Highlights: Life Itself, by Roger Ebert

The life of a man whose death was untimely, and never would have been timely. An entertaining book and recommended read, especially if you like movies, the art of journalism, or the state of Illinois.

I lack the energy to summarize the book, and lives are hard to summarize anyway. So instead, here are some of the best lines (from a man who averaged 1.2 great lines per review).


On Art Petacque, Ebert’s colleague at the Chicago Tribune:

“He was our mob reporter. He was priceless for his sources. He was the only Chicago newsman who knew all mob nicknames. It was rumored he invented many of the nicknames himself.

“Nobody ever complained. What would Joey “The Clown” Lombardo do? Write a letter to the editor?”

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Lightning Review: 1Q84

I am warning those who have never read Murakami before that that is NOT the novel to start with.

–Ias Cosas, Amazon.com

The review system outlined in the beginning of this piece maps out how I’ll try to review nonfiction from now on. Not so sure about fiction, which isn’t as goal-oriented.

I finished this 1,156-page book and can’t figure out if I am better off for reading it or not. –Ninette Enrique, Amazon.com

And since I drafted this review long ago, I’ll try something different, limiting myself to 500 words—roughly 1 for each 1000 Haruki Murakami used to write 1Q84.

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Roger Schank: How to Fix Education

Reading time: 7 minutes

I’ve written a lot of book reviews, but I recently realized that I have a model in my head of what a “book review” should be, and that the model doesn’t make much sense.

I’m a fan of fancy book reviews that are more about life in general (or the reviewer’s ideas) than the book itself. David Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith do those very well.

But most people seem to read book reviews to answer some of the following questions:

  • Should I read this entire book?
  • What is this book about?
  • If this book isn’t worth reading, which bits are worth knowing anyway?
  • If the author has an opinion, why might they be wrong?
  • Where can I find out more about the book’s ideas?

These questions provide helpful structure, and structure means I can review more books! Huzzah!

This particular review is about the book Making Minds Less Well-Educated Than Our Own, by Roger Schank. Awful title aside, it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. (If it weren’t, this review would be much shorter, or bundled with other reviews.)

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College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be, by Andrew Delbanco

A review written for Light and Truth, the magazine of Yale’s Conservative Party. It appeared on campus, but only on paper.

My heart goes out to Andrew Delbanco.

In the course of writing College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be, he encountered the same paradox I will if I try to apply my time at Yale to any debate on the state of higher education.

Along with my friends at Columbia, Middlebury, and the University of Chicago, I enjoy the public ideal of “college life”: Frisbees, ping-pong and five-person seminars.

Statistically, though, my friends and I are very unusual. Private, four-year colleges (most of which you’ve never heard of) enroll about 20% of America’s post-secondary students. Two hundred and fifty thousand people take classes at the University of Phoenix—more than twice the undergrad population of the Ivy League and U.S. News’ top 20 liberal arts colleges combined.

But this book wasn’t written by Mark DeFusco, former director of the University of Phoenix. In fact, he is  quoted only once, asserting that most students attend college mostly for financial reasons. Delbanco, a Harvard graduate and 27-year veteran professor at Columbia, calls Defusco’s (probably true) statement “a surrender of America’s democratic promise.”

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Winter Break Books: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker

The book: Harvard professor, Pulitzer finalist and Time 100 badass Steven Pinker says a controversial thing: The world is a less violent, and overall nicer, place than it has ever been, in almost every way, for a set of reasons neither wholly liberal nor wholly conservative (at least as Americans conceive of those terms). Then, he goes ahead and proves it for 700 straight pages, quoting from hundreds of books, summarizing world history, and dropping science (mostly neuroscience) all the while.

The good: This is one of the ten or so best nonfiction books I’ve ever read. Amazing. A primer of intellectual history, political history, modern psychology, and also a convincing blow struck against pessimists everywhere. You can flip to any random page and come away with a valuable insight into human nature. I’ll do that right now.

Page 182: humans used to play almost entirely zero-sum games with each other; we gained resources by taking them from other humans, and preferably killing them so they couldn’t get revenge. Now, thanks to agriculture, technology, and the concept of “trade”, we play mostly positive-sum games, where both sides of an interaction can benefit without anyone getting hurt. It’s easier today, in most places and for most people, to make new wealth than it is to steal old wealth.

See? In the hands of a lesser (or less ambitious) writer, that could have been a whole book. It probably is. Every point Pinker makes has that kind of conceptual weight, and also reinforces the points which came before. He is adept at tying science to history to philosophy to the human quirks we all see around us. He’s not a novelist, but that isn’t a problem; the writing in Better Angels is so much better than it had to be that I found myself grinning at a passage every few pages. When I grow up, I’d like to write like Steven Pinker.

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Winter Break Books: Experiments in Ethics, by Kwame Anthony Appiah

The book: Princeton professor Appiah mounts a defense of the titular “experiments”. Those who claim that other disciplines and ordinary people play no part in determining what is moral are wrong; simplistic moral theories are almost always wrong; we can improve our lives in an ethical way by working with what we know about ourselves as animals and as thinking beings. Appiah joins forces with a variety of cognitive scientists (for lack of a better term) to argue for altering the environments which inspire our moral instincts, rather than attempting to reverse those instincts we find unseemly.

The good: For a psychology nerd, this book is satisfying proof that social science has recognized utility even in the clouds of moral philosophy. Lots of great experiments and fun hypothetical situations, including a few tweaks to the Trolley Problem I hadn’t encountered before. Literary allusions throughout make for a more flavorful meal. The last chapter is a great summary of a lot of different big, important problems in modern ethical theory and provides a springboard for thoughtful scribbling (if you like to take notes with your books). The footnotes are the best part, in a good way; Experiments in Ethics could serve as the gateway to a philosophy major in all but name (and diploma).

The bad: The author was invited to deliver the Mary Flexner Lectures at Bryn Mawr. This book makes sense if you think of it as a collection of lectures, but reading rather than hearing it feels disjointed; Appiah leaps from point to point and rarely offers a definitive argument of his own (his work seems to have been done for him by Aristotle and a host of other long-dead luminaries). The book’s length, at barely 200 pages, prevents the author from entertaining many objections or backing up certain of his points, especially with regards to what stops a happy life from being “good”. A few of the interdisciplinary anecdotes seem to have been inserted mainly because Appiah loves them, rather than for their application to his arguments, which would have been less of a problem had the book been longer.

The verdict: Read it if you have some grounding in philosophy (an undergraduate or high-school introductory class would be fine) and don’t mind skipping ahead a page if Appiah starts to confuse you. Eventually, you’ll latch onto something interesting and memorable. Very much a book to take notes on.

The best things I learned: People tend to be nicer in quiet than in loud rooms. Lydia Davis writes killer short stories. Children and the Amish will accept that breaking certain rules (chewing gum, working on the Sabbath) is fine if an authority doesn’t regulate them, but insist that hitting would be wrong even if teachers/God permitted hitting. Philosophers tend to take sides on moral dilemmas in the same proportions as regular people, for basically the same reasons; in other words, our moral intuitions are very powerful, though they are not always right. Happy people are more likely than unhappy people to push a fat man off a footbridge if his body will stop a train from killing five hikers.


Note: Like many books of philosophy, Experiments in Ethics has a fine collection of Amazon reviews that delve deeper into the arguments than I can without boring some readers. I recommend checking them out if you are so inclined.

Queer Eye for the Ivy Guy: Stover at Yale

I got a copy of Owen Johnson’s classic novel Stover at Yale for Christmas. The university was different in 1901 (for one thing, the football team relied more on their rushing game), but some things were pretty much the same.


A sophomore teaches the freshman protagonist a lesson:

“No fooling around women; that isn’t done here — that will queer you absolutely.”


The protagonist is invited to a courtship dinner:

“Confound Bob Story! Why the deuce did he get me into this? I loathe females.”


The protagonist, now a junior, meets an adoring freshman in his entryway:

“Why do you wear pink pajamas?”

The little freshman, face-to-face with his first great emotion, blurted out: “Don’t you like them, sir?”

“Keep them on,” said Stover.


Later, the adoring freshman (Wookey) gets life advice from Stover and another drunken junior. At the end of the night:

“The two took solemn hold of each other’s hands and rolled over on the cushions. Wookey, in the pink pajamas, covered them with a rug, and stole out, like a thief, carrying away a secret.”


Junior Stover chooses senior roommates:

“The four of us are all different enough to make just the combination we need. I’m tired of bunking alone. I want to rub up against someone else.”


1 in 4, maybe more, since 1901.

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The Floodgates Open: Variety Show Edition

Most of the rest of my widely-available online work. Some pieces available only on paper, or whose links have broken, will be published later, in full.

Topics include Michael Grunwald’s The New New Dealmy weightlifting routine, potential trespassing, and how I wound up mentoring a stranger in China.

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