Sunday, August 7, 2011

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, July 2011

Mini-reviews of books I read last month.  My fiction recommendation is
without hesitation "To Kill a Mockingbird".  My non-fiction pick is
"Flow".  I'll probably explore the concept of flow further by reading
books about its application, and writing about specific examples.

1. "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee

You probably know that this is a novel about racial injustice and
prejudice set in Alabama in the mid 1930s.  I'd put off reading it,
thinking it might be too preachy.  But I needn't have worried.  Written
from the relatively innocent viewpoint of a young girl, the concepts of
racial segregation, class hierarchies and general prejudice come across
as rather puzzling to her.

In the first half of the novel we're given a description of the simple,
almost idyllic lives of the narrator, the young tomboyish Jean Louise
Finch ("Scout"), her older brother Jeremy ("Jem"), and their summer-time
friend "Dill".  Scout's father is Atticus Finch, a widower and middle-
aged lawyer.  We are introduced to the attitudes and customs of the good
people of Maycomb, Alabama.  While Scout is an avid reader, she doesn't
like school much.  She's fearless, but even she's wary of their
mysterious and reclusive neighbour, Boo Radley.  The court case that
brings the race issue to a head doesn't happen until the second half of
the novel.

For a more detailed analysis of the plot and themes, see Wikipedia:

You can read many of the over 2000 generally effusive reviews on Amazon.
I can only add that this novel is indeed worthy of the labels "classic"
and "must read".

2. "La gente" ("People") by Vincenzo Cerami

This is an interesting collection of short stories about the lives of
various people.  Each self-contained vignette is set in Italy, at
different times during the post-war period.  The characters experience
the growing pains of Italian society.

Many of the stories are enjoyable, with several having ironic twists.
For example, a painter has a strange condition where bright light makes
him sick.  He spends his days indoors and underground, venturing
outdoors only before dawn or after dusk.  His black and white paintings
earn him some financial independence.  Then one day his sensitivity to
daylight goes away, and he begins to appreciate colour.  He starts
painting more vivid and colourful scenes, but these no longer interest
his patrons.

Cerami also writes screenplays, such as "Life is Beautiful", which he
cowrote with Roberto Benigni.

3. "Practical Wisdom" by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe

The authors of this book aim to promote the idea that the world would be
a better place if everyone exercised "practical wisdom".  This is an
ancient ideal from Aristotle which seems to have fallen out of favour
these days.  Instead, we seem to have advocates of two extremes: no-
rules anarchy (free-market theory, everything open); and explicit and
inflexible rules for everyone with no exceptions.  The authors suggest
that incentives and rules have their place, but we need to take a
pragmatic approach to enforcement.  As per the book's subtitle, it's
about learning "the right way to do the right thing", one person at a
time if necessary.

The book quotes research and cites many individual cases that support
the notion that a new approach is needed to achieve positive results in
such important fields as education, justice, medicine and business.
Rigid rules can be as damaging as no rules at all, especially if they
remove discretion, or reduce engagement and purpose.  The recent turmoil
in financial markets demonstrate how incentivised organisations and
individuals can severely damage the systems they were meant to serve.

If you can't find time to read the book, you can watch a recent TED talk
by Schwartz, "Using our practical wisdom":

4. "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Years ago I remember an sportsman saying he was "in the zone" when he
was playing well.  Other people have described being in the zone when
writing, programming, playing music and even cooking.  These are also
examples of "flow".  If you have the necessary skill to do well at an
activity that is challenging, requires concentration and provides quick
feedback, then you can achieve flow.  You lose awareness of not only the
sense of time, but even your own ego.

Money and status may provide short term happiness.  But multiple studies
show that the returns start diminishing rapidly after a surprisingly low
threshold.  What matters for long term happiness is the development of a
personal sense of purpose.  Flow experiences have been shown to
contribute to this.  "A person who rarely gets bored, who does not
constantly need a favorable external environment to enjoy the moment,
has passed the test for having achieved a creative life."  (p171)

This may sound like a self-help book.  It is not.  While the book does
describes the requirements and elements of flow in great detail, it
can't tell you personally how to attain flow.  Everyone is different,
and what may be a flow activity for one person may be unbearable for
someone else.  Note also that flow should not to be confused with
hedonism.  Some personal control must be maintained.

The Zen-like nature of flow may lead some critics to dismiss flow as
some kind of secular pseudo-religion.  While there can be some spiritual
aspects to flow, and it may share some wisdom from various religions,
the theory itself is based on empirical research.  The author cites many
research studies where people have been able to achieve flow or "optimal
experience".  Activities studied range from obvious fields like sport,
arts, sciences and medicine, to the mundane.  A septuagenarian women
living in the harsh Italian Alps, working sixteen-hour days on her
little farm, considers everything she does enjoyable.

The concept of flow really resonated with me.  It coincides with what
I've experienced myself, both in work and everyday life.  A simple and
obvious personal example is reading.  When I'm reading something
interesting and challenging enough, I'm fully engaged.  Time flies.
When I try reading something too challenging, as was the case when I
started reading Italian novels, the struggle made progress difficult
and enjoyment suffered.  With practice my Italian comprehension
improved, and reading Italian became as satisfying as reading English.

For the time-challenged, read the Wikipedia article on flow:

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has also given a TED talk on flow:

5. "The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time"
   by David L. Ulin

This short book is essentially an extended essay about the role of books
and reading in the present and near future.  The author, a former book
review editor, fears that book reading is under threat in a distracted
age of short attention spans.  As a result, individuals and society as
a whole will miss out on the many benefits of reading.

Throughout the book the author reveals his personal reading experiences
and development.  He mentions various books and authors, some well known
and others obscure.  He covers the joys and frustrations rereading "The
Great Gatsby" at the same time his son is studying it for school.

He admits that reading can be seen as anti-social, but maintains that it
is an important part of a balanced and reflective perspective on life.
While he is wary of the trend from the printed word to electronic
formats, he doesn't condemn this change.  In fact, he sees opportunities
where technology can enhance the reading experience.  Providing we can
get past the distractions.