What I’ve Been Reading

Published on March 31, 2023

Thoughts on the books I read in Q1 2023

“In every man’s memories there are such things as he will reveal not to everyone, but perhaps only to friends. There are also such as he will reveal not even to friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. Then, finally, there are such as a man is afraid to reveal even to himself, and every decent man will have accumulated quite a few things of this sort. That is, one might even say: the more decent a man is, the more of them he will have.”

— “Underground Man” quoted in Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky1

recent study found that Americans spend an average of two hours and forty-six minutes per day watching television. This is about 250 hours per quarter. I read close to 3,000 pages during the first quarter at a pace of roughly twenty-five pages per hour. So, I spent approximately 120 hours reading books during the quarter, less than half the time the typical American spends watching television.

Like any habit, reading requires some initial effort but soon becomes a daily routine. For nearly a decade, I have avoided television except for live sports. More recently, I drastically reduced time on the internet, particularly when it comes to the pointless dystopia of social media. I have the choice of spending my time consuming timeless wisdom or mindless nonsense that will be irrelevant in hours or days. 

How we choose to spend our limited time is a matter of priorities. 

Flights of Fancy: Defying Gravity by Design and Evolution

Author: Richard Dawkins
Year of Publication: 2022
Length: 286 pages

Why are some animals capable of flight and how did they gain that ability? How did human beings finally conquer the skies? How did we go from the Wright Brothers achieving the first heavier-than-air flight in 1903 to Yuri Gagarin’s first manned spaceflight in 1961 to Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon in 1969?

This new book by Richard Dawkins answers many questions about the mechanics of what is required to fly, how evolution provided animals with that capacity, and how human beings have been able to conquer the skies despite have a physical anatomy that makes flight unaided by technology utterly impossible. The book’s message is enhanced by Jana Lenzová’s excellent illustrations which appear on nearly every page.

Although this book might not impress those who are already familiar with the topic at a deep scientific level, nearly everyone will encounter surprising facts in the pages of this book. I think it is ideal for young people and adults alike. 

Read my full book review of Flights of Fancy

Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy

Author: Jostein Gaarder
Year of Publication: 1991
Length: 507 pages

This novel is about a fourteen year old girl in a small Norwegian village who encounters an eccentric philosopher, at first through mysterious letters, and then in a series of meetings. The book is an attempt to blend elements of a novel with education on philosophers from Socrates and Plato to Hegel and Marx. I purchased the book as a Christmas gift for my niece and bought a copy for myself as well.

While the book does provide a good introduction to philosophy, there is a parallel storyline that gets stranger and stranger, culminating in a truly bizarre ending. At times, I felt that the book could have been quite a bit shorter if the goal is to provide a primer on philosophy. However, the storyline is intended to engage young readers who might find a straightforward treatment of philosophy boring and tedious.

The protagonist displays minor tendencies toward rebellion and readers might find it alarming that a teenage girl would befriend a middle aged male philosopher with no known connections to the community. Indeed, the protagonist’s mother was quite alarmed, but the situation was innocent. Aside from the eccentric elements, I think that the book is an interesting introduction to philosophy for teenagers.

The Song of the Cell

Author: Siddhartha Mukherjee
Year of Publication: 2022
Length: 379 pages

Last year, I read Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book on cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies. That book does a great job demystifying a very complicated and scary topic for a non-technical audience. With recent advances in surgery, chemotherapy, radiology, and immunotherapies, modern cancer treatment has given hope to patients who would have faced certain death sentences not long ago. 

The Song of the Cell is a sweeping account of the history of cellular biology going back to the seventeenth century and progressing to the rapid scientific advances of recent decades. Understanding the development of living organisms ranging from the simplest forms of life to amazingly complex human beings is all based on a foundation of understanding the function of the “cellular ecosystem.”

While I found this book very interesting, it requires a level of effort that far exceeds The Emperor of All Maladies. The main text in the book can get quite technical and there are numerous even more technical footnotes and endnotes. The topic is inherently complex, and Mukherjee does a good job of making it as accessible as possible for a general audience. However, I admit to feeling lost at certain points despite investing considerable time and effort. 

Readers who are considering this book might be interested in a recent discussion between Peter Attia and Siddhartha Mukherjee on The Drive podcast. The YouTube version of the podcast appears below and the podcast website includes audio as well as notes and further resources related to the book.

Four Seasons: The Story of a Business Philosophy

Author: Isadore Sharp
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 289 pages

Isadore Sharp, the founder of Four Seasons, built his business around the concept of providing exceptional and uncompromising service for busy executives and other wealthy travelers. Four Seasons is known for charging the highest room rates in a city and still attracting customers, many of whom are so loyal to the brand that they would hardly think of staying anywhere else almost regardless of cost. 

I can vouch for the high level of service provided by Four Seasons.

Several years ago, I was responsible for planning a trip for a group of family members, one of whom uses a wheelchair. From previous experiences, I knew that booking a five star hotel was the best way to avoid issues with accessibility, but Four Seasons went far beyond my expectations. When we arrived with a broken wheelchair, the staff scoured the city for the right replacement parts and fixed the wheelchair the same afternoon at no cost. Four Seasons saved our group at least a day of stress and hassles.

Read my full book review of Four Seasons: The Story of a Business Philosophy

The Shape of Water

Author: Andrea Camilleri
Year of Publication: 1994
Length: 224 pages

This is the first book in a twenty-eight book series about the adventures of Inspector Montalbano, a detective based in Sicily. The book begins with a tawdry scene when garbage collectors happen to find a car with a dead body in it. The man in the car held a great deal of influence in the small town of Vigàta and the fact that his car was found in a location known for prostitution required handling the case with some discretion given the prevalence of organized crime and corruption on the island.

Camilleri’s book was originally written in Italian, perhaps for an audience more familiar with the country’s organized crime scene, and it is possible some nuances were lost in translation. I found the narrative interesting but not quite as compelling as the Gabriel Allon series by Daniel Silva. I might read subsequent books in the Montalbano series to see how the character develops over time. I found aspects of the book depressing, especially related to the depraved nature of the characters involved. 

The Quartet: The Second American Revolution

Author: Joseph J. Ellis
Year of Publication: 2016
Length: 250 pages

The Declaration of Independence is one of the most important documents in human history. The notion that governments are legitimate only when they derive powers based on the consent of the people has been the cornerstone of the American political system for nearly 250 years. However, the Declaration was a statement of principles, not a roadmap for how the country was to be governed in practice.

When America won the war in 1783, the country had a weak federal government based on the Articles of Confederation which had been adopted by the Continental Congress in 1777. This was a feature rather than a bug in the eyes of many Americans who preferred a loose confederation of states to a strong federal government.

By the mid 1780s, it was clear that reforms were necessary and a convention was called to modify the Articles of Confederation. George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay were convinced that merely reforming the Articles would be insufficient. The quartet ultimately succeeded in crafting an entirely new Constitution that has remained in force to this day. Remarkably, the Constitution has only been amended twenty-seven times, with ten of the amendments being passed as The Bill of Rights soon after the Constitution went into effect.

Joseph Ellis takes a complex period of American history and makes it accessible to the general reader. Few Americans understand the intense political controversies of the 1780s and 1790s between those who supported a strong federal government and those who preferred a looser confederation. This controversy has never really ended. In modern times, we still argue about the extent of the federal government’s power. 

Without Precedent: John Marshall and His Times

Author: Joel Richard Paul
Year of Publication: 2019
Length: 442 pages

The United States Constitution is quite specific regarding the structure of the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. This is less true for the judicial branch and in the early days of the Republic, serving on the Supreme Court was not considered a particularly prestigious position. The court itself lacked its own building and was housed within the United States Capitol. The lack of a developed circuit court system meant that Supreme Court justices had to ride the circuit, traveling from city to city to hear cases. Enduring primitive roads, staying at dirty inns, and being away from family were hardly inducements to serve.

When John Marshall was appointed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1801 by President John Adams, he was the fourth man to serve in the position in just fourteen years. He served as Chief Justice for the next thirty-four years until his death in 1835. More than any other Chief Justice, Marshall shaped the role of the judiciary and the precedents set by his rulings continues to influence the court to this day. 

I read this book to gain a better understanding of the early years of the Supreme Court and the author does provide details on the most important decisions. However, as an objective biography, the book is flawed. The author puts John Marshall on a pedestal particularly when he comes into conflict with Thomas Jefferson who is caricatured as a malevolent character utterly unrecognizable to those of us who have studied Jefferson’s life. The rivalry between Marshall and Jefferson was legendary. As a Federalist, Marshall advocated for a much stronger central government than Jefferson preferred. Rather than being an impartial observer, the author puts himself in a partisan role squarely on the side of John Marshall. 

If there’s one myth reading this book will dispel, it is that the Supreme Court was ever apolitical. From its early days, Supreme Court justices were aware of their political role and frequently asserted their powers. Americans tend to have an idealized view of the founding fathers. While they were great men, they were hardly above getting in the mud to fight vicious ideological wars. This certainly included the judiciary.

With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

Author: E.B. Sledge
Year of Publication: 1981
Length: 320 pages

E.B. Sledge experienced hell on earth fighting in the Peleliu and Okinawa campaigns of World War II. His service with the 1st Marine Division as an enlisted man provided the vantage point for this memoir, written with the intention of being “the spokesman for my comrades, who were swept with me into the abyss of war.” The reader is exposed to the horrors of war in a visceral way that strategic accounts of war fail to provide. Sledgehammer, as he was known among friends in K Company, provides few opinions on overall strategy or politics. His account is literally from the trenches.

There is no way that I could do justice to this book or its author by trying to provide even a brief summary. The horrors documented in this book cannot be summarized. It is a miracle that E.B. Sledge emerged from the war at all given the intensity of the fighting and the number of casualties taken by K Company. There is a good reason we refer to those who fought in the Second World War as the greatest generation. E.B. Sledge represented his generation exceptionally well, both during the war and nearly four decades later when he published this book in 1981. 

China Marine: An Infantryman’s Life after World War II

Author: E.B. Sledge
Year of Publication: 2002
Length: 160 pages

When Japan finally surrendered in August 1945, E.B. Sledge “received the news with quiet disbelief coupled with an indescribable sense of relief.” He recalls sitting in stunned silence remembering the dead and maimed, thinking that Japan would never surrender. Soon after V-J Day, the 1st Marine Division went to North China on occupation duty with the primary goal of repatriating Japanese forces still in China.

China Marine is an account of E.B. Sledge’s service in Peiping, now Beijing, where he helped to maintain order in an environment of many opposing factions. In addition to dealing with defeated Japanese troops, China was in the midst of a civil war that would ultimately be won by the communists. While E.B. Sledge had quite a bit of time to explore Peiping and even befriended a local family, this was hardly risk free duty. 

Returning to the United States in early 1946, E.B. Sledge experienced difficulties integrating back into civilian society in his hometown of Mobile, Alabama. Americans who did not have exposure to combat had trouble understanding his experiences and too many people seemed to complain about trivial matters. Eventually, E.B. Sledge found his calling in biology, earning a Ph.D. at the University of Florida. “I found quite by accident that after a day of concentrating intensely on some difficult problem in biology or biochemistry, the war nightmares did not come that night.” He found his calling as a professor at the University of Montevallo. 

After reading E.B. Sledge’s books, I found the following interview on YouTube:

“My adjustment to civilian life was not easy. The freedom to come and go as I pleased was a novel experience for a former rifle-company Marine. Things civilians considered necessities seemed luxuries to me. (Fifty years later I still keenly appreciated the simple luxury of dry socks and clean clothes, a roof over my head, and sleeping in a bed with clean sheets.)

— E.B. Sledge

E.B. Sledge died on March 3, 2001 at the age of 77.

This article is part of a quarterly series of “mini reviews” of my reading. Prior installments in the series appear below:

Q4 2022 • Q3 2022 • Q2 2022 • Q1 2022 • Q4 2021 • Q3 2021

In addition to quarterly summaries, The Rational Walk has a Book Review page listing over a hundred titles reviewed since 2009.

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What I’ve Been Reading
  1. I read Notes from Underground this week but did not include it in the article because I do not feel like I grasped the central message. At 126 pages, I thought that this would be a quick read. However, I should have known better. Nothing written by Dostoevsky is ever a “quick read”. My mistake was that I did not read the introduction before reading the book. Normally, that is a good policy with novels since I have found that Everyman editions often have “spoilers” in the introduction (this was true for Tolstoy’s War and Peace among others). However, there is no way to understand Notes from Underground without having some understanding of the context of Russian society in the 1860s, a tumultuous period coinciding with the abolition of serfdom and the rise of competing intellectual philosophies that Dostoevsky sought to comment on. Without that context, Underground Man seems more than a little crazy much of the time. I plan to read this short book again in the near future. []
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