Attacks on digital technology for destroying our capacity for attention are a dime a dozen. Despite its title, Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head is not such an attack. It is far more ambitious. Somewhat to my surprise, it is a direct assault on the Enlightenment for ruining the habits of mind and practice that lead to human flourishing. Crawford says modern man is subject to delusions, birthed by the Enlightenment, that diffuse our perception of the world in a fog of unreality. He therefore sets himself up in as the paladin of reality, a champion badly needed by our times, offering a return to the solidity of the real, through excellence as developed in skilled practices.
To the extent you have heard of Warren Zevon, it is probably because David Letterman devoted an entire episode of Late Night to him when Zevon was dying, in 2002. That appearance shined up Zevon’s star, which had faded greatly since his glory days in the 1970s. It was not the mere fact of Zevon’s appearance, it was his sardonic humor about his own looming death from mesothelioma, combined with the fact that he was going down like a man, refusing any treatment and instead finishing his last album. Such bravery, a virtue of the old school, combined with VH1’s simultaneous soft-focus documentary on his life, gave Zevon an aura of virtue. This book seems to have been designed, with his consent, to mostly dispel that aura.
I have led a boring life, at least as measured by the topics covered by this book, Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind. Not only have I never taken any psychedelic drug of any type, I have never taken any illegal drug at all. Similarly, I have never had any type of mystical experience whatsoever, though I am certainly open to such a thing and have total confidence that many other people have. Just not me. But here, as in many matters, others go where I have not tread. Pollan, famous mostly for books on food, decided to explore drug-induced alterations of consciousness, and this book is the measured result of his spelunking in the caverns of the mind.
Would you like to read a book about Scott Adams? Then this is your book, especially if you want to hear Scott Adams talk about how awesome he is. Would you like to read a book about persuasion techniques? This book may shed a little light, maybe two pages’ worth. Would you like to read a book about how Donald Trump got elected, which is what this book is supposed to be? You are mostly out of luck—unless you want to be told that Donald Trump got elected primarily because of Scott Adams, in which case you are again at the right place.
This is not a book about how you can make more money as a plumber than by going to law school. It is, rather, a book of philosophy, revolving around thoughts on alienation, self-reliance, and what we owe to others. I found it to be both a bit rambling and unexpectedly deep—it manages to connect the thoughts of Marx with those of Aristotle, and it combines practical thoughts on how one should earn one’s bread with advice for living a whole life. The net effect is worthwhile, though not earthshattering.
A friend of mine has been pushing me to look into Jordan Peterson for the past six months. I thought, since my friend is conservative, that Peterson offered right-wing politics, and it is true that he has recently been in the news for his thoughts on certain charged topics. However, Peterson does not, in fact, offer politics, which is refreshing in these days of rage. Rather, 12 Rules For Life is a self-help book constructed like a Russian matryoshka doll, a nested construct. It talks, and works, on multiple levels, some of which may have political implications, but if so, they are incidental to what the book offers to each human person, both the broken and the whole.
How to Die, compiled from various writings of the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca by the excellent James Romm, assembles Seneca’s thoughts on death. Seneca died during the reign of the emperor Nero, in A.D. 65, having been “encouraged” by him to commit suicide. The reason for the compiling and publication of this book, presumably, is to educate moderns about how to die. It also offers an interesting view into the philosophy of the late pagan Classical world, already dying itself, although Seneca didn’t know it. This book can doubtless educate moderns, but for us, different than our predecessors, it is either valuable or dangerous, or both, depending on who is reading it and with what aim.
In today’s world, discussion about morals is a lost art. In part, this is because stupidity is on display everywhere, and encouraged to be so, even though most people’s thoughts and opinions are less than worthless, as a glance at Facebook or The New York Times comment sections will tell you. More deeply, it’s because America is dominated today by the nearly universal (but wholly unexamined) belief that the only legitimate principle of moral judgment is John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle”—that no restriction on human action can be justified other than to prevent harm to another. The Righteous Mind is an extended attack on the usefulness of the harm principle as the sole way to understand and justify human morality, combined with detailed explanations of the much broader ways in which people can and do view morality. The author, Jonathan Haidt, uses this framework to understand political differences, and to plead for an increase in rationality and civility to arise from that understanding.
I have zero creative talent. The pinnacle of my own ability to draw is stick figures, and not good ones. I cannot sing or play an instrument. I cannot write fiction. I do not understand iambic pentameter. Thus, I tend not to express any opinion about poetry, and I certainly don’t write any. But I have always liked the poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson, which when I was young was still included in older anthologies of poetry. Whether they were directed at children or not I cannot say, but I read some of his poetry at around five years old, and it has stuck with me. I doubt very much if children, or adults, are exposed to him today, even though a hundred years ago he was the nation’s most famous poet. This biography, written ten years ago, is an excellent corrective to today’s ignorance.
I’ve always liked Bruce Springsteen, but never knew much about him beyond what could be read in the news. His autobiography, Born to Run, tells everything a reasonable reader could want. It’s not a tell-all, certainly—while Springsteen honestly relates his life, including quite a bit of self-criticism, he says explicitly he has not told the reader everything. Still, the reader learns a lot, and for someone like me not sentient in the 1970s, in particular, the book draws a vivid picture of a particular unique time.