Tag Archives: textbooks

On Wisdom

Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience by Stephen S. Hall (Knopf, $26.95, 320 pages)

Whether you’re fascinated by psychology, philosophy, or science, you’re likely to find much of interest in this survey book by Stephen Hall.   This is a search for the meaning and definition of “wisdom” with a capital W – sometimes interpreted to be emotional intelligence or an internal calmness.   Hall’s journey reads like the script for a public television documentary, one that might have been entitled: “The Search for Wisdom.”

Boomers will like the conclusion that older persons are apparently wiser, calmer and far more content than those with their entire futures ahead of them.   Research shows that younger people become angrier about daily slights and hold onto these negative feelings longer than their elders.

Although the language in this nonfiction work is generally clear, it unfortunately sometimes sounds like an academic textbook.   It also often comes close to parody (“proverbs and aphorisms…  are the cocktail peanuts of conventional wisdom”; large events in the world can “change the lens of one’s emotional view like a new prescription from a spiritual optometrist.”).   Wisdom could have used a lot of wise editing, still it offers both old and young readers a chance to re-examine their lives and their yet-to-be-made choices.

Recommended.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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30 Days in the Hole

Texas Tough by Robert Perkinson (Henry Holt and Company)

It’s doubtful that anyone would wish to take the position that modern American prisons serve as the perfect example of rehabilitative environments.   Yet Professor Robert Perkinson takes approximately 500 pages to argue the case that they are not the best representation of a “forgiving society.”   That’s fine but this reviewer wishes that at least half of this large tome had dealt with solutions rather than simple issue spotting.   Finding problems is the easy part, finding solutions – applying innovative social engineering – is the tough part and is missing from this quasi-legal brief.

Texas Tough is highly documented with source materials and yet academic knowledge is not the same as practical experience.   At one point in his Conclusion, for example, Perkinson disparages “high-tech uberprisons like Pelican Bay in California,” as not being socially friendly (prisons like this are “regimented lockups” in his view).   I saw no indication in the Notes that Mr. Perkinson has visited Pelican Bay; this is an end-of-the-line facility for the most violent of hard-core repeat offenders.   It is not meant to serve as either a Club Fed or a cozy community college.

What would Mr. Perkinson do as the administrator of such a facility?

One of the most interesting aspects of this book (and the first half is much harder reading than the second half due to some obtuse language) is the application of  The Law of Unintended Consequences, popularized by the sociologist Robert K. Merton.   This principle is often referenced in law schools as litigation and legislation-based reforms may produce results that surprise their sponsors.   Due to court-ordered reforms in the state of Texas, for example, the author notes that inmates are now “as plagued by tedium as toil.”   Their death rates are also much lower.   These two points don’t seem to support his case very well.

The professor also spends a great portion of this work arguing that northern prisons have become more punitive (and “southern”), while southern prisons have become more “northern” and less harsh.   Perkinson ties this to race but it seems a bit tenuous.   Let’s just say that it may remain as an interesting issue for further research for sociologists.

If one has never read a book about the U.S. correctional system, then this might make for an interesting, if sometimes overdone, introduction to the subject.   It is hardly light reading.   In fact, it is sometimes a slog through a muddy field.

This reviewer is hopeful that someone follows up this survey work with a constructive and solution-based approach to what Professor Perkinson somewhat dramatically labels as “America’s Prison Empire.”

A pre-release review copy was received from the publisher.

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Easy as 1-2-3

Reviewing the Nonfiction Book (as simple as 1-2-3)

The typical nonfiction book is going to deal with either history, or sports, or functions as a survey book.   The term survey book refers to one that covers a field in a technical and sometimes textbook-like fashion.   In most cases, survey book authors who seek to appeal to a broad audience will keep their language as non-technical as possible, but there are exceptions.

The reader or reviewer encountering a survey book may want to consider at least three questions in judging its success.   The first is, “Does this book tell me anything I do not already know?”   We may enjoy learning new things, but the typical reader selects a survey book touching on a subject that he/she knows something about (and, in some cases, a lot about).

Let’s say, hypothetically, that all during my life I have been extremely fascinated by the Edsel automobile.   I’ve read every newspaper article about the car, every car magazine article I can find, and everything I can find on the web.   Now let’s presume that one Joseph Von Schmoewinkle has released a book entitled, The Absolutely, Definitely, Complete Edsel Book.   If everything in the book repeats things I’ve read, I am going to be disappointed.   Very, very disappointed.   This is when a reviewer says – quite fairly – that this book could have been put together by a college student.   For such is not writing, it’s compiling.

The second question is, “Are the items covered in the survey book actually related to each other?”   The authors of survey books tend to view themselves as Big Picture figures.   They want to cover many developments on the subject at hand, past and present, and tell you that they’re all somehow related.   Except that sometimes they are not.   I refer to this as the “Connections” virus.

Some of you may remember the “Connections” show on public television in which the viewer was told that virtually everything was related (no matter how tenuously) to everything else.   In this series, if a kindergartener missed school one day it was somehow connected to Man’s successful landing on the moon.

Yes, it was entertaining.   The only problem being that life is not like this…  At least not usually.

If you find yourself reading a book that makes such outlandish stretches, you will likely find yourself shaking your head as if to say, “Not likely.”

The third question is, “Did this book make me think about the subject in a new way?”   Some people call this the “a-ha” phenomenon.   A really good survey book will cause you to re-think how you think about things.   When you do, it will seem perfectly logical, but only the very best nonfiction writers are able to get you to that destination.

If you read a very good nonfiction book and you experience just one, two or three “a-ha” moments, you will know that your money has been well spent.   The reviewer who experiences those moments before you do will, no doubt, recommend the book without reservation.

This article is the third in a continuing series.   Note:  The comments about the Edsel survey book in this article do not refer to the actual nonfiction book Disaster in Dearborn: The Story of the Edsel, which sounds  like an interesting read.

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