There are few figures in American history larger than Lincoln. And the bigger the figure, the more the space they occupy in our consciousness feels like myth rather than history.
Team of Rivals is the first book I’ve read about Lincoln as an adult. And there was much about his story that felt new.
For example, I don’t remember knowing how much of a long shot he was to obtain the Republican nomination in the first place. On the first ballot at the Republican convention in 1860, Lincoln was 4th in the voting. Lincoln distinguished himself only as everyone’s second choice. And then only after longstanding party rivalries tainted the candidacies of William Seward and Salmon Chase did he receive enough support to gain the nomination.
I also don’t remember knowing how obscure Lincoln was as a national figure leading up to his election as president. National media was generally unaware of whether his name was Abraham or Abram when he was nominated.
And I didn’t know that his assassination was a part of a broader conspiracy to kill the president, the vice president, and the secretary of state. The person responsible for killing the vice president decided against it last minute, and the assassination of the secretary of state (William Seward) was unsuccessful – though Seward and his son were both wounded on the same day Lincoln was assassinated.
Goodwin portrays Lincoln as a kind and disarming person. I don’t know why, but that struck me as novel, too. Kindness isn’t a trait that I associate with powerful people. But in contemporary letters, the word kind appears regularly in his peers’ descriptions of him. And, in reading the book, that appears to have surprised his rivals as much as it did me. Indeed, it seems that he used his kindness as a political skill to deflect attacks from his rivals.
And that strikes me as about as extraordinary and useful a skill as a person could have.
What I’m Reading – 4/27 – The Graveyard Book; The Longest Winter
The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman is the most elegant writer alive today. I am no more qualified to critique his writing than I would be to critique a Mozart sonata. Suffice it to say, like a Mozart sonata, that is beautiful and impressive, and that it is best enjoyed, rather than analyzed.
The Longest Winter, David Halberstam
Before reading this book, I knew next to nothing about the Korean War. After reading the book, it’s apparent that this is by design. Perhaps even more than the Vietnam War, the Korean War is something we’d rather as a country pretend never happened. And much more than Vietnam, it is something we have successfully purged from our consciousness.
I was left with two overarching themes after reading this book.
First, the Korean War is in many ways about the emergence of China as a world power as opposed to the politic dynamics of the two Koreas. In fact, until reading this book, I was totally unaware that China was the principal adversary the United States during the heart of the war. It is estimated that 600,000 Chinese troops were killed or went missing during the war.
The other theme is that, perhaps more than any other war in American history, one man, Gen. Douglas McArthur may have been personally responsible for the majority of casualties. McArthur was among the most intelligent military men in American history, but his actions during the Korean War show that sometimes a highly intelligent man with unchecked power can be the most dangerous kind of all.
McArthur, in command of American forces in Korea, refused to listen to multiple intelligence reports that indicated that Chinese forces would respond if he moved American troops north of the 38th parallel. He rewarded staff above all for obedience and destroyed the careers of those who challenged him. And when the facts on the ground contradicted his previously held opinions, he simply chose to disregard the facts rather than change his opinions. As a result, US troops moved across the 38th parallel in October 1950, and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, died as a result.
What I’m Reading – 4/13 – Seveneves; Asylum; SuperBetter
Seveneves: A Novel, Neal Stephenson
This is going to make a great movie, but I’m not sure I would call it a great book. One thing Stephenson does a lot, that I don’t love, is write long explanations about scientific phenomena that serve more to show That the Author Has Done a Lot of Research and Knows about Science, but do not move the story along or develop the characters. It is impressive in a sense, but I don’t read fiction for its information density, which is invariably low, no matter how much explanation is involved.
The book a very ambitious project, and is to be respected for that alone. It is on occasion captivating, but at times pedantic. Stephenson is an epic writer, but if I had been the editor, I would have insisted on a lot more editing.
Asylum, William Seabrook
This book was highly recommended by Ryan Holiday, whom I admire. It’s perhaps more interesting as a memoir of someone who was in a mental institution in the 1930s than as a book with lessons for the modern day, but it was an enjoyable and easy read. Sporadically insightful and very well written, but I don’t recommend it unless you’re an alcoholic or if you have a particular interest in the history of mental institutions.
SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver, and More Resilient – Powered by the Goddess of Games, Jane McGonigal
When you read a lot, sometimes the books that are the least interesting are the ones with which you agree the most. I agree with, and strongly advocate, almost everything McGonigal says in this book. And if you are struggling with a major problem, and the idea of gaming a solution to the problem is novel to you, then maybe this book could be a life-saver for you. But I didn’t get much out it.
What I’m Reading – 4/6 – The Iraq War; Impro; Zen in the Art of Writing; The First Tycoon, The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
The Iraq War, by John Keegan. I recently read Keegan’s take on the Civil War, and decided to read his book on the Iraq War as well. It’s a rare thing, to read a history about an event that you lived through not long ago. But I suspected that Keegan’s wry commentary on events in Iraq from 1991-2003 might give me a more comprehensive understanding of what happened. As with Keegan’s other books, the book excels in providing background of what led up to the war, from the history of the Muslim caliphate to the Ottoman empire to Hussein’s rise to power. And then the book details the awe-inspiring and historically unparalleled efficiency of the US military machine, and then the sheer folly of the US plan to build a government after the fall of the regime.
While it wouldn’t be accurate to describe Keegan’s depiction of the war as unbiased, it was a refreshing contrast to the vitriolic editorializing that characterized most commentary I read while the war was happening. I’m glad I read it.
Impro, by Keith Johnstone. This came very highly recommended by Kevin Simler of Melting Asphalt. The book is ostensibly about improv comedy, but generally instructive on human-on-human interactions. The chapter on “status” is one of the most powerful things I have ever read. Johnstone forces his actors to think of all interactions between people as “status” transactions, wherein at all moments an actor must adopt a high-status or a low-status position. Indeed, it is this act of asserting power or acting submissive that is the very thing that makes the actors’ actions feel real. The implication is that at all times, we are either asserting ourselves or allowing ourselves to go along with someone else’s plan, and this dynamic is what defines our roles as people. It’s a rare book that can make you re-think every interaction with other people, but this one did.
Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury. This was a fun and easy collection of essays from Bradbury about his love of writing. Similar in many ways to Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. “Self-consciousness is the enemy of all art, be it acting, writing, painting, or living itself, which is the greatest art of all.”
The First Tycoon, The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, by T.J. Stiles. In 2016, the story of the entrepreneur is well known and well told. This book describes the life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, a man from modest beginnings who rose to become the wealthiest man in the United States. What makes the story unique is that Vanderbilt may have been the first such man to follow this trajectory. And his story fits snugly with the growth of the United States. Born in 1794, shortly after the adoption of the United States constitution, Vanderbilt epitomized a new merchant class that thrived through shrewdness, aggression, and dedication rather than title and education. Though only a couple of steps above illiteracy, his actions drove policy and shaped the development of the country as few others before or since had been able to do. The first half of the 19th century is an under-reported time in this country’s history. This book helped provide some color for that time.
The Mismeasure of Man; A Universe of Consciousness
The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould
If you’re skeptical about the idea of IQ as a perfect measure of intelligence, this is the book for you. This book, by one of the most important evolutionary biologists of all time, goes into painstaking detail on the uses and misuses of IQ throughout history. Over the last few hundred years, many have wanted to show that there is a biological justification for the differences between the haves and the have-nots. This book describes the history of those justifications and does its best to discredit them all.
Starting with phrenology and transitioning into Spearman’s G and IQ tests, it gives the history of those who wanted to reify and simplify intelligence into a linear measure. The book provides a gut-wrenching and sad history of subjugation where prejudice has been justified by problematic and unreliable measures of intelligence.
It’s a long and intense book. If you really want to understand the counter-perspective, read it alongside The Bell Curve.
A Universe of Consciousness, Gerard M. Edelman and Giulio Tonini
I first heard about Gerard Edelman in Oliver Sacks’s biography, On the Move. Sacks lavishes praise on Edelman as the pre-eminent neuroscience scholar on the subject of consciousness. So I figured it was worth a read.
Unlike Sacks, I’m not qualified to opine intelligently on who is and who isn’t a pre-eminent scholar on consciousness. But I’ve read my fair share of philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists on the subject of consciousness. And from the perspective of an educated layperson, Edelman’s (and Tonini’s) book seems as compelling as anything I’ve read.
The book presents a major hypothesis, the “Dynamic Core Hypothesis,” which states that consciousness is highly integrated and unified state that cannot be subdivided into component parts, but that at the same time, it is highly differentiated or informative and that the differentiation can lead to a wide range of conscious states.
The book is scientific and rigorous but still readable for the educated layperson. Very informative.
Just finished reading, Stalingrad, The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943, by Anthony Beevor. The battle of Stalingrad has always been a source of morbid fascination for me. Given how much literature there is and how many movies have been made about World War II, it’s shocking how little attention this battle has received.
Perhaps that’s because it’s so grotesque. It’s hard to make a movie about a conflict with no winners and no good guys. And the degree of death and suffering from the battle defies comprehension. More than 1.5 million Germans died and another million went missing in Russia. Meanwhile, even though history tells us that the Russians “won” the battle of Stalingrad, around 26 million Russians died in World War II, and at no point was the rate of attrition worse than during the battle of Stalingrad.
The horrors of the battle are almost enough to make you feel bad for Nazis. After the initial Luftwaffe air raids reduced the city to rubble, the Russians incited the Germans to hand-to-hand combat, to limit the Germans’ weapons advantage. Soon, the Russians figured they could induce more terror by launching raids at night. With callous indifference to their own troops as well as their enemies, the Russians sent wave after wave of regiments into battle at night. Those that refused to fight were executed, with more than 13,000 killed for cowardice. Soviet troops fought with little coordination or organization, but simply out of a sheer animalistic sense of survival.
In November 1942, just as winter arrived, the Soviets encircled the German Sixth Army, creating a 40-60 mile boundary separating the main German army in Stalingrad from its supply lines. With temperatures below zero and little supplies or ammunition, the 290,000 remaining German troops had little option but to freeze or starve to death in the rubble. Two-thirds of them died in the next two months.
By the end, the scene was one of pure misery, with 6’ 4’’ men reduced to 120 pounds and emaciated horses gnawing on wood fragments in a desperate attempt to stay alive. Prisoners of war resorted to cannibalism. In late January 1943, the din of war actually grew quieter, if only because most of the Germans had completely run out of ammunition to fight.
They had been given orders by Hitler to fight to the death, using their last bullet on themselves to avoid being taken alive. A few decided not to oblige their Fuhrer, and surrendered instead. But those that surrendered only had a slightly better chance than their fallen comrades. Of the 90,000 who surrendered, only 3,000 left Russia alive in the years after the war.
The civilian population of Stalingrad was completely annihilated. It’s estimated that around 700,000 lived in the city at the start of the German invasion. In the end, only 9,796 survived. This included 994 children, “only nine of whom were ever reunited with their parents.” It’s truly horrific stuff.
The battle of Stalingrad may seem like a distant, inconceivable event. But it didn’t happen that long ago. The battle reached its climax when the Soviet armies surrounded the German Sixth Army on November 20th, 1942. I was born on November 20th, 1977. All this went down 35 years before I was born. And I’m now 38. The time gap between the battle of Stalingrad and my birth is less than the time gap between my birth and the present.
As you read the letters of soldiers and officers who suffered through the battle on both sides, the overwhelming sense is that they were all pawns being sacrificed at the alter of a lunatic sense of patriotism. The Germans died for the Fatherland and the Russians died for the Motherland. But they all died just the same.
Steve Jobs; Creativity: Flow and the Psychology and Discovery of Invention; Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder
Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson. I don’t think I’ve ever read a biography that simultaneously made me feel so much admiration and loathing for one person. Steve Jobs asked Walter Isaacson to write his biography (which, given Isaacson’s previous subjects, was itself an act of hubris). And usually, when someone is given permission to write an all-access, fully authorized biography, the result is a hagiography. But despite Isaacson’s close connection to Jobs, the overall impression we get of the man is that of a brilliant, ambitious jerk. From refusing to acknowledge his own child’s existence to refusing to grant any Apple stock options to his best friend from college who had helped him from the beginning, Steve Jobs was ruthless in business and in life. But, as with all of Isaacson’s books, the storytelling around the man’s life is fantastic and to be revered, even if the protagonist isn’t.
Steve Jobs isn’t someone to idolize. I worry that young entrepreneurs might believe that brutish and inhumane treatment of friends and colleagues is a precondition to success. But the story of Jobs’ life is what he made it, and Isaacson tells it well.
Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder, Nassim Taleb. I loved Fooled by Randomness. I think Taleb is unquestionably brilliant in a non-linear way. When I read Fooled by Randomness, I found myself agreeing with him on almost everything he said. I thought Black Swan was fairly redundant. And, at least this time around, I didn’t finish Antifragile. His writing tends toward the self indulgent, which grates on me after a while.
I stopped reading about the time he started writing about how much he can deadlift.
Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, by Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi. See here. Didn’t love this, but enjoyed it well enough. The author’s theories aren’t that interesting, but the book features great anecdotes from great thinkers, and that’s what made it worthwhile to me.
I read a lot of books, and I’ve recently started posting book reviews three at a time here.
But the book, Finite and Infinite Games, by James P. Carse, demands a separate treatment. It’s an incredible extended metaphor and thought exercise about how to live a good life (the Infinite Game) as opposed to getting caught up in zero-sum activities (Finite Games). In many ways, it feels like an extended metaphor on Kantian ethics. But it’s a worthwhile read as an exercise for philosophers and lay readers alike.
Carse treats all human interactions, whether they are political, financial, social, moral, or sexual, as a series of games. The finite games have a beginning and an end, they have rules, and they are played to be won. The rules of a finite game are the contractual terms by which players determine who has won.
The infinite game is a little harder to peg. It doesn’t have rules, but it has limits. The rules of the infinite game are like an evolving grammar in a language. It is a form of discourse. The infinite game doesn’t have a winner, but play is limited by resources and inputs. People cease to play infinite games not because they lose, but because they run out of resources, or even because they die.
We all have roles to play within these games. One can be a lawyer, a mother, or a martyr. Sometimes we choose a role, and sometimes it is thrust upon us.
If you want to play the role of a lawyer, you have to take the LSAT, go to law school, pass the bar, pay your dues to your local regulatory agency every year, keep up on continuing learning education credits, and follow certain enumerated ethical guidelines during the entirety of one’s practice. Skip or disobey any of these rules, and the permission to play may be canceled at any time. No amount of smart or savvy or strategy can save you if you ignore the rules. And that’s how the game is played. And so it is with each role we play.
Here are a few other quotes to illustrate the tone of the book:
From the outset of finite play each part or position must be taken up with a certain seriousness; players must see themselves as teacher, as light-heavyweight, as mother. In the proper exercise of such roles we positively believe we are the persons these roles portray. Even more: we make those roles believable to others. p. 12
The issue is not whether self-veiling can be avoided, or even should be avoided. Indeed, no finite play is possible without it. The issue is whether we are willing to drop the veil and openly acknowledge, if only to ourselves, that we have freely chosen to face the world through a mask. p. 13
Culture, on the other hand, is an infinite game. Culture has no boundaries. Anyone can be a participant in a culture – anywhere and at any time. p. 43
It is a highly valued function of society to prevent changes in the rules of the many games it embraces. Such procedures as academic accreditation, licensure of trades and professions, synodical ordination, parliamentary confirmation of official appointments, and the inauguration of political leaders are acts of the larger society allowing persons to compete in the finite games within it. Deviancy, however, is the very essence of culture. Whoever merely follows the script, merely repeating the past, is culturally impoverished. p. 44
The more we are recognized as winners, the more we know ourselves to be losers. That is why it is rare for the winners of highly coveted and published prizes to settle for their titles and retire. Winners, especially celebrated winners, must prove repeatedly they are winners. The scrip must be played over and over again. Titles must be defended by new contests. No one is ever wealthy enough, honored enough, applauded enough. On the contrary, the visibility of our victories only tightens the grip of the failures in our invisible past. p. 73
Infinite players cannot say how much they have completed in their work or love or quarreling, but only how much remains incomplete in it. They are not concerned to determine when it is over, but only what comes of it. p. 93
Finite and Infinite Games is a fun, aphoristic thought exercise on what it means to live a meaningful life. Definitely worth a read.
Benjamin Franklin, an American Life; Einstein, His Life and Universe; The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
Benjamin Franklin, an American Life, by Walter Isaacson.
If I find a writer whose work I like, I read all of it.
And so it has been with Walter Isaacson. He chooses great subjects and tells great stories. He treats his subjects with appropriate reverence, but acknowledges their imperfections. With each of his books I found myself engrossed and was able to plow through quickly, in spite of their volume.
The Franklin biography was the first that I read. After having read the others, I’d have to say it’s my least favorite, but it’s still very good.
A few storylines that I thought were interesting: Franklin grew up very poor, but managed to retire from active work at 42. That was older than the average life expectancy of the era, but he kept himself busy in retirement with the projects, civic and social engagements for which we know him today.
Isaacson also depicts Franklin’s temperament differently than I had expected. Many movies and stories portray Franklin as a womanizer and a bit of a drunk. Isaacson describes him as a flirt and a character, but abstemious by the standards of the era, which I think makes sense. It’s hard to imagine someone doing a fraction of what Franklin did if he were regularly incapacitated.
Einstein, His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson.
Three things stood out to me in this book:
First, just how extraordinary Einstein’s transition was from the being the ultimate outsider to the ultimate insider. How a man that no one bothered to acknowledge became so revered that his name is now synonymous with the concept of genius. If you know anything about Einstein, you probably know that he wrote many of his most important papers, including the one on special relativity, while working as a patent clerk. But this book details just how much he struggled to obtain recognition in his youth. Even the patent clerk job was a huge coup for Einstein. When he first graduated from the Zurich Polytechnic, for years, he couldn’t find any job. He was completely invisible.
I was also very surprised to learn the story of his first child, “Lieserl,” who probably died in infancy, whom he never saw, and whom he never publicly acknowledged. As a man who cultivated a reputation for avuncular warmth, humanity, and generosity in his later years, his treatment of his first child seems a contradiction.
The last storyline, one that dominates the second half of the book, is Einstein’s stubborn refusal to accept quantum physics. In much the same way that Einstein’s theories on relativity created an upheaval in the dogma of Newtonian physics, so too did quantum physics create an upheaval in the dogma of many fundamental concepts of pre-quantum physics. And while Einstein developed his theories of special relativity by abandoning many concepts that were previously considered axiomatic, he was strangely dogmatic when he learned about the discoveries in the quantum revolution. And this stubborn refusal to accept these new discoveries meant that he produced few, if any, meaningful contributions to physics in the last 38 years of his life.
The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, by Walter Isaacson. This is by far the best book on the history of the computer that I’ve read.
Given the role that computers and technology play in our lives, it’s shocking how little we’re taught about their history. know all about Metternich and Bismarck and Franz Ferdinand, but I had never heard the name Ada Lovelace until I read this book. And it’s a great story, one that should already be finding its way into our elementary-school curriculum, if it hasn’t already.
The American Civil War; Musicophilia; A Perfect Mess
The American Civil War, by John Keegan. When I first wrote the title of the book, I wrote it wrong. By habit, I just wrote, the Civil War, instead of the American Civil War. And that’s part of why this book is great. Americans often take the American part as assumed when we refer to the civil war. But Keegan’s a Brit. And so he’s analyzing the war from an outsider’s perspective. It was obvious only a few pages in that this made it a very different book. There’s much more cultural background on the pre-war era to help answer the non-obvious question, “how could one nation of people, so much more similar than different, let things devolve into such a bloody war?” And I think that was the best part of the book. This is the only Civil War history or narrative I’ve ever read from a non-American. And it was a worthwhile read.
Musicophilia, by Oliver Sacks. I enjoyed the first couple of chapters of this book immensely, but I did not finish. I think I may have read too much Oliver Sacks lately (I’ve also recently read all or part of The Island of the Colorblind, Oaxaca Journal, Hallucinations, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and On the Move). Other than On the Move and Oaxaca Journal, there’s definitely a formula for Oliver Sacks books. He’ll introduce an atypical psychosis or an atypical neurological ailment, he’ll describe some fascinating phenomenon associated with that problem, and then he’ll describe all the variants with case studies. For the first few case studies, it’s so amazing to learn about the phenomenon, that, even as a layperson, you’re transfixed to read about it. By the end, there’s detail, repetition, and nuance that may be more appropriate for a professional. That’s not an indictment of the quality of his writing, which is majestic. But if you binge-read these books, it is possible to reach a satiation point on the case studies.
A Perfect Mess, by Eric Abrahamson and David R. Freedman. I picked up this book because it was highly rated by Netscape founder and venture capital heavyweight Marc Andreesen. The basic premise is that people are far too obsessed with organization. As someone who is naturally disinclined to organization, this book has an intuitive appeal. It definitely leans in the opposite direction of most self-help books.
The argument is that most people spend more time trying to organize their lives than is productive. While there is a certain point at which disorganization and mess can become harmful, modern Western civilization is too biased toward cleanliness and organization. Our houses and neighborhoods are cleaner than ever before by a factor of many hundreds of times. From the perfectly manicured lawn to the spotless house, we feel obligated to present an image of perfect cleanliness, when there is little to no benefit from the practice. I completely agree, but the book, unironically, is disorganized and rambling. Either way, the point is solid, and it is an argument I have never heard anywhere else.