Near the start of In the City, Colette Brooks wonders: “What kind of a person is a city person?” and then offers her own answer: “One possibility: the kind of person who doesn’t feel the need to finish a jigsaw puzzle, who relishes jagged edges and orphaned curves, stray bits of data, pieces of stories parsed from sentences half overheard on the street” (2). Well. I’m not so sure about the first part of that, but the end, yes. I think she offers another answer near the end of the book, when she says this: “I suspect that I could collect these strands forever, link one discrete element to another, and still it would seem incomplete. There would always be something else to remark upon, something else to say” (106). I mean: maybe anyone feels that way about the landscape they love best, but a city person is someone who feels that about the built urban environment and its history and all the many lives and stories and secrets it contains. Another answer, maybe: you know you’re a city person when you think about the city where you live and, as Brooks puts it, “you simply cannot conceive of your life having worked out in any other way” (9).

I really like the associative way this book proceeds from topic to topic, and the way it mixes the personal and the historical. It’s a little about cities in general and a lot about New York in particular and a little bit about other specific cities, too (there’s a trip to Brazil that figures in the narrative); not surprisingly, I especially like the bits of NYC history and descriptions of NYC moments and scenery. Early in the book Brooks talks about seeing the Statue of Liberty from what I’m pretty sure is the F train—not that she names either the statue or the train line, but I remember how much I loved that stretch of my commute for the ten years I lived off that train line, the moments between when the train comes aboveground after Carroll Street and when it goes back underground after 4th Avenue. Other NYC things in this book I love: a discussion of what people are reading on the subway, a section about lost & found posters, bits of overheard conversations, a description of the Panorama of the City of New York in the Queens Museum, a bit about the The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 that laid out the street grid. And, though this is from one of the sections in the book about Brazil, I love this: the idea that any city is many individual cities, all “constructed from scraps of memory and invention” (64).

This year I’m doing a project where I read one nonfiction book per month, which is more nonfiction than I normally read. It’s been interesting to read some nonfiction books that have been lingering unread on my shelves for ages, and also interesting to explore some types of nonfiction that I don’t normally pick up. The Art of Choosing is the kind of pop science book I rarely read, and I’m not sure why. Once I got past the first chapter (which has some things in it about experiments on animals that I found distressing), I enjoyed this book a bunch, and had fun telling my boyfriend about all the psych studies I was learning about.

Basically, this book is an exploration of how people make choices, how choice-making sometimes causes us problems, and how we might approach choice-making in ways that might actually increase our happiness. Iyengar partly talks about making the kinds of choices we’re used to thinking about as choices—what to have for dinner, career choices, relationship choices—but also talks about the choices we make in the narratives we construct about our lives, the stories we tell ourselves and others, the way we emphasize our own agency, or don’t. And she talks about the larger cultural contexts of choice-making—how different cultural backgrounds shape different attitudes towards choice, both in terms of what level of choice-making is deemed appropriate/optimal, and in terms of what people even see as choices. (There’s a great part when she talks about having students at the same school, from two different countries/cultures, write down every choice they made the day before. One group of students includes things like brushing their teeth or snoozing/not snoozing the alarm as choices; the other group doesn’t list that kind of thing.)

I like how Iyengar talks about choice and our sense of self/identity: she talks about how there’s a common conception of identity that goes like this: “Beneath the many layers of shoulds and shouldn’ts that cover us, there lies a constant, single, true self that is just waiting to be discovered” (75). But is that necessarily true/is it necessarily helpful to frame it like that? Could we not “acknowledge that our identity itself is malleable but no less authentic for it”(101)? I like how she talks about seeing “identity as a dynamic process rather than a static object” and “finding ourselves in the evolution of choosing, not merely in the results of choice,” and seeing choice itself as “an ongoing, liberating act of creation” (110).

Of course, choice is not always great: choosing can be overwhelming, especially when there are a lot of options and we aren’t experts/don’t necessarily understand all of the differences between them. Iyengar offers some practical advice for dealing with choice overload/decision fatigue: if you’re making a lot of choices at once, start with the easy ones and work up to the harder ones; classify options to make choosing easier; consult experts or crowdsource opinions when appropriate. She also talks about cognitive biases that can affect our choices, and how to avoid being blindsided by them.

Minor quibbles: when reading about various psych studies, I sometimes found myself thinking about the “reproducibility crisis” in psychology—though I realize there are different perspectives on that (1, 2). And when reading about the ways that our choices can be influenced by advertising/priming, I found myself feeling like Iyengar was being too uncritical of consumerism. (Like: she suggests we shouldn’t worry too much/”would serve ourselves better by separating the influences that conflict with our values from the influences that are basically harmless” (175) — but I don’t know, I’d rather opt out of consumerism/advertising a bit/I don’t think it is basically harmless.) Still: this was an interesting read/maybe I should read more pop science!

Though the subtitle of this book is “The Murder at Road Hill House,” and though a lot of it does focus on that particular crime (the murder of a three-year-old child in 1860), it also covers a lot of additional ground, so it’s part true-crime and part cultural criticism about detectives, detective fiction, Victorian sensation novels, privacy in the Victorian era, and more. True crime isn’t really my genre, so this wasn’t totally the book for me, though I was interested in the historical/literary elements about Victorian novels and Victorian anxieties. I also was interested in the stories of where various family members ended up, post-murder: I might be into a book just about one of the victim’s half-brothers, who ended up becoming a naturalist who worked in Australia and photographed Great Barrier Reef corals.

But anyway, right: this book proceeds chronologically from the murder onwards, looking at the crime, the initial investigations, and the further aftermath. The Mr Whicher of the title is a London detective who was called to assist with the investigation two weeks after the killing; there’s a lot about his theories (that the child was killed by his half-sister, Constance, possibly with the help of her brother, William) vs. the theories of the local police (that the child was killed by his father and the nursemaid, after the child woke in the night and saw his father in the nursemaid’s bed). There are questions about the father’s possible propensity towards extramarital affairs: his second wife (the mother of the dead child) used to be the family governess, and he may have been sexually involved with her before the death of his first wife. There are also questions about Constance’s sanity, or lack thereof: there are rumors that her mother was insane, and Victorians were big into the idea of hereditary madness, especially when it came to mothers and daughters. It seems clear from the fact that the house was locked for the night when the murder took place that the killer was someone in the house itself, but aside from the body of the dead child, there isn’t a lot of evidence: no murder weapon is found, and the doctors who examine the boy’s body can’t agree whether he was fully or partially suffocated and then had his throat cut, or whether he just had his throat cut. Not quite a spoiler: five years after the murder, someone confesses, but it’s still unclear whether or not that person actually committed the crime.

I think what I liked best about this book was all the stuff about the figure of the detective, and the tensions around that figure. There’s the comforting idea that a Victorian detective “offered science, conviction, stories that could organise chaos” (xii) but there’s also discomfort with the idea of a case being shaped by a detective’s hunches/suspicions, and discomfort with a detective who didn’t necessarily come from the middle classes prying into middle class family homes/lives. Overall, though, I think I definitely prefer reading about fictional crimes to reading about real ones: I’m not actually sure if I’ve ever read a true-crime book before, and I think having read this one I feel like I’d rather read some Wilkie Collins instead, if I’m in the mood for Victorian detective stories in the future.

Living Dolls by Gaby Wood

April 22nd, 2020

This book, subtitled “A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life,” is largely but not entirely about automata, and also about the experience of the uncanny—often as it relates to the distinction between humans and robots or humans and dolls. The five chapters proceed chronologically from Jacques de Vaucanson (born in 1709) to the four siblings who performed as the Doll Family (the last of whom died in 2004), with chapters on Wolfgang von Kempelen’s chess player (built in 1789), Edison’s talking doll (which he worked on in the late 1800s) and Georges Méliès’s films (from the late 1800s and early 1900s) in between.

I liked learning more about things I’d heard of but hadn’t read about in depth, like Vaucanson’s mechanical duck or Kempelen’s chess player, and it was neat to read about their creators and the larger context in which these objects were made, and also to read about what happened to these objects after their creators’ lifetimes. I was more interested in the straight-up historical sections, less interested in things like a psychoanalytic interpretation of the game of chess, and Wood’s style sometimes struck me as overly sensationalistic, like when she makes much of a letter one of Edison’s employees sent saying he would have a Parisian doll-maker send some doll bodies to “experiment with”: “Sinister overtones impose themselves on the practical matters detailed in these letters,” Wood writes, and goes on to ask “what kind of ‘experiment'” the letter-writer had in mind (145)—though it’s pretty clear the experiment was about whether the phonographs Edison wanted to use for his talking dolls could be fitted into the normal papier-mâché bodies made by European doll-makers. The chapter on Edison was interesting overall though, particularly the descriptions of Edison’s 1887 laboratory, which is now “a museum, a frozen piece of industrial life, all wheels and pulleys and vices and clocks” (107). (Meanwhile, you can hear Edison’s doll online: yikes. Less alarming: The Man with the Rubber Head, which was probably my favorite of the Méliès pieces I watched as a result of this book.) The chapter on the Doll family felt a little out of place, but it was interesting too, and I’m generally happy to read about circus history and Coney Island (that chapter has a great description of Luna Park in it).

In There Is No Planet B, Mike Berners-Lee uses chapters organized by theme and structured as sets of questions and answers (with some graphs and charts to accompany them) to explore issues related to climate change and the question of how humanity can survive/thrive/take care of our planet in our current era and beyond. The first chapter, on food, was especially interesting: I think I’d known but had forgotten how big the environmental impact of beef is compared to chicken or to vegetarian protein sources, and it was good to be reminded of that. I learned that agriculture is estimated to cause 23% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and that 20% of food waste is caused by consumers, and that feeding animals on food (like soybeans) that could be eaten by people is a big problem because it’s hugely inefficient. In this chapter, and elsewhere in the book, Berners-Lee reminds readers that “everything we spend money on is an investment into one type of future or another,” so we should all be conscious of where our money is going and what kind of future we’re shaping (48).

Striking facts and figures I learned elsewhere in the book: humanity has produced 9 billion metric tons of plastic, 5.4 billion metric tons of which “has been chucked into landfill or scattered onto land and sea” (55). Also, “over a third of all our plastic is used for disposable packaging” (58).

On the subject of energy, Berners-Lee is optimistic about solar energy, but only if “we can succeed in deliberately limiting our energy growth,” which we haven’t managed to do thus far (68). Meanwhile, we need to cut fossil fuel use in a hurry, but the only way to do this is to have “an enforceable global deal to leave the fuel in the ground,” which we also haven’t managed yet (88). That need for global cooperation is a factor in the chapters on “growth, money and metrics” (if we’re just measuring things like GDP, we may be measuring/incentivizing the wrong things) and “thinking skills for today’s world” (in which Berners-Lee points out that we need to be cultivating and emphasizing things like “global empathy” if we’re going to get anywhere).

This was a quite different book from my usual diet of novels/kids’ books/narrative nonfiction, but I’m glad I picked it up. (Disclaimer: this book is published by my employer, and I decided to read it after a talk that Berners-Lee gave to staff members, but I got it from the library like anyone else, and kept reading because I was interested.) The Q&A format keeps it from being too dense, and it was interesting to read an evidence-heavy book on this topic.

This essay collection, whose subtitle is “On the Writing and Enjoyment of Children’s Books,” is from the 1960s, and while there are aspects of the content and style that feel a bit dated, I still found it to be an interesting and satisfying read now, and came away from it with a whole list of new-to-me kids’ books that I now want to read. I like Cameron’s evocations of her own childhood, as when she talks in the foreword about going to the library with her mother on Saturday mornings (library trips with my mom were a big part of my childhood too!) or when she talks in the book’s final essay about her friendship with her landlady’s father when he was in his eighties and she was a child. That final essay is one of my favorites, actually, though it’s largely about Eleanor Farjeon, whose work I’ve never read: I like the way that Cameron brings together a biographical sketch of Farjeon and really pleasing quotes from Farjeon’s writing about her childhood and Cameron’s own childhood memories.

My absolute favorite piece, though, is the title essay, which is about “time fantasy”, from books I’ve read and loved (like L.M. Boston’s Green Knowe books) to books I should have read by now (E. Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet) to books I’d never heard of before. I love bits of writing like this, where Cameron is talking about how she feels like maybe British time fantasy is the best time fantasy because of the sense of history one has across “the whole of the British Isles, as if layers of Time, or innumerable dimensions of Time cutting across one another, were crowded thick with all the centuries that have passed and none of them really lost” (74). Elsewhere, I like how Cameron describes the experience of being a child as including “delight in the simplest, most secret, sometimes the oddest things” and also “sadnesses and fears and terrors one could not or would not explain” and also “a continuing wonder about much that seems drab and familiar to adults” (14). And it’s interesting when Cameron (who wrote children’s books herself) talks about her own experiences as a writer, particularly in the essay “A Country of the Mind,” where she talks about a sense of place as having been central to the successful creation of one of her novels, which she rewrote after being unhappy with how it ended and realizing a lot of her unhappiness was related to the book’s setting. From that essay, I love this, when Cameron is talking about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books: “Place moves and breathes within the story; it is not simply background, not a backdrop, never static” (171).

I imagine this book would be extra-interesting to people who write for kids or teach kids or have kids, but even as someone who falls into exactly zero of those categories, I found this book thought-provoking and engaging.

The nineteen essays in this book are a bit of a time capsule, by which I mostly mean that it’s funny to look back on the US presidential election of 2000 from 2020. (That election, incidentally, was the first one in which I voted/was old enough to vote, and I, like Sarah Vowell, rode in a car from NYC to DC for the protests that accompanied George W. Bush’s inauguration in January 2001.) A lot of the essays are about US politics or US history in some way, which means this isn’t totally the book for me (I’m not a politics nerd, unlike some people I know) but I do like Vowell’s style, and even if the essays resonated with me less than essays on another topic might have, this was an enjoyable read. Vowell is good at the snappy first line, like this, from “The First Thanksgiving,” which is one of my favorite pieces in the book: “When I invited my mom and dad to come to New York City to have Thanksgiving at my house, I never expected them to say yes” (9).

My absolute favorite piece in the book is “God Will Give You Blood to Drink in a Souvenir Shot Glass,” in which Vowell talks about historical walking tours and why her favorite parts of US history are “Puritan New England and the Civil War” and why she likes visiting/learning about places where terrible things happened in the past. I also really liked “California as an Island” (about how Vowell lived in San Francisco when she was in her twenties and worked at a gallery that sold old maps, and about California vs. elsewhere) and “Underground Lunchroom,” about the cafeteria in Carlsbad Caverns.

Though Walking is a short book made mostly of brief vignettes, there are several different kinds of things in it. It’s partly about the mental and physical benefits of walking, both anecdotally and backed by research. It’s partly about a certain kind of philosophy of walking as tied to a certain kind of way of being: walking and paying attention, walking and connection to the natural world, walking and the senses and the body. There’s a little about walking in literature and other art: Kagge talks to the theatre director Robert Wilson about walking, and also writes about how central walking is to Joyce’s Ulysses, and how Nabokov made maps of the paths that Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom take through Dublin in that book. There are color artworks, some of which are photos of scenes from walks/treks Kagge has taken. And there are bits of narrative about some of Kagge’s walking experiences, which were probably my favorite parts of the book: he talks about walking in LA with two friends, and the experience of walking in an unfamiliar place that isn’t made for pedestrians, and about walking (or crawling) through sewer tunnels in New York with an urban explorer.

Some quotes:
“Walking, I become the centre of my own life, while completely forgetting myself shortly afterwards” (15).

“You are shaped by buildings, faces, signs, weather and the atmosphere” (28)

“Everything moves more slowly when I walk, the world seems softer and for a short while I am not doing household chores, having meetings or reading manuscripts” (15)

I expected this book about food (which was published in 1825, and whose author was born in 1755) to be much drier and less funny than it actually was. In her introduction, Anne Drayton (who translated the book) describes it as “a unique combination of recipes and aphorisms, reflections and reminiscences, history and philosophy,” and that sums it up pretty well (12). I like this aphorism, which is seventh in a list of twenty at the start of the book: “the pleasures of the table belong to all times and all ages, to every country and every day; they go hand in hand with all our other pleasures, outlast them, and remain to console us for their loss” (13).

Early in the book, Brillat-Savarin talks about the senses in general, and then the sense of taste in particular: he talks about the relationship between smell and taste, and about taste as being the sense “which, on the whole, gives us the maximum of delight” (45). He then goes on to talk about various kinds of food, both in terms of where it comes from and how it’s prepared and what it’s like. He talks about how chickens are overfed and overfattened: I didn’t know that was a thing before modern factory farms. (He also notes that “It must be admitted that this unnatural rotundity is also delicious,” which cracked me up (74).) He talks about going hunting in Connecticut in 1794 and shooting a wild turkey; he talks about game and fish and truffles and sugar. He talks about coffee and ways of making it, and hot chocolate and ways of making it. There’s a whole chapter on “the theory of frying,” and another on thirst.

Later, Brillat-Savarin moves on to talk specifically about gourmandism, which he defines as “an impassioned and habitual preference for everything which gratifies the organ of taste” (132). It’s an all-around good thing, he argues: it’s pleasurable, and good for the economy (he talks about the Napoleonic Wars as having given Brits, Germans, and others a taste for French food and wine), and good for social life, too (he talks about the pleasures of two married gourmands, who get to eat good food together and talk about good food together and therefore always have something to do and something to talk about). He also talks about the science of eating and living, as it was understood in his time: there are sections on digestion, rest, sleep, dreams, obesity, and thinness, and it was interesting to read his early arguments in favor of a low-carb diet for weight loss (though he doesn’t call it that: he just says to avoid potatoes, flour, and sugar to lose weight, or to eat those same things if you want to gain weight). He then moves on to a history of cooking, and also talks about restaurants as a “completely new and inadequately recognized institution” (266). The end of the book consists of a whole section of miscellaneous anecdotes and recipes, some of which felt too random, but some of which were fun. (At one point he describes being at an inn with some companions and seeing “a very handsome leg of mutton at which the ladies from sheer force of habit darted extremely coquettish glances” (303).)

I liked all the little bits of food history in this book, and I liked its humor, and it was fun to think of the similarities and differences between Brillat-Savarin’s time and now. At one point when talking about chocolate, he talks about how vanilla, sugar, and cinnamon are the only things good for flavoring it (as opposed to things like pepper, ginger, and aniseed, which he says were tried and abandoned): I’d love for him to be able to go to a fancy 21st-century chocolate shop and try all the different flavor combinations.

In her introduction to this book, whose subtitle is “A Journey into Cold,” Ehrlich describes it as “a book about winter and climate change” and also as “a six-month chronicle of living with cold” (xi). It’s a mix of personal narrative/travelogue and facts about melting glaciers and Arctic pollution and disturbed ecosystems, a mix of lyricism and starkness. Ehrlich writes about blizzards in Wyoming and glaciers in the southern Andes and a trip to Spitsbergen on a 150-foot sailboat; she writes about seeing mink and coyotes and swans and geese, about seeing polar bears and whales and dolphins and walruses and sea birds, and about a visit to the Norwegian Polar Institute, where she talks to scientists who study climate change.

In the Andes she sees glaciers and thinks about how they’ve shaped the landscape through which she and her friend/lover are hiking; in Wyoming she goes canoeing with friends in an icy river. She write about winter as when “we go behind the scenes of our own lives” and says this: “Winter is a white vagrancy. There are no days or nights. Just breathing and snow pushing space between thought” (4-5). I like how she writes about how winter means “seclusion, intimacy, ceremony, cabin fever”, and how she writes about reading all through the winter in Wyoming, decades ago, just after having lost her fiancé to cancer. (69). I like how she writes about the aftermath of blizzards: “What’s left is a swept-out room of stark beauty and clear light” (105).

At one point Ehrlich takes a bus to see the Perito Moreno glacier and writes about how glaciers, built up over time, tell us about the past:

A glacier is an archivist and historian. It saves everything no matter how small or big, including pollen, dust, heavy metals, bugs, bones, and minerals. A glacier is time incarnate, a moving image of time. (53)

I like how this book looks at time and space, globally and personally, though I sometimes wanted there to be less abstraction/philosophizing and more straight-up description. Still, this was a satisfying read, even (especially?) in the middle of summer, though of course it made me depressed about global warming.