Book Notes, October to December 2016
Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall— With our century’s aircraft, internet and supranational institutions, we may be tempted to think we’ve overcome the bounds of physical geography in global affairs. Our history is told in ideologies and leaders, good or bad.
There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy. It is New Orleans. — Thomas Jefferson
Marshall shows us that plains, rivers and mountains are still predominant in ten examples from around the world with corresponding maps. He explains why Tibet is important to China, why Russia cares so much about the north European plain, and why with the Louisiana Purchase complete, the United States was destined to be a superpower.
He might overstate the case a bit but as I never see this kind of analysis — only discussion of what Putin or Trump has said today — it’s a refreshing way of looking at things. It’s a shallow dive but comes with a decent bibliography to dig in further, which I intend to do.
Open City by Teju Cole — Open City follows the wandering thoughts of Julius on long walks around Manhattan. I put it on a reading list about New York I researched before visiting last October, then bought it from the geographically arranged shelves of McNally Jackson. So I expect the book will always remind me of that city, though the story resists ties of place.
I put it down after a few pages. Nobody thinks like Julius, joining dots between Bach, Nietzsche, Auden, Mahler. I picked it up again and realised that the connection of ideas, people, places was the point. We might be at Ground Zero one moment and the Nigeria of his childhood next, or talking to a Moroccan writer in a Brussels internet café. We’re in Julius’ head. That’s all novels, but the fluency here makes it work.
I heard the citizen of the world is a ‘citizen of nowhere’. Cole reminds us that art and people transcend nations. ‘I’m on a road to nowhere. There’s a city in my mind.’
Mindset by Carol Dweck — The most obvious criticism you can give Mindset is that Dweck takes 250 pages to explain a thesis that can be given in a couple of sentences: We should stop with the old debates of nuture versus nature, genes versus environment, as research shows a greater indicator of success is our approach to abilities. In broad strokes: we may have a fixed mindset and consider our qualities to be set, or a growth mindset and believe that our qualities can be developed through effort. Guess which works best.
Importantly, the growth midset itself can be developed. Dweck is a research psychologist, and cites convincing studies to back up the argument, though none look at long-term effect. The rest of the book is given to examples from sports and business and sweeping, mostly obvious advice for applying mindsets to work, relationships and parenting.
I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed. — Michael Jordan
It’s such a broad thesis that I suspect it’s easy to find examples to back it and hard to disprove. I’d say the most valuable advice in the book is this: don’t praise children for ability or talent. You’ll leave them fearing eventual failure, that you’ll see them turn out not to be no genius after all and be forever disappointed. Instead praise their successes for the effort and work that went into them.
Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck — In 1960, at 58, Steinbeck makes a months-long tour around America with his French poodle Charley in a modified camper truck. He wants to see what’s changed in the years he’s been in Europe and New York. What he finds isn’t always positive: radio’s the same everywhere, some hitchhikers are racist. But for the most part his account of the open road and the the characters he finds on it is warm.
My Ántonia by Willa Carther— A tough, romantic tale of the immigrant life of early settlers on the Nebraska plain in the age of the Homestead Act.
There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.
Ántonia is a truly well-written character, and Carther is a master at both people and landscapes.
I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.
Turing’s Cathedral by George Dyson — An early history of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Dyson has a good perspective from which to tell this story, as he grew up there while his father Freeman Dyson was a fellow.
Though it is Turing’s name in the title, the book centres on the work of the Hungarian polymath John von Neumann, in the United States, to build the general-purpose ENIAC computer in the years up to 1946. Von Neumann, Teller and other hawks thought the best route to world peace was a ‘preventive’ hydrogen bomb strike on the Soviet Union, and the computer was intended to use their newly-invented Monte Carlo methods to simulate thermonuclear explosion. Thankfully that particular bomb was never dropped, peaceful uses for the computer were found in biology and meteorology, and the result of the von Neumann architecture is the digital world we now live in.
In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose. — Robert Oppenheimer