Book-– Written by former director Neil MacGregor of the National Gallery in London, A History of the World in 100 Objects uses artifacts in the museum to tell the story of the world from our prehistoric origins all the way through to today. MacGregor refreshingly focuses about equally on objects from the Orient as well as the Occident, including such disparate artifacts as a Korean roof tile and a modern-day credit card. The joy of this 700+ page tome comes from how completely knowledgeable and intelligent MacGregor is; I felt MacGregor struck a nice balance between the breadth of topics he covered and the depth he delved into for each topic. I learned more about history, and had more fun doing it, from this book than I ever did in school. If you prefer a listening experience over a reading one, you can also download the entire collection, divided into 100 episodes, from the BBC’s website for free.
If you enjoy this book, you might also like others that take a concrete, artifact-based view of historical events, such as The Civil War in 50 Objects. If you were more intrigued by this book’s birds-eye, macro view of history, try A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (has a science bent) or Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.
Book – If you have a general interest in astrophysics and/or if you are like me and want to appear smarter on the subject than you really are, then Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry might just be the resource you need! The book is by no means intimidating – small in size, only 208 pages, with an easy to use table of contents and index. With wit and charm Tyson shares his knowledge on the origin and creation of the universe, gravity, light, space, dark matter and dark energy, and many more cosmic wonders and mysteries. His goal is for us to gain an understanding of the past, present, and future of our universe and our place in it. Though you won’t be an expert after reading this, you just may have enough interest to want to know more.
The author is director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History and host of the hit radio and TV show “StarTalk”.
If you would like to learn more about this topic, as Tyson hoped you would, you may want to check out these books – What is Relativity, The Fabric of the Cosmos, these DVDs – Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Monster of the Milky Way and much more. Just check our catalog or ask one of our librarians!
Book— In a move reminiscent of Barbara Ehrenreich’s famous undercover excursion into the world of the working poor (Nickel and Dimed), professor of urban planning Lisa Servon worked as a check casher at RiteCheck, a payday lender, and a hotline operator for those having difficulty paying back payday loans to investigate what these services offer to vulnerable Americans. What she found is that America’s banks are ill-serving America’s poor and middle class. With practices such as debt resequencing, where the largest debit transactions on a checking account are non-chronologically processed first to maximize overdraft fees, and long check-clearing times that make it hard for people living paycheck to paycheck to count on their money being accessible, it’s no wonder that alternative financial services are springing up to fill the void. Contrary to popular wisdom, though, not all of these new services are predatory (or at least are no more predatory than banks). In fact, many customers prefer them because their fees are upfront and immediate rather than opaque. Servon’s account paints a more nuanced picture than the banking=smart, check cashing=short-sighted framework that I certainly subscribed to before reading this book.
If you enjoy The Unbanking of America, I recommend Evicted, which examines the detrimental effects that unstable housing has on the poor. For more information on the specific topics covered by Servon, I recommend this Freakonomics podcast on the topic or payday lenders. (For other great podcast recommendations, come to our Discover Podcasts program on Wednesday, November 1 at 7 PM.)
Book – As a book-lover, “what’s your favorite book?” is my least-favorite question. Do you mean my favorite book I’ve read this year? The book I recommend to other people most often? The childhood favorite I still re-read when I’m having a bad day? But then, beneath and beyond all of these, there are those books I read so frequently and at such a young age that I can no longer remember not having read them. They’re just a part of the world, like water and air.
Those are the books that Handy writes about – The Wind in the Willows, Charlotte’s Web, Ramona the Pest, Where the Wild Things Are, The Chronicles of Narnia. It’s hard to imagine childhood without them, but most of us (unless we have children who like to be read to) haven’t read them in years, or maybe decades. Handy argues that we should, that these books have as much to teach us about the human condition as the canonical great classes, and that they’re just as enjoyable, too.
A book like this runs the risk of being sentimental, and there are some moments that tug at the heartstrings – but Handy isn’t afraid to mention those times his own children didn’t understand the appeal of a favorite book, or when he finally read a classic that he just didn’t enjoy. For anyone who has loved books for most of their life, this is a delightful exploration of some of the books that may have inspired that love in the first place.
Book – Have you ever tried to write poetry? It’s not as easy as it looks – even free blank verse, in most hands, sounds silly, while a good poet can shake you to your core. Nevertheless, I keep trying to write poetry, hoping that someday I’ll accidentally manage something that’s actually good. I picked up The Ode Less Travelled to see if there’s anything useful I’ve been missing, and wow, have I been missing a lot.
Stephen Fry isn’t a poet – he’s an actor, comedian, and occasional novelist – but he writes poetry for fun, and thinks other people should try it, too. In aid of this, he explains poetical metre (everything’s spelled in British English in this book, although Fry also gives the Americanisms), rhyme, form, and criticism, along with giving extremely useful and interesting exercises for you to try. (They’re presented in workbook format, but please bow to the publisher’s wishes and buy a copy for yourself if you wish to write your verse in the book.) As he says, you probably won’t become an award-winning poet just by reading this book, but you will be able to amuse yourself with a creative hobby, much like sketching with words. And if all you’re interested in is understanding poetry a little better, this would also be a useful read, as it’s much more entertaining than any “Introduction to Poetry” I’ve ever read before.
Book – Some of the most intelligent animals on the planet, other than humans, are apes, monkeys, crows and ravens, parakeets, and…octopuses. Which is just as weird as it sounds, because while apes and monkeys are closely related to us, and birds not too far different, octopuses (and other cephalopods, squids and cuttlefish) are very distant relations. Our most recent common ancestor is 750 million years old. So why are they so smart, and what can we learn about intelligence and awareness from studying them?
Peter Godfrey-Smith is a philosopher, but also a scuba diver, and his encounters with cephalopods off the coast of Australia led him to this fascinating study of minds, both human and alien. Deep discussion of what consciousness is and how it happens is interleaved with vivid descriptions of octopus behavior and relationships. As a pure philosophy book, this would be too dense and heavy to manage, but bringing in the octopuses and their evolutionary history gives it just the right balance. An enlightening read for anyone interested in the question of animal intelligence and the ways humans are similar to – and different from – very different creatures.
Book–From college admittance to the actuarial models that determine what you pay for health insurance, decisions of who gets what in our society are increasingly made by algorithms rather than individuals. Former Wall Street quantitative analyst Cathy O’Neil exposes that, while many algorithms claim impartiality, they in fact end up entrenching systemic inequality. For example, many employers are increasingly using applicants’ credit scores as a factor in choosing employees, with the rationale that reliability with paying debt is correlated with reliability generally. Long term unemployed and lower income people are likely to have lower credit scores due to the higher credit utilization rates that typically accompany a shortage of funds, and this practice unfairly bars them from the very employment that would lift them out of their circumstances. O’Neil has plenty of other incisive examples of opaque, badly designed algorithms wreaking havoc on people’s lives from birth to death, but her thesis is that unless an algorithm is transparent, fair, and carefully considered, it tends to reinforce the status quo and penalize marginalized groups disproportionately.
Despite having the word “math” in the title, which tends to scare people off, Weapons of Math Destruction is written in an accessible, plainspoken style that doesn’t require you to be particularly mathematically-minded to follow along. O’Neil’s writing has a gift for making complicated topics simple and will appeal to fans of Malcolm Gladwell.
Book – Like many writers, Cary Tennis had a project he just couldn’t finish: a sprawling novel he’d started writing while commuting to a detested corporate job. He struggled with it for years before coming up with the Finishing School, a method for constructing a writing group that was about support, not mutual criticism, and gentle accountability. And yes, he finished the novel.
What makes Finishing School the book unique (in my experience of writing-advice books, of which I’ve read many) is the authors’ understanding that writing, and especially projects we’ve been procrastinating on for years, can bring up big emotions, and it’s those emotions, not the writing itself, that frequently gets in the way. Finishing School, the method, is about making some space for those emotions, which in turn makes some space in your head for getting the work done.
I think this method could be expanded to help you deal with any project you want to get done but don’t have a firm deadline for. (Discussed in the book are several writers who had writing-adjacent projects they needed to finish, like cleaning out the study that had been used as a storage room for too many years.) In addition to sympathy, the book lays out the method for you to use as a two-person buddy system or as a large group like a class. I’m looking forward to recruiting a buddy to help me get started on a couple of projects of my own.
Book-– Many are familiar with Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, a journalistic experiment in which Ehrenreich take a series of low-wage jobs to investigate the difficulties faced by the working poor. Bait and Switch is a lesser-known companion to this book and explores the raw deal faced by the white collar unemployed. Ehrenreich gives herself 10 months to find a white collar job (defined here at $50,000+ per year, full time with benefits) which is the average length of time it takes most white collar job seekers to find employment. She will then work that job for about three months and do an insider report on corporate culture. What follows is a series of shifty career coaches, wardrobe updates, endless resume tweaking, networking events, and endless web-searching, and no job to show for it at the end.
While I can see how this book might be a cathartic read for a white collar professional struggling after a lay off, I think Ehrenreich’s work suffers from going into her job search with all the wrong motives. I felt that Ehrenreich’s insulation from the real-life consequences of her simulated unemployment causes her writing to be permeated with smug coldness, especially when describing her fellow white collar job seekers. She lacked the compassion for the corporate job-seeker’s plight that would have humanized this book. Nevertheless, Bait and Switch stands well as an indictment of how difficult it is to enter (and re-enter) the corporate world, especially as a middle-aged woman. However, I think the work would have been even stronger if either written by an actual laid-off corporate employee or if Ehrenreich simply chronicled the journey of a white collar job seeker instead of going undercover and shoehorning herself into a story that’s not hers to tell.
Book— Structured into six chapters covering six seminal events in Revolutionary American history, Founding Brothers provides a glimpse into the psyches of America’s founding generation. According to Ellis, accounts of the founders often render these men heroically remote and untouchable (well, until the Hamilton musical, that is); by focusing on the bonds among them, Ellis hopes to render his subjects more accessible. Discrete incidents such as the dinner that decided the location of the U.S. capitol and the duel that took Hamilton’s life reveal who these men were when their characters were tested. Ellis’ writing shines when he humanizes the founders with little personal details. Jefferson often sang under his breath. Madison was sickly. Adams was choleric and has a tumultuous friendship with Jefferson. Ellis’ accessible story-telling makes the Revolution feel immediate and precarious rather than a foregone conclusion with the benefit of hindsight.
For a closer look at some of the founding fathers, check out Ellis’ other books, like American Sphinx, which focuses on Jefferson, and His Excellency, which portrays Washington.