Reading List - Slow Getting Up
Pro football is a cynical, brutal business. This was well documented decades ago in North Dallas Forty, which is a great book. Nate Jackson is a good writer and he shows that things haven’t changed much—the girls, the drugs, the idiot coaches, the pain, the mangled bodies are still what the NFL is all about. Kind of depressing, kind of funny, and definitely not boring, this is pretty much a perfect Thanksgiving-weekend-stuck-with-relatives diversion.
Reading List - Alex & Me
In the distant past I went to graduate school to study animal intelligence, animal behavior, and the scientists who spent their lives researching animal cognition. I considered myself a bit of an animal language skeptic (Koko the gorilla being the best example of overhyped nonsense) but I had a hard time dismissing Alex the parrot.
There’s very little science in this book, the reader will have to look elsewhere to evaluate Alex’s true linguistic abilities. Pepperberg comes across as a bit of a flake, so it’s a good thing I was already predisposed to give Alex the benefit of the doubt based on my prior reading.
A fascinating aspect of Pepperberg’s story, which she hints at but avoids going into depth about, is her ambivalent relationship with the scientific establishment. Her career is basically a disaster, yet her research is hailed by the public. I see many parallels with Jane Goodall (who I studied extensively in grad school), who only overcame her status as a female outsider with the help of a powerful patron, the accumulation of research that backed up her initial findings, and the sheer force of her will.
One of the shortcomings of animal language studies has been the reliance on star pupils. There’s Alex the Parrot, Koko the Gorilla, Kanzi the Bonobo, etc. If Alex’s accomplishments can be replicated by other parrots then Pepperberg’s work will carry a lot more weight. Until them I’m still not sure what to make of the Alex-Pepperberg partnership.
Abandoned Books - This Town
You know the debate about whether a book needs “likable characters” in order to be any good? Well, the real-life Washingtonians who populate the pages of This Town are so thoroughly despicable that I could barely stomach the first thirty pages. Seriously: the book made me physically ill.
Reading List - Manson
If you want the basics of Charlie Manson’s story this is a readable, coherent account. I didn’t feel like it gave me any a clue about what made Manson tick, though. And I thought the attempts to relate the Manson story to the day’s current events were slapdash and unsatisfying.
Reading List - On The Road
Finally decided to fill a large hole in my cultural literacy (“There are times when I think Sal Paradise was right” said Craig Finn, and I needed to know what about) and read this book. I expected it to be pretentious and preachy—maybe because so many people you see reading it these days are.
Suprise! The book turned out to be…lovely. The writing is tender, sentimental, and very pretty. There is no plot to speak of, no resolution to problems, no lessons learned. It’s just a couple guys roaming around looking for the American Dream. (Now I know where “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” came from.)
A couple things really struck me about Kerouac’s story. The first is how much has changed in the last sixty years. The second is how much hasn’t.
Abandoned Books - Blue Plate Special
Not sure why I didn’t like this when it seems on the surface to have a lot in common with Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, which I loved. Maybe it’s because Winterson’s childhood was spectacularly fucked up in a completely unique way whereas Christensen’s childhood was more stereotypically dysfunctional. Maybe I simply liked Winterson more. Or maybe Winterson’s just a much better writer. Whatever the case, Blue Plate Special just didn’t do it for me.
Reading List - Sybil Exposed
You probably know the Sybil case has already been thoroughly debunked. Multiple personalities were a psychiatric fad that passed long ago. So why should you read this book? Here’s why: to get a glimpse of pure evil.
Cornelia Wilbur, the doctor who treated Shirley Mason (aka “Sybil”), was one of the most unethical medical practitioners of all time. It’s shocking what she did to her patient. Even more shocking is what passes for “science” in the field of mental health.
This book is horrifying and depressing. If you don’t already distrust therapists and psychoanalysts, you will by the time you finish.
Reading List - A Wilderness of Error
I started reading this book without having any feelings about whether Jeffrey MacDonald was guilty. And even though Morris is a strong advocate for MacDonald’s innocence, I felt just as ambivalent at the end of the book as I did at the beginning. The evidence is just such a mess, neither side has a convincing story about what happened the night of the murders.
Like so many books I read, this one could have used more editing. It is repetitive and too long. Sometimes I think big name personalities frighten editors from doing as much revising as they should.
Reading List - What Do Women Want: Adventures In the Science of Female Desire
There’s no arguing with Bergner’s central premise—that our culture is guilty of minimizing the existence of female lust, and this shortcoming has led to some pretty bad science and some truly awful social norms.
However, Bergner’s attempt to answer the question “what do women really want” goes nowhere. He’s guilty of three of my major pet peeves for popular science writers:
1. He picks and chooses his trusted sources seemingly at random, and dismisses opposing viewpoints with a couple glib paragraphs without genuinely engaging their arguments.
2. He too quickly equates behavior observed in animal experiments with human behaviors. Worse, he focuses on a motley collection of species that closely mirror his own belief about human behaviors. This tactic has bugged me forever; it’s pretty easy to find any kind of behavior in the animal kingdom and then say that because it exists in other species it must be natural in humans.
3. He completely misunderstands how evolution works. I’ve read a lot of bad evolutionary theory, but this quote is a truly awful example:
"Animal species have been designed by evolution to perpetuate themselves, to reproduce, but in the individual animal, it isn’t reproduction that impels.”
There’s so much wrong with that statement I could write a whole thesis about it.
Finally, be warned: this is not a self-help book or a relationship guide. I actually feel like I know even less about what women really want than I did before reading this book.