I read 40 books in 2022. Below are the five books that I felt were the most useful and transformative.
If there was a general thread to the books that attracted me last year it is the "importance of thinking for yourself" in all areas. The largest organizations in the field of health, education, politics, public discourse and entertainment all are vying for our attention and loyalty. The only safe way to approximate the truth of things is to constantly scrutinize claims and think critically about every single claim.
Not an easy thing to do but the alternative is to sheepishly accept what is offered to the masses without thinking.
1.Amusing ourselves to death - Neil Postman
Neil Postman wrote this book in 1986 and decried the effect of television and its deleterious effect on political discourse and interactions between people.
Even though this was written over 30 years ago you could not distinguish what Postman wrote about from today's challenges. If anything Postman was even more precise about how technology has affected our thought process and the quality of our discourse.
I think this book should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand why American discourse has devolved into two camps that basically despise one another. Postman argues that this is the inevitable result of an industry that has tremendous financial incentive in both simplifying complex issues and keeping people outraged in order to maintain people's attention.
The crux of his message is that the more convenient the technology the weaker we become as the technology has an incentive to simplify messages to keep our attention fixed as long as possible. I see the difference in the attention spans, vocabulary, total number of books read and a variety of other differences between my students who grew up before and after the advent of smartphones and it is a disturbing difference.
Postman argued that the only way out of this is to give as little attention as possible to modern news and minimize our use of technology to communicate beyond what was available in the late 20th century. I love the fact that even as a professor at NYU in the 90s Postman refused to get an email address.
While I think that the internet has done the world more good than harm I think that having access to the worlds knowledge in the palm of our hands has been far more harmful than positive. We could be harnessing that power to better ourselves but instead we are mostly watching cat videos and porn.
After grasping Postman's message I completely stopped reading any websites devoted to current events. At this point I ask myself "do I care about this topic enough to read at least three books on the subject?" If I am not willing to do that then I refuse to have anything but the most mild of opinions. It enrages people when these topics come up but my peace of mind is worth any missing pop trivia that I have lost.
2. Sickening - John Abramson
John Abramson was a Medical Doctor who became an investigator and expert witness in medical class action lawsuits.
His key take away was that as Big Pharma has taken financial control of research and marketing of medicine they have also directed the very nature of research in all institutions. None of the research or discussion around the best possible therapy for the individual can be considered to be anything other than best serving the interest of the pharmaceutical industry as opposed to the best interests of the patient.
Abramson discusses his ideas about how to improve the state of medical research but I am fundamentally of the opinion that you can't put the genie back in the bottle; once an institution has been subsumed to economic interests it will remain that way. The goal can't be to reform an institution back into what it was it has to be to turn your back from that institution.
3. Make Time - Jake Knapp
I have written and published a more thorough review of Make Time here. The basic idea of switching our default mode away from "infinity pools" has been a game changer for me. My default mode was to go to YouTube and lose two or three hours of my waking life before reading this book. Once I got rid of the easy access to YouTube and the web from my phone I have been reading, drawing and, more important, writing significantly more than I was having reclaimed at least two of those three daily lost hours.
4. Ravenous - Sam Apple
Ravenous is the story of Otto Warburg, the premier German biochemist of the early 20th century. It is not an exaggeration to call him the Einstein of biochemistry. His research led to phenomenal breakthroughs in understanding of cellular chemistry and metabolism.
He was also Jew living in a relatively open homosexual relationship with his "assistant" under Nazi occupation.
Warburg was able to maneuver through the incredibly dangerous political theater of Nazi Germany despite the double strike against him because he was making incredibly strides in understanding cancer; a disease that Hitler had a tremendous fear of.
The book is essentially two stories; the riveting story of a researcher somehow surviving what should have been certain death given who he was and his various moral lapses (not saving scientists he could have helped out of professional spite). It is also the story of how his insights fell out of favor as the new biological branch of genetics came into the spotlight post WWII. As the science of biochemical metabolism fell out of favor and molecular biology rose to prominence something was lost - the reductionist study of individual genes became more important than attempting to understand what was happening to the cellular processes.
Today Warburg's research, that cancer is less about genetic mutations and more about cells switching from the aerobic respiration pathway to the fermentation pathway, which corresponds to a vast increase in sugar consumption that took place in the late 19th and early 20th century, is taking greater prominence in discussions about cancer.
Both stories are fascinating and have convinced me that it is a mistake for science students to not have to learn extensively about the history of science. Wonderful book for history teachers, science teachers and anyone interested in nutrition and health.
John Taylor Gatto was a middle school teacher in NYC for thirty years. At the end of his career he won the NY State teacher of the year award in 1991 and then quit teaching that year in a brilliant op-ed to the Wall Street Journal (1) to write and focus on sharing his thoughts about education and what is wrong with education. I consider these books to be one giant tome from the author discussing educational theory.
Gatto's main critiques are as follows:
- We force kids, especially boys, to stay in an educational system that stunts their growth and development and makes them hate education and learning
- Human beings are not meant to be forced into education for the first 20+ years of their life. By forcing children to stay in education for all this time we foster upon them the notion that education is dependent upon some expert and only valid if it is accompanied by a degree or some other form of external validation.
- The best education is self education. The best teachers are ones that help students explore their own interests as best they can and help them to develop concrete skills instead of mastering how to take tests where they forget all the information they soaked up like a sponge.
Gatto summed up his perspective on the educational complex when he said "Professional interest is best served by making what is easy to do seem hard; by subordinating laity to priesthood... That’s why reforms come and go-without changing much."
It is a big of a conundrum for me to find myself completely agreeing with Gatto. I feel occasionally like a hypocrite for continuing to teach when ultimately I do think that my teaching is not the most effective way to help students reach their fullest potential.
But understanding Gatto and his thoughts on education have changed what I focus on when it comes to teaching. My teaching has become far more focused on having students make projects and concrete examples of their understanding as opposed to testing. I've moved away, as best as I can, from teaching science as a "system of accounting for molecular movement as passed down from a laboratory somewhere" and more of science as a "way of seeing and describing the world as accurately and precisely as you are capable of achieving".
I think understanding the weaknesses of the educational system that I am a part of has helped improve my ability to teach effectively as well as understand why as a society we keep butting our heads trying to do things, like deliver equitable education, that continually fail. We fail, despite our best efforts and billions of dollars in resources, because the system, no matter how much lip service it pays to the ideal of equitable education, is more interested in maintaining and expanding itself as a bureaucracy than it is in delivering something that the students and parents actually want.
I wouldn't call any of these books "optimistic" by any stretch of the imagination. I suspect my own negativity around how we surrendered control of major portions of our lives to the government during the pandemic informed my reading choices substantially. But all of these books did help me see things that I hadn't seen before and that is to the good.
I plan on consciously reading more optimistic, hopeful and joyful books this year. That probably means I will be reading a lot more fiction...
(1) I Quit, I think. John Taylor Gatto. Wall Street Journal, July 25th 1991. Accessed at: https://www.educationrevolution.org/blog/i-quit-i-think/