What I’ve Been Reading

1. Baghdad by the Bay by Herb Caen.

A collection of sentimental essays about San Francisco from the City’s most famous (now dead) newspaper columnist. Any resident of San Francisco should read this light book for the reveries about fog horns, the odes to the stunning physical beauty of the area, the amusing guide on “how to act like a native,” and for sentences like, “How do I know what happened before my time? Because I’m a San Franciscan. I was born with memories.”

2. Against Love: A Polemic by Laura Kipnis.

The author rails against love, the process of falling in love, the way romance is celebrated in our culture, and the taboo nature of infidelity (which is to say, she applauds the adventurousness of infidelity). The relentless cynicism makes this not a pleasant or persuasive experience, even if she can turn the clever phrase or two. But if you consider yourself a dangerously romantic person and think you need to be hardened a bit, perhaps this polemic is worth a whirl. The three best paragraphs:

The fear and pain of losing love is so crushing, and so basic to our natures, that just about any trade-off to prevent it can seem reasonable. And thus you have the psychological signature of the modern self: defined by love, an empty vessel without it, the threat of love’s withdrawal shriveling even the most independent spirits into complacency….

Falling in love itself is subject to the same bans on cognition: social protocols dictate that it be regarded as an elusive and slightly irrational procedure. Too much rationality or thinking risks killing the romance—and of course risks defying prevailing conceptions of the normal human: reptilian analogies like “cold-blooded” tend to be deployed against anyone displaying too much cognition where mooniness should prevail.

A more accurate description of the situation might be that we’ve mortgaged our emotional well-being to intimacy institutions that hinge on elaborate fictions themselves, at least to the extent that feelings are unpredictable, that desires aren’t always coherent or static, that knowing what you want in the realm of love and intimacy isn’t an exact science, and people do occasionally change….

3. The Levity Effect: Why it Pays to Lighten Up by Adrian Gostick and Scott Cristopher. The canned jokes and stories are the most useful part of this book. There are jokes categorized by business objective. E.g., a joke to use to open up a speech about change management. This book was sent to me and I wouldn’t have purchased it on my own. If you want to work on humor in business, I recommend subscribing to John Kinde’s newsletter and checking out the Silicon Valley Junto notes on “Funny Business.”

4. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. My first Vonnegut, and it won’t be the last. I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed this book until I was finished with it — it kept me engaged from the very start until the very end. Some of the POW scenes reminded me of the all-time classic Man’s Search for Meaning. Such as this sentence when food was scarce and soldiers hungry: “When food came in, the human beings were quiet and trusting and beautiful. They shared.”

5. In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell. My first Russell, and I didn’t take to it. With Marx, his conclusions are wrong but the material still provocative and thought process still worth tracking. With this Russell book, his conclusions on how society works are wrong, and journey to get there didn’t afford unusual insight or stimulation.

5 Responses to What I’ve Been Reading

  1. Aidan Nulman says:

    While I wish I had something to say, or a recommendation to make, about the first three or the last book, I’ll instead make a quick point related to Slaughterhouse Five:

    Read Cat’s Cradle next.

    I was assigned this as Grade 7 summer reading, and it has stuck with me since. Everything about the book is so… perfect.

    The chapters are remarkably short (but oh-so-plentiful). The relationships that bind the characters together are either trivially meaningful or meaningfully trivial (I wish I could describe it in a less “catchphrase”-y way, but it’s too true).

    The way Vonnegut satirizes government, religion, and spirituality in Cat’s Cradle is, to me, more insightful (and often funnier) than the other writings of his that I’ve read.

    And, if I remember correctly from nearly 10 years ago, he does this all while only stating the protagonist’s name once.

    Okay, rant over. Now to add a few of these to my Amazon Wishlist…

  2. DaveJ says:

    I’ve read the namesake essay and perhaps one or two others from the Russell book. We’re on the same page with it – his view of human nature seems hopelessly naive and seems only to encompass people who have intellectual curiosity, which as it turns out is not most people. He was a brilliant mathematician but he fails in his endeavors in sociology and even epistemology (his “Human Knowledge” seemed to have a similar character – strongly influenced by then-current science rather than anything deeper or more lasting).

    Re: On Love – sounds interesting – I suspect that this is aimed at females. Men need love but don’t tend to define themselves by it, whereas there is a large class of women who both obsess about it and center their lives around love, along with its ornaments such as weddings.

  3. Ben Casnocha says:

    Yep – I going to read Cat’s Cradle at some point.

  4. NM4 says:

    Bertrand Russell broke my heart a little when, after reading his self-help book “The Conquest of Happiness,” I then read Ray Monk’s biography of him, which argues persuasively that he had no business writing such a book. He wasn’t all that happy himself, and he made others around him very unhappy too.

  5. Having read the book, I thought that the film adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five was beautifully done, and was gratified when Vonnegut himself declared:

    “I love George Roy Hill and Universal Pictures, who made a flawless translation of my novel Slaughterhouse-Five to the silver screen … I drool and cackle every time I watch that film, because it is so harmonious with what I felt when I wrote the book.”

    Like his protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, I feel unstuck in time and remain convinced that I too was kidnapped by extraterrestrial aliens, except they were my parents.

    Vonnegut’s writing is for philosophers. As a member in good standing of The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, I highly recommend it.

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