What We Are Reading Today: The Elephant in the Brain

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Updated 14 April 2021

What We Are Reading Today: The Elephant in the Brain

Edited by Kevin Simler & Robin Hanson

In “The Elephant in the Brain,” Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson argue that human beings are primates that are political animals. Our brains, therefore, are designed not just to hunt and gather, but also to help us get ahead socially, often via deception and self-deception. 

But while we may be self-interested schemers, we benefit by pretending otherwise. The less we know about our ugly motives, the better — and thus we don’t like to talk or even think about our selfishness. This is “the elephant in the brain.” 

Such an introspective taboo makes it hard for us to think clearly about our nature and the explanations for our behavior. This book confronts our hidden motives directly and tracks down the darker, unexamined corners of our psyches and blast them with floodlights.

Our unconscious motives drive more than just our private behavior; they also infect our venerated social institutions. You won’t see yourself — or the world — the same after confronting the elephant in the brain.

What We Are Reading Today: Wonderworks by Angus Fletcher

Updated 10 May 2021

What We Are Reading Today: Wonderworks by Angus Fletcher

This is a long and dense book, but any effort expended in the reading is exponentially rewarded. 

In Wonderworks, Angus Fletcher, a Renaissance literature scholar at Ohio State University, attempts a practical approach to putting the humanities back on the map. 

Fletcher takes a close look at the power of innovations in literature to improve human happiness, and he analyzes these effects on the physical body.

Wonderworks “is an unusual, thought-provoking book. It mixes history, literature, and neuroscience to create essentially a self-help book where the cure for what ails you is a certain element of literature,” said a review on goodreads.com. 

In 25 chapters, Fletcher “travels from the first stories told in caves to the present day showing, comparing and contracting how literature works, and why its messages, when done right, can be so compelling,” the review added. 

It said the book “details various literary inventions, their potential origin from ancient times, and further development through contemporary authors, and ties each one to psychological benefits for readers.”

What We Are Reading Today: Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton

Updated 09 May 2021

What We Are Reading Today: Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton

Madhouse at the End of the Earth is a must-read book for anyone interested in polar exploration and geographic discovery.

It is a fictionalized account of an actual Belgian expedition to the Antarctic, in the final years of the 19th century, and is based on a multitude of journals and reports.

In this epic tale, Sancton unfolds a story of adventure gone horribly awry.

“It is a fascinating and exciting story of endurance, with a flowing narrative and characters well described and full of depth,” said a review in goodreads.com.

It offers a gripping account of the de Gerlache Antarctic expedition of 1897-1899, in which the ship became frozen in the ice for the entire winter. 

It is also the story of the friendship between the ship’s doctor, Dr. Frederick Albert Cook, and Roald Amundsen, who was at the beginning of his career as an explorer.

The author uses a lot of primary sources such as diaries.

“Anyone who values a human story in trying conditions, under desperate circumstances, will completely enjoy this book,” said the review.

What We Are Reading Today: The Big Roads by Earl Swift

Updated 06 May 2021

What We Are Reading Today: The Big Roads by Earl Swift

A man-made wonder, a connective network, an economic force, a bringer of blight and sprawl and the possibility of escape — the US interstate system changed the face of our country. 

Earl Swift’s The Big Roads charts the creation of these essential American highways. From the turn-of-the-century car racing entrepreneur who spurred the citizen-led “Good Roads” movement, to the handful of driven engineers who conceived of the interstates and how they would work to the protests that erupted across the nation when highways reached the cities and found people unwilling to be uprooted in the name of progress, Swift follows a winding, fascinating route through twentieth-century American life. 

How did we get from dirt tracks to expressways in less than a century? Through decades of politics, activism, and marvels of engineering, we recognize in our highways the wanderlust, grand scale, and conflicting notions of citizenship and progress that define America.

What We Are Reading Today: The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell

Updated 05 May 2021

What We Are Reading Today: The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell’s The Bomber Mafia is an exploration of how technology and best intentions collide in the heat of war.

Most military thinkers in the years leading up to World War II saw the airplane as an afterthought. But a small band of idealistic strategists asked: What if precision bombing could cripple the enemy and make war far less lethal?

In contrast, the bombing of Tokyo on the deadliest night of the war cost thousands of civilian lives, but may have spared even more by averting a planned US invasion. In The Bomber Mafia, Gladwell asks, “Was it worth it?”

Things might have gone differently had LeMay’s predecessor, General Haywood Hansell, remained in charge. Hansell believed in precision bombing, but when he and Curtis LeMay squared off for a leadership handover in the jungles of Guam, LeMay emerged victorious, leading to the bombing of Tokyo. The Bomber Mafia is a riveting tale of persistence, innovation, and the incalculable wages of war.

What We Are Reading Today: If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino

Updated 03 May 2021

What We Are Reading Today: If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino’s masterpiece combines a love story and a detective story into an exhilarating allegory of reading, in which the reader of the book becomes the book’s central character. He imagines a novel capable of endless mutations in this intricately crafted story about writing and readers.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler turns out to be not one novel but ten, each with a different plot, style, ambience, and author, and each interrupted at a moment of suspense. Together they form a labyrinth of literatures through which two readers pursue both the story lines that intrigue them and one another.

In between chasing missing chapters of the book, the hapless readers tangle with an international conspiracy, a rogue translator, an elusive novelist, a disintegrating publishing house, and several oppressive governments. 

The result is a literary labyrinth of storylines that interrupt one another — an Arabian Nights of the postmodern age.