The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt (Feb 2013)

righteous-mindQuestion:  Do you ever feel righteous anger?  Like, you KNOW you’re right, and the other guy is WRONG-O reindeer, and there is no doubt that you are perched on the moral high ground.  And, bloody hell, how can people BE so IMmoral?!  Do they have no moral compass?  I had a bad case of this recently.  Something someone (anonymous) did threw me for a loop.  I couldn’t understand her/him.  I had thought she/he had higher principles.  And so I sought help.  I did what many people — especially librarians — do:  I looked for a book.   I found it in “The Righteous Mind”.  It was the perfect antidote.  While the book placated me with the assurance that every single human on the planet is plagued by their own feelings of righteous anger, it helped me get some remove from the emotion as well, by getting some perspective.  I learned the evolutionary reasons that righteous anger is actually adaptive, and has helped our species survive, although for most of our history that was in groups of fewer than 150 individuals.  The emotion seems less adaptive in our highly mobile, constantly changing, global society.  I also learned that I tend to base my moral assumptions on only 2 of the 6 main “modules”, or platforms, that Haidt cites.  Could it be that this person who threw me for a loop, this one so lacking in a moral compass, could simply be basing her/his views of morality on a broader range of “modules” than I?  Could I (in league with most liberals), in fact, be in the moral minority — when looking at how most people globally come to their moral beliefs — by using relatively narrow criteria for deciding what is right and wrong?  After reading this book, I won’t go so far as to think I’m the one who was wrong-0 reindeer.  That would be asking a bit much.  But I’m not quite so convinced I’m righteous.  And I can allow that this someone’s principles might not be bottomed out — just based on values on which I don’t happen to place importance.  In the final analysis, Haidt indicates we all make our moral judgements based on gut intuitions first, and then find intellectual justifications for those intuitions afterward.  So it’s a little bit harder now, after reading Haidt’s book, to be convinced of my superior moral reasoning — even when I KNOW I’m right.  Which I am.


Zealot by Reza Aslan (July 2013)


This is the perfect book to read along with Naomi Alderman’s “The Liar’s Gospel”, which is historical fiction about Jesus and Roman occupied Palestine.  I listened to the audiobook of Zealot, which, although it’s always interesting and engrossing on some level to hear the actual author speak his book into life, I wouldn’t wholeheartedly recommend.  Aslan is brilliant, but his reading overemphasized, over-dramatized, words and phrases that a trained voice actor would make flow more smoothly.  Nonetheless, this book is an eye-opener.  Having been raised in a fundamentalist, evangelical household, it’s the sort of book I would have loved to have had as a teenager, to serve up on a silver platter at dinner after the 15-minute prayers had made our meals cold.  Not that anyone would have paid no never mind.  As another book I review here, “The Righteous Mind”, makes clear, we all are evolutionarily destined to come to our moral and religious conclusions first, based on gut intuitions, and decide (read: rationalize) later, intellectually, why.  It’s not as if I had never read Biblical archeology before reading Zealot.  I think I already had an above-average knowledge of the Bible and it’s contradictions, as well as some of the actual history.  But Zealot covered a lot of new ground for me.  It’s well researched, fascinating stuff, for those who want to know who Jesus might actually have been — and even more so, for those who think they already know.  Highly recommended.

The Liars’ Gospel by Naomi Alderman (March 2013) and The Evolution of God by Robert Wright (June 2009)

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If you are easily shocked by unorthodox portrayals of Jesus and all that is precious in the surrounding religious tradition, do not read this book. If you are offended by the suggestion that the historical Jesus is not the Jesus of tradition, do not read this book. If blasphemy is a word that even momentarily enters your general vocabulary, do not read this book. If you are now curious, and can soldier on through descriptions of creative Roman torture and heinous means of delivering slow death, and tend to be delighted when your assumptions are slaughtered . . . do, please, read this book. And to make the experience of revelation even more interesting, read The Liars’ Gospel in conjunction with The Evolution of God by Robert Wright, or a book of its ilk (scholarly research into the historicity of religious belief). I have by day been listening to Wright’s audio book, and by night reading Alderman’s novel. Though Alderman’s work is fiction, it is based on dogged research, and much of how she portrayed Jesus is similar to how Wright described the historical man. I got the same feeling for who Jesus may have been, from both authors. And I must add here that the audio version of The Evolution of God is well worth the time spent on 15 discs. Wright starts with prehistoric religious belief and works his way through the historic origins of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, their connections and conflicts, and concludes with a vision for how the Abrahamic faiths can foster tolerance and peace in place of what we have now in world affairs. His presentation of the historical record is frequently surprising and always engrossing. Pairing his book with The Liars’ Gospel was perfect serendipity (I didn’t actually plan it out). Alderman’s novel is written from four distinct perspectives, starting with Mary (mother of Jesus), then Judas, followed by Caiaphas (High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem), and concluding with Barrabas. I have used the Anglicized names here, but the book uses their Hebrew names, in keeping with a story that fully immerses the reader in the Jewish world to which Jesus (Yehoshuah) was born, and in which he functioned, under the thumb of Roman rule. This novel is actually more about the politics of Roman Jerusalem than about Jesus, especially in its second half. Nonetheless, if you are well acquainted with the Gospels, you come out of this reading experience thinking about familiar stories is quite a different light: you will question motives, incentives, and the political alignments of players and authors. Although Alderman’s novel was not a fast read — it is not dense, but it IS brutal, and that took some time to breathe and regroup — I highly recommend it, especially as an entre to a nonfiction work such as Wright’s.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough (Sept., 2012)

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I listened to this audio book a month ago, so I’m less able now to recount accurately all of Tough’s arguments or his evidence. But I don’t feel so bad about that lapse of memory after seeing on Amazon a “cheat sheet” book you can buy that condenses his arguments and most important case studies into a 30-minute summary. Obviously, a) there is enough evidence presented in Tough’s book to warrant a summary; and b) the evidence he presents is compelling enough, and enough people want to know what he has to say, to justify the publication of a summary. Which is all to say: read this book. It’s important. It’s extremely interesting. And it will likely propel you to change not just your assumptions, but your actions, if you are in any way associated with the lives of children. I began treating my teenage daughter a bit differently after listening to this book. She is a smart, witty, compassionate girl with a whopping dollop of ADD thrown into her glorious mix of character traits. So being a parent who gracefully lets go of the supports I have provided since birth, now that she is growing up . . . that’s not really me. But after listening to Tough’s book, I’ve had to at least try to get a little “tough” on myself, and on my child, by allowing for more possibility of failure. Or, at least, natural consequences. It’s one of the most powerful ways we learn, if we have nurturing people around us who help us learn how to manage our failures. That’s the key: we don’t just fall on our faces, but we learn, in relative safety, how to cope with it all. It’s a cliché to say it builds character. But it’s true. And the evidence in favor of character being more important that IQ in determining life “success”, is the stuff of this book. The seven traits Tough zeroes in on are: Grit, Curiosity, Self-control, Social intelligence, Zest, Optimism, and Gratitude. To build these traits, Tough advocates warm, calm, nurturing parenting early on, especially where there is poverty or other trauma. And parenting that allows some risk taking and challenge as children grow (this all may sound obvious, but Tough makes us see that we quite often do just the opposite). And he gives many examples of school and social programs that are working to tease out character building in a real, not just rhetorical way, in young people. My only two criticisms are that the examples he gives from the world of chess clubs dragged on a bit long – at least to my non-chess-playing self. And the reader for the audio version, while easy on the ears and entertaining in general, has the annoying habit of using the same odd voice when reading dialog attributed to a wide variety of people, both male and female. They were all soft spoken with a slightly southern drawl. Weird. But don’t let this deter you. I consider Tough’s book one of the most important I’ve read (listened to) in a long time.

Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives by Dean Buonomano (Aug 2012)

This was a fun book to listen to.  The reader has good inflection, making this sciencey subject easy to absorb.  This is evolutionary neuroscience and psychology, and should appeal to readers of Malcolm Gladwell and his ilk.  My favorite part of the book was the section on religion:  what are the evolutionary and biological explanations for religious belief?  Buonomano’s main point is that we typically think about things in certain ways for good evolutionary reasons . . . and yet, there’s often a negative side to the very curiosities of our personalities that are functional.  When we are aware of these “bugs” in our systems, we can anticipate them and find work-arounds.  Fascinating stuff.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed (March 2012)

My own name is Cheryl, I grew up hiking and skiing in areas the Pacific Crest Trail passes through, and I have fantasies of one day spending several weeks backpacking with my husband on a trip about a tenth the length of the one Cheryl Strayed took and wrote about in this memoir.  But that isn’t really why I listened raptly to the audiobook every minute I was in my car recently, and thoroughly related to her experience.  Cheryl Strayed is simply a great writer.  I think one of the reasons so many people — and so many different kinds of people — have read her book and loved it, is that Strayed’s well-crafted and illuminating prose succeeds in bringing the personal and very particular into universal applicability.  This is a memoir about being a human being.  So even if you hate spiders and love hot showers and wouldn’t dream of spending one night — let alone close to 100 — in a tent . . . you’re still walking, every day, a journey that in many respects probably looks similar to Strayed’s.  In reading about her journey, she will undoubtedly illuminate your own.  Highly recommended.

Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson (Nov 2011)

ImageThis is a very interesting book, made more engaging by listening to the audio version.  The author himself, an Oxford professor, narrates, and it never gets boring.  I’m not sure how he makes all the voices he makes — including believable female voices — but I’m quite sure being a student in his class must be a stitch.  Ferguson seeks to explain in this book the ascendancy of Western civilization, and why “the rest” lags behind .  He details 6 “killer apps”: aspects of Western economy and culture that have served to push Western countries into dominant positions.  I can’t say he convinced me on all points.  In fact, he really pissed me off when he basically called those who believe global warming is a reality, idiots (in other words).  I had to rewind 3 times to re-listen and make certain he was saying what I thought he was saying.  Regardless of his obvious conservative politics, he’s also obviously brilliant, and a pleasure to listen to.  No matter what you conclude about his arguments, you will learn a great deal and think hard about things.  This book will be especially appealing to those who enjoyed “Guns, Germs, and Steel”.

Holding Our World Together: Ojibwe Women and the Survival of Community by Brenda J. Child (Feb, 2012)

I’ve been listening to the audio version of this book, and although it has something of an academic bent, I can recommend it for general consumption because it’s essentially a social history and easy to follow. The narration is pleasant and unobtrusive. There is something additionally interesting about hearing Ojibwe names for things spoken, and not just written. After a while I knew what some of the words meant without translation, and that was kind of cool. Some of the history recounted will sound familiar, because it happened to all North American Indian nations: broken treaties, forced relocation, attempted genocide, allotment, extreme poverty. Child gives many anecdotes (I wished there were more statistics; maybe the printed version has tables I missed in the audio) that flesh out these aspects of Ojibwe experience. And she does it without political vitriol or rhetoric. The facts speak for themselves. And there were a few surprises: the cooperative nature of early relations with settlers; what really went on with the push to send Ojibwe children to boarding schools; and the ways gender roles changed after the Federal government got involved in Ojibwe wild rice collection. Speaking of which, all I learned about wild rice and maple sugar collection got me interested enough that I contacted the Ojibwe ( to find out if I could buy some of their rice and syrup. The book is repetitive in places, and sometimes tries too hard to frame the information within an academic argument. But the book inspired me to reach out beyond it’s paper walls. I’d say that’s a compliment to the author and the eye-opening experience she helps the reader live.

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