Balancing on the Blue : Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail (2015) by Keith Foskett is the story of Foskett’s tale of doing one of the great American trails. The Appalachian Trail (AT) is amazing trail from Georgia to Maine along the Appalachians.
Foskett had already done the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) so the AT was arguably a bit easier for him. He’d also already written books about hiking the Camino and the PCT so he’s also more experienced author.
If you like reading these sorts of memoirs this book is definitely worth a read. If you haven’t tried any of them it’s still possibly a good read. It certainly gives some of the feeling of what a long distance hike must be like. Foskett writes good portraits of his fellow hikers and also provides quite a bit of detail about the trail itself and the hardships he had to endure.
Midlife: A Philosophical Guide (2017) by Kieran Setiya presents a philosophical view of midlife and the author’s musing on his own life. Setiya is professor at MIT who is married and has a child. It’s relevant because his view of midlife is one from substantial success.
The book first presents a history of the midlife crisis and then look at the various reasons people often enter in a malaise in their forties. Fear of missing, regrets and pondering what to look forward to all feature.
The book points out that in happiness studies there seems to be something of a dip in reported happiness in people’s forties. The modern world, with greater wealth and less struggle. The idea took off in the 1960s and 70s and was strong by the 1980s. Still, careful analysis pointed out that crisis was too strong a word, with only a small fraction having a real crisis, most people people just having something of a struggle with work and family.
There is also reflection on the fact that people inevitably confront mortality in their thirties and forties and that career paths become fairly clear at this point. We must all deal with regret but acknowledge that our strange paths have also led us to the people we love and potentially to children. Other paths would result in their nonexistence.
The book looks at how we should work out how much of our life to live in the present and how much to dedicate to our own and others happiness. Setiya looks at Mill, Schopenhauer and others to help answer the question.
It’s not a bad book and for anyone who wants something more than just a self help book but something that does look seriously at how people feel and view their lives in midlife it’s worth a read.
The Stranger in the Woods (2017) by Michael Finkel is a very interesting read about Christopher Knight, who spent 26 years alone in a forest in Maine.
In 1986 Christopher Knight left his family, his job and his life and sought solitude in a forest in Maine where he very probably lived alone for 26 years. Some people suspect he may have had some shelter in cabins during freezing Maine winters, but at any rate he almost certainly spent all or most of his time alone for over two and a half decades.
The book tells his story and the story of interviews and discussions between the author and Knight. It ponders why anyone would choose such a life and how it could be done. It’s surprisingly engrossing and makes you think retreating and becoming a hermit.
Perhaps many of us entertain the idea of withdrawal from society and living a truly quiet life like Richard Proeneke in Alaska or to a lesser extent Knight. Most of us rarely spend a day, let alone a week without talking to people. The idea of spending even a year alone would disturb most people and perhaps most of us would go quite crazy. But not Knight, who chose this path and did this for years.
The book feels oddly incomplete but even so it’s a very good read about a fascinating subject.
The Gluten Lie: And Other Myths about what you Eat (2015) by Alan Levinovitz is a study of various food myths and fad diets, where they come from, how they are propagated and how they tie into long standing beliefs that are quasi-religious.
Levinovitz is a professor who studies religion and his perspective on diet is really interesting.
The book starts by looking at how Celiacs disease and Gluten sensitivity were discovered, initially under-diagnosed and then substantially over-diagnosed and gluten demonized by pushers of fad diets.
Then Levinovitz looks at fears over MSG, fat, salt and carbohydrates. He also happily points out that nutritional science is really hard and the conclusions are often a lot weaker than we’d like but that weak results are often pushed by well meaning people and charlatans to promote certain ideas.
The book also points out that religious diets had quite a bit in common with modern diets and that the belief that ‘you are what you eat’ hasn’t disappeared. The demonisation of fat in particular seems to have been driven partly by this belief.
Finally he makes up a fad diet of his own and goes on to point out the standard tricks that are used in these diets that he used to push it.
It’s a fun short read and well worth a look for anyone considering a diet or who is interested how on complex scientific questions people often look for simple answers and then adhere to their beliefs with a religious intensity.
Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science (2015) by Alice Domurat Dreger is an interesting book that looks at what happens when activists and scientists cross paths, often in anger.
Dreger starts the book by describing how she came to be an intersex activist. She did a PhD in the history of science and studied how people born intersex, that is with ambiguous genitalia or sex hormones were mistreated through history. This led to her becoming active in a movement that sought to avoid attempting to normalise intersex babies that often resulted in poor outcomes. Here she opposed the then scientific consensus and sought to change it.
She then came into contact with J Michael Bailey who was a researcher into transgender people. Bailey wrote a book call ‘The Man Who Would be Queen’ where he puts forward the ideas of a Canadian research Ray Blanchard who put forward the idea that becoming transgender is tied up with sexual desire and that there are men who become women in order to attract men and men who become women because they find the idea fascinating partly in an erotic way. This offended some transgender activists who preferred the idea that it was the brain of one gender trapped in the body of another and that was all there was to it. They proceeded to attempt to trash the career of Bailey in any way they could. When Dreger came into contact with Bailey and found out what had happened she was appalled.
This led her to look at the careers of other academics who have published on controversial subjects such as how the victims of pedophiles go in life . How ‘recovered memories’ of child abuse where often made up, how much chronic Lyme disease there was and also one who had written about alien abductions. She also encountered Craig Palmer who suggested that rape was about sex and not power. She also met Napoleon Chagnon, an anthropologist who wrote about indigenous people in the Amazon and who suggested that they were human beings rather than simply noble savages and had his career deeply damaged by fabricated attacks. She also encountered EO Wilson who suggested that the is also evolution of groups of humans.
Finally Dreger returns to her study of intersex births and describes her dealings with doctors how have drugs that may alleviate some intersex births but also carry serious side affects.
The book is genuinely interesting. It describes how academia can rapidly become a place of serious persecution by pressure groups if something is researched and conclusions are reached that somebody decides they don’t want aired. This is, in some sense, what is likely to happen in a world where empirical truth is used as an arbiter of policy. Theologians were often persecuted in religious societies if they reached conclusions that powers did not like. In our age we like to imagine that we’re wiser and better than that, but Galileo’s Middle Finger shows that we relapse readily.
Leading: Learning from Life and My Years at Manchester United (2015) by Alex Ferguson is an account of how Ferguson led Manchester United and made himself the most successful manager in football history and Manchester United the most successful club in England.
The book doesn’t brim with big ideas about management. Instead what you get from Ferguson is his view that you have to work fantastically hard and get people around you with similar drive. Get to work early, be disciplined and delegate to high quality people around you seems to be what he thinks worked.
The book has a lot about various Manchester United players and others he had during his time at the club as well.
The book also comes with a really odd bit at the end about how similar Manchester United is to Silicon Valley. It doesn’t work and is unwisely tacked on.
For Manchester United fans and people who are interested in what made Sir Alex Ferguson the most successful manager in football history the book has something. It’s not a great read, but it’s not bad.
The Man Who Would be Queen: The Science of Gender – Bending and Transsexualism (2003) by Michael Bailey is a fascinating book that looks at sexuality and transgenderism from the scientific viewpoint. It’s a highly controversial book that has seen Bailey viciously targeted because many people don’t like the theories it puts forward for political reasons.
Bailey starts the book with the story of Danny, a boy who as a two year old liked to dress in women’s clothing and play with dolls. Bailey says that by looking at Danny’s behaviour he believes that he has a good idea of how Danny will turn out as an adult.
He then also talks about surgically altering children with ambiguous genitalia and attempting to make them into one gender or another. This frequently goes wrong and inflicts huge pain on the subjects. Bailey uses this to point out that gender and sexuality are very much driven by genetics.
Bailey goes on to look at how genetics influence homosexuality and the way twin studies and other studies have show how genetics again drives this. This part of the book also frequently says that ‘this group believes X, this other group believes not X and Y’ and overall I believe X or Y. It’s a really nice and honest way to write about unclear scientific issues and it’s great to see.
The book then shifts to transsexualism and Bailey puts forward the controversial idea that is attributed to Ray Blanchard that there are two types of transsexualism, homosexual transsexualism performed on very effeminate homosexuals who at a young age wish to become women in large part to attract men and what Bailey terms autogynephilic transsexuals who are heterosexual transsexuals who are aroused by having a female body and who love the female body.
Bailey puts forward considerable evidence for this theory including case studies and more work from Blanchard. It’s hard to dismiss and a really interesting idea.
The book is pleasantly short and is really fascinating. For anyone who wants to know what the controversy is about it’s definitely worth a read.