CHANGING OUR THINKING, ONE BOOK AT A TIME
by Marylaine Block
I'm a sucker for the kind of discussion going on now at Ask Metafilter <http://ask.metafilter.com/mefi/42616>, which started with the question, "Please tell me a book you think everyone should read and why." Here are some of my own candidates:
Since our minds are the only tools we have for solving our problems, we really need to improve our thinking. That's why I choose Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness. We're the only animal, he says, that can plan for future happiness, but unfortunately, errors in our thought processes keep us from correctly predicting what WILL make us happy: our imaginations are too bound by what makes us happy NOW, we forget how easily we adjust to both the good and the bad conditions of our lives, we rely on our uninformed imaginations rather than experience (our own and others'), we lack the descriptive capacity to examine our thoughts and feelings, we exaggerate the expected effects of both good and bad events, etc.
Gilbert is the kind of psychology professor you dream of having, a gifted explainer of the complicated who not only shows us the research on how our thinking goes awry but entertains us in the process. For example, he notes that however wonderful a first experience of anything may be, "on successive occasions, we quickly begin to adapt to it, and the experience yields less pleasure each time. Psychologists call this habituation, economists call this declining marginal utility, and the rest of us call it marriage."
Another example: he says, "Experiences of chardonnays, string quartets, altruistic deeds and banana-cream pie are rich, complex, multidimensional, and impalpable. One of the functions of language is to help us palp them - to help us extract and remember the important features..." But while some people have a richly descriptive language for emotion, "Others of us come equipped with a somewhat more basic emotional vocabulary that, much to the chagrin of our romantic partners, consists of GOOD, NOT SO GOOD, and I ALREADY TOLD YOU. If our expressive deficit is so profound and protracted that it even occurs outside of football season, it may by diagnosed with alexithymia..."
I'd also recommend Douglas Brinkley's The Great Deluge, though it's an overwhelming emotional experience. This compelling, detailed account of the horrors of Hurricane Katrina that television could only begin to show us: abandoned poor, infirm, and elderly victims, politicians who were willfully ignorant and uncaring about their plight, a police force guilty of dereliction of duty, racism and looting, dithering bureaucrats who actually hampered the arrival of food, water and medical supplies, officials and legislators who time after time failed to heed warnings, provide funding, and make adequate plans. The heroism of individual rescuers and doctors and nurses is the inspiring other side of the story, but the overwhelming evidence here shows that they cannot possibly do it all alone. This book makes a powerful negative case for good government by showing in horrifying detail that in its absence, people die needlessly.
Because most of us (myself included) are embarrassingly ignorant about the science and technology our lives depend on, I would recommend Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. Though Bryson has a minimal science background, he spent several years researching and talking to scientists to offer this brilliant explanation, intelligible to laypersons, of how science currently understands the world - evolution, geology, astronomy, human behavior, etc. He's another gifted explainer, of a field that, God knows, requires one.
I've long been interested in the often surprising consequences of our technologies; in fact, one of my books, Net Effects <http://marylaine.com/book/index.html>, dealt with how librarians can manage the unintended consequences of the internet. That's why I like Edward Tenner's book, Why Things Bite Back, which demonstrates how technologies inevitably carry within themselves the seeds of their own destruction. If we, for example, use antibiotics indiscriminately, we create more opportunities for hardy bacteria to survive and create new resistant strains - what Tenner calls a "revenge effect." He offers numerous case studies of the effect in action: flood control ends up endangering more people by encouraging them to move to flood-prone areas; hospital patients may be as much endangered by hospital-borne infections and medical error as by the conditions that brought them there; native species are wiped out by the plants and animals we inadvertently carry with us on our travels, etc.
The lesson here is about human arrogance. We have the ability to set powerful forces in motion, but we can neither predict nor control what happens next - a lesson that we would do well to heed in our politics as well.
And sometimes it's not arrogance but a failure of understanding that leads to tragedy, as in Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, a novel about trying to achieve understanding despite barriers of space, race, language, and culture. A Jesuit priest, a linguist, a musicologist and other specialists are sent to a distant planet to establish communication with a race of people who seem to communicate with music. The heroes are genuinely good, likable people, with the best of motives, who do succeed in befriending this tribe. But one fundamental misperception causes tragedy, for the gentle race they befriend, and for themselves.
And I would want everybody to read and ponder on the question posed by Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: what would we do if we had unlimited power over other human beings and there was nobody except our own conscience to tell us NO?
Finally, I would ask people to read about something we've lost but could yet reclaim: The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. Ray Oldenburg talks about that "third place" that is neither home nor work but a neutral place for casual mingling - bars, diners, barber shops, and such. As I suggested in "Here Comes a Regular" <http://marylaine.com/myword/3rdplace.html>, "the trouble is, neither work nor family can possibly fill our need for novelty, for playful conversation with people whose thoughts are not already well-known to us, for talk that gives birth to new ideas, for undirected flowing chat that is not directed toward solving work and family goals. They can't foster fledgeling romances by offering places where young people can run into each other accidentally on purpose. Nor can they serve our need to escape from the limited roles that have been assigned to us in our day-to-day lives, whether these be "geek" or "jock" or "just a housewife."
And I especially want librarians to read this book because our libraries could become that third place, could fill that aching hole in our communities' soul.
So, those are my picks. What about yours? I'd be happy to publish a column of your recommendations.
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Libraries are not just for reading in, but for sociable thinking, exploring, exchanging ideas and falling in love. They were never silent. Technology will not change that, for even in the starchiest heyday of Victorian self-improvement, libraries were intended to be meeting places of the mind, recreational as well as educational.
Ben Macintyre, "Paradise Is Paper, Vellum, and Dust." Times Online, December 18, 2004, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,1068-1407490,00.html
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