450 second book review: A quintet to clear the decks

It’s been a while since I’ve posted any book reviews.  It’s not that I haven’t been reading…it’s just that I haven’t taken the time to write up my thoughts and impressions.  But no more.  With this post I am clearing out my backlog of book notes and clearing the decks.  In no particular order, here are some quick notes on books I have finished in the last few months:
Amusing Ourselves to Death
I started and finished this one most recently.  I ran across a copy in the portal where the gods send me books to read from my too long/unprioritied wish list (AKA Half Price Books) a few weeks ago and read it in about a week.  It was written more than three decades ago, and although Mr. Postman sets his sights on Television, he makes a few mentions of the threat posed by “Micro-Computers” ;-).
His general argument is that television fundamentally alters the nature of discourse as compared to print.  A “print culture” has cohesion of thought based on the fact that everything in print is placed in context.  Based on that context, the reader has the ability to ferret out any contradictions and thus determine the truth of any claims made by an author.  Shifting to television, Mr. Postman writes:

The fundamental assumption of that world (refering to the world of television) is not coherence but discontinuity.  And in a world of discontinuities, contradiction is useless as a test of truth or merit, because contradiction does not exist.

I would argue this is even more true of more recent media such as twitter and facebook.  Don’t even get me started on vine!  An alternative explanation of his thesis is that Huxley was right and Orwell was wrong.
The first half of the book establishes the argument, then the second half explains the impact of the change from print to television as the primary media for discourse on news, religion, politics and education.  Hint: none of the impacts are positive.
The book ends with a couple suggestions of how to restore conhesion to discourse.  In that discussion he writes what I think is actually the most interesting idea in his book:

Public conciousness has not yet assimiliated the point that technology is ideology.

Mr. Postman admits that the suggestion first is unworkable, at least in America: eliminate Television altogether.  The second suggestion, using the school system to give people the tools to “help the young learn how to interpret the symbols of their culture”, is held up as the only option.  As prescient as the rest of Mr. Postman’s book is, this hope seems awfully naive by comparison.
This is Why I Came
I discovered this book via a review from The Atlantic. , which I subscribed to earlier this year in an attempt to look smart to my mail lady.  (Actually I suscribed to Reason magazine the same day.  Nothing makes me giggle as much as when The Atlantic, Reason and the NRA magazine all show up in my inbox the same day.  I think I’ll subscribe to the National Review and Foreign Affairs next year ;-).
As a work of fiction, this is a bit of a change up from my normal reading list, but it was well worth it.  The story starts and ends with Bernadette entering and exiting a confessional, but in reality that is just a “prop” for Ms. Rakow to tell her real story: the woman’s rewriting of all the major stories of the Bible.  Those of you that believe in the Bible as the divinely inspired word of God might stop reading here, but stick with me (or at least skip down to the next review).  The Atlantic review is better than anything I could write here, so I won’t attempt any deep analysis, rather I’ll focus on the few things that spoke to me personally.
Bernadette seems to be motivated to come to confession (repeatedly from what I can tell) from some deep seated guilt about her doubt.  Her doubt is so deep, that she took up the task of rewriting “the greatest story ever told” into something that she could relate to.  In that way, This is Why I Came, may be on of the most “protestant” pieces written since Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Castle church, in that it is quite literally a personal retelling of the stories that we all know.  In those stories, Bernadette is reflecting back what her interpretation of what she hears when she is told the story of Adam and Eve or Jesus in the dessert.  What I find fascinating about this aspect of the story is that in the end, the priest who hears her confession points out that rather than acting as a source of guilt, Bernadette’s doubt should be seen as her gift:

To doubt the God you believe in is to serve him.

The idea that asking questions (i.e. doubting) is a gift in a religious context is so refreshing to me in an age of increasing dogma from many religious circles is a breath of fresh air.  In Bernadette’s stories, I saw her getting closer to an understaning of the Universe and her place in it.  And if that’s not what religion is supposed to help us do, then I am not sure what it’s for.

War of Art
Changing gears completely to a immenently practical book, this could end up being a really short review since the most imporant this I can say is that everyone reading this should click the link above (no, it’s not an affiliate link), but this book, and read it from cover to cover as soon as it shows up.  Seriously, JUST READ THIS BOOK.
What’s it all about you might ask?  In a word (Mr. Pressfield’s word in fact): Resistance.  The resistance that keeps you from living the life you really want.  The resistance that keeps you from having the relationships you really want.  The resistance that keeps you on the bench instead of doing the only thing that will make you better…which is doing something.
Steven Pressfield is a fiction writer, but this book is squarely in the “how to” genre.  Pressfield describes his process for getting off the dime and doing the hard part, described so well in this quote from Jerry Pournelle (not cited in The War of Art, but great nontheless):

The hard part of writing at all is sitting your ass down in a chair and writing it. There’s always something better to do, like I’ve got an interview, sharpening the pencils, trimming the roses. There’s always something better to do.

Resistance takes many forms, but the most common one is fear.  Pressfield has the most wonderful take on fear that I have ever read:

Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do.

Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.

In these few words, he turns fear from something you should be afraid of (duh!) into an indicator of what you should be paying attention to.  This one idea is worth 10x the price of the book.  Buy it and read it anyway.

The cultivation of the ability to notice where my mind is that I have been developing through my mindfulness practice combined with this simple idea has helped me recognize what’s important (hint: it’s what I feel resistance to getting done), explore the source of that resistance and then overcome it to get things done.  This approach has put me more at peace than anything else in the last few years.


Resistance is always lying and always full of shit.

(NB: in full disclosure, I didn’t read this book, I listened to it.  For this type of book listening worked great, so if the prospect of sitting a reading casuses you resistance (see what I did there), then download an audio copy)
Free Will
I’m starting to realize that this post is a reflection of my magazine subscriptions and iTunes music library.  That is, it might one day be used to prove some sort of mental error.  This book is anothe left turn.
I first heard of Sam Harris at last year’s Porcfest and ended up subscribing to his podcast shortly thereafter.  For those of you that don’t know, Harris is one of the so called “New Atheists” along with folks like Chrisopher Hitchens and Dan Dennet.  Harris is a neuroscientist by degree and profession (in addition to being an author and “personality”) and he comes at everything with a seemingly level (cold some might say) scientific rationalism.
I continue to read and listen to things from Dr. Harris for two reasons: he is not afraid to engage in precisely the sort of discourse that Mr. Postman feared television was killing (side note: I do wonder what Mr. Postman would think of podcasts as a medium?) AND because he makes me think.  At the end of half of my thinking about what he has said or written, I find myslef agreeing with him.  At the end of the other half, I find myslef disagreeing with him, in some cases violently (which is to say severely…I mean no harm ;-).  In the case of Free Will, it is most definitely the latter.
In this rather shor book (and I mean that as no disparagement – I like the fact that he can make his points directly and doesn’t feel the need to go on and on) Dr. Harris makes the case that free will as it is commonly perceived is an illusion.  I think he tries to make the case that this does not place him in the determinist camp, but I must admit that this point wasn’t entirely clear to me, nor did I fully grasp the difference between his view and that of the classical determinists like Bertrand Russell.
What I did grasp, however, was the thread of the main argument backing up his claim, which to me seems to be this: since we are neither concious of every possible option available to us nor we in control of every particle of our beings, free will does not exist.  If Dr. Harris was not an atheist, he might state it like this: free will is illusory since we posses neither the mind nor the will of God.
This seems like a rather binary position to me.  Since we can’t control and know everything, we can’t control or know anything.  What really bothers me (and in some ways makes me think I don’t fully understand Dr. Harris’ chain of reasoning here) is that it seems horribly inconsistent with what else he has written and said.
For example, he is perhaps best known as a vocal opponent of poltical islam and its reaches into international terrrorism (which as an aside, I always like to bring up to my more fundanmentallt religious friends since its something they agree on with a devout atheist ;-).  If I understand his view on free will, then Dr. Harris should say that a terrorist blowing himself up on a bus or flying a plane into a building was predetermined at the moment that universal inflation began billions of years ago.  But he doesn’t say that; he seems to be awfully sure that something can and should be done about the problems posed by political islam.  Perhaps he would say that he doesn’t have any choice in saying that either?  As I said, he makes me think and in this case he’s made me think about the limits of materialism.  I believe in science and rationalism, but as Godel tried to (and perhaps did?) prove any system is either complete or consistent.  It can’t be both.  Dr. Harris seems to disgaree.
Radical Acceptance
And now for a u-turn from the previous book.  I learned about Tara Brach on the Tim Ferriss podcast.  I’ve been interested in Buddhism for the last year or so.  No, I’m not ready to ship off to Tibet quite yet, but I do find fascinating the corrleation between Buddhism and Stoicism as well the Buddhist mindfulness and meditation practices.
There is a little bit of “woo-woo” in this book, but I was able to get past it and retain some pearls of wisdom.  Dr. Brach opens with a discussion about first listening to and befriending yourself.  She asks the interesting question “If I talked to others the way I talk to myslelf, would they want to be friends with me?”  From here she goes trough a whole series of exercsies to first recognize your self talk for what it is, then to simply accept it as the path to moving forward.
I think the most important thing to understand about the book is that the word “acceptance” as its used here doesn’t mean saying “it’s OK” to everything or “turning the other cheek.”  Rather I took it to mean identifying things as they are.  Not fighting against the current state of reality.  Reading the facts on the ground as they are, accepting them as true.  Once you have done that you can then decide what to do next.  In this way, acceptance in Buddhism is very much like the input stage of the Trivium: coming to understand things as they are.  Another fascinating cross-over between seemingly very different ideas.  Anytime that happens, I get the sense that there is some universal truth being uncovered.
If you are looking for some ideas about how to be a better friend to yourself, this book is a great place to start

So there you have it.  5 book reviews and 5 things checked off my to do list.  Now to finish up a few more of the three or four books I am in the middle of.  Then I can finally visit that mystical book portal again.







2 responses to “450 second book review: A quintet to clear the decks”

  1. […] wrote about my thoughts on Sam Harris’ book Free Will in a post as few months back.  It troubled me at the time that his basic argument seemed to be that […]

  2. […] sites than I sometimes intend.  Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have all gotten very good at “and now this” – giving you something else that you are likely to want to see.  I don’t blame […]

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