Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for the ‘Non-fiction’ Category

One Man’s Owl

Posted by nliakos on June 14, 2020

by Bernd Heinrich (Princeton University Press 1987)

I picked this up at Wonder Book in Rockville because it reminded me of Wesley the Owl, which I loved. One Man’s Owl is more academic than Wesley; Heinrich is a zoologist at the University of Vermont. But the relationship between Heinrich and “his” owl Bubo is not terribly different from the relationship of Wesley and his “girl”, except that in that case, the owl clearly came to see his rescuer as his mate, whereas that is not clear in the case of Heinrich and Bubo (whom Heinrich never definitively sexes despite his use of masculine pronouns).

Heinrich is pretty obsessive about recording all the birds, insects, small mammals and other tidbits he finds dead on the road, killed by his wife’s cat, or captures alive and offers to Bubo. A Great Horned Owl is a master predator and a carnivore, so if you are raising an owl, you have to keep it fed. Still, I could have done without the details of furry little mammals and songbirds eaten by Bubo.

Heinrich illustrated the book himself with really beautiful pen-and-ink drawings of amazing detail, of Bubo and of other species.

Both books make clear that living with an owl is all-consuming. Not a part-time occupation!

Posted in Biology and environmental science, Memoir, Non-fiction, Pandemic Lockdown, Science | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Empty Cradles

Posted by nliakos on March 13, 2020

by Margaret Humphreys (Doubleday 1994, Corgi 1995)

Back in November, I watched the 2010 Jim Loach film Oranges and Sunshine on I vaguely remembered hearing about a scandal concerning British children being sent to Australia and was curious to know more. After watching the film, I wanted to read the book on which it was based, but it was really difficult to find. I put in a request on global library cooperative OCLC, and after months of waiting, finally received a copy from Bard College Library.

Not surprisingly, the book is more inclusive than the film; in fact, British children were deported to many different parts of the Empire, not only Australia. Humphreys mentions visiting Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) and Canada and says that child migrants were also sent to New Zealand and South Africa. (Wikipedia’s article about the “scheme” can be read here.) But Humphreys’ work seems to have been concentrated on child migrants in Australia. Humphreys was a social worker in Nottingham when she stumbled on the first case of an Australian adult searching for her birth family and identity; initially, she did not believe that the woman could have been sent 12,000 miles from her birthplace as a young child. She soon discovered that that woman was the tip of a very big iceberg. As many as 150,000 British “orphans” (living in institutions, but many, if not most, with living parents who never authorized their deportation) were emigrated (the first time I have ever seen emigrate used as a transitive verb) between the 17th and 20th centuries, finally ending in 1967. Some of the earliest ones were part of the settlement of the Virginia colony. Rather than being adopted or fostered in families, the vast majority of these kids grew up in institutions, some of which exploited them cruelly, preventing normal development and causing emotional scars lasting a lifetime.

Humphreys’ goal was straightforward: to reunite adult Australian migrants with living parents or other relatives in the U.K., and to provide counseling services to those who needed them. Many of the migrant children were used as slave labor by the charitable institutions (for example the Christian Brothers) who took them in. Horrific physical and sexual abuse of even the very young (toddlers!) was not uncommon, to say nothing of unhealthy living conditions (inadequate or spoiled food, dirty quarters [e.g., urine-soaked mattresses and bedding], no shoes, no underwear, and on and on). But apparently the worst thing for these children was the denial of love and affection. One man, for example, described pretending to almost fall out of bed so that someone would pick him up and hold him. (It didn’t work.) The other “worst thing” was not knowing who they were. Names were changed, ages were changed, and even after they grew up and had the audacity to ask for their records, they were refused. They were told that their parents had died or had abandoned them when this was not true. Back in Britain, parents (some of whom had specified that as soon as they were able, they planned to take their children back) were told that the children had been adopted or had died. Virtually no one was told that their children had been deported to Australia or other corners of the far-flung Empire. The goal of all this was two-fold: to clear out British orphanages and institutions of poor or otherwise undesirable children, and to add to the white populations of the colonies.

In order to perpetrate this injustice, the governments of the U.K., Australia, and the other then-colonies had to participate in it; the British Home Secretary, for example, had to sign off on the deportations, since the parents were never asked. Humphreys made it part of her mission to get those governments to admit that they were part of the problem, to apologize for the human damage they had sanctioned, and to fund the organization she created to help their victims, some of whom were already elderly–the Child Migrants Trust. It was an uphill battle which took years. By the time she wrote the book, the Australians had apologized (2009), and the British P.M. (Gordon) had apologized to the children’s families (2010). Restitution in the form of funding the Trust’s activities or other organizations trying to help the former migrants has been slow in coming.

This is a shocking true story of the exploitation of over 100,000 innocent children. Everyone should read the book or see one of the films made about it:



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The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World

Posted by nliakos on January 16, 2020

by Michael Pollan ( Random House 2001, 2002)

I have really enjoyed Michael Pollan’s books about eating, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food , and I try to follow his food rules: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants, with their corollaries such as Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients. (See the post for In Defense of Food for all the details.) I’ve been intending to read this one for years, and I got my chance when my sister gave it to me for Christmas. Thanks, Sis!

Like The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which is divided into four parts, each of which corresponds to a meal, The Botany of Desire‘s four chapters focus on four human desires (sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control) and four plants which fulfill them (the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato). The over-arching idea echoes a concept Pollan expressed in The Omnivore’s Dilemma–that plants use people, like bees, to spread their genes. In that book, it was corn that has somehow gotten humans to rid most of the American Midwest of all other competing species to its own advantage, with the result that we grow so much of it that we are forced to invent new markets for it (ubiquitous sweetener of other foods, automotive fuel…). In the present book, Pollan describes how apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes have taken over whole landscapes far from their places of origin. In so doing, he educates the reader with interesting facts. For instance, all commercially available apples are grafted clones; apples do not come true from seed. In fact, tulips are similar in this respect: “Tulips are prone to . . . chance mutations, color breaks,  and instances of ‘thievery’ (the tendency of certain flowers to revert to their parents’ appearance).” and “A tulip that falls out of favor soon goes extinct, since the bulbs don’t reliably come back every year. . . . Tulips, in other words, are mortal.” And the apples planted by John “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman were used not for eating but for making (hard) cider, which stood in for most other alcoholic beverages in the American Midwest.  of his time.

Throughout, Pollan ruminates on the contrasting myths of Apollo (analytical, linear, controlling, rational. . .) and Dionysus (natural, chaotic, untamed, violent, sexual. . .):  “Johnny Appleseed”, a kind of gentle Dionysus. . . .  Marijuana, providing a Dionysian intoxication (“nature overpowering mind”). . . . “Great art is born when Apollonian form and Dionysian ecstasy are held in balance, when our dreams of order and abandon come together.” This occasionally seems a little far-fetched, but adds an intriguing perspective.

In the final chapter, Pollan shines a bright light on the issues raised by genetic engineering, such as the inadvertent spreading of the doctored genes through the natural dispersal of pollen; the privatization of natural resources such as the natural insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt); the evolution of pests to resist Bt and other insecticides (a question not of if, but of when); and the control of farmers by agribusinesses such as Monsanto. He describes the dead soil in which most of our food grows, compared to the living multi-cultural living soil on organic farms: “. . . the typical potato grower stands in the middle of a bright green circle of plants that have been doused with so much pesticide that their leaves wear a dull white chemical bloom and the soil they’re rooted in is a lifeless gray powder. Farmers call this a ‘clean field,’ since, ideally, it has been cleansed of all weeds and insects and disease–of all life, that is, with the sole exception of the potato plant.” In contrast, the organic farmer’s soil “looked completely different from the other Magic Valley soils I’d fingered that day: instead of the uniform grayish powder I’d assumed was normal for the area, Heath’s soil was dark brown and crumbly. The difference . . . was that this soil was alive.” For the first time, I understood deeply why we should prefer organic produce over the cheaper alternative.

As always, Pollan does not disappoint.

Posted in Biology and environmental science, History, Non-fiction, Science | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The Corfu Trilogy

Posted by nliakos on December 3, 2019

by Gerald Durrell

  • My Family and Other Animals (Penguin 1956)
    • This was one of my mother’s books, and I read it myself many years ago. Recently, my interest has been reawakened by the delightful TV series The Durrells in Corfu, which my family gathered to watch on Sunday nights for four seasons of laughter-inducing episodes about the eccentric Durrell family’s life on the Greek Island of Corfu (Kerkira). The day after the Season 4 finale, I started re-reading the first of the so-called Corfu Trilogy. It introduces us to the main characters: mom Louisa Durrell and her young adult children, Larry (the Lawrence Durrell of Alexandria Quartet fame); Leslie; Margo; and the narrator of the entire trilogy, ten-year-old Gerry, whose later books about animal collecting and his special zoo on the Isle of Jersey (the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust) made him at least as famous as Larry. We also meet Spiros Halikiopoulos (son of a pebble?), a Corfiot who immediately befriends the family and sticks by them through thick and thin; Lugaretzia, who is hired as household help; and Dr. Theodore Stephanides, who became Gerry’s friend and mentor. Twenty years later, a grown-up Gerry remembered the details of his life on the island: not only the animals, which he observed with intense fascination, captured, and brought home as pets (to the horror of his family), but also the plant life, the sea, the weather, and of course the people. Gerry seems to have learned enough Greek to communicate fluently with the neighbors (something the TV series ignored; even in Season 4, all five Durrells can barely get a sentence out in Greek).  He describes the process in Chapter Two: “As the days passed, I came gradually to understand them. What had at first been a confused babble became a series of recognizable separate sounds. Then, suddenly, these took on meaning, and slowly and haltingly I started to use them myself; then I took my newly acquired words and strung them into ungrammatical and stumbling sentences. Our neighbours were delighted, as though I had conferred some delicate compliment by trying to learn their language. They would lean over the hedge, their faces screwed up with concentration, as I groped my way through a greeting or a simple remark, and when I had successfully concluded they would beam at me, nodding and smiling, and clap their hands.” He narrates his adventures both in his own garden and farther afield on the island and includes some very funny episodes about the people he lives with and the people he meets, such as the various tutors his mother engages to educate him. The funniest parts always include his ever-expanding menagerie: Ulysses the Scops owl, Achilles the tortoise, Alecko the black-backed gull, the “Magenpies”, Geronimo the gecko, the dogs Roger, Widdle, and Puke, and many more, some too tiny to name. The first book concludes with the family traveling to England where Gerry was supposed to go to school, whereas in reality, it was because of the impending Second World War that the family were forced to leave Corfu in 1939. (11/09/19)
  • Birds, Beasts, and Relatives (Viking 1969)
    • The second in the Corfu series continues in the same vein. Durrell describes in simile-laden prose the plants and animals he observed and sometimes captured. His similes help the reader envision what he was experiencing. For example: “…tiny crabs or beadlet anemones like little scarlet-and-blue jewelled pincushions”; “…a delicate growth of acetabularia mediterranea with slender threadlike stalks, and perched on the top of each stalk something that looked like a small green parasol turned inside out by some submarine wind”; and “a great black lump of sponge covered with gaping, protruberant mouths like miniature volcanoes.” (The above three examples were all in a single paragraph described shore life in a tiny bay.) My favorite similes, however, are the ones that anthropomorphize the wildlife, like this one: “… [the mantises’] bulbous straw-coloured eyes turning this way and that, missing nothing, like angular, embittered spinsters at a cocktail party.” And “[the tarantula] was standing half-way up a blue thistle, waving his front legs and peering about him, reminding me irresistibly of a hunter who had climbed up a tree in order to see if there is any game about.” I assume that the breath-taking detail with which he describes his island world can be attributed to the habit, already instilled in him at that young age by his mentor, Dr. Theodore Stephanides, of keeping a detailed journal of his discoveries and observations, in which he not only described things in words but also sketched them.  Gerry’s adventures narrated in this volume include night-fishing with Taki, acquiring a young donkey as a birthday present, Katerina’s wedding and childbirth, Sven (who never dates Gerry’s mother Louisa, as he does in the TV series) and Captain Creech (who is, if possible, even more irritating than he is in his TV portrayal), fishing for cuttlefish with love, dissecting a rotting turtle carcass on the front veranda, Leslie bribing a judge with postage stamps when Roger is falsely accused to stealing and eating five turkeys, a trip to London to retrieve Margo (Aunt Fan, Cousin Prue, some Bedlington terrier puppies, and a seance), Donald and Max’s visit, Gerry’s lunch with Countess Mavrodaki, the acquisition and loss of four baby hedgehogs, the wreck of Larry’s yacht, Gerry dancing with Pavlo the bear, and a family outing to Mr. Stavrodakis’ vineyard/winery. This last one constitutes the final chapter of the book and is the only chapter that isn’t particularly funny. The whole day is described with such love and longing, as if it were Gerry’s most important memory of the place he loved so much. He ends the chapter, and the book, thus: Lulled by the wine and the throbbing heart of the boat’s engine, lulled by the warm night and the singing, I fell asleep while the boat carried us back across the warm, smooth waters to our island and the brilliant days that were not to be
  • The Garden of the Gods/Fauna and Family: An Account of the Durrell Family of Corfu (Touchstone/Simon and Schuster 1978)
    • I had a hard time finding this one because it wasn’t obvious that one book had been published under two titles. Once I figured that out, I realized I already owned a copy. The narratives continue, looking at the island, the family, their friends and peculiar guests through young Gerry’s eyes. (The Durrells spent four or five years in Corfu, so Gerry might have been ten when they first arrived, but he was fourteen or fifteen when they departed. It’s never clear in the books how old he is in a particular chapter. The books don’t seem to be organized chronologically. I suppose he wrote about what he remembered best, and he didn’t plan it as a trilogy, but just kept adding volumes because of all of his books, these were the best sellers and thus earned his Wildlife Preservation Trust the most money (Writing was how Gerald Durrell financed his Jersey zoo devoted to saving endangered species). I was curious to see if the final volume mentioned anything about Gerry’s mother falling in love with the taxi-driver, Spiro. It didn’t. Nor did it have any mention of Spiro’s wife or children, if indeed he was married. So that juicy little romance was a fiction invented by the TV folks (not surprisingly). Also, in the books, Spiro is described as barrel-shaped, usually scowling, and ugly–not at all the handsome, charming man of the series, though he was able to find/make/buy/produce anything the family needed, which included some pretty weird stuff. There were some extremely funny moments, like Gerry’s bull horns (not bullhorns) falling on Leslie’s head and nearly knocking him out; King George’s visit to Corfu (also embroidered rather fancifully by the TV series director or scriptwriter); the time Margo brought home a besotted Turk with his two veiled wives, who was prepared to take on Margo as Number Three; the visit of the gentle American homosexuals, Lumy and Harry, who did make it into the TV series; and finally, Prince Jeejeebuoy’s birthday, in honor of which the whole family throws an elaborate India-themed party which takes days to prepare and naturally does not go completely as planned. . . . In sum, I enjoyed the TV series, but I am glad that it inspired me to go back to the books, because, as is almost always true, they are much better than the series!

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Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators

Posted by nliakos on November 3, 2019

by Ronan Farrow (Little, Brown 2019)

Reading Catch and Kill immediately after She Said was interesting. Most of the book details Farrow’s pursuit of the same story that Twohey and Kantor were chasing in She Said–Harvey Weinstein’s serial abuse of hundreds of women over many years. Naturally, both books share many of the same characters: victims/witnesses/sources, predators, and enablers. In Catch and Kill, there is also a whole new cast of characters from NBC News, where he worked when he began investigating Weinstein, and The New Yorker, which eventually published the finished piece (and several follow-ups) after NBC ordered Farrow and his collaborator, Rich McHugh, to stop work on the story, as well as people at The National Enquirer and its parent company, AMI, who took it upon themselves to buy the rights to stories concerning the misbehavior of people like Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump and then consign them to a vault so that they would never see the light of day (the “catch-and-kill” of the title).

Yes, it’s true: NBC was complicit in the coverup (and guilty of tolerating a similar culture of sexual abuse and coverup in the person of Matt Lauer, host of the Today show). Yet another shocker (I guess I am pretty naive). I don’t watch NBC, but I used to consider it part of the “mainstream media” which can be (more or less) trusted. No more. If I did watch it, I would stop. At least in the case of NBC, they did not attempt to stop Farrow from publishing his results in The New Yorker–in fact, Noah Oppenheim, one of Farrow’s superiors at NBC) actually suggested it.

The sheer number of people in the book is breath-taking, and I found it hard to keep them all straight. The chapter titles are weird, and in most cases I could not discern their relationship to the chapter they named: “Button”, “Quidditch”, “Syzygy”, “Spike”. I don’t know why he even bothered to name them. I suppose there is a connection, but it would have taken time and mental energy to figure out what it was, so I didn’t bother. Ditto for the Part titles: “Poison Valley”, “White Whale”, “Army of Spies”, “Sleeper”, and “Severance”.

Farrow includes enough personal details and reconstructed conversations in the story to keep the reader interested and to pave the way for a film based on the book I think it would make a good movie, if only they limit the number of characters in it. But now I think I will read something entirely different. Enough sleaze. (As of this writing, Harvey Weinstein is still a free man, still rich, awaiting his trial in New York and planning his comeback in the movie business. The creep.)


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She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement

Posted by nliakos on October 24, 2019

by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey (Penguin 2019)

This book is actually two books in one. The first, the longer one, is the one referred to in the subtitle: the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment case that ultimately brought down not only Mr. Weinstein but also his entire company, The Weinstein Company (TWC). The second, only 62 pages, which tells the story of Christine Blasey Ford and the Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation, seems like more of an after-thought. Kantor and Twohey did not break that story, although Blasey Ford did attend a gathering they organized in 2019 to interview a disparate group of women who had come forward to accuse their harassers in order to learn how going public had impacted their lives.

As I had read in a review somewhere, Kantor and Twohey’s book helps the reader understand the journalistic process and the ethics which guide journalists’ work. We read about the editors and higher-ups in the New York Times who make the crucial decisions about what to print, when to print, whether to print, to continue pursuing a story or not, how much time to allow reporters to work on a story that seems to be going nowhere, and so on. There are references to others pursuing the same story (e.g., Ronan Farrow, whose book Catch and Kill I will read next) and the pressure to be the first to break the story rather than to write a “follow” (a summary of another person’s original article), which the authors say is “humbling to write”.

As for the actual story itself, Harvey Weinstein was a sleazy old guy with a lot of power and influence who (with the cooperation and assistance of his underlings) trapped young women in hotel rooms and tried to get them to disrobe, give and accept “massages”, take showers with him, and watch him masturbate. He occasionally raped them, but in general his modus operandi seems to have been “persuasion”, keeping in mind his dominance over them professionally–both the women who worked for him and young actors hoping for parts in his films. Some of them submitted; some escaped, but all, it seems, were harmed by the experience. Some of the harm was professional; e.g., a staffer unable to continue working in the film industry because she was prevented by a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) from explaining why she had left Miramax, Weinstein’s company at the time. Other harm was in the recriminations and self-doubts that continued to plague these women, who were prevented from discussing what had happened to them by the NDAs they had signed, thereby consigning them to living with the events and the feelings connected to them unresolved.

Kantor and Twohey show how the NDAs provided the victims with cash settlements far larger than they would have gotten had they complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the government agency charged with enforcing the laws against sexual harassment, and won–which, given the atmosphere at the time, was far from certain. Blaming the victim was common, and the EEOC was not even allowed to make public the information it had about serial harassers. “Such agencies would gather crucial information with taxpayer dollars and then, for the most part, were required to lock it away where almost no one could see it,” report the authors. Thus did the federal and state governments enable sexual harassers to continue to victimize people for years–in Weinstein’s case, over forty years before he was finally held accountable.

Once having signed an NDA, however, victims of sexual harassment or assault were muzzled for life. In effect, the NDAs prostituted the victims after the fact: after they were groped, fondled, “massaged”, forced to engage in oral sex, or raped, they were paid to remain silent about what had happened. While many victims wanted only to forget what had happened, the inability to reconsider that decision would haunt them for years and made Kantor and Twohey’s investigation much more challenging, because they were unable to persuade people to talk to them. These agreements should be illegal, in my view.

Definitely worth reading.

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Educated: A Memoir

Posted by nliakos on October 7, 2019

by Tara Westover (Random House, 2018)

Reading the story of Tara Westover, who was raised by fundamentalist Mormon parents on an Idaho mountain but who managed to earn a PhD. in history from Cambridge, was for me similar to reading a good mystery or thriller: once I got started, I couldn’t stop.  Her life on the mountain was so alien, the neglect she suffered from her father and the abuse inflicted on her by one of her brothers so unbelievable, and the way she internalized their misogyny so complete, I was driven to read on to find out how she escaped her destiny as an uneducated wife, mother, herbalist, and midwife.

She was aided and abetted in her escape by members of her family, like the brother who first made it to college, and to some extent her mother, a weak woman whose will bent to that of her (apparently mentally deranged) husband, but who at crucial times gave Tara the support she needed to break away.

Her experiences in college, after spending most of her childhood unschooled and then studying an ACT prep book on her own, were surreal. Think of an alien plopped down in a classroom, expected to know what to do. She did not understand that she was expected to read her textbooks, how to write a paper, how to prepare for a test. The surrealism increases when she travels to Cambridge University, first with a group of fellow Brigham Young University students and later as a graduate student. She was fortunate to find professors at BYU and at Cambridge who recognized her extraordinary ability and who went out of their way to mentor her.

But it was not easy to break away from the pull of her family and her religion. In the end, she managed it, but the story of how she did it is what makes the book so compelling.

Interesting quote, from Westover’s undergraduate days at BYU:

A few days before finals, I sat for an hour with my friend Josh in an empty classroom. He was reviewing his applications for law school. I was choosing my courses for the next semester,

“If you were a woman,” I asked, “Would you still study law?”

Josh didn’t look up. “If I were a woman,” he said, “I wouldn’t want to study it.”

But you’ve talked of nothing except law school for as long as I’ve known you,” I said. “It’s your dream, isn’t it?” 

“It is,” he admitted. “But it wouldn’t be if I were a woman. Women are made differently. They don’t have this ambition. Their ambition is for children.” He smiled at me as if I knew what he was talking about. And I did. I smiled, and for a few seconds we were in agreement.

Then: “But what if you were a woman, and somehow you felt exactly as you do now?”

Josh’s eyes fixed on the wall for a moment. He was really thinking about it. Then he said, “I’d know something was wrong with me.”

I’d been wondering whether something was wrong with me since the beginning of the semester, when I’d attended my first lecture on world affairs. I’d been wondering how I could be a woman and yet be drawn to unwomanly things.

To find out how she was able to break out of this misogynistic Mormon mold and reach for the sky, you have to read the book.

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21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Posted by nliakos on October 7, 2019

by Yuval Noah Harari (Spiegel & Grau, 2018) (I read the electronic version)

As Yuval Noah Harari explains in his Introduction to 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, “In this book I want to zoom in on the here and now. My focus is on current affairs and on the immediate future of human societies. What is happening right now? What are today’s greatest challenges and most important choices? What should we teach our kids?”

Although I was spellbound by Harari’s Coursera MOOC “A Brief History of Humankind” in 2013, this is the first of his books I have actually read (though Sapiens has been on my to-read list since I took the MOOC, and Homo Deus is already in my Nook library). I remember Dr. Harari’s video presentations. He always sat in the same armchair with a floor lamp beside it. There was a video screen next to him, but he rarely used it. Instead, he kept us enthralled with his words, sitting there with no notes, just talking into the camera. It was amazing. 21 Lessons reminds me of that, a little. While I was not enthralled (more like depressed) as I read it, he constantly got me to look at things in a fresh new way, just as he did in the course.

I was expecting something more along the lines of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, but 21 Lessons is more like the reworking of previously published articles, supplemented by responses to reader questions. That said, there is plenty here to learn and think about, written succinctly and clearly, with relevant examples taken from numerous countries around the globe as well as from Harari’s personal experiences (something he did not talk about at all in the MOOC).

Order of chapter topics:

Part I: The Technological Challenge (Ch. 1: Disillusionment; Ch. 2: Work; Ch. 3: Liberty; Ch. 4: Equality)

Part II: The Political Challenge (Ch. 5: Community; Ch. 6: Civilization; Ch. 7: Nationalism; Ch. 8: Religion; Ch. 9: Immigration)

Part III: Despair and Hope (Ch. 10: Terrorism; Ch. 11: War; Ch. 12: Humility; Ch. 13: God; Ch. 14: Secularism)

Part IV: Truth (Ch. 15: Ignorance; Ch. 16: Justice; Ch. 17: Post-Truth; Ch. 18: Science Fiction)

Part VI: Resilience (Ch. 19: Education; Ch. 20: Meaning; Ch. 21: Meditation)

Some of the main take-aways:

  • People think in stories. Most of them are fictional. The one my friends and I prefer is “the liberal story”. But it’s not the only one out there. (A related thought: “from a political perspective, a good science fiction movie is worth far more than an article in Science or Nature.)
  • In the future, most people could become irrelevant (“a massive new ‘useless class'”) as powerful elites use bio-technology to turn themselves into a kind of super-human. “It is much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation.” We might even split into two separate species. The crucial difference is “who owns the data”. But how do we regulate data?
  • The Artificial Intelligence Revolution will transform the future job market.  “No job will remain absolutely safe from automation.”
  • Humans make most of their decisions based on emotion, not rational thought. Emotions are “biochemical mechanisms that all mammals and birds use in order to quickly calculate probabilities of survival and reproduction”. In other words, “feelings. . . embody evolutionary rationality.”
  • Human communities have always been characterized by inequality. Equality gained ground in the 20th century, but inequality is now growing again.
  • All humans today share a global civilization which recognizes nation states, money, and shared scientific, medical, and technological knowledge.
  • The success of Homo Sapiens is due in large part to our propensity to think in groups and to cooperate.
  • People don’t like too many facts. “The world has simply become too complicated for our hunter-gatherer brains.”
  • The three main challenges facing humankind are the nuclear challenge, the ecological challenge, and the technological challenge, which together “add up to an unprecedented existential crisis.” Four questions for any candidate for office:
    • If elected, how will you reduce the risk of nuclear war?
    • How will you fight climate change?
    • How would you regulate technologies such as AI and bioengineering?
    • How do you see the world of 2040?
  • There are three kinds of problems: technical problems, policy problems, and identity problems. Religion is relevant only to identity problems.
  • Immigration is a deal with three basic conditions.
    • Term 1: The host country allows the immigrants in.
    • Term 2: The immigrants embrace at least the core norms and values of the host country.
    • Term 3: If the immigrants assimilate enough, over time they become equal and full members of the host country.
    • We need to have a consensus on the meaning of the three terms before we can have a debate on immigration.
  • Terrorism is a military strategy used by groups that are too weak to really damage their enemy materially. Don’t panic over terrorist actions because in the end their effect is usually very small. “There is an astounding disproportion between the actual strength of the terrorists and the fear they manage to inspire.”
  • Jews are less important in world history than either they or their detractors think.
  • Monotheism made people less tolerant of others.
  • A moral person is one who reduces the suffering of others.
  • Two rules of thumb:
    • If you want reliable information, you should be prepared to pay for it.
    • If an issue is really important to you, read the relevant scientific literature about it.
  • Students don’t need more information (facts). They need to know how to make sense of the information they have.

Favorite quotes:

  • Democracy in its present form cannot survive the merger of biotech and infotech. Either democracy will successfully reinvent itself in a radically new form or humans will come to live in “digital dictatorships.”
  • Intelligence is the ability to solve problems. Consciousness is the ability to feel things such as pain, joy, love, and anger.
  • The economic system pressures me to expand and diversify my investment portfolio, but it gives me zero incentive to expand and diversify my compassion.
  • If you don’t feel at home in your body, you will never feel at home in the world.
  • We are all members of a single rowdy global civilization.
  • Xenophobia is in our DNA.
  • Identities are a crucial historical force. . . . All mass identities are based on fictional stories, not on scientific facts or even on economic necessities.
  • Terrorists resemble a fly that tries to destroy a china shop. The fly is so weak that it cannot move even a single teacup. So how does a fly destroy a china shop? It finds a bull, gets inside its ear, and starts buzzing. The bull goes wild with fear and anger, and destroys the china shop. This is what happened after 9/11, as Islamic fundamentalists incited the American bull to destroy the Middle Eastern china shop. Now they flourish in the wreckage. 
  • Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.
  • Home sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions.
  • When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month, that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years, that’s a religion. . . .
  • Humans have a remarkable ability to know and not know at the same time. Or, more correctly, they can know something when they really think about it, but most of the time they don’t think about it, so they don’t know it.
  • Truth and power can travel together only so far. Sooner or later they go their separate paths. If you want power, at some point you will have to spread fictions. If you want to know the truth about the world, at some point you will have to renounce power.
  • As a species, humans prefer power to truth.
  • A ritual is a magical acts that makes the abstract concrete and the fictional real.
  • If by “free will” you mean the freedom to do what you desire, then yes, humans have free will. But if by “free will” you mean the freedom to choose what to desire, then no, humans have no free will.

One thing I really enjoyed in particular was how Harari explains his points with reference to art (Hamlet, Inside Out, Brave New World, The Lion King…).


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Over the Hills and Far Away: The Life of Beatrix Potter

Posted by nliakos on September 30, 2019

by Matthew Dennison (Pegasus 2017)

When my daughter was young, I bought her a stack of Beatrix Potter’s “little books” on sale at Borders. Later, we supplemented them with books on tape (replaced later by CDs) and videos. At 27, she is still enamored of these quirky little tales, as am I, and we both loved the movie Miss Potter, a dramatization of the author/illustrator’s life. I always wondered how much of that was fictionalized and how much was based on fact, so when I saw this book on the biography shelves of my local library, I took it out. It did not disappoint! I learned that the movie was largely accurate; however, Norman Warne’s illness and death were apparently embellished. Warne died of leukemia, not of an illness contracted because he saw Beatrix off on her forced vacation in the rain, as was implied in the film. Beatrix’s girlhood acquaintance with William Heelis, whom she would later marry, is not mentioned in the book and was probably invented by the director. But no matter. The film is wonderful, the book is wonderful, Beatrix Potter’s creations are wonderful. I loved the way Dennison illustrates his book with Potter’s drawings and refers constantly to the various animal characters in the “little books”, relating the stories to the places where she lived and the events in her life. Having read almost all of her oeuvre (I somehow managed to miss The Fairy Caravan–must look for it in the library), these references greatly added to my enjoyment of the biography.

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My Beloved World

Posted by nliakos on August 30, 2019

by Sonia Sotomayor (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013)

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor calls this a memoir rather than an autobiography, but I think autobiography is more apt. Although it does not talk about her time as a federal judge or on the high court, her life story leading up to her first appointment to the federal bench (the accomplishment of her lifelong goal, to be a judge) is told with great honesty and completeness. Her judicial career being still in progress, she chose not to describe it.

I had only the vaguest notion of who Sonia Sotomayor was before I read the book; having read it, I now hold her in the highest regard. She has faced adversity (a diagnosis of Type I diabetes as a young child; poverty; parents who did not get along, and a father who eventually left) but prevailed due to her own hard work and her open, probing mind. She could be the poster child for the Encyclopedia Britannica, having educated herself far beyond what she was taught in school by reading the home set her mother scrimped and saved to purchase for Sonia and her brother. She is a role model for every struggling student who overcomes linguistic differences to learn to write clearly and forcefully and who learns to think critically and argue a point, rather than just to regurgitate memorized facts. She writes candidly of her marriage and divorce to her childhood sweetheart, and of her acceptance of her single state and childlessness. Having succeeded in a legal career as a Latina woman “from the projects”, she has experienced discrimination and prejudice but has never allowed them to stand in the way of her desire to seek justice for others. Her story is truly an inspiration. I loved this book.


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