Tag Archives: philosophy

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie: In general, I do not read self-help books. I find them preachy and uninspiring. This book, however, was highly recommended by a blogger whose post convinced me to give it a shot. I’m glad I did. Though the principles are probably common sense (motivate through praise rather than criticism, listen without interrupting, smile, make the other person feel important, etc.), I believe it did me some good to hear them all laid out in such a straightforward manner. Everybody else on the planet is just as self-absorbed as I am, and they care far more about what they want than what I want. Each chapter began with a principle, described it a little in general, then listed anecdote after anecdote about the principle in action. Most telling to me was the repeated assurance that these techniques only work if the feeling behind them in genuine, not manipulative. People can see through flattery.

This book was first published in 1936, and we certainly have not become a more genteel society since then. I wonder what Carnegie would think of the internet and its trolls. For much of the book I could imagine people hearing the advice and thinking, “Yes! This is how other people should treat me!” But of course that’s not the point. The point is that if you treat other people this way, you will benefit. Sometimes this will be through convincing people to come around to your way of thinking, but more often just by spreading good will. Had this book been written a few decades later, I’m sure karma would have been mentioned more than once.

Though a couple of the techniques described might come off as passive-aggressive today, by and large it’s a good resource – a good reminder for how to deal with other people, to give and receive criticism gracefully, and generally improve your attitude. I hereby recommend it to everyone on the planet. In return, I will attempt to practice its principles in my own life more often. I can’t promise I’ll always be successful – three decades of acerbity do not disappear overnight, after all – but I can try.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig: There are several layers to this book. The outermost layer is a cross-country motorcycle trip Pirsig takes with his son, Chris. I probably enjoyed this part of the book the most, traveling vicariously through states I’ve never visited. Pirsig’s occasional descriptions of the scenery and people is refreshingly frank. The next layer is a series of talks Pirsig conducts in his head while riding the motorcycle. Most of this is a discussion of Quality. Since most of the book is spent describing this concept I won’t go into it here. The innermost layer is the life story of Phaedrus, a man whose past continually haunts Pirsig and serves as a backbone for his concept of Quality. Now that I’ve finished it, I don’t feel particularly enlightened. I think I may have gotten more out of this book had I read it when it first came out, or perhaps if I were at all familiar with the existing schools of philosophical thought. Having never read Aristotle or Socrates, I can’t say whether or not Pirsig’s arguments against them have any merit. My favorite parts were when he was less zen and more motorcycle maintenance, especially the course on Gumptionology 101. That made me smile. All in all, this isn’t the sort of book I could read for long stretches at a time, but rather something to dip into now and again. I’m glad to have read it, but I don’t think it’s something I would read again.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron: I confess, I didn’t do this as a twelve-week course. I tried a couple times, but realized that I was never going to be able to set aside three months for a self-guided class, so I went ahead and read it straight through. I suspect I waited too long, as I am not creatively blocked anymore. The ideas in the book are very good – the morning pages in particular are a useful habit to have. I wish there was a little less God talk, but the cover did warn me that this was a “spiritual journey” so I can’t really complain. The thing is, so many of the things attributed to God don’t have to be – for instance, unblocking your creativity doesn’t necessarily mean that God’s giving you more opportunities, just that you’re more open to spotting and pursuing said chances. But anyway, if you want to be more creative and just can’t seem to get yourself to do it, try this out. It certainly can’t hurt.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig

Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig: Copyright law! That’s right, folks, I read a book about copyright law. And a fascinating book, at that. Lessig takes us through the ins and outs of these ever-changing rules, sprinkled liberally with relevant examples. Should students be sued for their life savings for sharing music files? Should copyright automatically be renewed, even if the original holder is disinterested or even dead? Are fanart and fanfic actually a threat to creators of the content on which they are based? How does the internet change the way content is shared, and how should copyright law to reflect this? Lessig goes through this all in great detail. It’s an important book for most netizens, particularly those members of fandom.

As one might expect giving the subject matter, this entire text of this book is available for free download, as well as how I experienced it: a free audiobook podcast.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand: It’s a shame that an opinion about this book is taken as a political statement, because the story’s actually really good. In a nutshell: the government decides that competition is unfair and starts regulating trade and production. In response, the producers disappear one by one, abandoning (or destroying) their mines, factories, and mills. Chaos ensues. Our protagonist is Dagny Taggart, head of Taggart Transcontinental Railroad. Objectivist women are evidently hard to find; she had so many admirers I almost wanted to rename the book “Everybody Loves Dagny.” But that’s neither here nor there (though the sex scenes were a touch disturbing); it is she who struggles to keep her railroad running as increasing government regulation and a decreasing population of competent people bar the way. At times I was reminded of Animal Farm, which is no surprise considering Rand grew up in Bolshevik Russia. What starts with good intentions rapidly devolves into a miasma of bribes, favors, and threats.

My favorite character was Francisco d’Anconia, CEO of d’Anconia Copper and childhood friend of Dagny. I just love his snarkiness. Everything he does seems calculated to piss off the looters (so the enemies of individuality are called) while remaining impeccably polite. As an aside, I also found it telling that so many of the looters had ridiculous names, such as Tinky or Chick.

I found this story fascinating from an intellectual and philosophical viewpoint. A lot of people seem to treat capitalism as a given (or as the enemy); I’ve never read such a detailed defense of it. And while I do not purport to completely understand Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, these are the nuggets I gleaned from this story:
* Logic and facts are paramount.
* You are entitled to nothing and must earn everything. Needing something – anything – does not entitle you to it. Even food and shelter.
* Government involvement in private enterprise screws everything up.
* The worst thing is to live a life without purpose.
* Every man working in his own self interest ultimately produces the most good for all.

I’m not going to go into my own personal philosophy here, but these views definitely made for some interesting reading. Certainly better than The Fountainhead. (Howard Roark struck me as petty.) Once again, this is a book that made me think, and that is always high praise coming from me.

I listened to this on audiobook, which I think was the only way I would have gotten through it. Not only is the book incredibly long, the characters spend a lot of time making speeches, most notably John Galt’s famous three-hour speech near the end. (Yes, you do learn the answer to “who is John Galt?” in the third section.) These speeches are unquestionably an integral part of the book, both the plot and the philosophical ideals, but they can get a little tiring. On audio they come across much more naturally.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas

SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas: Why are manifestos so often written by crazies? This 50-page anti-male screed by the woman most famous for shooting Andy Warhol is, well, kind of hard to read. I can ignore the man hatred – that’s a matter of opinion – but many of her suggestions for improving the world are simply batty. First, that her notion of communism would work. It’s inconceivable that all the people of the world would work together towards Solanas’s idea of the common good. Second, “automation” does not mean zero work. Machines must be created and maintained. (Of course, I suppose Solanas would expect men to take care of this.) Third, old age is not a disease, and scientists do not hold the secret to immortality. That’s patently absurd. If they did, don’t you think these supposedly selfish and insecure men would have made themselves immortal by now? So in short, while this was a reasonably entertaining read in parts purely for the novelty factor, it’s not something I would recommend. They’re not dangerous ideas, merely nonsensical ones.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

Assorted Book Reviews

I am totally behind on my book reviews, so here are a whole bunch at once.

The Hindi-Bindi Club by Monica Pradhan: A little like a lighter version of The Joy Luck Club, except with Indian women instead of Chinese, this is the story of three women who immigrated to America from India and their relationships with their American-born daughters. Nothing too heavy here, but I liked the characters, there was quite a bit of Indian history I’d never learned before, and the pace was nice and quick. At the end of each chapter there are recipes for Indian dishes, both traditional and Americanized. I did not prepare any of them, but it’s a clever way of drawing the reader further into the story. Good beach read.

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse (unabridged audiobook read by Firdous Bamji): Usually I can’t bring myself to be interested in others’ quests for enlightenment, but this is surprisingly good. The excellent reader is of course a big part of that, but the story itself left me with quite a bit of food for thought. While Siddhartha himself finds the Right Path eventually, the reader is left to find his own way. After all, without trying many paths in life, Siddhartha would not have reached his goal. I can imagine one getting different things out of this book depending on where in life they are. I may have to pick it up again in a decade or two.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (unabridged audiobook read by Flo Gibson): I had a lot of trouble with this one. The language was difficult, Gibson read way too quickly, and for most of it I had no idea what was going on. Perhaps if I’d read a paper copy I’d have enjoyed it more.

Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer: A beautifully tragic account of young Chris McCandless’s journey (and subsequent death) in the wilds of Alaska. Using diary entries, interviews with people who knew McCandless, and some similar historical endeavors, Krakauer attempts to uncover the motivations and thought processes behind the urge to experience nature in unbelievably dangerous situations. I have never had such an urge in my life, so the description of such an alien frame of mind enthralled me. I have mixed feelings about McCandless himself; I think he mistreated a lot of people who cared about him, but it sounded like he was on the brink of turning his life around there at the end. This story would not have worked as a novel – the premise is just too unbelievable and the timeline far too jumpy – but knowing it was true kept me turning pages until the very end. I agree with the review in the Washington Post, printed on the back cover: “Anyone who ever fancied wandering off to face nature on its own harsh terms should give a look.”

Goodnight Nobody by Jennifer Weiner (unabridged audiobook read by Johanna Parker): Kate Klein is a bored housewife in a boring suburb full of SuperMommy neighbors who look down their noses at her. When the least despicable of them is murdered and the police have no suspects, Kate starts investigating on her own. However, this isn’t really a mystery novel. Like Weiner’s other novels, it’s more about relationships and motherhood – two subjects she tackles expertly and very humorously. The ending is surprisingly satisfying, though not especially tidy. Parker, who also read Little Earthquakes, was a great choice for this story as well. One of these days I’ll stop feeling embarrassed for liking Weiner novels. They really are very enjoyable.

Somebodies and Nobodies by Robert W. Fuller

Somebodies and Nobodies by Robert W. Fuller: I’m afraid I need to rename this The Book of the Big Duh. It’s nothing but 180 pages of painfully obvious statements presented as if they were uncommonly insightful observations. This book introduces the concept of rankism, which is basically a general term for all forms of groundless bias, including (but not limited to) racism, sexism, ageism, and homophobia. Anyone can be a victim of rankism, even rich white men, and it’s bad for not only self-esteem but productivity as well. Whenever you treat someone poorly because you feel more important in some way (socially, for instance), they pass along the indignity to someone lower than them, and so it continues on down the line. Everyone is a somebody in certain aspects of his/her life and nobodies in others. Everyone wants recognition, and some people will go to drastic measures to get it. The solution is not to do away with ranking systems all together, but rather to treat others with dignity and allow them more control over their own lives so they never get pigeonholed as a loser, both to others and in their own minds.

Which are simply not groundbreaking ideas.

I am sad to live in a society where this book was viewed as necessary. Stand up for yourself when you’re wronged, but being disrespected does not give you license to disrespect others. This is not a difficult concept to grasp. Why do we need an official movement? Why not just put it into practice in our own lives?

Also posted on BookCrossing.

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell: This book uses a lot of words to say very little. Basically, snap judgements and gut reactions are the result of very quick processing of information by our subconscious mind, and if we try to think hard about why we feel the way we do, we’ll come up empty because that information isn’t accessible by our conscious minds. So we should trust our intuition…except that we shouldn’t, because our gut reaction can also reveal our inner racist and cause us to elect people like Warren Harding. So we shouldn’t trust it…except that many major decisions can and should be made using a very small amount of information, because too much will hinder your decision-making process…but you can’t know which information is critical without a lengthy and detailed study of all possible factors. So…trust your gut only if you’re highly trained and not under very much stress. I guess. I was tempted to put down this book several times, but the writing style is actually quite engaging, and I had faith that the author would somehow tie up all his suppositions into some kind of generalized theory. He doesn’t. He shares a lot of marginally interesting anecdotes, but I was definitely unimpressed. So if you enjoy arbitrary and often conflicting psychological conclusions supported by loads and loads of case studies from a large variety of fields (from New Coke to marriages to police brutality), you will like this book. If you’re looking for a cohesive explanation or even a concrete argument one way or another, you will be left wanting.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan: Have you ever read something that filled you with such furvor that you wanted to write your own thoughts along those same lines, but whenever you tried you found you did nothing but repeat the original article?

That’s been me all over the place with The Demon-Haunted World. I want to ramble about the wonder of science, the importance of skepticism, the fact that school all but completely robbed me of any desire to learn, the dangers of pseudoscience, the intrinsic value of basic research even if it doesn’t lead to a specific application right away…but Sagan says it all, and he says it better than I ever could. This is one of those amazing books that made me think long and hard about a lot of things. It made me want to know more about the universe, to revisit old assumptions and condescensions, to step back a moment and drink it all in.

Sagan speaks as one with a giddy love for the scientific process, one whose healthy skepticism does not make him stodgy or closed to new ideas. Much of the first half of the book is spent more or less on aliens – not only explanations for much of what is attributed to extraterrestrial activity, but why people assume aliens at all. He does grump a little about the dumbing-down of American entertainment and its lack of accurate science, but coming from someone who prizes knowledge so highly, I can understand his disappointment at the popularity of shows like “Beavis & Butthead” and “Dumb & Dumber.” Likewise his unhappiness with dwindling popular and government support of science research and education.

This book is absolutely astounding. It’s one of the few that I recommend to anyone, even (and perhaps especially) if it challenges some of your closely held viewpoints. It did mine.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

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