Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, 2/5
Holy cherry-picked data, Batman! At least it’s hand-picked, I guess? That is about the nicest thing I can say for this book, which, though entertaining, smells like bad science. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I think I’ve been exposed to enough good research and logical reasoning (thank you Daniel Kahneman and David Hackett Fisher) to recognize the sketchy stuff. The thesis is all over the place, ending with a laughable call to action that sounds great on the surface (let’s give everyone the same opportunities in life so they can all achieve success) but is idiotic in context (let’s wave our enlightened magic fairy wand and give everyone identical backgrounds, community, family legacy, historical timing, interests and skills, so everyone can be super successful genius millionaires). Frustratingly, this book’s popularity was inevitable–who doesn’t like to read a good success story AND be told that it isn’t all due to talent, you unluckily ordinary human being with untold potential, you.
Why I read it: Heard about it from my Dad, who thought it would be fun if I read it (I’ve been avoiding Gladwell for years).
Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy by Jostein Gaarder, translated by Paulette Møller, 2/5
The most thought-provoking aspect of this reading experience was simply trying to understand how a book featuring such peculiarly bad writing could be published at all, much less become an “international bestseller.” Half of it consists of dialogue between two-dimensional characters, so stilted and unnatural it has to be read to be believed. The other half reads like increasingly vague course descriptions for philosophy classes taught by someone who considers Wikipedia articles to be the pinnacle of literary accomplishment through the ages. In my experience, fiction writing this bad generally relies on themes like sex, mystery or fantasy to attract readers, so I guess in a twisted way this book’s very existence is a testament to the powerful appeal of philosophical ideas and the ubiquity of existential angst.
Why I read it: recommended to me by a gym friend.
The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow, 2/5
Is it the mystery of death or mere crass curiosity that makes people so fascinated by “last words”? For whatever reason, the appeal is undeniable. However, it is also undeniable that everyone dies and, heartless as it may sound, imminent death is no philosophical or literary credential. Mostly according to himself, Pausch was a great success as a human being: intelligent, successful, hard-working, loved and loving…but this short book somehow still left ample opportunity for me to repeatedly wonder when it was going to get profound, insightful, or helpful in any way. It felt rather like a Wikipedia article written about someone, not because they had such a noteworthy effect on the world that it deserved lasting mention, but merely because they died. (Interestingly, I later looked up Pausch’s Wikipedia article and that is almost exactly what happened–it was created the month he got his terminal diagnosis, not at any time during his career). Perhaps people who are dealing with life-threatening illness would have a different perspective, but I felt this book had very little to offer besides voyeuristic appeal, though I’m sure that as a memoir for his family, it is beyond value.
Why I read it: My gym friend, Tyler, thought I might enjoy it and lent me his copy.
The Elements of Reasoning by David A. Conway and Ronald Munson, 2/5
This book provides an introduction to informal logic, focusing mostly on valid and invalid ways arguments can be formed, along with a brief look at common fallacies and errors in reasoning. The argument forms seem contrived and the analysis methods limited–it is hard to imagine a use for these concepts outside of a classroom and the book is certainly not written in a way meant to smooth the transition from academic thought exercise to real life. In fact, the whole tone of the book is very dry and dead, which is a pity because the topic is fascinating and I have seen it treated in much more interesting and lively ways. A good teacher could bring it to life, perhaps, and also provide insight on the numerous thought exercises that the authors leave unanswered.
Why I read it: I wanted to learn about the symbols used in formal logic (only a few of which are covered in this book) and the title caught my eye at the thrift store.
Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang: The Magical Car by Ian Fleming, 2/5
A strange little story, with a spindly plot and uneven tone that is sometimes fanciful and sometimes much too serious for the children that are presumably its audience. I did like the playful illustrations by John Burningham, which are quintessentially 1960s. Surprisingly, there is very little resemblance to the 1968 film, which I love (though it turns out that what I love about it is probably Roald Dahl’s influence, not Fleming’s inspiration).
Why I read it: my sister thought I might enjoy it.
Opera Anecdotes by Ethan Mordden, 2/5
This collection of short stories connected to opera just barely managed to keep my attention as I read a little bit before bed every night (more for its soporific effect than for any entertainment value). It didn’t help that the connecting prose between anecdotes was awkwardly written to a peculiar degree, and I recognized very few of the featured singers and impresarios.
Why I read it: the title caught my eye while I was browsing books in the thrift store.
The History of the Life of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great by Henry Fielding, 2/5
This peculiarly depressing little satire flips traditional concepts of morality on its head by recasting infamous 18th-century thief Jonathan Wild as a “Great Man,” deriding all honest men as “that pitiful order of mortals who are in contempt called good-natured; being indeed sent into the world by nature with the same design with which men put little fish into a pike-pond in order to be devoured by that voracious water-hero” (73). There are a few hilarious moments but overall Fielding’s satirical style is a bit strained and tedious.
Why I read it: I can’t remember where I picked this book up from, but it probably ended up in the pile beside my bed because I really enjoyed Fielding’s Tom Jones.