It’s been a week of …very different books here. First up, Mary Roach’s Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. All of Roach’s previous other works, all mostly-humorous attempts to review the science of taboo or often overlooked subject, have appeared here, and now the set is complete. After beginning with a history of how we have mostly ignored intercourse from a scientific point of view until the last century or so, Roach shares a series of narratives about her traveling across the world to meet various experts in this-or-that. The subjects included are on the niche side of things, and are often unexpected: I learned far more about pigs than I’d expected to. Roach’s works are not generally structured (the exception being Gulp, but a book on the digestive system does come with an obvious ‘tract’ to follow — in one end and out the other), and this is par for the course. If you want more..er, specifics, there are more detailed reviews on goodreads. Awkward and amusing in turn.
Next, and one I’ve been dragging my feet through for weeks, is The Dictator’s Handbook, easily the most depressing book on politics I’ve ever read, though its lessons on power dynamics apply equally to any large organization, be it a Fortune 500 company or the Sicilian mafia. The authors open with the suggestion that instead of trying to understand politics through conventional means, ideology and whatever tall tales being paraded about on television, we should view it instead as an exercise in practical, grim self-interest. Politicians pursue whatever course is most personally expedient to them, whatever allows them to pay off their supporters and stay in power. The payoff can be obvious loot, in the case of dictators, or more subtle in the case of democracies. The authors’ core lesson is that we must view political support in terms of essential supporters, influentials, and interchangables; autocracies and corporations that rely on only a small handful of essentials behave very differently from democracies and corporations with larger boards, though the authors caution us against relying too readily on labels: often democracies have an underlying structure that makes the number of essential supporters far smaller than it actually is. In the case of Iran, for instance, the people do choose between opposing candidates — but those candidates were prescreened by the Guardian council. Even in a ‘real’ democracy, though, the savvy politico can get away with an astonishing amount of graft. Instructive and soul-scarring.
Lastly, I read Palaces for the People, which caught my eye instantly given its use of Andrew Carnegie’s description of libraries. Eric Klinenberg concerns himself with “social infrastructure”, or the places that draw people together in a community and allow them to encounter by chance or design, people who are different from them — and build a rapport or even friendships through repeated encounters or casual activities. Drawing on the social science of Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone: The Decline of American Community) and the urban analysis of Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities), Klinenberg argues that one of the reasons American society is so bitter and divided these days is that support for places like libraries that build community is disappearing. Although he’s primarily thinking of falling public funding for libraries, parks, etc, it sometimes brushes against the Jim Kunstler’s Geography of Nowhere first made this point, though his own scathing rebuke of American sprawl, with its worship of efficiency and isolation, is not cited here. The book hits a sweet spot for me, and not just because libraries are worshiped in nearly every chapter, but it needed more heft, or focus: the most salient lessons of the book apply to the importance of community in general, and place in giving people meaning, support, and identity. Klinenberg looks at only a small piece of a much larger problem. Even so, I greatly enjoyed the new material here, like the role of community in public health; that connection is made several times here, most poignantly in the chapter on the opioid crisis.