August Reading Roundup

Drugs, Sex-bots, Cowboys and Capitalism in this month’s reads

August has been a very busy month with classes starting, research work, and taking two camping trips (currently very much OOO right now!) I had not expected I would have had much time to read, yet I managed to get six books in this month. This month’s reads were quite diverse in topic, with a notable absense of education books (sometimes you need a break!) Curious to read your comments and drop any recomentations below, too!


Spying on Whales by Nick Pyenson

I can’t believe I missed this book when it was published in 2018 but I am so happy to have found it because Nick Pyenson knocked it out of the park with Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures. Pretty much any book on the deep evolutionary history of any animal I am game for, but I couldn’t put down Pyenson’s book. Whales have such a fascinating evolutionary history from new adaptations for living in water, to their evolutionarily recent gigantism. The book is organized in three sections: past, present, and future with all of them, really, having an evolutionary focus. Part science history and part discovery memoir, this book is an amazing read. And, also, the beautiful illustrations! Science books need more illustrations, please.

DSM by Allan Horwitz

I have previously taught an undergraduate abnormal psychology course, which all use textbooks that are organized around the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM. By the end of the first month, my lectures felt SO repetitive – because they were. For every disorder there is a list of symptoms, some stats, and then the same general, non-specific biological and environmental risk factors. In DSM: A History of Psychiatry’s Bible Allan Horwitz delivers a great history as to why that is the case: insurance. Well, mostly. The DSM is an attempt to be useful and describe mental disorders, but really the DSM is a practical means by which we can compile statistics and bill insurance companies. It’s quite clear that the clinical experience of mental disorders from a clinician perspective is much different than the DSM version, and attempts to more closely align the DSM to this experience – with a promised revolution in the 2013 edition – failing. I learned a lot from this book, more than I have in any abnormal psychology course I took or taught, and I would 100% use it in a course should I teach abnormal psychology again.

This Land by Christopher Ketcham

Moving out west has been quite the adventure, and being in Utah, where much of Christopher Ketcham’s investigating was done for This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption Are Ruining the American West apparently puts me smack in the middle of the ongoing public lands controversy. This Land was informative, and if only half of the information in this book is true, then there are some serious concerns with the management of our public lands; concerns that we should all care about if we value biological diversity and safety in the face of the burning West. Ketcham shows the perverse incentives and power dynamics underpinning our federal units such as the Bureau of Land Management (the original BLM) and the US Forest Service, and convincingly argues that it is really ranchers that hold all the power in the West. As with many things, the conservative privatization agenda has a negative impact on the conservation of land and biodiversity, in addition to the ranching and logging industries destroying the American West. This book was very interesting, informative, and gave me a very different perspective on public lands relations in the US that I was previously unaware of. But, I listened to this book on Audible and I would not recommend it. The author was very… dramatic? ... in his reading, and by the end I could barely listen any longer. Every sentence was filled with overwhelming sorrow about the land or ideological disgust at others, with every sentence trailing off into the distance with contemplative pauses. It was frankly, annoying.

This is Your Mind on Plants by Michael Pollan

When I sit down to read a new book, I open it from the first page and evaluate each one rather than turning to the first page of text. When I opened This is Your Mind on Plants I experienced utter confusion at the table of contents. I did not understand how the book was organized. The first section had an epilogue, followed by another section with no subheadings, then a third section with nine subsections. I had become so accustomed to how a standard book was organized, I couldn’t imagine a different format like what Michael Pollan had produced. He really delivers you three short investigative stories each about a specific drug he has gone on an adventure with: Opium, mescaline, and caffeine. The first story on opium was a reprint with new additions from a couple decades ago on his experiences growing poppies. The second story is about his withdrawal experience with caffeine. And the third is about his quest to experience mescaline in various forms and ways. His writing is exceptional, and each story reads as an adventure you go on with him. Highly recommend!

Artificial Intimacy by Rob Brooks

The ways in which we communicate both intimately and to the masses has changed radically in recent decades as technological progress had advanced at rapid speed. As Rob Brooks explains in Artificial Intimacy: Virtual Friends, Digital Lovers, and Algorithmic Matchmakers these technological advancements are significantly altering – for better or for worse – how we experience intimacy from friends to lovers. Brooks opens by luring you in with sex-bots, which are arguably the most fascinating artificial intimacy, but the book quickly gives way to an in depth and well-researched narrative of human evolutionary behavioral science focusing on close relationships. I was, honestly, surprised at how little the book focused on sex-bots and how much it was really a book about the science of social relationships, but perhaps that says more about my own schema of “artificial intimacy” (as I write to hundreds of you in this artificial format!). This was an excellent book and am very grateful to have read an advanced copy. Artificial Intimacy is on sale Tuesday, September 7th!

The Edge of Chaos by Dambisa Moyo

Economics isn’t on the top of my interest list, but when I listened to Dambisa Moyo’s conversation on a recent Sam Harris podcast, I was impressed by her clear articulation of economic problems and wanted to dive in further. I listened to her 2018 book, The Edge of Chaos: Why Democracy is Failing to Deliver on Economic Growth—and How to Fix it, and it definitely does little to offer hope and optimism for our country and Western democracy. Fair warning to you all. Acknowledging my ignorance of economics, Edge of Chaos seems to provide a crisp diagnosis of the issues that are plaguing Western society, from the increased social unrest to the decreasing belief in the liberal democratic process by young Americans. I also saw great implications of Moyo’s analysis of the causes and consequences of increasing inequality in the US for hotly debated issues of private versus public education in the US – implications that give strength to the need for greater public, rather than private, education. Something I hope to write about soon.