March, books 1, 2, and 3

I actually read all of these over the course of February, but I think I can cover them in one post.

This series is basically the story of civil rights in the US from the perspective of John Lewis. The story is framed by his interactions with President Obama as Obama is inaugurated.

I’m gonna say something a little heretical about these books. Although they’re excellent, for me they were somewhat victims of their hype. As a graphic way to tell John Lewis’ version of events, they were quite good, but at times, the story felt mildly disjointed. Some of this is, I presume, because the subject matter is just John Lewis recollecting things. But, I would’ve liked to see it organized in a way that carried the emotional arc more. I know this is asking a lot of a memoir, but compare it to, for example, Maus by Spiegelman. The latter is also a true story, and also a memoir of sorts, but every moment seems to be there for a reason.

One way in which the books are similar, yet different, is the use of framing devices. In Maus, it’s the son of the Shoah survivor’s attempt to make sense of himself and his relationship to his parents. I found it very strong, in part because it’s non-obvious – the father and son spend most of their time together fighting. It results in a beautifully nuanced character. The framing device in March is a bit more obvious and sentimental, and it’s not clear to me what it adds artistically.

That said, it’s still a fine series, and a great addition to your graphic novel collection. For me, it was kind of like Persepolis – great stuff, but it was missing that deeper note that the author seemed capable of.

March, books 1, 2, and 3 (Lewis)

Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich

What a delightful history of the Nazi relation (and Hitler’s relation in particular) to drugs, particularly methamphetamine. The author makes a compelling that the role of these drugs (which were used en masse during the Battle of France) has been underestimated. Similarly, the fact that Hitler had a personal physician who prescribed him all manner of drugs, up to and including speedballs, may have also been overlooked as an explanation of erratic behavior.

It’s a book full of stories I hadn’t heard elsewhere, and the perspective of history as viewed through pharmacology was new to me.

Blitzed (Ohler)

The Way of Strangers

Wood does an excellent job of trying to make you understand how people in the Islamic State think. A lot of it is personal memoirs and history, but most interesting of all, Wood argues that the West has often misunderstood Islamic State members, by either claiming that they’re purely the product of our own influence, or that they are not truly a religion, or that the people in charge are mere power seekers. To oversimplify a bit, Wood’s big point is that these people are best understood as religious people with a great deal of conviction, who believe in a fundamentalist interpretation of the Qu’ran, that leads to their awful behavior. Particularly memorable for me was a part where he mentions a conservative American scholar who believes we fail to understand ISIS because most of us in the secular West no longer understand the basic ideological framework that would lead someone to endure war and privation for religious beliefs.

The Way of Strangers (Wood)

Computing: A Concise History

This book is basically what the title claims. I was actually hoping for something a bit more technical, but this book really is concise and focused mostly on basic historical facts. If you don’t know anything about the history of computing, this is a great place to start. If you already know the basic deal, I’d skip it.

Computing: A Concise History (Ceruzzi)

The Adventure of English

A great little book describing the history of English. Its only flaw (which I hesitate to call a flaw because the author is quite aware of it) is that in the book’s exuberance for the specialness of English, it can get quite a bit too teleological. Just about any claim in English’s favor could be easily explained as survivor bias.

Still, it’s a fun romp through the history of the English language, and worth a read.

The Adventure of English (Bragg)

Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital

This is a well-researched history of New York’s Bellevue hospital. The author cleverly uses what is ostensibly a sort of biography of Bellevue to explore the history of medicine since the 18th century, and to explore the relation between hospitals, the government, and the public in the United States. It’s fascinating stuff.

Bellevue (Oshinsky)

Uncharted

Caveat: I have met and like one of the authors, so I am biased.

I enjoyed this book, though I worry time will treat it poorly, as it has already been victimized by the authors’ success. This book is basically a description of how the authors (and others) created google ngrams. It’s not just technical stuff either – it’s a lot of their philosophy of what they find interesting.

The problem is that a lot of the book consists of interesting patterns and correlation they found using ngrams. The correlations are neat, but given how popular ngrams has gotten (and especially its spike in popularity a few years ago, the examples don’t feel as exciting as they must’ve when the book first came out. This isn’t exactly a knock against the book, but it does make some large sections of it less interesting than they might’ve been.

Uncharted (Aiden, Michel)

The Master of Auschwitz

What a weird and fascinating memoir. Basically, while the British held him after the war, Höss wrote out a memoir, a few short documents, and some letters. They are collected in this book, which through its strangeness becomes a sort of lesson in evil. It is remarkable how utterly banal much of his descriptions of Auschwitz are. Much of his writing dwells on what are basically HR problems, having to do with lazy employees or employees who did a good job but created a bad work environment.

When the methods of mass murder are described, they are done in a remarkably clinical manner, almost as if he’s describing any sort of factory equipment, in terms of its efficiency and effectiveness.

There’s also a sense of incompleteness borne of inconsistency here. At times Höss seems prepared to apologize and admit he lost his way. At other times, he reaffirms his commitment to national socialism, or makes comments about how dangerous Jews are. He also, perhaps most inexplicably, complains about the bad treatment he felt he was receiving as a prisoner.

Definitely worth reading, as it is a sort of window into a particular form of deranged compartmentalization.

The Master of Auschwitz (Höss, ed. Pastore)

An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy

This is yet another book about the idea that we are in a period of stagnation in terms of economic improvement for the average western person. Although it was enjoyable, as a book it didn’t make a strong argument. Most of the book is (admittedly fascinating) historical tidbits about technological development, mostly in the 20th century leading up to the 1970s. Levinson’s perspective ultimately agrees with that of Robert Gordon and Tyler Cowen, at least to the extent that they all blame the nature of post-1970s technology for the failure to improve the average person’s life. And, like, the others, Levinson has hope that a few technologies on deck (e.g. self-driving cars) will reverse that trend.

An Extraordinary Time (Levinson)

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English

I’m still on this McWhorter kick. This one was good, but not as good as some of the others. It’s about English and its interactions with other languages. The bulk of the book is about the idea that repeated conquests of English speakers resulted in English being particularly simplified in terms of its grammar, especially compared to related languages. There is also a large section on a proposed link between Celtic and English grammar, and even a section positing links between German and Hebrew. The latter idea is based on the work of Theo Vennemann, whose ideas are (as far as I could tell from google and wikipedia) found to be interesting but probably wrong.

Because it’s McWhorter, there’s also a long lament about the popular usage of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. You get the feeling that his later book “The Language Hoax” was a great unburdening of linguistic angst.

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue (McWhorter)