So this week I did something a little bit different. I bought the twelve bestselling books on Amazon that weren’t a cookbook, something I’d already read, aimed at toddlers, or actually a calendar. This is an attempt to expose myself to the mindset of the General American Public, or at least the General American Public as of 3pm on January 3rd.
My big concern about this is that the general American public may not, in fact, read books. Unfortunately, I am not going to use my precious and limited watching-television spoons on anything that I’m not 100% enthusiastic about watching, so my bubble is just going to have to expand to those portions of the general American public that read.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck: A Counterintuitive Approach To Living a Good Life: The essential thesis of this book is that happiness consists of solving problems. If you try to pretend you don’t have any problems when you do, or you act like you are incapable of solving your problems, then you will be unhappy. If you don’t have any problems, you will make up problems for yourself, and a lot of those problems will be dumbass problems that you can’t actually do anything about. It is also important to make sure that the problems you’re trying to solve aren’t stupid and terrible. Manson gives the example of the lead singer of Megadeth, who started Megadeth as revenge because he was kicked out of his old band and he wanted to show them that he could become more successful than they are. Unfortunately, his old band was Metallica. Now he feels like a failure, in spite of being one of the most successful metal musicians of all time, because he didn’t manage to be more successful than Metallica. This is terrible problem selection. If he had chosen a different problem, like “I want to write a better album this time than I did last time”, then maybe he would be happier.
I don’t necessarily buy everything Manson claims in this book (for instance, he does some fairly facile anti-social-media critiques). But I am absolutely delighted by the tone. A lot of self-help books have this tone of being a nice, friendly, supportive therapist. Manson is your coach who is absolutely and 100% behind you but is also 0% willing to put up with any of your fucking bullshit. The entire book was like getting a pep talk from him. I felt extremely inspired.
Milk and Honey: Normal people read… poetry? Okay, then.
Honestly, I feel like poetry without rhyme or scansion isn’t really poetry, it’s prose where you put in some extra line breaks. Call me an anti-SJer, but I’d rather read Kipling.
You Are A Badass: How To Stop Doubting Your Greatness And Start Living An Awesome Life: I feel like the Tim Ferriss book, the Mark Manson book, and this book all used the same voice. Is this the new thing in self-help books? How we Reach Out To The Millennials? Flippancy and pop-culture references and swear words?
Anyway, the thesis of You Are A Badass is that if you send out energy into the universe and move yourself into a higher vibration, then you will magically get everything you want. At no point is it addressed how this model accounts for e.g. five-year-olds dying of HIV in Africa. Presumably the five-year-olds are failing to send out the healing energy necessary to get better. If only they had read You Are A Badass! Then they would know that loving themselves and refusing to put up with toxic people and saying affirmations would keep them from starving to death or being conscripted as child soldiers!
Like, a lot of the advice is not bad. For relatively privileged people, it’s true that doing things that scare you, being grateful, forgiving others, avoiding people who make you feel like shit, challenging your distorted thoughts, and so on will bring good things into your life. That isn’t because you are attracting it magically from the universe, it is because those things make people happy. Some of the book’s advice is harmless and will maybe even help some people, like meditation and affirmations and creating a vision board and practicing self-love. And some of the book’s advice is nonsensical– if you want something, just buy it and the universe will magically send you the money for it! I do not think this is a good financial advice.
The Princess Diarist: CARRIE FISHER AND HARRISON FORD HAD SEX. I REPEAT, CARRIE FISHER AND HARRISON FORD HAD SEX. THIS IS NOT A DRILL
The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds: This book also led me to be skeptical of ‘buy the Amazon bestsellers’ as a strategy for knowing what Normal People are up to. I am pretty sure normal people don’t read about Kahneman and Tversky.
This book is stupidly slashy. I try to keep my real person fic degeneracy away from this blog, so if anyone is reading this and really wants my honest feelings about The Undoing Project, go to my tumblr and look at the “tveneman for ts” tag.
The Underground Railroad: jesus fucking christ this book is depressing. I mean, it was a good book and I don’t know what I expected from a magical realism book about the antebellum south but… jesus fucking christ
Atlas Obscura: A collection of weird places on Earth. I think this book is probably best read not the way I read it, which was straight through in one sitting. It is probably the sort of book that favors being kept in the bathroom so you can read an interesting fact about Russia while shitting.
Apparently the world’s longest-lasting lightbulb is in a fire station in the Bay Area. The firefighters will let you visit the bulb if you want, which I kind of want to do, but I am also uncertain what I would actually do while visiting the lightbulb. Take a picture?
There is a place called Bir Tawil, which is one of the few border disputes in the world in which both parties claim they don’t own the place. This is because there are two alternate versions of the Egypt-Sudan border, and whomever admits to owning Bir Tawil would lose the right to significantly better land. Some American declared himself king of Bir Tawil in order that his seven-year-old daughter could fulfill her dream of becoming a princess, which is apparently “colonialism”, but in my opinion if there is exactly one person who wants to be ruler of a place then they should get to be ruler of that place. All the other people are just mad they didn’t think of it first.
Finland apparently has the world’s largest snow fort. Go Finland.
In Sri Lanka, there is a sacred footprint on top of a mountain. No one agrees why, exactly, the footprint is sacred– Christians and Muslims think it’s Adam’s footprint, Buddhists the Buddha’s, and Hindus Shiva’s– but there is a general consensus that it is definitely sacred.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Israel, which is believed to be where Jesus died and was resurrected, is shared by six different Christian denominations, who regularly feud over what precise bits of the church belong to whom. When one monk moved his chair eight inches to find shade on a hot sunny day, this was interpreted as a hostile act, and 11 were hospitalized after the ensuing fight. Sometime in the mid-1700s, an unknown person put up a ladder, and it has not been moved since for fear that it would incite violence.
Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers: Basically, it’s a bunch of famous people giving their life advice, ranging from the vague (“take as long as you want if you’re talented, you’ll get their attention again if you need to”) to the deeply practical (an in-depth discussion of how one should do one’s psychedelic trips). This book consists of approximately equal parts interesting advice, cute stories and Inspirational Words ™ from celebrities I like, advice about fucking angel infesting or some shit, and cute stories and Inspirational Words ™ from random rich people I’ve never heard of.
I found it mildly annoying (a) how few women were interviewed (b) how many of the interviewed women mostly had things to say about Women and Gender and Feminism.
The essay I liked the best was “One Thousand True Fans”, which points out that if you can get a thousand people to spend a hundred dollars a year on you then you’re earning $100,000/year. You don’t need to get really incredibly popular to make a very good living as an author; you need a small number of extremely enthusiastic people. Apparently some people believe they can’t convince a thousand people to spend a hundred dollars a year on their shit? Some people deeply underestimate fandom.
While Will MacAskill’s section in the book did not contain any new information to me, I was very pleased about its presence.
[content warning: abuse for the next entry]
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis: This book was pitched to me as helping me understand and empathize with the Trump voter. It actually made me viscerally horrified by the Trump voter.
Everyone in this book has problems that are their own damn fault. Don’t attempt to light your husband on fire! Don’t have children if you’re a complete and utter mess and unable to give them a supportive and loving childhood! Don’t marry someone a week after meeting them! Don’t resolve your relationship conflicts by throwing things, screaming insults, or storming out and spending a night at the motel! Don’t put Pepsi into your children’s bottles! Don’t spend money frivolously on stupid shit and then wonder why you don’t have any! One couple in this book has a combined income of over $100,000 a year, in Ohio, and still has money problems, which is honestly the point where I stop sympathizing with your money issues.
Admittedly, I myself have problems that are 100% my own damn fault, and (unlike most of the people of Hillbilly Elegy, although not the $100,000/year couple) I am sheltered from the consequences of my actions by the fact that my friends have money. On the other hand, I have never gone around pretending that I was a NEET because of the Obama Economy. I was a NEET because I kind of suck, and I have always been honest about this, and I feel like that kind of honesty is a bare minimum for me to have any sort of sympathy about your self-caused problems whatsoever.
Also, I have borderline personality disorder and I have never thrown a plate at anyone’s head. It is statistically improbable that everyone in this book has BPD, and therefore I am extremely judgmental about their repeated decisions to throw plates at people’s heads. If I can manage it, they can too.
(It doesn’t help that the alleged virtues of this community are familial loyalty and patriotism, neither of which seem particularly virtuous to me, especially since familial loyalty doesn’t seem to come with any willingness not to commit assault against the people you’re supposedly loyal to.)
On the other hand, surely this is moral luck. From my earliest age, I had a lot of models of conflict-resolution strategies other than plate-throwing. While I might have impaired emotional regulation and interpersonal effectiveness skills, at least I had some concept that interpersonal effectiveness is a thing which exists and would be a nice thing to acquire and even a vague sense of how one does it. If everyone you know throws plates at each other all the time, then you’re never going to learn how to work out your conflicts any other way. I mean, obviously.
And it seems to require an extraordinary amount of work to socialize someone raised in a terrible community into less awful norms. The author, J D Vance, had his Mamaw, who in spite of her flaws– she’s the one who lit her husband on fire, although he didn’t sustain more than mild burns– provided a stable home for him in high school with an encouragement to get good grades. And he had the Marines, which assumed he didn’t know anything about nutrition, hygiene, fitness, personal finance, or time management, which was useful because he didn’t. And he had Amy Chua, the Tiger Mom herself, who guided him through such details as “one must wear a suit to interviews at prestigious law firms. No, a properly fitting suit.” And he had an extremely patient girlfriend who explained to him the concept of talking about your problems instead of storming off and getting a motel room. Even discounting Amy Chua, whose contributions seemed mostly of the “this is how you perform upper-middle-class signalling” sort rather than the “your entire community is terrible, here is how to be less terrible” sort, that’s three people, and I doubt we can issue everyone in Vance’s community a supportive grandma, patient girlfriend, and stint in the Armed Forces.
One of the things I changed my mind about having read this book is the harm caused by communities with incredibly shitty norms. Normally, my instinct is a strong default towards “if the thing you’re doing seems bizarre and terrible to me, then probably you have different preferences than I do and it is not bizarre and terrible really.” But this book brought to my attention that incredibly shitty norms can be self-sustaining: if you don’t know that there’s anything better, then you’re likely to keep doing bizarre and terrible things. I’m not sure how to fix this, but it does seem like a problem.
On the other hand, it is disrespectful to treat people like they don’t have any ability to make choices or take responsibility for their own lives. If you’re an adult, to a certain degree, the fact that you haven’t noticed that your life is terrible and investigated if there is a better way to do things is all on you.
Look, people who caused all their own damn problems are still people. I continue to support a welfare state which allows them to get food, housing, and health care even if they’re unemployed. I support ending the drug war and sensible harm-reduction measures that would reduce the toll of drug abuse in these communities. I intend to live peaceably with this community. But man if you wrecked your own damn life and then you’re blaming someone else I’m not super-sympathetic.
[content warning: suicide; spoiler alert for A Man Called Ove for the next entry]
A Man Called Ove: A very nice book about an autistic man, Ove, who is trying to kill himself and then thwarted by an increasingly ludicrous series of events in which something is Wrong and needs to be set Right. I am uncertain if the author is aware that their protagonist is autistic– the narrative appears to believe that he is instead a curmudgeon– but he definitely is. I know lots of people of the sort “I have figured out the OBJECTIVELY CORRECT WAY TO DO EVERYTHING, everyone else is doing things WRONG” and it was amusing to read a novel about them. This book contains a strong anti-institutionalization plotline, which I always appreciate. In Sweden, can old people just be taken off to institutions even if their spouses want to take care of them? Is this a thing? This seems like a very bad idea. Sweden, sort your shit out.
[content warning: diet books for the rest of the post]
The Lose Your Belly Diet: I have to say, if I were this guy’s marketing department, I would have titled the book the Feed Your Belly Diet instead. It’s entirely about eating in such a way that you encourage good gut bacteria and discourage the bad ones.
I have no idea if anything he’s saying about gut microbiomes is accurate. His advice, however, ranges between the good (eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; don’t take antibiotics for viral infections) and the harmless (eat more kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, and other food that has probiotics in it; favor plant proteins over animal proteins; don’t be so obsessed with cleanliness). And if a scientific gloss about gut microbiomes is what it takes to get people to eat their vegetables, then I’m happy about it.
That said, I did find this book really condescending. I’m an adult! I can stand words like “bacteria”! You don’t have to call them my “Little Buddies”! You don’t have to sympathize with me about how complicated scientific studies are to understand! But I guess this might be how the sort of people who like diet books like their science?
The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom: I strongly disapprove of this book.
Obviously, the most important thing about eating is to listen to your own body. If it turns out that you, personally, are healthier and happier when you don’t eat any dairy, grains including ones that don’t have gluten in them, or legumes, then I am glad you know that about yourself. But for most people, it’s a bad idea to completely eliminate two and a half food groups. Eating a variety of foods is the best way to make sure you get all of your nutrients. While of course some foods should be consumed in moderation, I’m not sure it’s best for your health to completely eliminate any category of foods that existed before, say, 1950. (I’m not saying it’s a good idea to completely eliminate things in the category Food That Was Invented After 1950, just that if people have been living without it for thousands of years it’s probably not required for your diet.)
I think the example of veganism is instructive here. Pretty much everyone agrees that the standard American diet doesn’t contain enough vegetables and fruit, and many people agree that it contains too much meat. You would think veganism is super-healthy! However, it turns out that a supplement-free vegan diet is always deficient in Vitamin B12 and often deficient in many other nutrients as well– simply because the more limited your diet is, the more thought you have to put into ensuring you can get enough nutrients with what you have remaining. A lot of vegans who didn’t put any thought into their diet have gotten very sick. (Conversely, lacto ovo vegetarianism generally requires no special planning: ruling out one category of food generally doesn’t reduce your dietary variety that much. However, I think the Whole30 is a lot closer to veganism than to lacto ovo vegetarianism in this regard.) Thought and care about how one can get one’s nutrients in a radically limited diet is notably absent in the Whole30, possibly because that would require admitting that legumes probably aren’t evil.
A lot of the advice in the Whole30 is pretty good. I’m sure any dietitian would agree that it’s a good idea for most people to reduce their consumption of sugar, alcohol, processed food, and restaurant food, and instead replace it with home-cooked meals heavy on the fruits and vegetables. And I expect that if many people switch from the standard American diet to the Whole30, they will feel better, just because they aren’t eating the standard American diet anymore. That does not mean beans are somehow evil.
Of course, bodies are pretty resilient, and you can do any damn fool thing for thirty days and be fine. Probably most people will return to a more balanced way of eating after their Whole30. But they will feel a lot of unnecessary guilt about “giving into their cravings” when in reality what they’re doing is “eating a more healthy diet instead of the nonsense the Whole30 was selling them.”
I was particularly disturbed by the discussions of intense cravings and vivid dreams about food on the Whole30. Guys, that’s not funny. That’s an early sign of a nutrient deficiency.
I was also unimpressed with some of the quacky medical advice given in this book. No, MSG is not a neurotoxin. And you probably shouldn’t be citing the Weston A. Price Foundation, which also believes that root canals cause arthritis and that vaccines increase your risk of getting HIV, as your source on safe legume consumption.