Category Archives: The Book I Read

The Good Nurses

At first reflection, Charles Graeber’s 2013 book, The Good Nurse, might provoke dread in anyone who thinks they or their loved ones will depend at some time on the work of health care professionals. But my further thoughts about the story led me to affirm that, while anyone in Charles Cullen’s position could do what he did—kill dozens (maybe hundreds) of patients with random overdoses in order to satisfy his need for control—none of the nearly three million nurses currently working in the US has.

If I didn’t know any nurses and had never been a recipient of their care, Cullen’s chilling work might cause me to fear nurses or hospitals in general. But in the last few years I have depended on the care of some excellent nurses, and I currently hang around a lot of them as a volunteer. My relationship with genuinely good nurses protects me from such an irrational fear.

Indeed, irrational fears are often enabled by a lack of familiarity with their object:

One of the most common abuses of power is generating irrational fear based on hate and mistrust. But we can choose not to be controlled and limited by irrational fears and resist the appeals to hate by taking control and overcoming those fears.

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Understanding History

Historian and columnist T.R. Fehrenbach said in his book, Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, “History is too often revised to match contemporary views. It has been said that each generation must rewrite history in order to understand it. The opposite is true. Moderns revise history to make it palatable, not to understand it. Those who edit ‘history’ to popular taste each decade will never understand the past—neither the horrors nor glories of which the human race is equally capable—and for that reason, they will fail to understand themselves.”

Indeed, we must understand history in order to perform the necessary process of rewriting it. News has been properly characterized as “the first rough draft of history,” and more formal, considered formats must involve rewriting. The problems Fehrenbach describes arise with the object and intent of many revisions.

His blanket accusation that “moderns” are motivated to revise by a desire to serve their own ends and to protect an audience they deem lacking in discernment may have been prompted by the most flagrant example of this type of revision, which is his own state’s school board. While they commit a heinous crime, born of arrogance and paranoia, such groups and individuals are more appropriately described as bizarre anachronisms than “moderns.”

Truly modern scholars understand more than ever that history is improved by filling gaps, restoring original contexts and exploring interrelationships between events. At one time, too much weight was given to established portrayals by believing and teaching that there was only one way for history to be understood. Michael Conway insisted in The Atlantic that “rather than vainly seeking to transcend the inevitable clash of memories, American students would be better served by descending into the bog of conflict and learning the many ‘histories’ that compose the American national story.”

Much of history in the Western world was written by white men who believed that the universe—Galileo and Copernicus notwithstanding—revolved around them, and responsible and enlightened revision can only provide an improved history that will, indeed, help us better understand ourselves.

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The Unrecognized Beginning of Modern Man

In her book, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, Barbara Tuchman described the worldview-altering effect of the Black Death, the devastating spread of bubonic plague across Europe that killed 50 million people in the years 1346 to 1353: “Survivors of the plague, finding themselves neither destroyed nor improved, could discover no Divine purpose in the pain they had suffered. God’s purposes were usually mysterious, but this scourge had been too terrible to be accepted without questioning. If a disaster of such magnitude, the most lethal ever known, was a mere wanton act of God or perhaps not God’s work at all, then the absolutes of a fixed order were loosed from their moorings. Minds that opened to admit these questions could never again be shut. Once people envisioned the possibility of change in a fixed order, the end of an age of submission came in sight; the turn to individual conscience lay ahead. To that extent the Black Death may have been the unrecognized beginning of modern man.”

Before the 14th century, most people believed disasters—earthquakes, floods, plagues—were punishment from God for their sins. But it is a sign of progress that we mostly understand now that the universe does not exist and operate merely to teach us a lesson.

It is good and right to gather wisdom and strength from the experience of life but, as the protagonist’s wife in the 2000 movie, Remember the Titans pondered, “Sometimes life’s just hard, for no reason at all.” It takes courage to deal with the realization that, as Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.

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The Last Blossom from a Dying Plant?

In Never at Rest, largely regarded as the standard biography of Isaac Newton, Richard Westfall describes the moment in history when Newton and others reached a tipping point for how modern man would evaluate the truth of ideas:

“The antipodes of alchemy with its eternal and exasperating secretiveness was mathematics, the very claim of which to be called knowledge rested on demonstrations open to all. Where the one made its way deviously with allusion and symbolism, the other proceeded in the cold light of rigorous logic. The diversity of the intellectual world of the seventeenth century has perhaps no better illustration than the coexistence of two such antithetical enquiries, both apparently in flourishing condition. Only to later ages would it be clear that seventeenth-century alchemy was the last blossom from a dying plant and seventeenth-century mathematics the first blooming of a hardy perennial. Whatever the state of alchemy, certainly it was manifest in 1661 that mathematics was a flourishing enterprise.”

But clearly, each generation confronts its own ideas which live by “exasperating secretiveness” and “[make their] way deviously with allusion and symbolism.” What was manifest more than 350 years ago must be made clear again and again.

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Reason Alone is Sufficient

Astrophysicist and science popularizer Neil deGrasse Tyson is a big fan of Jonathan Swift’s eighteenth century novel, Gulliver’s Travels. He told The New York Times that it’s his favorite novel of all time, and he regularly includes it among books he recommends to both adults and children.

Swift’s satire on human nature aligns with Tyson’s own devotion to reason and his caustic view of the seeming disdain many people have for it.

“I call people’s attention to Part IV [A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms],” Tyson said, “in which Gulliver meets a community of intelligent, logical horses. Their debates are short. Their decision-making is efficient. Their governance is rational. Their society is a model of function and performance. Meanwhile, running hairy, smelly, and naked in the woods are the Yahoos—the first appearance of that word. They are savage and irrational creatures. And they look just like humans.”

The reaction of one of the Houyhnhnms to Gulliver’s description of English society reads like many of Tyson’s descriptions of contemporary society:

“He said ‘he had been very seriously considering my whole story, as far as it related both to myself and my country; that he looked upon us as a sort of animals, to whose share, by what accident he could not conjecture, some small pittance of reason had fallen…that we disarmed ourselves of the few abilities she had bestowed, had been very successful in multiplying our original wants, and seemed to spend our whole lives in vain endeavors to supply them by our own inventions…that our institutions of government and law were plainly owing to our gross defects in reason, and by consequence in virtue; because reason alone is sufficient to govern a rational creature.'”

Indeed, Gulliver relates:

“It was with extreme difficulty that I could bring my master to understand the meaning of the word opinion, or how a point could be disputable; because reason taught us to affirm or deny only where we are certain; and beyond our knowledge we cannot do either. So that controversies, wranglings, disputes, and positiveness, in false or dubious propositions, are evils unknown among the Houyhnhnms. In the like manner, when I used to explain to him our several systems of natural philosophy, he would laugh, ‘that a creature pretending to reason, should value itself upon the knowledge of other people’s conjectures, and in things where that knowledge, if it were certain, could be of no use.'”

Tyson insists that “reading this novel is fun, on the cynical side” because, he says, it’s “a reminder that, most of the time, humans are yahoos.”

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Killer Instinct

I noticed a few days ago that the last four books I’ve read are all about murder cases (three real, one fictional):

It had been my intent after reading several dense, fundamental concept-laden histories of thought and culture to take a bit of a break, but not particularly to read about a bunch of killers. When I itemized the list above, however, it made me think—not for the first time—about why I, or we, dwell so easily on crime, particularly murder.

Psychologist Paul Mattiuzzi said, “We wonder about the victim, about the perpetrator, and about the circumstances. We are intrigued by the motive and the method and how they got away or how they got caught. We wonder who would be capable of the crime and whether they are ‘normal’ like us or hopefully quite different.”

Writer Joe Bunting reasoned, “People love puzzles…Everyone I know who likes doing crossword puzzles says mystery is their favorite genre.” And, moreover, “People are puzzles…It’s often difficult to understand why people do the things they do. Detective stories give us a glimpse into people we would never get in real life.”

While admitting that our obsession simply feeds “a deep fascination with the human psyche,” columnist Molly Fosco claimed more pragmatically that reading about crime helps us be “aware of the different types of dangerous situations [we] might encounter and know how to prevent them.”

Professor Scott Bonn agreed, saying that “serial killers appeal to the most basic and powerful instinct in all of us—that is, survival.”

People watching, logic, primal urges. I guess my/our fascination with a good murder mystery—real or imagined—is no mystery.

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Getting Better, III: Cherish the Forces of Civilization and Enlightenment

In his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker insists that the conventional “romantic nostalgia [that] longs to turn back the clock”—to a time when things were great—is profoundly misplaced.

He admits that we can be reminded of the misery inherent in the daily lives of many of our ancestors—infested with lice and parasites; living above cellars heaped with their own feces; eating bland, monotonous, and intermittent food; laboring from sunrise to sundown before being plunged into darkness—and the absence as well of “the higher and nobler things in life, such as knowledge, beauty, and human connection.” But Pinker contends specifically that the basis of our most vehement appeal to return to the past—”the profusion of modern violence” (muggings, school shootings, terrorist attacks, wars)—is wrong, and that, in fact, the level of violence in our world has never been lower.

The false claim that the characteristics of the modern world—global trade, ethnic inclusion, racial and economic diversity—make it more violent, less safe and less personally rewarding is a transparent attempt by a few to increase control and power at the expense of the many, based on fear and hate. Much like those who refused for a century and a half to acknowledge the truth that the sun does not revolve around the earth, these fear mongers refuse to acknowledge the truth that the world no longer revolves around them.

The evidence of progress, for Pinker, is motivation to be grateful and continue working for even more progress. He says, “For all the tribulations in our lives, for all the troubles that remain in the world, the decline of violence is an accomplishment we can savor, and an impetus to cherish the forces of civilization and enlightenment that made it possible.”

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