Vacation reading review

Over the course of a week in the Michigan Upper Peninsula I was able to knock four books off my “to read” shelf:

Cheese PrimerWhen most people think of beach reading, they think of escapist fiction. This has never made sense to me. I can read escapist stuff anytime. It’s the tedious, self-edifying books I have a hard time picking up. That’s why they’re perfect for the beach. The opportunity costs are low, because what else are you gonna do while you bask in the sun? The same thinking applies to plane rides, of which I had five. So I find vacations the perfect time to read something big and dense. (I should also note that UP beaches are populated more by retirees than by babes in bikinis, so the distractions are fewer than in, say, Daytona.)

This summer my big self-edifying book was Steven Jenkins’ Cheese Primer. As much as I love food, I didn’t know jack about cheese. I knew just enough to recognize the pun in previous sentence, but not enough to resist using it. Trips to the cheese counter were an exercise in complete ignorance. Thanks to this book, I now know enough to get by. At 500 pages, the percentage of information I actually retained is pretty low, but it’s still a lot more than I knew before. Despite the repetition in some chapters, notes on the culture and history of the regions represented kept the reading interesting.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the book is the difference in labeling of American and European cheeses. American cheeses tend to be represented by individual brands, whereas regional descriptors and certifications often take the place of branding in Europe where traditions are more firmly in place. This could partly be due to the fact that the author is an American and therefore more likely to be familiar with individual American producers than European ones, but the difference is real. Europe has been more successful at maintaining quality traditions, but what will happen in the future? Will American cheesemakers, armed with the advantage of branding, innovate and equal their European counterparts, as they often have with wine? Perhaps the next decade will see an explosion of fantastic American cheeses.

Libertarian nota bene: many of the best cheeses come from unpasteurized milk. But if they’re not aged more than 60 days, they can’t be imported to the US and one has to travel abroad to taste them. Thank you, FDA.

Shadow of the Giant Of course, a little escapism is a good thing for the summer. This year it was provided by the latest novel in the Ender’s Game series, Shadow of the Giant.

These sci-fi books are organized unusually, with two series branching off from the initial Ender’s Game. That book was fabulous, as was the second book in the Ender Quartet, Speaker for the Dead. After that, author Orson Scott Card seemed to lose control of the metaphysics, and the rest of the series following Ender went downhill.

Fortunately, the series following the bit character Bean has remained solid. Though less philosophical than the other series, the novels offer consistently good characters and stories rooted in world politics. Shadow of the Giant resolves much from the previous books and nicely lays the groundwork for a finale. Ender fans will be pleased.

Pirates in an Adventure with ScientistsThe Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists provided a few more brief moments of escapism. This is a very short book, but extremely funny. Fans of Monty Python and Douglas Adams will enjoy this immensely.

The story follows the adventures of the glossy-bearded Pirate Captain, his loyal crew, and Charles Darwin, as they attempt to rescue Darwin’s brother from the scheming Bishop of Oxford. Absurd humor, anachronisms, and evolutionary in jokes abound.

British author Gideon Defoe has already published the sequel The Pirates! In an Adventure with Ahab and The Pirates! In an Adventure with Communists is forthcoming. Defoe has also written a book called How Animals Have Sex. I bet they’re all hilarious.

Stumbling on HappinessTyler Cowen called Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness “so far the best book this year.” I have to agree, and not just because this might be the only book published in 2006 that I’ve read yet. It’s a fascinating look at human psychology.

The subject is happiness, or more particularly, how we consistently mispredict what will make us happy and what will depress us. There’s far more to the book than I could summarize here, but most of it concerns what Gilbert calls the psychological immune system. Thanks to illusions of memory and imagination and the powers of rationalization, we wrongly believe that good events will make us happier than they do, and bad events sadder. In reality, we adapt and acclimate to both.

We are, in fact, doubly mistaken. We are mistaken first in our expectations, and mistaken a second time as we remain blind to the defense mechanisms we should know that we possess. We tell ourselves that moving to California and getting the perfect job will make our lives complete, or that losing a romantic partner will devastate us. And they do, but not for long. If we are smart, we know that we can be happy in a lot of places, in a lot of jobs, with a lot of people, yet we persist in investing our decisions today with a significance far beyond their actual capacity to effect our happiness.

Should this lesson change the way we live our lives, the way I live my life? I have found it liberating as I downgrade my apartment significantly from a nice, spacious, one bedroom apartment near the Metro to an older, three bedroom with flatmates further from the train. Sharing the space won’t be so bad, I don’t really need the stuff I’m getting rid of to fit into it, and I was paying too much before anyway. See, the psychological immune system is working already. Knowing that it’s going to kick in makes doing what I need to do easier from the beginning.

On the other hand, there is the risk that such a zen attitude could deaden ambition. Why make sacrifices today to work toward a vision of the future? If you believe that achieving that vision will make you happy, you are probably mistaken. So why not enjoy today and be confident that you’ll be happy ten years from now, too, regardless of what you’re doing? Why don’t we all just work in coffee shops?

Perhaps the answer lies in eternal recurrence. No, not my blog. If you think you’ll find the meaning of life here, move on. Or try John Coleman’s site. I’m talking about Nietzsche’s challenge to live a worthy life. Imagine your life recurring again and again, endlessly. Do you curse yourself for squandering it on petty matters? Or do you rejoice in its aesthetic achievement? And if you take the question seriously, does the possibility of regret for wasted opportunities partially invalidate Gilbert’s thesis?

In a New York Times article devoted partially to his research, Gilbert seems to share this worry:

‘Hope and fear are enduring features of the human experience,” he says, ”and it is unlikely that people are going to abandon them anytime soon just because some psychologist told them they should.” In fact, in his recent writings, he has wondered whether forecasting errors might somehow serve a larger functional purpose he doesn’t yet understand. If he could wave a wand tomorrow and eliminate all affective-forecasting errors, I ask, would he? ”The benefits of not making this error would seem to be that you get a little more happiness,” he says. ”When choosing between two jobs, you wouldn’t sweat as much because you’d say: ‘You know, I’ll be happy in both. I’ll adapt to either circumstance pretty well, so there’s no use in killing myself for the next week.’ But maybe our caricatures of the future — these overinflated assessments of how good or bad things will be — maybe it’s these illusory assessments that keep us moving in one direction over the other. Maybe we don’t want a society of people who shrug and say, ‘It won’t really make a difference.’

So the question remains, what role should happiness play in the planning of our lives? Gilbert doesn’t claim to know, but he does offer insights into why our predictions fail and what we should expect from our psychology. He also posits many other interesting ideas and even explains a Paul Simon lyric whose meaning had long eluded me. For the questions the book answers and especially for the ones it doesn’t, I recommend it highly.


5 thoughts on “Vacation reading review”

  1. Hi,

    by my humble count the non-self-edifying books beat the self-edifying book by 3:1. Weren’t you making the case that the summer poses the chance to reverse that ratio? Two solutions pop into my mind: 1) There may have been fewer bikini distractions, but maybe one was enough to get you off track. 2) You engaged in escapism from escapism, thus everyone’s summer.
    Take care. 🙂
    – T

  2. One is surprisingly reasonable theory from someone who’s only met me for one weekend. Can I also use lack of luggage space as an excuse? I have a couple more big tomes sitting on my shelf, but they’re heavy!

    I did actually bring one other serious book to read, but couldn’t find it interesting enough to pick up more than once. Perhaps I no longer consider reading political theory self-edifying?

  3. I, Robert Robus, believe that certain emotions–even fear–can ultimately have positive effects as long as a measure of rationality is kept in view. A complete lack of fear is more scary than fear itself.

  4. Keeping in the spirit of the last book you reviewed, I thought I should pass on that Dr. Apple Zefelius Igrek is teaching Philosophy 115: The Meaning of Life at the University of Central Washington this fall.

  5. that book on cheese sounds great! there is a zupan’s a block from my house (it’s a small chain of grocery stores only in the NW – kind of like wild oats but smaller and nicer) they have wine and cheese tastings every weekend and i’ve learned so much from the cheese guy (or monger, as he is officially called – which is still too weird for me). one of my favorite regions so far that i’ve tried is the basque region in spain. i LOVE their cheeses. also, i learned (and perhaps this is common knowledge) another big difference between the average american cheese and european, is that european cheeses are described more by what kind of milk is used. so my cheese guy will put out something and say “this is a mix of cow, goat, and sheep’s milk from [x] region in france.” while american cheese you have just the type of cheese (jack, mozzarella, swiss).

    i will also have to check out that book on happiness. thanks for the book suggestions!

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