Summer reading: Summer Lighting

Summer Lightning book cover

Summer Lightning
P.G. Wodehouse

It’s not just P.G. Wodehouse’s hilarious wordplay shot through the story that makes Summer Lightning such a treat, but equally the marvelously crazy, kind of sweet, and always and ever idiosyncratic British world you get to enter when you pick up one of his books. But a warning: Don’t read this on public transportation because too much laughing might startle one’s fellow passengers.

For a curious modern reader, Wodehouse’s books brim with tempting allusions from the literature and popular culture of the Edwardian era, the 1910s, the Jazz Age, and all the literature an English schoolboy of the time would have had to read. Take for instance Lord Emsworth’s niece Millicent Threepwood in Summer Lightning. She is a classic Wodehouse heroine — feisty, pretty, sometimes terrifyingly capable, but absolutely volatile and a little insane (those last two traits — like every other Wodehouse character).

Nor will Summer Lightning disappoint Wodehouse fans as a class, because it has its wonderful share of 1. broken engagements, 2. purloined items, 3. butlers. Last, just by the way, see the Wikipedia article on the Empress of Blandings, the book’s pig. Especially read the parenthetical words under the pig’s picture; they seem to have been written by a true Wodehouse aficionado.

That’s it for the 2018 Summer Reading List! Tune in again next summer for more great reads.


Summer reading: Self-Compassion

Self-compassion book cover

Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself
Kristin Neff

Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff is a book of shining light, inspiration, and hope that I wish had been available when I began my college career. In her last year of graduate study in the doctoral program in psychology at UC Berkeley, Neff began attending Buddhist meditation meetings to deal with major stress. A central concept of Buddhist thought that she learned from the meditation group, self-compassion, resonated deeply for her. Her weekly Buddhist sessions were “a lifesaver,” influencing her to the point where self-compassion became the primary focus of her research and, later, her university teaching. She is now an Associate Professor of Human Development and Culture in the Educational Psychology Department at the University of Texas at Austin.

Here is an example of one of the pearls of wisdom from Self-Compassion that is relevant to anyone about to embark on, or deeply within, their academic careers: “Because our culture demands that we perceive ourselves as ‘special and above average,’ we routinely engage in an egoistic process of social comparison with others. When we’re deeply invested in seeing ourselves positively, we tend to feel threatened if others do better than we do.” She counters this tendency by saying, “Like it or not, the main way we learn is by falling flat on our face, just as we did when we first learned to walk…If we were perfect and had all the answers, we’d never get to ask questions, and we wouldn’t be able to discover anything new.” I wish I had understood that when I was 18.

Infinitely readable, Self-Compassion is a book to return to again and again for guidance and wisdom.

This book is part of the 2017 Berkeley Summer Reading List. Stay tuned for more weekly posts!


Summer reading: Weapons of Math Destruction

Weapons of math destruction book cover

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy
Cathy O’Neil

After earning a PhD in math, a tenure-track teaching position at Barnard and, eventually, a lucrative gig as a Wall Street “quant,” Cathy O’Neil believed in the gospel of Big Data. The 2008 financial crisis changed all that. “The privileged,” O’Neil realized, “are processed more by people, the masses by machines.”

In a world gaga over Big Data, her book illustrates how Big Data in fields such as education, the criminal justice system, the workplace, as well as the insurance and advertising industries increases inequality and undermines democracy. In the workplace, for instance, efficiency (which can be measured in numbers) is valued over quality (which cannot). Similarly, in the area of criminal justice, arrests are easily measured while the trust built by community policing — not so much. In her own professional experience on Wall Street, O’Neil witnessed a blind faith in numbers and “a false sense of security leading to widespread use of imperfect models, self-serving definitions of success, and growing feedback loops. Those who objected are regarded as nostalgic Luddites.”

But all is not lost. The final chapter offers inspiring examples of how Big Data can be used to improve society: how a mathematical model can be used, for instance, to predict victims of child abuse; that model then provides information to humans who can step in to provide resources and tools to help these families avoid a cycle of abuse.

This book is part of the 2017 Berkeley Summer Reading List. Stay tuned for more weekly posts!


Summer reading: Protestants Abroad

Protestants abroad book cover

Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America
David Hollinger

Prof. Hollinger has had a distinguished career here at UCB bringing a nuanced understanding to the history of American multiculturalism, and in this new book he shows how Protestant zeal to spread the evangelical message often had the reverse effect of bringing the wider world’s perspectives back to American communities from abroad.

This book is part of the 2017 Berkeley Summer Reading List. Stay tuned for more weekly posts!


Summer reading: Reality is Not What It Seems

Reality is Not What It Seems book cover

Reality is Not What It Seems: the Journey to Quantum Gravity
Carlo Rovelli

This new book is fascinating, well-written, and, believe or not, a page turner. It is about the paradigm shifts that led to our current revolutionary moment in physics. The book provides an engaging, accessible history and explanations of an unbelievable story of innovation.

Carlo Rovelli is a ground breaker in Grand Unified Theory and a bestselling author with his previous book, Seven Brief Lessons in Physics.

This book is part of the 2017 Berkeley Summer Reading List. Stay tuned for more weekly posts!


Summer reading: The Plover

The Plover book cover

The Plover
Brian Doyle

The Plover is a novel about a sailing trip but also so much more. Relationships, tolerances, personal challenges, hope for recovery, multiculturalism, emotions across the board, unlikely friendships, forgiveness, understanding of malicious activity . . . and the inflection and infusion of the wildlife that shares our planet, even in the middle of the ocean.

A reaction from another reader: “I love his slantwise way of looking at the world. He sees the threads that connect everything, and he chooses a seemingly random thread to explore a little fragment of interconnectedness, as though all paths are equally meaningful. Then he is off on another thread. One has the feeling he could spin a whole story from any fragment, and one wishes to hear them all.”

This book is part of the 2017 Berkeley Summer Reading List. Stay tuned for more weekly posts!


Summer reading: The Hacking of the American Mind

The Hacking of the American Mind book cover

The Hacking of the American Mind
Robert Lustig

Five years ago, UCSF pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Robert H. Lustig came out swinging with Fat Chance, a well-argued if polemical exposé of how the processed sugar industry has come to dominate food production (and consumption) with disastrous effects. Now he’s back with the even more compelling The Hacking of the American Mind.

Lustig’s thesis is that not one but several industries consciously develop products designed to foment addictive behavior, showing convincingly that the brain-signaling pathways implicated in substance addictions (drugs, alcohol) are the same as those implicated in behavioral addictions (addiction to social media, for example). He lays out in plain language how the dopamine stimulus mechanism works, how it can be abused to the point of permanent damage, how the serotonin production system mediates these reactions, and how some of the very same addictive behaviors actually thwart the behaviors that would promote serotonin production and a healthy balance between the two.

His wide-ranging assault touches on processed food, substance abuse, and most significantly for modern audiences, the profound new role of “attention addiction” — being unable to tear your attention away from social media.

As in Fat Chance, Lustig writes in an informal, direct, highly-readable, no-BS voice that makes it sound like he is in a classroom addressing a small group of students.

This book is part of the 2017 Berkeley Summer Reading List. Stay tuned for more weekly posts!


Summer reading: Barkskins

Barkskins book cover

Barkskins
Annie Proulx

Though it’s very long, I count it as inspirational in many ways. She inspires the reader to think about the research (the love of historical archival work and stories of the past, the enjoyment of discovery, a fascination with the lives of other people) involved in writing this kind of historical novel. She also leaves us with something like an obsession with trees, branches and leaves, and massive tree trunks and a longing for woods and forests. Though it’s partly a story of the ecological devastation of the forests of North America, it’s also a story of hope that we today will do some healing. It is also an honest and delicate exploration of relations between European settlers and Native American groups.

This book is part of the 2017 Berkeley Summer Reading List. Stay tuned for more weekly posts!


Summer reading: Climate Changed

Climate Changed book cover

Climate Changed: A Personal Journey through the Science
Philippe Squarzoni

Squarzoni’s graphic memoir recounts his experience in coming to understand the immensity of our changing climate. While he was finishing a previous book about politics, he realized he didn’t know much about climate change, and thus he started to investigate. That investigation led him to a whole new book, one he felt he had to write. Not only does the book inform readers of these enormous changes, it also illustrates how it is we come to understand new and life-altering ideas. One of my students said after reading Squarzoni’s memoir that she felt “changed.” Squarzoni provides no easy answers, but he does open our eyes to some of the most pressing concerns of our day.

This book is part of the 2017 Berkeley Summer Reading List. Stay tuned for more weekly posts!


Summer reading: Euphoria

Euphoria book cover

Euphoria
Lily King

This 2014 novel is based in part on the life of the famed/notorious anthropologist Margaret Mead. Set in New Guinea in the 1930s, this narrative full of danger and desire is propelled forward by the thrill — and the risks — of seeking out new knowledge. A reviewer wrote in the New York Times, “King’s signal achievement may be to have created satisfying drama out of a quest for interpretive insight.”

This book is part of the 2017 Berkeley Summer Reading List. Stay tuned for more weekly posts!