Category Archives: Books

Jerry Z. Muller – The Tyranny of Metrics

Jerry Z. Muller – The Tyranny of Metrics

This short book is one of the most useful I’ve read in recent years. I will be citing it often. Measurement is a good and useful thing, but it has its limits. Muller’s job in this book is to remind people of those limits. For example, improving school test scores sounds like a good idea, and was a key part of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind education bill. But teachers started teaching to the test, ruining the purpose. This on-the-ground was entirely predictable, but regulators were so intent on using metrics to measure performance, they didn’t think it through.

One key point has to do with social science research. Few journals will publish papers that don’t measure anything–but not everything is measurable. This means that when policymakers and pundits are evaluating a policy, they can leave out important policy impacts. Either they dismiss non-measurable concerns because there is no published empirical research on it, or such concerns never enter their minds in the first place. Like a drunk looking for his lost keys, they only look where the light shines. Better to admit that things exist outside of that light. Better still to create one’s own light and see what is out there. Statistical significance matters, but it should not replace human judgment. It is a complement, not a substitute.

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Edward Wilson-Lee – The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World’s Greatest Library

Edward Wilson-Lee – The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World’s Greatest Library

Christopher Columbus was not the only interesting person in his family. His son Hernando was also both accomplished and flawed. He also assembled what was probably the world’s largest library at the time. This book gets its title from 1,200 volumes of that library that were lost at sea. Hernando knew his father’s place in history, and as a youth even accompanied him on his fourth voyage. Hernando would also take his own voyage to Hispaniola later in life.

Hernando saw himself as a caretaker of the family legacy. He played a role in downplaying Christopher Columbus’ mysticism and other bizarre beliefs, as well as the degree to which Columbus misunderstood his discoveries. Hernando also played a large role in publishing and editing Columbus’ autobiography, which would shape popular history for centuries. Bartoleme de las Casas, one of my historical heroes and author of A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, also plays a role in this story. He and Hernando did not get along.

Edwards-Lee intermingles this history, and Hernando’s role in it, with Hernando’s private life as a book collector, librarian, and scholar. This allows Edwards-Lee to delve into the history of printing, how different ways to organize libraries can help or hinder different kinds of research, and even compares different cataloging systems to early search engines (Hernando lived before Google).

This book is a hybrid of Hernando Columbus’ biography, the history of early transatlantic exploration, and a book about books. It’s a little disjointed both in scale and in subject matter, but is still an enjoyable slice of history.

Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote

Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote

I read the Edith Grossman translation, generally the best-regarded in English. Cervantes’ style is easy enough that many Spanish students will read Cervantes in the original; my skills are no longer up to the task, if they ever were at all. Even in translation, Don Quixote is hilarious, tragic, and surprisingly postmodern. Quixote is obsessed with the adventure books in his library to point of losing his marbles. Convinced he is a noble errant knight, he goes off on heroic quests–“errant” being a term that describes more than Quixote’s mental state. An errant knight serves no king or noble; he is an independent operator.

Quixote tilts at windmills, confuses inns for castles, innkeepers’ daughters for princesses, prostitutes for noble ladies, and repeatedly gets beaten up in embarrassing ways. Sancho, his saner “squire,” tries and fails to be a voice of reason. But despite his occasional caustic remarks and threats to leave Quixote and go home to his family, Sancho clearly has some affection for his errant master, which adds a note of warmth to a story that could use it.

As a writer, Cervantes is fond of genre-hopping. He regularly takes breaks from adventure farce and has Quixote stay in the background while other characters act out stories of intrigue, romance, and more, often in humorously overdramatic fashion. Merlin, the wizard from King Arthur mythology, even puts in an appearance in part two.

Part two is actually a sequel, published ten years after part one. Another author published an unauthorized sequel in the interim, which may have prompted Cervantes to write his own official sequel. This controversy led to a type of postmodern irony that wouldn’t appear again in literature until the 20th century. Quixote, Sancho, and the other characters are aware of Part 1 and their literary fame. Quixote even wishes aloud that its author had left out some of the more humiliating beatings he took. The other characters chuckle at this while taking issue with their own portrayals. They also throw a few jabs at the unauthorized sequel. Cervantes, referring to himself as “the author,” even pokes some fun at himself. Near the end of the book, before a high seas adventure, Quixote even visits a print shop where one of the books being printed is part two of Don Quixote, adding further humor. As far as unofficial national novels go, Spain has done well in choosing not just a tragedy dressed as a comedy, but a clever one that spans multiple genres, uses almost every literary device and conceit Cervantes could think of, and foreshadowed modern literature and its self-aware postmodern turn.

O. Henry – Complete Short Stories

O. Henry – Complete Short Stories

Henry was known for his surprise plot twists, as well as a wry, gentle sense of humor. In one typical aside, he describes a character as “cursing talentedly.” In the food-focused “Cupid a la Carte,” one character describes another as “weak as a vegetarian cat.” His short sketches of avuncular, detached goodwill make him a bit like his generation’s Garrison Keillor, both for good and for bad. He’s good-natured and a little droll, and makes a lot of his day’s equivalent of dad jokes. This collection of his short stories, some famous and some not, is a bit of literary comfort food.

 

Frans de Waal – Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are

Frans de Waal – Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are

De Waal is the world’s most famous expert on bonobos, who along with chimpanzees are humanity’s closest relatives. Here, he shows how observing primate behavior can shed light on human behavior. This book takes an informal, almost chatty tone, with de Waal often writing in the first person about his personal experiences with both apes and with humans. Even though our species branched apart a good 6 or 7 million years ago, we still have very much in common with chimps and especially bonobos. Our resemblance is more than physical. It is also cultural. Moreover, the two are often intertwined.

Chimps form complex alliances in the same way humans do, forming 2-against-1 relationships where possible, and scheming to divide enemies where so they don’t put up a united front. In a 2-against-1, don’t be the 1. As de Waal points out, human diplomacy follows similar strategies, just on a global scale. Nation-states play the same roles as individual chimps.

De Waal also offers some insight on biology and anatomy, especially sexual dimorphism. Species with drastically different male-to-female size ratios tend to have male-dominant cultures. Similarly, testicle size is related to promiscuity. Gorillas and human cultures tend towards monogamy, and this manifests itself in smaller testicles. Promiscuous chimps and bonobos have more competition, so they have larger testicles to produce more sperm. These dynamics show up in their behavior. Male chimps will often commit infanticide when they know the child is not theirs. Females intentionally confuse matters by having several possible fathers. This strategy changes male behavior, saving young lives.

De Waal goes off the rails toward the end, when he makes it uncomfortably clear that his expertise does not extend to economics or public policy. Here, the discussion is on par with a Facebook or Twitter political rant, lacking of command of either emotions or facts. That awkwardness can be safely skipped. The rest of the book is excellent.

Isaac Asimov – The Stars, Like Dust

Isaac Asimov – The Stars, Like Dust

Not the most graceful fiction, nor are the characters well developed. But the story gets better if one knows a little backstory first. This is the first novel of a three-part series written early in Asimov’s career. It was something of a prequel to his Foundation series, Asimov’s best-known fiction. The story of The Stars, Like Dust is loosely based on the history of the Golden Horde, a Mongol faction led by Batu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan; the larger Foundation series is loosely modeled on the Roman Empire’s decline. It is filled with infighting and intrigue. That said, the surprise plot twist in the end firmly establishes this book as a product of mid-20th century America. This book is better as a slice of mid-20th-century American culture than as a serious work of science fiction. Perhaps not coincidentally, Asimov called this book his least favorite novel.

Jonathan Swift – Gulliver’s Travels

Jonathan Swift – Gulliver’s Travels

The classic satire holds up well. In the first of four parts, Gulliver visits the Lilliputians. Besides the obvious lessons about cultural differences, there is also some amusing ribaldry, as when Gulliver gets into legal trouble for putting out a Lilliputian fire by urinating on it, and flooding the tiny town as a result.

In part two he sees the opposite side of the coin with the Brobdingnagians, a race of giants, though mercifully minus the peeing. In part three he bounces around among several different nations, giving Swift the opportunity to poke fun at philosophers and other elites, and for some reason Japan, possibly because it is an actual place. Part four gives us the word “yahoo,” which gives Swift ample opportunity to make fun of ordinary people’s prejudices and habits. When Gulliver is briefly home between adventures, the casual dismissiveness with which he treats his wife and children is an early example of shock value humor. Gulliver barely acknowledges their existence beyond conceiving a new child on each return. Nobody is spared, and nobody is a saint, which is likely the source of Swift’s enduring appeal.