Three Books on My Mind

I have just read—well, more or less—three recent books that will weigh heavily on my mind if I don’t write about them.

First, I must explain that I usually read more than one book at a time, switching from one to the other depending on such things as how much—at that particular hour—I want to know about the topic, how dense the writing is in case I am feeling unusually stupid that day, and, in general, whether or not I’ll feel better after reading it—and by better, I don’t necessarily mean good. I dimly remember a cartoon showing a man scowling morosely and his wife saying, “That’s what you get for being well-informed.” But being well-informed has its own joys, however miserable you are for knowing.

Second, I must explain that the three books I have on my mind are all non-fiction, and as different as three books can be. This point must be stressed, because I also read fiction, and lots of it.

A word or two about fiction, in case you didn’t think I appreciate it and believe it to be important: it is very important, and not only because reality sucks—fiction can be very refreshing especially toward the end of the day when my brain is tired—but also because it sneakily informs and stretches the mind.

I will not list the fiction books I’ve been reading in between the non-fiction, except to state that I’m not big on important novelists who write the kind of stuff that, as Isaac once said, reads like mosaic glass—you’re supposed to admire the fine writing—instead of like plate glass, which lets you see through to what’s happening. Most of the fiction I read is more like plate glass, full of murders and adventures.  There are some exceptions—people whose writing style is so perfect, and often so hilarious that you notice it while barreling along with the plot. I’m thinking of Wodehouse and Terry Pratchett.

So, back to the three books: The Mindfulness Revolution edited by Barry Boyce; Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Wormsthe Story of the Animals and Plants that Time Has Left Behind by Richard Fortey; and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

The first book, a collection of articles on mindfulness, is to me the most important and should be required reading, if only to increase the peace and sanity of Homo sapiens. Er—that sentence is hopeless, since we don’t have peace and sanity, so let’s just say “promote” it.

For instance, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s uplifting article says, “So much that is beautiful comes out of thinking and out of our emotions. But if our thinking is not balanced with awareness, we can end up deluded, perpetually lost in thought, and out of our minds just when we need them the most.”

This is something to remember when reading the last book, which itches my mind the most. Kahneman is a psychologist and Nobel winner, famous in the fields of social psychology, cognition and, especially, behavioral economics. He painstakingly shows you more about human thinking than you ever knew, and why it’s important to understand how the human mind works (or doesn’t).

I have to confess that his thoughtful, well-reasoned and informative book made me realize why I could not have usefully gone after a Ph.D. in psychology.  I was happy majoring in biology, then going to medical school and then into psychiatry, carefully avoiding any courses in economics along the way.  So I tended to read Thinking, Fast and Slow with great effort.  I hope that this was partly because a lot of it I’d already learned (especially from patients) and because mindfulness is now, for me, much more important. Or maybe I’ve just given up on Homo sapiens, as befits a practicing curmudgeon.

I was, however, particularly pleased by Kahneman’s many research results that show (as any shrink and probably any atheist has long known) that humans are not strictly rational, despite the idiotic ideas favored by some political parties I happen to think are irrational, to say nothing of not observing how things, and people, really are. (That’s mindfulness.)

Kahneman says, “The decision of whether or not to protect individuals against their mistakes. . . presents a dilemma for behavior economists. The economists of the Chicago school [and the libertarians in general] do not face that problem, because rational agents do not make mistakes.” Oh, sure.

With a sigh of relief, I turn to the third book, which is entertaining and more than illuminating. It expands the mind and puts a long perspective on life itself. I admit that I’m a huge fan of all books on evolution, but this one is different because you get acquainted with parts of life that go back so far they teach us we’re not just new arrivals on planet Earth, yet we’re inextricably part of it all.

And we’re ruining it. We humans are, all by ourselves, causing an “extinction event.” There are so many of us that there soon will not be room or time or interest in preserving the pattern of life on Earth that we depend on.

We aren’t mindful. We aren’t thinking about thinking. We run after money and power and fame, and when we do start mindfully paying attention to what we’re doing, it may be too late.

Too late for us, probably, but Fortey reassures us that life will go on. Cockroaches will probably survive—“Nobody seems to like them much but they must earn a grudging respect for their durability and lack of fussiness. So the cockroaches will guzzle on until the last scrap of food is consumed when, it might be supposed, they will turn on one another.”

And when the cockroaches are gone, there will still be bacteria. It only took them several million years to get multi-cellular life going, but we won’t be hanging around to watch.

All the mindfulness and behavioral economic research is useless if we don’t face up to the fact of human overpopulation. There really are just too many people on Earth to sustain human civilization, even life, for long. Too many people and eventually there’s so much fear and deprivation and panic that reason hasn’t a chance.

As Fortey quotes from D.H. Lawrence’s poem about overpopulation, we “nibble the face of the earth to a desert.”

Enjoy your day, everybody.