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2015 book stats
7 books started
7 books finished
2,691 pages read
100% digital
33% fiction
36% by non-white-guys Why does this matter?
How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made Love, War, and Peace at the Congress of Vienna
David King
read on December 1, 2015

We had a trip planned to go to Vienna in December, and this book had been on my list for a while. Our trip was a good opportunity to bring this to the top. I didn't have many expectations going into this book at all. I knew very little, in fact borderline zero, Germanic history pre-WWI. I knew some French history, but had a really large hole in between the French Revolution and WWI. I think everyone in the world has heard of Napoleon, but honestly I didn't really know when we was alive, and what the consequences of his empire/actions were. Lastly, I had known that the century or so before WWI was actually quite peaceful, relative to general European history, and I wanted to know why.

This book didn't really answer any of those questions.

1814 is primarily a book about people. It's about the dignitaries, plenipotentiaries, kings, and emperors who attended the conference, as well as their staffs, mistresses, etc. It was definitely an interesting read, and provided just enough background for me to get a grasp on what was happening, but didn't dig into the historical context or consequences of the conference nearly as much as I would have liked. Instead, the author focused on the individuals, their motivations, their accomplishments, their frustrations.

For me, the most interesting parts were the side chapters covering Napoleon. Shortly before the conference at the end of the Napoleonic wars, he lost and was exiled to Elba, a very nice island right off the coast of northern Italy. He was greeted their as an emperor, and for several months ruled his Elban subjects from the 19th century equivalent of a conference room. It was not the digs he was used to. It was interesting to read about his time there, and his eventual frustration and return to the mainland. The French people were still generally loyal to Napoleon after he lost the wars, and did not like the Bourbon dynasty which replaced him. When he returned from Elba, he threw a giant wrench into the Vienna conference, and created a schism in France. Eventually he gained enough power and influence (quickly) to lead an army and march on the British and Prussians that he had previously lost to. Famously, in Waterloo Belgium, he suffered a terrible military defeat and was almost himself captured. When it was clear that he no longer had an army, and only had dwindling power, he attempted to flee to America. The British caught him and exiled him to Helena, pretty much in the middle of nowhere, where he died years later.

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David Brooks
read on December 1, 2015

David Brook's The Road to Character got a lot of attention this year, ultimately landing on Gate's best-of-2015 list. Before that, Emily told me I had to read it. The uninspired cover made that a tough proposition, I don't really remember why I agreed.

It was good, but in the way that my mom, or most peoples moms, would think it was good. I found Brook's conservatism coming through, in that all of his examples of good character seemed to be good in a very traditional, 1950's-feeling kind of way. Self-discipline and self-restraint were reoccurring themes, and I felt like spirituality came into the conversation quite a bit too often. I think part of my trouble with it is that it's become very difficult for me to think about character and motivation the way he does, seemingly from the perspective of an imperfect human struggling with a spiritual decision: hedonistic sinning vs restraint and service to others in the name of god. A typical passage:

Sin is not some demonic thing. It’s just our perverse tendency to fuck things up, to favor the short term over the long term, the lower over the higher.

I can't get on board with that. To me this is such a missed opportunity. We don't favor the short term because of sin, we favor the short term for relatively established genetic, evolutionary preferences that perform well under natural selection. There's a very interesting discussion there about how and why we do that, what the implications for us are today, and how best to subvert that legitimate desire for the greater welfare of the group. We should be studying human nature on it's own terms. I'm not saying every book needs to be a biology book - but by having the premise be the exact opposite, I feel like something is lost.

That complaint aside, as philosophy I generally found everything here very much worth reading and considering, and some of it very inspiring. A few of my highlights:

This perspective begins not within the autonomous self, but with the concrete circumstances in which you happen to be embedded. This perspective begins with an awareness that the world existed long before you and will last long after you, and that in the brief span of your life you have been thrown by fate, by history, by chance, by evolution, or by God into a specific place with specific problems and needs. Your job is to figure certain things out: What does this environment need in order to be made whole? What is it that needs repair? What tasks are lying around waiting to be performed? As the novelist Frederick Buccaneer put it, “At what points do my talents and deep gladness meet the world’s deep need?”

 

It is important to point out how much the sense of vocation is at odds with the prevailing contemporary logic. A vocation is not about fulfilling your desires or wants, the way modern economists expect us to do. A vocation is not about the pursuit of happiness, if by “happiness” you mean being in a good mood, having pleasant experiences, or avoiding struggle and pain.

 

Today, teachers tend to look for their students’ intellectual strengths, so they can cultivate them. But a century ago, professors tended to look for their students’ moral weaknesses, so they could correct them.

 

Many people today have deep moral and altruistic yearnings, but, lacking a moral vocabulary, they tend to convert moral questions into resource allocation questions. How can I serve the greatest number? How can I have impact? Or, worst of all: How can I use my beautiful self to help out those less fortunate than I?

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A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness
Sy Montgomery
read on October 1, 2015

For a long time I expected that my review of this book would be similar to my earlier review of Montgomery's Birdology, with specific examples and quotes and reasons why I didn't like it, etc. But enough time has passed now since I've finished reading it that I've lost the enthusiasm to do so, and I've realized that it wouldn't be productive anyway.

The Soul of an Octopus is fraught with the same problems that plagued Birdology. Montgomery anthropomorphizes her subjects to such a degree that this book simply cannot be regarded as a work of science. The subtitle is the greatest offender here, as there is no rigorous attempt to describe or understand consciousness whatsoever. I won't be reading Montgomery again.

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Investigations into the Strange New Science of the Self
Anil Ananthaswamy
read on September 1, 2015

This book is in the tradition of Oliver Sacks, in that it's broken into separate chapters that each touch on a specific topic, and then drill down into a patient or acquaintance of the author who had the condition described. The purpose of the book is to try to tease out what it is the defines the self, and that makes us "us", but it never really hits that mark. The book straddles science and philosophy without ever committing wholly enough to either to really make a dent.

The overviews of the various diseases was very interesting - particularly Alzheimers and schizophrenia (which, I just found out that I am quite certain I've never had to spell in my whole life until now). Things didn't really heat up until the end though, and a few particular things got me.

  • There was a great description of a theory on how the brain experiences time - essentially the way a compiler would compile a computer program, doing that once every X milliseconds, and bringing in current data states from different parts of the brain. The implication was that, there really isn't any physical reason why it would do that every X milliseconds instead of every Y milliseconds, and that changes in that parameter can cause dilation in how an individual subjectively experiences time. I thought that was fascinating and it made we wonder to what extent different people do this every day. There is an old saying that you can't describe color to someone without using other color terms as a reference, and that the logical consequence is that we may all see things in completely different colors from each other, but just have consistent names for them. Anyway, this was sort of the same thing. What if we all subjectively experience time passing at wildly different speeds? What if one of the properties shared by super smart people is that they actually experience time slower than we do? What if they essentially live in slow motion?
  • Anxiety. He describes a supported theory that there is a specific part of the brain that is constantly predicting the future. Not like lotto numbers, but things all around you. You always have a contextual model in your head of what is happening around you and what to expect next. Like, if you're indoors, you shouldn't see a bird. Something like that. Anyway, one part of your brain is constantly making predictions, and then another part is assessing those predictions. Typically, the delta between those two should be pretty small, since these predictions are on a super short time scale. But, if you suffer from chronic anxiety, that means the function of your brain that judges the performance of your predictions is broken. Your predictions might actually be just fine, but your brain is receiving the message that the predictions are constantly way off! So essentially you're walking around feeling as though your predictions are wrong. Put another way, you would feel like a person who is sitting in their living room when all of a sudden the floor opens up into a lava pit.
  • Lastly, there is a great metaphor in the book about the nature of the self by Dan Dennet, text below. I thought this was very well put.

The self is the same kind of thing as the center of gravity in physics - an abstraction that is, in spite of its abstractness, tightly coupled to the physical world. Any physical system has a center of gravity. It's not a thing, but a property of the system. There is no one atom or molecule that makes the center of gravity. Nonetheless, this mathematical abstraction has real consequences. The self is the center of narrative gravity. A fiction posited in order to unify and make sense of an otherwise bafflingly complex collection of actions, utterances, fidgets, complaints, promises and so forth, that make up a person.

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A Novel
Sara Novic
read on May 19, 2015

An amazing, powerful book. I read it long ago and didn't take notes - but absolutely loved it. In top 10 fiction books I've ever read.

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Anthony Doerr
read on May 19, 2015

Can't think of this book apart from driving from Lux to San Sebastian. Great book with interesting perspective on passive resistance during WW2. Really enjoyed it.

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Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
Ashlee Vance
read on March 19, 2015

Great book. Didn't take notes. Musk is a genius.

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