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!

For me, Normal People wasn’t immediately absorbing in the way that Conversations with Friends was—maybe partly because of the third-person narration of this book as opposed to the first-person narration of that one—but once I got into the story, I didn’t want to put it down, even as some of the narrative choices made me squirm. The chapters of Normal People alternate between focusing on Marianne and Connell, schoolmates from a small town in the west of Ireland who both go to Trinity in Dublin for university. Though their social lives in high school don’t overlap (by which I really mean: Connell has a social life; Marianne is an outcast) and they’re from different backgrounds (Connell is the kid of a single mother who cleans for a living; Marianne’s family has money—and Connell’s mom cleans their house) they end up becoming friends, and then end up having sex, though Connell makes a point of not wanting anyone at school to know. Their relationship ends up being an on-and-off thing that continues while they’re at Trinity; they keep miscommunicating and messing up, but they also keep finding themselves drawn to each other. The book captures the intensity of their connection really well, the way that their private interactions let them make a separate space for themselves, away from everyone else, but also how that separateness can cause problems. (Early in the book, there’s this: “Being alone with her is like opening a door away from normal life and then closing it behind him” – and I think the narrative explores the appeal of and the problems with that.) On the subject of narrative choices that made me squirm, I’ll just say that I’m tired of the novelistic trope of female submission being tied to a traumatic family life and/or deep insecurity. But I do really like Rooney’s prose style, in passages like this:

In the afternoon it started snowing, thick gray flakes that fluttered past the windows and melted on the gravel. Everything looked and felt sensuous: the stale smell of classrooms, the tinny intercom bell that sounded between lessons, the dark austere trees that stood like apparitions around the basketball court. The slow routine work of copying out notes in different-colored pens on fresh blue-and-white lined paper. (17)

Or this:

Dublin is extraordinarily beautiful to her in wet weather, the way gray stone darkens to black, and rain moves over the grass and whispers on slick roof tiles. Raincoats glistening in the undersea color of street lamps. Rain silver as loose change in the glare of traffic. (261)

Even though I was a kid who loved books, horses, and books about horses, I somehow never read Black Beauty when I was a child. I’m pretty sure I started it and didn’t finish, and I can’t remember why: maybe I tried it when I was a little too young, or maybe I was put off by how didactic it is, or by the fact that there isn’t a central child character/narrator—it’s narrated by Black Beauty, the horse, himself. Whatever the reason I abandoned it when I first picked it up, I’m glad I got around to reading it now. It is very didactic, with lessons about being kind to animals, and giving horses enough light and exercise and not overworking them, and doing your best, and treating others as you would wish to be treated, and intervening when you see someone doing something cruel, but it’s also a sweet story: I cried four times over the course of the novel, so I clearly found it moving.

The book starts with Black Beauty talking about being a colt in the countryside, and having a near-idyllic existence there, though the tranquility of life is intruded on slightly by the violence of foxhunting. When Beauty is broken in and sold, things are good at first: he’s in a well-run stable with another horse and a pony, and though he misses his early freedom, his master takes good care of him and he enjoys being useful to his master, and appreciated for his usefulness. Things go downhill, though, when that master’s family has to leave England for his wife’s health: Beauty is sold again, and there are more difficulties at the next place he goes. As the book goes on, Beauty keeps suffering due to human carelessness or bad behavior, though there are always good people as well. We see Beauty’s life as a cab-horse and then a cart-horse, dealing with crowded London streets, and his eventual move back to the countryside. I loved the moments of high adventure in the book, like when Beauty is out on a very stormy night, or when there’s a fire, but I also liked the everyday moments of connection between horses and people, all the moments when someone feeds Beauty well, or pats him and talks kindly to him.

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.

In this third and final installment of Nesbit’s “psammead” books, the siblings from the first two are reunited, in very different circumstances, with the sand fairy they met in the countryside. The psammead tells the kids about a magic amulet, which they end up buying from a shop described like this: “It had all sorts and kinds of things in the window—concertinas and silk handkerchiefs, china vases and teacups, blue Japanese jars, pipes, swords, pistols, lace collars, silver spoons tied up in half-dozens, and wedding rings in a red lacquered basin” (32). But what they buy turns out to only be half the charm, so it can’t give them their “heart’s desire” like the full charm could. It can, however, take them back in time to any place where it’s been, and as you might guess, adventures ensue.

As with the other two books, this one is problematic in ways characteristic of its time (casual anti-Semitism, ugh) but the kids’ travels to ancient Egypt, Babylon, Britain, and even Atlantis are pretty delightful. There is also a great chapter in which an ancient Babylonian queen finds herself in London in 1905, and I love the kids’ friendship with an upstairs lodger, a poor “learned gentleman” who studies history (Egypt in particular) and is very smart and sweet and kind. And as usual, I love the humor of these books: at one point, the psammead is telling the kids how it bit someone, and then asks what they’ve been up to, and we get this: “‘There’s not quite so much biting in our story,’ said Cyril regretfully” (29). At another point, Cyril launches into a speech that begins with “We are the great Anglo-Saxon or conquering race,” then quickly follows with “Not that we want to conquer you” (64). And I can’t help cracking up when Anthea tells someone they can “sing in parts” and that person replies by asking, “How many parts are you each cut into before you do it?” (103)

Some months after the summer adventures of Five Children and It, the siblings from that book find themselves back home in London in gloomy November weather, wishing for something exciting to happen. And excitement arrives, in the form of a mysterious egg that turns out to hatch the Phoenix, and a magic carpet that will take them anywhere they wish (though they only get three wishes a day). I wish these books didn’t have so much of the racism of their time (this one has dark-skinned “savages” who make a white woman their queen and wait on her hand and foot), but I do like the humor and sweetness of some of the kids’ adventures, and the farcical comedy of others. My favorite chapters are still the one with the fire insurance office (whose events start with the Phoenix saying, “Can’t you take me out and explain your ugly city to me?”) and the ones with the cats, though the one where two of the kids end up on a roof in a random part of London is also pretty great. I also love the dynamic between the Phoenix and Robert, including when the Phoenix says it’s too bad Robert doesn’t know French, and Robert saying he does, “but it’s all about the pencil of the gardener’s son and the penknife of the baker’s niece—nothing that anyone ever wants to say.”

Though the chapters about the “gipsies” and the “Red Indians” are a bit squirm-inducing, I find this book really delightful overall and am always happy when I re-read it. Four children and their baby brother head to a country house in the summer; their parents are both called away suddenly, leaving the kids on their own with the servants. One day while exploring the nearby sand-pit the kids find a “Psammead or “sand-fairy” that grants a wish per day. Of course, their wishes never turn out quite as they expect, and each day brings some new tricky situation for them to get out of. I love all the bits of humor in the story, including some I definitely would not have gotten when I was a child. Like: the kids are arguing about whether it’s OK for them to take food and water when no one will give it to them, and one of them brings up Sir Philip Sidney, saying he took someone’s water and said “My necessity is greater than his.” The story of Sidney is the other way around, though, with him giving someone else water even as he was dying, saying “Thy necessity is greater than mine.” There are other funny moments, like when one of the girls doesn’t understand a French phrase the Psammead uses, though she takes French at school, or when one of the boys talks about “Emu Brand birds,” and of course the results of the kids’ wishes are often funny too.

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).

The Starless Sea is a sprawling book full of stories, and it’s about stories too, about how stories work, though for a novel about how stories work I think I prefer Scarlett Thomas’s Our Tragic Universe. As a book in which to lose myself right now, though, The Starless Sea was a total delight. I like Erin Morgenstern’s writing for the lush descriptions, the startling and perfect images: this is definitely more of a setting-driven book than a plot-driven or a character-driven one, and I’m fine with that. I mean, there is also a lot of plot: Zachary, a grad student who studies video games, finds a mysterious book in his university library, and is shocked to find that he’s in the book, though it seems older than he is. The book leads him, eventually, to a vast subterranean library, which used to be full of visitors but is now nearly empty. Figuring out why the library is the way it is leads him to other stories, which interconnect in various ways. There are quest elements and fairy tale elements and video game elements, and there’s danger and romance and humor, but I was really there for things like: a hallway in which doorknobs hang on ribbons from the ceiling; a dumbwaiter that can bring you any kind of food or drink you ask for; a candy that is also somehow a story—that makes you taste/experience a story in some weird synesthetic way; a lavish party in another time in an ornately-decorated ballroom; a whispering hallway that tells stories; a boat that is itself partly made of stories. And oh, sentences like this: “A dense forest of cherry trees in full bloom fills the cavern, all the way up to the edge of the river. Twisting tree roots disappear below the surface of the honey while stray blossoms fall and float downstream” (366).

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.