All the books fit to read
Over the holidays, I took two of my students out for lunch. We actually left campus and ended up at a small, packed-to-the-gills-deli where we sat at long tables with the other refugees from the lunch joints with larger seating capacities and individual tables that were closed for the holidays. Hyde Park is within the city of Chicago but has a university-neighborhood feel with our fellow lunch-goers being almost all students and professors from our local pride and joy, the University of Chicago. Behind us sat two colleagues who I happily greeted. My student asked who they were. I reported their names, affiliations, and mentioned a way-cool piece of work that one (SN) had done, probably reporting it inaccurately but with great enthusiasm nonetheless. As is young people’s wont, my student jumped on his phone, found a Wikipedia page for the personhood of SN and promptly declared SN to be a celebrity and me to be within the celebrity aura by virtue of my collegial connections. I reminded my student that a Wikipedia page could just as easily be a sign of egomania, when posted by the “celebrity,” as of veritable celebrity, but added that I was sure that SN had not written his own page. My student was unmoved by my caveat and once again ascribed to me a near celebrity status unwarranted by the facts.
I thought of my perceived celebrity as I was reading the NYTimes Book Review section from December 25, 2016, which featured book recommendations from a couple of dozen celebrities of all stripes – writers, musicians, talking heads, politicians. Book reviews are bittersweet for me. On the sweet side, they give me a taste of so many books in simultaneously concise and transporting language. On the very bitter and sad side, there are far more books that I desire to meet than is possible.
I have my own list of books that I read in 2016. In fact I make a yearly list of books in my yearly journals. Here are selected books from my 2016 list in rough chronological order. The books I left out include Camus’ Plague, which I have written about in a previous post, and several other books that I highly recommend (for example, Deborah Blum’s Love at Goon Park); I ran out of time and this post is way too long even without the remaining books.
Asterisks mark books that I “read” by listening to an Audiobook. A */p means that I read the book by a combination of listening and reading the physical book:
Thinking Fast and Slow */p by Daniel Kahneman
Many had pushed me to read this for years but I had been put off by the self-help-sounding title and the sheer fervor of those who advocated for this book’s worth. But, well, yeah, this is an incredibly important book and I should have read it long ago. Kahneman covers a seemingly endless series of phenomena at the intersection of psychology and neuroscience. Using many examples, some more compelling than others, Kahneman proves to even the greatest skeptic that we humans are not “econs.” This means our behavior is not predicted by logical, mathematical calculations. Instead – wait for it – we are emotional mammals gifted with great powers of cognition but loathe to use those energy-sucking powers of thought through laziness. Most of the time, we make decisions using System One, an intuitive, emotional, lightning-fast system that is prone to making the same errors in judgment over and over. We are loathe to use the far slower, energy-depleting System Two that could get us to the logical and correct answer. Kahneman goes through and names many of System One’s biases such as risk aversion, anchoring, confirmation bias and so on. If you are going to read this book, I will warn you that it was difficult for me to keep the example scenarios in mind (If you’re given the choice between having a 90% chance of winning $200 and a 10% chance of losing $20 or a 50%….), a fact that would have been true with any narrator and was true in spades with this narrator’s voice (Patrick Egan). So my tactic was to mix usage of the physical book and the audiobook. For me, that worked well. One final comment on this book: it is long and after a while, I became fatigued by the seemingly endless types of bias, lending some of the final chapters a feeling of tedium. However, I refer back to this book often and those parts that seemed tedious are not when I re-read them in isolation, an experience that is itself an example of one of Kahneman’s psychological phenomena I am sure.
Must read for anyone interested in psychology or human behavior, really just plain anyone with an iota of intellectual curiosity.
Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport, the Most Audacious Hostage Rescue Mission in History * by Saul David
This is the story of the Entebbe raid. Fair warning: it’s brutal, even though most of the hostages and soldiers make it out okay. I thought I knew the story well but Saul David brings in a great deal of new information with details that brought the story to life in a nuanced rather than jingoistic way and contained a share of surprises. There was plenty of between passengers of different persuasions (not just between Jewish and not-Jewish, but also among Jews). The craziness of Idi Amin; the tense back-and-forths among the Israeli leaders as to what to do; the fact that Israel had to act since it was clear that the legally responsible player, France, would not; the nearly immediate (and somewhat incomprehensible – he appears to have panicked and done exactly what the plan called for him not to do) death of Yonatan Netanyahu; and the tragic story of Dora Bloch are all painstakingly described. Even though I knew the ending before I started, this book was exceedingly difficult to put down and stayed with me for a long time.
Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind by David Linden
Learned lots from this book even though I was in the sensory field of neurobiology for about 30 years (before switching over to empathy and helping). For example I learned that drug counselors look for scratching behavior as a sign of opioid use (opioids such as heroin or morphine produce itchiness). I also learned that sympathetic efferents actively produce the wrinkly skin that occurs after a prolonged time in water! I also enjoyed how David explained ideas that I know well. The teacher in me appreciates a good story, metaphor, or analogy. I thought he did a particularly good job discussing metaphorical extensions. I had few quibbles with the facts in the book. I did find the use of the term painful stimulus to be grating. [Stimuli have physical properties and are not tied to a particular perception in a one-to-one fashion. A stimulus that causes tissue damage is noxious and such a stimulus causes a painful perception under most normal circumstances in healthy people. But the stimulus is not painful any more than a wavelength has a color.] I could have done with less info about David’s sexual experiences, but that is just prudish me. And there were a few topics that I thought could have made it in but didn’t (e.g. naloxone as an antipruritic agent) but this is a minor complaint as every author has to draw the line somewhere. One of the features of this book that I liked the best was that David, whose own work concerns the cerebellum, took the plunge and wrote a book outside of his acknowledged expertise, a brave and intellectually adventurous choice. I admire David’s audacity and am currently following in his footsteps as I work on my second book, which does not concern either of the topics which I have studied in my laboratory (pain modulation or empathic helping).
Thanks to Dan Goldreich for recommending this book to me. I in turn highly recommend it to you.
Rights Come to Mind: Brain Injury, Ethics and the Struggle for Consciousness by Joseph J Fins
As someone who grew up with the term “brain dead” as an accepted part of the vernacular, this book was a revelation. I never had thought about a time when there was no concept of “brain death.” However as it turns out, the idea that people can have a beating heart and yet be dead was only born in the 20th century, the child of two medical advances:ventilators and organ transplants. I have written previously about this book and will only add three points here. First, I continue to wonder what I would want for myself or a loved one who fell into the domain of disordered consciousness / limited motor ability. I am not sure what I would want and I don’t find the calculus simple. I vacillate between being swayed by the imprisoned human being (essentially the human rights issue of the title) and the economic drain involved. Second, I just picked up Defining Death: The Case for Choice by Robert M Veatch and Lainie F Ross to continue my education on this fascinating story. Stay tuned. Finally, on a personal note, I loved Fins’ description of Nicholas Schiff’s determined effort to apply basic science to the treatment of minimally conscious patients. Fins tells the more than a decade long story from idea conception to clinical culmination, revealing the roots of Schiff’s ideas in his interest in Penfield during college. Although Nicho is a family friend who I have known all of my recallable life and whose work I follow at least casually, I was not aware of this history. Reading about Nicho’s steadfast endurance to tackle and conquer the regulatory and intellectual obstacles in the way of his dream has inspired me to not give up on my current project because of hurdles in the path. And I am happy to say that in just under 10 months, this naïve PhD did manage to obtain Institutional Review Board approval.
Thought-provoking, inspiring, captivating. Highly recommended.
H is for Hawk * by Helen Macdonald
There was a great deal of the cringe-worthy, train-wreck in this story, from the author’s own weird, self-destructive stubbornness (case in point, her making Mabel so hungry that she promptly got torn up by her over hungry hawk) to TH White’s version of destructiveness (towards his hawk and himself), largely attributable to his childhood and the homophobia of the day. The read was as absorbing as The Martian or any other fast-paced tale and I found myself making a myriad of excuses to listen to the book.
The Empathy Exams * by Leslie Jamison
Felt that this was a book that I should read given my professional interest in empathy and helping. But I ended up disliking the book and slogging through it. It is a collection of essays. As with Helen Macdonald, Leslie Jamison has a notable streak of self-destructiveness which comes out in drinking and poor choices in men. I did not find Jamison’s other attributes, or her writing, to be sufficiently endearing to make up for her unattractive traits (as was wholly the case with Helen Macdonald). There were a few stories that struck me and stayed with me to a degree: the multi-day endurance race stands out.
Not recommended (irritating narrator does not help).
Pride and a Daily Marathon by Jonathan Cole
This is a fascinating account of Ian Waterman’s life from birth, through the illness that left him without touch or proprioception (the sense of where the body is) below the head, and his subsequent recovery forged with directed deliberate effort sustained over years. Dr Cole recounts Mr Waterman’s life and stitches together a chronology of the events that landed Mr Waterman unable to stand or even sit. Luckily for Mr Waterman, the illness, which originally affected his whole body, initially preventing him from chewing, luckily ameliorated to leave his head (actually trigeminal system for those keeping score at home) unaffected so that his speaking and chewing are intact. Dr Cole describes in beautiful, evocative detail the steps that Mr Waterman took to learn how to stand and walk again, to climb stairs, write and so on. Of particular note is the fact that Mr Waterman cannot employ repetition to render movements automatic, unconscious or effortless. The concentration that Mr Waterman uses when he picks up a cup or steps up a stair is the same that is required when he does that movement for the thousandth time. Dr Cole also gives a great deal of background on proprioception: the history of its study and the science behind Mr Waterman’s loss and determined recovery. Dr Cole has just published a follow up to Pride, entitled Losing Touch, which awaits me.
While there is a great story here, this is not a straight up human-interest narrative; there is a great deal of science discussed so this book will be of particular interest to those with nerdy inclinations.
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World * by Jack Weatherford
One big advantage to listening rather than reading this revelatory book is learning that “Genghis” is properly pronounced starting with the /j/ sound of Jerry rather than the /g/ sound of Gary. As it turns out, Genghis Khan was a brilliant leader, far ahead of his time. He realized that leadership should be shouldered by the capable rather than the reproductively well placed, insisting on a meritocracy over a inherited plan for succession. Although Genghis Khan could not read, he saw the value in literacy and imported foreigners to create a written Mongol language. Of great meaning to me as a Jew, Genghis Khan did not desire to dictate a common religion among those he conquered, and thus was a very early (the earliest?) advocate for freedom of religion. I became so enamored with Genghis Khan that I convinced myself that I had some Mongol in me. This (as it turns out, unwarranted) conclusion stemmed from the Mongol’s conquering the Pale, whence my people come from; his aforementioned tolerance of different religions, and my high cheekbones. Unfortunately, my dreams were dashed by both Ancestry and 23andMe, both of which confirmed my exclusive (100%, 98.4% respectively) Jewish heritage.
Highly recommended. So glad I read this.
League of Denial * by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru
Torturous story but great worthwhile read. The individual back-stories, strengths, and failings of Bennet Omalu, Chris Nowinski, Julian Bailes, and others were fascinating. So were the ultimately train-wrecking details of the lives of Mike Webster, Dave Duerson and others.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland * by Lewis Carroll
I don’t remember if I ever read this as a child but if I did, I am sure that I did not appreciate its depth and insight at that time. Reading it now I see that this book brims with cleverness and loads of neurobiology and psychology from our penchant for making rules from particular, idiosyncratic, examples; Carroll’s sparkling fun with paraphasias; and even a tip of the hat to the basal ganglia’s difficulty with multitasking.
A classic gem that shines in the dazzling narration by Scarlet Johansson.
Earth Moved * by Amy Stewart
I chose this book about earthworms because I am a fan of Charles Darwin who was fascinated by earthworms, the subject of Darwin’s final book. Darwin’s experiments are fully detailed along with modern research into taxonomy, biology and technological use for composting. I was wowed by the giant, meters-long species in South Pacific islands, admiring of the passionate “earthworm-ers” profiled by the author, and in the end bent on having my own pet earthworm composters. Alas, this latter wish goes unfulfilled to date.
Other Side of the Night * by Daniel Allen Butler
Fascinating blow-by-blow account of the Titanic’s voyage, disaster, rescue and aftermath. In the spirit of full confessions, I love analyses of disasters (real life example: Challenger hearings which I listened to live while doing experiments as a graduate student; fictional example: Airframe by Michael Crichton, a book whose only fault is that it ends). I am taken by 1) the scientific sleuthing into what went wrong and into the near misses of things that almost could have overcome the things that went wrong but in the end didn’t; and 2) the selfless acts of kindness and generosity that come to the fore when people are faced with catastrophe. As Hugh Grant’s character says in Love Actually, “When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love.” To get back to the book at hand, two large contributors to why so many Titanic passengers drowned and were not saved is that the events unfolded in the early days of radio and the psychopathy of Stanley Lord, Captain of the Californian. Regarding the former, radios were not monitored 24/7 as they had come into being only a few short years prior to the Titanic’s one and only voyage. In large part due to the novelty of the technology, there was a paucity of trained radio operators and in radio-land the proverbial fallen tree makes no sound if there is no radio operator at work. The picture that Butler paints of Stanley Lord is painful, infuriating, and tragic all at once.
Loved this book even as it left me sad, sad, sad about the if-only-I-wishes that could have been but weren’t.
Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics * by Richard Thaler
I thought of this book as a baby version of Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, which of course is patronizingly off the mark. Thaler did came into the field of behavioral economics after Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky had already begun it and Thaler’s book is not meant to cover the field as Kahneman’s does. Here, Thaler mixes select topics in behavioral economics with career memoir. He beautifully describes the personalities of various established leaders and their willingness, or not, to have their own ideas questioned, probed, tested and possibly proven wrong. The professional egos of anonymized Chicago Booth faculty are at play in an amusing anecdote about office assignments within a newly Booth building. Along the way we learn about the endowment effect and other Thaler discoveries.
Easy, fun read. Recommended.
A Little History of Philosophy * by Nigel Warburton
This remarkable book covers a few more than 40 philosophers in 40 chapters each of which is an average of 10 minutes long. Brilliantly brought to life by the clear, crisp, British accented Kris Dyer, listening to this book reminded me again that, with or without knowing it, I am recycling other’s thoughts. I particularly loved the philosophy-put-to-great-use story of James B. Stockdale who employed what he remembered of Epictetus from a college course to separate himself from the horrors that he correctly predicted were about to be imposed upon him as he floated down from his bomber into enemy hands. In his concise telling and spectacular use of the what-if, Warburton made me feel the vital applicability of philosophy to my life. Similarities between philosophical and neurobiological themes, such as perception and reality, are striking and impel me to further pursue my reading of philosophy.
Highly recommended. In fact I bought the book so that I can read it a second time in the flesh and take copious notes.
Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution * by Nathaniel Philbrick
There are always two sides to a story, even the story of the archetypical turncoat, Benedict Arnold. [Aside: You will notice that beside books about psychology, there is a sprinkling of history. I do have a thing about American history from pre-Revolution through the Civil War and then selected spots in the 20th century around LBJ and JFK.] Auditory neurobiology plays a surprising role in a critical battle, back when Arnold was still a good guy.
Captivating, well-told story of how a person switches. Narration by Scott Brick, who also voiced Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, is an added plus.
Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness * by Sy Montgomery (and read by the author)
I learned loads of facts related and unrelated to octopuses (yes, that is one of the facts – the plural is not octopi) from this book. I particularly enjoyed the exploration of octopus arms, each of which has its own nerve cord and can act at least somewhat independently of others. I learned that the smell of heat shock proteins (HSPs) resembles that of low tide, presumably a bad environment for octopuses; that only 2 of 100,000 eggs survive to maturity on average; that females store sperm inside a special organ and then can activate it at a later date. The reader also gets to know the various octopuses at the New England Aquarium, their personalities, histories, declines and deaths. A particularly enjoyable piece for me was the portion that was based on an interview with my friend and colleague, Cliff Ragsdale, a leading expert on cephalopods. The author narrated her own book and her near constant breathless excitement was highly annoying. I could not tell whether the un-textured delight and unmitigated wonder is present in the text or only in the narration, but it was a definite disadvantage to the audiobook.
Try reading the physical book if you’ve got an interest in octopuses.
Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter * by Kate Clifford Larson
This is the total train wreck of a story of Rosemary Kennedy, daughter of Rose and Joe, sister of JFK, RFK and others (notably Eunice Shriver). The book opens with Rosemary’s birth at the home of Joe and Rose in Brookline, MA. Rose was attended by a (female) midwife but the (male) doctor was delayed in arriving at the home. Because of some weird sexist rule that the doctor had to be present for births, the midwife insists that Rose squeeze her legs together, preventing Rosemary from emerging and keeping her in the birth canal, deprived of the full complement of oxygen, for 2 hours. This scene is simply devastating to read. That Rosemary is off is obvious from early on, and is accentuated by the extreme physical (sport), academic, and social successes of the rest of the Kennedy children. Joe and Rose try to hide Rosemary’s delays from the public while sending her to a series of schools. Rosemary was born before the advent of special education and grew up during the earliest days of the movement (eg Helen Devereaux). Thus, Rose was sent to a variety of mostly Catholic schools with a full time assistant hired to assist her. Some of these schools worked for a time. At one point, Rose was thriving within the structured kindness provided by a school in England but was criticized by her father for gaining a few pounds. Weight was a constant focus of criticism by Joe and Rose. Rosemary, dutiful and ever so eager to be loved, sought her father’s approval with endless promises to exercise, diet, try harder, etc. The harping on weight stunned me within the context of Rosemary’s finally thriving at a school. Of course I am aided by hindsight but I seriously wish that the Kennedys could have kept their eyes on the prize and appreciated their daughter’s happiness.
Shortly after the war broke out, Joe Kennedy decides in consultation with Walter Freeman to have a lobotomy performed on Rosemary. Freeman worked with the neurosurgeon James Watts (before he went completely rogue, working solo with his handy ice pick and traveling “lobotomobile” bus). The procedure was to have Rosemary talk as Watts cut. Cut – talk – cut – talk – cut– talk – cut and then no more talking. Freeman and Watts went one cut too many, leaving Rosemary without speech (or at least much of it) for the rest of her life. When I first read this, I thought Joe had essentially contracted to murder Rosemary. But what I realized is that Rosemary was still in there but motorically decimated. She recognized and reacted to her mother (badly, presumably recognizing her mother’s complicity). She even formed new memories and relationships. Larson tells the remarkable story of Anthony Shriver, Eunice’s son born well after her Rosemary’s lobotomy, trying to get Rosemary into a sailboat during stormy weather. Rosemary was resisting and Anthony persisted, at his mother’s urging, until Rosemary burst out with, “Damn Anthony, get away from me!” Thus, Joe Kennedy didn’t murder Rosemary so much as he imprisoned her within a nearly locked-in state. Ancillary themes such as Joe’s anti-Semitic isolationism and the impact of Rosemary on JFK’s social policies pepper the book, making this a rich, albeit brutally devastating read. The velvety narration of Bernadette Dunn is easy to follow and does justice to the panoply of emotions at play in this story.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
My friend and colleague Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal recommended that I read this eons ago and I just got around to it. Well, she was right. Dick presents a brilliant take on a world where empathy is the defining criteria of human-hood. The canon of only-humans-possess-empathy is put to the test in a world shared by androids and humans. Inspired by the police investigations into human- or android-hood, I was actually able to put empathy to work for me in a very practical way. I was having lunch with a colleague who I like but do not know well. I saw that a piece of food had landed on his cheek. Now if this were a close friend or my spouse, I would simply say directly, “you have food on your cheek.” However I was not comfortable doing that with my colleague. So with Dick’s story in mind, I swiped my hand across my cheek and lo and behold, within a second or two, my colleague aped me and problem solved.
Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything by Salvatore Basile
About 20 years ago, my spouse and I asked all the older people in our lives, “what has been the most impactful change or invention that you have witnessed?” Computers were a common answer but the answer that stuck with me was my mother’s: air conditioning. What makes my mother’s answer particularly notable is that she hates air conditioning. I have never seen her use A/C in the car and at home she looks at me with shocked bewilderment if I dare to suggest setting the A/C at anything below about 85°F (29°C). When I questioned her answer to the question, she explained that without A/C, the southern United States – which definitely includes my hometown of Washington D.C. during the summer – would be close to inhabitable. With this comment of my mother’s firmly lodged in my memory, I picked up Cool when browsing at the ever-so-dangerous Seminar Book Store. And I am so glad that I did.
As I have discussed previously, overheating is far more biologically dangerous than is hypothermia. As Basile explains, “cold was regarded with deadly seriousness [whereas]… heat seemed to be merely a nuisance.” The medical view was that relieving cold by removing clothes or hydrating was actually dangerous. The greater concern surrounding being too cold than being too hot is reflected in the vernacular. Think of how many times you’ve heard “you’ll catch your death of cold” (many, many) compared to, say, “you’ll fry to death” (perhaps never). Basile riffs on this with a number of insightful examples including his wry comment, “they weren’t known as ‘sweatshops’ for nothing.”
The first forms of refrigeration all involved ice, which meant harvesting ice from frozen rivers and lakes, transporting that ice to cities, chopping it up into smaller blocks and distributing it to places of use. A lot of water in the form of ice went into this endeavor, leaving me pondering how much of our current water distribution is the legacy of those erstwhile ice-days of refrigeration and air conditioning. Early air conditioning typically consisted of some version of blowing air over ice or over soaked cloth. Temperature and humidity went hand in hand in conditioning air. I can’t do justice to the intricacies of the history of air conditioning in this post but the reader will learn that railroads, movies, television, and the U.S. government (White House and Capitol buildings) all had an intricate relationship with A/C. My only complaint, and it is a mild one, is that the scientific explanations of the various cooling systems were incomplete and I came away not entirely understanding the physics of the various cooling approaches.
The Island of Dr Moreau * by H.G. Wells
I decided to read this after seeing The Island of Lost Souls with Charles Loughton as Dr. Moreau and Bela Lugosi as one of the man-beasts. The movie is definitely worth a watch but the book is even more worthy of a read. This story can be viewed as an exploration of the brain vs. body debate. Wells’ Dr Moreau believes that by changing the body, the brain will follow but ultimately finds that the brain drags the body back into its original form. The non-human animals are given human form but never lose their “bestial” qualities and ultimately fully revert. Even as fiction, the scenes are brutal, difficult to read. I was struck by Well’s scientific acumen in terms of both method and content. For an example of the latter, Wells, speaking through Dr Moreau, believes that the reason that non-human primates don’t talk is because of the structure of the larynx. This has only recently been disproved in a study showing that it is the brain organization required for speech, not laryngeal muscles, that prevent monkeys from talking. Narration by Simon Prebble is a plus as his emotional tone perfectly matches the level of discovery made by the at-first-naïve-and-ultimately-complicit Edward Parker. [I am a sucker for that Brit accent.]
Categories: Book reviews