Last Train to Zona Verde.

Paul Theroux is a famous travel writer – meaning a writer who travels, and writes about what he discovers, not a writer who tells you to visit this city and eat at these restaurants – whose work never really crossed my awareness until last year, when a stranger I chatted with at an LA-area Starbucks recommended I check out his books, and I found right then that his 2013 book Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari was on sale for the Kindle. It’s not an easy read, and a huge change of pace from any other “western writer goes to non-white country” book or essay I’ve ever read, but the last third or so on the book, where Theroux goes to one of the most closed-off countries in the world, Angola, is edifying and unforgettable.

Theroux writes of Angola, “a country that is so hard to enter makes me curious to discover what is on the other side of the fence,” a sentiment I can certainly understand, but what he finds after a difficult border crossing from Namibia is as dysfunctional a state as you could imagine this side of Somalia, and perhaps worse. Whereas Somalia and Libya are simply failed states, outlines on the map that lack functioning central governments, Angola is an extreme kleptocracy. Despite $130 billion in annual GDP ($6500 per capita) and rapid growth due to oil revenues, there’s widespread poverty and malnutrition, lack of education or basic services, and minimal infrastructure. Seventy percent of Angolans live on $2 a day or less, and one in six children die before the age of five, the worst such rate in the world. But due to corruption – it’s ranked the fifth-most corrupt in the world, according to that link – the massive oil revenues don’t flow to the people; the President’s daughter is worth over $3 billion, and last year became head of the state-owned energy firm after the company’s board was sacked. Her father has been in power for 38 years, looting a country with oil reserves to match Mexico, and while it’s not a police state, it’s a repressive country where the fortunate few live in a world apart from the 25 million poor residents.

Theroux actually starts his journey in Cape Town, South Africa, and works his way up the west coast of Africa, stopping in Angola for practical reasons (crossing the Congo River would have required a long trip inland) and emotional (his conclusion that seeing more countries would not illuminate anything beyond what he learned in Angola). Each of the three countries he does visit provides its own education, or a sort of lesson, but at least the first two have some glimmers of hope. South Africa’s cities have grown to absorb some of the impoverished shantytowns that surround them, as services expand towards the slums and provide at least some level of mobility – not what we expect here, by any means, but at least a possibility out of extreme poverty, yet one always held back by the increasing numbers of squatters arriving to expand the slums that surround all South African cities.

Namibia is often considered one of the few African success stories, as it has followed a century of oppression (first by Germans, then by the Afrikaner government of South Africa) with 25 years of a stable, multi-party democracy. It’s sparsely populated, with a significant mining industry, but an increasing reliance on European tourists who come to visit certain beaches or indulge in safari and wildlife tourism of a sort Theroux experiences and disdains. He detours inland to speak at a small conference at an isolated town in northeastern Namibia, seeing how the colonial governments and now the Namibian federal government have both ignored the Ju/’hoansi people of the interior, and then crosses into Botswana’s Okavango Delta region to visit a luxury resort and elephant preserve, eating five-star meals and riding an elephant along with the tourists paying thousands of dollars a day to be there.

In the Namibian section of the book, Theroux comes off as a bit of a crosspatch, because while he’s identifying clear socioeconomic problems, Namibia is far from a hopeless case. There’s misused foreign aid here, as in all of Africa – he cites some of the research showing that foreign aid to developing countries often does little or no good for those populations – and certainly poverty beyond what we see here, but there is a functioning government and some economic activity that could provide the foundation for growth. There are not enough jobs, and there’s not enough education, but the raw materials are here.

Angola, however, is an absolute basket case, and this is where Theroux seems to lose his faith in Africa. The government’s elites are looting the country in as venal a way possible – most of the country’s oil actually comes from the exclave of Cabinda, which is the small section of Angola located on the north side of the Congo delta and thus separated from the rest of the country by the Democratic Republic of the Congo (ex-Zaire), itself a failed state looted by a series of dictators (including my friend Mobute Sese Seko) and essentially ungoverned in the way Angola is. The former Portuguese colony is flush with cash, but roads are unpaved, schools lack books, public servants might be paid once a year, and the people are starving. It is a country completely without hope, and Theroux talks to one local who believes it’s simmering towards a revolution – a population of desperate young people with nothing to lose, aware of the money made by the tiny elites and the handful of foreign nationals, including a growing number of Chinese expats. Angola was wrecked by a war for independence and then a quarter-century civil war that has still left the land full of mines, and could quickly devolve into Somalia-like anarchy if Theroux’s friend is correct. (That friend, however, was one of three men Theroux spent time with on his trip who died soon afterwards – one was killed by an elephant at the preserve, one was murdered in his home, and one died of a heart attack. The moral of this story is that if Paul Theroux visits your country and wants to hang out, don’t.)

It’s a depressing end to the story and, in Theroux’s case, to his lifetime of travel to and time spent in Africa. You can hear him washing his hands of the continent, not as a lost cause per se, but as a problem the West helped create but can’t solve. No one is stepping in to fix Angola now, because Angola is a stable country that sells oil. China is investing in the country, but sending its own undesirables (including criminals) to work there, not employing locals, and thus props up the kleptocracy the way we do in the Middle East. It’s a warning of sorts – this could be the African powder keg – but Theroux brings no hope that anyone, the Angolans or the West, is about to fix anything.

Next up: My favorite food writer, Michael Ruhlman, published a book of three novellas called In Short Measures a little over a year ago, and I’ve had it on my Kindle since February but never read it until now.

Superforecasting.

I’m a bit surprised that Philip Tetlock’s 2015 book Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction hasn’t been a bigger phenomenon along the lines of Thinking Fast and Slow and its offshoots, because Tetlock’s research, from the decades-long Good Judgment Project, goes hand in hand with Daniel Kahneman’s book and research into cognitive biases and illusions. Where Kahneman’s views tend to be macro, Tetlock is focused on the micro: His research looks at people who are better at predicting specific, short-term answers to questions like “Will the Syrian government fall in the next six months?” Tetlock’s main thesis is that such people do exist – people who can consistently produce better forecasts than others, even soi-disant “experts,” can produce – and that we can learn to do the same thing by following their best practices.

Tetlock’s superforecasters have a handful of personality traits in common, but they’re not terribly unusual and if you’re here there’s a good chance you have them. These folks are intellectually curious and comfortable with math. They’re willing to admit mistakes, driven to avoid repeating them, and rigorous in their process. But they’re not necessarily more or better educated and typically lack subject-matter expertise in most of the areas in the forecasting project. What Tetlock and co-author Dan Gardner truly want to get across is that any of us, whether for ourselves or for our businesses, can achieve marginal but tangible gains in our ability to predict future events.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Superforecasting is the need to get away from binary forecasting – that is, blanket statements like “Syria’s government will fall within the year” or “Chris Sale will not be a major-league starting pitcher.” Every forecast needs a probability and a timeframe, for accountability – you can’t evaluate a forecaster’s performance if he avoids specifics or deals in terms like “might” or “somewhat” – and for the forecaster him/herself to improve the process.

Within that mandate for clearer predictions that allow for post hoc evaluation comes the need to learn to ask the right questions. Tetlock reaches two conclusions from his research, one for the forecasters, one for the people who might employ them. Forecasters have to walk a fine line between asking the right questions and the wrong ones: One typical cognitive bias of humans is to substitute a question that is too difficult to answer with a similar question that is easier but doesn’t get at the issue at hand. (Within this is the human reluctance to provide the answer that Tetlock calls the hardest three words for anyone to say: “I don’t know.”) Managers of forecasters or analytics departments, on the other hand, must learn the difference between subjects for which analysts can provide forecasts and those for which they can’t. Many questions are simply too big or vague to answer with probabilistic predictions, so either the manager(s) must provide more specific questions, or the forecaster(s) must be able to manage upwards by operationalizing those questions, turning them into questions that can be answered with a forecast of when, how much, and at what odds.

Tetlock only mentions baseball in passing a few times, but you can see how these precepts would apply to the work that should come out of a baseball analytics department. I think by now every team is generating quantitative player forecasts beyond the generalities of traditional scouting reports. Nate Silver was the first analyst I know of to publicize the idea of attaching probabilities to these forecasts – here’s the 50th percentile forecast, the 10th, the 90th, and so on. More useful to the GM trying to decide whether to acquire player A or player B would be the probability that a player’s performance over the specified period will meet a specific threshold: There is a 63% chance that Joey Bagodonuts will produce at least 6 WAR of value over the next two years. You can work with a forecast like that – it has a specific value and timeframe with specific odds, so the GM can price a contract offer to Mr. Bagodonuts’ agent accordingly.

Could you bring this into the traditional scouting realm? I think you could, carefully. I do try to put some probabilities around my statements on player futures, more than I did in the past, certainly, but I also recognize I could never forecast player stat lines as well as a well-built model could. (Many teams fold scouting reports into their forecasting models anyway.) I can say, however, I think there’s a 40% chance of a pitcher remaining a starter, or a 25% chance that, if player X gets 500 at bats this season, he’ll hit at least 25 home runs. I wouldn’t go out and pay someone $15 million on the comments I make, but I hope it will accomplish two things: force me to think harder before making any extreme statements on potential player outcomes, and furnish those of you who do use this information (such as in fantasy baseball) with value beyond a mere ranking or a statement of a player’s potential ceiling (which might really be his 90th or 95th percentile outcome).

I also want to mention another book in this vein that I enjoyed but never wrote up – Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions, another entertaining look at cognitive illusions and biases, especially those that affect the way we value transactions that involve money – including those that involve no money because we’re getting or giving something for free. As in Kahneman’s book, Ariely’s explains that by and large you can’t avoid these brain flaws; you learn they exist and then learn to compensate for them, but if you’re human, they’re not going away.

Next up: Paul Theroux’s travelogue The Last Train to Zona Verde.

TV (The Book).

I’ve never met Alan Sepinwall but I certainly feel like I know him, having read his TV recaps and reviews for years now and watched many of his “Ask Alan” videos, so I thought I had a pretty good idea of what would be in his TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time, which he wrote with fellow critic Matt Zoller Seitz. I was right in that I had a sense of what shows would come in for particular praise in their ranking of the medium’s 100 greatest shows, but I think I underestimated the depth this book provides on so many titles, with tremendous essays on shows’ merits, flaws, influence, and cultural legacy. It’s so good that I could even get caught up in summaries of shows I’d never heard of before – a Novel 100 for scripted, fictional TV programs.

SepinSeitz set some ground rules down before delving into their list, and I’ll repeat them here because, as you know, no one ever reads the intro (or, in this case, The Explanation). The list is limited to U.S. shows only – so no Fawlty Towers or Upstairs, Downstairs – and to narrative fiction, eliminating anything like sketch comedy. They eliminated most shows that are still airing, with a few exceptions for shows with large bodies of work already in the can, and included shows that only aired for one season but penalized them in their scoring system. That system weighs a lot of critical considerations like influence, innovation, and consistency along with what you might consider the show’s contemporary entertainment value. It works in the end, however, as the list they’ve produced is going to start a lot of arguments but at least puts all of these shows in the right buckets to get those debates going.

Since I watch very little TV now, I’m totally unqualified to question anything these guys wrote about shows from the last 15 years or so; I’ve got a few disagreements with shows from earlier in TV history, but by and large I read this book as someone just generally interested in what I missed that was worth seeing. My favorite U.S. show of all time, The Wire, makes their top 5, and several other favorites of mine, including Arrested Development, Parks and Recreation, and Homicide: Life on the Street, all appear in their top 50. They break the list down into chunks – the top ten are “The Inner Circle,” the next forty are “No-Doubt-About-It Classics,” followed by twenty-five “Groundbreakers and Workhorses” and twenty-five “Outlier Classics” – that provide some structure to the list, although I didn’t think the labels were necessary given the depth of the essays on each program. Sure, Police Squad! was a groundbreaker, and Law & Order was a workhorse, but the review for each makes that clear. (SepinSeitz’ ranking of all seventeen L&O cast combinations is a highlight of the book, although I think I disagree with them on “Invaders,” the episode where Borgia is killed, one of the most harrowing of the series.)

Some other scattered observations on the essays and rankings:

• The essay on The Cosby Show is one of the book’s absolute highlights; the authors co-wrote it (many are credited to AS or MZS specifically), and cover everything, including the sheer impossibility of watching the show today given what we know now about the star. It was, however, a cultural milestone in its era, a highly-rated, critically-acclaimed show that anchored NBC’s Thursday night programming for years, and put an African-American family into TV territory that previously had been reserved for white characters. We’d seen upper-middle-class white families on TV that encountered modern problems, but if there were characters of color, they were the neighbors, or one of the kids’ best friends, never at the center of the show. For adults of a certain age today, The Cosby Show contributed to our understanding that there shouldn’t be any differences between families just because of skin color. Unfortunately, Bill Cosby the rapist has destroyed his legacy as a comedian and a silently progressive TV star, and the authors don’t shy away from that problem.

• My one disagreement with the authors here – and with Michael Schur, who knows a thing or two about sitcoms – is the placement of Cheers in their top five. I did watch Cheers pretty regularly for the first half of its run, and somewhere post-Diane, the show turned into a shell of itself, replete with repetitive one-liners, overreliant on lowbrow humor, populated with characters who became parodies of their former selves. (Friends did the same thing after the ‘big’ Ross and Rachel breakup, turning Ross from slightly nerdy but socially functional to awkwardly, annoyingly nerdy and “how is he even friends with these other people?”) I found the show’s last few years cringeworthy enough that I gradually stopped watching, and only returned for the finale and the cast’s drunken appearance on The Tonight Show. They never recaptured what made them a hit – few comedies can sustain anything that long anyway, but I couldn’t put Cheers in the Inner Circle given what it became.

• I was thrilled to see the one Miami Vice episode I remember clearly from when it first aired, “Out Where the Buses Don’t Run,” earn a mention in that show’s writeup. It was stylish, ’80s noir, and I have often felt like I’ve seen its influence pop up in other, lesser cop shows since. (Including, weirdly enough, a Diagnosis Murder episode with Perry King.)

• Shows I was thrilled to see ranked and to earn writeups: Police Squad!, WKRP in Cincinnati, NewsRadio, Moonlighting, Firefly.

• Shows I either didn’t know, or knew but hadn’t considered watching, but will add to my list of shows I would like to watch but might never get to: In Treatment, Terriers, K Street. I’d add Frank’s Place, but it seems unlikely to ever appear due to music licensing issues.

SepinSeitz don’t stop after ranking 100 shows, however, with multiple sections after that to keep you reading and well-informed on the state of TV. There’s a long section of shows currently airing that they recommend and cite as possible entrants to a future re-ranking of the top 100 (or they could do what Daniel Burt did when he updated The Novel 100, extending the ranking to 125 titles). There’s “A Certain Regard,” citing shows that had one great season (Homeland) or did something particularly notable (Little House on the Prairie). They also rank mini-series, which ends up an amusing mixture of big-budget network event programming from the late 1970s (Roots, of course, is #1) and 1980s with HBO mini-series from the current era, and TV movies and even TV airings of plays, the latter two lists by Zoller Seitz.

I could absolutely see someone using TV (The Book) as a viewing guide – maybe not starting at 1 and working your way down, but certainly picking and choosing shows to binge-watch from their rankings and breakdowns. I doubt I’ll ever have that kind of time, but as someone who likes great television and loathes the rest, I just loved the ebullient writing, the joyful praise of shows that entertained and sometimes astounded these two guys who can’t seem to get enough TV.

Next up: I’m slogging through The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1970.

Gödel’s Proof.

My latest Insider post covers eight top 100 prospects who took a step back this year. I’ll also hold a Klawchat here at 1 pm ET.

I read Rebecca Goldstein’s biography of Kurt Gödel, Incompleteness, last summer, and I believe it was within her book that I read about James Newman and Ernest Nagel’s book Gödel’s Proof that attempts to explain the Austrian logician’s groundbreaking findings. The 114-page volume does a great job of building up to the final proof, but I have to concede that the 19-page section near the end that reveals the fatal blow Gödel delivered to Bertrand Russell, David Hilbert, and others who believed in the essential completeness of mathematical systems lost me in its nested language and ornate symbols. (The newest edition includes a foreword by Douglas Hofstadter, who wrote about the proof in Gödel, Escher, Bach, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-fiction.)

Gödel was himself a fascinating figure, a philosopher, mathematician, and logician who wrote a paper with two theorems at age 25 that stunned the world of mathematics in their method and conclusions, proving that any axiomatic system of arithmetic that is consistent cannot be complete. Completeness here means that every true formula that can be expressed within the system can be proven within the system. Gödel’s trick was to create an entire system of expressing logical formulas via what is now called Gödel numbering, and then to craft a formula that says itself that it is unprovable within the system. His proof further stated that even if you could add an axiom to this system of mathematics to cover this new exception, the formula could always be rephrased to pose a new exception, and thus the system is essentially incomplete.

Nagel and Newman do a great job of getting the reader – or at least in getting this reader – to the edge of understanding by building up the history of the question, giving a lay explanation of Gödel’s basic method of numbering and delineating what a simple axiomatic system like that of Russell’s Principia Mathematica (the system Gödel targeted in his proof) would look like. Russell and other logicians of the time were convinced that systems of mathematics were complete – that we could define any such system in terms of a finite number of axioms that would cover all possible formulas we could craft within that system. Any formula that could be proven true at all could then be proven true using only the axioms of that system. Gödel’s proof to the contrary was scarcely noticed at first, but when it spread and others in the field realized it might be true, it blew apart a fundamental assumption of number theory and of logic, while also making Gödel’s name as a major figure in the history of mathematics and logic.

All of which is to say that I just couldn’t follow the nested statements that constitute Nagel and Newman’s explanation of Gödel’s proof. I haven’t read Gödel’s original paper, because it is a truth universally acknowledged that you’ve got to have some serious math background to understand it, so I will accept the claim that Nagel and Newman made it much easier to grasp … but I still only get this at a superficial level. When the authors compare this to Richard’s Paradox, an earlier device that Gödel cited in his paper, I could understand it; these are all descendants of the “This statement is false” type of logical trick that causes an inherent contradiction. Gödel appears to have done the same thing for arithmetic. I just couldn’t quite get to the mental finish line on this one. I guess you could say my understanding of the topic remains ….

…incomplete.

Next up: I finished and will review Laurent Binet’s HHhH, and have begun Clifford Simak’s Hugo-winning novel Way Station.

The Elegant Universe.

My latest column at ESPN looks at five potential callups for contenders.

Brian Greene’s 1999 bestseller and Pulitzer Prize finalist The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory is more like two books in one. The first half to two-thirds is a highly accessible history of the two main branches of physics, the macro world perspective that culminated in Einstein’s discovery of general relativity, and the micro (I mean, really micro) perspective covered by quantum mechanics. The two theories could not be unified until the advent of string theory, which Greene lays out in still somewhat easy to follow language. The last third of the book, however, delves into deeper topics like the nature of spacetime or the hypothesis of the multiverse, and I found it increasingly hard to follow and, unfortunately, less compelling at the same time.

String theory – more properly called superstring theory, but like the old basketball team in Seattle, the theory has lost its “super” somewhere along the way – is the prevailing theoretical framework in modern physics about the true nature of matter and the four fundamental forces. Rather than particles comprising ever-smaller subparticles that function as zero-dimensional points, string theory holds that what we perceive as particles are differing vibrations and frequencies of one-dimensional “strings.” String theory allows physicists to reconcile Einstein’s theories of general and special relativity with the explanations of three of those four forces (strong, weak, and electromagnetic) provided by quantum mechanics, resulting in a theory of quantum gravity that posits that that fourth force is the result of a massless quantum particle called the ‘graviton.’ Gravitons have not been observed or experimentally confirmed, but other similar particles have been, and all would be the result of those vibrating strings, open or closed loops in one dimension that, under the framework, are the most basic, indivisible unit of all matter and energy (which are the same thing) in the universe.

Strings are far too small to be observed, or to ever even be observed – you can’t observe a string with a particle, like a photon, larger than the string itself – but physicists believe string theory is accurate because math. And that’s one of the biggest challenges for Greene or anyone else writing about the topic: the proof isn’t in experimental results or great discoveries, but in equations that are too complicated to present in any text aimed at the mass audience.

In fact, the equations underlying string theory require a universe of not four dimensions – the ones we see, three of space and one of time, which Einstein treated simply as four dimensions of one thing called spacetime – but ten or eleven. These “missing” dimensions are here, at every point in the universe, but are tightly curled up in six-dimensional forms called Calabi-Yau manifolds, as if they exist but the universe simply chose not to deploy them. They must be there, however, if string theory is true, because the calculations require them. This is near the part where I started to fall off the train, and it only became worse with Greene’s discussions of further alterations to string theory – such as higher-dimensional analogues to strings called 2-branes and 3-branes – or his descriptions of what rips or tears in spacetime might look like and how they might fix themselves so that we never notice such things. (Although I prefer to think that that’s where some of my lost items ended up.)

The great success of this book, however, is in getting the reader from high school physics up to the basics of string theory. If you’re not that familiar with relativity – itself a pretty confusing concept – this is the best concise explanation of the theories I’ve come across, as Greene uses simple phrasing and diagrams to explain general and special relativity in a single chapter. He follows that up with a chapter on quantum mechanics, hitting all the key names and points, and beginning to explain why general relativity, which explains gravity in a classical framework, cannot be directly coupled with quantum mechanics, which explains the other three forces in an entirely different framework. Building on those two chapters, Greene gives the most cogent explanation of superstrings, string theory, and even the idea of these six or seven unseen spatial dimensions that I’ve come across. We’re talking about objects smaller than particles that we’ve never seen, and the incredible idea that everything, matter, energy, light, whatever, is just open and closed one-dimensional entities the size of the Planck length, 1.6 * 10-35 meters long. To explain that in even moderately comprehensible terms is a small miracle, and Greene is up to the task.

This was a better read, for me at least, than George Musser’s book on quantum entanglement, Spooky Action at a Distance, which covers a different topic but ends up treading similar ground with its descriptions of spacetime and the new, awkwardly-named hypothesis “quantum graphity.” Quantum entanglement is the inexplicable but true phenomenon where two particles created together maintain some sort of connection or relationship where if the charge or spin on on of the particles is flipped, the charge or spin on the other will flip as well, even if the two particles are separated in distance. This appears to violate the law of physics that nothing, including information, can be transmitted faster than the speed of light. How do these particles “know” to flip? Musser’s description of the history of entanglement, including Einstein’s objection that provided the title for this book, is fine, but when he delves into new hypotheses of the fabric of spacetime, he just completely lost me. Quantum graphity reimagines spacetime as a random graph, rather than the smooth four-dimensional fabric of previous theories, where points (or “nodes”) in space are connected to each other in ways that defy traditional notions of distance. This would provide a mechanism for entanglement and also solve a question Greene addresses too, the horizon problem, where disparate areas of the universe that have not been in direct physical contact (under the standard model) since a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang currently have the same temperature. I didn’t think Musser explained quantum graphity well enough for the lay reader (me!), or gave enough of an understanding that this is all highly speculative, as opposed to the broader acceptance of something like string theory or absolute acceptance of quantum theory.

Next up: Back to fiction with Eowyn Ivey’s Pulitzer Prize finalist The Snow Child.

The Most Dangerous Book.

James Joyce’s Ulysses stands today as one of the most critically lauded novels ever written – despite the fact that it’s difficult to read and more difficult to understand – which has, to some extent, papered over its tortuous path to the marketplace. When Joyce was first writing the novel, it was serialized in parts in a literary periodical called The Little Review, which then ran afoul of U.S. obscenity laws, leading eventually to the book’s banning before it had even been published. In 1933, Random House, at the time a relatively new publisher founded by the owners of the Modern Library imprint, decided to publish Ulysses and force a judicial hearing on the book’s legality. In the resulting case, United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, Judge John Woolsey ruled that Ulysses was not obscene, marking one of the first big victories against U.S. obscenity laws, including the Comstock Act, which made sending materials deemed obscene through the mails a federal crime.

Kevin Birmingham recounts the legal battles over Ulysses in The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, weaving that story into one about the book’s original authorship, including Joyce’s health problems and eccentricities. The book may have gone a bit overboard in detailing Joyce’s personal life – I really didn’t need to hear excerpts of the dirty letters he and his partner Nora sent to each other – but the details around the book’s history and the Puritanical extremes of American laws at the time are indispensable to anyone who’s ever read a banned book.

Joyce is a giant among authors today for all four of his major works, but had difficulty finding a publisher for his first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or his collection of short stories, Dubliners, each of which also ran afoul of authorities but also lacked any obvious commercial appeal. Even when published, the works languished on the market for several years, leaving Joyce, obsessed with his novel and spending what money he had on drink, financially dependent on various patrons who wished to see Ulysses completed. He began writing the book in 1914, published the first episode in The Little Review in 1918, and saw the novel published as a whole in 1922 by Sylvia Beach, the owner of Paris bookshop Shakespeare & Co. (The Paris bookshop by that name today is named for Beach’s shop, which closed in 1941 after Beach was sent to an internment camp.) Copies of the banned book circulated for nearly a decade, with multiple seizures and burnings by overzealous authorities, until the 1933 ruling that cleared the way for its publication and unlikely status as a bestseller.

Joyce received some money from the serialization but wasn’t always aware of the self-censorship of his sort-of friend and advocate Ezra Pound, who looms large in the book for his role in spreading the gospel of Joyce while appearing to hold a sort of professional jealousy of the Irishman. Even the first full edition of Ulysses was rife with mistakes – Wikipedia cites Joyce scholar Jack Dalton as saying it contained “over two thousand errors” – and its publication history has always been complicated by Joyce’s deliberately obscure prose and the messy handwritten manuscript he handed over to a series of typists as he was writing. The attempts of Pound and others to soften the parts of Joyce’s work deemed “offensive” were futile, as Joyce wanted the book to offend, both because he wrote much of this novel (the first major work of modernism) to resemble thought in the mind before it became formal speech, and because he had a puerile obsession with bodily functions.

Yet the Nausicaa episode, the one at the heart of the eventual trial, is also one of the book’s most literary and most abstruse to readers. Leopold Bloom masturbates as he watches a young woman sitting on the beach, exposing her legs and bloomers to him deliberately when she realizes he’s looking at her, but Joyce couches it in obscure language and makes it unclear how much of the episode is real and how much is happening in Bloom’s mind. Similarly, the final episode, Penelope, is a fifty-page internal monologue from Molly Bloom, Leopold’s wife, broken into just eight sentences (and with only two periods at that), where, among other things, she admits she was “fucked yes and damn well fucked” by another man, yet the “obscenity” is so thoroughly buried within the long, hard-to-follow text, that arguments around its offensiveness had to isolate the “dirty” parts rather than considering them as a whole – because, in reality, if you read the work straight through to try to get to anything salacious you’d be too exhausted to be titillated by the handful of descriptions of sex. Those arguments eventually carried the day in Woolsley’s oft-reprinted opinion on the matter.

Birmingham gives great detail on the business end of Ulysses, from its publication history to smuggling efforts to get it around censorship in the U.S. and eventually Great Britain, as well as much information on the fundamentalists in various anti-vice societies who helped write and enforce the draconian laws that could ban a book on the basis of a single complaint. The founder of the New York Society of the Suppression of Vice, Anthony Comstock (later U.S. Postal Inspector), and his successor, John Sumner, abused powers they should never have been granted, trampling on the First Amendment to censor and destroy any materials they found objectionable, including early works on contraception and abortion. While Comstock died before the first episode of Ulysses appeared in print, he set up the regime that allowed Sumner and others to suppress the book in part or whole for fifteen years, even though by 1923 it had been widely praised (and panned) by well-known authors, poets, and literary critics. These passages end up some of the strongest in Birmingham’s book, better than the details of Joyce’s life with Nora, as is the brief section on the beginnings of Finnegans Wake, Joyce’s last novel and one of the most difficult reads in English literature (or so I’m told, since I never got past page one).

Around the same time I listened to Birmingham’s book on audio, I read Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, winner of the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, and a book so heavily inspired by Joyce’s Ulysses it felt highly derivative to me. McBride writes in a style that mimics Joyce’s pre-speech efforts – McBride herself has said she wanted to voice thought before it became thought – to tell the story of a girl whose brother undergoes a drastic surgery to remove a brain tumor when he’s still a toddler (before she’s born), an event that shapes her entire life as well. The narrator’s destructive relationship with her born-again mother (the book has a strongly anti-religious bent) leads to her having sex with her uncle at 13, going to college, becoming a promiscuous alcoholic, being raped twice, and pulling an Edna Pontellier. Beyond the aggravating prose, the book is one-note, dismal and hopeless, the story of a path determined before birth, a girl who can only gain agency by destroying herself. It may be realistic, but that doesn’t make it something I’d want to read.

Lingo.

I saw a woman reading Gaston Dorren’s Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages at the Philly airport in early March and, since she said it was worth reading, grabbed the audio version for my spring training drives around Florida (which has some seriously boring highways). I haven’t had time to devote to language-learning in years – something to do with having a kid – but my lifelong obsession with foreign languages hasn’t abated; I find everything about them fascinating, even the ‘boring’ stuff like grammar and syntax. Lingo could have been written just for me, as it skips a lot of the linguistics stuff and instead flits around sixty of Europe’s languages, with goofy anecdotes and brief histories on each to keep the book moving.

There is no central narrative at work in Lingo; this is a dilettante’s work and a book for the peripatetic mind. You don’t have to speak any of the languages Dorren covers to appreciate some of the stories of how languages morphed, or hidden similarities between languages, or the ways languages have defined peoples and borders in Europe. Dorren starts off with Lithuanian, a language that bears many clues to what the forerunner of most European languages, clumsily called Proto-Indo-European, may have looked like, before an immediate tangent on the main oddballs of Europe, the Finno-Ugric languages (Magyar/Hungarian, Finnish, and Estonian), which bear no resemblance at all to their geographic neighbors. Portuguese owes much of its existence to Galician. Dorren describes the “linguistic orphanage” of the Balkans, where Serbian and Croatian are kind of the same language written in different alphabets while the people who speak Macedonian and live in Macedonia have to call their country something else because the Greeks might get mad. (Speaking of which, shouldn’t one of the conditions of the bailout of Greece been that they leave the Macedonians the hell alone?)

Tiny languages like Luxembourgish, Sorbian (from the NBC Saturday morning cartoon show The Sorbs), Sami, and Gagauz get their own chapters, illuminating the battles languages with small populations fight to survive. Some don’t make it; Dalmatian’s brief life and quick death gets a chapter, but the rebirths of Cornish and Manx, two Celtic languages that are two of the only success stories in that department. (The fact that both are spoken in the United Kingdom, a highly developed country, is probably not a coincidence.) Basque, the language isolate spoken in Spain, gets its own chapter, although I think Dorren gave it short shrift; its linguistic origins are unknown despite lengthy efforts to try to connect it to various language families, and its survival despite the lack of a state and its enclave status within Spain’s panoply of dialects make it one of the language world’s most fascinating stories.

Dorren had to face a huge challenge finding something interesting to say on all of these languages, but succeeds more than he fails by finding surprising angles. Turkish, the primary member of the Turkic language family, gets a chapter devoted to its alphabet; the official shift to the Roman alphabet in the 1920s carried enormous political and religious significance. He accurately dubs Esperanto “the no-hoper,” and the chapter on Albanian becomes a story of a few lonesome Albanologists. Hungarian’s chapter is presented as a conversation between the language and its therapist, shortly after the chapter on the variety of European sign languages; I profess my ignorance at just how many sign languages there are worldwide. And he ends with English, which he calls “the global headache,” the universal language that Esperanto (and Volapük and other pretenders) will never unseat, a language with maddening internal inconsistencies in grammar, spelling, and pronunciation that make our complaints about conjugating irregular Spanish verbs seem trivial in comparison.

The lack of any common thread through all the chapters makes Lingo a bit choppy to read, with no story beyond any one language, almost like reading a sort of half-serious reference work rather than the kind of narrative non-fiction I tend to favor. But Lingo also made me nostalgic for when I did have the time to learn bits of other languages, whether in school or on my own, and wonder when I might get another chance to do something like that – maybe spending a few weeks abroad at some point in my life so I can learn via immersion. The sheer diversity of languages in Europe and the aesthetic and literary beauty of many of those tongues comes through in Dorren’s book, even with all of his flitting from one to the next.

Next up: Angela Carter’s highly acclaimed novel Nights at the Circus, which won the Best of the James Tait Black honor in 2012 as the best of the 93 previous winners of the annual award, and was also on David Bowie’s personal top 100 books list.

Quiet.

My ranking of all 30 MLB farm systems is now up for Insiders! The top 100 prospect list goes up in the morning, and I’ll hold a chat here at 1 pm ET.

Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking felt, at first glance, like a fluffy self-help book. It certainly opens that way, as if the book’s purpose is to make introverts feel better about their introversion in a world that does indeed reward and revere the gregarious and the garrulous. But there’s a modicum of science behind Cain’s arguments and a lot of insight from experts that allow her to present the case that introverts can be just as important and productive and happy as extroverts can, as long as we allow them to be who they really are.

Cain starts out on the wrong foot, talking about the history of extroverts and introverts, explaining how we got to this point where extroverts are lauded as, essentially, better people. It helps create a narrative, but feels like padding when there’s real insight coming shortly afterwards, like the third chapter, where Cain goes into the evidence (some anecdotal) on how extroverts working together come up with inferior results to introverts working alone, and how forced teamwork can subvert the creativity of introverts by muting them and putting them in a space where they can’t produce. Not only is it well-presented and well-argued, but it’s insight with a specific call to action for employers, teachers, group leaders, anyone who is responsible for overseeing a team or collection of people in pursuit of a common task or goal.

(This is probably where I should step in and reveal myself as something of an introvert. I fell right in the middle of the twenty-question quiz Cain presents, which would make me an “ambivert” – kind of like Pat Venditte – but my introvert tendencies are very strong. I enjoy solitude, I do my best work on my own – this isn’t even close – I like celebrations to be small and intimate, and so on. I was very shy as a kid, and I still have a lot of shyness even today. I can get on a plane, read one book for five hours, speaking to no one but the flight attendant, and call it an afternoon well spent. Or on that same flight, I can sit down and write four articles or dish posts in a row like it’s nothing, because I get focused and thrive in an environment without interruptions. I can also sometimes come across as aloof or diffident, have people think I don’t like them when that’s very rarely the case, and I get lost in my own thoughts at least once a day. Prior to taking anti-anxiety medication, I was very sensitive, not just emotionally but even physically, being oddly jumpy when hit or touched. It’s just who I am, and big chunks of this book spoke very directly to my sense of self.)

Cain takes advantage of recent fMRI studies, without which I think the entire subgenre of pop-science books may not exist, in this case showing neurological responses like extroverts having more active dopamine pathways, so they get a faster reward response from activities like stock-trading or gambling, whereas introverts get less of a buzz and thus are better able to regulate their activities. She also discusses the relationship between the amygdala, an ancient part of the human brain found even in primitive mammals, and the relatively new prefrontal cortex, which helps regulate the high-reactive features of the amygdala. When you learn a fear or anxiety, your amygdala holds on to that pretty much forever; your prefrontal cortex is where you learn that, hey, you’re really not bad in crowds, and you’re totally fine to give that speech. Extroverts work better in situations with distractions like loud noises. Introverts are more sensitive and thus more empathetic.

Where Quiet gets really interesting is when Cain looks at introverts in marriages and in the classroom. She examines conflicts between couples comprising one introvert and one extrovert, dismantling the inane axiom about Venus and Mars and pointing out how two people of such different personality types can argue right past each other and end up with one partner feeling like the argument was productive while the other is deeply wounded. She also looks at introverted kids in the classroom and how the growing emphasis on group learning may leave those kids behind. My daughter, who is quite extroverted, is in a Montessori school, where most activities are done collectively; it’s a great fit for her, but would have been a total disaster for me.

I may have felt the greatest connection with Cain’s book in chapter 9, “When Should You Act More Extroverted?,” which looks at introverts who have to gear up to play the extrovert, often for work. I go on television a few dozen times a year, often for an hour at a clip, as part of my job. Doing so, especially when it’s two hourlong shows in one night, is absolutely exhausting. It is not physically demanding – although standing for an hour in dress shoes is no picnic for my joints – but the physical exhaustion is quite real, because I have to shift modes to become the extrovert on TV. (It turns out that I am a “high self-monitor,” a term that relates to how people behave around others and whether such behavior is dictated by internal controls or social cues.) As it turns out, what I do – playing the extrovert in my work life – is quite normal, but it’s also legitimately taxing, and playing someone you’re not too often can have physical consequences. Too much TV really might be bad for my health. (It probably doesn’t help that my TV work often ends at 1 or 2 in the morning.) Going to games, on the other hand, where I am often working alone and rarely talk to more than a couple of people, is quite relaxing even though it’s every bit as much an evening at the metaphorical office as a night in Bristol.

Cain’s book may have just been marketing incorrectly – or maybe marketed well, for more sales to a wider audience, when in fact she has crafted a scholarly work on a topic that generally doesn’t get such serious treatment. You might wish for more science to back up some of her theories, but she does include quite a bit of research and brings in a number of scientists and researchers to discuss their ideas. It’s also a book with a number of clear calls to action, for parents, bosses, teachers, and introverts themselves looking to find a bit more self-assurance in a society that tends to praise the things they’re not.

The Executioner’s Song.

Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1980, is the longest work to take home that award, a strange historical footnote in the prize’s history because it’s almost certainly not a work of fiction. Mailer, who had previously won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for Armies of the Night, had access to an unbelievable depth and breadth of source material on Gary Gilmore, the very real subject of The Executioner’s Song, and just about everyone else involved in his life, crimes, imprisonment, and eventual execution, producing a work that moves as quickly as any thousand-page book I’ve ever read*. It would have been more than enough for Mailer, using the recordings and notes compiled by his collaborator Lawrence Schiller, to produce a work of great academic scholarship by providing all of this detail on Gilmore’s life and ultimate desire to rush from sentencing to the firing squad. Instead, Mailer manages the nearly impossible task of humanizing Gilmore without making him the least bit sympathetic, while populating his world with countless well-described, three-dimensional characters, into whose private struggles we gain access thanks to their candor with Schiller and to Mailer’s ability to turn their thoughts into richly developed portraits.

* N of 6.

Gary Gilmore was a lifelong ne’er-do-well who had spent much of his childhood in reform school, then ended up in jail, and just a few months after he was paroled at age 36 after serving about four years of a term for armed robbery he committed while on conditional release, he killed two service workers in the course of two separate armed robberies, with both murders taking place after he’d already obtained the money. The Supreme Court had suspended the use of the death penalty across the United States in 1972 after a 5-4 ruling in Furman v. Georgia, which held, among other things, that sentences of death were applied inconsistently based on the races of the defendants – black defendants were much more likely to be sentenced to die than whites, which three of the five justices ruling for the plaintiff held to be a violation of the Eighth (cruel and unusual punishment) and Fourteenth (equal protection of the laws) Amendments to the Constitution.

(Two other justices held that the death penalty was per se unconstitutional, which I think should be blindingly obvious but, sadly, is not. The death penalty is not a deterrent to capital crime, and is not cost-effective, which means its use is merely a case of the government providing vengeance for the victims’ families.)

Shortly before Gilmore committed the two murders, the Supreme Court ended the suspension of capital punishment in Gregg v. Georgia, as long as the trial in question contained two separate phases for the determination of guilt and for sentencing. Gilmore’s case was egregious and his lawyers, recognizing that they had no defense (there was a witness in one of the cases who saw Gilmore leaving the scene with the gun in his hand), merely hoped to get him life imprisonment. However, Gilmore not only accepted the death penalty but attempted to waive all appeals, asking the court to carry out the sentence as quickly as possible – within 60 days, as required by the Utah statute at the time (which, by the way, did not include a mandatory appeal of any death sentence, because Utah). That stance turned Gilmore into a national celebrity, drew in the ACLU to give Gilmore a defense he didn’t want, and resulted in some darkly comic scenes of legal wrangling that went on right up until a few minutes before Gilmore was executed in January, 1977, the first person to be put to death for his crimes in the United States in nearly ten years.

Although Mailer’s name is on the book’s spine as the author, Schiller, a filmmaker and screenwriter, gathered all of the source material. Several journalists descended on Utah after Gilmore’s sentencing and pronouncement that he wished to die in search of a story; Schiller came out victorious, using various schemes and intermediaries to gain hours of recorded dialogue with Gilmore, Q&As that Gilmore filled out, and interviews with dozens of people relevant to the case, including the widows of the two victims and the girlfriend whose relationship with Gary was, he alleged, the reason he snapped and went out in search of someone to kill. (It’s a facile explanation not supported at all by everything Mailer and Schiller give us in the book.)

Gilmore himself was a complex character, which Schiller realized, driving him to keep attacking Gilmore with questions – asked by his intermediaries, Gilmore’s attorneys – designed to provoke more revealing responses about his childhood. Schiller was clearly looking for something, like a history of abuse or repressed sexual urges, that would explain the killer’s psychopathic behavior, including his controlling, manipulative hold on that girlfriend, 19-year-old Nicole Baker, herself a badly damaged child with a history of drug use and sexual victimhood. But Gilmore was in no way sympathetic, and Mailer doesn’t try to make him so; if you feel anything on Gilmore’s side of the battle over his sentence, it will be for his family members, including his invalid mother, and some of the people who poured their emotions into stopping a punishment that they believed to be morally wrong, only to lose thanks in part to a last-minute flight from Utah to Denver to overturn a judge’s stay. Indeed, the rush to kill Gary Gilmore does nothing to rehabilitate his image, but paints Utah in particular as a state so driven by bloodlust that it comes across as a sort of nightmare totalitarian society. (Mailer also seems to have little use for the domination of the state’s government, including its courts, by Mormons, other than Judge W.W. Ritter, who twice ordered stays to Gilmore’s execution; the book includes Gilmore’s accurate paraphrase of the speech given by Brigham Young where the preacher and openly racist Governor of the Utah Territory said that it would be right and just if he, finding one of his wives in the act of committing adultery with another man, ran them both through the breast with a knife, sending them to the afterlife where their sins would be cleansed. I don’t think you include that passage unless you want the reader to know just where you stand on the Mormon church.)

The first half of the book proceeds like a disaster unfolding in slow motion; we begin with Gilmore’s parole, and get an almost daily look into his struggle to assimilate himself into normal life outside of prison, especially in relations with women. When he meets Nicole Baker, who comes across as a space cadet throughout the book and is always described as stunningly beautiful (you can judge this for yourself, but I don’t see it), he finally gets the reliable outlet for his sexual desires – including disturbing threesomes with an underage friend of Nicole’s – but enters into a relationship toxic in both directions. Nicole, pressured by family members concerned about Gilmore’s manipulative tendencies and violent temper, breaks it off with Gilmore, after which he commits the two murders that ultimately send him to jail.

The second half diverages from your standard true-crime, non-fiction novel, however, by making the chase for Gilmore’s story the actual story. Schiller enters the pages and never lets go of them, while we also get a cast of lawyers with conflicting interests, other journalists, Hollywood producers seeking film rights, and enough clowns to fill a clown Escalade. The media takes a special beating in the book, largely well-deserved. Geraldo Rivera was apparently a soulless hack at the time, trying to do a live TV interview with Gilmore’s cousin Brenda right after the execution while she was still in the hospital recovering from major surgery. (He actually asked to do the interview in the hospital room itself.) Newsweek cited a couple of verses of poetry that Gilmore wrote, failing to recognize that the verses were from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The Sensitive Plant.” Reporters and photographers throw all ethics out the window to get images of Gilmore or Nicole, or a quote from anyone in the case, even barging into people’s houses without permission. While I’m sure such things still happen today, the frequency of such events in this book – with no apparent repercussions – is nauseating.

Mailer and Schiller even manage to humanize the many lawyers involved in the case, those seeking to uphold the death sentence and those trying to at least delay it and push through what we would, today, consider a standard process of appeals. Gilmore became a peculiar folk hero and a target for letters from women and girls across the country (gah) because of what was perceived as his stoic acceptance of a just penalty, but as the first execution after nearly a decade-long gap, the last four years under a Supreme Court moratorium, Gilmore’s trial and execution had ramifications for many capital cases to follow. He may have been okay with the sentence handed out to him – and his lack of emotional response to it would seem to support Schiller’s belief that Gilmore had some sort of mental infirmity, like dissociation – but groups like the ACLU needed to fight for his rights to try to establish rights for future defendants.

I don’t see how anyone could read this book and avoid at least feeling a tug toward the side of the debate that opposes capital punishment. It is a brutal sentence, and an expensive, wasteful process to adjudicate it and carry it out. It is also increasingly seen in the developed world as barbarous. Only one other country in the entire Western Hemisphere actively uses the death penalty, and that one, St. Kitts and Nevis, has executed one person in the last 17 years. The only country in Europe that has the death penalty at all is Belarus, ruled by a repressive dictator and serial human-rights violator. Japan still has the death penalty and executed one person in 2015. The United States has more in common with countries like Iran, China, or Saudi Arabia than with any western democracies when it comes to capital punishment. So while the death penalty is decreasing in usage in other nations to which we might compare ourselves, it has little or no deterrent effect on violent crime, and it’s damn expensive to put into practice, Mailer, without appearing to take a side, shows the real human cost of a death sentence by focusing on all of the people besides Gilmore who were hurt by his execution. And while Gilmore destroyed many lives – the two men he murdered, their wives, the three infants left without fathers – killing Gilmore did not restore what he took away. (Both widows cooperated with Mailer and Schiller in providing their stories with their late husbands, acts of significant grace given the amount of shock and grief they must have been suffering.)

Apropos of nothing else, I caught two quotes in the book with some connection to baseball. Gilmore’s first comment or question to a reporter after he was first sentenced to death was, “Who the hell won the World Series?” (That was the Reds, four games to none.) And both Gilmore and his cellmate after his final conviction, the enigmatic Gibbs, had “used the same drug, Ritalin, a rare type of speed not in common use” as their first experience with illicit substances. Yes, Ritalin and Adderall have valid pharmaceutical uses in the treatment of ADHD, but there are far more MLB players with exemptions to take these drugs – Adderall is a combination of two amphetamine salts; Ritalin is not technically “speed” but is also a CNS stimulant and dopamine reuptake inhibitor like amphetamines – than you’d expect from a random sample of men in that age range. And the evidence that these stimulants are performance enhancers, while still anecdotal, is strong.

I read the book via the Kindle app on my iPad – it’s also available via Apple’s iBooks – since, at nearly 1100 pages, it seemed like it would be a bit much to tote around. It was also on sale for $2 on Christmas Day on amazon, along with the book I’m reading now, Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny.

Man’s Search for Meaning.

I have a scouting blog up on Cuban free agent Eddy Julio Martinez and other Cuban and Dominican prospects for Insiders; Martinez has reached an agreement to sign with the Cubs pending a physical. I also held my regular Klawchat yesterday.

A friend of mine who works as a therapist, dealing in particular with trauma victims, has been recommending Viktor Frankl’s short book Man’s Search for Meaning, which comprises a long essay he composed while in concentration camps in World War II as well as a shorter piece on logotherapy, his concept and program for working with psychiatric patients. I’m rather unqualified to ‘review’ this book in any meaningful way, but since the book is so highly regarded and often cited in polls where readers name the most influential books they’ve read, I’ll offer a few thoughts.

As you might imagine, the first part of the book, where Frankl details much of the suffering he saw and endured at the hands of the Nazis – his entire family, including his pregnant wife, was killed during the Holocaust – is somewhat difficult to read, even though Frankl takes a fairly neutral tone. He received some slightly favorable treatment because he had a medical background and could take on tasks other prisoners couldn’t, but that is a drop in the ocean compared to the misery of his situation. Frankl’s point in writing this brief memoir is to explore the ways in which the human mind can survive suffering and find reasons to continue to live even in hopeless situations. Although he gives his ideas on the meaning of life, the book delves more into the specifics of the title – the search itself, the refusal to give up, and the physical consequences he witnessed when a fellow prisoner lost his will to live.

Finding meaning in suffering is a longstanding subject of debate and expostulation in religion and philosophy, with Frankl taking a particularly pragmatic view of the matter. In his view, there is less point in asking “why” than in finding new reasons for hope or optimism even in apparently hopeless situations. Prisoners who could find meaning in helping others, or in sustaining themselves on the chance they’d one day be released and reunited with loved ones, fared better mentally and physically than those who gave themselves up to the awful reality of their lives in the camps. This forms one of the key parts of his program of therapy – helping patients understand why they do have meaning in their lives, often more than they realize.

Several passages describe the presence of a senior group of prisoners who in some ways helped run the camp in exchange for special privileges or favors like cigarettes, liquor, or additional food. We often refer to the Stanford Prison Experiment to explain such brutal behavior, but is there a more stark example of this awful capacity of our personalities, to join with those who would enslave, torture, and kill our relatives, friends, countrymen, fellow worshipers, just to save our own skins?

The foreword to the current edition available on Kindle was written by the rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, who calls Frankl’s book “a profoundly religious book.” I agree to an extent that the book has a spiritual core, although it is not limited to any specific religion, and I think the book can be read, understood, and appreciated by a secular audience. Frankl does not rely on a deity or an afterlife to make his arguments that life here can have meaning even when meaning has left the building; his arguments rely on emotion and psychiatric tenets, none of which requires religious belief or background to follow, which means Man’s Search for Meaning is a book for anyone interested in fundamental questions of why we are the way we are, and how to find that meaning even in situations that appear devoid of it.

Next up: I’m a bit behind on reviews yet again, having finished Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner, on the flight back from Santo Domingo, and am now reading Vladimir Sorokin’s very odd novel Day of the Oprichnik.