Monthly book roundup – 2019 February

Books finished in February:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (2019) by Cal Newport. Digital minimalism. Newport argues that social media, smartphones and increased connectivity through the internet are mainly distracting and have lead to an increasingly noisy world. Like e.g. slot machines, social media provide intermittent, unpredictable reinforcement when we check for updates and are designed to be addictive. I am largely convinced and like many have struggled to keep these technologies from interfering with both work and leisure. Newport has a good diagnosis of the problems and has many helpful practical tips. (Although it is slightly ironic that he e.g. advocates reading, which is an earlier technological innovation also breaking with evolution.) He advocates a “digital decluttering” to get rid of the distractions. Specifically, he recommends taking 30 days off most modern communication technologies, then gradually reintroducing some of them. An important point is that before doing this, it is good to fill up with high quality activities that we wish to do more of to fill the void left by modern media. This could be doing something with friends and family, reading, exercising, a hobby, etc. Many of his anecdotes about others suggest that after some time off, social media do not appear that interesting any more. A tips I am going to try is to schedule specific time for “low quality/simple tasks/leisure” such as social media, email, texting, reading blogs, etc and only do those activities at those times. Another is putting your phone away to avoid temptation to check various updates. Among his other tips are setting up “conversation office hours” – fixed place and times when you talk to people and are social, walking more, starting projects for using one’s hands for useful purposes, such as changing car oil, install ceiling mounted light fixture, learn something new on an instrument you know, building something from good lumber, starting a garden plot. He also claims that board games are becoming more popular. To an economist, a discipline he sometimes is critical of on the basis that it purportedly advocates jumping on anything offering any bit of benefit, it is somewhat annoying that he evidently does not know that opportunity cost, in particular of time, is an essential element of economics. Newport champions being more frugal with new technologies than I imagine being, but is clear that people need to evaluate their own needs. Recommended.

Heavy by Kiese Laymon (2018). Kiese Laymon has many experiences I do not have, of racism growing up as a black boy in the US south, of severe over-eating, obesity, anorexia, physical abuse and gambling. So many and different from mine are these experiences that I believe that I cannot truly understand him. Yet, I must try or at least try to learn about them, why else would he write a memoir such as this. He writes well and the book is engaging. Recommended.

The Souls of Yellow Folk: Essays (2018) by Wesley Yang. Essays about a minority group that I at least have heard relatively little from or about, apart from regularly being held up as an example of immigration going well – people with South-East Asian background. Yang makes it clear that Asian-Americans also have various forms of racism and other challenges to struggle with and that not everything is good. The racism they experience is often less overt than racism against blacks. Stereotypes about Asians being obedient, lacking in initiative and boring is a big issue. Yang is often ambiguous about these things, giving the impression that he both feels that they contain some truth while at the same time thinking them, or at least their application, unfair. The best essay is the first one, “The Face of Seung-Hui Cho”, where Yang ponders the question of whether he could have done what Cho did and what role being Asian-American played. Cho killed 32 people and wounded 17 in the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007. The other essays deal with anti-Asian racism and animus in other ways. I read the book after reading a glowing review from Noah Smith. Recommended.

Dyrene i Afrika (2018) av Erlend Loe. Skjende for å bevare. Det er planen til en gruppe mennesker som finner sammen i sin søken etter å finne en måte å bidra til å redde “dyrene i Afrika” på. En romantisk drøm, en håpløs, håpløst utført plan full av egeninteresser. Som mange drømmer og måter å bidra på når det gjelder klima- og miljøproblemer i den virkelige verden? Historien blir litt over the top, men er morsom innimellom hvis man liker Loes stil. Anbefalt for fansen.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

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