[Thanks to (deep breath) Matt, Kristin, Luis, Ruxandra, Tapio, Samuel, Veronica, Haley, Daniel, Michael Blume, Nicholas, DeAnna, Zylphia, Greygloomblr, Keeley, Sniffnoy, and several anonymouses for gifts. Some people were very enthusiastic about my birthday.]
The New “I Do”: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists, and Rebels: Meh. This is pretty much all old news for me: I’ve been aware of the concept of platonic marriages since I was a teenager, and willing to have one for just as long. The section on open relationships is pretty terrible, including the puzzling statement that open relationships are a different way of being a couple. (Uh. Guys. Being nonmonogamous means there’s more than a couple now. That’s kind of the whole idea.) I think it could have used significantly more exploration about what it’s like in the day-to-day of living a companionship marriage, a parenting marriage, or a polyamorous marriage. I did appreciate their inclusion of covenant marriage, which is mostly derided by the sort of people who go around talking about redefining marriage.
I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t): Making the Journey From “What Will People Think” to “I Am Enough”: Brene Brown’s work about shame, an emotion I have entirely too much of. The parts I liked most about this book were her descriptions of what shame is: “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging”; “shame is hating yourself and understanding why other people hate you too”; “Shame is focusing on who we are rather than what we’ve done. The danger of telling ourselves that we are bad, a cheat, and no good, is that we eventually start to believe it and own it”; “recognizing we’ve made a mistake is far different than believing we are a mistake.” I appreciated her distinction between embarrassment, humiliation, guilt, and shame: “embarrassment” is the feeling of having done something awkward in front of others; “guilt” is the feeling of having done something that isn’t in accordance with your values; “humiliation” is when someone degrades or embarrasses you in a way you feel is undeserved.
It was extremely validating to me personally to read her saying that shame is not actually an emotion with an upside: it is actually just bad. The research shows that shame-prone fifth graders are, in later life, more likely to be suspended from school, use drugs, and attempt suicide compared to those who are not shame-prone. Conversely, guilt-prone fifth graders are less likely to use drugs or attempt suicide, are more likely to volunteer and apply to college, and make their sexual debut later, compared to their less guilt-prone peers. This emphasizes to me the importance of distinguishing between guilt, which is sometimes a necessary and important corrective, and shame, which should be stamped out wherever seen.
Brown’s advice, unfortunately, was not terribly helpful to me personally; much of it seems to be a shame-focused version of the DBT process of emotion regulation through naming one’s emotions and practicing opposite action.
The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go Of Whom You’re Supposed To Be And Embrace Who You Are: This book keeps insisting to me that I am busy and overscheduled and need to work on relaxing, which is so hilariously not my problem. In addition, I was somewhat put off by the idea that everyone has to develop their spirituality. It is really alienating how so many self-improvement books seem to be written without any understanding that skeptics are a thing. No, my Higher Power is not the universe! The universe observably doesn’t give a shit about me! This is particularly annoying to me as a generally spiritual person, because I feel like none of the books are engaging with how legitimately difficult it is to be a person who functions better with prayer and myths and holidays where we all get together and sing, but who also does not believe in any sort of Higher Power whatsoever.
Anyway. I’m mildly miffed that I am reading this book about how to stop being so ashamed all the time and then it insists on trying to solve a bunch of problems I don’t have. All self-improvement books should be aimed at an audience of me.
Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With The Heart of a Buddha: As far as I know, this book is the origin of the concept of radical acceptance, and reading it gave me a much clearer understanding of the process. However, I do wish that there were more information translating radical acceptance into rationalist. (I have made some attempts myself, but as a relative novice to the practice I don’t feel quite comfortable with it.) I feel like the core of radical acceptance is a key rationalist practice: being aware of reality as it is, not as we’d like it to be; refusing to flinch away from the truth, refusing to give in to the ugh fields. But we tend to be turned off by the language, the New Ageyness, and the implication that we shouldn’t fight it (which isn’t actually part of radical acceptance– not that the books are very clear about this). One thing I liked about this book was the emphasis on compassion as the second wing of radical acceptance, which tends to be downplayed in DBT. This book emphasizes that it isn’t enough to be aware of what’s happening; you also have to think compassionately about what’s happening, with care for your own pain. I think that that’s an essential element to making radical acceptance more acceptable to rationalists, because all our “fuck the natural order” impulses do come from a fundamentally compassionate root.
I think it is very inconvenient that personality traits I desire keep turning out to be developed through meditation. I am going to complain to the Simulators about this. Meditation sucks.
Transgender History: I have to say, I was very much hoping for a book that would give me all kinds of politically incorrect contrarian opinions, but this is not that book. I didn’t learn much from it, but then I’m probably in the top two percent in terms of knowledge about trans history, and if you don’t know who Reed Erickson is off the top of your head you would probably learn a lot. One of the most horrifying things to me was how oppressed trans people actually were: in the fifties and sixties, trans women in the San Francisco were de facto confined to the Tenderloin, because whenever they left the Tenderloin, they were arrested for prostitution.
On Becoming a Novelist. A strange message from an alternate universe where people get MFAs and want to write “serious fiction”. I mean, I don’t disrespect what Gardner is doing, and I very much enjoy reading some serious fiction myself, but mostly I was not the target audience. Fortunately, a lot of Gardner’s advice applies to everyone: for instance, he is very firm on prioritizing character and story over theme or style (a lesson many authors of serious fiction need to learn). This is certainly one of the writing books I’ve read with the most delicious prose style; I regularly found myself thrown out of the book in delight at a phrase. Gardner’s love of language is palpable: anyone who goes on a tangent about the wonderful facility with language of black teens playing the dozens is someone I’m in favor of. Also Gardner dislikes Harlan Ellison, which is terrible. Ellison is the best.
The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University: I don’t recommend this book, which is a memoir about attending a semester at Liberty University, unless you happen to be fascinated by fundamentalist Christianity and devour any information available about it. So, of course, I enjoyed the hell out of it.
About a quarter of the way through this book, I found myself thinking that all the people in this book are extraordinarily familiar. About halfway through the book, I realized: holy shit, they’re weirdo alternate universe rationalists. I mean, sure, they’re nerds about the Bible instead of rationality. They make ha-ha-only-serious jokes like “when the Rapture comes you can have my car!” instead of like “I can’t wait until the glorious transhumanist future when no one has backaches.” They have self-improvement-based friendships about their prayer life or masturbation instead of scrupulosity or akrasia. But I still recognize the general type.
The character that made me saddest is the pastor who specializes in helping Liberty University students who struggle with same-sex attraction. I have a complete narrative kink for people who are trying their best to be good people despite their absolutely evil belief system, and the pastor combined a very real compassion for LGB students (multiple former students asked for him to be by their side as they died of AIDS) with the belief that their sexuality was a sin.
I was nerdy-delighted by the mention of Pensacola Christian College, because I knew some people who attended it. The author says: “even couples who are not talking or touching can be reprimanded for what is known on the campus as ‘optical intercourse’—staring too intently into the eyes of a member of the opposite sex. This is also referred to as ‘making eye babies.’” This book also led me to the discovery that apparently some Protestants practice rebaptism, which offends me deep in my Catholic atheist soul.
[Here there be spoilers for the Hand of Thrawn duology, Holes and Long Live the Suicide King, and some discussion of suicidal ideation and effective altruism.]
Specter of the Past/Vision of the Future: I cannot believe that there is a duology with that much foreshadowing of Thrawn’s return and no return of Thrawn. This is deeply upsetting. My ideal Star Wars Expanded Universe would be forty or fifty books of the good guys fighting Thrawn, preferably all written by Timothy Zahn, who can be chained to his desk if necessary.
Interestingly, none of Pellaeon’s interactions with Thrawn in the original Thrawn Trilogy made me ship Pellaeon/Thrawn, but this duology did. An ambitious Imperial politician gets a con artist to impersonate Thrawn. For obvious reasons, the con artist does not talk to Pellaeon, Thrawn’s former right-hand man, because he would see through him in two seconds flat. But Pellaeon fears he is abandoned! He is so sad! He wonders if Thrawn ever really cared about him! I was so upset.
This book has the usual problem of the Star Wars EU books with decent villains, which is that they insist on paying attention to the “actual” “protagonists”.
Holes: My first reread since elementary school! In elementary school, I didn’t appreciate how beautifully structured a book this is: every element– from “Sweet Feet” the basketball star to Kissin’ Kate Barlow’s canned peaches– is carefully foreshadowed and brought back in some unexpected way later in the book. It’s truly a virtuoso performance. This is one of the few books to successfully foreshadow a deus ex machina: by establishing that luck is an actual force in the universe by the Yelnats family’s bizarre misadventures, the series of happy coincidences in the climax, after the family’s luck has reversed, comes off as a satisfying resolution, rather than the author playing favorites. If you haven’t read it since you were a kid, I suggest a reread: it definitely stands up to the test of time.
Long Live The Suicide King: One of those YA novels in which the author writes a character with some sort of Issue Relevant To The Teenagers’ Lives, and the book ends with them having a socially approved of recovery. The issue in this book is suicidality. I am annoyed by how often novels about suicidal people are about people who are suicidal briefly and then stop, as opposed to about people who want to die continually for years and years. We can have good stories too! But, no, the book has to end with the characters wanting to live. I feel like this is actually pretty harmful to chronically suicidal people, because people think we’re going to go through some sort of epiphany and then magically be fixed, and they aren’t prepared for the years and years it takes chronically suicidal people to build a life worth living. In addition, becoming an effective altruist has given me zero sympathy for the “my life is boring and predictable and I’m not going to have any impact on the world” complaint. I felt like grabbing the protagonist by the neck and shouting “Take the Giving What We Can pledge! It will fix your problem!”