I wrote earlier about how I have been listening to audio books while on the treadmill each morning. This has been an interesting development in my world, believe it or not.
I have been somewhat surprised by (1) how quickly I move through books consuming them this way, and (2) the difference in the books I choose to listen to versus read.
I have been an enthusiastic reader all of my life. Our house is filled with thousands of books. But I’ve noticed that when I buy a physical book, either online or in a store, I pick a book that I want to keep and revisit. So my shelves are loaded with history, philosophy, languages, science, mathematics, all that. But when I buy books in electronic form, for my Kindle or on Audible, I am more willing to consume bestsellers and even content that I would consider treacle. It oddly does feel more like consuming something – like watching television or going to a theater – rather than reading. I’m not sure what to think about that. But listening to things that are more treacly than what I normally read does make my time on the treadmill more enjoyable, so there’s that. I definitely look forward to my workouts more than I did listening to Pitbull for the millionth time.
Someone recommended that I listen to a specific audio version of Anna Karenina next, so we’ll see if audio books still feel more like content than literature after listening to actual literature. (I haven’t revisited that book since high school. Certainly not proud of that.)
I have noticed that audio books have pretty much taken over homeschooling circles, as they are a seemingly effortless way to expose children to a large amount of great literature. Just yesterday, I saw a homeschooling mother brag about how her six-year-old had listened to the entirety of The Chronicles of Narnia and was walking around saying adorably pretentious things like “I have a queer feeling.” I honestly think this is a big mistake, at least for children (who are not adults with a long commute to elevate with great literature). Kids are still developing grammar, spelling, and vocabulary skills. They don’t only need to be exposed to brilliant language… They need to see how it is accomplished. Your kid is not going to come across as literate if they can’t spell all of the big words they regularly use, even if they use them correctly. And that, sadly, takes a hell of a lot of work.
Anyway, I thought I would pass along recommendations for two new audio books, and the above was perhaps more of a prelude than is useful.
The first is Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know. I confess I have not read much of Gladwell’s work, beyond what he wrote in The New Yorker. (And I haven’t read The New Yorker in a very long time, as most of what it has printed in recent years is garbage leftist politics that any random troll on Twitter could produce.) After listening to this book, however, I will probably go back and try to listen to his podcasts.
This book is about the various ways we judge whether someone is credible and how people can be duped or driven to the wrong conclusions in high-stakes events. It’s a book about how people who are considered authorities can be anything but. What makes it absolutely marvelous to listen to, however, are the stories Gladwell tells about history and current events, where people got some fraud or bad actor wrong. He talks about how Fidel Castro successfully planted spies in the highest levels of American government, how Neville Chamberlain misread Hitler, how pedophiles manipulate children, their parents, and entire institutions, the Amanda Knox case. He talks about how judges are more likely to grant bail after they’ve had lunch. He talks about forces that create unnecessarily violent cops. And this all comes down to our biases and defense mechanisms related to gauging credibility.
If you are like me and you started off with a negative view of the mainstream media, the intelligence community, and the justice system, this book is going to make you want to break things. He gets into a lot of details which simply were not covered by the media that totally sway the way you would have looked at a situation. How the construction of a narrative from certain prejudices can cause massive chaos and human cost that is hard and even impossible to correct.
As Gladwell suggests, “The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.”
The second book is Bill Bryson’s The Body: A Guide for Occupants. I love Bryson and have read several of his books. I share his joie de vivre and look for the same sort of obscure details about the world as he does. But I can’t say I have ever heard his voice before. It took some getting used to, because he has such a professorial or grandfatherly voice, especially after listening to Gladwell, who at times sounds like he might be standing on the table as he’s speaking.
This is a beautiful book that dwells in microscopic detail (literally) about what a miracle life is. This is a book that will make you want to pray at points. Here are some samples:
The most remarkable part of all is your DNA. You have a metre of it packed into every cell, and so many cells that if you formed all the DNA in your body into a single fine strand it would stretch ten billion miles, to beyond Pluto. Think of it: there is enough of you to leave the solar system. You are in the most literal sense cosmic.
Just sitting quietly, doing nothing at all, your brain churns through more information in thirty seconds than the Hubble Space Telescope has processed in thirty years. A morsel of cortex one cubic millimeter in size—about the size of a grain of sand—could hold two thousand terabytes of information, enough to store all the movies ever made, trailers included, or about 1.2 billion copies of this book
For each visual input, it takes a tiny but perceptible amount of time—about two hundred milliseconds, one-fifth of a second—for the information to travel along the optic nerves and into the brain to be processed and interpreted. One-fifth of a second is not a trivial span of time when a rapid response is required—to step back from an oncoming car, say, or to avoid a blow to the head. To help us deal better with this fractional lag, the brain does a truly extraordinary thing: it continuously forecasts what the world will be like a fifth of a second from now, and that is what it gives us as the present. That means that we never see the world as it is at this very instant, but rather as it will be a fraction of a moment in the future. We spend our whole lives, in other words, living in a world that doesn’t quite exist yet.
In breathing, as in everything in life, the numbers are staggering – indeed fantastical. Every time you breathe, you exhale some 25 sextillion (that’s 2.5 × 1022) molecules of oxygen – so many that with a day’s breathing you will in all likelihood inhale at least one molecule from the breaths of every person who has ever lived.1 And every person who lives from now until the sun burns out will from time to time breathe in a bit of you. At the atomic level, we are in a sense eternal.
Every day, it has been estimated, between one and five of your cells turn cancerous, and your immune system captures and kills them.
But there is also a lot of discussion that is plain weird, in a fascinating way:
Almost three-quarters of the forty million antibiotic prescriptions written each year in the United States are for conditions that cannot be cured with antibiotics.
The history of epilepsy can be summarised as 4,000 years of ignorance, superstition and stigma followed by 100 years of knowledge, superstition and stigma.
The greatest choking authority of all time was almost certainly a dour American doctor with the luxuriant name of Chevalier Quixote Jackson, who lived from 1865 to 1958. Jackson has been called (by the Society of Thoracic Surgeons) “the father of American bronchoesophagoscopy,” and he was most assuredly that, though it must also be said there were not a lot of other contenders. His specialty—his obsession—was with foreign objects that had been swallowed or inhaled. Over a career that lasted almost seventy-five years, Jackson specialized in designing instruments and refining methods for retrieving such objects, and in the process he built up an extraordinary collection of 2,374 imprudently ingested items. Today the Chevalier Jackson Foreign Body Collection is housed in a cabinet in the basement of the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Each object is fastidiously cataloged by age and sex of the swallower; type of object; whether it lodged in the trachea, larynx, esophagus, bronchus, stomach, pleural cavity, or elsewhere; whether it proved fatal or not; and by what means it was removed. It is presumed to be the world’s largest assemblage of the extraordinary things people have put down their throats, whether by accident or bizarre design. Among the objects Jackson retrieved from the gullets of the living or dead were a wristwatch, a crucifix with rosary beads, miniature binoculars, a small padlock, a toy trumpet, a full-sized meat skewer, a radiator key, several spoons, a poker chip, and a medallion that said (perhaps just a touch ironically) “Carry Me for Good Luck.”