I read some dense non-fiction this month; I need to find a good fall novel for October.
Strangers in Their Own Land, by Arlie Russell Hochschild
Hochschild, the sociologist best known for The Second Shift, teaches at Berkeley. She’s — no surprise — politically liberal. But she was interested in understanding why people with different political beliefs feel the way they do. So she traveled to rural Louisiana to work her sociological magic. What makes the resulting book readable is Hochschild’s fondness for the new friends she makes as she sits in southern kitchens drinking tea. Her decision to focus primarily on environmental issues also takes this book in a different direction than more standard political studies. People might oppose higher taxes and redistribution payments for obvious reasons. Opposition to abortion can be likewise straightforward. But the people she studies in these Louisiana communities have been profoundly impacted by industrial pollution, and yet seem to reflexively oppose attempts to hold industries accountable. Why is that? She concocts a reasonable metaphor for the cultural mindset of people who have been receptive to right-wing populism in general. America is, perhaps, a line of people constantly moving up economically. When people who’ve long been in the middle (or middle-to-back) part of the line sense that the line is slowing, they become particularly outraged at anyone seen as cutting in line. There’s something to be said for this, but her bafflement on the environmental issues never does come to a satisfactory conclusion (or even the easy one: that people don’t care as much about this topic as they do about others). I’m glad I read the book, and I think it could be read alongside other thoughtful books on the politics of populism (Alienated America, Hillbilly Elegy, etc.) but there aren’t easy answers.
Don’t Overthink It, by Anne Bogel
Bogel (Modern Mrs. Darcy, What Should Read Next) enters the self-help waters with this book on rumination, and how to stop it. People waste all kinds of time deliberating about things that don’t matter. In this cheerful and encouraging book — out this winter; I read an advance copy — she suggests strategies for ending this cycle, and building adventures into the freed up space.
End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World, by Bryan Walsh
Walsh, a former environmental reporter and editor for Time magazine, tackles the topic of existential risk. How, exactly, might the world end? The possibilities range from natural (super-volcanoes and asteroids) to man-made (climate change, nuclear holocaust) to the other-worldly (aliens, or quickly-outwitting-us-AI). This book is, needless to say, disconcerting. However, Walsh has a smart sense of humor and a straightforward way of explaining complicated matters. This tale of how we’re all going to die turns out to be a bit of a page-turner.
Letters from a Stoic, by Seneca
Stoicism has gotten a PR boost in the last few years with popular writers such as Ryan Holiday touting it (The Obstacle is the Way). So I went straight to the source to read Seneca’s letters to his pupil. While dense — this book took a while — there are many quotable lines: “Where you arrive does not matter so much as what sort of person you are when you arrive there.” There is also this insightful truth: if you aren’t particularly afraid of unpleasant things, no one has much power over you.
In other Friday miscellany news:
I traveled to Minneapolis earlier this week. Unlike with Chicago the week before, this time I actually did make it in and out in a day. The downside: it was a long day. I woke at 5 a.m. to run my mile, got in a car for the airport at 6 a.m. and was back in my bed at 1 a.m. I wound up taking two short naps the next day!
My kids had Monday and Tuesday off this week for Rosh Hashanah (we’re not Jewish, but our district has enough Jewish families that the schools close for major holidays). I decided to block Monday, and we went to the Legoland Discovery Center at a nearby mall, and to the Elmwood Park Zoo where my three younger kids did a tree obstacle course plus zip line.
So I guess that’s my balance: Monday watching Lego movie shorts with the kids, Tuesday doing work stuff from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. Wednesday/Thursday fairly normal 8:30-4:30 type work days. Friday a little shorter as I’m reading to my daughter’s class in honor of her 8th birthday. This is birthday love: the weekend will involve Chuck E. Cheese’s. Not my favorite place, but every time I think of the name I giggle as I recall how one of my kids used to call it “Chuck E. Jesus.” My weekend will not involve the Cub Scout camping trip. I generally like camping in the woods in fall, but I realized that I am uncomfortable enough in a regular bed. Sleeping in a sleeping bag on the floor of a tent in my state is just…no. So I won’t be chaperoning this time around — but kind of too bad as it looks like the first time in years when it won’t rain!
I have a piece on time management in the New York Times this week called “Have a Baby and Still Want to Get Things Done?” Please check it out!
Photo: Historic Philadelphia row houses…Lego-style