Nonfiction

Two Books Worth Reading

It’s been quite awhile since I posted anything here, but this morning I find myself with some free time at the creative, wakeful time of day. Usually, I’m working; I have an online job as a writing consultant, and I like to work my shift first thing (or almost first) in the morning. But now, during the semester break, I have some time off, so I want to try and reboot the discipline of writing more regularly for fun.

Not that I’ve been altogether silent. I have a pen-and-ink journal, and in it I have scribbled various nuggets and quotations from reading over the last few months. It’s an attempt to grasp at a few strands of contemplation and hold on briefly before dropping into the numbing details of this chapter of my life: work, homeschooling, errands, home management. But to pause and truly reflect on reading, and on living, in the way that makes it part of my mind is a very different thing. That’s the kind of enrichment that Across the Page helped me achieve in the days when I was able to use this space more regularly to ruminate.

Since World Without Mind, I’ve read at least three books that I would have liked to reflect on more fully than my haphazard journaling allowed: How to Think, The Story of Science, and iGen, which I’m reading now.

Four Smart Guys Sit Down to Talk about “How to Think” | TGCHow to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds is by Alan Jacobs, an author I’ve enjoyed previously in The Narnian and The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. This more recent book tackles the polarized and passionate incivility of our current discourse, attempting to bring us back to the basics. I pictured Jacobs talking very slowly, palms open, much like someone trying to talk a desperate person off the ledge. Argument, he points out, can be war; it can be about winning, and it can be about laying out your opponent in the process. But we lose something of our humanity when we buy completely into the metaphor of argument as a militaristic engagement.

The book invites its readers to slow down, take a deep breath, and remember how to talk, even to disagree, without dehumanizing each other. For anyone who reads the news and feels a sense of panic or hopelessness at the level of our public political and religious conversations, Jacobs gives us an extended opportunity to affirm that we’re not crazy. He goes a step further and attempts to disentangle the snarl of dysfunction that seems to characterize discourse today, pointing out what can, but doesn’t have to, go wrong at each step. It isn’t necessarily new insight, but it’s still encouraging in its affirmation of a way forward in our personal conversations.

Probably my favorite takeaway is Jacobs’s critique of the notion that we can “think for ourselves.” No one does this. That’s not something I’ve every thought much about before:

To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible, it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said… Thinking independently, solitarily, “for ourselves,” is not an option. (37-39)

I remember Wendell Berry saying something similar — you can’t think one thing, but must have two things. It’s true. You can have one impression or idea in mind, but to have a thought you must have something to set it up against. It takes two sticks to rub together to start a fire.

Certainly I notice this in myself. Even in this blog, I can look back and see subjects that were of deep concern for a period of time: theories of creation, violence in Scripture, approaches to teaching. Did I ever get any of them truly worked out? Or did I merely “think with” different parties about each subject, informing myself enough to realize that I didn’t really identify completely with either side? Regardless, to come to one’s own conclusion about anything can’t happen without first listening to others — “thinking with” others. This may be the single most helpful insight in learning “how to think” — or, as the book seems more truly to focus on, “how to discuss.” We are always “with” others. That’s an essentially cooperative vision of human interaction, even in its most “solitary” activity of thinking.

Susan Wise Bauer’s Story of Science: From the Writings of Aristotle to the Big Bang Theory is a readable overview of the development of scientific thought. (Link is to an apparently updated edition that specifies “Western” science. I read a library copy of the edition pictured.) It includes summaries of the contributions of major thinkers in various scientific fields — geology, astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics. Tips on finding primary source documents are included in each chapter.

Thanks to Bauer’s accessible style, I could grasp pretty much all of the ideas while reading about them, even as a layperson. I won’t remember or master all of the details, though, especially in physics or astronomy. What I will retain in these areas is less mastery of detail, and more wonder and appreciation for both the scale of the cosmos and the brilliance of the human mind.

After all, science is part gathering data, and part insight. Some of the most remarkable advances in scientific thought came from people with uncommon imaginative insight who could think beyond the powerful orthodoxies of their time. We’ve all heard about Galileo having to surrender to house arrest for daring to break from the church’s notions about the earth as the center of the universe. But the much more recent thinkers who held steady in their insistence that in certain cases, catastrophism rather than uniformitarianism was the only explanation for the geological evidence faced just as much pressure from scientific orthodoxy.

The pendulum swings between extremes throughout these pages as the human mind seeks to comprehend the world. Probably the biggest takeaway from The Story of Science is the reality that we seldom know all that we think we know. We never have all the details or all the insight necessary to get the complete “big picture.” It’s a cautionary realization in a time when certain orthodoxies have a strong grip on education and public policy.

I guess these two recent reads work together to suggest that the best model for moving forward, whether we want to focus on politics or on our scientific understanding, is not war but a true interchange of ideas and knowledge.

Last, and most compelling, is my current reading: iGen, by Jean Twenge. I’ll save my thoughts on that for later, after I finish it. Stay tuned!

6 thoughts on “Two Books Worth Reading

      1. The job is with Smarthinking, a company that provides online tutoring in a variety of subjects. It’s actually my third year, and it’s been a good fit!

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