It’s funny — now that I’ve given myself permission not to review every single book I read in-depth, I have a whole lot more I want to say about what I’m reading, and why. So here are some capsule reviews about what I read in January 2019.
The Hacking of the American Mind by Robert Lustig
I think I was first turned on to this book by YouTuber Hannah Louise Poston, who in 2018 examined her relationship to beauty products and consumerism by doing a “no-buy” year. In one video, she talked about how she was learning about neuroscience, dopamine vs serotonin, and the difference between pleasure and happiness as a result of this book.
I was intrigued, because I know my own habits need to change. I spend way too much time online, and this book seemed like a handy way to help me understand my habits/addictions (Twitter, Reddit, staying up too late reading the same).
And….oof. Lustig may be a talented endocrinologist, and he may have done the world a service by being a whistleblower about the sugar industry, but The Hacking of the American Mind feels like a classic example of a book’s thesis being undone by poor presentation.
Lustig has A Lot to Talk About, and he does so with the fervour of a zealot. His understanding of brain chemistry is obvious, but his understanding of social issues is not. His thesis is that the American business, politics, and legal apparatus has been systematically encouraging the American populace to seek short-term pleasure (aka: dopamine, sugar, and consumerism) over long-term happiness (aka: serotonin, healthy foods, and personal development).
The argument itself is sound. But his solutions for undoing the damage this confluence of political and economic interests has caused is not. His solutions? Cook healthy food! Meditate and develop mindfulness! Volunteer in your community!
These are all valuable things, but these are individualistic solutions to society-wide problems. Does he advocate for tax reform and reducing income inequality? No. Does he say that the labour movement needs widescale restoration to regain lost rights? Not really. For all his emphasis on how politics and money corrupt society, he seems surprisingly ignorant about the whole concept of social determinants of health.
Oh, and also Lustig engages in a lot of fat-shaming and neurotypical bias. No thanks.
Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment by Gregory Berns
In some ways, this book was the polar opposite to The Hacking of the American Mind. Both talk about neuroscience, pleasure, and how the brain responds to stimuli, but they do so in very different ways. When I opened Satisfaction, the straightforwardness of the prose in the opening first few pages made me feel like I had just put a cool, soothing cloth to my forehead.
Because of this immediate reaction of “Ah, finally, this author is so decorous!”, it took me a while to feel underwhelmed. In Hacking, Lustig Has A Point, and attempts to prove it in a frenzied, impassioned, and clumsy way. Satisfaction, however, despite its fine prose, just kinda… sits there. Despite Berns’ discussion of dopamine and brain structures, his book’s thesis — that satisfaction/happiness lies in constantly exposing the brain to new experiences — is boring.
What’s more, the narrative throughline is clunky. There are interesting chapters, like the ones about sensory experiences during a fine meal and travelling to Iceland. However, they are intermingled with so-so ones about topics like BDSM. The final chapter, in particular, contains a lot of woo-sounding advice about long-term relationships, as well as some cringe-inducing passages discussing the author’s own sexual relationship with his wife.
Brother by David Chariandy
Hands down the best book of the month. Growing up, Michael and his brother Francis knew that despite how hard their mother worked to support them and give them a chance to succeed in life, they had few options. Constrained by intersecting issues of race and class, suspicion falls upon them and their peers in the wake of a shooting in their housing complex. Michael finds ways to cope, but Francis’ trajectory is much more tragic. Brother is an exploration of growing up as a marginalized youth of colour in the early 90s, and the prose is spare and haunting.
However, what really made me connect with it is that it’s set very close to where I live. When the opening pages talk about a bridge on Lawrence Avenue in Scarborough, I know that bridge because it’s within walking distance of my house. When Michael recollects escaping into the Rouge Valley, I know where and what he’s escaping to. When Michael talks about the buses and commuter trains and the “good” neighbourhood of “Port Junction”, I know exactly who and what he is describing, because that infrastructure has been with me my whole life.
Perhaps, when the snow melts and the sun comes back, I’ll share some pictures of the Rouge here, so you can conjure them in your minds eye when you decide to read this magnificent book.
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 9: Squirrels Fall Like Dominoes
As I have mentioned previously, I love Squirrel Girl. So any time a new volume comes out, it’s a delight. This time, the crux of the story involves her friendship with Kraven, a Marvel villain, and how she encourages him to turn a new leaf. Kraven is always a delight whenever he pops up in the SG universe, so it’s nice to see him get an extended plot arc here.
The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr
I read Hacking and Satisfaction at the beginning of the month because I wanted to understand my own brain, and to see if these books would give me some insight into how to “rewire” myself away from constantly needing to be connected to the internet. I should have just ignored both of these and read The Shallows instead.
In this book, Nicholas Carr manages to find the happy medium between the other two. It contains both the literary quality of Satisfaction and the hefty neurological exploration of Hacking. More importantly, The Shallows goes into detail about how exactly technology changes our brains without sounding alarmist — even when those details themselves are, in fact, alarming.
What’s also surprising is that although this book was written 8 years ago, and thus discusses the technology of 8 years ago, it doesn’t feel dated. The trends he identified have only become amplified since then – the chapter on Google’s quest for “content” in order to develop truly functional AI is particularly relevant.
January’s reads were kind of a mix, but in a good way. In February, I hope to continue this mix of fiction and non-fiction, while also focusing on Black authors for Black History Month.