Tag Archives: book reviews

Rereading Kurt Vonnegut

Once upon a time on Tralfamadore there were creatures who weren’t anything like machines. They weren’t dependable. They weren’t efficient. They weren’t predictable. They weren’t durable. And these poor creatures were obsessed by the idea that everything that existed had to have a purpose, and that some purposes were higher than others. These creatures spent most of their time trying to find out what their purpose was. And every time they found out what seemed to be a purpose of themselves, the purpose seemed so low that the creatures were filled with disgust and shame. And, rather than serve such a low purpose, the creatures would make a machine to serve it. This left the creatures free to serve higher purposes. But whenever they found a higher purpose, the purpose still wasn’t high enough. So machines were made to serve higher purposes, too. And the machines did everything so expertly that they were finally given the job of finding out what the highest purpose of the creatures could be. The machines reported in all honesty that the creatures couldn’t really be said to have any purpose at all. The creatures thereupon began slaying each other, because they hated purposeless things above all else. And they discovered that they weren’t even very good at slaying. So they turned that job over to the machines, too. And the machines finished up the job in less time than it takes to say, “Tralfamadore.”

That’s from the Sirens of Titans, which I just reread, along with Cat’s Cradle. Recently, I’ve been on science fiction kick, which has also included some Asimov, Clarke, Banks, and C.S. Lewis.

Here is what I most enjoy about Vonnegut:

1. He makes me feel like we’re in on the same joke: humans don’t really understand how the universe works, and much of what we’ve learned hints at the fact that our primary way of interacting with the world (conscious reflection immersed in free will and time) is probably pretty wrong. Much of his writing is just highlighting the absurdities of our condition (see excerpt above).

2. While telling tales within this joke, he accurately chronicles the worst of human behavior (descriptions of war in Slaughter House Five), as well as what might be the worst of future human behavior (descriptions of human induced existential threats in Cat’s Cradle).

3. While telling tales within this joke, he often narrates touching relationships that are based upon acknowledgement of human insecurities. At times, he points to the idea that love is the only real hope of meaning we have (while generally acknowledging the paradox that meaning as we understand probably does not make sense in world without free will or time).

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If you caught me after a few drinks, and you asked me: what is the purpose of public education?

I might answer: to create as many Kurt Vonnegut’s as possible.

Micro book review: The Depths – the Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic

I just recently finished the book on depression, a difficult issue that, given the tragic death of Robin Williams, is very much alive in the national conscious.

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Summary

The book’s author, Jonathan Rottenberg (and a former sufferer of deep depression), explores what might be the evolutionary causes of depression – as well as how this knowledge should effect our understanding  of the disease.

The Text [1]

“Seen this way, depression follows our adaption for low mood like a shadow – it’s an inevitable outcome of a natural process.”

Rottenberg’s main thesis is that depression can’t be understood in isolation; rather, the path to understanding depression is to first understand the evolutionary uses of moods. In short, good moods are useful for social bonding and securing reproductive mates, while low moods are useful for increasing alertness and objectively analyzing risks.

This is not to say that depression is adaptively useful – only that low moods are adaptively useful – and the hardwiring that allows for low moods can cause depression as well.

The Text [2]

“Sadly, what’s good for fitness [low moods] is not necessarily good for happiness.”

This is obvious but hard to remember: we’re wired for survival, not happiness.

 The Text [3]

“The idea that depression results from an inability to disengage from a failing goal is relatively new. Could it be a plausible pathway into depression? … More people in the West – especially the are young – are setting the kind of goals that are likely to become failing goals in the future … today’s youth are much more likely than those of the past to agree with statements such as ‘I will never be satisfied until I get all that I deserve’ … additional evidence for the over commitment theory is that perfectionists are more likely to become depressed than non-perfectionists …”

Raised expectations for the good life – even in the face of objectively higher living standards – may cause depression.

Personally, I try to keep the phrase “nobody promised us anything” close at all times.

 The Text [4]

“People who value happiness are less likely to achieve their goal of feeling happy…. Ultimately, the strong cultural imperative toward being happy bumps us up against a wall: our mood systems is not configured to deliver an end state of durable euphoria.”

This, I suppose, is the ultimate paradox of happiness.

Concluding Thoughts

Depression is a very tragic disease. For me, hearing theories about its evolutionary roots helps me make some sense of depression, even if these theories are tentative.

I would have liked to have seen more evidence for the case that we’re seeing a depression epidemic rather than just an increase in reporting.

I’m open to the idea that increased expectations and a narrow focus on the pursuit of happiness increase the probability of depression, but it’s somewhat hard for me to distinguish causation and correlation here. 

But, ultimately, the books thesis is worth wrestling with: is the risk of depression, which stems from our evolutionary adaption of low moods, increasing due to our modern environment and culture?

Most of all, I hope that continued research will help all those who suffer from depression. No one deserves its afflictions. 

Giovanni’s Room: a Micro-Bookreview

From time to time I hope to post about what I’ve been reading. I’m by no means a literature expert, so I’ll be sticking to micro-reviews (I’m not sure if this is a real phrase, but it seems right). 

jb gio

Plot Summary (no spoilers)

A young, white, American male visits France. His girlfriend is in Spain trying to decide whether or not to agree to marry him. While he is in France, he meets Giovanni – a poor, male bartender. They fall for each other and the narrator is torn between his desire / love for Giovanni and his girlfriend.

James Baldwin 

You can read about him here. Of note in this novel, the protagonist is white. Much to consider re: why – in an era where homosexuality was widely condemned – a black, gay author chose to write a novel about a white, gay protagonist. I’d like to think of it as sort of a throwing the gauntlet down to the world, but this interpretation may be incorrect. 

The Text [1]

“People who believe they are strong-willed and the masters of their destiny can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in deception. Their decisions are not really decisions at all – a real decision makes one humble, one knows that it is at the mercy of more things than can be named – but elaborate systems of evasion, of illusion, designed to make themselves and the world appear to be what they and the worlds are not.”

From every angle from which I can view the world (philosophy, genetics, physics, sociology, anthropology, neurology, psychology, to name some), I find little foundation for the notion that anyone is a master of her own destiny. Yet, I can only admit this in times of reflection. When I am in the day itself, all I can see is agency, everywhere, as illusionary as it may be.

The Text [2]

“Beneath the joy, of course, was anguish and beneath the amazement was fear; but they did not work themselves to the beginning until our high beginning was aloes on our tongues. By then anguish and fear had become the surface on which we slipped and slid, losing balance, dignity, and pride. Giovanni’s face, which I had memorized so many mornings, noons, and nights, hardened before my eyes, began to give in secret places, began to crack. The light in the eyes become a glitter; the wide and beautiful brow began to suggest the skull beneath.”

The phrase that caught me we “the beautiful brow began to suggest the skull beneath.” In a metaphorical sense, the phrase works. But what about the literal sense? Those (rare) moments in life when being cognizant of our anatomy renders us somehow (more? less?) human. 

That’s all for this micro-bookreview. I highly recommend the novel.