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.