Corduroy Books

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Month: February, 2009

Jonah Lehrer and Decisions and etc.

by Weston Cutter

            Does everyone do that thing in which, when you’re reading about some ‘average’ or ‘normal’ type of function (thinking, heart rate, ability not to be duped by commercials), you just presume you’re in the extraordinary/excellent/above-average category? Is this just me? Maybe it’s just me, but when I read, for instance, about the average amount of energy people use to heat their homes, I think I use less than that, and when I read about how much television people usually watch, I think I don’t watch that much.

            All of which may be totally awful to admit, but here’s the thing: Jonah Lehrer’s new book How We Decide just about broke me in half re: feeling exclusive and separate from the study at hand. It’s a brutal book in that way: everybody‘s implicated here (except for those who have serious neurological issues). Lehrer, in the promotional stuff that came with the book, implicated himself from the start, too, said the book stemmed from the wasted minutes he spent in the cereal aisle deciding between flavors of Cheerios.

            No, no: the book is not simply about making decisions regarding flavors of cereal (though it’s not as if a book like that’d be unhelpful), but about all sorts of decisions, great and small. There’s something fascinating on just about every page in here, though most fascinating is how, through reading the book, you end up amazed at your own brain in both good and bad ways. Let’s take a simple example: there was a study in which subjects took part in an auction of, for instance, boxes of nice chocolate and French wine. The subjects were all more or less similar; what differentiated them was that, immediately preceding the bidding, each subject was asked to write the last two digits of her/his social security numbers.

            Can you see it coming?

            Maybe the nicest part of the book is that it reinforces certain ideas most of us have probably had. The idea of the ‘zone’ athletes or artists or whomever get into seems to be supported by research. Also supported is the notion that turning the conscious, needling, weighing brain off for a little bit is actually good in terms of making decisions. Again, let’s get concrete: There was a study in which subjects were asked to choose between cars to purchase. First, the subjects were given four pieces of information about each vehicle (mileage, safety ranking, etc.). Given four pieces of info to weight, the subjects all did well choosing the ‘right’ or ‘best’ vehicle. However, later in the study, subjects were again asked to choose among cars, but were given like four times as much info—fifteen bits of info per car or something (I can’t remember the specifics, and I just scanned the book twice and couldn’t find the page). When would you guess the subjects made decisions better: when they were asked to consciously and directly weigh the bits of info about each car, or when they were given the chance to take a half-hour walk before coming to any conclusion?

            Up above, about the auction and the social security numbers? Those with bigger numbers in the last two places of their social security numbers were willing to bid more for the products. Think of that for a second: Does that mean that if you’re in the grocery store and you write the number 20 on a piece of paper that you’ll be less likely to overpay for stuff? And if you write 100 on a piece of paper, you’ll likely spend more?

            That’s the screwiest part of this book, in the best way: for all the amazing advances we’ve made in the last however many years of brain research, we know so, so little. Stuff that’s so large and weird you can’t even really wrap your head around it: if someone’s brain is damaged in such a way that he’s rendered incapable of feeling emotion, he’s unable to make decisions (!!!!). That thing above, about going for a walk before making a decision with tons of variables? Science is actually nailing down intuition.

            It’s a rigorous, devastating book, and it’s incredibly fun if wildly disconcerting (simply because, if you play along for a second, you stop and consider that yr own brain’s the thing functioning to allow you to understand the words you’re reading, at which point the meta-ness of reading about yr own brain and decisions can be, um, dizzying). It’s also Mr. Lehrer’s second book (Proust Was a Neuroscientist was his first), and if you’re not jealous of this guy, it’s because you haven’t read his stuff (or read about him: Rhodes scholar, editor for Seed magazine, etc.). I totally admit that there are like fifteen great books being released this month (and like ten of them this week), but Lehrer’s is absolutely one of the best of the bunch.

Missed in 2008, part 2

by Weston Cutter

            Gregory Gibson’s Hubert’s Freaks, which’ll be out in paperback in April (but which is totally worth buying in hardcover), is, I’d argue, a book that seems very much built like something you’ve seen before but which actually is a significantly different engine/monster/beast than what you’ve read before. The aspects of the story itself are rather simple: there was a place on 42nd St. in New York City called Hubert’s, and the place was a freak show (literally)—sword swallowers, seal boy, flea circus, etc. At Hubert’s, as of 1956, a young photographer named Diane Arbus began taking some pictures, and of course, later, she became not just a young photographer but the Actual Diane Arbus. And, to come and touch this story and make it alive, there’s a guy named Bob Langmuir, a rare book dealer who, through an interest in old African Americana, stumbles into what any rare-anything-dealer’s got to consider close to the find of the last half century.

            With these ingredients, you get part of a story you’ve probably come to recognize: there’s background about Hubert’s, along with a bit of background of and consideration for Diane Arbus. What’s different about this cultural history, though, at least from other sort of cultural histories I’ve read, is that Gibson’s done a remarkable job of making Langmuir’s story re: the Arbus photos and Hubert’s not just the story of a guy who stumbled into this odd lot (ha ha ha, auction humor) of stuff, but a story about redemption and devotion and character and something akin to the Percy-ian Search of The Moviegoer.

            Plus there’s just the simple fact that Langmuir probably couldn’t be much more of an interesting character if he tried. I feel bad even writing this, because he’s a real person, not just some text-based character, but the guy’s maddening in plenty of places throughout this text; the fact that those frustrating parts are in here’s got something to do, I’d posit, with Gibson being not just a dynamite writer, but a dynamite story-teller (he and Langmuir are at least aquaintances, and I can’t imagine the guts it’s got to take to honestly + clearly [warts and bad tendencies and nuttiness and all] put an aquaintance on the page). Of course, Langmuir being as alive and complex and fully great and good, and plenty of times not at all so good, is what makes the story just about ferociously addictive.

            So there’s all those elements—a great freak/side show in NYC, early pictures from a master, a main character who’s so compelling you sort of can’t take yr eyes off him. But! But, there’s more: there’s this just hauntingly interesting twist in the story toward the end, when the D. Arbus photos have to be authenticated. The basic question is: when’s a Diane Arbus photo a Diane Arbus photo? It’s a question/philosophical idea that’s not at all involved with ideas of, like, forgery, for instance, but it’s more complex and odd: how do we literally put value on old things? What’s it take? What’s authentic? And of course that question, of authenticity, is one of the great questions that screws all of us (and has been screwing us since W. Benjamin’s famous essay and since Trilling’s book on authenticity in mid-century and etc. etc. etc.), and it’s riveting in this context.

            There’s more, but you get the idea: it’s a book that’s seemingly just like something you’ve seen before, but in Gregory Gibson’s masterful hands, the story becomes this live+twisting thing, something new and shifting and more engaging than you’re likely to believe until you just sit down and read the thing. Which, obviously, you should do. Pronto.

Missed In 2008, part 1

by Weston Cutter

            Paul Roberts’s The End of Food is, as you’d sort of guess, the exact book you want to read if you’ve read and/or enjoyed any of the following: Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, anything by Bill McKibben, Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, etc. What’s weirder is that it’s also a great book if you want to have your thinking re: food and food production fundamentally reshaped.

            What Roberts does well and quickly and throughout his book (and it’s been done before: I’m not praising him for coming up with this, just for how good a job he does) is he quantifies food in ways that, by and large, aren’t inherently aspects of how we as consumers think about food. I know this is maybe slightly Schlosserian territory, about, for instance, how to increase the smokiness of pre-cooked beef or whatever; Roberts does it across the board. For instance, I get a Snickers and it’s yummy and etc., but I don’t think I’ve ever once considered the component bits that make a Snickers: I don’t think of the cocoa beans from one place, the peanuts from another, the sugar from another, etc.

            Now imagine those components looked at in all their depth: the effects of political instability on cocoa-producing countries, the potential for Salmonella in plants which process too many peanuts with not enough oversight (though they have to process that many peanuts with that little oversight because we consumers still expect a pound of peanuts to cost $3 or fewer); temperature fluctuations wreaking havoc on sugar production. Plus in each of these individual cases, factor in the price of the oil necessary not just to transport the goods themselves, but the oil that’s used in the production of fertilizers for all this stuff, and after factoring all that in, consider what would happen if oil prices doubled again, or if the supply of oil was largely cut-off because shaky or at-war governments failed to produce enough. You get the idea.

            This, this, is what Roberts does: he tries heroically to establish a picture of all the moving pieces, the levers and fulcrums, that make up the food production industry. But, of course, there’s no way to actually get that whole picture: there’s simply too much to picture, are too many moving parts, plus way, way too many hypotheticals to fully back up some of the hypothesis. It’s the only thing that’s even mildly discomfitting about the book, and it’s right there in the title: The End of Food. Even if I happen to largely agree with or believe much of what Roberts is herein detailing, that doomsday title is limiting as hell (which of course means it’s not a criticism of Roberts, necessarily: maybe he didn’t choose the title, though given his last book was titled The End of Oil, I’m guessing he had a say). The facts that he presents are (to some degree, depending on what you’ve already read) startling and inarguable: we’re eating too much, we want food too cheaply, and companies are working desperately to satisfy those (conflicting) demands and, in the process, have destabilized the food industry. The food indunstry is just freakishly vulnerable, as anyone knows who has in the last few weeks thrown away peanuts.

            But the catastrophe calls throughout the book are a little too rah-rah, I think. It’s absolutely fine to speculate about oil price spike or the outbreak of some strain of avian flu, but Roberts actually doesn’t need the real scary stuff, the Oh-My-God-The-World’s-Breaking what-if’s: he does an amazing job of showing how, regardless of what crisis might come along to cripple things, we’ve allowed, in one century, the production of food to become industrialized and made dangerously weak. In the end, it won’t matter if the death-blow for the food industry comes with a bang or whimper: things simply need to change. It’s a fascinatingly good (if disconcerting and somewhat scary) read.

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