ultimately uplifting book is for you.
Some of my favorite lines:
“According to some historians, inequality in America at the start of the twenty-first century is greater than in the slave-based economy of imperial Rome in the second century. Of course there are differences. Contemporary America is probably less stable than imperial Rome.”
“Denying reality in order to preserve a view of the world is not a practice confined to cults. Cognitive dissonance is the normal human condition.”
“If there is anything unique about the human animal it is that it has the ability to grow knowledge at an accelerating rate while being chronically incapable of learning from experience.”
“A type of atheism that refused to revere humanity would be a genuine advance.”
“If you admit your need for silence, you accept that much of your life has been an exercise in distraction.”
“Every sentient being is a world-maker.”
Don’t be fooled by the slender nature of the book, it’s packed with enough insights and a-ha moments to remake a dozen worlds, but certainly (hopefully) not in our own image. After all, “there is no redemption from being human. But no redemption is needed.”
Gray urges us to look past our mistaken belief in exceptionalism, and past our mistaken certainty that things will get better in some mythical afterlife or in some mythical, distant and never-realized point in the future when science and society finally amend away the bad habits that prevent a utopian existence. The secret, he thinks — and I agree — is that those bad habits, and the good ones, ARE us. Always looking to the future prevents us from living fully here and now. Better to understand who we are than to dream impotently about who we could or should be.
A side note: for someone who so ably and vigorously denies the existence of meaning outside of our own existence, his use of and reliance on literature stretching back to early Greek philosophers creates a sort of enveloping sense of meaning that exists outside of and above our own miserable, glorious meaningless lives — art. (less)
Ever wonder what’s going on in your brain while you are busy strolling around saying funny stuff and thinking big, important...moreWho's driving this thing?
Ever wonder what’s going on in your brain while you are busy strolling around saying funny stuff and thinking big, important things? Turns out, a whole lot. There’s an entire world of unconscious activity hidden just below the surface. If conscious thought is like a speedboat you pilot across the surface of the ocean(cue the Miami Vice theme), unconscious thought is the teeming, chaotic, beautiful mass of rainbow-colored tropical fish, graceful coral reefs, steely-eyed sharks and even a few grotesque bottom-dwellers hidden beneath. Once you dive in, you realize our subliminal thoughts are more powerful than the speedy, unreliable conscious thoughts we’re so proud of, skimming along the top. That’s because unconscious thought ultimately shapes our decisions, forges our world views and guides our relationships with others (and with ourselves), all without us even knowing or – equally important – without controlling or consenting.
Subliminal, by Leonard Mlodinow – a theoretical physicist – is a guided tour (blitzkrieg?) through the unconscious mind and shows that we are only loosely in control of our own consciousness, completely unaware of the things our brains take in when we aren't paying attention and at the mercy of filters we didn’t even know existed.
Study after study and weird example after weird example bring this to life: Folks who read a recipe in a difficult font rated it harder to prepare than the same recipe presented in an easy font (take note, designers), because our brains get us ready for tasks before we start them. Folks using exactly the same detergent in three differently-colored boxes consistently rated one in particular — the most colorful — the best of the three by far. Shoppers who heard French background music bought more French wine, and bought more German wine when German background music was playing even though none of them even remembered music playing. In another classic study, people consistently prefer Pepsi over Coke in a blind taste test, but they prefer Coke when the blindfold comes off.
Can you actually taste “brand?” People with brain damage in a specific location can’t. When the VMC area — thought to be the generator of warm, fuzzy feelings — was damaged, they didn’t experience the “Pepsi paradox.” (Please, Pepsi, don’t start damaging our brains).
There’s so much more: Statistical analysis found investors were more likely to invest in the initial public offerings of companies with easy-to-pronounce names. There are naturally occurring dead spots in our vision that our brain compensates for without us even knowing. Oxytocin, released during sex and even during hugs, affects social bonding, which in turn is shaped by brain size and complexity across species.
When you read this book, you’ll realize that it's crazy town up in your brain, and there ain't no mayor. We think we are driving the machine, but we are actually just along for the ride. There’s power in knowing that, though. This book is breathless, geeky fun, well written and packed with insights and puzzles and hard science and so many “ah-ha” moments that I eventually had to consign myself to the notion that I would have to read it twice.
An aside: This topic takes on even greater significance when you consider the recent Wired article that suggests consciousness continues for up to a few hours after death. The Meta isn’t sounding so crazy now, is it? (less)
First, chocolate...moreTriumph and tragedy in a chocolate bar
(Note: this review also appears on Amazon.com)
This is a fascinating book on a number of levels.
First, chocolate is intriguing topic. The author does a great job of explaining how an exotic seed became a ubiquitous treat. And given the early recipes with rancid milk, it's an unlikely success story.
Second, the evolution of Cadbury, and other chocolatiers, is great vehicle to show how businesses have changed so rapidly, from small organizations dedicated to the well-being of employees and their communities to global concerns motivated solely by returning profits to shareholders. Granted, the Quaker roots of Cadbury and their competitors had much to do with that, but it was modeled by many others, including Hershey who did tremendous good works with his fortune.
Third, I love Cadbury products. Growing up in Scotland and reading about all of the great Cadbury products brought back a cascade of memories - not only the delicious treats but also the commercials (Everyone's a fruit and nut bar!).
Before reading this book, I had no idea that biting into a creme egg or an aero bar unleashed 150 years of a rich legacy with a creamy center of social justice. The final chapters, about the hostile takeover of Cadbury by Kraft was bittersweet, to say the least.
Great read by a member of the Cadbury family with strong writing and research skills. (less)
I consider myself pretty well read and at least passably knowledgeable in American history, which is why I wa...moreThe ugly (only?) side of manifest destiny
I consider myself pretty well read and at least passably knowledgeable in American history, which is why I was surprised that I knew so little about William Walker. I first came across him in an odd little book called "Legendary Outlaws of the West" (Williams). A chapter discussed his early attempts to invade and claim Baja, Mexico. He was rebuffed by a notorious outlaw/rancher named Melendrez, who later was commissioned as a general in the army for helping defeat Walker and his men.
You'd think Walker would return to the U.S. humbled, but instead - driven by a unwavering commitment to manifest destiny (translation: it's our right to do whatever we want) he set his sights on Nicaragua, ultimately leading a successful invasion with a handful of filibusteros (based on the Dutch word for freebooter - pirate - and source of today's "filibuster"). His dreams of empire were in direct opposition, ultimately, with shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt who wanted to control access across the country via Lake Nicaragua to profit from trips to the west coast of America (at the time, pre-railroad, boats were much faster than going overland and the profits were obscene.)
It was hard to know who to pull for in this war: a tough as nails mercenary who, after a series of victories, was elected president of Nicaragua, or the epitome of a capitalist successes, Vanderbilt, literally a self-made man able to devote millions to destabilizing Walker's regime in order to make more millions. This is a great book, thoroughly researched - in fact, I started to lose track of the many battles and the many players strutting across the stage only to be executed against an adobe wall - and I highly recommend it. My favorite passage, near the end, was an inspired bit of sabotage that ultimately sealed Walker's defeat.
It really puts in stark light the mind set that possibly still shapes American idealism - that we have some moral obligation to reshape the world in our image. Sadly, the only force greater than manifest destiny appears to be capitalism and the desire to concentrate vast amounts of wealth by hook or by hook or, in this case, by arming soldiers and mercenaries and tempting them to invade other countries.
In Walker's own words, to his troops after his defeat, "You have written a page of American history which is impossible to forget or erase." Sadly, he appears all but forgotten in his own country though his dark legacy lives on in Central America. (less)
A margin-wrecker: the best kind of book is one that begs to be marked up
It’s odd — maybe not that odd — that a book about cruel, base and disgusting...moreA margin-wrecker: the best kind of book is one that begs to be marked up
It’s odd — maybe not that odd — that a book about cruel, base and disgusting acts would emerge as one of my favorites of all time.
The author, Kathleen Taylor (funny that two of my favorite authors are named Kathleen) is a neuroscientist at Oxford. She brings together the latest in the fledgling field of neuroscience with evolutionary theory, social and cultural anthropology and biologic processes to bring cruelty to life — what it is and why we have it — and helps readers arrive at a better understanding of what it means to be human. She has a vivid, technically precise and funny writing style that kept me hooked and kept me scribbling frantically in the margins as new ideas skittered away.
Cruelty, she argues, is linked to the uniquely human desire to predict and control the natural world. That can be as basic as avoiding dangerous predators or as refined as protecting belief systems important to our culture. And, she says, “…our hunger for control does not demand that our predictions are actively confirmed, just that they remain unchallenged.”
Challenged, we are “…vulnerable to symbolic threats which cause us no physical harm.” But because of the way our brains are wired, “…conflict feels stressful, like pain, and most people prefer to avoid it.”
According to Taylor, we act against symbolic threats the same way our bodies act against dangerous diseases – “learn the warning signs, avoid the source, quarantine the infected and expel the contaminant.” It’s the same approach, and the same language (a blight upon our culture, threats to our way of living), that have been used to tragic result for those considered dangerous for centuries.
It’s all tied to our biologic responses because, she argues, the symbolic brain is an extension of the physical brain. The same systems we use to deal with ingesting putrid food are high jacked by the brain when we encounter a putrid belief system that is, challenging to our symbolic health. It’s the only system we have in place to deal with a threat that makes us feel sick.
“When it unwelcome ideas require extensive and effortful thought to accommodate them, it becomes easier not to bother changing the brain, but instead to shape the world to fit – by removing the irritant source of challenging signals.”
That ties into one of my favorite lines, explaining why we (and I am certainly guilty of this) lash out at inanimate objects. “Broken gadgets can be expected not to work; unbroken gadgets should work; unbroken gadgets which should work and don’t are infuriating misfits, to be treated accordingly.”
Magnify that by the effort we expend mitigating against people who challenge our beliefs. “The more important the beliefs in question, the more strongly they will be defended, the more extreme emotion which a challenge will provoke and the more violent the response is likely to be.”
We react to symbolic threats with mental acrobatics and, occasionally, the kind of violence usually reserved for physical threats, because that’s all we know how to do. Just like “dogs that achieve nothing by barking at passing fire-engines, though the noise does recede, so perhaps they think they do,” we protect our core beliefs at all costs, even though the strategies we employ may have no influence and in fact may run counter to those very beliefs.
She argues that, “Cruelty, thus, is as natural as laziness or competitiveness. It protects the precious self, physical or symbolic, by doing harm to those about whom we care less.” Cruelty, then, is basically a too-aggressive response from our symbolic immune system.
It’s a wild, funny, terrifying scientific ride through sadism and evil and pain and suffering and threat responses and neural pathways and a human history filled with tragic examples of cruelty. Rather than dark or depressing, I found it liberating and hopeful. The more we can understand the mechanisms of cruelty, the easier it will be to untangle them from misguided cultural beliefs and poorly understood biological functions. Cruelty may be part of the human condition, but refusing to act upon it may be one of our great accomplishments. (less)
I don't normally believe in reincarnation, but it's hard not to...moreDense, like the rainforest, and just as rich
Note: this review first appeared on Amazon
I don't normally believe in reincarnation, but it's hard not to think I've spent some previous life in the Amazon given my favorite books - of which I now rank Fordlandia - focus on Brazil. It was great to see the other three - Thief at the End of the World, the River of Doubt, The Jungle and the Sea - all mentioned in this fascinating look at Henry Ford's failed experiment in the jungle.
This was a well-researched, highly engaging work that was, comparatively, slow going simply because there was so much to cover. It's really three books in one - the rise of Ford and the associated true beginning of the industrial age in America, the creation of Fordlandia in Brazil, and - in an unsatisfying epilogue - the current imperiled state of the Amazon as sprouted up from the attempts to industrialize natural processes (rubber harvesting). I say unsatisfying only because I wanted more.
In fact, the entire book left me hungrier for a more substantial treatment of each segment - I was surprised by how much I don't know about Ford and his factories and really wanted to know what happened to his right hand man (enforcer) Bennett. (Note: I will look into it, and suggestions are welcome - just comment on the review.)
My panama hat is off to the author for this great work. And I was especially moved by this sentence: "The arrogance, though, is not that Henry Ford thought he could tame the Amazon but that he believed that the forces of capitalism, once released, could still be contained."
Much was made of Ford never visiting his model city, but I certainly would like to make a trip there - now, after reading this - someday. (less)
The Sahara: unwelcoming refuge to survivors and dreamers and outcasts
As much as I might like to, I will never travel across the Sahara desert.
It soun...moreThe Sahara: unwelcoming refuge to survivors and dreamers and outcasts
As much as I might like to, I will never travel across the Sahara desert.
It sounds beautiful and amazing and romantic and inspiringly desolate, but I will never willingly submit myself to 120 degree temperatures unless I’m wearing a fully air-conditioned suit of clothes AND I’m riding inside a fully air-conditioned car that can’t ever break down. And that car would need a mini-bar. Other reasons I probably won’t visit the Sahara: I don’t want to entertain the possibility of ever having to drink radiator fluid, or worse, just to avoid death from dehydration, and I’m not crazy about goat stew.
For those reasons and more, I’m glad William Langewiesche allows readers to accompany him on his epic journey across a desert as large as the continental United States. Sahara Unveiled is a wonderful book that meanders through the politics, geography, flora and fauna and history of the Sahara, and its people. It is deceptively spare, empty almost, as if conscious of -- or at least appropriately influenced by -- the desert he writes about. But it rewards patience with a slowly-building appreciation of the Sahara and all who live in it and pass through it: the survivors and the dreamers and the outcasts.
Langewiesche is either a very talented writer, or a very interesting thinker able to accurately record his keen insights about people and the natural world around him. Or maybe both. As a result, the book reads as if out of time, reminiscent of the works produced by all the mad, classically educated and perpetually wandering, perpetually bemused Englishmen of a hundred years ago, only it’s fully modern.
He almost died on his journey, and tries hard to never romanticize the desert (which of course has the opposite effect), carefully recounting the stories of some (many) who died along the way. The horrific demise of the Belgian family stands out as a stark reminder of why I, personally, won’t be making the trek.
Along the way, like the oases he describes (point of fact: they aren’t shimmering mirages lined by palm trees, but rather more often ramshackle villages of abject poverty built around life-sustaining wells) he intersperses his own baking hot journey with illuminating detours into a variety of engaging topics: how sand dunes form (for much more on this subject, check out Sand: The Never-Ending Story), the care and feeding of scorpions (and French lovers, for that matter), how to grow date trees, the history of shifting tribal and alliances and geopolitical forces, ancient myths and fables of the residents and more.
It is a hot, dusty and rewarding trek and I learned much, but I was constantly irritated by the description of how women are treated. He handles the topic with grace and allows readers to arrive at their own conclusions.
Sahara Unveiled made it to my list of all time favorites. And, though I’ve already established I will likely never, ever journey to the Sahara, or to the surface of the sun, I would love to see the 400,000 (!) Neolithic paintings at the Tassili plateau.(less)
I found this work thoroughly engaging. It's as much a critique of capitalism unregulated as it is a history of the fru...moreWe live in a banana-shaped world
I found this work thoroughly engaging. It's as much a critique of capitalism unregulated as it is a history of the fruit or the fruit company. "Bananas" peels the skin back on big business to reveal a soft and rotten core. From land swindles to destabilizing governments, from machine gun massacres to human rights violation, from propaganda to market manipulation, Chapman takes an unflinching look at just how far an organization motivated solely by profits is willing to go. Featuring an interesting cast of characters - from Carmen Miranda and Harry Belafonte to Che Guevara and Castro - "El Pulpo" has had its yellow tentacles in everything from the Bay of Pigs to the Vietnam War. At times fascinating, repulsive and laugh out loud funny (such as when company officials complained that they were being under-compensated for land sold at the price it was taxed at, a tax level they fixed), this a great, wandering read through the history of a company that shaped the world. Sadly, it probably cast the die for how many global concerns now function - ruthlessly, and beholden only to their greedy shareholders. Also sadly, their insistence and reliance upon a monolithic form of agriculture, subject to the ravages of disease, may well have doomed the fruit we all love and take for granted. (less)
This is a fantastic book that puts one of the most unassuming but ubiquitous memb...moreGranular, in the best way
(Note: this review was shared on Amazon.com)
This is a fantastic book that puts one of the most unassuming but ubiquitous members of the natural world, sand, under the microscope and in doing so, illustrates huge truths about our planet and ourselves. Written with deep scientific knowledge and an engaging, lyrical style, it's a profound read that touches upon almost every aspect of geology, from weathering to planet formation, from the formation of dunes and beaches to the quirky characters that investigated sand behavior across the years, from art to industry.
The only part of the book that seemed flat was the A - Z description of the many uses, and benefits of sand. All engaging, but given the great effort to weave the story along like drifting dunes, this section seemed out of place.
A minor quibble.
Highly recommend this book and for double the impact, read it at the beach. We were at Cannon Beach on the Oregon coast and armed with the insights from Sand: The Never-ending Story, the interplay of the sediment-laden tides, engines of change, and the drift of fine sand over the beach driven by strong winds, took on a special significance.
The epilogue, about the Libyan desert glass, was especially interesting. Would love to see a book just about that! (less)
Mirroring the subject matter, the search for gold, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a glittering masterpiece appropriately hidden under the dust of...moreMirroring the subject matter, the search for gold, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a glittering masterpiece appropriately hidden under the dust of history and shifting literary layers filled with nuggets of brilliance that flash and then recede.
One layer is the landscape of the Sierra Madre mountains and he does an admirable job of capturing the physical characteristics of this remote, forbidden area to the extent a glass of cold water helps ease the reading.
Another layer is of Mexico itself, and Traven captures the complexities of life and the attributes of the people – from peasants to dons, from rough necks to the down and out. It was an interesting period and he presents it in a rich, vibrant and respectful way. The detours into the myths of hidden mines and actions of greedy landowners and noblemen and women, set against the actions of wise natives unmoved by the earthly riches is fascinating, and plays well into another favored layer: economic systems.
Traven was clearly influenced by Bolshevism which was setting the world on fire at the time, and his discussion of the oil boom and mining was illuminating. This greed of individuals, magnified into the political systems they create, was fascinating, In fact, only the soldiers willing to execute bandits came off as remotely sympathetic.
The most notable layer had to do with human nature. Howard, Curtin and Dobbs become locked in an uneasy symmetry in which the stress of the mining, the harsh climate and the prospect of fabulous wealth intensified all of their worst tendencies. Especially for the Dobbs, the stress was too much and the thought of personal advancement at all costs became all consuming.
Many have seen the movie and while it remains true to the book in its brutal portrayal of human greed and shortcomings, of morality laid bare, the novel is a so much richer. Although there remain questions of who B. Traven was, one thing is clear: he was a very talented writer.
The most satisfying part of the read is finding those seemingly casual gems tossed in among the shifting layers that surface a new, rich vein of thoughts. “the companionship which they had to endure had become the source of their troubles…”
I was reminded No Exit, written later by Sartre, in which hell is other people. In the Treasure of The Sierra Madre, the harsh, sun-baked hell and the promise of individual wealth increase the torment tenfold. And there were no machetes or cruel bandits in No Exit. (less)
The Egyptian is a classic in the truest sense and an epic (not a word I use lightly) tale resonating with truth, power...more“To each day its own vexations”
The Egyptian is a classic in the truest sense and an epic (not a word I use lightly) tale resonating with truth, power and poignant insights into the human condition that bridge the centuries.
It was written by Mika Waltari who, according to the back of the book, is widely considered the greatest Finnish writer of the 20th century. Regardless of his provenance, he is simply a great writer. That The Egyptian was sent as a gift by a Finnish friend and book blogger (thanks Niina at, shameless plug, For the Love of Reading) made it all the more intriguing.
The book chronicles the life of Sinuhe, the lonely one and son of the wild ass, an orphan who becomes physician to the pharaohs and serves as a witness, and architect, of momentous events in Egyptian history. His life, travails and loves intersect with key political events and battles that shape the future of Egypt, including the origins of King Tut.
According to the back of the book, The Egyptian was condemned as obscene when published in the U.S. in 1949. There are many veiled references to sharing mats with women or grasping the loins of lovers, etc., and one particularly cruel scene involving a royal and monumental cuckolding, but it’s not the sex or the empowered women (possibly more so than capable within their era), that made the book obscene. In 1949 America, it was dangerous.
Sinhue has a slow awakening across the decades – thanks to his roaming throughout the various lands and his proximity to the leaders – that all religions are false and all governments are equally ineffective and powered only by greed and the petty desires and shortcomings of those in power. “No nation is either braver or more chickenhearted, crueler or more compassionate, wickeder or more virtuous than another.” That notion would not have set well with American exceptionalism, especially as McCarthyism was festering to fruition.
It’s probably dangerous by today’s standards as well. As religions clashed and priests and lords scrambled to control power, the poor were caught in the middle. I saw much of the politics of the present day reflected in the careful description so that ancient Egypt seemed alive and well and all around us.
I always worry about translations, and how much of the original lyricism and power is lost, but in this case, in which a Finnish writer endeavored to capture an Egyptian style, it seemed to work well with much rending of garments, oiling of heads and gnashing of teeth. I also wonder about the accuracy of the portrayal of life in ancient times because, as a work of fiction, there are no discussions of research or source material. I do know this: After reading The Egyptian, I will always think of it when I imagine life in 14th century B.C.E. That’s a powerful book.
I highly recommend it and suggest adding it to your “to read” list because “Our time is short, and no one knows what tomorrow may bring…"(less)
In fact, the title of this book might be a little misleading because it is so jam-packed with in...moreWhat's the opposite of void?
Because this book is that.
In fact, the title of this book might be a little misleading because it is so jam-packed with info. It was a wonderful read, swirling with currents of energy and supercharged particles of knowledge. A thoroughly amazing little book with content - and an approach - that mirrors the subject matter: nothingness is but energy misunderstood. Read it and prepare for a trip across unimaginably small distances that will change you forever. (less)