"The book I'm looking for,' says the blurred figure, who holds out a volume similar to yours, 'is the one that gives the sense of the world after the end of the world, the sense that the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world."
- Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Righteous Mind and A Thousand Acres

Most of my short reviews start, in my head, as long ones. Thousand-plus-word things. I often take hundreds of words of notes on the books I read without ever turning them into anything resembling a coherent argument about the work... because good sentences are easy, but smart structure takes time and attention. And like most people with a full time job and a part time drinking problem, I only have so many hours in a day to devote to writing and reading, and sometimes (often times!) other books or writing projects take my attention before I can organize my thoughts about the book I've just finished.

Here are some sort reviews that deserve to be much, much longer!

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

I've been a fan of Haidt's research for a while, and written about it elsewhere. The basic argument of the first two-thirds of this book is... 1.) Moral reasoning is a post-hoc process. Intuitions come first, reasoning second. We often circle around sacred, social values and then share post-hoc "reasons" why we are right. Haidt introduces the image of our minds as a small rational rider on a large intuitional elephant.

2.) Morality can be described more broadly than in terms of Fairness and Harm. His research has suggested that those who identify as conservative tend to have a broader palate of morality than those who identify as Liberal, considering not only Harm and Fairness (which all Westerners think of as highly important, regardless of politics), but also Purity, Authority, and Loyalty as moral considerations.You can take Hiadt's surveys at YourMorals.org.

And 3.) Humans are really groupish and we tie our moral thinking to the groups in which we belong.

These ideas are basically valuable as a vehicle for appreciating the biases in your own moral stances, and trying to overcome the Manichean grossness of modern political discourse, or more broadly for just understanding people unlike yourself, which I think is one of  the (the very?) highest aims a person can take.

The last section of the book talks about religion, and is sort of a response to who he calls "New Atheists," like my boy Sam Harris. I wish I had the energy to write down my thoughts about this. Basically: Haidt's talks about "beliefs" in a context of behaviors and social groups, where all of these elements influence one another. It seems much richer and more complete to me than the way thinkers like Harris usually choose to talk about beliefs (though I hope they wouldn't disagree with the conceptual model). But I like Harris because I think of him as more understanding of religious conviction than thinkers like Dawkins and Hitchens (boo!), and I think his work just focuses on a particular relationship within the kind of model Haidt describes rather than necessarily rejecting it. Both writers are either misunderstanding each other, or I'm misunderstanding both.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in politics, in science, in the differences between conservatives and progressives, in understanding people unlike themselves. The writing is good and the structure is so elegant. Just read it!

Here's a highly-condensed version of Chapter 12, on politics and polarization.

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

This novel is a retelling of King Lear in semi-contemporary, rural America. I don't know that I would've recognized that if it weren't written on the back cover.

It's a story about a farmer who turns over ownership and management of his farm to his three daughters and their husbands. He begins to go senile shortly thereafter, and as the family unwinds all sorts of secrets surface.

Some of the middle parts are occasionally clunky, particularly with some of the major "twists." But at its best the character writing is incredible. I started to mark the best lines, thinking I would lay a few of them down for you here, but if I included all of the exceptional sentences, there'd be more words in this single review than exist in total on my blog.

Letter to a Christian Nation  by Sam Harris

Somehow, this short book was available on Youtube. Nothing surprising! Same old Sam Harris--good stuff!

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