I read a bit. My three-year-old Kindle reader has 128 titles. And, of course, there was half a century of reading before Amazon came along. Reading is one of the more noble human activities, but I must admit that some reading has more of an impact than others. Some books I finish solely as an act of discipline. Some I read with passion, yet can’t remember a few months later.
And then there are the few, those books that punch you in the stomach, throw you up against the wall and mark you forever with their heresies. (All ideas, after all, are someone’s heresies.) Such books change your world forever, often against your will or better judgement. Here is a short list of recent readings that have left their stamp on me. The list is not complete, but it is a sufficient start.
I Am a Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter. Hofstadter has been writing about consciousness since his breakout book Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid published in 1979. I tried reading GEB with limited success fresh out of high school and was similarly challenged by Strange Loop more recently. Nonetheless, I’ve never heard anyone so graphically paint the majestic mystery of what it means to be me, or as Hofstadter puts it: “To be an I”. From mosquitoes to fish, from dogs to my redneck neighbors, I find myself constantly contemplating the potential self-awareness of life about me. In Loop, Hofstadter lays out three conditions for consciousness: sufficient neural complexity (mosquitoes don’t have enough), symbolic representations and self-referential system, the strange loop of the title. Note the lack of biological requirements, which opens up interesting future possibilities.
Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, Rick Hanson. I posted a cheat sheet to the main points of Buddha’s Brain earlier. The key point is that what we think physically changes the neural structure of our brains, which in turn changes the thoughts we think. For example, if you are a habitual pessimist then your brain becomes wired for this attitude in a self-reinforcing manner. The solution: force your self to think new thoughts, build new neural circuits.
Traffic, Tom Vanderbilt. I commute about ten hours a week. That gives me plenty of time to contemplate traffic. I have built up an entire science of traffic flow, with a vocabulary that includes channels, back pressure, bubble zones and drainage plumes. I’m convinced that the best way to drive is to provide enough space that the traffic flows as a compressible fluid, an idea that is not shared by those around me. Vanderbilt’s book touches on all this and more. Most importantly, it illustrates how dangerous driving can be and the factors that contribute to this danger. I’ve come to realize that my twice-daily commute is the most dangerous thing I will probably ever do, the equivalent of skydiving twice a day.
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt. In my mind this is subtitled “The Psychology of Morality”. A fascinating discussion of how we decide on right and wrong, bolstered by careful research. In short, Haidt reports that we make moral decisions at a very low, instinctual level and only then do we engage our higher-order reasoning to bolster our decision. That means it almost impossible to reason with someone who has different moral viewpoints from your own. Profoundly disturbing.
Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. This is the definitive discussion of self-control and willpower. I’ve always been fascinated by self-discipline (due my lack of the same) and in recent years have made it something of an informal dissertation topic. This is the core, the foundation of that study. Surprisingly, many people still view willpower as a purely moral trait, unaware of the physiological elements that influence our self-control. For example, did you know that you have more self-control after drinking lemonade? Or that willpower can be depleted through the course of the day and yet can be made stronger through practice?
The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life , Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray. Sometimes a thesis is so riveting that it cannot be ignored, even if you don’t agree with it. This controversial book shook society loudly when it asserted we were segregating ourselves by intelligence and–the controversy–that differences in intelligence could be linked to class and race. A friend brought this book to my attention when I was trying to explain my compressible traffic flow theories to him. (“The problem, Glynn, is that you think you are normal. You are out on the edge of the bell curve. All the jackasses around you are the normal ones.”) I read the book and came away a changed man. Despite myself, I now tend to interpret every social interaction in terms of relative intelligences. Even my insults have changed. Calling someone stupid is now the acme of my contempt.
Buddhism Plain and Simple, Steve Hagan. My introduction to Buddhism. Based on this text and subsequent readings, I developed a great affection for the secular philosophy of Buddhism. Eventually, however, I drank too deeply from the cup of learning and learned of the religion that has been wrapped around the elegant core truths. I was profoundly disappointed but still try to adhere to that secular philosophy.