Friday, September 29, 2021
Volume 2, Issue 38


I have spent more time reading and less time writing in recent weeks. Here are some of the books I read over the summer along with brief comments. It is possible that some of these books might be reviewed in more detail on The Rational Walk in the future. Check out the book review page for past reviews.

The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy by David Nasaw. The narrative arc of this book centers on the remarkable life of Joseph P. Kennedy, but the author also does an excellent job describing the political landscape of the United States in the first half of the twentieth century. After building a fortune on Wall Street and making a name for himself in Hollywood, Kennedy was one of the few wealthy men who supported Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and joined his administration. Kennedy seriously misjudged the threat of Nazi Germany and became wedded to an isolationist ideology. Badly damaged politically after WWII, Kennedy pursued his political ambitions vicariously through the lives of his sons, especially JFK. His story ends tragically. Crippled by a stroke for the final eight years of his life and rendered mute, he lived to see the assassination of two of his sons before dying in 1969 at the age of 81. 

The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race by Walter Isaacson. The ability to take a complex scientific subject and make it accessible for the general public without dumbing it down is a rare skill. This is exactly what Isaacson has done with The Code Breaker. The narrative follows the career of Jennifer Doudna and her collaborators as they developed CRISPR, a technology that can be used for gene editing. Doudna’s discoveries open up many possibilities for editing the human genome, some of which are very troubling. However, her work also had a major role in making possible the mRNA vaccines for COVID-19. Doudna is not unaware of the ethical issues related to modifications of the human genome. She describes a recurring nightmare in which she is led into a room to describe gene editing to a political leader who turned out to be Adolf Hitler. Isaacson obviously spent the time to gain significant technical knowledge without which he could not have produced a book comprehensible to a non-technical audience.

The Cellist by Daniel Silva. This is the 21st installment of Daniel Silva’s series about the fictional Gabriel Allon’s exploits within Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad. These books are typical of the spy novel genre and good for a plane ride or beach vacation. But I found the latest installment somewhat repetitive in terms of plot lines and characters from prior books. Silva also seems to want to remind us constantly about the COVID pandemic. Well, many people like to read novels to escape dystopian aspects of their actual lives rather than reading about social distancing in the pages of a spy novel. Several of Silva’s characters are also obvious stand-ins for real political leaders such as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Silva has strong political views and isn’t reluctant to infuse his novel with these views. I’ve read all of his novels and will probably read the next one. But I found this one disappointing.

Fallen Leaves: Last Words on Life, Love, War, and God by Will Durant. At the end of a long life, historian Will Durant put together a series of short chapters that provide his views on various aspects of the human condition and his recommendations for living a meaningful life. Durant died in 1981 at the age of 96 and this collection was published posthumously long after his death. Although Durant has been criticized regarding some of his views, particularly related to women, he collaborated with his wife as an equal on several books. He was a product of his times. Reading this book feels like you’re visiting with an old man smoking a pipe in some old fashioned sitting room as he pontificates on various subjects, but I mean that in a good way. Most of his books are out of print but I plan to look for them on the used market.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. I first heard about this book during the 2016 election cycle when it was much discussed as a window into the difficulties faced by lower income white people in rural Appalachia and the Midwest. The author subsequently entered politics and is running for election to the United States Senate in 2022 in Ohio. I found the book genuine rather than a typical puff piece written by politicians as they prepare to run for office. In fact, some of the stories in the book are so awful that it is hard to believe that Vance had political ambitions at the time it was written. I have no direct exposure to Vance’s world other than driving through rural Appalachia myself on a few occasions. As an obvious outsider, I’ve always been treated politely, but always as an outsider. I came away from the book with a somewhat better understanding of the problems of the region.

The Incerto by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. This is the third time I have read Taleb’s Incerto, which is comprised of Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, The Bed of Procrustes, Antifragile, and Skin in the Game. The books are all available individually, but for my re-reading, I decided to purchase a hardcover box set which I found to be very high quality and a pleasure to read. As Taleb says “If a book can be summarized, it’s not a book but a magazine article; don’t read it and don’t read its summary.” I won’t attempt to summarize the books, but I will say that they are must-reads for anyone dealing with uncertainty and risk. Taleb’s style of conveying his thoughts in the form of a personal essay, often using fictional characters and aphorisms, is unique and enjoyable to read. Taleb frequently bolsters the narrative with technical footnotes and appendices, most of which are not integral to understanding his main points.

Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck. I’ve read a number of Steinbeck’s books this year but when my summer travel plans were ruined by fires in California, I decided to re-read an old travel favorite. In the fall of 1960, John Steinbeck embarked upon a ten thousand mile adventure in a three-quarter ton pickup truck equipped with a camper. He was a man getting on in years accompanied by Charley, his dog, who was getting on in years. The narrative is a travel story but infused with Steinbeck’s skeptical views regarding modernity. He tried to stay on the backroads, avoiding the new turnpikes where everything was becoming homogenized. The story ends as Steinbeck aborts his leisurely trip and drives straight back to his home in New York, disgusted by the racism he saw in the Deep South. Ever since I first read this book decades ago, I have wanted to explore America in a truck camper. 

The Great Mental Models Volume 3: Systems and MathematicsThis is the third installment of Farnam Street’s Great Mental Model series. As was the case with Volume 1 and Volume 2, Shane Parrish and his team have done a great job presenting bedrock principles that will help improve human decision making. This book focuses on systems and mathematics. For example, the discussion of systems includes the concept of bottlenecks and the importance of focusing on bottlenecks first when attempting to improve system flow. The mathematics section includes a chapter on compounding, a concept that also can be used as a metaphor for life, especially in multi-disciplinary learning. This book is well worth reading but I think it might have benefited from more mathematical examples and illustrations. There is little actual math in the book. Also, as was the case in the prior volumes, the book lacks an index.


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