Here is the second installment of my catch-up reviews, and it’s for nonfiction:
How Not to be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg
Dates Read: June 15-20, 2018
Goodreads Synopsis: The Freakonomics of math—a math-world superstar unveils the hidden beauty and logic of the world and puts its power in our hands.
The math we learn in school can seem like a dull set of rules, laid down by the ancients and not to be questioned. In How Not to Be Wrong, Jordan Ellenberg shows us how terribly limiting this view is: Math isn’t confined to abstract incidents that never occur in real life, but rather touches everything we do—the whole world is shot through with it.
Math allows us to see the hidden structures underneath the messy and chaotic surface of our world. It’s a science of not being wrong, hammered out by centuries of hard work and argument. Armed with the tools of mathematics, we can see through to the true meaning of information we take for granted: How early should you get to the airport? What does “public opinion” really represent? Why do tall parents have shorter children? Who really won Florida in 2000? And how likely are you, really, to develop cancer?
How Not to Be Wrong presents the surprising revelations behind all of these questions and many more, using the mathematician’s method of analyzing life and exposing the hard-won insights of the academic community to the layman—minus the jargon. Ellenberg chases mathematical threads through a vast range of time and space, from the everyday to the cosmic, encountering, among other things, baseball, Reaganomics, daring lottery schemes, Voltaire, the replicability crisis in psychology, Italian Renaissance painting, artificial languages, the development of non-Euclidean geometry, the coming obesity apocalypse, Antonin Scalia’s views on crime and punishment, the psychology of slime molds, what Facebook can and can’t figure out about you, and the existence of God.
Ellenberg pulls from history as well as from the latest theoretical developments to provide those not trained in math with the knowledge they need. Math, as Ellenberg says, is “an atomic-powered prosthesis that you attach to your common sense, vastly multiplying its reach and strength.” With the tools of mathematics in hand, you can understand the world in a deeper, more meaningful way. How Not to Be Wrong will show you how.
Review: Overall, I found this book funny and smart, and I definitely learned a few things. Some parts did drag on a bit for me, but that’s not to say someone else wouldn’t absolutely adore them. I do think the book was a little longer than it needed to be, though. I don’t think it’s accessible for just anyone, however. There are some things I only understood because I’d encountered the same or similar ideas in college math classes. If you’re interested in math and/or how it relates to the world and how it really does matter, you should give this book a shot, even if you only read bits and pieces of it.
- Knowing mathematics is like wearing a pair of X-ray specs that reveal hidden structures underneath the messy and chaotic surface of the world. (2)
- One of the great joys of mathematics is the incontrovertible feeling that you’ve understood something the right way, all the way to the bottom. (49)
- A math course that fails [to be a guiding hand] is essentially training the students to be a very slow, buggy version of Microsoft Excel. (56)
- People usually think of mathematics as the realm of certainty and absolute truth. In some ways, that’s right. We traffic in unnecessary facts: 2+3=5 and all that. But mathematics is also a means by which we can reason about the uncertain, taming if not altogether domesticating it. (425)
- What’s true is that the sensation of mathematical understanding–of suddenly knowing what’s going on, with total certainty, all the way to the bottom–is a special thing, attainable in few if any other places in life. You feel you’ve reached into the universe’s guts and put your hand on the wire. (437)
The Little Book of Feminist Saints by Julia Pierpont
Dates Read: June 13-29, 2018
Goodreads Synopsis: In this luminous volume, New York Times bestselling writer Julia Pierpont and artist Manjit Thapp match short, vibrant, and surprising biographies with stunning full-color portraits of secular female “saints” champions of strength and progress. These women broke ground, broke ceilings, and broke molds…Open to any page and find daily inspiration and lasting delight.
Review: A wonderful little book full of inspiring women’s stories that more people should talk about and learn in schools.
- Maya Angelou (35)
- Kitty Cone (37)
- Nellie Bly (49)
- Phillis Wheatley (51)
- Bea Arthur (55)
- Frances Perkins (57)
- Amelia Earheart (59)
- Benazir Bhutto (79)
- Helen Keller (81)
- Frida Kahlo (83)
- Malala Yousafzai (85)
- Ann and Cecile Richards (89)
- Bella Abzug (95)
- Mary Edwards Walker (99)
- Madonna (105)
- Mae West (107)
- Marsha P. Johnson (109)
- Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley (113)
- Ruby Bridges (121)
- Margaret Sanger (125)
- Eleanor Roosevelt (137)
- Hillary Clinton (139)
- Lucretia Mott (145)
- Audre Lorde (149)
- Wilma Mankiller (151)
- Billie Jean King (153)
- Ada Lovelace (157)
- Shirley Chisholm (161)
- The Grimké Sisters (163)
- Grace Hopper (165)
- Emily Dickinson (167)
- Jane Austen (171)
- Faith Spotted Eagle (173)
- Margaret Hamilton (175)
- Marlene Dietrich (179)
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder
Dates Read: July 2-16, 2018
Goodreads Synopsis: The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.
Review: This was very depressing.
- A nationalist will say that “it can’t happen here,” which is the first step toward disaster. A patriot says that it could happen here, but that we will stop it. (114)
- The whole notion of diruption is adolescent: It assumes that after the teenagers make a mess, the adult swill come and clean it up. But there are no adults. We own this mess. (121)
- The path of least resistance leads directly from inevitability to eternity. If you once believed that everything always turns out well in the end, you can be persuaded that nothing turns out well in the end. If you once did nothing because you thought progress is inevitable, then you could continue to do nothing because you think time moves in repeating cycles. (124)
I Work at a Public Library: A Collection of Crazy Stories from the Stacks by Gina Sheridan
Date Read: July 25, 2018
Goodreads Synopsis: From a patron’s missing wetsuit to the scent of crab cakes wafting through the stacks, I Work at a Public Library showcases the oddities that have come across Gina Sheridan’s circulation desk. Throughout these pages, she catalogs her encounters with local eccentrics as well as the questions that plague her, such as, “What is the standard length of eyebrow hairs?” Whether she’s helping someone scan his face onto an online dating site or explaining why the library doesn’t have any dragon autobiographies, Sheridan’s bizarre tales prove that she’s truly seen it all.
Stacked high with hundreds of strange-but-true stories, I Work at a Public Library celebrates librarians and the unforgettable patrons that roam the stacks every day.
Review: This is the best book I’ve read this year because it reminded me why libraries are so important and why I never want to work anywhere else.
- “Books, Smaller” (143-144)
- Do you know what? All of this is free, no money. You can choose whichever books you want. (144)
- “Lives, Saving” (145)
- I will tell everyone I know to come here. This place saves lives.
- “Signing, Book” (147-148)
- One of the best things about being a librarian is working at the intersection of life and the written word. (148)
Poetics by Aristotle
Published: c. 335 BCE
Dates Read: August 1 – October 20, 2018
Goodreads Synopsis: In his near-contemporary account of Greek tragedy, Aristotle examines the dramatic elements of plot, character, language and spectacle that combine to produce pity and fear in the audience, and asks why we derive pleasure from this apparently painful process. Taking examples from the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, The Poetics introduces into literary criticism such central concepts as mimesis (‘imitation’), hamartia (‘error’), and katharsis (‘purification’). Aristotle explains how the most effective tragedies rely on complication and resolution, recognition and reversals, centring on characters of heroic stature, idealized yet true to life. One of the most powerful, perceptive and influential works of criticism in Western literary history, the Poetics has informed serious thinking about drama ever since.
Review: This took me entirely too long. I wouldn’t have bothered finishing it if it had been much longer. It’s definitely an important work, but I’d only recommend it for those really interested in Ancient Greek tragedy, poetry, etc.
Running Like a Girl by Alexandra Heminsley
Length: 6 hr. 9 min.
Dates Listened: November 1-25, 2018
Goodreads Synopsis: In her twenties, Alexandra Heminsley spent more time at the bar than she did in pursuit of athletic excellence. When she decided to take up running in her thirties, she had grand hopes for a blissful runner’s high and immediate physical transformation. After eating three slices of toast with honey and spending ninety minutes on iTunes creating the perfect playlist, she hit the streets—and failed miserably. The stories of her first runs turn the common notion that we are all “born to run” on its head—and expose the truth about starting to run: it can be brutal.
Running Like a Girl tells the story of how Alexandra gets beyond the brutal part, makes running a part of her life, and reaps the rewards: not just the obvious things, like weight loss, health, and glowing skin, but self-confidence and immeasurable daily pleasure, along with a new closeness to her father—a marathon runner—and her brother, with whom she ultimately runs her first marathon.
But before that, she has to figure out the logistics of running: the intimidating questions from a young and arrogant sales assistant when she goes to buy her first running shoes, where to get decent bras for the larger bust, how not to freeze or get sunstroke, and what (and when) to eat before a run. She’s figured out what’s important (pockets) and what isn’t (appearance), and more.
For any woman who has ever run, wanted to run, tried to run, or failed to run (even if just around the block), Heminsley’s funny, warm, and motivational personal journey from nonathlete extraordinaire to someone who has completed five marathons is inspiring, entertaining, practical, and fun.
Review: While I didn’t really gain any new insights into running, it was really nice to get another person’s perspective and to hear her relatable stories.
- I enjoyed having my body praised for what it could do rather than how it looked.
- Whenever anyone asked me how I’d done it, the answer was simple: I decided to be able to.
Art Matters: Because Your Imagination Can Change the World by Neil Gaiman
Date Read: December 13, 2018
Goodreads Synopsis: Drawn from Gaiman’s trove of published speeches, poems, and creative manifestos, Art Matters is an embodiment of this remarkable multi-media artist’s vision—an exploration of how reading, imagining, and creating can transform the world and our lives.
Art Matters bring together four of Gaiman’s most beloved writings on creativity and artistry:
- “Credo,” his remarkably concise and relevant manifesto on free expression, first delivered in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings
- “Make Good Art,” his famous 2012 commencement address delivered at the Philadelphia University of the Arts
- “Making a Chair,” a poem about the joys of creating something, even when words won’t come
- “On Libraries,” an impassioned argument for libraries that illuminates their importance to our future and celebrates how they foster readers and daydreamers
Featuring original illustrations by Gaiman’s longtime illustrator, Chris Riddell, Art Matters is a stirring testament to the freedom of ideas that inspires us to make art in the face of adversity, and dares us to choose to be bold.
Review: This is so good. Of course, I knew it would be. I even bought it for my brother for his birthday before I even read it. It’s Gaiman talking about art, libraries, literacy, and life. And it’s great. Read it. Or don’t – but make some good art.
- Fiction builds empathy. Fiction is something you build up from twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed. (20)
- Libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education, about entertainment, about making safe spaces and about access to information. (23)
- The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That’s the moment you may be starting to get it right. (84)