June 3, 2020

Reading Uncertainly? ‘How Democracies Die’ by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

Two learned Harvard professors open this provocative challenge to many of our conventional beliefs with a brief sentence: “We feel dread  …” Their worry – that “democracy” as we have known it may be seriously threatened: “Democracies may die at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders … who subvert the very process that brought them to power.”

They cite Hitler, Chavez, Castro, Putin, and Erdogan, among past and current elected leaders who trashed democracy, even when some of them retained popular support.

What is democracy?

These professors define it as “a system of government with regular free and fair elections, in which all adult citizens have the right to vote and possess basic civil liberties such as freedom of speech and association.”

But, given the enormous explosion of human population and the way social media can manipulate many of us, are the precepts of democracy and our “Madisonian system of checks and balances,” still workable?

Our system in this country seems to be based on a desired but frequently non-existent “balance” among executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, at local, state, and national levels

They continually pose difficult questions in this book:

  • Are “political parties democracy’s gatekeepers?” Are only two the best course (as in the U.S. and U.K.), or are many better (13 now in Switzerland)?
  • Who or what is an “extremist”? Do open primary elections encourage “extremists’? Do they encourage an enormous flow of money?
  • Are we in the midst of a “collective abdication” of the rules of democracy”?
  • Do “neutral arbiters” (the judiciary, for example) even exist?
  • Do “national referenda even serve a useful purpose, when society is fractured and when social media can move large numbers of voters in different directions almost instantly?

One of the authors’ fascinating chapters is a study of elected authoritarians, citing Peron (Argentina), Correa (Ecuador), Orban (Hungary), Berlusconi (Italy), Fujimori (Peru),  Kaczynski (Poland), Putin (Russia), Erdogan (Turkey), Chavez (Venezuela) and, perhaps to come, AMLO in Mexico.

These Cambridge skeptics conclude (properly!) with more questions:

  • Is the “fundamental problem facing American democracy (our) extreme partisan division?”
  • Is a  “multiethnic democracy in which no ethnic group is in the majority” truly possible? See Switzerland now …
  • Is it possible to be “both multiracial and genuinely democratic”?
  • Is trust possible?

There seem to be two critical norms for the continuation of “democracy”: the first is institutional forbearance (don’t try to control and manage everything) and natural toleration (respecting the opinions and habits of other others), but far too often religious beliefs and ethnic habits tend to corrupt our political universe.

Editor’s Note: ‘How Democracies Die’ by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt is published by Broadway Books, New York 2018.

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, a subject which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there.
For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in mid-coast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? “The Cockroach” by Ian McEwan

Cockroaches have successfully inhabited this earth for more than 300 million years and are like to continue to do so for millions more, so long as it exists. But what about their working relationship with Homo sapiens, we relative newcomers?

Ian McEwan, one of my favorite authors, suggests in this political satire that they may well take matters into their own hands (six each) in order to preserve their habitat. With the growing chaotic conditions in England, a group of cockroaches living in relative splendor in the bowels of the “pleasantly decaying” Palace of Westminster decide to act.

One, in particular, leaves “the floorboards, safety and solace among millions of its siblings” to make the treacherous crawl to Number 10 Downing Street, through a crack in the front door, up several flights of stairs and into the bedroom, where it (he) then takes over the body of and becomes the Prime Minister. Several of his mates also take over other government officials.

Their goal: make the United Kingdom (or what’s left if it) adopt a radical new economic policy called “Reversalism:” “Let the money flow be reversed and the entire economic system, even the nation itself, will be purified, purged of absurdities, waste and injustice.” It will be “forbidden by law to hoard cash.” “Bank deposits will attract high negative interest rates.” “The government sends out tax gifts to its workers.” You will pay an employer to take a job. You will be paid to take food and goods. In other words, spend!

The Prime Minister (appropriately named “Jim Sams” from Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, in Metamorphosis) then plans a telephone call to the President of the United States to try and persuade him to adopt this new economic policy. “It was 6 p.m. in Washington. The president would be busy watching television and might not appreciate the interruption.”

But Sams went ahead, background noise and all. The conversation was, as he reported, “all poetry, smoothly combining density of meaning with fleet-footed liberation from detail …  There was nothing more liberating than a closely knit sequence of lies.” The president is never named, but the PM is interrupted when he starts to ask, “How is Mel—“

At the end of this brief exposition, our cockroach leaves the body of the Prime Minister and crawls safely back to its compatriots at the Palace, secure in the knowledge that universal adoption of Reversalism will result in a dramatic reduction of the human species on this earth, thus assuring the continuity of cockroaches.

 A delightful, challenging, and worrisome satire.

Editor’s Note: “The Cockroach” by Ian McEwan is published by Anchor Books, New York 2019

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, a subject which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there.
For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Varina’ by Charles Frazier

Slip back some 120 years and reconsider our Civil War through the eyes and mind of the wife of Jefferson Davis, Varina. This is Charles Frazier’s latest gripping and, often hilarious, novel.  Married to the much older man at 18, she gives us a stimulation of memories of her life with the Confederate President first in Richmond, then an escape attempt to Cuba by way of Florida at war’s end, then her later experiences in the South, and, finally her residences in New York City and summers in Saratoga Springs, NY, after Davis’s death.

And always accentuating her story is that of James Blake, a young mixed-race orphan she rescues one day in Richmond, brings into her home with her children, and carries with her on their escape south. He returns to her life in New York, trying to resurrect memories of their early days together. It was a volatile life, as she explains, “Thinking how all the lesser increments of the time between then and now — years, months, days, hours, moments – drained constantly into the black sump where time resides after it’s been used up, whether used well or squandered.” Varina goes on, “ … lives rarely have plots, but sometimes they find shape.”

Constantly she reminds us at that period, it was always “them or us,” referring to the dominance of color. As she notes to James, we are, “witnesses needing to apply skin color to every personal transaction.”  Varina describes the long-term working relationship between Jefferson Davis and his black slave, “that the fundamental note of their long history together condensed to a single fact – one member of the friendship was owner and the other was both labor and capital.”

Has that changed much today?

Frazier’s language is challenging and lyrical. Challenging thus, “an eidolon took her place” (an idealized person, specter or phantom), and “all gaumed up beyond belief.” (smeared or covered with a gummy, sticky substance.” Lyrical thus, “A dense flight of swallows formed shapes against the sky like a child molding a dough ball, never quite creating a convincing box turtle or dog’s head or teapot, but still moving from idea to idea with a beautiful fluidity.”

And at the conclusion of this joint memoir (by both Varina and James Blake), he writes in his notebook after a lengthy discussion with Varina: “Especially since I found the blue book, I’ve come to see Mr. Davis and his beliefs this way. He did as most politicians do – except more so – corrupt our language and symbols of freedom, pervert our war heroes. Because, like so many of them, he held no beloved idea or philosophy as tightly as his money purse. Take a king or a president or anybody. Put a heavy sack of gold in one hand and a feather-light about freedom in the other. And then an outlaw sticks a pistol in his face and says give me one or the other. Every time – ten out of ten – he’ll hug the sack and throw away the ideals, like the foundation under a building … And that’s how freedom and chains and a whipping post can live alongside each other comfortably.”

Do those words remind you of today?

Editor’s Note: ‘Varina’ by Charles Frazier is published by Ecco, New York 2018

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, a subject which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there.
For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Life Undercover’ by Amaryllis Fox

A lyrical memoir of an unusual woman’s life, in Washington, London, Moscow, London and finally Washington again, minus her father. Then on to the CIA, described in amazing detail, and her life afterwards as an agent around the world.

Fox’s language is engaging, plus her almost-total recall of conversations.  A compelling read, but it raises two questions: (1) How was she able to obtain the permission of her employer, the CIA, to describe in such detail her solicitation, training, and her actual work? And (2) do the details in her conversations make this almost a fictional novel?

It is as if she is being seduced by some opiate, “I feel the high of not just observing the world but actually changing it.”

At the outset she believes that “terrorism is a psychological game of escalation” practiced by all of us.” When she first goes to China undercover, she remarks “This is my first time living the lie around the clock. The years of deception yawn ahead, like an ink-black void.” It is as if the Cheshire Cat is asking her, “Who are YOU?”

Her stories provoked my own memories.

Her father, reporting on a visit to Moscow told her that his only hardship, “was the Soviet toilet paper.” How true! When I traveled with a small group to Yaroslavl, many miles north of Moscow, we were advised to bring our own. What was on offer was minuscule. Later, Fox herself  walked Red Square, stopping at Lenin’s tomb, noting that “Lenin seems smaller … petite and fragile … He looks weak and human and beautiful.” I had that same impression in 1992 on my own transit of the Square.

Later she explains to a friend her rationale for her secret work, “If not us, who? If not now, when?” That prompted my neurons to recall the famous haiku reported by Dogen Zenji when he asked the monk Tenzo why he was drying mushrooms on a steaming hot day. Tenzo replied:

If not I, then who
Dries mushrooms in the hot sun?
If not now, then when?

This is perhaps the best reward from one’s reading: the stimulation of buried memories!

The author, now a writer and exponent of peacemaking, continues her work in a different direction. She now asks “why?” continually. She suggests that, “planting a garden is the ultimate act of faith in tomorrow,” a thought worth remembering.

And finally, “ … peacemaking requires listening, that vulnerability is a component of strength … and building trust simply works better than exerting force.”

Hear! Hear!

Editor’s Note (i): We second Felix’s vote of support for Fox’s final statement.

(ii) ‘Life Undercover’ by Amaryllis Fox was published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2019.

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, a subject which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there.
For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy’ by Jenny Odell

Are you overwhelmed by today’s information and attention economy? Then listen to Jenny Odell, a writer, artist, lecturer at Stanford University, resident of Oakland, Calif., and a true daughter of the current information revolution.

She suggests it is time to step back from today’s tidal wave of “information”: the resources of social media and constant “breaking news” that “capitalize on our natural interest in others, and an ageless need for community, hijacking and frustrating our most innate desires, and profiting from them. Solitude, observation, and simple conviviality should be recognized not only as ends in and of themselves, but inalienable rights belonging to anyone lucky enough to be alive.”

Our basic urges, “self-reflection, curiosity, and a desire to belong to a community” are being corrupted by  “ … the invasive logic of commercial social media and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction.” It is, as she says, “the usefulness of uselessness.”

But is it really possible to “disengage from the attention economy” and to reengage with something else?

And with what?

Odell cites numerous writers before her: from Diogenes and Plato to Thoreau, Martin Buber, David Hockney and many others. But Herman Melville’s Bartleby, The Scrivener, had perhaps the best response: “I would prefer not to.” One idea is “deep listening” proposed by Pauline Oliveros: to cut out noise distraction in order to listen to “silence”, to “repair”, seeking moments of quiet, reflection and consideration, and simply to listen to what we are neglecting.

Social media, she argues, inevitably, and probably inadvertently, whip up a “permanent state of frenzy” and anxiety, and the compulsive need to be “connected”. But can we both “participate” and “contemplate”? This is a serious unanswered question.

Ms. Odell’s suggestions:

  1. “loosen our grip on the idea of discrete entities, simple origin stories, and neat A-to-B causalities”;
  2. accept “humility and openness . . . seek context . . and acknowledge that you don’t have the whole story”; and
  3. acknowledge that “an ecological understanding takes time.”

And her conclusions:

  1. “Instantaneous communication threatens visibility and comprehension.”;
  2.  “The immediacy of social media closes down the time needed for ‘political elaboration’ ”; and
  3.  “ . . . immediacy challenges political activism because it creates ‘weak ties’ .”

The author has also made progress: “I find that I’m looking at my phone less these days.”

But what have I missed? I have never used social media, never! Is this wrong? I am a retired, relatively ancient widower, writer, and deliberate contemplator. I check my email about twice a day, thinking that I should cut this to once.

I do read extensively (books, the Sunday Times and weekly The Economist and The New Yorker). I try to avoid “breaking news”, except, of course, the Boston Red Sox scores.

I do watch trees swaying in gentle breezes, flowers bursting into display, swirling clouds, birds (especially turkey buzzards), and listen to the sounds of Lyme. And write haiku and, of course, book reviews.

I relish relative anonymity!

Editor’s Note: ‘How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy’ by Jenny Odell was published by Melville House, Brooklyn, New York in 2019.

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, a subject which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there.
For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘The Goodness Paradox’ by Richard Wrangham

My goodness … we are indeed a strange species!

Dr. Wrangham, a Harvard anthropologist, tackles his subtitle, “The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution,” by going on to suggest, “We can be the nastiest of species and also the nicest.”

But, he offers, “The key fact about humans is that within our social communities we have a low propensity to fight. Compared to most wild mammals we are very tolerant.” One possible reason for this is “the domestication syndrome,” a process that started over 300,000 years ago, and, incidentally, is also found among some species of dogs and sheep.

Are we going to continue to evolve towards more pacifism, as Steven Pinker also suggests in his The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), or might we regress?

Will our “progress’ continue or might we revert to once prevalent habits?

Wrangham notes that in 17th century New England, ‘”You could be executed for witchcraft, idolatry, blasphemy, rape, adultery, bestiality, sodomy, and, in New Haven, masturbation.”

Our altruism has continued to evolve within Homo sapiens, as we have delighted in “the sheer cosmological fascination of understanding where we come from,” and recognized that altruism is inherently more successful.

Edward O. Wilson also proposed this idea in Genesis* (2019): groups of altruists always beat aggressive groups. Wrangham also offers the idea that “docility … seems likely to be a vital precondition for advanced cooperation and social learning.” Chimpanzees lack this “docility,” while bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees), who are much closer to we humans in their development, seem to have it.

How will our genes move us in the future?

Might our natural “evolution” towards pacifism stall, and might other creatures move faster in that direction, adopting and encompassing altruism and docility, and therefore survive?

Dr. Wrangham challenges us to think seriously about these questions.

Editor’s Note: ‘The Goodness Paradox’ by Richard Wrangham is published by Pantheon Books, New York 2019.

*Read Felix Kloman’s review of ‘Genesis’ by Edward O. Wilson at this link.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, a subject which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there.
For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming’ by David Wallace-Wells

Is global warming a sensible hypothesis? Is it happening? What may be its consequences?  What can and should we, as human beings, do about it?

These are some of the most important questions facing us today. David Wallace-Wells begins with startling pessimism, moving on to despair, but he finally concludes with a modest sense of optimism. Thank goodness … at least for this reader.

He tests our ability to continue reading in an ominous Chapter 2, some 100 pages of possible woe: heat death, hunger, drowning, wildfires, disasters (no longer natural). freshwater drain, dying oceans, unbreathable air, plagues of warming, economic collapse, climate “conflict”, and “systems” collapses.

What a challenge!

As the author writes at its end, “If you have made it this far, you are a brave reader.” It confirms Pogo’s famous law: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

This analysis leads Wallace-Wells to suggest how we might respond: “But climate change inverts the (human) perspective – giving us not a deep time of permanence but a deep time of cascading, disorienting change, so deep that it mocks any pretense of permanence on the planet.” Does this then enhance the delusions of apocalypse believers?

What do other think of this proposition?

John Lancaster, writing in The New York Times (4/28/19) says: “a remorseless, near unbearable account of what we are doing to our planet.”
From The Economist (5/25/19): “[the book explores the] … causal link between climate change and conflict (encompassing everything from interpersonal to large-scale violence.)”
From the New Scientist (4/27/19): “The goal should not be net-zero carbon emissions, as fast as possible. How fast is feasible is a legitimate matter for debate.”
Dana Wilde, writing in The Working Waterfront (9/20/19) notes: “Reading the book’s first sections is like being caught in a carpet-bombing.”

Buried in the author’s notes is a conclusion by Paul Kingsnorth, from Dark Ecology (2012): “The answer is that it leaves you with an obligation to be honest about here you are in history’s great cycle, and what you have the power to do, and what you don’t.” At least, we can try.

Then Wallace-Wells counsels that the problem stems from “ … both human humility and human grandiosity … If humans are responsible for the problem, they must be capable of undoing it … it is an acceptance of responsibility.”

My personal counsel: “Don’t despair; respond!” Or perhaps, to my offspring, “Go North, young people, and go inland!”

Editor’s Note: The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells, was published by Tim Duggan Books, New York, 2019 .

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, a subject which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there.
For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly: ‘The Library Book’ by Susan Orlean

Editor’s Note (i): If you’re still searching for a last-minute gift, then consider this book — it’s the perfect present for book- and library-lovers everywhere! Many thanks to our wonderful and ever faithful book-reviewer Felix Kloman of Lyme for sharing his thoughts on this best-seller, which is described by The New York Times as “a sheer delight…as rich in insight and as varied as the treasures contained on the shelves in any local library” and by USA TODAY as, “a dazzling love letter to a beloved institution and an investigation into one of its greatest mysteries. 

Susan Orlean, a long-time writer for The New Yorker, gives us, at once, a paean to all libraries, a biography of a singular library in Los Angeles, a story of its crippling fire in April, 1986 and its possible arsonist, and, above all, the tale of the devotion and delight of all librarians. It is a love story, too, resonating with all of us enamored of those enticing shelves.

She begins with that fire and its effect on guides and users alike, facing the enormity of the destruction, “This was a shrine to being forgotten; to memories sprinkled like salt, ideas vaporized as if they never had been formed; stories evaporated as if they had no substance and no weight keeping them bound to the earth and to each of us, and, most of all, to the yet-unfolded future”.

What is a library? The author suggests that ”every problem that society has, the library has too,” from homelessness, thievery, fractious adults, uncontrolled children, and waste, yet our librarians manage and smile though it all.  Susan Orlean remains enthralled: “As I stood there, gobsmacked by this serendipity!”

She also wonders about the future of book lending, under the effects of advancing technology, the Internet and social media, concluding with optimism, “Libraries are physical spaces belonging to a community where we gather to share information. … A library is a good place to soften solitude; a place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of year even when you’re all alone. The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know thee is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you”.

So off I go to wander through the stacks in Phoebe Griffin Noyes, the Lyme Library, the Acton in Old Saybrook, the Essex Library, and even to Middletown. And everywhere I will find smiling librarians and a veritable profusion of riches.

Editor’s Note (ii): ‘The Library Book’ by Susan Orlean was published by Simon & Schuster, New York 2018.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, a subject which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there.
For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Genesis’ by Edward O. Wilson

“What are we, what created us, and what do we wish ultimately to become?” Dr. Edward O. Wilson, the prolific emeritus professor at Harvard, biologist, and naturalist, is also a continual questioner. His last book, The Meaning of Human Existence (2014) also began with a question,“Who are we?”

He begins with a restatement of what we have learned from our studies of human evolution: “Every part of the human body and mind has a physical base obedient to the laws of physics and chemistry. And all of it, so far as we can tell by continuous scientific examination, originated through evolution by natural selection.”

“The first organisms on earth,” he continues, “were self-assembled into replicating systems out of the endless random combinations of molecules present in the primordial sea.” We are the result of a series of “transitions” that evolved into “groups” and then “eusocial species” that began to practice altruism.”

Dr. Wilson then goes on to describe “eusociality,” a condition that has “arisen only rarely” as “colonies divided into reproductive and non-reproductive castes.” He cites, of course, insects (the subject of many of his earlier studies) with more than a million known species, of which some “twenty-thousand have been found to be eusocial” (ants, social bees, social wasps, and termites).  Eusocial orders now appear to dominate the terrestrial animal world, and they are found within Homo sapiens: aged grandmothers, homosexuals, monastic orders.

As the author answers the question, “What was the force that made us?” he explicitly also asks, “What exactly replaced the gods?” And, “Why should people around the world continue to believe one fantasy over another out of the more than four thousand that exist on Earth?”

His answer: “tribalism,” a condition that appears to be slowly subsiding. But that is changing as humans expand and as the groups in which we gather enlarge: “the larger the group size, the more frequently innovations occur within the group. “Storytime” for humans has expanded from one to two hours a day to “five hours for modern humanity.”

But we are simultaneously both altruistic and selfish.  How are we to work within these opposing traits?  Wilson’s key suggestion of hope: “ … within groups, selfish individuals win against altruists, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals.”

One sidebar comment from this reader. Wilson uses that lovely word “murmurations,” as in the murmurations of starlings swooping, flying in coordinated patterns.

And I too now end with a question: What next?

Editor’s Note:

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there.
For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? Halloween Special! ‘Connecticut: Spooky Trails and Tall Tales’ by Local Author Gencarella

Here is an engaging, enthralling, timely, and often frightening set of stories from our Nutmeg State, subtitled “Hiking the State’s Legends, Hauntings and History”. These are stories we love to hear, tell – and retell – regardless of origin and authenticity, especially if they involve ghosts, mysteries, illnesses and deaths. And we storytellers do modify them to fit our local purposes!

It is yet another publication of a local Lyme writer: Dr. Gencarella wrote Wicked, Weird and Wily Yankees: A Celebration of New England Eccentrics and Misfits, reviewed in LymeLine on June 3, 2018. He teaches at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst and recently served as the resident folklorist at the Connecticut River Museum in Essex.

These are stories – and hiking linked to each of them – from all over this state. Locally, he explores nearby spots such as Selden Creek, Selden Cove, East Haddam, the Devil’s Hopyard and Rogers Lake.

He is a sleuth of old and questionable stories, often a confusion of clashing religious beliefs, still pertinent today. He writes, “This story is yet another compelling example of folklore operating with sensational journalism to sell newspapers,” and cites the continuing “co-dependent relationship between folklore and yellow journalism in the nineteenth century.”  Today also?

And introduces his readers to unusual words, for example, have you met a “glawackus”? Or do you know friends with these first names: Zerubbabel or Adoniram?  Read on …

Many of these stories are based on misinterpreted natural events, and then “reinterpreted”, “revised” and embellished to attract tourists and sell newspapers. The themes of these stories are common: “depiction of ‘foolish Indians’ “, or “drunken Indians” and attractions between young men and attractive young maidens, often leading to parental objections and dual suicides.

The author comments: “As a folklorist, I reluctantly understand why salacious stories about impoverished rural folk can please people who have greater means. Such tales titillate with scandal, arouse schadenfruede, and allow audiences to feel better knowing someone else is worse off.”

Having lived almost 50 years in this state, I relished these stories, as I have rowed on Lake Waramaug, Selden Creek, Rogers Lake and the Connecticut River. I wish I had known them then …

Is Captain Kidd’s buried treasure in Rogers Lake? But, at the end of each chapter is Dr. Gencarella’s “Legend Tripping” — his directions for hikes at or near each locale … and try rowing, too!

Editor’s Note: Connecticut: Spooky Trails and Tall Tales, by Stephen Gencarella is published by Falcon, Guilford, CT, 2019.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly: ‘The Meaning of Human Existence’ by Edward O. Wilson

Who are we?

Edward O. Wilson, the eminent Harvard biologist and noted student of ants, describes our strange species in a remarkable and memorable book. In 15 brief, succinct and challenging chapters, each less than 10 pages, he suggests that, at once, we are far more and far less than we imagine.

His is a daunting title but the contents live up to expectations.

First, far less: homo sapiens have existed through a modest six millennia, a mere blip in the 13-plus billion years of our universe, the 4.5 billion years of this earth and the 400 million years of other “species on earth.” And this earth is but a “mote of stardust near the edge of our galaxy (an estimated hundred billion star systems make up the Milky Way galaxy) among a hundred billion or more galaxies in the universe.”

And even among the other species here on this planet, “how bizarre we are as a species … we are chemosensory idiots” when compared to most of them. “Our species is almost unconscious of most stimuli.”

But we are unusual.

We have the “capacity to imagine possible futures, and to plan and choose among them,” the “ability to invent and inwardly rehearse competing scenarios of future interactions.”

Dr. Wilson compares the “humanities” to “science.” The humanities tell us “what,” “the particularities of human nature back and forth in endless permutations, albeit laced with genius and in exquisite detail,” while science increasingly is needed to tell us “why.”

Are we trapped in our own egos?

In Chapter 11, The Collapse of Biodiversity, we seem to be knocking off many species, only to find more.  But “ … without nature,  finally, no people!” “The human impact on biodiversity, to put the matter as briefly as possible, is an attack on ourselves!” This re-confirms the famous Pogo adage, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Wilson suggests we remember the acronym HIPPO: Habitat loss; Invasive species; Pollution: Population growth; and Overharvesting. These may be the most important challenges our species face.

Has the human creation of religions helped? Wilson is dubious.

Religion’s “history is as old or nearly so as that of humanity itself. The attempted resolution of its mysteries lies at the heart of philosophy.” But “the great religions are also, and tragically, sources of ceaseless and unnecessary suffering.”

He adds: “the true cause of hatred and violence is faith versus faith, an outward expression of the ancient instinct of tribalism. Faith is the one thing that makes otherwise good people do bad things.” Many will find this offensive but it is a considered opinion, backed up with solid examples. Wilson summarizes thus, “the best way to live in this real world is to free ourselves of demons and tribal gods!”

He returns to the balance of science and the humanities; the latter describe “the human condition,” while science “encompasses the meaning of human existence.”  We are “an accident of evolution,” from herbivore to carnivore, from wanderer to static, from small families to multiple “tribes.” And “when an individual is cooperative and altruistic, this reduces his advantage in competition to a comparable degree with other members, but increases the survival and reproduction rate of the group as a whole.” No wonder we have conflicting views of how to respond …

Dr. Wilson’s conclusion: “Are human beings intrinsically good but corrupted by the forces of evil, or the reverse, innately sinful yet redeemable by the forces of good? Are we built to pledge our lives to a group, even to the risk of death, or the opposite, built to place ourselves and our families above all else? Scientific evidence, a good part of it accumulated during the past twenty years, suggests that we are both of these things simultaneously. Each of us in inherently conflicted.”

“If the heuristic and analytical power of science can be joined with the introspective creativity of the humanities, human instinct will rise to an infinitely more productive and interesting meaning.”

After each chapter, I had to stop and reflect on Wilson’s ideas, taking many notes.

And I plan to re-read it in its entirety next year.

Editor’s Note: ‘The Meaning of Human Existence’ by  Edward O. Wilson, was published by W. W. Norton  & Co., New York, 2014.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Identity’ by Francis Fukuyama

Stanford University’s Francis Fukuyama always challenges our minds. From his The End of History and the Last Man, addressing our futures after the end of the Cold War (1992), and continuing with The Origins of Political Order (2011) and Political Order and Political Decay (2014), two monster 600+ page tomes, his newest, and briefest (a slim 183 pager!) is Identity.

Who on earth are we? Fukuyama sees we humans as trying to manage, simultaneously, two conflicting pressures. The first is “isothymia,” — “the demand  to be respected on an equal basis with all other people,” and “megalothymia” — “the desire to be recognized as superior.”  This disparity has “historically existed in all societies; it cannot be overcome; it can only be channeled or moderated.”

He continues: “Contemporary identity politics is driven by the quest for equal recognition by groups that have been marginalized by their societies. But that desire for equal recognition can easily slide over into a demand for recognition of the group’s superiority.”

His themes are thymos (the third part of the soul), recognition, dignity, identity, immigration, nationalism, religion and culture. He calls on many earlier observers: Socrates, Luther, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Hobbes, Locke, Mill, Nietzsche, Herder, Adam Smith, Sartre, Freud, and Kahneman, arguing that the demand for dignity, “should somehow disappear is neither possible nor desirable.” Resentment at indignities remains a powerful force, a “craving for recognition” we must learn to understand and balance.

National identities are “critical for the maintenance of a successful political order.” They begin with a “shared belief in the legitimacy of the country’s political system, whether that system is democratic or not.” They include physical security, quality of government, economic development, “a wider radius of trust,” and strong social safety nets, all of which eventually make possible “liberal democracy itself.”

His chapter on religion and nationalism is particularly challenging. Can people who share a particular culture and language be subsumed into a global belief system (Hinduism; Buddhism; Communism; Islam; Christianity)? Probably not, but these systems continue to try. The advent of social media makes “identity” now the property of groups, not individuals.

Fukuyama cannot resist a comment of Trump, a “political figure who almost perfectly describes … narcissism: narcissism led Trump into politics, but a politics driven less by public purposes than his own inner need for public affirmation.” And “Trump (is) the perfect practitioner of the ethics of authenticity that defines our age: he may be mendacious, malicious, bigoted, and un-presidential, but at least he says what he thinks.”

“What is to be done?” he asks.  One, ”confusion over identity” is a “condition of living in the modern age.” Two, a “pan-European identity may someday emerge.” Three, “education is the critical ingredient”, but it must include a process of universal not parochial values, economic mobility, interdependence, and a growing exposure to other humans and their customs.

We humans seem to be simultaneously breaking down walls and building new ones!

Editor’s Note: ‘Identity’ by Francis Fukuyama was published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York 2018

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘The Soul of America’ by Jon Meacham

This is an engrossing reflection on past American leaders, elected and publicly acknowledged, and how they have shaped our peculiar, yet resilient, form of governance.

Meacham leads us in a thorough review of our history: early (and conflicted) visions, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, its aftermath (Reconstruction, the Klu Klux Klan), Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and our entry into world affairs, the Depression, FDR, McCarthyism, Martin Luther King, and LBJ. Throughout he gives us the sense that all human beings, and, indeed, our so-called “leaders,” are both selfish and altruistic, often at the same moment.

We are both hopeful and fearful. It is, again, a story of trying to organize ourselves when we are simultaneously rational and irrational.

Meacham is a storehouse of relevant quotes from earlier observers. As an example, his last six pages cite 28 comments of others, often at length.

But his narrative ends with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Yes, that was a momentous achievement, but our scrambling did persist thereafter. As Sean Wilentz, in his New York Times review on June 10, 2018 explained, “Suddenly we are thrust back into the present with little understanding of how we got here from there”. What has gone wrong, or has, indeed, anything gone wrong? Are we simply, as so often in the past, struggling to find reasonable courses of action, both domestically and internationally?

Perhaps an answer lies in his quote of Eisenhower on leadership: “It’s persuasion – and conciliation – and education – and patience.” But are we ready, even willing, to accept that rational guidance?

Throughout, the author cites our very human compulsion to accept ”the most ancient of institutions, a powerful chief” connected to “the more modern of institutions, a free, disputatious populace.” Can they work together? Is our system really worthwhile (a strong executive, balanced by an equally strong legislature and judiciary)?

I continue to look with envy at a system almost as old (created in 1848), the one in Switzerland: seven rotating presidents, each serving a one year term, with a strong Assembly and local cantonal legislatures. And the Swiss employ four languages! It works and it has much less publicity …

Meacham’s five concluding “ideas”: (1) Enter the Arena, (2) Resist Tribalism, (3) Respect Facts and Deploy Reason, (4) Find a Critical Balance, and (5) Keep History in Mind.

Keep listening, reading, and thinking!

Editor’s Note: ‘The Soul of America’ by Jon Meacham was published by Random House, New York in 2018.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly?  ‘Doing Justice’ by Preet Bharara

This is an entrancing, literate, and thought-provoking review of the experiences of the former U. S Attorney for the fabled Southern District of New York, now on the faculty of the NYU School of Law.

 “Justice is a broad and hazy subject”, he writes. “It is one of the most elusive and debatable concepts known to mankind, and disagreements over its meaning have spawned revolutions, religions, and civil wars.”  He argues its importance as “it seems preferred these days to demonize one’s opponents rather than engage them, to bludgeon critics rather than win them over. There is creeping contempt for the truth and expertise. Rigor is wanting everywhere. We swim in lies, never corrected … This moment in America (is) alarming.”

This is an odyssey of Bharara’s own experiences, focusing on many legal cases, a continuing search for “justice” found in engaging stories of human frailty. He argues for balance: “I have not only a healthy skepticism for the potential guilt of any suspect but also the necessary converse, skepticism of the innocence of any person.”  He adds, “the key is to make sure that prudent hesitation does not turn into paralysis and that responsible aggressiveness does not turn into recklessness.”

 His chapter on “Confirmation Bias”, natural to all of us, argues that every conclusion must be subject to challenge and revision.”  That on “Curiosity and Query” suggests that “dumb questions” are often the best to ask. That on “The Principles of Interrogation” note that “patience and humanity outperform threats and brute force every times” as proven in experience at Guantanamo. That on “Continuity and Change” concludes that “mindless adherence to old ways is, I think, worthy of mockery. Tradition is good and useful and grounding. But lazy habit and knee-jerk hostility to change are not tradition: they are an intellectual strati jacket.”

 Bharara presents his thoughts because, he argues, today “a crisis persists in public discourse and political debate. It is coarse and vicious and tone-deaf. Truth is a victim of self-interest and extreme tribalism, as are decorum and respect. The very notion of civility — and even the need for it – are hotly debated. Meanwhile the political tribes insulate themselves more than ever.”

This worried lawyer concludes with some cogent counsel: (1) “Justice, as I keep repeating, is done by human beings.” (2) Much of the time, your most important job as a lawyer is not to talk; it is to listen.” And (3)  “ …  probability is not certainty, and the uncertainty is always palpable.”.

I have a young grand-daughter, who has expressed interest in the law: I’m sending a copy of Preet Bharara’s challenging book to her to encourage that interest.

Editor’s Note: ‘Doing Justice’ by  Preet Bharara was published by  Alfred A. Knopf, New York in 2019.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly: ‘The Sense of Style’ by Steven Pinker

Every day we use words to communicate, in voice, letters, emails, reports, and even tweets. But do others really understand us?

Perhaps it is time to refresh our use of the English language. Steven Pinker, a renowned Harvard professor and author, suggests “the effective use of words to engage the human mind” (my italics), in his latest book.

“Style still matters,” he argues. It gets messages across, earns trust, and, perhaps most important, adds beauty to the world. We need to develop our “instinct for language,” coming from both reading and conversation, avoiding both the overly rigid rules of semanticists and simultaneously, the confusing colloquialisms of day-to-day communication. Trash such as “like” and  “you know”!

Pinker is an engaging writer. He begins by recommending a re-read of three earlier commentators on language: William Strunk and E. B. White’s immortal The Elements of Style (1959), Henry Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1926), and Theodore Bernstein’s The Careful Writer (1968).

But Pinker moves on from those writers, as does our language. Today, he cites the common problems of overuse of jargon, abbreviations, and technical vocabulary. He reminds us of Strunk and White’s repeated urging for simplicity. Avoid passive sentences and lengthy phrases. Use the active sense. Be brief.  Paragraph breaks: not too many and not too few. Avoid the “prissy use of quotation marks.”

One writer’s problem today is how to avoid the overuse of masculine nouns, when we are cautioned to use feminine or neuter. Pinker follows his own advice, alternating in each chapter, using masculine first as the object and then the subject, then the feminine, avoiding altogether the ugly and confusing neuter words.

For many years, I’ve followed the counsel of Occam’s Razor (the simpler answer may be correct). Pinker introduces Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” I’ll use this in my next critique of politicians.

Pinker meanders a bit in his chapters on diagramming sentences (too complex; I prefer my own ear) and coherence (do we really need to understand the wars between prescriptivists and descriptivists?) These chapters are often overly detailed, although rich in examples.

By far his best chapter is his longest (117 pages), “Telling Right From Wrong”. It is a detailed discussion of possibilities, often with no “right” answers. Examples: split infinitives; shall versus willthat and whichwho and whom; “very unique”; plus a section on words as seen and used by purists and relativists. How do you define and use decimate; convince; presently (one of my pet peeves); adverse versus averse; bemused; data (singular or plural?); fortuitous; irregardless (ugh!); parameter; tortuous; and the use of serial commas.

More damn fun and Pinker will change your habits. Enjoy stringing words together and above all, be coherent.

Editor’s Note: ‘The Sense of Style’ by Steven Pinker was published by Viking, New York 2014

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Elastic’ by Leonard Mlodinow

This author writes, “ Today we consume, on average, a staggering 100,000 words of new information each day from various media, . . . a tidal wave of data . . . an unprecedented torrent of chaos . . . . “ It is his exploration of how human minds work when confronted with incessant and confusing change.

He challenges us to consider new ways of thinking, ways to use our brains, in light of this flood:

·      “the capacity to let go comfortable ideas and become accustomed to ambiguity and contradictions.”

·      Then “willingness to experiment and become tolerant of failure.”

·      Leading to “elastic thinking, a nonlinear mode of processing in which multiple treads of thought may be pursued in parallel”.

Mlodinow challenges, indeed encourages, our genetic ability to “make great adjustments”, contradicting centuries of fixed dogma handed down by soothsayers, priests, popes, imams, philosophers, and the millions who accept fixed ideas in return for a modicum of mental certainty. He suggests we become “neophiliac”, “attracted to both novelty and change.” For many of us that is a tall order, but Mlodinow makes a convincing argument. As he says, “The good news, as we face increasing novelty and accelerating change inn human society, is that although the changes are disruptive,. . . . Most of us have a good dose of neophilia in our genetic inheritance”.

Here’s how he explains it, “We tend to make quick initial assessments of issues based on the assumptions of the paradigms we follow. When people challenge our assessment, we tend to push back. Whatever our politics, the more we argue with others, the further we can dig I, and sometimes vilify those who disagree. Then we reinforce our ideas by preaching to the choir—our friends. But the mental flexibility to consider theories that contradict our beliefs and don’t fit our existing paradigms not only can make you a genius in science; it is also beneficial in everyday life.”

Mlodinow encourages “the symphonies in idle minds”, noting that our “unconscious minds” are at work all the time: “the brain is active even when a person is not engaged in conscious thought.” He goes on to encourage, therefore, “mindfulness,” those moments when we avoid deliberate though, when we can pause, reflect, and let the mind roam. Don’t even look at your cell phone for 24 hours! “Take a few minutes in the morning after you wake up to simply lie in bed” and “stare at the ceiling” – relax the mind. He also makes several references to the techniques of Buddhism, especially its Zen approach. For those so interested,, do try Robert Wright’s  Why Buddhism Is True (2017).

His suggestion: “history—and ordinary human life—is full of opportunities missed by not recognizing that change has occurred and that the previously unthinkable is now doable.”

This fascinating writer concludes: “ To be successful today, we must not only cope with the flood of knowledge and data about the present; we must also be able to anticipate the future, because change happens so rapidly that what works now will be dated and irrelevant tomorrow. The world today is a moving target.”

So open up our minds. And, if you are receptive, try some of his earlier words: Feynman’s Rainbow (2003); The Drunkard’s Walk (2008)and Subliminal (2012).

Editor’s Note: ‘Elastic’ by Leonard Mlodinow was published by Pantheon Books, New York 2018.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ by Yuval Noah Harari

“I’m not trying to predict the future,” Yuval Harari argued in an Edge (an international group of the curious – see www.edge.org) discussion with Daniel Kahneman (March 5, 2015). “I’m trying to identify the horizon of possibilities that we are facing.”

Professor Harari, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an Oxford PhD, wrote this incredibly imaginative alternate view of the entire 200,000-year history of our species, Homo sapiens, on this earth, a mammal with a uniquely large brain. He suggests we have survived and prospered, perhaps too much, through the use of myths: “large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths,” even though we now know, “there are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.”

Harari re-thinks just about every “myth” that confuses our practices as human beings.

This “history” challenges our numerous “misconceptions” by stepping back from all we thought we knew, separating the growth of human existence through three “revolutions” of human existence: the cognitive (when we learned to think and communicate), the agricultural (when we shifted from nomadic movement to a more sedentary life), and the scientific (when we began asking “why” and “how.”).

In doing so he manages to skewer, with both rational argument and good humor, most of our cherished beliefs. And how little we actually know about our predecessors, saying, “a curtain of silence shrouds tens of thousands of years of history,” simply because of our lack of language and surviving relics.

What about the disappearances of many earlier species? We’ve been taught that climatic conditions or perhaps asteroids were the causes. Harari argues that we, homo sapiens, are more likely responsible for their demise than crashes or dramatic climate changes (ice ages, he notes, have occurred about once every 100,000 years). Our earth’s climate “is in constant flux” and most species have been able to adapt.

But many could not adapt to us!

As a student of risk management, I was interested to learn that our Agricultural Revolution, beginning about 12,000 years ago also increased our concern about our future, linked with the new “fundamental uncertainty of agriculture.” That is when we constructed “an imagined order.” Harari cites both the Code of Hammurabi (circa 1776 BCE) and the American Declaration of Independence (1776) as “imagined orders” that enabled “us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society.”

Acceptance of these “imagined orders” became “ embedded in the natural world and shaped our desires.” They “existed within the community network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals.” Imagined orders both free and imprison us …

They are, Harari argues, how humans “organized themselves into mass cooperative networks.”  They result in “imagined hierarchies” and “unjust discrimination” such as the Hindu caste system and the Babylonian separation of human beings into “superior men,” “commoners,” and “slaves.”

But, for example, do the “fundamental values” of equality and individual freedom (liberty) contradict each other? Harari suggests they do but that “this is no defect. Such contradictions are an inseparable part of every human culture. In fact, they are culture’s engines, responsible for the creativity and dynamism of our species.”

Money is also a shared myth. It is wholly imaginary but it does create healthy inter-dependence. Money is a “purely mental revolution” to “represent systemically the value of other things for the purpose of exchanging goods and services.”

Today, “more than 90 percent of all money – more than $50 trillion appearing in our accounts — exists only on computer servers.” Bitcoin, indeed! Money is the “apogee of human tolerance,” based on two “universal principles: convertibility and trust.”

Harari steps back and also studies religion, “a system of human norms and values founded on a belief in a superhuman order.” Religion moves from animism, to polytheism, to monotheism, to dualism, to socialist humanism, and, most recently, to evolutionary humanism. It appears to be a human construct.

Questions always remain: “Are we out of the global economic crisis, or is the worst yet to come? Will China continue growing until it becomes the leading superpower? Will the United States lose its hegemony? Is the upsurge of monotheistic fundamentalism the wave of the future or a local whirlpool of little long-term significance? Are we headed toward ecological disaster or technological paradise?”

Our most recent “revolution,” the Scientific, says Harari, began on July 16, 1945 at 05:29:53 with the explosion of the first atomic bomb. It also coincided with the explosion of population: 500 million in 1500 and 7.3 billion in 2015. One of the keys to our scientific progress has been “our willingness to admit ignorance,” leading to insatiable curiosity and constructive, mathematical observation. But we also have an “obsession with military technology.”

Is it time to “rethink the idea of continual progress?”

Are we obsessed with “growth?” Harari answers, “For better or worse, in sickness and in health, the modern economy has been growing like a hormone-soused teenager.”  But is perpetual growth an illusion or “will this idea burst like all bubbles?”

His reply: “When growth becomes a supreme good, unrestricted by any other ethical considerations, it can easily lead to catastrophe.” Or will “ecological turmoil endanger the survival of homo sapiens itself?” Will only rats and cockroaches survive our insanity, as also suggested by Elizabeth Kolbert in The Sixth Extinction?

And what about “the pursuit of happiness?” Harari suggests a biological approach to happiness, that our natural system releases serotonin and other organic compounds to produce “ephemeral eddys of good fortune,” but never long-lasting and always returning us to a median level of euphoria. “Happiness” is, to him, entirely subjective, despite the story of Huxley’s “soma.”

How will it all end? Will advancing technology produce cyborgs of all of us, enabling individuals to “live” for hundreds of years, or will we simply destroy our species, leaving smiling cockroaches?

Harari’s last questions are: “What do we want to become?” and “What do we want to want?” Unanswerable, of course, but we are innately curious and creative!

Editor’s Note: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari is published by HarperCollins, New York 2015.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Why Homer Matters’ by Adam Nicolson

Our son, a teacher of English and a sailor, recommended this new study of the Homeric poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. I had read them in the Robert Fagles translations, the first in 1996, the second a year later. Nicolson’s learned and lyrical commentary brings these 4,000-year-old stories into a fresh perspective of how memory, epic and history are important to us.

He argues that Homer “makes the distant past as immediate to us as our own lives.” In addition, the author is an accomplished sailor, adding to his understanding of Odysseus’s peregrinations throughout the Mediterranean.

These poems present a “plunging perspective into the ancient,” seeking “a form of reassurance that in the end there is some kind of understanding in the world … a braided stream of possibilities pouring into the present out of the past.” Nicolson adds, “no place for Homer is more filled with tragedy than the beach, ”a point of transition for the Greeks transforming themselves from a land-based horde to sea-faring seekers.”

But who was Homer?

Nicolson suggests, “there was no human being called Homer; his words are the descendants of memory and power, the offspring of the muse who had a beautiful voice.” Stories were created, then passed along from generation to generation through memory and song, always modified to fit more current conditions.

“Homer was an ancient inheritance in the eighth century BC … already a thousand years old … The Homeric poems, or at least versions of them, were written down … perhaps about 725 BC, or maybe as much as a century later.” And even then successive scribes often altered the written versions. “Homer is haunted by the threat of transience, by the way memory fails and meanings drift in the face of time.”

To Nicolson the Iliad is “ … a tapestry of sorrow, in which the noncity is set against the city, where the marginal and contingent confront the settled and the secure … the loved against the abused, the creative against the destructive forces of life.” And, yes, even today!

The Greeks attacking Troy were northerners, Indo-Europeans, “their roots in the steppelands of Eurasia … semi-nomadic pastoralists” exhibiting “the hero complex: maleness, heroic individuality and dominance.”  Their theme: “… we are all vagabonds on earth, nothing belongs to us, our lives have no consequence and our possessions are dross. We are wanderers, place shifters, the cosmic homeless.” The settled, affluent, and wealthy Trojans didn’t have a chance.

Much of this recurs in the Odyssey: “the heart of the poem is this contingency, the absence of any over-riding permanence,” the continuous search for meaning..

Nicolson’s frequent allusions to sailing are almost elegiac. Here is one about the Odyssey: “They won’t be wrecked on the illusions of nostalgia, the longing for that heroized, antique world, because . . . to live well in the world, nostalgia must be resisted; you must stay with your ship, stay tied to the present, remain mobile, keep adjusting the rig, work with the swells, watch for the wind-shift, watch as the boom swings over, engage, in other words, with the muddle and duplicity and difficulty of life. Don’t be tempted into the lovely simplicities that the heroic past seems to offer.”

Solid counsel for some of our politicians today!

While the Homeric poems illustrate the horrific mores of some 4000 years ago, “ . . . the usefulness of violence, the lack of regret at killing, the subjection and selling of women, the extinction of all men in a surrendering city or the sense that justice resides in personal revenge,” “what is valuable and essential in these poems is the opposite of that: the ability to regard all aspects of life with clarity, equanimity and sympathy, with a loving heart and an unclouded eye.”

Homer “provides no answers, ”… but simply illustrates, “the complexity of life, the bubbling vitality of a boat at sea, the resurgent energy, as he repeatedly says, of the bright wake starting to gleam behind you.”

To conclude: “So now, each time the wind fills in, and you roll your headsails out and get the main up, and you feel the boat starting to gather way, to pick up its skirts, unable to resist the pull of the wind, you will know something essential of the Homeric world. Here under the bow you can listen, like the Phaeacians carrying Odysseus home, to the water surge and fall, that repeated hoosssh-hoosssh of a hull at speed.

And here, as you make your way between the blue islands, the boat heeled far over and the curves of the headsails bellied out to leeward, you can begin to know and sense the power of possibility in the well-balanced, well-benched ship, equipped with all it needs, acquiring the world, stretching the idea of what it means to be alive, leading men to adventure, home or war.”

Isn’t it time to read Nicolson and reread the Iliad and the Odyssey?

Editor’s Note: ‘Why Homer Matters’ by Adam Nicolson was published by Henry Holt & Co., New York 2014.
Felix Kloman
About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.
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Reading Uncertainly: ‘The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World’ by Maya Jasanoff

Having read all of Patrick O’Brian, plus his biography (see LymeLine, Feb. 22, 2018), and having read most of that other great author of sea stories in the 20th Century, Joseph Conrad, it was only natural to launch into this latest study of him by Harvard’s Maya Jasanoff.

Josef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski was as compulsive a reader as O’Brian, but this Pole added global travel to his years. Born to Polish parents in the Ukraine in 1857, he followed his banished father to Nizhny Novgorod in Russia (this city was where Count Alexander Rostov ended in Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow: see my review in LymeLine, Dec. 17, 2017!), he returned to Poland, then went to sea from France and ended an English gentleman and author.

Jasanoff’s thesis is that, “Conrad watched the emergence of the globally interrelated world …” first from Eastern Europe, then from various sailing ships in the Far East and Africa, and finally from southern England. While early on he was “obsessed with becoming a sailor” he also found that, “in books he could travel the world.” For a life at sea, Conrad wrote “There’s rarely something to look at, there’s always something to see. People are always asleep, people are always awake. You’re never alone, you’re always isolated.”

Two delightful bits that recalled to me my few years at sea: (1) “Having matured in the surroundings and under the special conditions of sea life, I have a special piety toward that form of my past …” and (2) “For utter surrender to indolence you cannot beat a sailor ashore when that mood is on him, the mood of absolute irresponsibility tasted to the full.”

Jasanoff concludes thus with her linkage of Conrad to our increasingly interconnected world, “What Conrad had made me see, I realized, was a set of forces whose shapes may have changed but whose challenges have not. Today’s hearts of darkness are to be found in other places where civilizing missions serve as covers for exploitation. The heirs of Conrad’s technologically displaced sailors (steam replacing sail) are to be found in industries disrupted by digitization. The analogues to his anarchists are to be found in Internet chat rooms or terrorist cells. The material interests he centered in the United States emanate today as much from China.”

So perhaps it was only natural that I turned again to Conrad himself in A Personal Record, first published in 1908 when he was 50-years-old. Some jewels:
“It is better for mankind to be impressionable than reflective. Nothing humanly great—great, I mean as affecting a whole mass of lives—has come from reflection.”
“Only in men’s imagination does every truth find an effective and undeniable existence. Imagination, not invention, is the supreme master of art as of life. An imaginative and exact rendering of authentic memories may serve worthily that spirit of piety toward all things human which sanction the conceptions of a writer of tales, and the emotions of the man reviewing his own experience.”
And, of course …
“Books are an integral part of one’s life.”

Editor’s Note: ‘The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World’ by Maya Jasanoff was published by Penguin Press, New York, 2017.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly: ‘The Fifth Risk’ by Michael Lewis

Is our government too bloated, too intrusive, too expensive?

Is it a “swamp” that needs to be drained if we are to survive?

Michael Lewis, the author of such jewels as Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Big Short, Flash Boys (see my review of 12/15/2014) and The Undoing Project (see my review of 1/22/2018), has been stimulated by the election of Donald Trump and Trump’s “willful ignorance” and “subsequent incoherence” to step back and take a serious look at a few departments of our government.

Lewis has selected the work of the Departments of Energy (controlling nuclear waste), Commerce (predicting the weather), and Agriculture (assuring food safety), and using in-depth discussions with selected government servants illustrates what is seldom acknowledged – the long-term contributions of much of what goes on at the federal level.

Part of the problem in Lewis’ word is that we have ”two million federal employees taking orders from four thousand political appointees. Dysfunction is baked into the structure of the thing …”

He leads this analysis with the words of John MacWilliams, the Department of Energy’s “first ever chief risk officer.” MacWilliams offers his top four risks as the threat of nuclear disaster, North Korea, Iran, and protecting our electrical grid from cyber-terrorism.

But topping all four is the broader inadequacy of “project management” in the US. MacWilliams states, “managing risks (is) an act of the imagination. And the human imagination is a poor tool for judging risk … They (humans) are less good at imagining a crisis before it happens—and taking action to prevent it.”

Lewis goes on to explain, “ … the risk a society runs when it falls into the habit of responding to long-term risks with short-term solutions,” results in, “ … the innovation that never occurs, and the knowledge that is never created.” He concludes, “We need doubtful and forever curious students of possibilities.”

Lewis’ answer is that the long-term and continuing government work of managing the risks of nuclear waste, unusual weather, and food safety has been successful … if not exceptional.

But is this work threatened by the current administration?

To Lewis, “Trump’s budget … is powered by a perverse desire—to remain ignorant.” And that seems to have led to “a rift in American life … between the people who are in it for the mission and the people who (are) in it for the money.”

So what is “risk”?

Lewis quotes David Friedman, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who says, “Risk is uncertainty about the outcome.” We can never be certain of what will occur, but we can certainly try to be.

And that leads to his final sentence, “It’s what you fail to imagine that kills you.”

A most provocative and coherent analysis.

Editor’s Note: ‘The Fifth Risk’ by Michael Lewis is published by W. W. Norton, New York 2018.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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