Nobody's Normal by Roy Richard Grinker

This is a history of psychiatry. It is also a bit of a family history as Grinker comes from a long line of psychiatrists (though he is not one himself). He takes a broad view, from pre-industrial societies up to the modern age and many of the steps in between. He picks a bone with capitalism, is ambivalent about war, and reframes the concept of disability.

This history includes many dark chapters as it revolves around how humans treat each other; specifically, how they treat others who are different, and in the modern world conformity rarely goes out of style. Grinker documents various injustices and cruelties, particularly those resulting from the prejudices of western medicine. It’s unpleasant, like much of history. However, Grinker does not set out to document only the darkest deeds of humanity. This is a story of progress as much as failure, and there are reasons to be optimistic. Psychiatry is not a “solved” problem. Grinker puts things in context and makes it clear that for the many steps backwards, we have also taken several forwards. He has, if nothing else, captured the complexity and shifting nature of mental illness and the stigma that surrounds it.

The tone is neutral but occasionally swings to judgmental. This affects general topics, but also many of the family episodes. The intimacy and frankness are welcome, but the tone shifts are a little jarring. The book is a little slow with unremarkable writing, but the subject matter is sufficiently rich to keep things moving.

This book is more about how society treats mental illness than about mental illness itself. This leaves some fascinating paths unexplored, but my own curiosity and ignorance are hardly grounds for criticism. If you find the title intriguing, the book delivers. I would recommended it if you can stomach human cruelty. And penis theft… who knew?

Cover of Exercised by Daniel Lieberman

Exercise in the modern world has been commodified. The people talking about it the most are some of the least trustworthy. Daniel Lieberman has taken a step back from the fitness-industrial complex and asked the elephantine question: Are homo sapiens even supposed to exercise? Through the lenses of anthropology and evolution, he has untangled exercise from modern culture. The result is an enlightening journey through history, civilization, and biology.

It is common knowledge that exercise is good for you, but how much? What kind? What about dieting? What about strength? What about weight? Lieberman addresses nearly every aspect of exercise and fitness with clarity and thoroughness. By asking deeper questions, he surprisingly comes to simpler answers. He takes us on a grand tour of human activity, dispels common myths, and distills it all to a simple prescription. Lieberman’s enthusiasm for this topic comes through clearly. It would be hard not to put this book down and go for a walk or a run if this book were not so hard to put down. From surviving pre-industrial peoples to disease and aging, Lieberman puts moving our bodies in context. It’s inspiring, informative, and just plain amazing.

If you have a body, this book is relevant to you. It is both liberating and imprisoning; exercise is not nearly as complicated as the people selling stuff say it is, but it is a very good idea.

Cover of Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O'Neil

This is a tight volume describing and decrying some of the ways we misuse technology, specifically mathematical models. O’Neil has both the academic and industry experience to give us a clear picture of what’s going on and why it’s terrible. And it is terrible. She wastes no time explaining models and their misuse, where they are being misused, and what it is costing us. This is a concise and thorough account, and there’s little more to say. The only criticism I will raise is the title. Calling these misused models “Weapons of Math Destruction” or “WMDs” is obviously easily confused with the other kind of WMD, and it is a clumsy name in both cases. Naming things is hard, but writing books is harder, and O’Neil can be forgiven the awkward name for she has written an important book.

Cover of Breath by James Nestor

History is a funny thing. We like to think that civilization advances, that progress only goes in one direction, but reality is more complex than that. New things are learned, discoveries are made, truths uncovered, but just because someone somewhere learns something doesn’t mean everyone everywhere hears about it or remembers it. In Breath, Nestor has done some invaluable detective work; looking closely at something we all do every minute of our lives but that few of us have thought much about. He has done some hard journalism in a world of mysticism. The result is some fascinating history, a few great anecdotes, a generous helping of compelling evidence, and new questions to go with every answer.

The breadth of this topic is monumental; from anatomy and archaeology to medicine to sports to spiritualism. This is a project that cuts through our collective amnesia and starts documenting what we’ve known on and off for generations. And this is not niche, specialist material; this is practical truth for everyone everyday with huge implications for health. And by now, your skepticism alarms should be going off and rightly so. The subject matter experts for this topic are often not academics or scientists. This is a subject that, while universal, has been neglected by the modern scientific machine. Some of what we do have is truly ancient knowledge, passed down the old-fashioned way, but Nestor does not fetishize the wisdom of the past. He merely documents it, tests it, and tells us about his experiences. This is gonzo science-journalism.

And this is where the skepticism alarms quiet down. Nestor is not making fanciful claims himself. He is collecting others’ claims and research and, as best as he is able, subjecting them to analysis and experimentation. Individually, they are fascinating and thought-provoking. Together, they form an immensely compelling picture; there is, it appears, something going on that not many people are talking about. Nestor’s research points out some of the failings of modern medicine and academia. This is not a critique of those institutions, merely an illustration of their being works-in-progress. This book is part of that progress. Bringing popular attention to something is an effective way to further our collective understanding of it. This is not a replacement for rigorous, academic research; it is what motivates such research.

In addition to giving us perspective on what we know and what we have known, this is also a practical book. Nestor has compiled the basics of several techniques. He does not make grandiose claims about them, he gives you some context, he tells you his experience, and then gives you what you need to try it for yourself.

While his writing does occasionally stray a little too far into superlatives and sensationalism for my taste, there is a healthy collection of references at the back of the book. While much of the most compelling content is anecdotal or from small samples at best, this is simply how limited our knowledge is in this field. We have some guidance from past human experience, but we have yet to evaluate this guidance scientifically. If those in a position to contribute are paying attention, we have but to wait… In the meantime, breathe through your nose.

Cover of Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell has assembled another collection of thought-provoking stories, gestalt-shattering research, and irresistible anecdotes. This is challenging material; not linguistically—Gladwell is eminently readable—but conceptually. Once again, Gladwell escorts us to the window and points, saying “Look, look. The world does not work the way you think it does.”.

Gladwell’s choice of examples is also challenging. Hitler, People v Brock Turner, and Sandra Bland’s encounter with Brian Encinia each come with a lot of baggage. Culturally significant events make for powerful examples, but they can overshadow any point you’re trying to make if it is relatively subtle.

There is a slightly padded feel to the book as though it took some extra glue to bridge the different topics. The section about context and place in particular feels distant from the others despite being strong material. I can’t help imagining this could have been a leaner and more to-the-point book without trying so hard to fit everything in the “Talking to Strangers” box.

Even with its flaws, “Talking to Strangers” is an illuminating analysis of human behavior. I feel I can be a better person after having read it, and I would recommend it to anyone seeking a deeper understanding of how people work.

How to Raise an Adult by Julia Lythcott-Haims

It is hard to see yourself. More specifically, it is hard to see your biases in the context of the great sweep of history. It takes a concerted effort to realize your faults and failings when they are part of your identity. Books on raising children have been around a very long time and this is another one. Everyone has an opinion on what is best for a child, what they need. Lythcott-Haims has somewhat inverted this by writing about what kind of adults we are producing and working backwards to identify what we are doing wrong. This is very satisfying both logically and practically.

This is the sort of critical analysis and self-awareness that people need for a culture to grow and progress in a healthy direction. Lythcott-Haims focuses on the growth of helicopter parenting in America, and her portrayal is damning. This is something that concerns all members of a society because raising children isn’t about children; it’s about the adults they become, and America currently has a problem producing independent adults.

Lythcott-Haims’s investigation is centered on her own socio-economic stratum. She spends an awful lot of time exploring college admissions. She is aware of this bias, and it is forgivable considering her background and the weight of college in America at this time, but it does skew what could have been a general analysis towards a specific part of child rearing for a specific class of people. Aside from that, she provides perspective on many facets of parenting with examples from elsewhere in the developed world.

Lythcott-Haims asks how do you get an independent human adult. Exploring the answer has produced some good advice on what works and what doesn’t; along with a merciless analysis of current trends in American society. As an adult who was once a child, it is comforting to read a book that looks so critically at raising children.

Nose Dive by Harold McGee

This is a book about chemistry. Actually, one could say that it’s about chemicals and only one specific group of chemicals at that. It is essentially a catalog of chemicals that you can smell. This is exactly as exciting as it sounds. The book is, on the whole, dry and repetitive, like a reference book. And yet, between the surprisingly comprehensive and thorough lists and tables, there is a wealth of fascinating information from chemistry to biology to botany to geology to history and anthropology. By looking at the world through its smells, it is necessary to take a broad view. McGee has undertaken a monumental task with patience and thoroughness and the result is a curious but unmistakably valuable book. Where else can you find answers to all those questions you never knew you had?

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This is obviously a labor of love. A primer on quantum mechanics built on analogies to Heavy Metal. This is a flavor of popular science that I wholly support. It’s fuzzy on the details, and some of the metaphors are stretched far enough to fully outrage the sticklers, but it squarely translates the incomprehensible into the realm of everyday experience. This is, in my experience, the essence of human learning and understanding. Alas that Mr Moriarty’s insight does not extend to his writing. The book is, on the whole, forgettable and confusing.

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This is perhaps the seminal work on product design, usability, interfaces, and all sorts of things that I like to notice and (occasionally) denigrate mercilessly. I cannot use some brands of microwave oven without cursing their makers’ makers, so I was excited to finally read this book. Norman provides a framework and vocabulary for understanding design which is important and impressive considering how very much is encompassed by the notion of “Design”. The examples give a clear picture of the problem and the difficulties faced by designer and user. Unfortunately, Norman does not get much farther than that.

Beyond the framework and vocabulary, the book didn’t tell me much that I didn’t already know. There wasn’t much meat to the book, the writing was meandering and unstructured, and Norman always seemed to stop short of asking the really interesting questions. This was surprising because issues of design can generally be distilled down to questions about human behavior which is endlessly fascinating. Whenever an interesting question appeared, I found Norman’s analyses lacking in imagination. This left a small amount of useful content that, uncharitably, could have fit in one chapter which leaves a lot of book without much to say.

Overall, I found the book to be disappointing: significant perhaps but disappointing.

This is the book that could replace most every textbook used in grade school math. It brings the reader from geometry to differential calculus in an astonishingly smooth progression. Let me say that again because you weren’t paying attention: Lockhart leads you, in plain language, from the most basic concepts of line and shape, all the way to differential ever-loving calculus in a single svelte volume. And this progression is more than a series of lectures, this is a book on Mathematics: each concept leads logically to the next, each answer leads to the next question. And you, the reader, are doing the asking and answering. It feels inevitable and effortless. This is Truth without pretense. Lockhart does not waste time (his or yours) on arbitrary definitions or vocabulary. He knows that understanding a thing is more important than knowing the name of a thing.

This book cultivates, indeed relies upon, the spark of curiosity that drives all children. The spark that gets extinguished so efficiently by what presently passes for education in most American schools. Instead of training you to be a calculator, Lockhart shows you his own passion and curiosity and teaches you how to ask and answer your own questions. This is a book that teaches you how to fish.