Tag Archives: books

Reading Makes You A Better Person

Scientists have finally learned what book lovers have known for some time — reading fiction makes you a better person.

From Readers Digest:

Anyone who reads understands the bittersweet feeling of finishing a good book. It’s as if a beloved friend has suddenly packed her things and parted, the back cover swinging closed like a taxicab door. Farewell, friend. See you on the shelf.

If you’ve ever felt weird for considering fictional characters your friends or fictional places your home, science says you no longer have to. A new body of research is emerging to explain how books have such a powerful emotional pull on us, and the answer du jour is surprising—when we step into a fictional world, we treat the experiences as if they were real. Adding to the endless list of reading benefits is this: Reading fiction literally makes you more empathetic in real life.

Not all fiction is created equal, though—and reading a single chapter of Harry Potter isn’t an instant emotion-enhancer. Here are a few key caveats from the nerdy scientists trying to figure out why reading rules.

Rule #1: The story has to “take you somewhere.”

How many times have you heard someone declare that a good book “transports” you? That immersive power that allows readers to happily inhabit other people, places, and points of view for hours at a time is precisely what a team of researchers in the Netherlands credit for the results of a 2013 study in which students asked to read an Arthur Conan Doyle mystery showed a marked increase in empathy one week later, while students tasked with reading a sampling of news articles showed a decline.

Read the entire article here.

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A Bookstore Opens!

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Much has been said about the demise of reading, literature, books and bookstores. In the US alone between 2000 and 2007 around 1,000 independent bookstores shuttered their doors. The national chain Borders went bankrupt in 2011, closing over 600 locations. Electronic forms of entertainment, e-readers, and Amazon.com have all been highlighted as villains in the destruction of physical print and brick-and-mortar bookstores.

Yet, over the last few years a somewhat surprising trend seems to have emerged. It’s not an exponential curve, such as new members flocking to social media in their gazillions, but it’s encouraging nonetheless. According to the American Booksellers Association, the number of member independent bookstores has increased more than 20 percent during the five year period from 2009 to 2014. And, to add icing to the cake Amazon recently declared open a real, physical bookstore! Yes, you read the last sentence correctly — the bookstore is located in Seattle, and carries around 5,000 titles.

So, what’s going on?

From ars technica:

Literary fans in Seattle will no longer need their MacBooks to procure the latest bestselling book: they just need to stroll down to the local Amazon Books store. Today, the online retailer is opening its flagship physical outlet in Seattle’s University Village. According to a press release, the selection of available titles is based on Amazon.com customer ratings, pre-orders, sales, popularity on Goodreads, and curator assessments. If you need further convincing, Amazon Books is also stocking “review cards” so as to ensure you know exactly what everyone else thought about your potential purchase.

Interestingly, the books will all be displayed “face-out,” meaning that customers will be able to see the covers instead of merely the spine. The reason for this, explains Amazon Books vice president Jennifer Cast, is that the company wants to showcase the authors and their work rather than cramming as many things on a shelf as possible. The first Amazon Books store is fairly large at 5,500 square feet (510 square meters) of retail space and 2,000 square feet (185 square meters) of storage.

Read the entire ars techica article here.

From Slate:

The recent news of the opening of an independent bookstore on Manhattan’s Upper West Side was greeted with surprise and delight, since a neighborhood once flush with such stores had become a retail book desert. The opening coincides with the relocation of the Bank Street Bookstore near Columbia University, leading the New York Times to declare, “Print is not dead yet — at least not on the Upper West Side.”

Two stores don’t constitute a trend, but they do point to a quiet revival of independent bookselling in the United States. They also underscore the shifting sands of physical bookselling, where the biggest losers are not—as was once assumed—the independent booksellers, but rather the large book chains.

Only a few years ago, observers projected that the rise of chain stores and Amazon would lead to the vast shrinkage of independent bookstores. According to the American Booksellers Association, the number of member independent bookstores has increased more than 20 percent since the depths of the recession, from 1,651 in 2009 to 2,094 in 2014. Meanwhile, Borders went bankrupt in 2011, and the fate of Barnes & Noble, which failed to make the Nook into a viable e-reader competitor with Amazon’s Kindle, appears murky. What happened?

The short answer is that by listing their shares as public companies, both Borders and Barnes & Noble were drawn into a negative vortex that destroyed the former and has crippled the latter. Not only did they become public companies, but they positioned themselves as high-growth companies, focused on innovation and disruption. That forced them to compete with the growth company par excellence in their space: Amazon. It also forced them to pursue high sales volume at the expense of inventories. Those strategies, as it turned out, were precisely wrong for the actual business they were in: selling books to a selective audience. Which is precisely what independent bookstores are good at.

Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-A-Million, and even Costco looked to be squeezing the life out of indies in the 1990s and into the aughts. Borders alone went from 21 stores in 1992 to 256 superstores in 1999. Barnes & Noble saw even greater growth. Those stores offered more choices, cafes, magazines, and for a while, music. Many independents, already operating with razor-thin margins, couldn’t compete. Between 2000 and 2007, some 1,000 independent bookstores closed.

But even as they were expanding, the chains were beset by questionable management decisions pressured by the demands of public markets to grow, grow, grow. Facing the need for expensive investment in technology, Borders sold its online distribution to Amazon in 2001 and threw its efforts into more stores and bigger stores, using its share price to finance massive debt. Barnes & Noble opened more superstores as well, but it also decided to challenge Amazon by developing the Nook at a cost of more than $1 billion.

The results were disastrous. Barnes & Noble bled money; it just announced earnings with yet another quarter of losses and declining revenue. Amazon dominated because it could spend far more money on technology than the chains, and because its core competency was in the disruptive technologies of e-readers, distribution, and inventory management. Amazon was never seen primarily as a retailer, and hence it could carry massive inventories that were a drag on its earnings and then spend billions on research and development because investors accepted Amazon’s narrative that it was a disruptive technology company redefining how everything is sold, not just books.

The chains, however, were valued as retailers, which meant that they had to have higher sales, more stores, and lower inventory to justify their stock prices. Because investors viewed the chains as retailers, they had to move product. That is what clothing stores do: Old inventory gets put on sale and then off-loaded to discount stores. Unsold inventory shows up on income statements as a negative against sales. To demonstrate higher profitability, retail stores have an incentive to turn over their inventories quickly.

For clothing and electronics and automobiles, that workflow is in sync with consumer behavior. Consumers want new fashion, the newest flat-screen, the latest model car. Book consumers aren’t the same. Yes, new titles can drive sales, but book buyers also look for forgotten classics and hidden gems. That means poring over shelves, and that requires old inventory. The chains and their management could have tried to set investors’ expectations for higher unsold inventories as a healthy part of the specific business of buying and selling books. But they didn’t. They treated old inventory as a drag rather than an asset and began to trim their shelves of titles. (Alternatively, they could have tried to position themselves as larger, better-stocked versions of the independents, focusing on the particular desires of book customers.)

Independent bookstores never had to answer to the dictates of public markets. Many of their proprietors understood, intuitively and from conversations with customers, that a well-curated selection—an inventory of old and new books—was their primary and maybe only competitive advantage. In the words of Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, “The indie bookselling amalgam of knowledge, innovation, passion, and business sophistication has created a unique shopping experience.”

Read the entire Slate article here.

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The Bibliotherapist

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No, the bibliotherapist is not a character from Jasper Fforde’s literary detective novels. And yes, there is such a profession. So, perhaps if you’re a committed bibliophile this may be the career for you. The catch: well, you need to get along well with people and books. Counts me out.

From the New Yorker:

Several years ago, I was given as a gift a remote session with a bibliotherapist at the London headquarters of the School of Life, which offers innovative courses to help people deal with the daily emotional challenges of existence. I have to admit that at first I didn’t really like the idea of being given a reading “prescription.” I’ve generally preferred to mimic Virginia Woolf’s passionate commitment to serendipity in my personal reading discoveries, delighting not only in the books themselves but in the randomly meaningful nature of how I came upon them (on the bus after a breakup, in a backpackers’ hostel in Damascus, or in the dark library stacks at graduate school, while browsing instead of studying). I’ve long been wary of the peculiar evangelism of certain readers: You must read this, they say, thrusting a book into your hands with a beatific gleam in their eyes, with no allowance for the fact that books mean different things to people—or different things to the same person—at various points in our lives. I loved John Updike’s stories about the Maples in my twenties, for example, and hate them in my thirties, and I’m not even exactly sure why.

But the session was a gift, and I found myself unexpectedly enjoying the initial questionnaire about my reading habits that the bibliotherapist, Ella Berthoud, sent me. Nobody had ever asked me these questions before, even though reading fiction is and always has been essential to my life. I love to gorge on books over long breaks—I’ll pack more books than clothes, I told Berthoud. I confided my dirty little secret, which is that I don’t like buying or owning books, and always prefer to get them from the library (which, as I am a writer, does not bring me very good book-sales karma). In response to the question “What is preoccupying you at the moment?,” I was surprised by what I wanted to confess: I am worried about having no spiritual resources to shore myself up against the inevitable future grief of losing somebody I love, I wrote. I’m not religious, and I don’t particularly want to be, but I’d like to read more about other people’s reflections on coming to some sort of early, weird form of faith in a “higher being” as an emotional survival tactic. Simply answering the questions made me feel better, lighter.

We had some satisfying back-and-forths over e-mail, with Berthoud digging deeper, asking about my family’s history and my fear of grief, and when she sent the final reading prescription it was filled with gems, none of which I’d previously read. Among the recommendations was “The Guide,” by R. K. Narayan. Berthoud wrote that it was “a lovely story about a man who starts his working life as a tourist guide at a train station in Malgudi, India, but then goes through many other occupations before finding his unexpected destiny as a spiritual guide.” She had picked it because she hoped it might leave me feeling “strangely enlightened.” Another was “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ,” by José Saramago: “Saramago doesn’t reveal his own spiritual stance here but portrays a vivid and compelling version of the story we know so well.” “Henderson the Rain King,” by Saul Bellow, and “Siddhartha,” by Hermann Hesse, were among other prescribed works of fiction, and she included some nonfiction, too, such as “The Case for God,” by Karen Armstrong, and “Sum,” by the neuroscientist David Eagleman, a “short and wonderful book about possible afterlives.”

I worked my way through the books on the list over the next couple of years, at my own pace—interspersed with my own “discoveries”—and while I am fortunate enough to have my ability to withstand terrible grief untested, thus far, some of the insights I gleaned from these books helped me through something entirely different, when, over several months, I endured acute physical pain. The insights themselves are still nebulous, as learning gained through reading fiction often is—but therein lies its power. In a secular age, I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks. Reading fiction makes me lose all sense of self, but at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself. As Woolf, the most fervent of readers, wrote, a book “splits us into two parts as we read,” for “the state of reading consists in the complete elimination of the ego,” while promising “perpetual union” with another mind.

Bibliotherapy is a very broad term for the ancient practice of encouraging reading for therapeutic effect. The first use of the term is usually dated to a jaunty 1916 article in The Atlantic Monthly, “A Literary Clinic.” In it, the author describes stumbling upon a “bibliopathic institute” run by an acquaintance, Bagster, in the basement of his church, from where he dispenses reading recommendations with healing value. “Bibliotherapy is…a new science,” Bagster explains. “A book may be a stimulant or a sedative or an irritant or a soporific. The point is that it must do something to you, and you ought to know what it is. A book may be of the nature of a soothing syrup or it may be of the nature of a mustard plaster.” To a middle-aged client with “opinions partially ossified,” Bagster gives the following prescription: “You must read more novels. Not pleasant stories that make you forget yourself. They must be searching, drastic, stinging, relentless novels.” (George Bernard Shaw is at the top of the list.) Bagster is finally called away to deal with a patient who has “taken an overdose of war literature,” leaving the author to think about the books that “put new life into us and then set the life pulse strong but slow.”

Read the entire story here.

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Paper is the Next Big Thing

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Luddites and technophobes rejoice, paper-bound books may be with us for quite some time. And, there may be some genuinely scientific reasons why physical books will remain. Recent research shows that people learn more effectively when reading from paper versus its digital offspring.

From Wired:

Paper books were supposed to be dead by now. For years, information theorists, marketers, and early adopters have told us their demise was imminent. Ikea even redesigned a bookshelf to hold something other than books. Yet in a world of screen ubiquity, many people still prefer to do their serious reading on paper.

Count me among them. When I need to read deeply—when I want to lose myself in a story or an intellectual journey, when focus and comprehension are paramount—I still turn to paper. Something just feels fundamentally richer about reading on it. And researchers are starting to think there’s something to this feeling.

To those who see dead tree editions as successors to scrolls and clay tablets in history’s remainder bin, this might seem like literary Luddism. But I e-read often: when I need to copy text for research or don’t want to carry a small library with me. There’s something especially delicious about late-night sci-fi by the light of a Kindle Paperwhite.

What I’ve read on screen seems slippery, though. When I later recall it, the text is slightly translucent in my mind’s eye. It’s as if my brain better absorbs what’s presented on paper. Pixels just don’t seem to stick. And often I’ve found myself wondering, why might that be?

The usual explanation is that internet devices foster distraction, or that my late-thirty-something brain isn’t that of a true digital native, accustomed to screens since infancy. But I have the same feeling when I am reading a screen that’s not connected to the internet and Twitter or online Boggle can’t get in the way. And research finds that kids these days consistently prefer their textbooks in print rather than pixels. Whatever the answer, it’s not just about habit.

Another explanation, expressed in a recent Washington Post article on the decline of deep reading, blames a sweeping change in our lifestyles: We’re all so multitasked and attention-fragmented that our brains are losing the ability to focus on long, linear texts. I certainly feel this way, but if I don’t read deeply as often or easily as I used to, it does still happen. It just doesn’t happen on screen, and not even on devices designed specifically for that experience.

Maybe it’s time to start thinking of paper and screens another way: not as an old technology and its inevitable replacement, but as different and complementary interfaces, each stimulating particular modes of thinking. Maybe paper is a technology uniquely suited for imbibing novels and essays and complex narratives, just as screens are for browsing and scanning.

“Reading is human-technology interaction,” says literacy professor Anne Mangen of Norway’s University of Stavenger. “Perhaps the tactility and physical permanence of paper yields a different cognitive and emotional experience.” This is especially true, she says, for “reading that can’t be done in snippets, scanning here and there, but requires sustained attention.”

Mangen is among a small group of researchers who study how people read on different media. It’s a field that goes back several decades, but yields no easy conclusions. People tended to read slowly and somewhat inaccurately on early screens. The technology, particularly e-paper, has improved dramatically, to the point where speed and accuracy aren’t now problems, but deeper issues of memory and comprehension are not yet well-characterized.

Complicating the scientific story further, there are many types of reading. Most experiments involve short passages read by students in an academic setting, and for this sort of reading, some studies have found no obvious differences between screens and paper. Those don’t necessarily capture the dynamics of deep reading, though, and nobody’s yet run the sort of experiment, involving thousands of readers in real-world conditions who are tracked for years on a battery of cognitive and psychological measures, that might fully illuminate the matter.

In the meantime, other research does suggest possible differences. A 2004 study found that students more fully remembered what they’d read on paper. Those results were echoed by an experiment that looked specifically at e-books, and another by psychologist Erik Wästlund at Sweden’s Karlstad University, who found that students learned better when reading from paper.

Wästlund followed up that study with one designed to investigate screen reading dynamics in more detail. He presented students with a variety of on-screen document formats. The most influential factor, he found, was whether they could see pages in their entirety. When they had to scroll, their performance suffered.

According to Wästlund, scrolling had two impacts, the most basic being distraction. Even the slight effort required to drag a mouse or swipe a finger requires a small but significant investment of attention, one that’s higher than flipping a page. Text flowing up and down a page also disrupts a reader’s visual attention, forcing eyes to search for a new starting point and re-focus.

Mangen is among a small group of researchers who study how people read on different media. It’s a field that goes back several decades, but yields no easy conclusions. People tended to read slowly and somewhat inaccurately on early screens. The technology, particularly e-paper, has improved dramatically, to the point where speed and accuracy aren’t now problems, but deeper issues of memory and comprehension are not yet well-characterized.

Complicating the scientific story further, there are many types of reading. Most experiments involve short passages read by students in an academic setting, and for this sort of reading, some studies have found no obvious differences between screens and paper. Those don’t necessarily capture the dynamics of deep reading, though, and nobody’s yet run the sort of experiment, involving thousands of readers in real-world conditions who are tracked for years on a battery of cognitive and psychological measures, that might fully illuminate the matter.

In the meantime, other research does suggest possible differences. A 2004 study found that students more fully remembered what they’d read on paper. Those results were echoed by an experiment that looked specifically at e-books, and another by psychologist Erik Wästlund at Sweden’s Karlstad University, who found that students learned better when reading from paper.

Wästlund followed up that study with one designed to investigate screen reading dynamics in more detail. He presented students with a variety of on-screen document formats. The most influential factor, he found, was whether they could see pages in their entirety. When they had to scroll, their performance suffered.

According to Wästlund, scrolling had two impacts, the most basic being distraction. Even the slight effort required to drag a mouse or swipe a finger requires a small but significant investment of attention, one that’s higher than flipping a page. Text flowing up and down a page also disrupts a reader’s visual attention, forcing eyes to search for a new starting point and re-focus.

Read the entire electronic article here.

Image: Leicester or Hammer Codex, by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). Courtesy of Wikipedia / Public domain.

 

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Regrets of the Dying

Bronnie Ware, a palliative care nurse chronicled her discussions with those close to death in a thoughtful blog called Inspiration and Chai. Her observations are now an even more thoughtful book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. The regrets are simple and yet profound; no mention of wanting to “skydive naked” or “appear on a reality TV show”.

From the Guardian:

Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. She recorded their dying epiphanies in a blog called Inspiration and Chai, which gathered so much attention that she put her observations into a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.

Ware writes of the phenomenal clarity of vision that people gain at the end of their lives, and how we might learn from their wisdom. “When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently,” she says, “common themes surfaced again and again.”

Here are the top five regrets of the dying, as witnessed by Ware:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

“This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.”

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

“This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

“Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

“Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

“This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”

Read the entire article here.

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Are You An H-less Socialist?

If you’re British and you drop your Hs while speaking then your likely to be considered of inferior breeding stock by the snootier classes. Or as the Times newspaper put it at the onset of the 20th century, you would be considered  an “h-less socialist”. Of course, a mere fifty years earlier it was generally acceptable to drop aitches, so you would have been correct in pronouncing “hotel” as “otel” or “horse” as “orse”. And, farther back still, in Ancient Rome adding Hs would have earned the scorn of the ruling classes for appearing too Greek. So, who’s right?

If you’re wondering how this all came about and who if anybody is right, check out the new book Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells A Story by Michael Rosen.

From the Guardian:

The alphabet is something not to be argued with: there are 26 letters in as fixed a sequence as the numbers 1-26; once learned in order and for the “sounds they make”, you have the key to reading and the key to the way the world is classified. Or perhaps not.

Actually, in the course of writing my book about the history of the letters we use, Alphabetical, I discovered that the alphabet is far from neutral. Debates about power and class surround every letter, and H is the most contentious of all. No other letter has had such power to divide people into opposing camps.

In Britain, H owes its name to the Normans, who brought their letter “hache” with them in 1066. Hache is the source of our word “hatchet”: probably because a lower-case H looks a lot like an axe. It has certainly caused a lot of trouble over the years. A century ago people dropping their h’s were described in the Times as “h-less socialists.” In ancient Rome, they were snooty not about people who dropped their Hs but about those who picked up extra ones. Catullus wrote a nasty little poem about Arrius (H’arrius he called him), who littered his sentences with Hs because he wanted to sound more Greek. Almost two thousand years later we are still split, and pronouncing H two ways: “aitch”, which is posh and “right”; and “haitch”, which is not posh and thus “wrong”. The two variants used to mark the religious divide in Northern Ireland – aitch was Protestant, haitch was Catholic, and getting it wrong could be a dangerous business.

Perhaps the letter H was doomed from the start: given that the sound we associate with H is so slight (a little outbreath), there has been debate since at least AD 500 whether it was a true letter or not. In England, the most up-to-date research suggests that some 13th-century dialects were h-dropping, but by the time elocution experts came along in the 18th century, they were pointing out what a crime it is. And then received wisdom shifted, again: by 1858, if I wanted to speak correctly, I should have said “erb”, “ospital” and “umble”.

The world is full of people laying down the law about the “correct” choice: is it “a hotel” or “an otel”; is it “a historian” or “an historian”? But there is no single correct version. You choose. We have no academy to rule on these matters and, even if we did, it would have only marginal effect. When people object to the way others speak, it rarely has any linguistic logic. It is nearly always because of the way that a particular linguistic feature is seen as belonging to a cluster of disliked social features. Writing this book has been a fascinating journey: the story of our alphabet turns out to be a complex tug of war between the people who want to own our language and the people who use it. I know which side I’m on.

Read the (h)entire (h)article ‘ere.

Image: Alphabetical book cover. Courtesy of Michael Rosen.

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The Myth of Martyrdom

Unfortunately our world is still populated by a few people who will willingly shed the blood of others while destroying themselves. Understanding the personalities and motivations of these people may one day help eliminate this scourge. In the meantime, psychologists ponder whether they are psychologically normal, but politically crazed fanatics or deeply troubled?

Adam Lankford, a criminal justice professor, asserts that suicide terrorists are merely unhappy, damaged individuals who want to die. In his book, The Myth of Martyrdom, Lankford rejects the popular view of suicide terrorists as calculating, radicalized individuals who will do anything for a cause.

From the New Scientist:

In the aftermath of 9/11, terrorism experts in the US made a bold and counter-intuitive claim: the suicide terrorists were psychologically normal. When it came to their state of mind, they were not so different from US Special Forces agents. Just because they deliberately crashed planes into buildings, that didn’t make them suicidal – it simply meant they were willing to die for a cause they believed in.

This argument was stated over and over and became the orthodoxy. “We’d like to believe these are crazed fanatics,” said CIA terror expert Jerrold Post in 2006. “Not true… as individuals, this is normal behaviour.”

I disagree. Far from being psychologically normal, suicide terrorists are suicidal. They kill themselves to escape crises or unbearable pain. Until we recognise this, attempts to stop the attacks are doomed to fail.

When I began studying suicide terrorists, I had no agenda, just curiosity. My hunch was that the official version was true, but I kept an open mind.

Then I began watching martyrdom videos and reading case studies, letters and diary entries. What I discovered was a litany of fear, failure, guilt, shame and rage. In my book The Myth of Martyrdom, I present evidence that far from being normal, these self-destructive killers have often suffered from serious mental trauma and always demonstrate at least a few behaviours on the continuum of suicidality, such as suicide ideation, a suicide plan or previous suicide attempts.

Why did so many scholars come to the wrong conclusions? One key reason is that they believe what the bombers, their relatives and friends, and their terrorist recruiters say, especially when their accounts are consistent.

In 2007, for example, Ellen Townsend of the University of Nottingham, UK, published an influential article called Suicide Terrorists: Are they suicidal? Her answer was a resounding no (Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, vol 37, p 35).

How did she come to this conclusion? By reviewing five empirical reports: three that depended largely upon interviews with deceased suicide terrorists’ friends and family, and two based on interviews of non-suicide terrorists. She took what they said at face value.

I think this was a serious mistake. All of these people have strong incentives to lie.

Take the failed Palestinian suicide bomber Wafa al-Biss, who attempted to blow herself up at an Israeli checkpoint in 2005. Her own account and those of her parents and recruiters tell the same story: that she acted for political and religious reasons.

These accounts are highly suspect. Terrorist leaders have strategic reasons for insisting that attackers are not suicidal, but instead are carrying out glorious martyrdom operations. Traumatised parents want to believe that their children were motivated by heroic impulses. And suicidal people commonly deny that they are suicidal and are often able to hide their true feelings from the world.

This is especially true of fundamentalist Muslims. Suicide is explicitly condemned in Islam and guarantees an eternity in hell. Martyrs, on the other hand, can go to heaven.

Most telling of all, it later emerged that al-Biss had suffered from mental health problems most of her life and had made two previous suicide attempts.

Her case is far from unique. Consider Qari Sami, who blew himself up in a café in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2005. He walked in – and kept on walking, past crowded tables and into the bathroom at the back where he closed the door and detonated his belt. He killed himself and two others, but could easily have killed more. It later emerged that he was on antidepressants.

Read the entire article here.

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The Filter Bubble Eats the Book World

Last week Amazon purchased Goodreads the online book review site. Since 2007 Goodreads has grown to become home to over 16 million members who share a passion for discovering and sharing great literature. Now, with Amazon’s acquisition many are concerned that this represents another step towards a monolithic and monopolistic enterprise that controls vast swathes of the market. While Amazon’s innovation has upended the bricks-and-mortar worlds of publishing and retailing, its increasingly dominant market power raises serious concerns over access, distribution and choice. This is another worrying example of the so-called filter bubble — where increasingly edited selections and personalized recommendations act to limit and dumb-down content.

From the Guardian:

“Truly devastating” for some authors but “like finding out my mom is marrying that cool dude next door that I’ve been palling around with” for another, Amazon’s announcement late last week that it was buying the hugely popular reader review site Goodreads has sent shockwaves through the book industry.

The acquisition, terms of which Amazon.com did not reveal, will close in the second quarter of this year. Goodreads, founded in 2007, has more than 16m members, who have added more than four books per second to their “want to read” shelves over the past 90 days, according to Amazon. The internet retailer’s vice president of Kindle content, Russ Grandinetti, said the two sites “share a passion for reinventing reading”.

“Goodreads has helped change how we discover and discuss books and, with Kindle, Amazon has helped expand reading around the world. In addition, both Amazon and Goodreads have helped thousands of authors reach a wider audience and make a better living at their craft. Together we intend to build many new ways to delight readers and authors alike,” said Grandinetti, announcing the buy. Goodreads co-founder Otis Chandler said the deal with Amazon meant “we’re now going to be able to move faster in bringing the Goodreads experience to millions of readers around the world”, adding on his blog that “we have no plans to change the Goodreads experience and Goodreads will continue to be the wonderful community we all cherish”.

But despite Chandler’s reassurances, many readers and authors reacted negatively to the news. American writers’ organisation the Authors’ Guild called the acquisition a “truly devastating act of vertical integration” which meant that “Amazon’s control of online bookselling approaches the insurmountable”. Bestselling legal thriller author Scott Turow, president of the Guild, said it was “a textbook example of how modern internet monopolies can be built”.

“The key is to eliminate or absorb competitors before they pose a serious threat,” said Turow. “With its 16 million subscribers, Goodreads could easily have become a competing online bookseller, or played a role in directing buyers to a site other than Amazon. Instead, Amazon has scuttled that potential and also squelched what was fast becoming the go-to venue for online reviews, attracting far more attention than Amazon for those seeking independent assessment and discussion of books. As those in advertising have long known, the key to driving sales is controlling information.”

Turow was joined in his concerns by members of Goodreads, many of whom expressed their fears about what the deal would mean on Chandler’s blog. “I have to admit I’m not entirely thrilled by this development,” wrote one of the more level-headed commenters. “As a general rule I like Amazon, but unless they take an entirely 100% hands-off attitude toward Goodreads I find it hard to believe this will be in the best interest for the readers. There are simply too many ways they can interfere with the neutral Goodreads experience and/or try to profit from the strictly volunteer efforts of Goodreads users.”

But not all authors were against the move. Hugh Howey, author of the smash hit dystopian thriller Wool – which took off after he self-published it via Amazon – said it was “like finding out my mom is marrying that cool dude next door that I’ve been palling around with”. While Howey predicted “a lot of hand-wringing over the acquisition”, he said there were “so many ways this can be good for all involved. I’m still trying to think of a way it could suck.”

Read the entire article following the jump.

Image: Amazon.com screen. Courtesy of New York Times.

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Two Nations Divided by Book Covers

“England and America are two countries separated by the same language”. This oft used quote is usually attributed to Oscar Wilde or GBS (George Bernard Shaw). Regardless of who originated the phrase both authors would not be surprised to see that book covers are divided by the Atlantic Ocean as well. The Millions continues its fascinating annual comparative analysis.

American book covers on the left, British book covers on the right.

From The Millions:

As we’ve done for several years now, we thought it might be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books contenders. Book cover art is an interesting element of the literary world — sometimes fixated upon, sometimes ignored — but, as readers, we are undoubtedly swayed by the little billboard that is the cover of every book we read. And, while many of us no longer do most of our reading on physical books with physical covers, those same cover images now beckon us from their grids in the various online bookstores. From my days as a bookseller, when import titles would sometimes find their way into our store, I’ve always found it especially interesting that the U.K. and U.S. covers often differ from one another. This would seem to suggest that certain layouts and imagery will better appeal to readers on one side of the Atlantic rather than the other. These differences are especially striking when we look at the covers side by side. The American covers are on the left, and the UK are on the right. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.

Read the entire article and see more book covers after the jump.

Book cover images courtesy of The Millions and their respective authors and publishers.

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LBPD – Love of Books Personality Disorder

Author Joe Queenan explains why reading over 6,000 books may be because, as he puts it, he “find[s] ‘reality’ a bit of a disappointment”.

From the Wall Street Journal:

I started borrowing books from a roving Quaker City bookmobile when I was 7 years old. Things quickly got out of hand. Before I knew it I was borrowing every book about the Romans, every book about the Apaches, every book about the spindly third-string quarterback who comes off the bench in the fourth quarter to bail out his team. I had no way of knowing it at the time, but what started out as a harmless juvenile pastime soon turned into a lifelong personality disorder.

Fifty-five years later, with at least 6,128 books under my belt, I still organize my daily life—such as it is—around reading. As a result, decades go by without my windows getting washed.

My reading habits sometimes get a bit loopy. I often read dozens of books simultaneously. I start a book in 1978 and finish it 34 years later, without enjoying a single minute of the enterprise. I absolutely refuse to read books that critics describe as “luminous” or “incandescent.” I never read books in which the hero went to private school or roots for the New York Yankees. I once spent a year reading nothing but short books. I spent another year vowing to read nothing but books I picked off the library shelves with my eyes closed. The results were not pretty.

I even tried to spend an entire year reading books I had always suspected I would hate: “Middlemarch,” “Look Homeward, Angel,” “Babbitt.” Luckily, that project ran out of gas quickly, if only because I already had a 14-year-old daughter when I took a crack at “Lolita.”

Six thousand books is a lot of reading, true, but the trash like “Hell’s Belles” and “Kid Colt and the Legend of the Lost Arroyo” and even “Part-Time Harlot, Full-Time Tramp” that I devoured during my misspent teens really puff up the numbers. And in any case, it is nowhere near a record. Winston Churchill supposedly read a book every day of his life, even while he was saving Western Civilization from the Nazis. This is quite an accomplishment, because by some accounts Winston Churchill spent all of World War II completely hammered.

A case can be made that people who read a preposterous number of books are not playing with a full deck. I prefer to think of us as dissatisfied customers. If you have read 6,000 books in your lifetime, or even 600, it’s probably because at some level you find “reality” a bit of a disappointment. People in the 19th century fell in love with “Ivanhoe” and “The Count of Monte Cristo” because they loathed the age they were living through. Women in our own era read “Pride and Prejudice” and “Jane Eyre” and even “The Bridges of Madison County”—a dimwit, hayseed reworking of “Madame Bovary”—because they imagine how much happier they would be if their husbands did not spend quite so much time with their drunken, illiterate golf buddies down at Myrtle Beach. A blind bigamist nobleman with a ruined castle and an insane, incinerated first wife beats those losers any day of the week. Blind, two-timing noblemen never wear belted shorts.

Similarly, finding oneself at the epicenter of a vast, global conspiracy involving both the Knights Templar and the Vatican would be a huge improvement over slaving away at the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the rest of your life or being married to someone who is drowning in dunning notices from Williams-Sonoma. No matter what they may tell themselves, book lovers do not read primarily to obtain information or to while away the time. They read to escape to a more exciting, more rewarding world. A world where they do not hate their jobs, their spouses, their governments, their lives. A world where women do not constantly say things like “Have a good one!” and “Sounds like a plan!” A world where men do not wear belted shorts. Certainly not the Knights Templar.

I read books—mostly fiction—for at least two hours a day, but I also spend two hours a day reading newspapers and magazines, gathering material for my work, which consists of ridiculing idiots or, when they are not available, morons. I read books in all the obvious places—in my house and office, on trains and buses and planes—but I’ve also read them at plays and concerts and prizefights, and not just during the intermissions. I’ve read books while waiting for friends to get sprung from the drunk tank, while waiting for people to emerge from comas, while waiting for the Iceman to cometh.

Read the entire article following the jump.

Image courtesy of Southern Illinois University.

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Thirty Books for the Under 30

The official start of summer in the northern hemisphere is just over a week away. So, it’s time to gather together some juicy reads for lazy days by the beach or under a sturdy shade tree. Flavorwire offers a classic list of 30 reads with a couple of surprises thrown in. And, we’ll qualify Flavorwire’s selection by adding that anyone over 30 should read these works as well.

From Flavorwire:

Earlier this week, we stumbled across a list over at Divine Caroline of thirty books everyone should read before they’re thirty. While we totally agreed with some of the picks, we thought there were some essential reads missing, so we decided to put together a list of our own. We stuck to fiction for simplicity’s sake, and chose the books below on a variety of criteria, selecting enduring classics that have been informing new literature since their first printing, stories that speak specifically or most powerfully to younger readers, and books we simply couldn’t imagine reaching thirty without having read. Of course, we hope that you read more than thirty books by the time you hit your fourth decade, so this list is incomplete — but we had to stop somewhere. Click through to read the books we think everyone should read before their thirtieth birthday, and let us know which ones you would add in the comments.

Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides

Eugenides’s family epic of love, belonging and otherness is a must read for anyone who has ever had a family or felt like an outcast. So that’s pretty much everyone, we’d wager.

Ghost World, Daniel Clowes

Clowes writes some of the most essentially realistic teenagers we’ve ever come across, which is important when you are (or have ever been) a realistic teenager yourself.

On the Road, Jack Kerouac

Kerouac’s famous scroll must be read when it’s still likely to inspire exploration. Plus, then you’ll have ample time to develop your scorn towards it.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

A seminal work in both African American and women’s literature — not to mention a riveting, electrifying and deeply moving read.

Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut’s hilarious, satirical fourth novel that earned him a Master’s in anthropology from the University of Chicago.

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

Think of him what you will, but everyone should read at least one Hemingway novel. In our experience, this one gets better the more you think about it, so we recommend reading it as early as possible.

The Road, Cormac McCarthy

The modern classic of post-apocalyptic novels, it’s also one of the best in a genre that’s only going to keep on exploding.

Maus, Art Spiegelman

A more perfect and affecting Holocaust book has never been written. And this one has pictures.

Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card

One of the best science fiction novels of all time, recommended even for staunch realists. Serious, complicated and impossible to put down. Plus, Card’s masterpiece trusts in the power of children, something we all need to be reminded of once in a while.

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

Yes, even for guys.

Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides

Eugenides’s family epic of love, belonging and otherness is a must read for anyone who has ever had a family or felt like an outcast. So that’s pretty much everyone, we’d wager.

Ghost World, Daniel Clowes

Clowes writes some of the most essentially realistic teenagers we’ve ever come across, which is important when you are (or have ever been) a realistic teenager yourself.

On the Road, Jack Kerouac

Kerouac’s famous scroll must be read when it’s still likely to inspire exploration. Plus, then you’ll have ample time to develop your scorn towards it.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

A seminal work in both African American and women’s literature — not to mention a riveting, electrifying and deeply moving read.

Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut’s hilarious, satirical fourth novel that earned him a Master’s in anthropology from the University of Chicago.

Check out the entire list after the jump.

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Most Expensive Books

OK, it’s World Book Day today, March 1. Regardless whether or not this day was contrived by Hallmark (or more likely, Barnes and Noble or Amazon), it’s fascinating to look at some beautiful record holders.

From the Daily Telegraph:

To mark World Book Day on March 1, we look at some of the world’s most valuable titles. In a list of the most expensive books sold at auction, The Economist put John James Audubon’s The Birds of America (1827-1838) at number one. It sold for $10.3m in 2010.

See the Top 10 most expensive books here.

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Book Review: Thinking, Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman brings together for the first time his decades of groundbreaking research and profound thinking in social psychology and cognitive science in his new book, Thinking Fast and Slow. He presents his current understanding of judgment and decision making and offers insight into how we make choices in our daily lives. Importantly, Kahneman describes how we can identify and overcome the cognitive biases that frequently lead us astray. This is an important work by one of our leading thinkers.

From Skeptic:

The ideas of the Princeton University Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his seminal work that challenged the rational model of judgment and decision making, have had a profound and widely regarded impact on psychology, economics, business, law and philosophy. Until now, however, he has never brought together his many years of research and thinking in one book. In the highly anticipated Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman introduces the “machinery of the mind.” Two systems drive the way we think and make choices: System One is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System Two is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. Examining how both systems function within the mind, Kahneman exposes the extraordinary capabilities and also the faults and biases of fast thinking, and the pervasive influence of intuitive impressions on our thoughts and our choices. Kahneman shows where we can trust our intuitions and how we can tap into the benefits of slow thinking. He offers practical and enlightening insights into how choices are made in both our business and personal lives, and how we can guard against the mental glitches that often get us into trouble. Kahneman will change the way you think about thinking.

Image: Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman. Courtesy of Publishers Weekly.

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The Middleman is Dead; Long Live the Middleman

In another sign of Amazon’s unquenchable thirst for all things commerce, the company is now moving more aggressively into publishing.

From the New York Times:

Amazon.com has taught readers that they do not need bookstores. Now it is encouraging writers to cast aside their publishers.

Amazon will publish 122 books this fall in an array of genres, in both physical and e-book form. It is a striking acceleration of the retailer’s fledging publishing program that will place Amazon squarely in competition with the New York houses that are also its most prominent suppliers.

It has set up a flagship line run by a publishing veteran, Laurence Kirshbaum, to bring out brand-name fiction and nonfiction. It signed its first deal with the self-help author Tim Ferriss. Last week it announced a memoir by the actress and director Penny Marshall, for which it paid $800,000, a person with direct knowledge of the deal said.

Publishers say Amazon is aggressively wooing some of their top authors. And the company is gnawing away at the services that publishers, critics and agents used to provide.

Several large publishers declined to speak on the record about Amazon’s efforts. “Publishers are terrified and don’t know what to do,” said Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House, who is known for speaking his mind.

“Everyone’s afraid of Amazon,” said Richard Curtis, a longtime agent who is also an e-book publisher. “If you’re a bookstore, Amazon has been in competition with you for some time. If you’re a publisher, one day you wake up and Amazon is competing with you too. And if you’re an agent, Amazon may be stealing your lunch because it is offering authors the opportunity to publish directly and cut you out.

Read more here.

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In Praise of the Bad Bookstore

Tens of thousands of independent bookstores have disappeared from the United States and Europe over the last decade. Even mega-chains like Borders have fallen prey to monumental shifts in the distribution of ideas and content. The very notion of the physical book is under increasing threat from the accelerating momentum of digitalization.

For bibliophiles, particularly those who crave the feel of physical paper, there is a peculiar attractiveness even to the “bad” bookstore or bookshop (in the UK): the airport bookshop of last resort, the pulp fiction bookstore in a suburban mall. Mark O’Connell over at The Millions tells us there is no such thing as a bad bookstore.

From The Millions:

Cultural anxieties are currently running high about the future of the book as a physical object, and about the immediate prospects for survival of actual brick and mortar booksellers. When most people think about the (by now very real) possibility of the retail side of the book business disappearing entirely into the online ether, they mostly tend to focus on the idea of their favorite bookshops shutting their doors for the last time. Sub-Borgesian bibliomaniac that I am (or, if you prefer, pathetic nerd), I have a mental image of the perfect bookshop that I hold in my mind. It’s a sort of Platonic ideal of the retail environment, a perfect confluence of impeccable curation and expansive selection, artfully cluttered and with the kind of quietly hospitable ambiance that makes the passage of time seem irrelevant once you start in on browsing the shelves. For me, the actual place that comes closest to embodying this ideal is the London Review Bookshop in Bloomsbury, run by the people behind the London Review of Books. It’s a beautifully laid-out space in a beautiful building, and its selection of books makes it feel less like an actual shop than the personal library of some extremely wealthy and exceptionally well-read individual. It’s the kind of place, in other words, where you don’t so much want to buy half the books in the shop as buy the shop itself, move in straight away and start living in it. The notion that places like this might no longer exist in a decade or so is depressing beyond measure.

But I don’t live in Bloomsbury, or anywhere near it. I live in a suburb of Dublin where the only bookshop within any kind of plausible walking distance is a small and frankly feeble set-up on the second floor of a grim 1970s-era shopping center, above a large supermarket. It’s flanked by two equally moribund concerns, a small record store and a travel agent, thereby forming the centerpiece of a sad triptych of retail obsolescence. It’s one of those places that makes you wonder how it manages to survive at all.

But I have an odd fondness for it anyway, and I’ll occasionally just wander up there in order to get out of the apartment, or to see whether, through some fluke convergence of whim and circumstance, they have something I might actually want to buy. I’ve often bought books there that I would never have thought to pick up in a better bookshop, gravitating toward them purely by virtue of the fact that there’s nothing else remotely interesting to be had.

And this brings me to the point I want to make about bad bookshops, which is that they’re rarely actually as bad as they seem. In a narrow and counterintuitive sense, they’re sometimes better than good bookshops. The way I see it, there are three basic categories of retail bookseller. There’s the vast warehouse that has absolutely everything you could possibly think of (Strand Bookstore in New York’s East Village, for instance, is a fairly extreme representative of this group, or at least it was the last time I was there ten years ago). Then there’s the “boutique” bookshop, where you get a sense of a strong curatorial presence behind the scenes, and which seems to cater for some aspirational ideal of your better intellectual self. The London Review Bookshop is, for me at least, the ultimate instance of this. And then there’s the third — and by far the largest — category, which is the rubbish bookshop. There are lots of subgenii to this grouping. The suburban shopping center fiasco, as discussed above. The chain outlet crammed with celebrity biographies and supernatural teen romances. The opportunistic fly-by-night operation that takes advantage of some short-term lease opening to sell off a random selection of remaindered titles at low prices before shutting down and moving elsewhere. And, of course, the airport bookshop of last resort.

Catch more of this essay here.

Image courtesy of The Millions.

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Book Review: The Big Thirst. Charles Fishman

Charles Fishman has a fascinating new book entitled The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water. In it Fishman examines the origins of water on our planet and postulates an all to probable future where water becomes an increasingly limited and precious resource.

A brief excerpt from a recent interview, courtesy of NPR:

For most of us, even the most basic questions about water turn out to be stumpers.

Where did the water on Earth come from?

Is water still being created or added somehow?

How old is the water coming out of the kitchen faucet?

For that matter, how did the water get to the kitchen faucet?

And when we flush, where does the water in the toilet actually go?

The things we think we know about water — things we might have learned in school — often turn out to be myths.

We think of Earth as a watery planet, indeed, we call it the Blue Planet; but for all of water’s power in shaping our world, Earth turns out to be surprisingly dry. A little water goes a long way.

We think of space as not just cold and dark and empty, but as barren of water. In fact, space is pretty wet. Cosmic water is quite common.

At the most personal level, there is a bit of bad news. Not only don’t you need to drink eight glasses of water every day, you cannot in any way make your complexion more youthful by drinking water. Your body’s water-balance mechanisms are tuned with the precision of a digital chemistry lab, and you cannot possibly “hydrate” your skin from the inside by drinking an extra bottle or two of Perrier. You just end up with pee sourced in France.

In short, we know nothing of the life of water — nothing of the life of the water inside us, around us, or beyond us. But it’s a great story — captivating and urgent, surprising and funny and haunting. And if we’re going to master our relationship to water in the next few decades — really, if we’re going to remaster our relationship to water — we need to understand the life of water itself.

Read more of this article and Charles Fishman’s interview with NPR here.

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Book Review: Are You Serious? Lee Siegel

“You cannot be serious”, goes the oft quoted opening to a John McEnroe javelin thrown at an unsuspecting tennis umpire. This leads us to an earnest review of what is means to be serious from Lee Siegel’s new book, “Are You Serious?” As Michael Agger points out for Slate:

We don’t know what to take seriously anymore. Is Brian Williams a serious news anchor or is he playing at being serious? How about Jon Stewart? The New York Times exudes seriousness, but the satire of The Onion can also be very serious.

Do we indeed need a how-to manual on how to exude required seriousness in the correct circumstances? Do we need a 3rd party narrator to tell us when to expect seriousness or irony or serious irony? Perhaps Lee Siegel’s book can shed some light.

More from Slate’s review of Siegel’s book:

Siegel’s business-casual jaunt through seriosity begins with the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold, who saw the decline of religious spirit and proposed the “high seriousness” of poetry and literature in its place. “Seriousness implied a trustworthy personality,” Siegel writes, “just as faith in God once implied a trustworthy soul.” The way in which Arnold connected morality to cultural refinement soothed the intellectual insecurity of Americans vis-à-vis Europe and appealed to our ethos of self-improvement. The contemporary disciples of Arnold are those friends of yours who read Ulysses along with Ulysses Annotated, actually go to art galleries, and know their way around a Ring cycle. The way they enjoy culture expresses their seriousness of purpose.

I’ve only pulled at a few of the provocative strings in Siegel’s book. His argument that Sarah Palin is someone who has signaled seriousness by being willing to humiliate herself on reality TV makes a wild sort of sense. At other times, Siegel floats some nonsense that he knows to be silly.

But I don’t want to leave you hanging without providing Siegel’s answer to the question of finding seriousness in life. He gives us his “three pillars”: attention, purpose, continuity. That could mean being a really competent lawyer. Or being so skilled at being a pilot that you land a plane on the Hudson and save everyone onboard. Or being like Socrates and drinking the hemlock to prove that you believed in your ideas. Just find the thing that makes you “fully alive” and then you’re set. Which is to say that although the cultural and political figures we should take seriously change, the prospect of becoming a serious person remains dauntingly unchanged.

More from theSource here.

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Book Review: The Believing Brain. Michael Shermer

Skeptic in-chief, Michael Shermer has an important and fascinating new book. The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths – describes how our beliefs arise from patterns and that these beliefs come first, and explanations for those beliefs comes second.

Shermer reviews 30 years of leading research in cognitive science, neurobiology, evolutionary psychology and anthropology and numerous real-world examples to show how the belief mechanism works. This holds for our beliefs in all manner of important spheres: religion, politics, economics, superstition and the supernatural.

Shermer proposes that our brains are “belief engines” that “look for and find patterns” quite naturally, and it is only following this that our brains assign these patterns with meaning. It is these meaningful patterns that form what Shermer terms “belief-dependent reality.” Additionally, our brains tend to gravitate towards information that further reinforces our beliefs, and ignore data that contradicts these beliefs. This becomes a self-reinforcing loop where beliefs drive explanation seeking behaviors to confirm those beliefs which are further reinforced, and drive further confirmation seeking behavior.

In fact, the human brain is so adept at looking for patterns it “sees” them in places where none exist. Shermer calls this “illusory correlation”. Birds do it, rats to it; humans are masters at it. B.F. Skinner’s groundbreaking experiments on partial reinforcement in animals shows this “patternicity” exquisitely. As Shermer describes:

Skinner discovered that if he randomly delivered the food reinforcement, whatever the pigeon happened to be doing jiust before the delivery of the food would be repeated the next time, such as spinning around once to the left before pecking at the key. This is pigeon patternicity or the learning of a superstition.

. . . If you doubt its potency as a force in  human behavior, just visit a Las Vegas casino and observe people playing the slots with their varied attempts to find a pattern between (A) pulling the slot machine handle and (B) the payoff.

This goes a long way to describing all manner of superstitious behaviors in humans. But Shermer doesn’t stop there. He also describes how and why we look for patterns in the behaviors of others and assign meaning to these as well. Shermer call this “agenticity”. This is “the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention and agency”. As he goes on to describe:

… we often impart the patterns we find with agency and intention, and believe that these intentional agents control the world, sometimes invisibly from the top down, instead of bottom-up causal laws and randomness that makes up much of our world. Souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers, government conspiracists, and all manner of invisible agents with power and intention are believed to haunt our world and control our lives. Combined with our propensity to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise, patternicity and agenticity form the cognitive basis of shamanism, paganism, animism, polytheism, monotheism, and all modes of Old and New Age spiritualisms.

Backed with the results of numerous cross-disciplinary scientific studies, Shermer’s arguments are thoroughly engrossing and objectively difficult to refute. This is by far Shermer’s best book to date.

(By the way, in the interest of full disclosure this book thoroughly validated the reviewer’s own beliefs.)

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Book Review: Linchpin. Seth Godin

Phew! Another heartfelt call to action from business blogger Seth Godin to become indispensable.

Author, public speaker, orthogonal thinker and internet marketing maven, Seth Godin makes a compelling case to the artist within us all to get off our backsides, ignore the risk averse “lizard brain” as he puts it, get creative, and give the gift of art. After all there is no way to win the “race to the bottom” wrought by commoditization of both product and labor.

Bear in mind, Godin uses “art” in its most widely used sense, not merely a canvas or a sculpture. Here, art is anything that its maker so creates; it may be a service just as well as an object. Importantly also, to be art it has to be given with the correct intent — as a gift (a transcendent, unexpected act that surpasses expectation).

Critics maintain that his latest bestseller is short on specifics, but indeed it should be. After all if the process of creating art could be decomposed to an instruction manual it wouldn’t deliver art, it would deliver a Big Mac. So while, we do not get a “7 point plan” that leads to creative nirvana, Godin does a good job through his tireless combination of anecdote, repetition, historical analysis and social science at convincing the “anonymous cogs in the machine” to think and act more like the insightful, innovators that we can all become.

Godin rightly believes that the new world of work is rife with opportunity to add value through creativity, human connection and generosity, and this is the area where the indispensable artist gets to create his or her art, and to become a linchpin in the process. Godin’s linchpin is a rule-breaker, not a follower; a map-maker, not an order taker; a doer not a whiner.

In reading Linchpin we are reminded of the other side of the economy, in which we all unfortunately participate as well, the domain of commoditization, homogeneity and anonymity. This is the domain that artists so their utmost to avoid, and better still, subvert. Of course, this economy provides a benefit too – lower price. However, a “Volkswagen-sized jar of pickles for $3” can only go so far. Commoditization undermines our very social fabric: it undermines our desire for uniqueness and special connection in a service or product that we purchase; it removes our dignity and respect when we allow ourselves to become a disposable part, a human cog, in the job machine. So, jettison the bland, the average, and the subservient, learn to take risk, face fear and become an indispensable, passionate, discerning artist – one who creates and one who gives.

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Book Review: The Psychopath Test. Jon Ronson

Hilarious and disturbing. I suspect Jon Ronson would strike a couple of checkmarks in the Hare PCL-R Checklist against my name for finding his latest work both hilarious and disturbing. Would this, perhaps, make me a psychopath?

Jon Ronson is author of The Psychopath Test and the Hare PCL-R, named for its inventor,  Canadian psychologist Bob Hare, is the gold standard in personality trait measurement for psychopathic disorder (officially known as Antisocial Personality Disorder).

Ronson’s book is a fascinating journey through the “madness industry” covering psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, criminal scientists, criminal profilers, and of course their clients: patients, criminals and the “insane” at large. Fascinated by the psychopathic traits that the industry applied to the criminally insane, Ronson goes on to explore these behavior and personality traits in the general population. And, perhaps to no surprise he finds that a not insignificant proportion of business leaders and others in positions on authority could be classified as “psychopaths” based on the standard PCL-R checklist.

Ronson’s stories are poignant. He tells us the tale of Tony, who feigned madness to avoid what he believed would be have been a harsher prison sentence for a violent crime. Instead, Tony found himself in Broadmoor, a notorious maximum security institution for the criminally insane. Twelve years on, Tony still incarcerated, finds it impossible to convince anyone of his sanity, despite behaving quite normally. His doctors now admit that he was sane at the time of admission, but agree that he must have been nuts to feign insanity in the first place, and furthermore only someone who is insane could behave so “sanely” while surrounded by the insane!

Tony’s story and the other characters that Ronson illuminates in this work are thoroughly memorable, especially Al Dunlap, empathy poor, former CEO of Sunbeam — perhaps one of the high-functioning psychopaths who lives in our midst. Peppered throughout Ronson’s interviews with madmen and madwomen, are his perpetual anxiety and self-reflection; he now has considerable diagnostic power and insight versed on such tools as the PCL-R checklist. As a result, Ronson begins seeing “psychopaths” everywhere.

My only criticism of the book is that Jon Ronson should have made it 200 pages longer and focused much more on the “psychopathic” personalities that roam amongst us, not just those who live behind bars, and on the madness industry itself, now seemingly lead by the major  pharmaceutical companies.

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Book Review: Solar. Ian McEwan

Solar is a timely, hilarious novel from the author of Atonement that examines the self-absorption and (self-)deceptions of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Michael Beard. With his best work many decades behind him Beard trades on his professional reputation to earn continuing financial favor, and maintain influence and respect amongst his peers. And, with his personal life in an ever-decreasing spiral, with his fifth marriage coming to an end, Beard manages to entangle himself in an impossible accident which has the power to re-shape his own world, and the planet in the process.

Ian McEwan’s depiction of Michael Beard is engaging and thoroughly entertaining. Beard hops from relationship to relationship in his singular quest for “love”, but very much on his own terms. And, this very centric view of himself extends to his own science, where his personal contributions don’t seem to be all that they appear. Satire and climate science makes a stylish and witty combination in the hands of McEwan.

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Book Review: The Social Animal. David Brooks

David Brooks brings us a detailed journey through the building blocks of the self in his new book, The Social Animal: A Story of Love, Character and Achievement. With his insight and gift for narrative Brooks weaves an engaging and compelling story of Erica and Harold. Brooks uses the characters of Erica and Harold as platforms on which he visualizes the results of numerous psychological, social and cultural studies. Placed in contemporary time the two characters show us a holistic picture in practical terms of the unconscious effects of physical and social context on behavioral and character traits. The narrative takes us through typical life events and stages: infancy, childhood, school, parenting, work-life, attachment, aging. At each stage, Brooks illustrates his views of the human condition by selecting a flurry of facts and anecdotal studies.

The psychologist in me would say that this is a rather shallow attempt at synthesizing profoundly complex issues. Brooks certainly makes use of many studies from the brain and social sciences, but never dwells long enough to give us a detailed sense of major underlying implications or competing scientific positions. So too, the character development of Erica and Harold lacks the depth and breadth one would expect — Brooks fails to explore much of what typically seems to motivate human behavior: greed, ambition, lust, violence, empathy.  Despite these flaws in the execution of the idea, Brooks’ attempt is praiseworthy; perhaps in the hands of a more skilled social scientist, or Rousseau who used this technique much more effectively, this type of approach would gain a better grade.

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Book Review: The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives. Leonard Mlodinow

Leonard Mlodinow weaves a compelling path through the world of statistical probability showing us how the laws of chance affect our lives on personal and grande scales. Mlodinow skillfully illustrates randomness and its profound implications by presenting complex mathematical constructs in language for the rest of us (non-mathematicians), without dumbing-down this important subject.

The book defines many of the important mathematical concepts behind randomness and exposes the key fallacies that often blind us as we wander through life on our “drunkard’s walk”. The law of large numbers, the prosecutor’s fallacy, conditional probability, the availability bias and bell curves were never so approachable.

Whether it’s a deluded gambler, baseball star on a “winning streak” or a fortunate CEO wallowing in the good times, Mlodinow debunks the common conceptions that skill, planning and foresight result in any significant results beyond pure chance. With the skill of a storyteller Mlodinow shows us how polls, grades, ratings and even measures of corporate success are far less objective and reliable than we ought to believe. Lords of Wall Street take notice, the secrets of your successes are not all that they seem.

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