Reading – & Now: 2022
A love affair with books
"A text—a book—is a resting place for the memories of people who lived before. A way for the memory to stay fixed after the soul has traveled on."
– Licinius, in Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night
I last read through Vonnegut's novels about a dozen years ago, long enough that I've mostly forgotten the story lines so it's a fresh journey to be reading them again. I was a bit hesitant about reading this one since its subject, Nazis, is devastating. But as I should've known, Vonnegut handles the subject with grace, wisdom, and even some humor as his novel describes the experiences of a man who is a valued spy for the U.S. during WWII even as he excels in his role as a Nazi propagandist.
This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don't think it's a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
The result is a strong, deeply personal story that decimates Nazi ideals.
The dismaying thing about the classic totalitarian mind is that any given gear, though mutilated, will have at its circumference unbroken sequences of teeth that are immaculately maintained, that are exquisitely machined.… The missing teeth, of course, are simple, obvious truths, truths available and comprehensible even to ten-year-olds, in most cases.
Vonnegut's voice is like no other I've encountered, a voice to be cherished.
From The Library of America edition, Kurt Vonnegut: Novels and Stories 1950 – 1962 in Kurt Vonnegut: The Complete Novels (4-volume boxed set)⩘ ; Mother Night was originally published by Fawcett Publications/Gold Medal Books, 1962; Dial Press 1999 paperback edition available from Bookshop.org⩘
Elizabeth Kolbert, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future
Narrated by Rebecca Lowman
According to Kolbert, this is "a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems." A good followup to her previous book, The Sixth Extinction, it explores how people are trying to deal with the consequences of humankind's dominance of the Earth and, especially, by the climate change we have and are causing.
While scientists and engineers are imagining and implementing some amazing possible (partial) solutions like seeding the stratosphere with tiny diamonds to attempt to reduce the amount of sunlight (and heat) reaching the planet—the costs of these solutions are enormous both in terms of budgets and political willpower, and the risks are equally huge, which are themes explored brilliantly in Neal Stephenson's recent novel, Termination Shock⩘ . Because we have put off tackling this existential challenge for so long, we may have no choice but to implement some of these expensive and risky Hail Mary pass solutions.
The choice is not between what was and what is, but between what is and what will be.
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
Narrated by Anne Twomey
Mixes colorful firsthand experiences with historical and current science to vividly tell the story of extinction, the five previous mass extinctions, and the current mass extinction we appear to be precipitating.
I'm curious about Kolbert's most recent book, Under a White Sky, which explores climate change, specifically, how we have damaged our planet and how some of us are trying to come up with fixes. I decided to read this, her previous book, to gain a better understanding of the causes and impacts of mass extinctions in order to have a better context for her new book. I'm glad I now have this context.
Wikipedia.org⩘ has a good summary of each of the chapters, including the key point Kolbert makes with each:
- Chapter 1: The Sixth Extinction – Kolbert uses the frog-fungus relationship as a symbol of how humans are introducing invasive species to various environments, where native species would normally have the proper distribution of alleles for their environment.
- Chapter 2: The Mastodon’s Molars – Kolbert uses the mastodon as a symbol for the idea that catastrophe is an important mechanism of extinction.
- Chapter 3: The Original Penguin – Kolbert uses the great auk as a symbol of how human overexploitation of resources is another important mechanism of extinction.
- Chapter 4: The Luck of the Ammonites – Kolbert explains that, even though ammonites were ‘fit’ for their current environment, a single moment can completely change which traits are advantageous and which are lethal.
- Chapter 5: Welcome to the Anthropocene – Kolbert states that human activity has transformed between a third and a half of land surface on the planet. We have dammed most of the major rivers of world, increased levels of nitrogen higher than can be fixed naturally by terrestrial ecosystems, used more than half of the world’s readily accessible freshwater run-off, removed more than one third of the primary producers of the oceans’ coastal waters, and changed the composition of the atmosphere by deforestation and fossil fuel combustion.
- Chapter 6: The Sea Around Us – Kolbert uses the drastic decline in life forms around the Castello Aragonese as a warning sign of what is to come if we continue to increase carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.
- Chapter 7: Dropping Acid – Coral reefs support thousands of species by providing food and protection. Subsequently, many species have co-evolved with corals. Due to ocean acidification, it is very possible that corals will become extinct by the end of the century.
- Chapter 8: The Forest and the Trees – The extent to which species are mobile and can relocate to new areas, in response to shifting climate conditions, is predicted to be a significant factor in possible species extinction. This has particular importance for trees and other plant species. Even more difficult to estimate is the extent to which ecological communities of species will be able to tolerate disruptive changes.
- Chapter 9: Islands on Dry Land – Kolbert points out how everything in life is interconnected, and discusses the importance of patch dynamics. Over time, fragmentation of environmental areas leads to a decrease in the number of species in an area. This occurs, in part, because the size of such “islands” is too small to support a stable number of species members. Also, smaller populations are more vulnerable to these changing events.… Kolbert also notes that the habits of many species can be highly specialized to their environment. She explains that one minor change can cause a domino effect in various ecological systems.
- Chapter 10: The New Pangaea – Kolbert points out that there is an evolutionary arms race, in which each species must be equipped to defend against their potential predators, and need to be more fit than their competition. A species has no defense if it encounters a new fungus, virus, or bacterium.
- Chapter 11: The Rhino Gets an Ultrasound – Kolbert uses this rhino species to illustrate habitat fragmentation as another mechanism of extinction.
- Chapter 12: The Madness Gene – Kolbert states there is every reason to believe that Neanderthals would still exist if it weren’t for Homo sapiens.
- Chapter 13: The Things with Feathers – Kolbert concludes with hope in humanity, pointing to various efforts to conserve or preserve species. Whether meaning to or not, we are deciding which evolutionary pathways will be shut off forever, and which can be left open to flourish.
Barbara F. Walter, How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them
An essential, if frightening, read for anyone who loves the United States of America. And ultimately, inspiring.
If America doesn't change its current course, dangers loom.
Walter, a professor of International Relations and member of the Council on Foreign Relations, has spent years researching civil wars around the world. In her book, she explains in detail the stages that countries go through leading up to a civil war, showing how those stages unfolded in some of the countries experiencing major civil wars during the last few decades. Then she shows how the U.S. is itself sliding towards civil war now.
The idea that researchers could predict civil conflict was revolutionary. And so in 2017, when I was asked to join the PITF myself, I did not hesitate. Almost every year since then, I've attended meetings and conferences with other scholars and analysts, in which we study political volatility around the world—the potential collapse of Syria, the future of African dictators—and come up with ways to further refine the predictive possibilities of the data at our fingertips. Our goal has always been to try to anticipate violence and instability in other countries, so that the United States is better prepared to respond.
But as I've done this work, I've realized something unnerving: The warning signs of instability that we have identified in other places are the same signs that, over the past decade, I've begun to see on our own soil. This is why I witnessed the events in Lansing [the plot to kidnap and kill Governor Whitman]—as well as the assault on the U.S. Capitol in January 2021—with such trepidation. I've seen how civil wars start, and I know the signs that people miss. And I can see those signs emerging here at a surprisingly fast rate.…
An eruption of conflict requires a set of variables to build on one another, like winds in a gathering storm. As I've become increasingly alarmed by the potential of a second civil war in America, I've grown personally invested in what we, as citizens, can learn from experts about defusing these gales and squalls. These incidents have offered us a lesson: We have trusted, for too long perhaps, that peace will always prevail. That our institutions are unshakable, that our nation is exceptional. We've learned that we cannot take our democracy for granted, that we must understand our power as citizens.
Walter explains how our current social media ecosystem is one of the chief contributors to the civil breakdown in the U.S. and other countries around the world, a clear threat to stability and democracy.
Ultimately, it's the algorithms of social media that serve as accelerants for violence. By promoting a sense of perpetual crisis, these algorithms give rise to a growing sense of despair. Disinformation spread by extremists discredits peaceful protesters, convinces citizens that counterattacks by opposition groups are likely, and creates a sense—often a false sense—that moderates within their own movement are not doing enough to protect the population, or are ineffective and weak compared to the opposition. It's at this point that violence breaks out: when citizens become convinced that there is no hope of fixing their problems through conventional means.
Finally, in the most important section of the book, Walter explains how some countries, like South Africa, have avoided civil wars, and how we can, too.
After January 6, people kept asking me: What should we do? Do we need better policing? Better domestic terror laws? Does the FBI need to aggressively infiltrate far-right militias? My first answer was always the same. Take away the social media bullhorn and you turn down the volume on bullies, conspiracy theorists, bots, trolls, disinformation machines, hate-mongers, and enemies of democracy. America's collective anger would drop almost immediately.… Curbing the dissemination of hate and disinformation would greatly reduce the risk of civil war.
She finishes by explaining how we can rekindle our faith in American democracy.
We all have the power to make change happen in our communities – and the responsibility to try. Here at Citizen University, we equip civic catalysts with the ideas, strategies, and spirit to build a culture of powerful, responsible citizenship in cities across the country.
Kurt Vonnegut, Sirens of Titan
A story about time and free will, or the absence of time and free will.
When I ran my space ship into the chrono-synclastic infundibulum, it came to me in a flash that everything that ever has been always will be, and everything that ever will be always has been.
Vonnegut was an irreverent, insightful, and funny human being with a big heart.
It took us that long to realize that a purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.
From The Library of America edition, Kurt Vonnegut: Novels and Stories 1950 – 1962 in Kurt Vonnegut: The Complete Novels (4-volume boxed set)⩘ ; The Sirens of Titan was originally published by Dell, 1959; Dial Press 1998 paperback edition available from Bookshop.org⩘
Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano
"America in the Coming Age of Electronics"
– from the blurb on the dust jacket of the original 1952 hardbound edition (shown here).
After I recently watched the wonderful documentary, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time⩘ , I decided to once again read all of his novels, a journey I last undertook in 2008 (see my review from that time⩘ ).
Such an entertaining story! Definitely a bit dated, but in another sense, quite brilliantly prescient in its description of how automation takes over life.
The other day, as I was reading this book, I attempted to call a FedEx customer service representative to speak about an issue I was experiencing with their service. After going around and around through multiple menus, the automated system was unable to answer my question adequately, but wouldn't let me speak with a real person no matter how much I tried. The astonishing thing was that as I kept indicating that I wanted to speak to real person, the voice of the automated system began sounding annoyed. At that point, I suddenly realized I was living inside a new chapter of Player Piano.
The automated system ended up quite rudely hanging up on me without letting me speak to a real representative. All I could picture in that moment was some asshole middle manager who designed that automated system and went so far as to hire a voice actor to speak in an annoyed voice for some of the recordings, all in attempt by that manager to kiss the rear end of their manager who must have given them the primary goal of reducing costs even at the cost of treating their customers like garbage. In the end, all I could think was "F*ck FedEx!" Of course, that makes absolutely no difference to FedEx Corporate because they obviously don't give a shit about their delivery customers. This is our modern Player Piano world.
I want to add that my rant doesn't apply to the FedEx workers who do the actual work of shipping and delivering parcels; I've almost always found the delivery drivers to be friendly and courteous.
A few days later: Same thing just happened to me at UPS, except that when the stupid automated system couldn't understand my tracking number after repeated attempts, it did finally put me through to (a very nice) human being instead of hanging up on me. Again, all I could think in the end was "F*ck UPS!" What is wrong with these companies?!
Once again, my rant doesn't apply to the UPS workers who do the actual work of shipping and delivering parcels; I've almost always found the delivery drivers to be friendly and courteous.
From The Library of America edition, Kurt Vonnegut: Novels and Stories 1950 – 1962 in Kurt Vonnegut: The Complete Novels (4-volume boxed set)⩘ ; Player Piano was originally published by Charles Scribner's Sons, 1952; Dial Press 1999 paperback edition available from Bookshop.org⩘
Eli Saslow, Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist
Narrated by Scott Brick, with an introduction by the author
An unpleasant yet important book. It tells the story of Derek Black, who was raised in a household seething with white nationalism, and how as a college student, he navigated beyond those ingrained early prejudices to understand the harm he was doing and become an outspoken voice against white nationalism.
The book is unpleasant because it necessarily spends a good deal of time focused on white nationalism and its obnoxious, ridiculous, toxic beliefs. The story couldn't be told without that, but it gave me continuous stomach aches as I was listening.
The book is important because it shows that it is possible for a person to grow beyond their ingrained prejudices through truth and the friendship of people who are willing to patiently share that truth. As the author shares in his introduction, "If parts of [Derek Black's] story trace the country's path to this contentious racial moment, then maybe the details of his transformation can also point a way ahead."
However, the dangers of this moment are immense. As Derek tells his father, who remains a committed white nationalist unconvinced by Derek's transformation, "We're coming up to the critical moment. That's why I'm trying to warn people."
However, I'm afraid that in many cases, his warnings are failing to reach and/or convince the people who most need to hear and understand them. Just today, I saw a short interview video by CNN correspondent Donie O'Sullivan who was talking to Trump supporters about the upcoming anniversary of the January 6th attack. It's almost unbelievable how removed from the truth some people are.
Lisa, a Trump supporter: "The January 6th attack was not Republicans nor Trump; it was the Democrats were behind it all, they're the ones that caused it all."
Donie O'Sullivan: "Do you really believe that?"
Lisa: "I know it. There is no way a Republican would act that way, and there is no way that Trump had anything to do with what happened on January 6th."
Anita Germano, a Trump supporter: "I think the whole reporting of it is a giant hoax."
Marge Mathieu, a Trump supporter: "We are very peaceful people, so it was a total setup to me; it was the FBI had set it up. I don't believe that they were Trump supporters that did that."
– One year later, mentioning January 6 at a Trump event doesn't go well⩘ , CNN, Jan 4, 2022.
Thankfully, the majority of Americans know the truth:
A new Associated Press-NORC poll shows results similar to other major polling. Some 57 percent say former president Donald Trump deserves "a great deal" or "quite a bit" of the blame; that number grows to 70 percent when we include respondents who think Trump was moderately to blame.
Even 4 in 10 Republicans say he bears at least a moderate amount of responsibility. It's still mind-blowing that 60 percent of Republicans say Trump bears little or no responsibility; that number, however, is 11 points lower than it was a year ago.
In addition, the poll says, "Nearly two-thirds of Americans say the riot was extremely or very violent, and about 7 in 10 think Congress should continue investigating the events of January 6."
Two things can be true: 1) Millions of Americans are deluded about Jan. 6 and think violence is acceptable, and 2) a big majority know Trump was responsible, support the Jan. 6 committee and reject violence as a way to settle elections.
– Opinion: Polling on Jan. 6 shows the vast majority of Americans aren't crazy⩘ by Jennifer Rubin, The Washington Post, Jan 5, 2022.
Related: White Hot Hate⩘ , a six-part podcast series "about violent extremists who court chaos to spark a race war".
Jennifer Marie Brissett, Destroyer of Light
Narrated by Cherise Boothe & Landon Woodson
A compelling, though challenging story.
I spent more time reading reviews about this book than I usually do, both before I decided to listen to it and before I actually began it. One thing I noticed in a couple of the reviews was a reference to the fact that it is a "surprising" and "stunning" followup to the Brissett's previous book, Elysium: Or, the World After. Though both of those reviewers indicated the new work stands on its own, I decided to take a look at the synopsis and reviews for Elysium. The reviews made it clear that, like the new work, it is a compelling, though challenging story, perhaps even more so, as many of the reviewers indicated things didn't begin to make sense to them until the final portion of the book. I was intrigued and decided to listen to it in preparation for this new book. Elysium was an interesting read and I'm glad I listened to it to get a bit of the backstory for Destroyer of Light, though I agree that wasn't necessary; and while I appreciated it, I wouldn't have written a reflection about Elysium alone.
Having experienced the challenge of Elysium, I was motivated to carefully prepare for this new book by reading every review I could find, as well as some interviews. I also took a look at was written about the book on the author's own website: Jennifer Marie Brissett⩘ . I usually don't want to know that much about a story before I first listen to or read it—though I usually also enjoy the experience of listening to or reading a book a second time, when I know the story outline better—but in this case, given the challenging structure of the story, I was glad to be so well prepared as it helped me dive into the flow of the story with more clarity.
Brissett exceeded my expectations with Destroyer of Light, which is solid, fast-paced science fiction with creative world building on the planet Eleusis (to which humans were forced to flee due to what happened in Elysium); a thought-twisting exploration of the concept that all of time—past, present, and future—is happening now; colorful Afro-futurism aspects; vivid descriptions of an alien species that exists in more-than-three dimensions; an unflinching exploration of themes of colonialism, classism, and conflict; a mind-blowing dive into the possibilities of futuristic gene altering; and a stunning conclusion.
Note: Destroyer of Light is published with the following alert: "Warning: This book is designed for audiences 18+ due to scenes of physical and sexual violence, and themes that some may find disturbing."
Kyle T. Mays, An Afro-Indigenous History of the United States
Narrated by Shaun Taylor-Corbett
An interesting if somewhat uneven book. I learned a few things about our history I was unaware of, and always find it worthwhile to be introduced to other perspectives.
The foundations of whiteness today are rooted in the twin oppressions of Africans and US Indigenous peoples. How we view race and, in the formative years of the United States, who can own and be property was rooted in these oppressions. As legal scholar Cheryl Harris writes, "Because whites could not be enslaved or held as slaves, the racial line between white and Blacks was extremely critical; it became a line of protection and demarcation from the potential threat of commodification, and it determined the allocation of the benefits and burdens of this form of property." For Native people, property meant "white privilege through a system of property rights on land in which the ‘race' of the Native Americans rendered their first possession rights invisible and justified conquest." "White" meant property owner and human, "African and Indigenous" meant the opposite. And it wasn't just property that European settlers were creating. In the development of their governing ideology, they believed "that the preservation and enhancement of their own democratic institutions required Indian dispossession and the coercive use of dependent groups, most prominently slaves, in order to ensure that they themselves had access to property." The core foundations of US democracy, and white people's strong belief in its possibilities were, from the beginning, based on the subjugation of Black and Indigenous peoples. Until we as a nation—and white people in particular—come to terms with this, we aren't ever really going to see any real changes.
One thing that helped me appreciate the book more was that shortly after beginning the book, I took a break to watch a video of a discussion/talk by Mays at the Boston Public Library, which gave me further insight into the author's unique perspective and his own voice that I could carry over to my experience of listening to the audiobook (which is narrated by someone else): Kyle T. Mays – An Afro-Indigenous History of the United States⩘ . From the description of that talk:
Kyle T. Mays is an Afro-Indigenous (Saginaw Chippewa) writer and scholar of US history, urban studies, race relations, and contemporary popular culture. He is an Assistant Professor of African American Studies, American Indian Studies, and History at the University of California, Los Angeles.
I don't agree with all the points Mays makes. For example, while I think we urgently need police reform and demilitarization of the police as well as increased investment in alternative methods of taking care of our communities¹, I think the slogan "Defund the police" is shortsighted and unrealistic, especially when it is interpreted literally and to the extreme, as Mays does. That said, in general I appreciate the thoughtfulness and optimism Mays brings to his writing.
Popular culture matters. How we produce it and how we consume it is also important. As we move from cultural appropriation to cultural appreciation to the forms of culture that will emerge in the aftermath of settler colonialism and white supremacy, it is urgent that we learn each other's histories. We must carefully produce popular culture together. Cultural collaboration will be a key part of our evolving society.
 See: Isn't that public safety?⩘ , The city that disbanded its police force⩘ , The Camden Policing Model⩘ , and This town of 170,000 replaced some cops with medics and mental health workers. It's worked for over 30 years⩘ .