Book Reviews for October 2018

Sapiens
by Yuval Noah Harari
(Harper, 2015) 464 pp.

While not “cheating,” per se, I did listen to most of this via an audiobook — expertly narrated with some great inflection by the British Derek Perkins — but had the hardcover by my side for the graphics and to review certain passages. By the end of our history, as Harari expertly guides us through, I was reading the hard copy, enraptured. Sam Harris, another favorite author of mine, comments to Harari in a recent live interview that his books “steamroll over all other books, and I have to agree. My moderate to weak interest in human history was revived after reading this tome — Harari is able to draw on nearly ever facet of science, from anthropology, psychology, to biology, and deftly mix it with the cultural narratives we as homo sapiens have told ourselves to create a world that we find livable. It’s all a lie, of course. Harari’s take is that nearly everything we do is an “imagined order,” from money, religion, capitalism, monogamy, and even humanism, and on. With his intellect and sound arguments, he critiques everything from legendary car company Peugeot to the Declaration of Independence, leaving the reader feeling somewhat hopeless about the constructs we tend to take for granted each day.

I came away from this book feeling good, however, that the struggle I face to exist in this world is shared by nearly all of us. Our roots as nomadic hunter-gathers still pop up from time to time (did you know that wheat domesticated us, not the other way around?), giving some insight as to why being stuck in traffic gives rise to the equivalent feeling that your tribe may be in danger of getting eaten by a lion. Harari’s solution? He takes on the subject on happiness in the last chapter, giving a few different perspectives: one, that our happiness depends on “..the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations,” but adds a few pages later — in line with this hard allegiance to science — that, “[l]asting happiness comes only from serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.” He goes on to make some comments about the temporary nature of suffering and the Buddhist approach, which he appears biased towards. I wasn’t mad about this; in fact Harari and Harris both lobby for daily meditation and mindfulness practices to cope with the insanity of life.

If you have an interest in what it means to be human, or any of the various sciences that study our fair species, this book should be nearly required reading. Harari has managed to take the study of “us” to an accessible and profound new depth.

Quotes:

“There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.”
“How can we distinguish what is biologically determined from what people merely try to justify through biological myths? A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, Culture forbids.’ Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s culture that obliges people to realize some possibilities while forbidding others. Biology enables women to have children — some cultures oblige women to realize this possibility. Biology enables men to enjoy sex with one another — some cultures forbid them to realize this possibility. Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behavior, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist.”
“Like the elite of ancient Egypt, most people in most cultures dedicate their lives to building pyramids. Only the names, shapes and sizes of these pyramids change from one culture to the other. They may take the form, for example, of a suburban cottage with a swimming pool and an evergreen lawn, or a gleaming penthouse with an enviable view. Few question the myths that cause us to desire the pyramid in the first place.”

Modern Romance
by Aziz Ansari
(Penguin Press, 2015) 277 pp.

Chronologically, I finished Modern Romance almost immediately after Sapiens; whereas Harari points to the near-futility of anything “modern” that we do, Ansari, along with sociologist Eric Klinenberg tries to uncover just what the hell has happened with dating, love, sex, and romance in the modern age — and what to do about it. I was skeptical that Ansari, who most of us known as a stand-up comedian or the silly character from Parks and Recreation, would be able to gather his thoughts well enough to create a high level work of non-fiction, but I was pleasantly surprised. It also seemed rather odd timing to read this given his recent accusation of sexual harassment in January of this year.

The crux of the book is the research that Ansari and Klinenberg did around the world, interviewing people from both the US and abroad about a variety of topics: how they met their partner, online dating and dating apps like Tinder, sexting, monogamy, cheating, and “settling down.” Using the responses from their subjects, Ansari attempts to analyze the landscape of modern dating through his own struggles with it, and provides liberal, feminist commentary. I say this, as a theme of the book is the general disgust women have with men in an online dating scenario, and how this sort of dynamic has morphed and changed with dating websites and the last ten years. A discussion of arranged marriages and proto-match-making is helpful to understand how we got to the point that we are “treating each other as bubbles on the screen” (when chatting over Tinder) and not as “real people.” Ghosting, the “game” of when to text back, and what not to do on a first date are all covered.

My main dislike was Ansari’s jokes that he peppers throughout the book, trying to shout-out famous rappers, or constantly talking about his love of Ramen and pasta. We get it, dude. I would rather watch one of his stand-ups to see that material, the have to wade through it to get the point about where people typically go on first dates.

One of the big conclusions from book is thus: while online dating and the dating world of the 21st century is indeed “a mess,” there’s a better chance that you will find someone really, truly suited for you, if you are willing to look. At the same time, Ansari cautions that with such a large sea comes the temptation to continually keep “fishing,” never really giving a potential partner the chance they deserve. Much of your application to these rules will depend, I think, on your own self-confidence, time, energy, and desire to give and receive love.

If anything, the book was worth reading to read about what other cultures go through in dating; trying to imagine being a man, or woman in Tokyo or Buenos Aires (two cultures he profiles) just sounds…intense. I’m not envious of those folks. And, the seniors that he interviews at the beginning of the book provide a nice perspective — they mostly ended up married to people who lived on their block, in their village, or small town. Marrying, much less even talking to someone, from out of state, was simply not an option to them. Thus “settling” was a real thing, and while some found happiness, some did not.

Quotes:

“For me the takeaway of these stories is that, no matter how many options we seem to have on our screens, we should be careful not to lose track of the human beings behind them. We’re better off spending quality time getting to know actual people than spending hours with our devices, seeing who else is out there.”
“We each sit alone, staring at this black screen with a whole range of emotions. But in a strange way, we are all doing it together, and we should take solace in the fact that no one has a clue what’s going on.”
“She sweetly recalled that “he remembered my name, he said hi, and he told me to call him back.” Never mind the fact that what she described was the content of LITERALLY EVERY VOICE MAIL IN HISTORY. Name, hello, please call back. Not really a boatload of charm on display. To fail this test, a guy would have to leave a message that said: “No greeting. This is a man. I don’t remember you. End communication.”