More November Reading
Here's some more November reading! I'm thinking about going back to single-book posts, but on the other hand I'm having trouble finding time to write even these quickie riffles through several books at a time. What do you think?
The Canceling of the American Mind: Cancel Culture Undermines Trust and Threatens Us All -- But There is a Solution, by Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott: I've been looking forward to this book for a long time! The title is a riff on Lukianoff's last book, co-written with Jonathan Haidt, and the two titles work together. This time, Lukianoff is teamed up with a Gen Z writer, Rikki Schlott, to bring in a younger perspective. The thesis here: that cancel culture (which yes, exists) is a manifestation of false ideas discussed in the earlier book, and which serve to make us less mentally healthy and less able to function as a society. The ideas:
- Fragility: that people are fragile and need comfort; they cannot withstand discomfort, or judge truth for themselves
- Emotional reasoning: that feelings convey unquestionable truth and should not be examined
- Us vs. Them: that life is a battle between good people and evil people.
This book looks at instances of cancel culture, from the one at Hamline to the one at Stanford, and how it leads directly to self-censorship, as it's meant to. But a healthy society can't run on self-censorship and enforced conformity, and since everyone knows that everyone is self-censoring, we lose trust in authority. We stop thinking universities are institutions for good. And so Lukianoff and Schlott talk about how to push back against this and what can be done.
I particularly liked a chapter heading quotation from Kmele Foster: "It's very ironic that we live in an era when we talk a great deal about diversity and inclusion, but in a very real sense, the ethos of cancelation culture is actually exclusion, monoculture and conformity of perspective -- driven so much by this forceful ostracization of people who are perceived to have the wrong sorts of ideas."
I enjoyed this book quite a bit and mostly agree with it as well.
The Sinister Booksellers of Bath, by Garth Nix: A couple of years ago I read The Left-Handed Booksellers of London and commented that a sequel would be welcome. And here it is! Susan, half-mortal and half-ancient power, is trying to be a normal art student at the Slade but it is not to be. Animated statues are running around Bath, Merlin has accidentally fallen into a magical map, and Susan has the talent to go and get him out of his pickle. They discover a serial killer hidden away in a pocket out of space and time -- and it's planning to get Susan next. (On account of those inconvenient talents we mentioned.) The Booksellers and Susan have to keep Susan safe until after the winter solstice, which involves meeting Sulis Minerva herself, fighting a lot of statues and -- ha! rogue Masons, and finding the secret place where an ancient power lies hidden.
Lots of action and fun geography, another DWJ name-drop (I appreciate this effort to bring her books to a new generation, Garth), generally a good time all 'round. It was neat that I read it just as I was finishing up this next title, because there is in fact quite a lot about different kinds of stone in the British landscape:
A Land, by Jaquetta Hawkes: "The story of Britain from the geological shaping of the land to the development of its civilization, told with accuracy, scholarship, and passion." For a classic of its kind, this book sure is hard to track down. This is a book of how a land was shaped, and of how people have interacted with it. It's both scientific and poetic, a kind of nature writing that is also seen in Silent Spring, except there's no small measure of dreamy ecstaticism as well. It was a massive best-seller, very influential, and is practically unheard-of today -- but then I live in the US, where it probably didn't make a splash in the first place.
It's both very much of its time and weirdly timeless, perhaps because Hawkes was so unusually aware of the evanescence of her time and her own self, as you can see in the third quotation. So Robert Graves' influence is clearly seen -- his White Goddess was then brand new. Piltdown Man is a fossil to be reckoned with (he wasn't exposed as a hoax for another three years). She talks about organisms in the moralistic way that we have dropped, calling some species decadent or stagnant, or youthful, and so on. And yet since most of what she talks about is stone, it's still very relevant and interesting.
Piltdown Man has proved far more elusive. One might think he had left some devilry in his partially petrified bones. For half a century strenuous efforts at recollection failed to prove whether the fragments of human skull were contemporary with the very ancient animal bones or the crude flint implements which lay with them in the Sussex gravel. Moreover, there was long, fierce and inconclusive dispute as to whether the chinless, simian jaw could ever have been attached to the high, well-shaped cranium so full of intellectual promise as to be recognizably that of an ancestor of the learned disputants themselves. I like this Yorick who clowns, makes a mock of us, even with his bones.
[Describing a now-vanished London] We have as yet created nothing quite comparable with the scene in Wall Street where the black cliffs of the skyscrapers so dwarf Holy Trinity that it looks like a church fetched from Lilliput.
It is — it must be, for here it is — the simple reaction of a consciousness exposed at a particular point in time and space. I display its arguments, its posturings, as imprints of a moment of being as specific and as limited as the imprint of its body left by a herring in Cretaceous slime.
What If? 2: Additional Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by Randall Munroe: The XKCD guy is back with another silly book about science! The weirdest questions you never thought of asking have been thought of by somebody -- often a 5-year-old -- and Munroe is here to game them out. Such questions as "Just how much of this plastic dinosaur is made of real actual dinosaur?" and "What if I put a tube down to the bottom of the ocean and stood in it?" I particularly liked the list of things you should not do, which is updated throughout the book to include "Peel away the earth's crust" and "Remove someone's bones without asking." Very fun.