He was seeing beyond the surfaces of the land to its hidden truths. Some nights he sat up late on his front porch with a glass of Jack and listened to the trucks heading south on 220, carrying crates of live chickens to the slaughterhouses—always under cover of darkness, like a vast and shameful trafficking—chickens pumped full of hormones that left them too big to walk—and he thought how these same chickens might return from their destination as pieces of meat to the floodlit Bojangles’ up the hill from his house, and that meat would be drowned in the bubbling fryers by employees whose hatred of the job would leak into the cooked food, and that food would be served up and eaten by customers who would grow obese and end up in the hospital in Greensboro with diabetes or heart failure, a burden to the public, and later Dean would see them riding around the Mayodan Wal-Mart in electric carts because they were too heavy to walk the aisles of a Supercenter, just like hormone-fed chickens.
—George Packer, The Unwinding (2013)
Book review: My Beloved Brontosaurus, Brian Switek
Like anyone who, as a kid, had dinosaur books and dinosaur sheets and dinosaur pajamas and dinosaur toys and dinosaur dreams, I can get a bit defensive on the subject of modern-day dinosaur science. Anytime paleontologists announce that, hey, T. Rex was actually just a scavenger or, wow, dinosaurs had fur and feathers — that doesn’t sit well. This isn’t how I imagined dinosaurs growing up. This isn’t cool. This isn’t right.
But Brian Switek’s My Beloved Brontosaurus has convinced me it’s time to let go of that knee-jerk dino-nostalgia. We’re currently in a golden age of dinosaur science. We’re learning things about dinosaurs we never thought it’d be possible to learn: The way dinosaurs communicated, the way they had sex, why they became Earth’s dominant life form for hundreds of millions of years. And some of the things scientists are finding will upset our fond childhood memories of dinosaurs. But that’s okay, says Switek, an engaging dino-fanatic with boundless curiosity who confesses to the exact same pangs of nostalgia. The journey is worth it.
Book review: After Dark, Haruki Murakami
Tokyo after midnight is a different city entirely. As soon as the trains shut down, millions of people are left stranded. The city is too vast, and cabs too expensive, for most of them to get home. The night has them now.
There are young people who revel in this floating world—drifting for hours in coffee shops or bars until the first trains wake at 5:30. Straggling businessmen find themselves trapped, shut off from their families and in desperate need of a place to sleep. Others wander the streets and parks aimlessly, following the little bits of light that wink on and off.
Clement’s horse stopped, and all of a sudden there was a rustle of leaves and a ghost or a shape went by behind him. In the next moment Clement was riding in pursuit, for he thought it was the bandit now for sure, and he rode and rode furiously, though it seemed to him that he had lost the way and that he was only charging in a circle; and this had happened to him before. But then he heard the same sound, and he brought his horse to a stop and jumped off his back. And although up until that moment he had thought all he defended too sacred for the privilege of violence, he now flung himself forward with such force that the wind left his body for a moment. He ran headlong through the dark, and then it seemed he clasped the very sound itself in his arms. He could feel the rude powerful grip of a giant or a spirit, and once he was brushed by a feather such as the savages wore, and they threshed about and beat down the earth for a long time. It was as dark as it could possibly be, for the stars seemed to have gone in and left the naked night overhead, and so Clement wrestled with his monster without any aid from the world at all. He tossed it to the ground and it flew up again, he bent it back with all his strength and it would not yield, it fought with the arms of a whirlwind and flung him on the ground, and he was about to give up, but then it clung to him like the Old Man of the Sea and he could not get out from under. At last with a great crash he threw himself upon it and it went down, and he sat there holding it down where it lay with his own body for the rest of the night, not daring to close his eyes for his concern, and for thinking he had won over wickedness. And it was not till the eye of the red sun looked over the ridge that Clement saw he had fought all night with a willow tree.
—Eudora Welty, The Robber Bridegroom (1942)
Book review: Escape from Camp 14, Blaine Harden
Most stories about concentration camps have a fairly predictable rhythm to them. An ordinary citizen is arrested, thrown into prison, forced to endure what no one should endure. He surrenders his morality and compassion in a desperate bid for survival, all the while clinging—desperately—to whatever small scraps of humanity he can.
Escape from Camp 14 is radically different.
Book review: Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, ed. Niall Ferguson
Historical counterfactuals are fun to ponder: What if John Wilkes Booth had had poor aim? What if Hitler hadn’t declared war on the United States after Pearl Harbor? Or my favorite: What if Napoleon had escaped to South America in a tiny submarine after Waterloo?
Niall Ferguson wants to go even further. Alternative histories aren’t just amusing, he argues in the introduction to this collection of essays. They’re actually a useful way to study history. They can help us think through whether certain historical events—Germany’s defeat in World War II, or the fall of the Soviet Union, or civil rights in America—were actually inevitable or whether they were dependent on small choices and turning points that could have just as easily gone the other way.
After finishing the book, I’m still a little skeptical of this broader claim. Yes, it’s important to consider counterfactuals (it’s hard to make claims about causation without thinking about counterfactuals, at least implicitly). But I’m less convinced that it’s necessary to spin out elaborate alternative histories to answer hard historical questions.
Book review: Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir
Lots of provocative ideas about the psychology of poverty in this book—though many of them aren’t fully developed. Let’s pull out some of the more interesting bits.
The basic conceptual insight here is that being poor is a lot like being an office worker pressed for time. Imagine you’re facing a pressing deadline. You start to get frantic. You quietly put aside all sorts of other important tasks, even though you’ll pay extra for that neglect later. Everything that’s not related to the deadline gets heaved aside. You ignore friends, you snap at loved ones. The work gets done, sure, but everything else crumbles.