What I’ve been reading

The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789, by Robert Middlekauff.  A history of the American revolutionary period, from the end of the French and Indian Wars through the writing of the Constitution.  I picked this up when Julie and I were visiting Colonial Williamsburg a couple months back and I realized that I didn’t know enough about this era.  The book gets a little dry sometimes, but provides a good overview of the period, covering military, political, diplomatic, economic, and lifestyle history of this time.  It gave me what I wanted, which was a solid overview.  My biggest takeaway?  The crucial role that mob violence held in the founding of this nation.  America was born in a series of riots, and the first founding fathers were not shy about using threats to life, limb, and property in order to enflame the mob against British encroachments on their lives.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Jane Austen and Seth Graham-Smith.  Graham-Smith answers the question “What addition would improve the classic regency romance novel?”  His answer: zombie mayhem!  He takes Austen’s text and adds scenes here and there of zombies attacking, and of the warrior Bennett girls trained in the eastern arts of the warrior.  A really fun read for those who enjoy both Jane Austen and George Romero – come on, there must be a few more of you out there!

Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell.  A present from my son Andy, and an excellent one: I strongly recommend this book.  Gladwell is expert at putting together a collection of fascinating bits of data and using it to illustrate a broader point.  In this case, he looks at what makes a person successful and concludes that the myth of the astonishing natural talent who achieves great things due to native ability is just that – a myth.  Instead, to succeed you need a combination of hard work, the luck of being born at a time and place where you have the opportunity to succeed, and a cultural background that prepares you for the challenges you are likely to face in life.  A few of the many data points that he uses to illustrate this:

— Of the 75 richest people in history, 14 were born in one nine year span in the 19th century, putting them in a cohort that came of age at just the right time to become gilded era robber barons.  (The two richest men in history, John Jay Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, are among this 14.)

— In one conservatory class, musical ability correlates exactly with the amount of practice each student has done over his lifespan.  The virtuosos all have done 10,000 hours or more of practice over their lives, the talented-but-not-top-notch have done 8,000 hours, and the also-ran future middle-school music teachers have done 6,000 hours or less.  (To show how much practice this is, if you practice 40 hours a week for 50 weeks in a year (basically, a full-time job), you’ve put in 2000 hours for that year.  Do that for five years and you’ve got your 10,000 hours.)

— The rate of plane crashes correlates directly with the assertiveness level of the culture that the crew comes from.  This is due to the fact that copilots from non-assertive cultures are less likely to force pilots to pay attention when they see a problem occurring.

BUT, there’s good news, especially on this last front.  You can overcome your cultural biases when you are aware of them and take steps to address them.  The book talks about how Korean Air Lines (KAL) was one of the most dangerous airlines in the world around ten years ago, but after instituting an assertiveness class for its flight crews, accident rates dropped dramatically and it become one of the world’s safest airlines.

The Oxford Illustrated History of Ireland, edited by Roy Foster.  A survey of Irish history, with each period covered by a different author.  Julie and I are planning a trip to Ireland and I read this in partial preparation.  But I really can’t recommend it – it’s awfully dry and downplays some of the more dramatic elements of Irish history.  What’s worse for a survey, it assumes a lot of knowledge from the reader.  Often it mentions key figures in passing without explaining why they are important, or how they came by their reputation.  I had read another history of Ireland a few years back and so was not entirely lost, but if you come to this book cold, you’re asking for tedium and confusion.  If you are looking for an Irish history, look for that other one – Malachy McCourt’s History of Ireland.  McCourt is quite opinionated, and you won’t mistake his book for a scholarly history.  But you’ll learn a lot, and it’s a fun read.

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