A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit (p). This book is hard to summarise, but I read it as being about forgetting, remembering, and how those relate to your identity changing over time – “what goes on in every life: the transitions whereby you cease to be who you were”. There’s a good amount of San Francisco in it, nice for me. Plus some reflections on the colour blue, which reminded me of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (#22). (A funny Yves Klein exhibition I didn’t know about: “Held in Milan in 1957, it featured eleven blue paintings, each featureless, each the same size, each with a different price”.) The book starts with a student at one of Solnit’s workshops bringing her a quote from Plato’s Meno: “‘How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?'”. I studied Meno in university and I’d forgotten that this is what it’s about, so it feels appropriate that Socrates’ solution to Meno’s paradox is that all learning is remembering. Glad to learn. Solnit: “The question [the student] carried struck me as the basic tactical question in life. The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration – how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?”
A Brief History of Fruit, Kimberly Quiogue Andrews (p). My favourite of these poems is ‘The Arborist’. Not in this collection, but I also like Andrews’ ‘Pollarding‘, which has some nice phrases: “In the begonia”, “botanical misprison”, “the day continues to mulch itself”.
Calypso, David Sedaris (a). The first Sedaris I’ve read (well, listened to), other than forgotten snippets on family road trips. Funny and well constructed stories. I went to see a live reading a few months later in Berkeley with a friend (thanks Yunfei).
Bottle of Lies, Katherine Eban (a). Thoroughly reported story of the generic drug manufacturer Rambaxy getting caught for making fake drugs. Though the case took needlessly long to prosecute by Eban’s telling, it seems like an ultimately successful example of whistleblower prizes “working” to catch illegal/dangerous corporate behaviour – Dinesh Thakur took home $48 million from the $500m settlement against Rambaxy. I mostly found it interesting as a case study on how regulation works in the drug industry. The FDA can visit any production site in the US without much notice, but most drugs taken by Americans are made in India and China. The FDA can also inspect sites in foreign countries – which sounds overall good to me, though is more reach from a foreign government than I’d expected – but generally has to give notice. Here’s what you might do as an inspector: you go to the quality control room and click through the metadata of files on the computer to see if you can find evidence that the auditing system was ever shut off. You walk around the bioreactors, check everything’s clean, check the bioreactors are actually connected to the system that runs tests on them – if they’re not, you’re probably dealing with fake data. When the FDA India office was piloting a policy where they could show up unannounced, two investigators went to a Rambaxy production site the Sunday before a disclosed Monday inspection, and found employees forging and backdating documents to get ready for Monday. But Eban reports that that experimental policy is now dead, and FDA India has to give advanced notice again that it sticks to. All that said, inspection intensity shouldn’t always be set to 100. One site got a bad rating after inspectors observed staff wearing flaky gloves, walking too fast so disturbing airflow, and not washing their hands after bathroom visits. That led to pausing operations for three years while the drugs made at the site were re-tested – which turned out to be fine. There are costs to patients of onerous inspections, as well as benefits – though the telling of the benefits tends to be more inspiring.
Path to Power, Robert Caro (a). I started this LBJ biography on audiobook in 2018. It has spanned two cities and four apartments. My memories are of walking around Santa Monica listening to descriptions of the Texas Hill Country and its troubled soil, then jogging around San Francisco hearing about dinner parties in D.C. Then, finally, finishing. All I have left are three equally long sequels. Robert Caro must be stopped. (That said, I take the paradox’s of LBJ’s life to be a serious and challenging one to how I wish the world worked. So I’ll probably get duped into reading the next one. How could you have predicted someone so selfish and awful in his accumulation of power would do something so good as pass the Civil Rights Act once at the heights of it?)
Bad Pharma, Ben Goldacre (a). I have a lot of thoughts about this book, but haven’t organised them, and some of them are conflicting. Hopefully will come back to it some day…
Sleeping Beauties, Susanna Moore (p). Novel with a fairly dark view of midcentury America from a Hawaiian perspective.
Phantom Plague, Vidya Krishnan (a). Book about tuberculosis, with a focus on pharma companies and intellectual property around TB drugs. TB still kills 1.5 million people every year, and is a focus for us at Open Philanthropy.
An Applied Mathematician’s Apology, Nick Trefethen (p). This has more personal relevance to me, but I recommend it if you’re interested in academic life, the boundaries between fields, and how group identity affects which research questions get explored by which people.
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel (p+a). Don’t read if you what to avoid pandemics.
Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman (a). I agree with a lot of what this book is trying to convey, namely that we all die and productivity hacks won’t save you. That’s a message some people need to hear, and at different points I’ve probably needed to hear, but it didn’t hit me in the right way this time. The part of it I stand by is that an obsession with productivity can be a substitute for the harder task of figuring out what’s important, and spending your time on that. What I disagree with is the underlying sentiment that you should “stop trying so hard“, in a general way. The message I want to hear (and share!) is more like: working hard on something that helps other people can be a wonderful, fulfilling part of life. The fact your efforts may help people you’ll never meet is part of what makes modern society so cool. If you achieve that, you’ll bind us all together that little more. Having to work on things you don’t want to in order to earn money is grim, and I hope in 100 years we’re past that. If you have managed to personally find a way past that already, do work that matters, work hard if you want, don’t work hard if you don’t.
The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (a). My most embarrassing admission on this page is I got a bored in parts of The Dispossessed. It’s the kind of book I expect people to love whose tastes I trust, but I only liked it.
The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body, Alberto Ríos (p). Most of these poems didn’t land for me, but I liked two of them which made it worth reading the rest. ‘A Yellow Leaf’ (I’ve had relationships with leaves like the one he describes), and ‘Kid Hielero’.
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (p). Truly, truly loved. I should let it settle more before proclaiming from the rooftops, but I’m pretty sure Anna K is now one of my top two favourite novels. I’d expected it to be a slog but it was hilarious and the opposite. Thank you Anya for making me start. The most wonderful part of reading it was the sense I kept getting that human drives haven’t changed much in the last 150 years. That sameness of experience makes life a little lighter and sillier and less lonely. The sudden jealousies, the ecstasies, the wonder, the insecurities, the self-delusion, the weight of everything unsaid, the boredom… It was like reading about people around me today, with more opera scenes and fancier houses. Plus, the scenes least relevant to the plot are some of the best. I could read about Levin mowing fields all day. Here are some quotes from Part 1 (of 8) I liked.
The Couple at Number 9, Claire Douglas (p). Murder mystery that I must respect for coming up with a title that’s a triple pun (apologies for the implied spoilers).
The Hours, Michael Cunningham (p). I loved Mrs Dalloway (#17), but for some reason never thought of reading The Hours (which is based on it) until a friend who teaches it to high schoolers commanded me to. Mostly it made me want to read more Virginia Woolf. Some quotes: “It could be a good day; it needs to be treated carefully. … This is one of the most singular experiences, waking on what feels like a good day, preparing to work but not yet actually embarked. At this moment there are infinite possibilities.” / “London, and all London implies about freedom, about kisses, about the possibilities of art and the sly dark glitter of madness.” / “Richard cannot imagine a life more interesting or worthwhile than those being lived by his acquaintances and himself, and for that reason one often feels exalted, expanded, in his presence.” That’s a similar charisma, though from the other direction, to a girl the younger Solnit meets in A Field Guide to Getting Lost (#1): “Melanie had this quality of living in a story one might want to live in too”.
Memorial, Alice Oswald (p). From the foreword: “a translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere, not its story. … my approach to translation is fairly irreverent … I think this method, as well as my reckless dismissal of seven-eighths of the poem, is compatible with the spirit of oral poetry”. The poem consists of paragraphs describing the deaths of people who fought in Troy, followed by more faithful (I think?) translations of mostly pastoral and wildlife similes repeated twice after each death to draw a relation/contrast. Some of the memorial paragraphs feel suitably epic and tragic; some are short and leave you embarrassed this is how the person has been remembered by history: “PERIPHETOS the man from Mycenae / Who tripped on his shield” only gets those two lines. I didn’t like reading most of the poem because the deaths were generally more gruesome than that (turns out I’m anti-spear), but there were some nice similes. “Like a good axe in good hands / Finds out the secret of wood”.
In The Margins, Elena Ferrante (p). Four short essays about reading and writing. I liked the third and loved the second, enough reason on its own to bold the book. (The fourth was a bit above my head.) Ferrante describes her early struggles as a writer to “tell the thing as it is”, to create an “exact reproduction of reality” in written words. There’s a wonderful couple of pages on her inability to describe a simple object, her mother’s aquamarine ring, in a way that feels accurate and not misleading through connotations it includes or omits. For Ferrante this was an “adolescent mania for realism” she got out of in part by the clever decision to write her first few novels from a first person perspective of characters “who narrate in writing–what is before the reader’s eyes is their writing”. In my more reflective moods, I don’t think I’ve made it out of this particular adolescence yet; it still feels to me like all communication is dishonest in a way I can’t escape. Every description, every story, packages experience by emphasising some truths and not others. But hey, it’s fun to try (aka I love chatting). (Other books on the theme of writers writing about their process/experience writing, which I find a fairly lurid/addictive theme: 2015’s #1, 2016’s #41, 2019’s #9, some of this year’s #18, and even some of #21.) EDIT from 2023: gosh, I just came across an old quote from Siddartha (#19): “Everything that is thought and expressed in words is one-sided, only half the truth; it all lacks totality, completeness, unity.”
Less is Lost, Andrew Sean Greer (p). Sequel to Less (#20), similar to the original. After reading it I listened to a few interviews with the author and like him. The book is comic and warm but had a slightly disturbing political undercurrent that interviewers don’t seem to bring up much – to me it reads as Greer making the case America should split into multiple countries.
Owning the Sun, Alexander Zaitchik (a). History of intellectual property in medicine, mostly anti-monopoly/anti-patent. One thing that struck me from reading (listening) is that intellectual property debates haven’t changed much since Benjamin Franklin and Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. (This isn’t a criticism of the book per se, which covers global changes since the WTO was created in the ’90s.) If you’re arguing in good faith about the public health benefits from different policies (i.e not just trying to get rich off monopolies for your own sake), one side is still worried about losing private innovation if you reduce the length of patents or get rid of them -> fewer drugs, and the other side still thinks patients would benefit more from lower prices and a broader set of suppliers. How medicines get developed changed vastly in the 150 years after Section 8, and changed again since the 20th century pharmaceutical golden era – so the balance of arguments should have changed too. To take a non-pharma example, it seems relatively obvious to me (though email me if I’m wrong!) that innovation in software/tech goes more quickly when e.g. Slack can introduce threaded messaging then Discord can introduce a variant threaded messaging, without having to wait 20 years or worry it’ll get sued into non-existence. The founding fathers wouldn’t have had much to say about that. In pharmaceuticals, two big things that have changed in the last half century are monopoly drug prices skyrocketing, and the cost of R&D skyrocketing. Single phase 3 efficacy trials now cost hundreds of millions of dollars – so to get new drugs, you either need public funders like the NIH to start funding more phase 3s, or you need private incentives like patents so a company/private investors will pay up, or you need the regulatory + health system to demand less efficacy data before approval/usage. If you only reduced patent length, and held those other two fixed, I think you would lose innovation, and new drugs would be slower to arrive. But if monopoly prices of medicines have shot up even further than R&D costs since the golden era, this point starts going the other way, and it’s time to reduce patent length after all…! I don’t have the answer, I’m just frustrated the debate doesn’t seem to adapt to the facts of 2022 much. Then finally and unrelatedly, it sometimes gets lost in IP discussions that patents are in part designed to increase how much knowledge is in the public domain. Patents are about hoarding revenue, not knowledge. A government makes a devil’s bargain with companies by setting up a patent office: disclose what might otherwise stay as your trade secret on a public website where you describe how you did it, in exchange for no one clicking the link for 20 years. In sectors where it’s easy to reverse engineer products on the market, there’s not much public benefit from that bargain, because you could get the information anyway; in areas where it’s hard, the public patents are nice – the company might otherwise never tell you their secret ingredients!
Second Place, Rachel Cusk (p). I loved Cusk’s Outline series (2019 #15, 2020 #5, 2021 #33), so decided to treat myself to this most recent novel. It’s reaching the end of the year, so please forgive a long review where I spuriously connect it to other things I read this year, as well as to Cusk’s previous books.
I thought Outline was better than Second Place; SP is one note more extreme (at least as I read it), which made it harder to get absorbed in the ideas/characters. Still, plenty of characteristic wisdom, and big ideas packed into sentences. Now I’m schooled in Cusk, I’ve seen some of the ideas before. E.g. I pulled her idea that loss of a shared story = death in #15; here it appears again: “the urgent need he had felt to return to where he could play his role in the story. It was a clearer glimpse of death than any of the bloodier sightings he had had of it so far.” E.g.2 in #33 I pulled out “driven into extremity by the suspicion that some knowledge was being withheld from me whose revelation would make everything clear”; in this one we get “There was a greater reality, I believed, beyond or behind or beneath the reality I knew, and it seemed to me that a lifelong pain would be ended if only I could break through to it.”, and “there was the feeling of some unknown lying between us that awoke a dangerous part of me, the part that felt that I hadn’t truly lived”.
An idea that reminded me of Anna K (#16 this year): “he became a[n art] collector, as they all do. They have so little imagination, they don’t know what else to do with their money. It’s funny, isn’t it, how determined they are to prove that the thing that can’t be bought can in fact be bought after all.” This reminds me of the hilarious scenes in Italy where Vronsky and Anna visit an artist, and Vronsky tries to become a painter before getting bored.
An idea that reminded me of Solnit (#1 this year): “There was something, as he had said, that he had missed. But how could he ever find it, incomplete as he was?” That’s the same paradox at the heart of A Field Guide to Getting Lost! (Scroll up for quotes.) Here’s another connection: “he could perform that transformative function for me” – for the protagonist of Second Place this is transformation to creativity vs passivity; for Solnit, it goes beyond creativity – “The things we want are transformative”.
Now Ferrante (#20 this year). SP is written as a long letter from the protagonist to someone called Jeffers we never learn about, structurally inspired by the memoir Lorenzo in Taos. That lets Cusk achieve the same sidestep around the impossibility of realism as Ferrante does in her early novels; see #20 above! I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t read that recently. Cusk’s approach to fiction seems (to me) realist, i.e. tell-it-like-it-is, but where the only thing you can safely/accurately describe is your direct experience of events. The protagonist at some point says “It’s important to me that I only tell you about what I can personally verify”. Later, “I am determined not to falsify anything, even for the sake of narrative.” Also: “It felt as though only that – to express or reflect some aspect of existence – would atone for the awful knowledge I seemed to have acquired.” Realism seems like a moral compulsion, for Cusk and Ferrante. Then, back on participating in a story = existence: “he filled one with the dreadful suspicion that there is no story to life, no personal meaning beyond the meaning of any given moment.”, and “sometimes I need to talk in order to feel real … people create themselves by giving themselves utterance”. That chimes with Ferrante’s description of female friendship in the second essay of #20 (Ferrante quoting Cavarero): “At work … is a mechanism of reciprocity through which the narratable self of each woman passes to auto-narration … Put simply, I tell you my story in order to make you tell it to me.”
A list of other sentences with ideas packed into them about motherhood and relationships: “he was, somehow, afraid of me, and his treating me as he presumably treated other women was a way of getting himself back on firm ground.” / I laughed when the second most annoying character says: “‘I am lucky enough to come from an unbroken home.'” / On the paradox of the obligations of motherhood/parenthood (mother speaking to daughter): “‘I believe I am obliged to let you go,’ I said, once I’d thought about it, ‘but if that doesn’t work out, I believe I am obliged to remain responsible for you forever.'” / About dogs – she fears her husband/daughter “yearned for something mute and uncritical to love them instead.” / “automatically I had believed – or rather, had assumed – that Justine’s father was a nice, or at least a decent man. How easy it is, Jeffers, to believe that of the men who conform to our idea of normality!” / “I was a woman he couldn’t obliterate or transfigure with his own desire.” / While in a relationship, thinking of another man: “Is it wrong to want things that you [the husband] can’t give me?” (My crude over-simplified experience of the direction society is moving is that this used to be more “yes”, and now is more “no”, largely due to the influence of non-heterosexual relationships -> rethinking suppressed desire.)
A list of other assorted sentences I liked: “my habit of wanting to please people by saying that things are better than they are just creates disappointment” / “It’s a form of control, as so much of generosity is.” / “all my attitudes: dictated by the stubborn belief that the truth, in the end, will be recognised.” / “Tony refuses to see anything as a game, and by being that way he reveals how much other people play games and how their whole conception of life derives from the subjectivity of the game-playing state.” / “the less I had to worry about, the sadder I became.” / “I believe there are certain moments in life that don’t obey the laws of time and instead last forever”. In a podcast interview alongside her painter husband(!), Cusk says she views painting and writing as different in how they relate to time: paintings are out of it, whereas writing is necessarily experienced in time (it takes time to read a book). Hopefully it’s not too much of a spoiler to say the protagonist later learns the timeless moment she was describing in that sentence may have been painted by an onlooker.