Robert Heinlein – Time Enough for Love
Inspired by the Arabian Nights, Heinlein pieces together a number of stories starring Lazarus Long, a long-lived recurring character of Heinlein’s who is more than 2,000 years old at the time of this book. He is a bit of anti-hero, and more than a little entertaining. This is Heinlein’s longest book, but in practice it is more of a short story collection. They stories share a free, adventurous, can-do, earthy, but overly macho spirit that Heinlein readers will know well. One note of caution: the final story is disturbing, and I do not say this lightly. I do not want to know what was going through Heinlein’s head when he wrote it.
Robert Heinlein – Friday
The beginning is entirely too graphic for my taste, but once it settles down Heinlein builds a compelling title character with depth and nuance. He conveys a strong anti-racism message, along with all his usual anti-authoritarianism, creative family and social arrangements, celebration of subterfuge, and mockery of factional politics.
Jonathan Gottschall – The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human
Gottschall’s scholarly mission is to make the humanities more scientific. Specialization is important, but not at the cost of ignoring what other disciplines are doing. I wholeheartedly endorse this approach, despite specializing in economics. The humanities, other social sciences, and even actual sciences all factor into my work.
Gottschall’s native discipline is English, but this book incorporates psychology and evolutionary biology to make a compelling and plausible thesis. Why do humans tell stories? Most people will say it’s because we enjoy them. Yes, Gottschall asks, but why? He finds an evolutionary purpose—when kids play pretend or adults read a novel, they’re practicing. They learn empathy and put themselves in other people’s shoes. That improves social skills, and improves survival—and without harmful consequences when failure occurs.
Most stories also involve some kind of conflict or troubles. This also has instructional value, so we evolved to find stories without conflict or trouble boring. Dreams are the same way—they nearly always involve some kind of trouble or unease. More pleasant dreams and stories are wasted cognitive effort, with no social or evolutionary payoff. Stories make us better prepared for real life situations, so no wonder we’re wired to naturally crave them, same as we do sex or food.
Mark Dunn – Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters
A great read for lovers of language. Dunn is both playful and makes a serious point about freedom of expression. He tells the story of the island of Nollop, named for the man who wrote a 35-letter sentence containing every letter of the alphabet: the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
One by one, the letters fall off a statue of Nollop containing the phrase, leading the island council to ban writing or speaking words containing those letters. Those letters also disappear from the book, making for very interesting reading as more and more letters fall. As the quality of life and language deteriorate—the two are closely related—the characters feverishly work to find a solution.