Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for August 21st, 2011

Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn

Posted by nliakos on August 21, 2011

by Cathy N. Davidson (Viking 2011)

Usually I finish a book before writing about it, but in this case, I will have to put off finishing it until I get my own copy (I was sneaking a peek into a copy I bought as a gift). Still, I figured that given my propensity to forget what I’ve read as soon as I’ve read it, I decided to write my first impressions here.

I have read the Introduction and Part One (which deals with the science of how we pay attention and what we pay attention to) and begun Part Two (which focuses on education: what it is, and what it could become if we could loosen up a bit and apply what brain scientists have learned about attention and learning).  In the debate over multi-tasking (can the digital natives really do those things at the same time?), Davidson comes down squarely on the side of Yes, they can. She explains that neuroscience has shown that neural pathways are constantly changing as the environment causes the brain to re-invent itself.  Educating kids in the 20th (and 19th) century style (one size fits all and everyone has to achieve the same result at the expected time or they are considered to have failed) results in a lot of bored students, frustrated teachers, and schools that cannot meet their quota of satisfactory test scores under No Child Left Behind.

This book has resonated with me on a number of levels. It connects to what I’ve read and seen before (the gorilla experiment, which I first read about in Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation; mirror neurons, which I learned about from Blakeslee and Blakeslee’s The Body has a Mind of Its Own; even those TV ads for Cymbalta, which my daughter’s doctor has suggested for her but which terrifies me. (I actually do focus on the droning list of unpleasant and dangerous side effects when I see that ad. What does that say about my brain?). Sometimes I wished Davidson would focus a bit more on what happens when the brain does not develop in the normal way, but that is due to my own interest in learning disabilities and the autism spectrum. And she does mention these–just not as often as I might like.

Davidson writes about complicated stuff in a way that is engaging and easy to follow (reminiscent of her wonderful memoir of falling in love with Japan, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, which is one of my favorite books). But I wish the publisher had chosen a slightly larger font–I find myself straining to read.

I’m looking forward to continuing the book soon.

Okay, it’s now a few weeks later and I have finished the book. After making what to me was quite a convincing case for reforming education, Davidson turns in Part 3 to the world of work, where she describes how the 21st century workplace has changed (at least for those working in offices, it has; but I kept wondering about all those people who work in retail, allied health fields, sanitation, restaurants…. you get the picture. Those people aren’t telecommuting, surely.) She suspects that we were never all that good at focusing on only one thing at a time, even before multi-tasking became fashionable, and claims that left to its own devices, our brain ceaselessly changes focus (Just ask anyone who has attempted to meditate!). She reminds us that prior to the industrial age, which created the boundaries between work and leisure, there were no such boundaries. If we end up bringing more work home while also taking unscheduled breaks at our desks to check out Facebook, listen to the latest TED talk or watch a funny video shared by a friend, it is not very different from how work and rest co-existed peacefully before we all started going “out” to work in offices, stores, schools, and the like.

Part 4 urges us to jump into the brave new world of the Internet to forge new connections with people near and far.   She concludes by saying, “With the right practice and the right tools, we can begin to see what we’ve been missing. With the right tools and the right people to share them with, we have new options. … The changes of the digital age are not going to go away, and they are not going to slow down in the future. … It’s time to reconsider the traditional standards and expectations handed down to us from the linear, assembly-line arrangements of the industrial age and to think about better ways to structure and to measure our interactive digital lives. … Right now, our classrooms and workplaces are structured for success in the last century, not this one. We can change that.” (p. 291)

Posted in Education, Non-fiction | 4 Comments »

State of Wonder

Posted by nliakos on August 21, 2011

by Ann Patchett (Harper Collins 2011)

It’s never a good idea to approach a book with unreasonably high expectations. I didn’t like Snow Falling on Cedars much the first time I read it because several of my friends had told me it was the best book they had ever read. (The second time I read it, I absolutely loved it.) I’ve been guilty of raving about favorite books (e.g., Corelli’s Mandolin) to friends who then read it and didn’t get what all the fuss was about. Some of my favorite books are those I picked at random off the library shelf (e.g., Precious Bane) and read with no expectations whatsoever.

The unreasonable expectations in this case came not only from the book’s excellent reviews (like this one from Ron Charles in the Washington Post: “Loaded as the story is with profound ethical issues, Patchett also knows when to pack light to keep the adventure moving. In fact, as the end approaches, “State of Wonder” crashes toward a breathless conclusion as though she’s being chased by a swarm of Amazonian wasps. This is surely the smartest, most exciting novel of the summer.”), but also from the fact that one of Patchett’s previous novels, Bel Canto, is one of my favorite books (one of those I read over and over and never tire of). So I came to State of Wonder in a state of anticipation, assuming I would find in it the same beloved characters and magical reality I had found in the previous book.

Not so.  State of Wonder is good, but it’s just good. It’s not fantastic (at least not on the first reading, not for me).  Instead of inhabiting the minds of many different characters, all of whom the reader sympathizes and identifies with despite their diverse backgrounds and politics, as in Bel Canto, the author reveals to us only the thoughts and feelings of one protagonist, Marina Singh, whom Carolyn Kellogg of the L.A. Times characterizes as “an ordinary woman.”  (None of the characters in Bel Canto could be described as ordinary, which was for me part of their appeal.)  And there were no real surprises until the end; even then, I was not blown away by the climax–discomfited by the cavalier treatment of the indigenous deaf boy Easter, yes (as was Marina, but I got the feeling that she got over it rather quickly), but not blown away, the breath knocked out of me, as I was when reading about the police assault in Bel Canto.

Oh well, it isn’t fair to take Patchett to task for not measuring up to her other book. State of Wonder is a good book.  I read it in four days (I was able to put it down, but interested enough to keep picking it up again.). It does make you think about medical ethics and ties between friends and colleagues.  But I wouldn’t say it’s a great book.

I am still waiting for someone to make Bel Canto into a movie. Maybe Alfonso Arau, who directed Like Water for Chocolate (a book I could not imagine as a movie until I saw it), could do the honors?

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