Naples ’44 by Norman Lewis, 1978

Amazon Link

A true account of a British intelligence officer who arrives in Italy as the Second World War draws to a close.  Italy has surrendered, but some German soldiers remain and are being pushed northward.

Lewis’s account isn’t focused on the final fight against the Germans, but on the Italians who remain in a badly damaged and largely non-functional society.  Allied bombings have destroyed many towns, agriculture has ceased, the economy has collapsed; corruption, organized crime, black markets, and prostitution spread.

Lewis’s own mission in Italy, as well as the primary purpose of the Allied Forces, remains cloudy.  He’s assigned to investigate people clipping telephone wires for the copper they contain, to cultivate informants with knowledge of various political factions, and to even investigate the validity of marriages between soldiers and native Italian women.

As time passes he grows to adore Italian culture, to respect the resourcefulness of the people surviving in a disaster area, and to see the absurdity of the occupation.  Although there are many horrible occurrences and human callousness expected in war, there are many redeeming human qualities on display as well.

Recommend to Others: ?

Reread Personally: no

 

 

 

 

Audiobook Recommendations

Here’s a list of the best audiobooks I’ve listened to in the past few years.  They are all non-fiction, listed below in no particular order.

Shoe Dogs by Phil Knight – The founder of Nike tells the tale of how his company was founded and grew.  Well written, funny, with lots of details about the not-so-pretty decisions and sacrifices that went into building the company.

The Good Soldiers by David Finkel – An embedded reporter follows a group of soldiers and their leader during the Iraq War.  Tragic, depressing, inspiring, infuriating.

Rocket Men by Craig Nelson – The story of the Apollo 11 rocket, the first manned mission to the moon.  The book details preparation and the mission itself.  Awe-inspiring in parts.  Did you know that the rocket had over two million parts?

Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder – A doctor tries to makes a difference in Haiti.  An incredible story of sheer will and dedication.

Debt: The First Five Thousand Years by David Graeber – Learn a lot about history, society, money, and how society managed before governments issued money.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo – An amazing true-crime investigation inside of an Indian slum.  Fantastic narration, incredible view into an unbelievably harsh and painful lifestyle.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand – Incredible true story of a WWII solider shot down in the ocean and captured by the Japanese.  Perhaps the only person with more grit than Paul Farmer (from Mountains Beyond Mountains).

Flash Boys by Michael Lewis – An inside view into some of the shenanigans of finance.  What happens when the internet gets involved in trading?  What happens when a group of finance guys sees corruption and try to fight back?

 

 

A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright, 2004

Amazon Link

Wright examines progress made throughout human civilization, and points out patterns of failure and collapse.  He frames the story by asking three questions: who are we? (primates); where do we come from? (the lone survivors among other human-like groups); and where are we going? (not looking good).

Wright sees the abuse of natural resources as the primary cause of civilizational collapse—depletion of soil, erosion, clear cutting, anthropogenic extinction events, the toll of livestock on pasture, etc.  Now that human civilization is global and deeply interconnected, these types of disasters will no longer be contained within a specific place.  Failure will spread throughout the system virally.

The book was interesting, but didn’t cover much new ground for me.

Ideas per Page:1 3/10 (low)

Related Books: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harrari

Recommend to Others: only if you are looking for an introduction to the topic

Reread Personally:  No

Quotes:

4 Pollard notes that the idea of material progress is a very recent one—“significant only in the past three hundred years or so”—coinciding closely with the rise of science and industry and the corresponding decline of traditional beliefs.  We no longer give much thought to moral progress—a prime concern of earlier times—except to assume that it goes hand in hand with the material.

32  By culture I mean the whole of any society’s knowledge, beliefs, and practices.

33 Civilizations are a specific kind of culture: large, complex societies based on the domestication of plants, animals, and human beings.

35 …a late-Paleolithic child snatched from a campfire and raised among us now would have an even chance of at earning a degree in astrophysics or computer science.  To use a computer analogy, we are running twenty-first century software on hardware last upgraded 50,000 years ago or more.  This may explain quite a lot of what we see in the news.

65 …given certain broad conditions, human societies everywhere will move towards greater size, complexity, and environmental demand.

117 We in the lucky countries of the West now regard our two-century bubble of freedom and affluence as normal and inevitable; it has even been called the “end” of history, in both a temporal and teleological sense.  Yet this new order is an anomaly: the opposite of what usually happens as civilizations grow.  Our age was bankrolled by the seizing of half a planet, extended by taking over most of the remaining half, and has been sustained by spending down new forms of natural capital, especially fossil fuels.


1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.

On Having No Head by Douglas Harding, 1972

113 …the gaining of our separate and personal goals yields only the briefest satisfaction, and after that disillusion and boredom, if not disgust: whereas, whenever we have the grace to say YES! To our circumstances and actively to will (rather than passively to acquiesce in) whatever happens, why then there springs up that real and lasting joy which Eastern tradition calls ananda.

Amazon Link

Harding discusses a moment of awakening in the Himalayas, when he realized that he had—given the sensory information available to him at that point—no reason to believe that he had a head.  He couldn’t see, feel, or experience his head directly, and realized that over the course of his lifetime he had only had thoughts about having a head, instead of sensations confirming its existence.

He noticed that what he saw when peering out from his head actually seemed to be part of him.  He couldn’t even identify his head—where it existed and where its boundaries lay—so how could he separate the things he was seeing from his head?  And how could he separate the things that occurred “in his head” from what he saw that seemed far away?

Harding’s descriptions of this experience or state are intriguing and thought-provoking.  But reading about such an experience and “awakening” yourself are not the same.  Regardless, reading about it is useful, and I thought that his description was more comprehensible and useful than other descriptions of similar realizations I’ve read about or heard described in interviews.  The rest of the book isn’t as interesting as the first chapters.

Ideas per Page:1 3/10 (low)

Related Books: Waking Up by Sam Harris

Recommend to Others:  not really

Reread Personally:   No


1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.

 

 

 

Real Education by Charles Murray, 2008

To demand that students meet standards that have been set without regard to their academic ability is wrong and cruel to the children who are unable to meet those standards. pp. 47

Amazon Link

Murray argues that there are four crucial facts about human ability and educational practice that have been ignored, to the detriment of the students and broader society. They are: 1) ability varies 2) half of the children are below average 3) too many people are going to college 4) America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted.
The first three points follow from Murray’s prior research on ability and intelligence. For me, the observations that ability varies and that half of the children are below average are uncontroversial, and should influence the structure of our educational system, to a greater degree than currently happens. Students, teacher, parents, and society would benefit if students received more targeted instruction at the boundary of their capability (zone of proximal development).
The claim that too many people are going to college may seem elitist and silly on its face, but Murray isn’t arbitrarily denying people the golden ticket. He argues that students who are unable to complete college-level work, or who are unmotivated to do so, shouldn’t be punished. There should be multiple options for post-secondary career and academic training, not a one-size-fits-all certification that leaves so many without a viable way to certify their value to potential employers.
The claim that America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted had me intrigued; there are many laws and services in place to ensure that students with disabilities receive an appropriate education, and perhaps a similar approach to gifted students would encourage the school system not to squander the potential of our brightest students. Murray doesn’t worry about meeting their academic needs (presumably they are bright enough to see to that themselves, and/or their academic potential is too obvious to be missed). Rather, he worries that the cognitive elite will move through educational institutions without ethics, common decency, and a sense of duty toward society in general.
Essentially, Murray hopes that the brightest students can be trained to think about people other than themselves and those inside of their bubble. They will be leading institutions, businesses, and communities, and they must understand—and act upon—ideas like justice, duty, impartiality, etc.
Murray asserts that common principles are shared between many of the world’s global religious and ethical systems. So, the specific tradition we choose to teach students (or that they choose to study) isn’t terribly important. I’m not sure how true this claim is, and I’m confident that you could not get the general public to agree. Finally, it seems doubtful that studying an ethical system inside of a classroom will lead to enacting the principles in daily life. If mosques, synagogues, and churches continue to turn out sinners, why would an academic approach be any better?

Ideas per Page:  4/10 (medium)

Related Books: Coming Apart by Charles Murray

Recommend to Others: maybe

Reread Personally: no

Quotes:

12, 13
-Ability Varies
-Half of the children are below average
-Too many people are going to college
-America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted

21 …doing a somersault with a full twist off a pommel horse is impossible for most people, no matter how much they might practice. The difference in what they can do and what proficient gymnast can do is one of kind. … Grasping calculus requires a certain level of logical-mathematical ability. Children below that level will never learn calculus, no matter how hard they study. It is a difference of kind.

26 For understanding an individual child and what that child’s educational needs might be, you want as much disaggregation of the child’s abilities as possible. For understanding the overall relationship of the components of academic ability to educational performance and later outcomes in life for large groups of people, you are better off using a combined measure.

29 Empirically, it is not the case that we can expect a child who is below average in one ability to have a full and equal chance of being above average in the other abilities. Those chances are constrained by the observed relationship that links the abilities.

44 Children with below-average musical ability are usually exposed to music classes in elementary school, but they are allowed to drop out thereafter. … Only for linguistic and logical-mathematical ability are we told that we can expect everyone to do well.

47 In large groups of children, academic achievement is tied to academic ability. No pedagogical strategy, no improvement in teacher training, no increase in homework, no reduction in class size can break that connection.

69 For many years, the consensus intellectual benchmark for dealing with college-level material was an IQ of around 115, which demarcates the top 16 percent of the distribution. That was in fact the mean IQ of college graduates during the 1950s.

96 …the satisfaction of being good at what one does for a living (and knowing it), compared to the melancholy of being mediocre at what one does for a living (and knowing it). This is another truth about living a human life that a seventeen-year-old might not yet understand on his own, but that a guidance counselor can bring to his attention.

106 First, we set up a common goal for every young person that represents educational success. We will call it a B.A. We will then make it difficult or impossible for most people to achieve this goal. For those who can, achieving the goal will take four years no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward for reaching the goal that often has little to do with the content of what has been learned. We will lure large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability or motivation to try to achieve the goal and then fail. We will then stigmatize everyone who fails to achieve it.

121 [a liberal arts education should provide] a disciplined, coordinated study of the question that every college student is of an age to ask: What does it mean to live a good human life?

142 Disruptive students are not permitted to remain in class.

Students who are chronically disruptive are suspended.

Students who in any way threaten a teacher verbally or physically are expelled.

143 It is morally unacceptable to continue to sacrifice their [children who are trying to learn] futures—and we must not kid ourselves; this is what we are doing—just because we do not know how to reach the children who are not trying to learn.

Straw Dogs by John Gray, 2002 (Second Review)

In humans, as in insect colonies, perception and action go on as if there were a self that directs them, when in fact none exists.  pp. 73

Amazon Link

This is the second review I’ve written of this book (first review).  On the first reading, I focused more on the book’s primary argument: technological and scientific progress are real, but ethical/moral progress is an illusion.  The knowledge and tools humanity has gained persist and accumulate over time, but human nature hasn’t changed, and our new powers simply give us new means to settle old scores.

During the second reading I focused on another current that runs through the book: free will doesn’t exist.  Gray draws on Eastern thought in support of this claim.  The West views the self as pivotal: through our efforts we improve, we civilize the world, we progress.  The Eastern view sees humans as another part of the ecosystem, created and constrained by the background we inhabit.  History is cyclical, with floods balancing droughts, and good and bad stretches replacing one another.  Processes unfold without an individual author—the system itself is the author.

Even after a second read, I’m surprised by how many ideas are fit into this relatively small book, and in a smooth and natural manner.  It’s interesting to consider how lack of self connects to the notion of progress.  I think that is very creative connection, and a useful one.  I feel that the book was just as exciting on the second reading, and I will plan to read it again.

Ideas per Page:1 9/10 (high)

Related Books: The Silence of Animals, Al Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern both by John Gray; Waking Up by Sam Harris; Incognito by David Eagleman

Recommend to Others: Yes

Reread Personally:  Yes, but read some of the books mentioned in this one first

Quotes:

37 As commonly practiced, philosophy is the attempt to find good reasons for conventional beliefs.

61 Very often we are at our most skillful when we are least self-aware.

104 We cannot give up the pretense that being good is something anyone can achieve.  If we did, we would have to admit that, like beauty and intelligence, goodness is a fight of fortune.  We would have to accept that, in the part of our lives where we are most attached to it, freedom of the will is an illusion.  We would have to own up to what we all deny—that being good is good luck.

109-110 we are not authors of our lives; we are not even part-authors of the events that mark us most deeply.  Nearly everything that is most important in our lives is unchosen.

114 Animals in the wild know how to live; they do not need to think or choose.

114 For people in thrall to ‘morality’, the good life means perpetual striving.  For Taoists it means living effortlessly, according to our natures.  The freest human being is not one who acts on reasons he has chosen for himself, but one who never has to choose.

126 For polytheists, religion is a matter of practice, not belief; and there are many kinds of practice.  For Christians, religion is a matter of true belief. If only one belief can be true, every way of life in which it is not accepted must be in error.

150 Fernando Pessona writes:

Only if you don’t know what flower, stones, and

rivers are

Can you talk about their feelings.

To talk about the soul of flowers, stones, and rivers,

Is to talk about yourself, your delusions.

Thank God stones are just stones,

And rivers just rivers,

And flowers just flowers.


1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.

Islam and the Future of Tolerance by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz, 2015

Amazon Link

Religious critic Sam Harris and former Islamist Maajid Nawaz discuss the problem of political and/or violent forms of Islam, and the best way to promote the more secular, cosmopolitan, and peaceful forms of Islam.

Harris has long argued that the Koran itself (the claims and dictates contained in the text) is the primary cause of political or violent Islam.  He sees a clear line between scripture and how people decide to behave.

Nawaz argues that any text is always interpreted inside of some context, and the political/economic/social context surrounding those who purse violent or political Islam are framing interpretations of the text in harmful ways.  He believes moderate readings of the Koran are still true to the text, and that in certain contexts people who are now Islamist or jihadist would read the texts in those more moderate ways.

The book is dialogue between its two authors, reading like the transcript of an interview.  The tone is softer than a debate, mainly it’s a conversation. I enjoyed the format, and I think it works well for this kind of contentious topic where there isn’t a clear answer.

I wonder about why the book was written—who the authors hope would read it, and more importantly, who they actually expect will read it.  I imagine their target audience is secular/moderate Muslims.  I wonder if they really think it will have an impact where they’d like it to have one.

Ideas per Page:1 3/10 (lower)

Related Books: The End of Faith by Sam Harris

Recommend to Others: Only if previously interested

Reread Personally: No

Quotes:

19 …an Islamist attempts to impose his version of Islam on the rest of society, and a jihadist is an Islamist who attempts to do so by force.

32 …the polls that were done in Britain immediately after the 7/7 bombings in London revealed that more than 20 percent of British Muslims felt sympathy for the bombers motives; 30 percent wanted to live under shari’ah; 45 percent thought that 9/11 was the result of a conspiracy between the United States and Israel; and 68 percent believed that British citizens who “insult Islam” should be arrested and prosecuted

36 …four elements exist in all forms of ideological recruitment: a grievance narrative, whether real or perceived; and identity crisis; a charismatic recruiter; and ideological dogma.

41 Some Jihadists are not “pious” in the sense of having firm religious convictions.  …religious sincerity of the lack of it, fluctuates between, within, and among groups.

51 The great liberal betrayal of this generation is that in the name of liberalism, communal rights have been prioritized over individual autonomy within minority groups.  And minorities within minorities really do suffer because of this betrayal.  The people I really worry about when we have this conversation are feminist Muslims, gay Muslims, ex-Muslims—all the vulnerable and bullied individuals who are not just stigmatized but in many cases violently assaulted or killed merely for being against the norm.

53 I was not surprised to learn that Breivik quoted al-Qaeda extensively in his terrorist manifesto.  One of these extremes is opposed to a “Muslim takeover,” and the other is in favor of it, but they both subscribe to that divisive, sectarian apocalyptic vision.

58 Even more preposterous is the fact that if a pastor in Florida burns a copy of the Qur’an—or merely threatens to do so—it reliably produces more outrage in dozens of Muslim societies than the atrocities committed daily by Sunnis against Shia ever will.

69 You can’t say, for instance, that Islam recommends eating bacon and drinking alcohol.  … One simply cannot say that the central message of the Qur’an is respect for women as the moral and political equals of men.

72-3 …hate crimes against Muslims in the US … appear to be of greater concern than the enslavement and obliteration of countless people throughout the Muslim world.

119 Launching more drone strikes than Bush ever did and compiling a secret “kill list,” President Obama’s administration took the view that al-Qaeda was like an organized crime gang—disrupt the hierarchy, destroy the gang.  Theirs was a concerted and dogmatic attempt at pretending that al-Qaeda was nothing but a fringe criminal group, and not a concrete realization of an ideological phenomenon with grassroots sympathy.


1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.