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.

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