Short review: Lukianoff and Haidt’s new book, and request for book suggestions

November 24, 2018 • 1:45 pm

I’ve just finished reading a book that’s closely connected with many of our interests: Greg Lukianoff and Jon Haidt’s new volume, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. Click on the screenshot to go to the Amazon site:

The issue is why so many students in American colleges and universities are behaving differently from in past years: they’re now ridden with anxiety and depression, demanding accommodation to their demands, protesting initiatives for free speech (or speakers they don’t like), constantly feeling “unsafe”, and making professors feel intimidated about speaking their minds. We know about these trends, but Lukianoff (head of FIRE, or the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) and Haidt (a moral psychologist at NYU) document some of them with statistics.

Their worry is that students have absorbed what they call the Three Great Untruths, and these are what’s driving the bizarre behavior on campus. Those untruths are these, each exemplified with a motto:

1.)  We young people are fragile (“What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.”)

2.) We are prone to emotional reasoning and confirmation bias (“Always trust your feelings.”)

3.) We are prone to “dichotomous thinking and tribalism” (“Life is a battle between good people and evil people.”)

The book is, then, an exposition of this thesis, an exploration of why students have become this way when they were different twenty years ago, and, finally, suggested remedies to buttress the emotional strength of students, make them think more rationally, and stop them from living in a Manichean world of Good People versus Bad People.

The causes of this behavior are, say the authors, sixfold: the rapid growth of campus bureaucracy that gives students someone to complain to, and is itself self-perpetuating; the rising rates of depression and suicide in young people; the lack of unsupervised play in kids (parents don’t let kids roam free much these days); a culture of “safetyism” in parents, who have grown overprotective and micromanaging in the face of an environment that’s far safer than it used to be; increased political polarization in America; and the transformation of students’ desire for “justice” into an ideology that demands equal outcomes rather than equal opportunities (this is the form of social justice that Lukianoff and Haidt decry).

While the authors don’t—and really can’t—make a strong case for the involvement of these factors in the trends they see (there haven’t been many sociological studies in this area), these causes sound reasonable. The authors are compassionate, too: they don’t decry social justice in general, but in fact are both Leftists in their politics and sympathetic to students’ desire to remedy social inequities. Their fear, though, is that these trends will not only sabotage the aims of the students, but also damage them personally, so that their entitlement and fragility will hurt them in later life.

You’ll be familiar with the remedies if you’ve read the authors’ joint articles. Their fixes include colleges adopting free speech codes along the lines of the University of Chicago’s; the adoption of “free-range parenting,” whereby kids are allowed to roam on their own with no or minimal parental supervision, and play in a way that they can make their own mistakes and learn how to negotiate disagreements and arguments; and the promotion of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which, they say, should be presented in synopsis to all new college students as a way to control their mistaken or distorted thoughts. They also call for more “viewpoint diversity” on campuses—not an evening out of liberal versus conservative views, but at least a higher titer of professors who think differently from the liberal herd. Without that, they argue, students will not only not learn to argue against views they don’t like, but they will be propagandized by a liberal professoriate rather than learning to come to their own opinions.

Given the views I’ve expressed on this site, it will be clear that I agree with the authors’ diagnosis, their list of causes (though these are nebulous), and most of the remedies that might fix the problem of an emotionally-driven and fragile college generation. Haidt and Lukianoff do seem overly invested in CBT, but that may come from Lukianoff’s own experience with depression and suicidality when younger, something that he discusses frankly and says was immensely alleviated by CBT.

It’s also clear what we don’t need, and that’s implicit in the text: less of a culture of “safetyism” on colleges, less indoctrination in political correctness, a lessening of safe spaces and trigger warnings, as well as a battle against the divisiveness that gives every ethnic group its own enclave (and sometimes living space) on campus. Their view of social justice (and I agree) is that it’s best achieved, as it was with the Civil Rights Movement, when all people feel that they are united in a moral cause to help humanity in general.

The book has done well, and I recommend it to readers.

What I plan on reading next are these books:

1.) Churchill: Walking With Destiny, by Andrew Roberts. This is touted widely as the best one-volume biography of Churchill. I’ve never recovered from William Manchester’s dying before he finished his magisterial 3-volume biography of Churchill, and this way I can find out what happened after Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940.

2.)  Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, by David Hume. This book is famous, of course, but I’ve never read it. One of my colleagues in Croatia, a philosopher, recommended it to me as one of the best demolitions of the design argument ever made. It’s not long, so I want to see what Hume says.

3.) The two-volume biography of Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha: Gandhi Before India and Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948. I‘ve never read a full-length biography of Gandhi (though I read his autobiography), and so it’s time. This biography has its critics, but everyone praises it for its factual accuracy and laborious research.

Your turn: what have you read lately, and what did you like?

121 thoughts on “Short review: Lukianoff and Haidt’s new book, and request for book suggestions

    1. I’ve just started an excerpt from that in the October “Atlantic”. Loved his “Sapiens”. Reading Madeleine Albricht’s excellent “Fascism” and Woodward’s depressing “Fear” (most of which is no longer news.
      Got the Reich, the Rutherford, and the LePore.

      1. I’m glad I’m not the only one that finds
        Fear to be depressing. I want to read Albright’s book. I love Albright – she’s one of my heroes.

        1. Albright is great! And yes Fear is depressing. I started it ages ago, and though it’s an easy read, it’s hard to read too much at once without your head exploding from DJT’s stupidity.

    2. Me too. But I didn´t like the first part. He is very pessimistic about the future and I think he doesn´t get rigth about consciousness and free will. He reduced them to “algorithm procceses”.
      The rest of the book is fine. The best of his books still is “Sapiens”

    1. Good question, I would add an additional question for Jerry, what do you think about behavioral genetics in general? What claims are you skeptical of? What, if any, findings in the field deserve the status of “true beyond reasonable doubt”? (ok, that wasn’t really ‘an’ additional question lol)

  1. I have only started this book, but I think it would be great for any person interested in getting an overview of American history by Harvard historian, Jill Leopore, who writes frequently for the New York. It is called “These Truths” and is a one volume history of the country, but it is far different from any textbook you may have encountered. The book is well written and, in a sense, consists of mini-essays about American history. Andrew Sullivan gave it a great review in the NYT. This review will provide you with more detail about it.

  2. I did a pleasure reading stint of hard science fiction by reading the Bobiverse series. The main character ends up becoming an ex human and current van neuman probe with the task of finding humanity new homes in the universe. I really enjoyed it.

    1. Me too.

      I have also been enjoying Jodi Taylor’s humorous books about disaster-prone time-travelling historians. Educational and fun!

  3. Oh and another good book is A World in Disarray by Richard Haass. It goes through the history of how the world got to where it is. I started reading Fear but I find it so depressing I have t read anything for months.

  4. And finally what I liked with Lukianoff and Haidt’s book is it identifies the locations of where these issues occur in universities – IIRC schools along the US coasts and that Gen Z are the students now not Millenials.

  5. I recently finished Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day and now am into The Last Battle. Both are engrossing reads.

  6. I just finished Rutherford’s “A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived”. Started great tracing the movement of early peoples around the world using subtleties in the population genetics. Late in the book, he gets curmudgeonly about commercial services like “23 & Me” and their bogus certainties, but he’s positive about the wealth of genetic information they and others collect from their (admittedly self-selected) clients. Still, I give it a very positive plus one!

  7. I start and don’t always finish books, but:

    1. Peter Brown’s “The World of Late Antiquity”. Not long, very elegant, and frightening how much light it sheds on our own world.

    2. “The Diversity Delusion” by Heather McDonald. Just came out and a good read. Dangerous to carry it on a college campus given how she has been treated on them.

    3. At some point I will read Houellebecq’s “Soumission” in French! I have previewed it and think I can handle the French.

    4. David Reich’s “Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past”. I don’t have a science background, so although meant for a general audience, I still have to slow down a bit when reading it.

    1. Late antiquity always depresses me. I feel bad as soon as things start going the hell before the fall and the trying too hard military art with those really drilled out eyeballs.

  8. The best nonfiction book I’ve read in 2018 is The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization, by Vince Beiser. Sand may sound like a boring topic, but in this book it’s anything but: it’s fascinating!

  9. I often read more than one book at a time depending on where I left the book and what room I am in. Right now I am part way through Night Comes to the Cretaceous by James Lawrence Powell about the K-T extinction; The Greatest Story Ever Told by Lawrence Krauss; The Big Picture by Sean Carroll; Wealth and Power by Orville Schell and John Delury, a history of China, which I am reading because my son-in-law is Chinese; Father of Route 66 by Susan Croce Kelly, a biography of Cyrus Avery (you have to be a Route 66 aficionado to read this, which I am); W is for Wasted, by Sue Grafton, a mystery novel. Recently finished Light of the Stars by Adam Frank about the history of thinking and research about alien life/civilizations. Frank is an astrophysicist at the Univ. of Rochester.

    I think all of the above are worth reading. I often find out about books by listening to Science Friday and Fresh Air on NPR, but I learned about the Krauss and Carroll books from following this site.

  10. Possibly a little late now but:

    The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, Edited by Brandy X. Lee M.D.

    Russian Roulette, Michael Isikoff, David Corn
    The House of Trump,House of Putin, Graig Unger

    More in the American History area:

    Commander in Chief, FDR’s Battle with Churchill, 1943, Nigel Hamilton.

    The Three Lives of James Madison, Noah Feldman.

  11. Another great book: The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity by Kwame Anthony Appiah
    This book really DID cause me to “rethink identity.” In this time of identity politics, it’s important to have a good grasp of what exactly identity even MEANS. NOT what I’d thought it did. It’s beautifully written, too. Strongly recommended!

  12. Since today is “Origin” Day, I think it à propos that I have just started (read two chapters so far) Olivia Judson’s Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice for All Creation. It seems excellent to me–strict evolutionary explanations (and explanations of evolution), and extensively footnoted with an immense bibliography. Still, I’d solicit the list’s collective wisdom–is this “popular” book well respected?

    The two previous non-fiction books I read, “After the Ice Age” by Pielou and “Ages in Chaos” (a biography of James Hutton by Stephen Baxter) were both excellent.

    Otherwise, it’s been a great deal of science fiction; I think most will appreciate these two quotes from The Infinite Future by Tim Wirkus:

    “The thing about crackpots is that they don’t respond well to rigorous questioning of their pet ideas.”

    “You see, I’ve tried philosophy, but philosophy feels far too cautious, too bound by human logic. And then there’s religion—God, angels, sin—but none of that has ever appealed to me. Fiction masquerading as cosmology is what it feels like to me, and all too self-important, too self-serious.”

    1. I can second that. Olivia Judson’s ‘Dr Tatiana’s’ is absolutely brilliant. I doubt whether any other author could have gotten away with the ‘interview’ format without sounding extremely ‘fake’ and ‘precious’. She pulls it off so nicely indeed.

  13. I’m reading, David Reich’s “Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past”, mentioned also by dd at 11.
    I’m about 1/3 in and so far it’s been very informative. What is astonishing is that our ability to do “whole genome” sequencing quickly and inexpensively has really blosomed in the last 10 or 15 years. Data is coming in so fast it’s hard to analyze and publish it before it becomes obsolete.

  14. One of my colleagues in Croatia, a philosopher, recommended [Hume] to me as one of the best demolitions of the design argument ever made.

    And Hume was a century before Origin of Species. Goes to show (pace) Dawkins) that it was possible to be an intellectually fulfilled non-believer even before Darwin. (I hesitate to call Hume a full-on “atheist” since his religious views were a bit ambiguous, but he was a die-hard skeptic and far from a traditional believer.)

      1. True enough, Maya, though it proved no guarantor against meeting a bad end — some by hemlock, some by dagger, and some by exile among the Pontic Greeks. 🙂

        1. Eeeh! Once I read a most boring book by a Belgian professor (Dethier?) about the ‘History of Atheism’. He mentioned all that, and a lot more. He got a lot of ‘good’ stuff, but I can’t recommend, it took me weeks to chew the sawdust. Pity, since it is a thrilling subject.

          1. A good one on the history of atheism(freethought) is: Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism
            By Susan Jacoby

        2. Make sure if, in Rome, to make a show of worshipping the state gods as a sign of respect and if you’re a politician put up with the haruspex and augury and for extra points make a show of your ancestor worship with your household gods. Then you got the Roman values of pietas and gravitas down and no one will bother you. Make a show of refusing to at least pay respects to the state gods, like the upstart Christians did, and find yourself on the business side of Roman suspicion and dislike. Never the ideal place to be. So when in Rome, be like the pontifex maximus.

  15. “The Fifth Risk”, by Michael Lewis.
    Lewis has a talent for bringing a subject to life, and here he writes about the train-wreck that is Trump’s approach to the federal government, and about some of the people within it who are trying to keep it working. Not a big book, just over 200 pages.

  16. I second the recommendation for “The Fifth Risk”, the third book I’ve read this year about Trump’s White House and by far the scariest, scarier than Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” or Woodward’s “Fear” because it describes the damage wreaked by the Trumpian wrench on all the little cogs and bolts of our internal and foreign policy.

    1. I didn’t bother with either Wolff (not really interested in the scandals) or Woodward, because I figured I’d read most of it in the papers or seen it on the TV news; but Lewis talks with and talks about real people.

  17. Hate: Why We Should Resist it with Free Speech, Not censorship by Nadine Strossen

    Laura Kipnis: Unwanted Advances (a surprising page turner)

    Bad Blood by John Carreyrou (another page turner).

      1. Carreyrou – absolutely a great read. I’m a patent attorney in the Bay Area and had former colleagues go to Theranos (not that you’d see it on their LinkedIn page, or even in their entry on the Patent & Trademark Office attorney roster, when they were there), so I’ve been following the story for years. I don’t feel particularly bad about the investors: they were, notionally at least, all smart people and should have known better; but there were a lot of ordinary decent people hurt by Holmes and Balwani.

  18. I’m reading: Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, by Dan Senor and Saul Singer.

    Chapter 1 begins with this joke:

    On a street corner there are four men: an American, a Russian, a Chinese and an Israeli. A reporter joins the group and asks: “Excuse me: What is your opinion on the meat scarcity?

    The American answers: What does scarcity mean? ”
    The Russian says: “What is meat?”
    The Chinese says: “What is an opinion?”
    The Israeli says: “What does “excuse me” mean?”

  19. Reading and re-reading this year so far:

    Middlemarch (George Eliot) — Reread after 40-odd years, loved both times — long, intricately psychological, a study of a place as well as its inhabitants, resonant.

    A Hora da Estrela/The Hour of the Star (Clarice Lispector). The story of an impoverished, in every way downtrodden young woman so deluded about life that she thinks her state of utter misery is happiness. Also the story of the writer who is creating her. A novella-length meditation on how life can become truly dire and the role that illusions play in sustaining it — until they no longer do. Read in English and the original Portuguese.

    Victory (Joseph Conrad) — “I only know that he who forms a tie is lost.” Conrad’s customary skepticism about life its very own self, eloquently rendered.

    Dubliners (James Joyce) — A new way to write short stories, beginning after most writer’s ideas about where to start them and before most writers would probably end them. Enigmatic snapshots about workaday people entrapped in private worlds who thrash about in their “private traps” without even realizing that this is what they are doing. Two exceptions: “Eveline”, which has a devastating conclusion after only four pages, and “The Dead”, for me, as with our host, the finest story I have ever read.

    The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — Pure genius at handling the language of its characters, including the innumerable uses of the “N-word,” and comic invention that races along, popping with energy — though, as many have noted, the last portion falters thanks to a preposterous plot turn.

    The Turn of the Screw (Henry James) — Is the governess of the two angelic children seeing monsters of evil lurking about the country estate or is her repressed self going off the deep end? James’s sentences can be tough going, often requiring more than one reading and re-reading, but they well serve the enigmas of this famous ghost story.

    The Mayor of Casterbridge (Thomas Hardy): I have read a fair amount of this pessimistic author (“If a way to the best there be, it exacts a full look at the worst”) but somehow overlooked this and “Jude The Obscure”, two of his most noted classics, ofter paired with “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” and “The Return of the Native.” Hardy’s direness is in full bloom here, but so it his deep love for his Wessex home ground and his skill as a surprise-twist plotter.

    Jude The Obscure (Thomas Hardy): Here we have a pitch black portrait of humanity itself and its social arrangements. Not for nothing does it include this verse: “Teach me to live, that I may dread / The grave as little as my bed / Teach me to die…” But, like The Mayor of Casterbridge but in even darker tones, “Jude” deeply explores the customs and folklore of Wessex. In addition, it rages against religion, theism, and the oppressive customs governing human relationships at that time, especially including marriage, which means that it retains a powerful jolt of modernity.

    The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. (William Makepeace Thackeray): A revisit to the source of Stanley Kubrick’s film, my favorite of the nine or ten thousand movies I have seen. The novel is different, a braggart’s (Barry’s) self-serving, lying-in-his-teeth apologia for his selfish, egomaniacal life. You can’t take a single word of what he writes on faith, but Thackeray has given him a lively, however self-serving, prose style. The film very loosely adapts a few episodes and lines from the book and changes its tone entirely, making it the cinema’s foremost meditation on the mystery of human existence itself. For those who love the movie as I do, it is fascinating to see how this book helped to give birth to so different a masterwork while remaining valid and enlightening in and of itself.

    1. This is a great list, and I love them all (other than the ones I haven’t read! 2 of them).

      One of the great lines in Dubliners is “The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces”. Reminds me of the streets I grew up in.

      With Hardy I keep going back to Tess of the d’Urbevilles (read again this year), which I think still talks to us today, in its portrayal of gender politics (soz). Far From the Madding Crowd is also genius. Middlemarch is fantastic, and I have a soft spot for Mill on the Floss, which, tbf, I haven’t read recently.

      For the philosophically minded, a recent read I recommend is “Did God Create the Universe from Nothing?: Countering William Lane Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument”, an exploration of that argument by Jonathan Pearce:

      Pretty devastating, imo.

  20. I recently finished Power and the Idealists by Paul Berman.
    This book was a good account of the Sixties radicals in Europe and their various responses to human rights crises around the world as they aged. Also discussed is how Bernard Kouchner started Doctors Without Borders after working for the Red Cross.

    Now I’m reading Strange Beauty by George Johnson. This is a biography of Murray Gell-Mann. It is wonderfully detailed. I was told Gell-Mann didn’t like the book. I find it fascinating. George Johnson did a thorough job in his research of Gell-Mann.

  21. These are three books about getting results in big systems:
    “In the shadow of statues” by mitch landrieu is a short and excellent book by the former mayor of new orleans in which he describes a successful effort to understand the history and social impact of traditional southern actions including the placement of monuments to confederate leaders, and his leadership in starting to bring a more equitable instantiation of history to the city of neworleans. Landrieu is part of a politically active and powerful local family and demonstrates how a determined individual can use his political advantage for good outcomes…often in a background of personal attacks on him and his family. (A retired naval aviator friend always said that if you do not see any flak, you are nowgere near the target)
    “From cold war to hot peace” by mike mcfaul is a 400+ page fairly autobiographical book on the author’s life, obstacles, and accomplishments in a number of highly visible political roles over the past thirty or so years. He describes in pretty good detail how, as a civil servant and political appointee, he sizes up his role and position, then lays out concrete plans to accomplish various required missions…sometimes very successfully…sometimes not…and sometimes seeing what his team had put in place be dismantled. It gave me a good feeling about the quality of a number of our foreign service professionals.
    “Our towns” by jim and deb fallows tell of 100,000 miles of their travels to u.s. towns and cities in their single engine airplane over three years and the characteristics of those towns which had lost their central strengths and were failing as well as those towns that were successfuly re-establishing themselves.

  22. I have recently read “The Man Who Stopped Hitler” by Gabriele Nissim. I initially didn’t like it very much, for it seemed to me too long and too critical to Bulgaria; but the second half was different, especially the pages focused on the Jews. I recommend it to everyone interested in the fate of Europe’s Jews in WWII (you can read “diagonally” the boring pages).

    About the recommendations cited in Prof. Coyne’s post: I am against return to “free-range” parenting. Its justification is that children should be allowed to confront the world by themselves and learn from their mistakes; however, they can learn only if they survive. I have been “free-range” and most of it was great, but in 2nd grade a classmate of mine died in a car accident while returning from school. Poor children in my country still regularly drown while swimming without adult supervision. The middle class, however, has abandoned free-range parenting for many years without bringing up hypersensitive university students, because the leftist culture producing them in the USA is absent here.

    I think that free-range parenting is appropriate only for societies that lack the resources to supervise their children and, hence, are forced to put up with regular loss of children to preventable accidents and crimes.

    1. If I might just throw something out there – free range may be something different to different people. We who are of Prof. Coyne’s generation would never have heard of the term but I’m sure for most it was based on age and other factors. Also, our freedom was almost always based on trust and how well we performed when given some rope. We did swimming lessons when pretty young and were competent swimmers so mom or dad did not have to worry. We always had to tell them where we were going and when we would be back. We always had hours. There were no computers or electronic games so hanging around the house for entertainment was not happening. Our communication with friends was in person. I’m not saying our way was better but it was different.

    2. I think free range doesn’t mean no supervision ever. It means to allow kids to make mistakes and problem solve in safe environments where they can do so without serious injury or dying. Today, kids don’t knock on the door of a neighbour kid and ask him to come play. Instead, play dates are arranged. Kids no longer walk to school but are driven or take the bus. This is more what people mean by free range. I walked to school and when I was older also biked to work. Today my parents would probably lay be in trouble for it. I remember my baby sitter had to go take care of legal business so me and her 3 boys waited in the car outside with snacks. Today, she’d probably be fined for that.

  23. I wouldn’t call students antifragile… I would call them fragile. To me, “antifragility implies toughness, which is the opposite of the quality the students are exhibiting.

  24. Great article and good recommendations – thank you. I just listened to Sam Harris’ interviews with Jonathan Haidt, and have read one of his books but haven’t gotten to this one yet. It’s just crazy what’s happening. Administrators have *got* to stand up to this nonsense. Months of his life were taken up because he was reported for using the word disgusting as what some men might feel towards sex with another men, but how that shouldn’t affect rights or impact policy whatsoever. He was standing up for gay rights while admitting he might personally be disgusted by the idea of sleeping with another dude. That cost him huge amounts of time defending himself. Ridiculous! Apparently intent doesn’t matter with these kids. It’s really despicable. As always, I’m very grateful that I work with only one kid at a time. I wouldn’t have guessed this was going on based on the kids around here, but I also don’t think they are that representative of the average student.

    1. I recently read this he 1992 book “The Positronic Man” by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg. I found an interesting passage that quite relates to this issue of “safe spaces” and college for infantile millennials:

      “How can you harm someone with a book? Well, by hitting him over the head with it, I suppose. But not otherwise. Ideas can’t do harm- even wrong ideas, even foolish and vicious ideas. PEOPLE do the harm. They seize hold of certain ideas, sometimes, and use them as justification for doing unconscionable, outrageous things. Human history is full of examples of that. But the ideas themselves are just ideas. They must never be throttled. They need to be brought forth, inspected, tested, if necessary rejected, right out in the open.” (p. 109)

      But of course this statement alone would “hurt” so many university students that special grief and trauma counselors would need to be brought to campus for admin-sponsored coddling.

  25. Two books I am planning to read are the memoir about gay conversion therapy “Boy Interrupted” upon which the current film in theaters is based, and “Beethoven: The Universal Composer” by Edmund Morris.

    Thirdly, I am planning to finish I book I started but did not finish two years ago, Barbara Ehrenreich’s “To a Wild God” about her adolescent religious experience she cannot shake in spite of being predominantly a rationalist/humanist.

    On the lighter side, I am thinking of tackling Stephen King’s “It”.

  26. “Safetyism” isn’t just an Academic malady. It’s also enforced in the public at large by government and law enforcement agencies. People have been report to CPS or even charged criminally for doing things like allowing their kids to walk around a safe neighborhood block unattended or sit briefly in a car unattended.

    The whole world needs to toughen up a bit.

  27. I’m currently (re-)reading Arthur Koestler’s anti-communist classic Darkness At Noon.

    Incredibly, the original (German) manuscript, which was lost as Koestler was fleeing the Nazis was found two years ago in an archive in Switzerland. It has just been published for the first time. So I’m reading it and comparing it to the English and to the first German (reverse) translation from 1946.

    Koestler conceived the book after his incarceration in Spain during the Civil War in 1938 where he spent 90 days in solitary confinement under a death sentence. He finished the book in 1940 in southern France, as the Nazis (who would have executed him as a communist) were approaching. His wife was frantically translating it — she was an English speaking art student who had grown up in Switzerland, so knew enough German to do a very rough translation. She finished it and sent it off, but as they fled house as the Nazis were approaching, Koestler left the manuscript on the kitchen table.

    The poorly translated version came to be widely recognised as one of the great English language novels.

    The 1946 reverse translation of it into German was, ironically, suppressed by the occupying Allies who didn’t want to piss off Stalin. (Koestler was at that time hoping to emigrate to the US, having managed to flee to England. He was rejected, however because of his communist background. They weren’t convinced that he had really rejected communism, despite the fact that his book was so powerful that the US was at that time worried it might cause diplomatic problems with their new ally, Stalin.)

    I hope the original gets translated into English. This truly great book deserves a revival. Though, I’d recommend his prison diary from Spain, Dialogue With Death as even more of a ‘must read’, along with his autobiographies– Arrow in the Blue (growing up in Hungary) and Invisible Writing (living as a Jewish communist in Berlin in the 1920s).

  28. WHat am I reading? Probably a mistake since it is a mighty tome and I was only going cabin baggage on a recent trip to Gibraltar, but I took the superb “A Certain Idea of France: The Life of Charles de Gaulle” by Julian Jackson. It is a truism that the best writing about recent French history comes from outside France (Alistair Horne’s super trilogy on 19th and 20th Century history comes immediately to mind) and this monumental biography of one of the 20th centuries towering figures is part of that tradition. (I suspect that despite the passing of nearly 85 years the wounds in France are still too raw). de Gaulle was arrogant, ungrateful – especially to the British – vain, a near dictator but unquestionably the man who gave France her pride back after 1944. His myth that France liberated herself, exemplified by his speech in August 1944 that Paris was “Liberated by herself, liberated by her people, in concurrence with the armies of France, with the support and concurrence of the whole of France, of fighting France, the only France, the true France, eternal France.” is given short shrift – as it deserves to be (the 2nd DB was just one of over 40 Allied divisions that were in the Normandy campaign at that time) – but it was a necessary myth that allowed France to regain its place in the world and, in time, to forge new relationships – especially with Adenauer’s Germany that formed – and still does – the backbone of the EU.

    This is one of the very best biographies that I have ever read. Full stop.

  29. I’d recommend “Lost In Math” by Sabine Hossenfelder. It describes the current “crisis” in theoretical physics. Good as a general text on how science works and critical of some of Sean Carrol’s ideas.

  30. Recently, I read Victor Kravchenko’s I Choose Freedom. Kravchenko defected in 1944, while in the US working for the Soviet Purchasing Commission. The book is his autobiography of life in Stalin’s Russia. I would recommend it for anyone interest in the period. (It’s only available used.) Alternatively, I would recommend James Oakes’s Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865, which examines how the abolition of slavery actually became a war aim of the US, and how it was achieved.

    1. Ah. I intend to read the James Oakes book soon as I can. Have read some reviews and always looking for newer works that have new evidence and understanding. Much of what I see from the reviews is in step with my knowledge of the subject.

  31. I’m reading Frans de Waal’s ‘Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?’ and an old (one of his earlier books I hadn’t read) Nick Lane’s ‘Oxygen’.
    Both books are fascinating and highly recommended, but are not really into campus and snowflake culture.
    On South African campuses there is a movement about ‘de-colonising’, I guess it got infected here and there by American ‘intersectionality’, but on the whole it appears to be specifically South African. After all, we do carry a kind of history about these things, compared to which US history appears nearly pale in this regard.

  32. Although I’m hesitant to recommend — and, increasingly, to read — analytic philosophy, I’m finding Catherine Elgin’s “True Enough” thought-provoking and engagingly written. In short, she considers understanding, rather than knowledge, as our primary epistemic goal. Her discussion of science and art as vehicles of understanding is especially intriguing. Elgin is a philosopher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a student of the late Nelson Goodman, whose work strongly informs this work.
    On the other hand, I’ve also been re-reading some of the old Pogo books. And they’re thought-provoking, too.

  33. “We conclude that CBT is probably effective in the treatment of MDD, GAD, PAD and SAD; that the effects are large when the control condition is waiting list, but small to moderate when it is care‐as‐usual or pill placebo; and that, because of the small number of high‐quality trials, these effects are still uncertain and should be considered with caution.”

    [Excerpt from abstract of “How effective are cognitive behavior therapies for major depression and anxiety disorders? A meta‐analytic update of the evidence” (2016); ]

  34. Anand Giridharadas, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. An account of the delusion among our students who aren’t social justice warriors that solutions to our problems should be market-based.

  35. About halfway through SPQR by Mary Beard. Her prose is clear & succinct. Her story is spellbinding. Lots of dead white guys, though.

    1. I really need to read my Augustus book. I put it on my shelf years ago and never got to it. So many books like that! I keep being distracted by electronic books that I download.

  36. Jerry, there’s a mistake, which also connects to your inquiry about books. You mean just “fragile” as the untruth, while “antifragile” is the desirable trait.

    I read “Antifragile” (from which Haidt appears to have the idea) earlier this year. Taleb argues for a design (of anything, economy, governments, your life) to exhibit a trait he calls antifragility, which he sees in systems like evolution. To fully appreciate the idea, however, one has to read a few books in this series he calls “Incerto”, otherwise such ideas might seem superficial.

    Fragile things break when exposed to shock. Robust things withstand or absorb shocks. Antifragile things somehow benefit from schock. It’s a very Discordian idea.

    His books are a commentary on various things, autobiography, examples, vanity and attitude woven together, but illustrating some abstract concept that holds the ensemble of parts together. The parts in turn are context, and where rubber meets the road, which also gives the abstract idea meaning and depth.

    It would be otherwise difficult to understand the relevance of systemic properties like symmetry, scale, ergodicity, randomness (and of special types, that have underappreciated properties). Or if this was covered by a few examples, it would be dismissed in a superficial way, e.g. “what doesn’t kill you, make you stronger… uh-hu, and now what!?”

    I found the books worth the read, and the deeper topics profound. It’s an interesting style to observe everyday mundanity, yet looking at systemic properties lurking beneath the surface. However, the whole thing is laced with opinion and attitude, which is charming at times, but also enough to disagree (strongly) at other times.

    His more questionable views place him between Jordan Peterson and Eo Wilson, i.e. group selection camp, and where tradition and religion somehow have possibly hidden features that are beneficial for survival. That seems to be the reason why he has a beef with New Atheists. Fair enough, he can dislike something, but here he only asserts that traditions mostly work. Except when they don’t. He also tends to sort people into manichean categories, which lead to strange distortions.

    Overall, the ideas are good and Taleb is a thought-provoking, disputatious, free thinker and contrarian.

  37. Jerry,

    I hope you report back to us your opinion of Hume’s book.

    If I could point to any book that was responsible for igniting my interest in philosophy, it was stumbling upon Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion in my early 20’s.

    What I found so compelling was that one character would present a case and I’d think “Well, that certainly sounds convincing” then the next would state his case and I’m like “Wait…actually…that’s making more sense” then the next would speak and that turned my mind around again. It was intoxicating reading a “debate” in which each character stated their case so well, which of course speaks so well to Hume’s writing and thinking on the subject.

    Of course, to me, Philo’s case made the most sense in the end.

    Would love to read your thoughts on the book.

  38. Neil Degrasse Tyson: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. About how information about galaxies, nebula, dark matter, dark energy, etc. is found. Makes our little blue dot (the earth)seem awfully insignificant.
    Nathaniel Philbrick: Mayflower. I’d never realized how different Pilgrims and Puritans were. From details of the voyage (and its conflicts between religion and capitalism) and for a good century thereafter, how Pilgrims, Puritans, and Indians interacted and went to war (Indian King Phillip’s war).

  39. Darwin’s most wonderful plants, Darwin’s botany today by Ken Thompson. It was listed recently as one of the five best science books of the week in Nature magazine. It focusses on his interest in climbing or carnivorous plants and on pollination strategies.

    1. Ooh, that sounds fun! I must put that on my wish list! I finally bought a copy of “Darwin’s Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory” by James Costa but I haven’t read it yet and though it was a bit of a financial stretch, I purchased a 15-volume collection of Darwin’s books printed in 1896 by Appleton & co., which is exciting but doesn’t include his barnacle books and I’m not sure about his works on orchids, as the titles are different in these US printings. I’ve decided that reading them will be my New Years resolution.

  40. For those who can put up with well-argued pessimism, there is Ronald Wright’s “A Short History of Progress”. It suggests a view which is, in a way, opposed to Steven Pinker’s. He suggests that the human species has an innate tendency to over-exploit its environment, and that the experiment instantiated by Sumer, Rome, the Maya, and Easter Island is now being repeated on a planetary scale, from which enlightenment thinking may fail to rescue us. In fact, he suggest that this “progress trap” began with the Neolithic transition to agriculture and settled communities.

    1. Sounds intriguing. Pinker’s chapter on the environment in “Enlightenment Now” was one of that book’s few clear failures. He really needs to remind himself what “motivated reasoning” is.

      I see little to no reason for optimism when it comes to our planetary future. Sure, population growth is slowing, but it’s too little, too late.

  41. A mixture of Hitch 22, Ayan Hirsi Ali, and PG Wodehouse works well. Wit, hero, and humour – all essential. Cheers.

      1. “Hitch 22” has some wonderful stuff in it,
        but overall it badly needed editing. I concur with somebody’s recommendations of Arthur Koestler’s autobiographical books. They are invaluable for an understanding of the 20th century–although nowadays, it seems few are interested in that century anymore.

      2. I enjoyed Hitch 22 for a while, but then I got bogged down when he started a detailed description of all the left wing radicals, Marxists, and other people he once knew. Boring stuff.

  42. I am awaiting the pending arrival of a book discussed on Sam Harris’ recent podcast written by Johann Hari, “Lost Connections: The Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions”. And I eagerly await another posthumous book by Oliver Sacks, “Everything in its Place: First Loves and Last Tales” but unfortunately it won’t be released until April but it’s available for pre-order. And I have purchased but have not yet read a new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang, “Accessory To War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Physics and the Military”.

    1. I got a copy of “Lost Connections” from my local public library and it more than lives up to its hype. A great, thoughtful book on a huge and growing problem facing virtually everyone in the era of the decline and fall of the American Empire and the seemingly inevitable disappearance of pretty much all jobs.

  43. “The Vital Question; Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life” by Nick Lane: left me in awe and needing to read it again.

    “Rise of the Necrofauna; the Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-extinction” by Britt Wray: fun.

    “In Pursuit of the Unknown; 17 Equations that Changed the World” by Ian Stewart: informative, but frustrating when it approaches mathematical dimensions and non-Euclidean geometries my puny mind can’t fathom.

    1. Strongly agree regarding nick lanes the vital question. As aretired aerospace engineer, I find the chemistry challenging but reading and re-reading and reading some of his primary source material and watching some great nick lane you videos from ucl and other british institutions help tremendously. Great science brought to the general reader…much like weit book by jerry.

  44. Proof of Collusion How Trump Betrayed America, By Seth Abramson. Definitely follow him on Twitter @sethabramson – where he’s been providing Americans real time well sourced FACTS connecting the dots as they relate to the extreme criminality of the Trump family. Gifting it to every member of my family with a message “Read it. Let’s talk” card attached.

  45. Recently finished Adam Rutherford’s latest, “The book of humans: the story of how we became us” (UK title: apparently won’t be out in the US or Canada until March, with a different — and longer — subtitle). Highly recommendable.

    Ditto for Harari’s “21 lessons…”. The guy’s got a sense of humour, too.

    And now halfway through Mary Beard’s “SPQR”: fascinating.

    I have added several recommendations above to my own pending list (including, of course, Lukianoff & Haidt). Haidt’s convo with Sam Harris on Sam’s podcast was very interesting, too.

  46. Four books by American surgeon, Atul Gawande:

    Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science
    Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance
    The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right
    Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End.

    “In June 2018, he was named the CEO for the new health care company, to be based in Boston, being formed by billionaire investor Warren Buffett, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon.”

    Having never read Ursula Kroeber Le Guin’s science fiction, I recently read “The Left Hand of Darkness” and “The Lathe of Heaven.”

    Her father, Alfred Louis Kroeber was an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley who brought Ishi, the last known member of the Yani tribe near Lassen in Northern California who died in the California Genocide, to the University to study him. Ishi also was hired as a research assistant. He lived most of his remaining five years in a university building in San Francisco. Le Guin’s mother, Theodora Kroeber, was an author whose best known work was “Ishi in Two Worlds”, a biographical volume about Ishi.

    I recently reread “Ishi” for the third time.

    My next book will be “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” by David W. Blight.

  47. Nonfiction: Currently reading Russell Blackford’s “The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism”. He takes a broad view of free speech and sees it as something that can be curtailed by society at large, and not just by the government. He gives a nuanced view of it’s applications in many areas, and although he spends a lot of time criticizing it’s suppression by those on the Left, he is an old school liberal himself and doesn’t spare the Right either. I haven’t read “The Coddling of the American Mind”, but this seems like it would be a good companion.

    Fiction: Do you want to know how Barak Obama and Joe Biden came to share a bed in a flop house and find themselves in an outlaw biker bar? Then check out the murder mystery “Hope Never Dies” by Andrew Schaffer. It’s mindless fluff, but a lot of fun. How can you resist a book by an author who also wrote a book titled “Fifty Shades of Earl Grey”?

  48. Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel – Carl Safina. Mosty Elephants, Wolfs and Cetaceans, with lots of fascinating anecdotes.

    A Primate’s Memoir – Robert Sapolski. Studying baboons in the wild.

    The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs – Steve Brusatte. We all know about their extinction, but this also covers their origin.

    It Came From Outer-Space Wearing an RAF Blazer! – Martin Mobberley. A long biography of the much-loved and eccentric amateur astronomer Patrick Moore, who presented “The Sky at Night” on BBC TV every month from 1957 till his death in 2012.

  49. And one not to read: the math myth by andrew hacker. Though i for a number of years enjoyed hackers writing in the nyr, he clearly knows nothing of mathematics and certainly nothing of how stem works in the real human designed world to enable new technologies. This books thesis is just plain wrong. There are issues with what math is taught today in k12 but hacker does not even come close to identifying the real issues. So please do not waste your time reading this drivel and if an education policy maker quotes from it, please contact a math or engineering subject matter expert to counter.

  50. Recently read a prickly affair ,a book about Hedgehogs .
    The author was involved in the research into the Hedgehogs introduced onto the Scottish islands .
    He reckons the decline in the numbers of Sand Eels had as much to do with the decline of ground nesting birds as the hedgehogs .

    And Americans have taken Hedgehogs to their hearts ,and there are Hedgehog shows .

  51. Not yet read but seen within my Scots’ popup feed:

    ” Cunk On Everything: The Philomena Cunk Encyclopaedia
    (Two Roads, £12.99)

    A parody encyclopaedia from the star of
    Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe and Moments of
    Wonder spanning Adam and Eve, Brexit,
    the Large Hadron Colander [sic], Quorn
    and zombies. ”


  52. I am slowly and deliberately making my way through Edward Gibbon’s mighty ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.’ Vol. 1 begins with the apex of the Empire under the Antonines; vol. 8 will conclude with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. In between I’m discovering a richness of detail, thought and style unlike anything I’ve read before. Gibbon is marvelous on the interplay between religion and politics, and his analysis of the destructive power of Christianity after it became the established religion of the Empire (early 4th century C.E.) is a triumph of Enlightenment historiography.

    I am midway through vol. 5–-the ignominious dismissal of Belisarius (ca. 550) by emperor Justinian, after that hero’s saving the Eastern Empire from the worst actions of its own follies in a series of triumphant campaigns against the ‘barbarians.’ Yet B. was to be recalled for a final battle (very close to Constantinople) against the Kutrigars, whom he vanquished despite his army’s being badly outnumbered.

  53. Hi Jerry,

    When you study Churchill don’t forget to look into his colonial atrocities around the world and give a final rating of his life. As an Indian growing up in India and as son and grandson of freedom fighters during British colonialism, I have overall negative opinion of Churchill.


    1. I’m perfectly aware of Churchill’s racism and colonialism. But remember, when you weigh the bad he did for India, to balance that with the good he did for the Allies and Britain.

      I don’t really plan to “give a final rating of his life”. Such ratings are meaningless, I think.

  54. Jerry,

    If you want to read a Gandhi biography, avoid Ramachandra Guha. He is a hagiographer and whitewasher of MK Gandhi and the Nehru family of India. He is not fluent in any Indian language and hence has no access or even familiarity with the vast literature in Indian languages of MKG.

    Instead read Dhananjay Keer’s “MK Gandhi – Unarmed Prophet” Keer belonged to the depressed classes/scheduled caste and has written the only authorized biography of the champion of the oppressed and the author of India’s constitution – Dr.BR Ambedkar. Keer published a revised edition of his Ambedkar bio, in Ambedkar’s lifetime.

    Keer’s MK Gandhi bio can be borrowed from your U.Chicago library.

    Keer hailed from Maharashtra and wrote extensively in Marathi – not only on social movements of his time – but also on the politics of his time.

    Ramachandra Guha’s works are highly acclaimed just as Dembski’s CSI is highly acclaimed at the Discoery Institute.

  55. I have not been able to put down *How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence* by Michael Pollan.

  56. I am most of the way through Napoleon Chagnon’s 2014 book Noble Savage. It’s a great account of his work living with the Yanomano people in the Venezuelan Amazon, and what the Yanomano people have to teach us about the way violence and sex shape Yanomano culture and perhaps communities in pre-civilization societies. It is also a strong critique of how politically correct social activism has corrupted the field of anthropology.

    1. When I took first year cultural anthropology, this group of people and their biased study were used as a way to warn us about how there is bias and how we need to avoid it.

  57. ’21 Lessons for the 21st Century” – Yuval Noah Harari.

    I believe I’m the third here in this discussion to recommend the book, which I am 1/2 of the way through. The author’s treatment of religion and immigration are rather thought-provoking. I could say that of most of the book, which doesn’t provide answers or solutions to pressing societal problems, but rather offers up different ways of thinking about these issues.

    There are several good YouTube videos of interviews with Harari. He is one of those individuals who speaks in complete sentences when responding to a question, and speaks (and writes) with much clarity.

  58. Science:
    Stuart Ritchie, Intelligence: All That Matters

    Kim Sterelny, Dawkins vs. Gould: Survival of the Fittest

    Georges Ifrah, The Universal History of Numbers

    Arthur L. Conger, The Rise of U.S. Grant

    Diana Price, Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography

    Jan Dickerson, Make The Most of Your Horse: The Practical Application of Collection in All Types of Riding

    Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses
    (not about horses, despite the title)

  59. I just finished Haidt and Lukianoff, and before them I read Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal, Fukuyama’s Identity, and Appiah’s The Lies That Bind. I read them in that order, then I read H & L. I recommend all of these books, highly.

  60. “Lost Connections” by Johann Hari is a tour-de-force of systematic analyses of what ails the folks who are part of the epidemic of depression, anxiety, and suicide sweeping the USA. Spoiler alert: It ain’t the shortage of opiods and antidepressants. The book also gives some solutions to the problem which have considerable evidence for their effectiveness. One of the more interesting parts of one of those solutions is a Universal Basic Income.

  61. I reread Judea Pearl’s _The Book of Why_. He’s a little “overzealous” in showing the novelty of what he and his colleagues have done, but the categorization of data problems and the resources needed to solve them is a welcome one in the recent renaissance in thinking about AI.

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