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Eureka: Non-fiction authors you may want to read
by Jay Gutman
2016-12-15 09:38:23
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I spend a lot of time reading contemporary non-fiction, which helps make for a better understanding of world affairs. Some complain there have been no good writers since the renaissance, now here’s a list of good writers who for the most part are still active. Unfortunately not a lot of women write non-fiction, so a lot of those I will mention in recommended readings are in fact men. So if you complain about not quite understanding what’s going on around the world, you may want to pick up books from these authors. Since each author has written several volumes of complementary work, many of which I read, others which I didn’t, I’ll only mention briefly what each author writes about. The list is in no particular order.

authors01_400Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzeziński: I put these two authors together because they are both easy to read, complete and complementary on global politics and global affairs. Kissinger argues that each country’s foreign policy is determined by a mixture of geographic, military and cultural factors and sometimes contradicts that of surrounding nations. The collection of these foreign policies makes a world order where it’s hard to agree on a common agenda.  Brzeziński would add to this that each country will design its foreign policy based on what countries it is immediately surrounded with. When a country is surrounded with powerful nations that have contradictory foreign policies it is called a pivot state, especially when it is surrounded with powers that don’t have common military, geographic or cultural attributes. Two case studies of pivot states are Turkey and Korea, Turkey being surrounded by the Russia world view, the Eastern European worldview, the Shia worldview and the Sunni Arab socialist worldview. Korea is surrounded by the Japanese worldview, the Chinese worldview and the Russian worldview, with a military presence of the American worldview and the two countries, like many others, have to pivot their foreign policies around such worldviews.

Steven Pinker and Matt Ridley: What is the genetic  code in marriage, sex, homosexuality, intellect, wealth, politics and kinship? Why would anyone be homosexual, provided that nature’s instinct wants men and women to reproduce. Complicated pregnancies caused by unfavorable surroundings lead to hormonal changes that can lead one to be born homosexual is the most agreed upon response. The more time you spend with a partner, the less attracted you become to each other has scientific backing, and that’s why spouses grow apart and siblings are not attracted to each other. Why is there violence, why all the horrors in the world? Ridley and Pinker provide scientific answers to those common questions.

Deborah Tannen: Tannen has written several books on how people converse with each other and talk to each other, why people yell at each other and why people misunderstand each other. In some cultures people want understanding of their problems, not solutions to them, while in other cultures if someone shares a problem with you, you better come up with a solution. In some cultures people try to build rapport when they talk to each other, that is talk about how they can elaborate their friendship. In other cultures people like to leave the rapport part out and focus on report, or sharing news and information and assume that rapport will build itself over time. Some cultures use praise when trying to build rapport, others use what Tannen calls agonism, that is harsh criticism or violence when building rapport with each other. Tannen explores conversation within the family, at the workplace, at the couple level or at the international level.

authors02_400Thomas Sowell: Thomas Sowell writes on a variety of topics but two topics stand out: the history of ethnicities in the United States and around the world, and a realistic approach to economic theory. Reading Sowell I wonder how come he never got the Nobel Prize for economics, and if there’s anything that goes on around the world that he doesn’t know of. We tend to think simplistically about questions of race, slavery, or wealth creation, but Sowell gives a more complete account of such questions. There used to be European slaves in North Africa, not all African Americans were the descendants of slaves, slaves have been freed at various points in North America, and the economy is something that grows and mutates over time.

Alvin Toffler: Why do people divorce? Why does your son or daughter come home and say “I don’t want to ever work in a 9 to 5 job”? Why are today’s office workers like yesterday’s factory workers? Toffler explains that some concepts change over time but that they changed so quickly that we don’t quite assimilate the fact that they have changed. Take work for example: the once prized office job not so long ago is merely glorified factory work today, or closely resembles the assembly line. The once sacred marriage union now demands so much more work than it used to that people get married thinking it was as simple as it once was, but divorce when they find out how much work marriage has become. In sum, things change, sometimes we do things the old way, only to find out there’s a new way of doing them.

Malcolm Gladwell: Why are most smokers not addicted to smoking? What makes Jewish and Asian people stand out in statistics? What causes plane accidents? What makes a product become a best-seller? What makes a revolution succeed? Why should we trust our first intuition? Gladwell does research on the kind of questions we all ponder at some points, and tries to give detailed explanations to questions, some of which don’t always conform our intuitions. In sum. What I learned is I need a mixture of good factual knowledge, knowing a lot of people, and knowing how to sell to come up with a best-selling product.

Bernard Lewis: What’s it really like to be a trader on wall street? A scout looking for the next baseball sensation? Lewis argues it takes a lot of foolishness and randomness, and that baseball scouting and wall street trading is in fact kind of a sex, drugs and rock n’ roll environment.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb: Can you predict anything? Are statistics anything reliable? Can statistics predict anything? Can we have any certainties in life? Life’s full of surprises and merely speculation. Anyone who makes any claim with absolute certainty probably isn’t worth your money. Reading Taleb will make you more comfortable speculating rather than talking only when you have absolute certainty about a fact.

Moises Naim: Born in Libya, former finance minister of Venezuela. Writes about what working in politics really is: dealing with more and more organizations that are powerful but yet have nothing to do with the political system. Organized crime, NGOs, associations, clubs, corporations, labor unions and any organization that claims a lot of power or a lot of money you’ll have to deal with at some point, and a lot of times they’ll be the ones telling you what to do. In sum, politics is a complicated game where it’s hard to get everyone to follow the law or your rules.

Bill Bryson: How were the planets formed? How do we make glass? How do we process wood? How did we grow the tree in the first place? How do trees survive? Everything you need to know about nature and its social implications, and a lot more. 

Richard Dawkins: Dawkins is a geneticist who has a problem with narcissistic altruism, that is he seems to dislike the idea that some people and organizations act altruistic, when their altruism is in fact a form of narcissism. Dawkins is also an evolutionary biologist who discusses how societies evolved throughout time, and how they try to survive.  A social history of everything, if you prefer.

Michio Kaku: How does the universe work? What types of civilizations are we likely to encounter in the universe? If we ever find aliens, what would they look like? Everything you need to know about Earth, and the vast universe surrounding it.  

Stephen Hawking: How do stars form? How do objects in the universe interact? Hawking has written three short, very easy to understand books on the universe, which if you read, you won’t complain that science is complicated.

Many other authors I could have mentioned but didn’t. If there every were a renaissance, that would be today, as the more I read, the more I find that today’s authors have nothing to envy classic authors. Not that classical authors are bad, I read them as well. Perhaps a good way to read is mix classic authors with today’s authors. Happy reading!



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Emanuel Paparella2016-12-15 14:17:06
One can only applaud what is suggested at the end of this column: to be educated one has to read the best of the moderns as well as the best of the ancients. Most of us would agree with that assumption. In purveying the piece I was immediately brought back to a raging debate at the beginning of the 18th century often called “The Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns.”
This era of course is also the beginning of the age of reason or “the Enlightenment” which had at the time begun to conceive of itself as a far superior civilization vis a vis that of ancient Grece and Rome. Those who defended the ancients would respond that what remained necessary to be known was still to be found, that is to say, that the exclamation “Eureka!” on the part of the moderns was slightly premature, and that in fact, the only reason modern man could continue to delude himself that he could see further and sharper than the ancients is that he was a dwarf standing on the shoulders of giants. The giants they had in mind were the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, etc.

The satirist Jonathan Swift, of Gulliver’s Travel fame, wrote a famous essay about this thorny issue titled “The Battle of the Books” wherein the reader is served with a secret battle among ancient and modern books fought in the middle of the night in a library. You get the drift of the satire. Swift was too intelligent to take sides and defend the dichotomy ancient/modern, but he does hint at the fallacy of scientism and positivism which comes to a head in the 19th century with the critique of Matthew Arnold in defense of the liberal arts, and is, and remains today, the real issue to be discussed and debated.
It is not a question of selecting ancient, or classical books, over modern (and therefore more relevant) books, or vice-versa, or making inane and envious comparisons between the two, as the summation of the above column rightly observes. There have alwalys been good and bad books around. It is rather a question of identifying the two cultures which see themselves at odds with each other: that of the humanities and that of the sciences and why it is that (unlike a Da Vinci who felt at home in both) the ones who belong to one kind know so little about the other kind, and hardly dialogue and listen to each other. So, Swift had found it all along! I have a modest proposal: the suggestion that we all add “The battle of the books” to our list of books to be read.

Emanuel Paparella2016-12-15 15:12:23
P.S. To provide a more concrete example of the complementarity with ancient text needed to understand modern ones, on will understand little of Henry Kissinger's world view (mentioned in the above piece) unless one has first read Socrates who said that "knowledge is virtue" and then Francis Bacon who wrote that "knowledge is power," and Machiavelli who wrote that "the end justifies the means."

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