Tuesday, August 06, 2019

What I'm Reading Now

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Non-fiction, but very readable. Harari starts from the big bang and moves forward. His overarching theme is that fiction -- myths, religion, laws, corporations, nations -- made it possible for humankind to become the dominant animal on the planet, by allowing us to move past the small band stage of organization. An example is religion. When we can all identify as Catholics, then we all know what rules we order our world by, and we can thus cooperate with total strangers, in a way we can't without those rules. Same for, say, governments. When we identify as US Citizens, we have a set of rules we all agree on, and then we can cooperate with total strangers.

This ability to make up rules about the world, and then believe that those rules are real (instead of just made up by us), Harari argues, is our great power. His argument is compelling.

Of course you see the problem. We identify as US Citizens, but do we agree on the set of rules? Right now we are vehemently disagreeing, because the set of rules is changing. Harari notes this is also something humans can do -- change their rules radically and abruptly. (Cf the French Revolution, when we went from the Divine Right of Kings to the Sovereign Rule of the People.)

Very much a must-read, just for this insight alone.

ETA: Boy, did this book go downhill fast after that chapter.

I'd read about 60% of it at that point. After that, I hit the chapters on religion and science, in which Harari argues that science functions as religion, or at least serves the same purpose as religion. I might have gone along with him, since his basic point is that science, like religion, allows people to cooperate and work together. But his argument in these chapters shows that he fundamentally misunderstands how science works, and what science is. For instance, he argues that evolution -- and evolutionary science -- is about evolving into superior creatures; or devolving into inferior beings.

Now it is true that Social Darwinists act as though this is what evolution means -- that evolution has a teleology, and that this is that teleology, the creation of some Better Human (that's why many people in the USA today want a "certain" sort of person to reproduce, and other sorts not to do so).

But that is not what actual evolutionary science is about. Evolution has no aim. There is no "superior" or "better" creature in evolution. There's a creature that is fit for the environment that exists right now, which is the one that survives. No moral element to that fitness. And there is certainly no "devolving" in evolution. The very notion is an oxymoron.

So at that point, I'm afraid, I lost all confidence in Harari as a scholar, and when I looked around to see what other reviewers said, it seems he has made similar errors in basic facts in other places.

Although I still like what he said in the first half of the book, I can no longer trust him, and no longer recommend this book.

Erika Swyler, Light from Other Stars

I'm not sure I like this one, but I did read it straight through. The first half is better than the second half.

It's about a young girl, Nedda Pappas, who becomes an astronaut, and also about a town caught in a time-loop-sort-of-thing. The book moves back and forth from a few days in Nedda's childhood in her Florida town to a few days in Nedda's adulthood.

In her childhood, she witnesses the Challenger explosion and then deals with the outfall of her father's scientific breakthrough, one which does very odd things to time as the town experiences it. In her adult life, she's on a space ship, traveling away from Earth toward a possible colony planet.

The first half of the book is very readable and compelling. The second half is less so, but I still read it. I'd say a B+.

Sarah Blake, The Guest Book, The Postmistress

These are historical fiction / Romance / mystery novels. Both are set in WWII, and both are compulsively readable. The Guest Book is a better book than the Postmistress, but both are pretty good.

They're both the sort of big sprawling book I like a lot -- like Middlemarch and Nobody's Fool -- where the author writes about a community, rather than an individual, using the community to show how the individuals happen, and how and why the individuals make mistakes. Blake does a really good job with this in The Guest Book especially.

The Guest Book is the story of a wealthy East Coast family, a very nice family, one that ends up doing some appalling things. The Postmistress is the story of a small coastal town in Massachusetts during WWII, and the intertwined lives of several families there, including one woman whose husband goes off to serve as a doctor during the Blitz, and the postmistress of the town, and a reporter who works with Edward Murrow.

Highly recommended. Blake has written one other book, but I do not recommend that one.

Richard Russo, Chances Are

You know I'll read anything Russo writes. This is not as good as Nobody's Fool, which is my favorite Russo novel, but it's better than his last few books have been.

Three men in their mid-sixties meet for a weekend at a summer house in Martha's Vineyard which one of them has inherited. They've been friends since their college days, when they spent a similar weekend here. That's the weekend that the young woman they all loved disappeared.

So we have another mystery/romance/historical novel, sort of, and also a novel of an intertwined community. This one is set (the part about the sixty-ish men) in the summer of 2016, just before Trump's election, so we get some commentary on that. The other part (the college days) is set in 1970, in the last years of the Vietnam war, so we get some details on that.

It's readable, because everything Russo writes is readable, but I don't know that it ever takes fire the way Nobody's Fool does.

On the other hand, Nobody's Fool is a perfect book. It's probably unfair to complain that Russo hasn't written yet another perfect book, that loser.

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