Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Sunday, July 26, 2020

"A Hundred Million Years and a Day" by Jean-Baptiste Andrea

This is a really good book, and I'm not just saying that because I'm sleeping with the translator. I wouldn't have thought a story about a paleontological expedition would be my sort of thing (especially with a cover like this), but this one definitely was! I finished reading a week ago and have put off blogging ever since, hoping this would give me time to come up with something worthy to say, but alas, it appears that is not going to happen. 

This is the story of Stan, a professor of paleontology, who has been enthralled by fossils ever since he found his first one at the age of six. Now, in 1954, he is consumed with the idea of achieving fame and glory--not to mention the money that generally follows--by uncovering the remains of a previously-unknown dinosaur. Only problem is that the skeleton is high in the French Alps, its location only reported in shreds of anecdotal evidence. Oh, and Stan isn't much of an outdoorsman. Driven by his dream and aided by three other men (a friend, an assistant, a guide), the search is rife with subtle conflict and tension.

It was an odd but welcome contrast to read about such cold in the heat of summer, and the story was interesting, compelling, and suspenseful. As with most good books, the main character was brought to life by mixing in stories from his past, allowing the reader to see a lifetime of events that led him high into the mountains. It was really beautifully written (and, of course, superbly translated) and it's unfortunate to know that I never would have chosen this book from a bookstore, and I would have missed a true gem. 

Saturday, July 18, 2020

"Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don't Know" by Malcolm Gladwell

Once again a book caught my eye that seemed to be a guide for making good conversation, and once again the book wasn't what I expected. But the unexpected is often a good thing.

I've never read anything by Gladwell before, but I get the idea that this book follows his typical format: he takes some interesting psychological or social principles and illustrates them anecdotally. This book seemed to be very thoroughly researched (and I noted no Igon values), but despite the presence of footnotes and an extensive index, it was in no way dry or dull. If all non-fiction were like this I might read more of it. Especially because while reading this one I noticed a weird thing: it's really relaxing to read a book I'm not desperate to finish, but which is interesting and worth reading.

Talking to Strangers was published in 2019 but seems all the more timely in the late spring and early summer of 2020 as the Black Lives Matter movement gains momentum. The book begins and ends with the story of Sandra Bland, delving into the reasons why such a terrible situation arose and how it got out of control, and runs through a whole spectrum of issues that people have in communicating with each other.

Here are Gladwell's main principles:  

1. Humans default to truth. Generally, humans "operate from the assumption that [the person they are speaking with is] telling the truth," unless or until the listener is presented with an overwhelming number of clues that cause the listener to doubt the speaker. (Gladwell doesn't go into this, but I would add "unless the listener has a 'default to lies' gained by experience with a particular teenaged daughter, in which case the listener assumes that the person they are speaking with is lying every time she opens her mouth."  I guess the difference there is that Gladwell is discussing our reactions to those we don't know rather than those we do know.)

2. Transparency bias: we tend to believe statements made by those who appear to be telling the truth (even when they're not); we doubt those who appear to be lying (even if they're honest). People who are "mismatched" (seeming honest when not and vice versa) confuse us because we expect people to be "matched."

2a. Alcohol is an "agent of myopia" which "narrows our emotional and mental fields of vision." 
"It creates . . . 'a state of shortsightedness in which superficially understood, immediate aspects of experience have a disproportionate influence on behavior and emotion.' Alcohol makes the thing in the foreground even more salient and the thing in the background less significant. It makes short-term considerations loom large, and more cognitively demanding, longer-term considerations fade away" . . . Without alcohol, one may be "willing to temper their own immediate selfish needs (to be left alone, to be allowed to sleep) with longer-term goals (to raise a good child). When alcohol peels away those longer-term constraints on our behavior, it obliterates our true self." 
So, maybe drinking alcohol is like meditation, albeit a less healthy version that may make you a bad parent.

3. Coupling: crime is closely tied to location. Suicide is closely tied to opportunity. When we fail to recognize these ties, we are overlooking an important factor in human behavior. 

I would sum up the book by saying we assume we know others better than others know us; we think we can trust our gut and our judgment and "read" strangers easily; but we are wrong. Communication is difficult and understanding is not a given. Interactions with strangers should involve caution, humility and restraint.