Sunday, July 1, 2012

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, June 2012

Mini-reviews of books I read last month: two classic novels, plus a
pioneering book on positive psychology.

I'd put off reading "Moby-Dick" for a while, but finally decided to give
it a go when I found out that the similarly-surnamed China Miéville has
just published a novel, "Railsea", that "reimagines" Herman Melville's

"Learned Optimism" reinforces some things I've been learning about
cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), which has been proven to be helpful
in dealing with my tinnitus.

1. "Moby-Dick; or, The Whale" by Herman Melville

Set in the early 19th century, the adventure-seeking Ishmael tells the
tragic story of his maiden whaling expedition.  The Pequod is captained
by the mysterious Ahab, who is obsessed with tracking down one whale in
particular, Moby-Dick.  Ahab harpooned this enormous white sperm whale
in an earlier expedition, but the whale got away.  In the process, Ahab
lost a leg.

Starbuck, the cautious first mate, acts as a foil to the captain's
single-mindedness, often leading to clashes between the two during the
fateful voyage.  Starbuck reminds Ahab that they have work to do, and
the safety of the boat and her crew shouldn't be put at risk for the
sake of one man's vendetta.  Along with Ahab's obsession for revenge,
I found the battle of wills between the two men the most interesting
aspects of the book.  The rest of the ship's motley crew also have
differing views on the quest for Moby-Dick.

The crew of the Pequod have a long and perilous voyage before they even
encounter Moby-Dick.  The first hundred or so pages describe events on
shore in Nantucket, Massachusetts, before the ship sets sail.  In search
for whales to hunt for oil, the ship heads first to the south Atlantic,
rounds South Africa, sails through the Indian Ocean, until it finally
reaches the Pacific.  Throughout the middle of the book there are many
short chapters of exposition about whales, whaling and whale ships.
These chapters read like excerpts from a 19th century encyclopaedia.
Being a seaman in those days was tough enough: whaling made it even more
dangerous.  When they finally find Moby-Dick, the captain and crew spend
three epic days battling the white whale.

I found this book a bit of an ordeal.  The prose was a bit too archaic
for my taste, and the subject matter a bit off-putting.  But most of all
I found it too long.  Perhaps I might have enjoyed it more if all the
dated filler was left out?  While it's an interesting novel, I can only
recommend this novel for dedicated readers.  Others should instead watch
the 1956 movie.  Obviously a lot of the book is left out, and the three
day climax is cut to a single day, but it's a decent adaptation.

For an argument that this is the greatest American novel, visit:

2. "The Power and the Glory" by Graham Greene

This novel is set in the 1920s and 1930s in an unnamed Mexican state.
Following a revolution, the new regime has outlawed religion.  The
police have been ordered to round up any priests who don't defrock and
get married.  We follow the fate of one particular priest.  While not
exactly the most upstanding member of the clergy (for example, he'd
taken to drinking before the revolution), he cannot bring himself to
turn his back on his faith.

This "whisky" priest's already shaky faith is further put to the test
while on the run.  Over the years he encounters various people, seeing
many sides of human nature.  He constantly questions his duties, his
choices, and their consequences.  It doesn't help when the police start
taking hostages unless villagers inform on any priests.  Anyone found
to have helped priests is also executed.  After some close shaves, the
priest finally gets to the border.  But when someone comes to him,
begging him to go back and absolve the sins of a dying man, he is
faced with a difficult dilemma: cross the border to save his life,
or risk getting captured by doing his duty as a priest.

A concise and thought-provoking novel.

3. "Learned Optimism" by Martin Seligman

This book is the result of many years of research and experience.
The author, Martin Seligman, is a noted psychologist and clinical
researcher.  He is often referred to as the father of positive
psychology.  Dismissing this another self-help book would not do it

Seligman was instrumental in researching "learned helplessness", which
went against the dominant theories of the era, Skinner's behaviourism.
Learned helplessness is a when someone has learned to act or behave
helplessly in a particular situation, usually after experiencing some
inability to avoid an adverse situation.  Seligman saw a similarity with
severely depressed patients, and argued that the perceived lack absence
of control contributed to depression.  Later this theory was extended
to include attributional (or explanatory) style, i.e. how one explains
events can affect their response.  Pessimists tend to blame themselves
even when there is no evidence, while optimists tend to place the blame
elsewhere without hesitation.  Pessimists can also see events as
permanent and pervasive, while optimists interpret the same situations
as temporary and specific.  Note that these explanatory styles tend to
make pessimists see the world more realistically.  In some cases this
is actually desirable, e.g. when faced with a dangerous situation.
But the author argues that there are also many more everyday situations
where the pessimist's irrational and unfair explanatory styles can
ultimately lead to depression.  Rumination on one's problems is another
risk factor.

An interesting observation Seligman makes is that the "me" generation
is likely to suffer even more from depression, since failure could be
more damaging.  But there is hope.  The author argues that it's possible
for a pessimist to change their outlook, and so by being more optimistic
when appropriate they can protect themselves from negative thoughts and
depression.  Several techniques are described, ranging from simple
distraction and distancing, to the more long-lasting disputation.  This
book is consistent with the cognitive therapy approach, which has been
more successful than endless psychoanalysis at helping deal with
problems such as depression and anxiety.

Here's another review of the book, with selected quotes:

Several years ago Seligman gave a TED talk on the state of psychology: