A self-improvement book

“The Net grants us instant access to a library of information unprecedented in its size and scope, and it makes it easy for us to sort through that library—to find, if not exactly what we were looking for, at least something sufficient for our immediate purposes. What the Net diminishes is Johnson’s primary kind of knowledge: the ability to know, in depth, a subject for ourselves, to construct within our own minds the rich and idiosyncratic set of connections that give rise to a singular intelligence.” 

-Nicholas Carr, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains”

Rating: 4 stars
Days to read: 11

I have to say this category stumped me for a while, since I don’t tend to read books even remotely related to ‘self help’. I often read articles that might fall into this category (The Jesuit Post is a personal favorite), but books to me often feel indulgent, like letting yourself eat as many ice cream sandwiches as you damn well please (I have no personal knowledge of what such an evening might look like.. promise). Self improvement almost feels too serious for my precious book reading time. I’m finding lately that when I do venture into this genre it’s been well worth my time and dare I say it, incredibly enjoyable.

The thesis of The Shallows could be summarized in a phrase borrowed from Marshall McLuhan: “The medium is the message.” Essentially, the way we consume information fundamentally shapes that information. We can agree a series of Twitter posts is not the same as a printed poem written decades ago (congratulations, Einstein), but the distinction feels more difficult for content that we consume through multiple mediums. The newspaper article I read on a printed paper is no different than that same article read on a screen, right? Throughout the book Carr hammers away at a single message: no, they’re not, and that changes how we consume them. And not only does it change how we consume that individual message, but repeated patterns of experience (like the way we gather and consume information on the internet) then come to change the way we think.

I have to admit, before this book I was of the mindset that as long as I used the internet for mostly intellectual pursuits, the internet would not in turn be affecting my cognitive process and thus could be solely ‘good’. I’m an academic, so a large part of my training and livelihood is based in my capacity to think critically. By the end of the first chapter I felt incredibly naïve in my original assessment about the internet. The strength in Carr’s argument is that he does not assert that the internet/technology is inherently bad. The distribution of information on the internet has an untold number of benefits, and it would be silly to argue against them. Instead, the main premise is that what the mediums we use will always involve a fundamental tradeoff. In the case of the internet, we’ve amassed the ability to take in information at an incredible clip, quickly browsing a large number of websites and efficiently finding relevant pieces of information within a larger block of text. What we lose is the ability to dive into a text and the attention span to do so, and there’s a reasonable argument to at least re-access if many of us have fallen too deep into that kind of thinking, and ask what it has done to our personal lives and our culture.

A fascinating examination of this in the book was the example of academic citation. One might imagine that the increased availability of academic articles on the internet would widen the base of scholarship that a paper might cite as a foundation for the presented research. Counterintuitively, as more and more work is digitized and sometimes available exclusively online, we as academics are actually citing fewer papers overall and from a more limited scope. We’re so efficient at finding relevant information that we are often skipping over and failing to make connections ourselves with our field as a larger whole. In college I actually remember going to the library and skimming through hard copy journals to find the work I was interested in for a particular project or paper. Without control + F, I actually had to skim through several titles before I found what I needed. This allowed me to at least briefly be aware of what else was being currently discussed and studied in the literature, and in some ways I wonder if I was better connected to my field then than I am now.

My takeaway from The Shallows was that I came to accept the main premise of the book: the way we consume content requires that we make tradeoffs for the skills we want to strengthen and those we are okay with being weaker. By understanding what those tradeoffs are, we can in turn use that information to make strategic decisions about the mediums we choose for the messages that are important to us. For me, I’m trying to limit web time a little bit more, but I’m also viewing my reading challenge this year in a new light– if the ability to get lost in a book for a few hours is a skill I’d like to retain and strengthen, then reading the printed word (especially sans hyperlinks) regularly is important to me to balance out the time I do spend on the web. Not only do I value this skill out of a love of reading and respect for the traditional literary mind, but the last few pages of the book that touched on how empathy and other emotional skills require thoughtful, slow thinking struck a nerve with me. Quick, automatic judgements don’t just affect how I take in abstract things like scientific concepts, but also data in social situations. Going beyond a potentially flawed impression requires thoroughly examining information instead of a quick assessment and advancement to the next new incoming stimulus, which is precisely the way we surf the web.

This book got me thinking about things in a new way than I had before (I could not shut up about Carr’s ideas to many people while reading it), and for that alone The Shallows might even warrant a re-read. Another reason to re-read it is probably a case in point about how the medium affects the message: this book was only available as an audio book from the library and so that’s how I consumed it, and there are times I found myself distracted and mindlessly online while listening to a chapter about distraction. I’m curious what I’ll take in when I’m reading in print form (my preferred method anyway, I’m not a huge audio book fan) and what I might understand better in that medium. If you’ve ever joked about getting a degree from University of Google (guilty), The Shallows is fascinating, scary, but most importantly thought provoking read that I definitely recommend.

A political memoir

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one of my favorite signed copies in my collection

“We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and-perhaps-we all need some measure of unmerited grace.”

-Bryan Stevenson, “Just Mercy”

Rating: 5 stars
Days to read: 6

One of my reading weaknesses is that I rarely read non-fiction. This is possibly because I spend so much of my time in technical science literature that escaping to a fantasy world seems far more enticing when reading for fun. But to be honest, even this is at least partially an excuse. History comes much less easily to me than science, so while I read multiple newspapers daily to stay on top of current events, I rarely dive into the history and context of many of our current problems. Abolishing the death penalty is an issue I feel very strongly about, but only recently did I come to the realization that I knew very little about the history of the death penalty in this country. A good friend who is a lawyer and feels the same way about the death penalty recommended this book and I couldn’t be more thankful that this book and the work of the Equal Justice Initiative got on my radar.

Just Mercy is the story of Bryan Stevenson’s career as a lawyer for death row inmates and children sentenced to life in prison. I was both entranced with his writing as much as I often struggled to keep reading the stories of many of his clients throughout the years. Featured prominently is the case of Walter McMillian, a black man who was convicted of capital murder in Alabama even though there were multiple eye witnesses that he was miles away from the crime scene at the time of the murder. To read about the gut wrenching racism of the prosecutors and jail staff, including using police dogs and other tactics to scare the supporters of the defendant from showing up at trial, I felt sick to my stomach. It made me want to slam my book down in the middle of the coffee shop and scream, this can’t be real, can it? People can’t really treat others this way and get away with it, can they? We know on some level that they can and they do, but each individual story is heartbreaking in its own way. Of course, to be this shocked and surprised is indicative of my relative privilege being white. I get to be unaware of these issues if I chose to, because I don’t have to personally experience this reality. However, to do so perpetrates the culture that allows these wrongdoings to occur. If I’m silent then the voices that demand finding person to be punished for a crime without regard for real truth, and by extension real justice, become that much louder.

Although this book was published a couple years ago, it felt timely against the backdrop of the current presidential race. The anti-PC pendulum has swung so far that we now call being abrasive and cruel as “honesty” and “keeping it real” (can we abolish that phrase? And “haters gonna hate” while we’re at it, but I digress..). Our sense of justice is so steeped in revenge, or downright swallowed by it, that we conflate mercy with being “soft on crime”. If we are truly to consider ourselves a Christian nation as some candidates would espouse, how can we revel in how forgiving and just God is in dealing with our own sins on Sunday morning and then go cheer on candidates who propose denying that same compassionate justice to our neighbors (especially those that don’t look like us) on the talk shows Monday morning?

The first response I normally hear when I get into these kinds of conversations is something along the lines of, what you just think these people should go free and be allowed to hurt people? Or, yea let’s give these criminals a cushy life, why would they be deterred by prison! The irony of course in this is that a prevailing belief in just mercy is not being “soft” on crime. It is merely the reminder that punishments need to fit the crime, not our desire for revenge and retribution, or worse, to look good in the next election. It feels good to say what we want to do to people who cause great harm to our loved ones and members of our society. But the ways in which we either allow or disallow ourselves from going down that road shapes our culture in profound ways.

Perhaps most indicative of Stevenson’s character, and probably what has allowed him to connect with and therefore better represent many of his clients, is how he recognizes his own brokenness and need for mercy, even (maybe especially) for those who seem least deserving of it. In one of the chapters Stevenson recalls a guard who put him through a strip search (not standard operating procedure at this jail), and among other things also points out his truck in the jail parking lot with a bumper sticker that reads “if I knew it was going to be this way, I would have picked my own damn cotton.” (I have no words for this.) Later that guard is in the courtroom while Stevenson presents his client’s extremely abusive childhood in grisly detail. When the guard next sees Stevenson back at the jail, the guard stops him and asks to shake his hand, explaining that he had a rough childhood himself in foster care and didn’t think anyone had it as bad as him. Instead of dismissing the guard as forever repugnant for his previous actions, Stevenson shakes his hand. Both men are changed by Stevenson’s mercy.

I’m saving my five star ratings for the books that absolutely change me, this book completely deserves it.