Quick Review (recent reads): The Social Animal, Love Wins, Connected, In the Garden of Beasts, Heat Wave, Travels with Charley

As the summer ended and school started, I was able to get through a backlog of intriguing books. Here are quick thoughts on this varied collection:

1. The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks. I thought I might not like the “story” that Brooks uses to convey research findings but I found it a helpful way to think about the growing body of research about how our brains and emotions affect our lives. Overall, I like Brook’s argument that we should pay more attention to the British Enlightenment than the French Enlightenment emphasis because of how much humans are truly influenced by their emotions and subconscious and not just reason and rationality. I’m not quite sure what Brooks wants us to do with this information in the end (and why use the term “the big shaggy” to describe our subconcious?) but I do enjoy Brooks skewering certain groups in hilarious paragraphs that mirror some of his commentary in earlier books like Bobos in Paradise. And perhaps I’m required to say this as a sociologist but I think Brooks gives short shrift to the role of culture plays in shaping the subconscious. (See a preview post about the book here.)

2. Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell. This book created quite a stir in evangelical circles earlier this year as some, like John Piper, essentially kicked Bell out of their circles. On the whole, I would say the book is uneven: some chapters are quite orthodox in their understanding of God, love, and evangelism while other chapters stray and Bell is not as careful with his words as he pushes boundaries. Also, the book seems aimed less at the general population and more at disaffected evangelicals, an interesting group to address, who can’t come to grips about their beliefs about hell rather. Taking a broader view, the book and the debate around it illustrates several interesting sociological issues: subcultures and drawing symbolic boundaries about who is in and out as well as the how theology and culture influence each other. As a follow-up, I ran into these two videos: MSNBC’s Martin Bashir asks Bell some tough questions (considering the issue of media types asking people about religion, Bashir’s Wikipedia profile includes a quote saying he is a “committed Christian”) in contrast to a fluffier interview with George Stephanopoulos on Good Morning America.

3. Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas Christakis and James H. Fowler. This text could serve as a general audience introduction to the study of social networks. Many of the examples in the book are physiological as these researchers are known for their work on how things like obesity, emotions, and diseases are spread throughout social networks. The takeaway of the book: three degrees of separation is what connects us (those are your friends of friends of friends) and the actions and emotions of those people trickle down to us. I like the emphasis on how people seemingly beyond our immediate control have an influence on us.

4. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and An American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. This book provides a look at Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s through the eyes of American ambassador William Dodd and his daughter Martha. The story of Germany is of course fascinating: Hitler consolidates power while hardly anyone inside or outside the country challenges him. However, Dodd and his daughter figure it out but they are marginalized, Dodd because he won’t live the opulent lifestyle most US ambassadors were accustomed to and Martha because of her romantic forays and developing ties to the USSR. Even though you know the outcome of the larger story, the story is still interesting as an American academic tries to sound the alarm about the rising tide of Nazism.

5. Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago by Eric Klinenberg. I’ve been meaning to read this for some time as it concerns the 500+ deaths that occurred as the result of a heat wave in Chicago in 1995. Klinenberg performs a “social autopsy,” looking at the various factors and institution involved in the situation. The elderly who were alone were susceptible, particularly in neighborhoods without much street life, the morgues were unprepared, the media was behind in covering the story, and the City of Chicago and Mayor Daley tried to pass the blame. A lot went wrong in this situation, leading to one of the most deadly natural disasters in American history. (Perhaps this book was ahead of its time in looking at the sociology of disasters.)

6. Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck. I like Steinbeck and regard The Winter of Our Discontent and East of Eden as two of the best books I have read. However, this travelogue seems the opposite of his best novels: Steinbeck rambles around the country and offers some disconnected commentary. It seemed like he was trying to not do what he does in his novel: offer sweeping stories with big points about American life and culture. The only part that really grabbed my attention: Steinbeck passed through New Orleans during protests against the integration of New Orleans’ schools in 1960 (immortalized in a Norman Rockwell painting President Obama recent selected to hang in the Oval Office) and talked with some of the residents.

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