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: Seeing Serena by Gerald Marzorati

Updated 18 June 2021

What We Are Reading Today: Seeing Serena by Gerald Marzorati

Seeing Serena is an in-depth chronicle of the return to tennis of Serena Williams after giving birth to her daughter, and an insightful cultural analysis of the most consequential female athlete of her time.
It is a riveting chronicle of her turbulent 2019 tour season and a revealing portrait of who she is, both on and off the court.
Author Gerald Marzorati shadows her through her 2019 season, from Melbourne and the Australian Open, to Roland-Garros and Wimbledon, and on to the US Open as she seeks her 24th Grand Slam singles title.
He writes about her tennis and her forays into fashion, investing, and developing her personal brand on social media.
Seeing Serena illuminates Williams’s singular status as the greatest women’s tennis player of all time and — in a moment when race and gender are the most talked-about topics in America and beyond— a pop icon like no other.
Marzorati observes her, listens to her, studies her, explores her roles in society and history— sees Serena fully, in all the ways she has come to matter.


What We Are Reading Today: The Philosophical Stage; Drama and Dialectic in Classical Athens

Updated 17 June 2021

What We Are Reading Today: The Philosophical Stage; Drama and Dialectic in Classical Athens

Edited by Joshua Billings

The Philosophical Stage offers an innovative approach to ancient Greek literature and thought that places drama at the heart of intellectual history. Drawing on evidence from tragedy and comedy, Joshua Billings shines new light on the development of early Greek philosophy, arguing that drama is our best source for understanding the intellectual culture of classical Athens.

In this incisive book, Billings recasts classical Greek intellectual history as a conversation across discourses and demonstrates the significance of dramatic reflections on widely shared theoretical questions. He argues that neither “literature” nor “philosophy” was a defined category in the fifth century BCE, and develops a method of reading dramatic form as a structured investigation of issues at the heart of the emerging discipline of philosophy.

A breathtaking work of intellectual history by one of today’s most original classical scholars, The Philosophical Stage presents a novel approach to ancient drama and sets a path for a renewed understanding of early Greek thought.


What We Are Reading Today: Founded in Fiction; The Uses of Fiction in the Early United States

Updated 16 June 2021

What We Are Reading Today: Founded in Fiction; The Uses of Fiction in the Early United States

Author: Thomas Koenigs

What is the use of fiction? This question preoccupied writers in the early United States, where many cultural authorities insisted that fiction reading would mislead readers about reality. Founded in Fiction argues that this suspicion made early American writers especially attuned to one of fiction’s defining but often overlooked features—its fictionality. Thomas Koenigs shows how these writers explored the unique types of speculative knowledge that fiction could create as they sought to harness different varieties of fiction for a range of social and political projects.

Spanning the years 1789–1861, Founded in Fiction challenges the “rise of novel” narrative that has long dominated the study of American fiction by highlighting how many of the texts that have often been considered the earliest American novels actually defined themselves in contrast to the novel. 

Their writers developed self-consciously extranovelistic varieties of fiction, as they attempted to reform political discourse, shape women’s behavior, reconstruct a national past, and advance social criticism. Ambitious in scope, Founded in Fiction features original discussions of a wide range of canonical and lesser-known writers, including Hugh Henry Brackenridge, Royall Tyler, Charles Brockden Brown, Leonora Sansay, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Montgomery Bird, George Lippard, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs.


What We Are Reading Today: Ethnography through Thick and Thin by George E. Marcus

Updated 15 June 2021

What We Are Reading Today: Ethnography through Thick and Thin by George E. Marcus

In the 1980s, George Marcus spearheaded a major critique of cultural anthropology, expressed most clearly in the landmark book Writing Culture, which he coedited with James Clifford. Ethnography through Thick and Thin updates and advances that critique for the late 1990s. Marcus presents a series of penetrating and provocative essays on the changes that continue to sweep across anthropology. He examines, in particular, how the discipline’s central practice of ethnography has been changed by “multi-sited” approaches to anthropology and how new research patterns are transforming anthropologists’ careers. Marcus rejects the view, often expressed, that these changes are undermining anthropology. The combination of traditional ethnography with scholarly experimentation, he argues, will only make the discipline more lively and diverse.

The book is divided into three main parts. 

In the first, Marcus shows how ethnographers’ tradition of defining fieldwork in terms of peoples and places is now being challenged by the need to study culture by exploring connections, parallels, and contrasts among a variety of often seemingly incommensurate sites. The second part illustrates this emergent multi-sited condition of research by reflecting it in some of Marcus’s own past research on Tongan elites and dynastic American fortunes. In the final section, which includes the previously unpublished essay “Sticking with Ethnography through Thick and Thin,” Marcus examines the evolving professional culture of anthropology and the predicaments of its new scholars.


What We Are Reading Today: After the Fall by Ben Rhodes

Updated 14 June 2021

What We Are Reading Today: After the Fall by Ben Rhodes

After the Fall is an excellently written book that is equally alarming and comforting in its diagnosis regarding the nationalist direction that both America and the world at large has taken in recent years.

From 2009 to 2017, author Ben Rhodes served as deputy national security adviser to former US President Barack Obama, overseeing the administration’s national security communications, speechwriting, public diplomacy, and global engagement programming. 

His book was a “fascinating look into America in context with the rest of the world (specifically in comparison to Hungary, Hong Kong and Russia),” said a review on goodreads.com. 

“It’s an inquiry into the rise of authoritarianism, with a lot of introspection into what has changed in the US, and what has not,” said the review. 

In the book’s most appealing passages, Rhodes “sits down with people very much like himself, chastened idealists who have come to know the world as it is but refuse to conform to its demands,” said a review in The New York Times.

Prior to joining the administration, Rhodes was a senior speechwriter and foreign policy adviser to the Obama campaign from 2007 to 2008.

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