What I’ve Been Reading – August 2021

Non-Fiction: Enlightenment Now by Stephen Pinker

For the life of me, I can’t find the quote I want from Stephen Pinker’s Enlightenment Now.

The quote I wanted, which I realize now may not exist, was something like:

If a newspaper only came out once every 50 years, for the last (at least) several thousand, it would probably have a headline like, “HUMAN LIFE EXPECTANCY INCREASES AGAIN!”

But maybe I’m confusing several of Pinker’s anecdotes. Nevertheless, the general sentiment of that statement is the crux of his book: We’re so wrapped up in the breaking news of every single bad thing happening everywhere in the world this instant that we could be forgiven for thinking we’re all doomed. But statistics, over time, show the opposite: Measures of health, wealth, longevity and human rights have all been trending up over time, especially in the last 50 years. For nearly everyone. In fact, many of the world’s poor today live better than the average wealthy person of 100 years ago.

One of the most interesting thought experiments I came away with is that the technical innovations of today are hard to even quantify. For example, you can buy a refrigerator for $300 (plus access to the electricity to run it), but what is the price you’d pay to keep refrigeration, if it were to be taken from you? A lot more than $300. What about the internet? You probably pay somewhere between $30-$100 USD a month to access the world’s knowledge from a device you can hold in your hand. That is, surely, worth more than the price of a new pair of shoes. How incredible!

This book blew my mind in a lot of ways, and especially in all the craziness of the world over the last 18 months, this book was like detaching from the shit-storm of news and floating in a placid pond.

I came away from the book hopeful about the progress of humanity, and thankful for just how lucky most people (and I especially in my many privileges) are to be alive in the year 2021. (Though I guess I could feel depressed I wasn’t born in the future…?)

Fiction: Local Woman Missing by Mary Kubica

Do you ever pick up a fiction book, only to find, once again, that it’s set in New York? “I get it!” you may think “You are are a Fancy Pants Writer living in the Big Fancy Writerly City, and you can throw around things like ‘Midtown’ and ‘6th Street’ assuming everyone knows what those places mean. WOW!”

Just me? Ok.

Well, I loved that Local Woman Missing is set in the Chicago suburbs, because few books are, and that’s where I grew up. (On Wolf Road, you know exactly what I’m talking about, right?)

The book follows a typical plot for the genre: missing girls, murdered women, a lot of secrets uncovered, and mysteries to solve.

One thing I especially appreciated about this book was that every little mystery or offhand comment that made me go hmmmm was tied up in a nice little bow at the end. It felt like there were no stray comments or red herrings, and so the ending was extremely satisfying.

Memoir: Inheritance by Dani Shapiro

This memoir by Dani Shapiro details what happened after she took a DNA test on a lark, and the results told her that her father was not her father, something she had never questioned before.

It read like a fast-paced mystery/thriller/suspense to me, and I finished it in less than 24 hours.

There’s some history of fertility treatments in the US as well, which was fascinating, but like most of the history of modern medicine, also equally horrifying.

I love a good memoir and this one did not disappoint! Not to mention that Shapiro is a supremely gifted writer. I’ve picked up two more of her memoirs since, though this one takes the cake.