29 May 2021

Book report

Posted by Callan Bentley

It’s been a while since I’ve checked in with you on recent reads. I managed to read a few volumes over the course of the disjointed, stressful fall semester. Here are a few of the highlights:

How to be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi

An important book that explores racism in its many, many forms, structured around Kendi’s reflections on his growth as a person. The “memoir” aspect of the book touches on moments that illuminate some aspect of racism in the United States, including many of a deeply personal nature in the author’s life, and that then leads to more general discussions of capitalism, elitism, or racism within the Black community. One great theme that leaps out of these pages is the inherent racism that exists in all of us, because we have been raised within a racist society. What does “racist” mean in this context? Many things – but in short, it means perpetuating a series of policies that lead to inequality on the basis of race. The second great contribution of How to be an Antiracist is the careful articulation of a series of precise definitions of what it means to be racist in various contexts, and —equally importantly— what it means to be antiracist. Antiracism is a collection of behaviors and policies that lead to increasing equality for all people in our society. I found the rumors about this volume to be true: that it offers a fresh and clarifying interpretation of our societal situation, and by defining terms unambiguously and with compare/contrast examples, shows a way forward toward a better world. Thought-stimulating and recommended.

The Rendezvous, and other stories, by Patrick O’Brian

Patrick O’Brian wrote one of my favorite series of novels of all time, the astounding Aubrey/Maturin adventures. I’ve read several of his other books too, including several other adventure novels and a biography of Joseph Banks. But this is the first time I’ve delved into his short stories. As far as I can tell, this is the only collection of them under a hard cover. I found the stories to be a mixed bag. There were many moments of terrific writing, as you might expect, but overall I think that was outweighed by a pervasive sense of misery and gloom. These stories are almost uniformly about unhappy people in trying circumstances. A lot of them felt like they could have been written by Hemingway, in terms of mood and setting, though not sentence structure. So many focused on fishing, hunting ducks, hunting foxes with dogs. Sometimes this was mixed with the theme of unhappy relationships, sometimes the unhappy relationships were presented on their own. There were many sharp, well-observed details, but none of it really got my serotonin flowing the way an Aubrey/Maturin novel would.

The Invisible Library and The Masked City, by Genevieve Cogman

These are the first two novels in a fun series called “The Invisible Library.” In them, the job of “librarian” is raised to a new level: a spy and an adventurer, traversing alternate realities in search of unique books. The idea is that there is this awesome sounding, multi-square-mile Library that exists in a place out of time and space. Its agents can slip into different versions of the world, fighting against both local bad guys and rogue Library evildoers in a quest to balance chaos, magic, and science. The concept is very fun – visit a Victorian London choked with smog, but with battle alligators, werewolves, and zeppelins piloted by ornery cabbies. Protagonist Irene must mentor a smoldering trainee while sparring with the local detective, the proud culture of humanoid dragons, and a group of Slytherin-esque individuals called Fae. Plus there’s the office politics of the Library itself. The true charm of the series comes not so much from the genre blending of the alternate worlds as from Irene’s thought processes as she figures out her way forward through one crisis after another. The first book is a bit better than the second, but I look forward to seeing where the series leads.

What the Best College Teachers Do, by Ken Bain

This is a follow-up to a volume I read early last year, focused on student behavior. Here, Bain focuses on the approach, preparation, and guiding questions of highly effective professors. He looks at their behavior in terms of their mindset and respect for their students: their focus on learning and growth in their students. I picked up a few new perspectives and ideas from reading it. One is to brainstorm out and articulate all the motivational questions about why a particular course is worthwhile – what major questions does it help the student address? Another, more prosaic, is to make each exam cumulative, and each successive exam score replaces its predecessors, so students are continually motivated to learn and integrate their knowledge. Finally he makes a strong argument against late penalties for assignments that come in after the deadline. Most of the book focuses on broader material, but little of it felt new or uniquely insightful to me. Excellent professors care about their students, prepare thoughtfully, seek feedback, and are self-reflective. None of that struck me as particularly shocking. Also: For what it’s worth, I think the book designers made a mistake with the cover: the back of a silver-haired white man’s head? Come on.

Eating the Sun, by Oliver Morton

Finally, I’ll highlight the third of the great books written by Economist science/climate writer Oliver Morton. This one, from 2008, examines photosynthesis from every angle imaginable, telling a series of stories about scientific insights and the people who produced them in Morton’s characteristic prose: profound, playful, appreciative. To write compelling prose about the Calvin Cycle is a laudable achievement; I’m not sure it has ever been accomplished before! I was really impressed with the discussion of photorespiration and C4 photosynthesis as a response. Morton’s great distinction is his ability to get into the nittiest-grittiest details, while simultaneously retaining a serene sense of poetry about the whole matter. A discussion of entropy, for instance, leads to a comparison between fire and information. “Life,” Morton concludes, “is a flame with a memory.” He knows the right analogies to present to change the reader’s perspective on the matter. Another example, on the subject of the endosymbiosis of a cyanobacterium within an archeal host cell to make the proto-chloroplast: “Because humans are big creatures, it is natural for us to see the story of this symbiosis as starting with an act of ingestion. But from the cyanobacterial pint of view it was much more like a colonization. Photosynthetic bacteria had tackled a number of environments – the open ocean, bacterial mats in tidal flats, lake-bed sediments and many more – before the endosymbiosis. The insides of early eukaryotic cells were just another  new environment, one which, if permitted survival, would be colonized.” I’ve now read three of Morton’s four books, and each has changed the way I think about the planet I live on.