Booklist: Books with Poems & Rhymes for Shared Reading with Children

Booklist: Books with Poems & Rhymes for Shared Reading with Children

 

Use poetry and song lyrics to introduce your child to the interesting sounds in language. Explore poetry pieces and nursery rhymes with alliteration, rhyming couplets, and onomatopoeia.

For older children who enjoy structure, patterns, and math try sonnets with iambic pentameter and haikus.

Some children find poems where the printed text falls into artistic shapes that reflect the content of the poem interesting. Children who enjoy graphic novels where the text is part of the artwork find this type of poem appealing.

With so many variations and styles across so many topics, there is a form of poetry that will interest your child. Poetry is the sound bite of language. Snippets of poetry can convey intense emotions and is a fantastic platform for exploring feelings, words, and how to express one’s self.

Before Shared Reading

Children understand more words that they hear than they express or speak. Sharing poems with your child will help them develop their listening-comprehension skills as well as their vocabulary.

Try and read the poem out loud to yourself, in order to find the words you want to emphasize and to adjust to the flow of the words. Before reading, talk to your child about any special words. Point out that word(s) and clarify the meaning in a way that your child can understand if it is a new word. For older children, spend a few moments looking up the new word(s) in a children’s dictionary.

 

During Shared Reading

During the reading, ask your child to let you know when they hear the word or have them touch the word on the page if they recognize it. Provide positive feedback, when your child recognizes the new word(s) and remind them of the definition of the new word within the context of the poem.

 

After Shared Reading

Celebrate a Poem in Your Pocket day by creating a no -sew fabric poem book: Using fabric markers and light colored bandannas or handkerchiefs or pre-cut quilting squares (hemmed with iron-on interfacing), decorate the cloth with the words of your child’s favorite nursery rhymes, song lyrics or poems. Do one cloth a day for a week, letting your child keep the poem “page”in their pocket to “read” throughout the day. At the end of the week turn the poem cloth squares into a book with a simple binding of safety pins hot glued shut to prevent any accidents.

 

Write a poem together using poem pebbles. Brainstorm a list of favorite words – nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs. Using a permanent marker write a single word on a pebble. Pile all of the pebbles together, then create a poem using your word pebbles to build starter phrases. You can do a variation of this activity using sticky notes or index cards for even more words. For older children, use a rhyming dictionary to create a list of interesting words, for example, see Merriam-Webster’s Rhyming Dictionary.

 

Booklist: Books with Poems & Rhymes for Shared Reading with Children

Goodnight Songs

Lullabies by Margaret Wise Brown

Illustrated by 12 Award Winning Picture Book Artists

Picture Book, Ages 3 – 6

A treasure literally uncovered in a barn, these lullabies by the author of Good Night Moon and other classic children’s books are presented with the artwork unique to each piece by different illustrators. Read one lullaby before bedtime as a part of your night time routine.

The Random House Book of Poetry for Children

Selected by Jack Prelutsky

Pictures by Arnold Lobel

Illustrated Book, All Ages

With 575 poems to choose from there will be a poem, that appeals to your child’s taste in this selection. In addition, there are plenty of poems to experiment with in terms of style and topics.

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Little Poems for Tiny Ears

Poems by Lin Oliver

Pictures by Tomie dePaola

Board Book, Babies and Toddlers

Specifically for babies and toddlers, these poems are simple explorations into the sounds of language on topics familiar to tiny people.

 

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Poetry for Kids: Robert Frost

Poems by Robert Frost

Edited by Jay Parini

Pictures by Michael Paraskevas

Illustrated Book, Ages 9 – 12

Each poem is featured on its own colored spread. Also see in the Poetry for Kids series, Emily Dickinson and William Shakespeare

 

 

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Where the Sidewalk Ends

Poems and Pictures by Shel Silverstein

Illustrated Book, All Ages

One of the classics of modern childhood, this book was the first exploration in to poetry in elementary schools for several generations. This anniversary edition, includes an update with 12 extra poems. Also see by the same author,  A Light in the Attic

 

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Science Verse

Poems by Jon Scieszka

Pictures by Lane Smith

Picture Book, Ages 7 – 11

Science and poetry find a happy mix in this delightful collection of science themed works. Also see Math Curse and Grapes of Math

 

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I’m Just No Good at Rhyming and Other Nonsense for Mischievous Kids and Immature Grown-ups

Words by Chris Harris

Pictures by Lane Smith

Illustrated Book, Ages 7 – 11

Laugh out loud poems filled with exuberance and zany wit. This collection is on numerous award and best of lists. You are sure to find something to tickle the funny bone. These are great to read out loud if you can keep from laughing while reading at the same time.

Book Review: Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, Alan Lightman

Book Review: Searching for Stars on an Island in MaineAlan Lightman

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Nonfiction Science: Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, Alan Lightman

 

Theoretical physicist. Novelist. Professor of both science and humanities. These are the biographical bona fides of Alan Lightman, author of National Book Award Finalist novel “Einstein’s Dreams.” But the author of Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine is also profoundly human, and questions of the eternal, the immutable, the transcendent, dwell in his mind as they do in the minds of most people.

 

Searching for Stars is a deeply personal book. Lightman considers questions of faith and eternity from the perspective of a scientist, but also from the perspective of a man entering his later years. Science answers many questions for us, but certain ultimate questions cannot be empirically answered or experimentally tested. Lightman recounts conversations with persons of faith: Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim. He looks at sacred texts from those faiths. I cannot say he finds the answers he is looking for, but the process of asking the questions is intimate and compelling.

 

One answer Lightman does find is that science itself is an act of faith. Every faith holds central a series of absolutes: doctrines and credos which may not be provable but are inseparable from the faith itself. For example, Jesus cannot be removed from Christianity. You can have faith, you can even share many of the tenets of Christianity, but without Jesus you have something other, something different from Christianity. Science also has absolutes. One of those is that natural laws always work. If they don’t work, they are not laws. Gravity is always gravity. It always works. It doesn’t take days off, it doesn’t work on earth but not on Alpha Centauri. Because natural laws always work, they allow us to predict natural behaviors. Planetary orbits can be determined mathematically because gravity is a constant. Alterations in orbits indicate other factors at play, such as the presence of moons, another planet, or quantum forces. When those other factors are accounted for, measurements confirm predictions. The law is the law.

 

Ultimately, though, we cannot “prove” that natural laws always work. It is possible, if only as an intellectual exercise, that somewhere in the universe is a place that does not obey the laws of gravity. Or those laws work every day of the week except Tuesday. But it is impossible to account for such a place, because every measurement we have, every theory we hold, every experiment we run, every observation we make both confirms natural law to work AND relies upon it working. We cannot escape the framework in which natural laws work without them no longer working. Thus, at the core of science, is an absolute that cannot be proven or disproven, but must rely upon faith.

 

If science itself is built upon a core belief, what implication does that have upon other articles of faith? Perhaps none. But Lightman speculates that perhaps scientists should employ a little more humility than some do when it regards areas of faith.

 

Lightman’s musings on meaning touched me deeply. He wonders whether impermanence is equal to irrelevance, a question I suspect every person asks as she or he ages. Has my life mattered? What defines this? Will I be remembered? If a civilization of ants lasted for 100 years, built an amazing city full of beautiful architecture, stunning works of art, literature, philosophy, then was completely wiped out by a storm leaving no trace of their existence, did they “matter”? Those are not questions science can answer, and Lightman knows this. Meaning and purpose cannot be measured or calculated. Each person will have to search for those stars in their own personal quest.

 

Searching for Stars is a beautiful, unexpected book. I can’t say Lightman found everything he was looking for. But sharing his journey with us is a gift, one that can encourage us all to explore those questions with every tool available to us.

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Book Review: Searching for Stars on an Island in MaineAlan Lightman

 

The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of Wildlife, Lucy Cooke

Book Review: The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of WildlifeLucy Cooke

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Nonfiction Science: The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of WildlifeLucy Cooke

 

Lucy Cooke’s engaging book The Truth About Animals is one of those delightful books that can make you laugh out loud and then cringe in horror a moment later. Filled with research, personal anecdotes, quotes from historical naturalists (and sometimes “naturalists” in the absolute broadest sense of the word), contemporary scientists, the book looks at the lives, myths, and behaviors of several types of animals. In the process, Cooke reveals more than a little about the human animal as well.

 

Cooke is a filmmaker who has worked on many nature shows and has an advanced degree in zoology from Oxford. Her writing is fresh and engaging, full of humor. She pokes fun at animal myths and the creators and propagators of those myths. In a hilarious chapter about beavers, she shares a long believed story that beavers will, when being chased by hunters, bite off their own testicles and throw them at the hunters in order to end the hunt (the theory being that beavers knew their testicles were the reason they were being hunted). Delightfully, one of the naturalists who wrote about this “behavior” of the beavers coined a word to describe it: eunachate. (It is a travesty of modern communication that the word “eunachate” has not entered the common vernacular, but perhaps there is still opportunity.) Happily, beavers do not self eunachate in order to dissuade hunters, but the beavers’ musk glands (often confused by early naturalists with gonads) can be used for a number of unexpected purposes, including a source of “all natural vanilla flavoring.” That’s according to the FDA–after all, it is all natural. Early naturalists also ascribed medicinal properties to these glands. In a brave work of journalistic thoroughness, Cooke actually ordered and ate a beaver’s musk gland to test the efficacy of it as a headache remedy. It did not alleviate her headache, but it did result in a sustained period of passing gas with an extraordinary smell.

 

As the above paragraph shows, Cooke’s tone is earthy and sometimes ribald. The Truth About Animals would be a fantastic gift to a precocious, nature-loving middle schooler. It is written for adults. Cooke, however, is a gifted story-teller, and although most children (frankly, many adults) might need a dictionary at hand for the occasional new vocabulary word, her stories engage and enthrall the reader. I would love to have had a book like this as a tween, and at least one of our children would have adored it at that age. Parents should review the book first to gauge its appropriateness for their own children, of course, since every family is unique.

 

Many animal myths originated as moralistic parables. Penguins are sometimes still upheld as examples for “Christian” marriage because the belief is that they mate for life. (This myth was at the center of the movie, “March of the Penguins,” which despite Morgan Freeman’s narration was not particularly accurate in depicting penguin life.) Reality is somewhat different. Some penguin species are more faithful than most creatures. Others, not so much. Female penguins have been observed trading sex for nesting stones from unattached males. Both male and female penguins have created long-term same-sex bonds. Males, in the heat of mating season, have even been observed having sex with dead bodies. Although we humans may want to use animal behavior to illustrate “good” and “evil,” Cooke makes the point often that these illustrations tell us more about ourselves than they do about the animals. The animals are neither good nor evil. They are just animals.

 

Some myths come from observing animals out of context. Chimpanzee behavior has long been misunderstood because their behavior in captivity is radically different from their behavior in zoos. Pandas in the wild act nothing like pandas in captivity, which bodes ill for hopes to raise captive pandas and introduce them back into nature. Human actions also impact animal behaviors and even territory. Colombia now has a wild population of hippos, thanks to deceased drug lord Pablo Escobar. Leftover from a menagerie on his property, escapees are finding the jungles of South America to be even more hospitable than their native African range (fewer droughts and smaller crocodiles are among the benefits).

 

Human actions have led to some insights, though. Would we know that sloths could swim if a biologist in the 1920s hadn’t tested the theory by tossing some into a river? Fortunately for the sloths, this experiment succeeded. Other experiments were much more cruel to the animals: starving them, blinding them, surgeries without anesthetic, etc. Efforts to weaponize bats during World War II failed spectacularly when wayward bats armed with bombs blew up the facility where they were being held–and sent the general’s car into oblivion. And some experiments, thankfully, did not succeed: efforts to create a human-chimpanzee hybrid never came to fruition.

 

The Truth About Animals is a fun book. I laughed aloud as I read some passages, and laughed again when I read those passages aloud to my family. Cooke is a wonderful writer. The book is thoroughly researched but never pedantic. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

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Book Review: The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of WildlifeLucy Cooke

Book Review: Tulipomania : The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused, Mike Dash

Book Review: Tulipomania: The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused, Mike Dash

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Nonfiction History: Tulipomania: The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused, Mike Dash

What could be more “spring” than the tulip? Sprouting up through the snows of March and April, the leaves give promise to the arrival of the beautiful flowers later in the spring. Heralding the end of spring and the beginning of summer, tulips might have been made for Mother’s Day.

 

No place is more associated with tulips than the Netherlands. Iconic pictures of tulip fields with windmills in the background evoke the low countries as much as do wooden shoes and massive sea-dikes. For historians and economists, those pictures of tulip fields also remind them of the Tulip Mania period of Dutch history. During the mid-1630s, prices of individual tulip bulbs soared precipitously. Fortunes were made and lost. Bulbs were sold for the price equivalent of several acres of land, or for several months’ or even years’ wages of an average citizen.

 

Tulip bulbs first made their way into western Europe from Turkey, particularly from the courts and royal gardens of the Ottoman Empire. Easy to move, easy to grow, and (from bulbs) quick to flower, they became very popular everywhere they were introduced. Their vivid colors, their hardiness in cooler European climates, and their shapely form (often poetically compared to female anatomy) made them a favorite among horticulturalists and gardeners alike. For both novice and experienced gardeners they are a rewarding feature in almost any landscape.

 

Although it’s uncertain where they first became subject to the Mosaic virus, tulips in Western Europe would randomly become “broken” because of illness. The virus affected the longevity and the overall health of the plant, but it also created uniquely colored and patterned flowers. Thus, gardeners would sometimes plant a tulip of one color and realize a flower that was very different. These flowers would often, but not always, replicate the same features in their offsets. Although the science had not yet discovered genetics nor viruses, growers tried to propagate these happy accidents. Since tulip bulbs will create offsets, they were often successful since the offsets are essentially clones of the original bulb and if the original bulb is infected, they usually were as well. Despite being sick with a virus, the color variations and uniqueness of these ill flowers increased the demand for them, and since the illness shortened the life expectancy and the productivity (in creation of offsets) of the infected plants, it also reduced the supply.

 

Early in the 1630s, demand for these unique tulips infected with the Mosaic virus began to increase. This coincided with the introduction of a “futures” market. Tulips could be purchased on speculation and then sold again on speculation without either the buyer or the seller actually physically owning a bulb. Most of these transactions occurred in the backroom of taverns in Amsterdam, Haarlem, and other towns in what is now the Netherlands. These tavern transactions kept them out of the mainstream economy. No doubt they were of great importance, economically and otherwise, to the participants. But they occurred within a sort of shadow economy beyond legal recognition or regulation and without the participation of the real movers and shakers among Dutch.  This no doubt allowed the mania to flower (pun intended), but it also protected the country as a whole when it eventually withered (yes, I did it again).

 

And wither it did. The height of the speculative pricing for the tulips was reached in January, 1637. In February, it suddenly stopped. Tulips that a month before could not be purchased for almost any price now could not be sold for any price. Buyers that in January were willing to mortgage their houses to pay for a few bulbs were unwilling to pay pocket change for those same bulbs in February. The result: people were left owing a fortune to growers with no way to pay them back. Growers were left with paper IOUs equivalent to millions of today’s dollars, and with fields of tulips that no one wanted to buy any more.

 

It’s easy to look back and laugh at the folly, but this was the first “bubble” and crash seen in the modern economic system. In many ways it was a harbinger for future stock and dot.com and housing bubbles that were to come. Buy low and sell high is great advice, and is usually only obvious in hindsight. If the lessons taught by these backroom deals in Dutch taverns were easily learned, we likely would have mastered them by now. Any economist or even casual investor can tell you, we have not.

 

Perhaps the best lesson to be learned is that tulips are an investment in beauty. A garden may be enhanced by them, A mother or sweetheart may appreciate a bouquet of them. The Golden Age of the Netherlands hardly noticed this blip in their economy, and because of some (late) regulatory intervention, most investors and growers did not lose everything despite the paper losses they may have incurred. If you want to make a fortune, tulips are not the commodity to buy. But if you want to make a splash around Mother’s Day, it may be the perfect investment.

 

Mike Dash’s book Tulipomania covers the history of the flower, from its emergence in Ottoman gardens to its spread into western Europe to its central place in the craze of 1630s Dutch speculation. Although the book is sometimes a bit dry and academic, it does a good job of emphasizing both how intense the mania was and yet how peripheral it was to the overall economic health of the affected areas. If you are looking for an accessible introduction to the subject, I recommend Tulipomania as a good starting point.

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Book Review: Tulipomania: The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused, Mike Dash

Quote: C. S. Lewis on Fairytales

Quote: C. S. Lewis on Fairytales

WHEN I WAS TEN, I READ FAIRY TALES IN SECRET AND WOULD HAVE BEEN ASHAMED IF I HAD BEEN FOUND DOING SO. NOW THAT I AM FIFTY, I READ THEM OPENLY. WHEN I BECAME A MAN I PUT AWAY CHILDISH THINGS, INCLUDING THE FEAR OF CHILDISHNESS AND THE DESIRE TO BE VERY GROWN UP.
Quote: C. S. Lewis on Fairytales

WHEN I WAS TEN, I READ FAIRY TALES IN SECRET AND WOULD HAVE BEEN ASHAMED IF I HAD BEEN FOUND DOING SO. NOW THAT I AM FIFTY, I READ THEM OPENLY. WHEN I BECAME A MAN I PUT AWAY CHILDISH THINGS, INCLUDING THE FEAR OF CHILDISHNESS AND THE DESIRE TO BE VERY GROWN UP.

If you like this C. S. Lewis quote, then see this one on tea and books

http://scintilla.info/2018/04/04/c-s-lewis-quote/.

Book Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts, Rivers Solomon

Book Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts, Rivers Solomon

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Science Fiction: An Unkindness of GhostsRivers Solomon

I love finding new books from authors with different voices. Often, their characters are refreshing and also speak with different voices, representing populations that open my eyes to people I might otherwise overlook.  Rivers Solomon is such an author, and the lead character “Aster” in An Unkindness of Ghosts has that voice. Aster is poor, mixed race, sexually ambivalent (“they” is the preferred pronoun for the character–and for the author), and leaps off the page with fire and rage.

 

The Matilda is a spaceship that has been searching for a new home for humanity for centuries. On board the spaceship, differences between race and class mean everything. A religious/military government, basically comprised of white people, rules harshly over the entire ship. Lower decks are lower class–and largely black or brown in skin color. Into this stratified world walks Aster. Aster is brilliant in many ways: studying under the ship’s Surgeon General Aster has learned traditional medicine. Aster has also learned from books and from experimentation how to grow plants and distill medicines that replace those withheld from the lower classes by the ruling elites. That genius is both recognized and resented by people throughout the ship. Others with darker skin appreciate the skill, but resent that Aster has access to parts of the ship they cannot visit. Guards and rulers also appreciate Aster’s skill, but feel compelled to remind Aster constantly that they are in charge. Aster is a freak, and few can see past the freakishness to appreciate the person inside.

 

An Unkindness of Ghosts is a powerful book, creating a world that pulls the reader in. It is dark. The book does not offer easy answers, it does not end with “and they lived happily ever after.” Aster is a survivor. Sometimes, survival is ugly. It is also triumphant, though. Aster’s answers may not be the answers they, or we, were looking for. But life often refuses to give the answers we want. What matters is what we do with the answers we are given. An Unkindness of Ghosts demands that we examine who the “freaks” are–those who are born differently, who choose a different path, who wear a different skin, who love fiercely the people they love whatever their gender, or those who draw lines between “us” and “them,” who use skin color and gender to divide, who treat power as the opportunity to abuse and mistreat. The Matilda may be a dystopian nightmare. Perhaps, that type of misery is the fertilizer needed for an Aster to fully bloom.

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Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders

Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders

Fiction: Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders

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George Saunders book “Lincoln in the Bardo” has won some of the most prestigious literary awards given, including being only the second American book to win the Man Booker Prize. It is an extraordinary book, truly unlike anything I have read before.

 

The book is set in the few days following the death of Willie Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s son. Willie Lincoln died of illness during the Civil War. He was a boy who many felt was the very image of his father, more in his heart and demeanor than in his appearance, and Lincoln was devastated by this personal loss. Compounding the loss of his child, the progress of the Civil War was very much in doubt at this time. It was a dark period in the White House.

 

Saunders sets this scene with quote after quote from historians, contemporary observers, and historical documents. In fact, the entire book appears to be a series of quotes in succession. Fans and critics of the president have their say, with both noting that the boy died the same night as the White House held a gala. No doubt the music from the gala traveled to the boy’s sick room, but provided no comfort to the child nor to his distracted parents who frequently excused themselves from their guests to check on him. Many of the quotes are eerily similar to what we read on Twitter and other social media today. Criticism and defense of the president has a strong historical foundation.

 

Once the boy dies, he is interred in a nearby cemetery. The style of the book continues as a series of quotes, but now the quotes are from other residents of the cemetery. People who died and are interred there now get their chance to weigh in, observing the burial of the child and interpreting the actions of the living through the lens of their own lives. And Willie Lincoln himself gets a voice, reflecting upon his own short life and the love he shared with his father.

 

“The Bardo” is a Buddhist construct, a place of waiting where the dead can let go of their lives and then move on to the next plane of existence. In this cemetery lie people who have been waiting, some for days, others for decades, unable to let go of their hopes and dreams, or their “sins” and wrongdoings, and transition to the next stage. We meet and get to know these self-imprisoned souls in their own words and in the descriptions given of them by their fellows. Saunders’ “quotes” are extraordinary, finding voices for people who are lost, alone, disenfranchised, abandoned, and confused. Each character has a unique voice. Their interactions with each other allow their stories to unfold. We meet ordinary people, white and black, rich and poor, shopkeepers and preachers and housewives and the child of a president, and each gets the chance to speak and be heard. There is no “plot” in the traditional sense, but we find the story moving forward by the statements and conversations of the spirits stuck waiting for futures they will not get, held back by pasts they cannot undo.

 

President Lincoln comes to the cemetery to visit his son’s body. That simple event, one that is recorded by historians and contemporaries, creates a crisis of faith in the Bardo. Each spirit waiting there is forced to confront the real reason why he or she is still waiting. Their stories, told in the first person with all the biases and lack of perspective we have about ourselves, are the beauty of this book. You can almost see Saunders sitting there with a tape recorder, capturing their conversations and reflections and sharing them verbatim, unvarnished and unredacted. The author has an extraordinary gift for finding the voice and unveiling the motivations of his characters.

 

Lincoln in the Bardo touched me. Deeply. The book may be about ghosts. But it is the most profoundly alive story I have read in years.

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Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders

Book Review: The Myth of Race, Robert Wald Sussman

Book Review: The Myth of Race, Robert Wald Sussman

The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea

Robert Wald Sussman

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In “The Myth of Race,” Robert Wald Sussman traces the history of racist philosophy through America. This was a very troubling and challenging book. Racism is hard to eradicate. Scientific evidence shows there is no biological difference between humans that divides them in any meaningful category. Race is simply a social construct. There is every bit as much biological difference between two “white” people or two “black” people as there is between any given “white” or “black” person. Biologically speaking, there is only one race: human.

 

You cannot read the news without seeing the current manifestations of racism continuing. The Supreme Court just heard arguments on the Muslim ban. Nazis held a rally in Georgia, complete with burning swastikas. Last year a white supremacist rally led to the death of a counterprotestor: the president famously commented after her death that there were good people “on both sides.” Racism is far from dead, even though scientifically speaking the idea of “race” is dead.

 

That has not stopped people from using the imprimatur of science to advance policies that treat people differently based upon their skin color, national origin, religious affiliation, etc. In America the obvious example is slavery. For centuries, people were enslaved because their skin color was darker. This was justified in a variety of ways, usually by asserting that “white” people were superior to “black” people. Racist ideology was not satisfied with that broad of a brush, though, and went on to distinguish between types of white people. “Nordic” or “Aryan” people were (by their standards) the best. Physically the strongest and healthiest, mentally the smartest, and morally the purest, these people were born to rule and lead, and other races (including other white races) were lucky to serve them. If that sounds like Nazi ideology to you, you’re right. Sadly, it was also the ideology of many in the United States.

 

Prior to Darwin, those who held this position justified it biblically in one of two ways. The Bible says that humans come from Adam and Eve. Pre-Darwinian racists justified their racism by asserting either a) non-whites had degenerated to some subhuman status by their rebellion against God after creation, or b) non-whites were descended from some subhuman created being that the Bible does not describe. Either way, the conclusion went, they were not fully human and therefore not deserving of treatment as such.

 

Post Darwin, racists felt less compelled to justify their opinions against a Bible which does not support their conclusions, but they continued to conclude that people who did not look like them were inferior or even subhuman. Darwinism inspired a new strategy, though: eugenics. If nature’s goal was survival of the fittest, then government should work to assure that the best (white) only bred with the best. Not only should good families be rewarded, but bad (non-white) families should be discouraged from procreating. Laws preventing immigration from non-European countries were passed. Required sterilization of unworthies was advocated (though seldom carried out). Discussions about forced repatriation to Africa of black Americans were held at the highest levels of government.

 

These were not marginal views held by radicals. US Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt were part of the eugenics movement. Industrialists like Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan were, too. Classes in eugenics were taught in most Ivy League schools, as well as Stanford and almost every university in the south. Major newspapers including the NY Times wrote articles praising eugenics and eugenicists. Since Jews were considered non-white, antiSemitism was rampant. Many US firms provided material support to Nazi Germany at least until the US entered the war (evidence shows some even provided support to both sides after the US began fighting). This was not just an act of profiteering: contemporary documents show a great deal of sympathy for the Nazi positions of sterilization and genocide of undesirables. Many white Americans saw Nazism as necessary to defend the “white race” against Jews, “Mediterraneans,” “Eastern Europeans,” and, of course, people of color from around the world.

 

One of the few exceptions to this was in Columbia University, where Franz Boas became a professor of anthropology. He was one of the first to scientifically show that the basis for racism was unscientific and illogical. His work formed the foundation for modern anthropology. His students (one of whom was Margaret Mead) went on to shape the discussion of race and humanity for generations. Boas’ impact is still felt today, a full century later. One historian said, “It is possible that Boas did more to combat race prejudice than any other person in history.” After reading this book, I can believe it.

The Myth of Race is a sobering look at racism in America. Sadly, it is not just a history of the idea. It is a myth that still shapes policy and attitudes today.

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Book Review: What Is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics, Adam Becker

Book Review: What Is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics, Adam Becker

 

A basic thought experiment from the early days of quantum theory has meandered into the mainstream. As usually happens with these sorts of transfers into the common understanding, it is only partially understood and that part is more often misunderstood. A cat is trapped in a box. In the full version of the thought experiment, along with the cat is a Rube Goldberg device comprised of uranium, a geiger counter attached to a hammer, and a vial of cyanide resting under the head of the hammer. The experiment (fortunately for cat lovers, only transacted in the minds of physicists and other inquirers) relies on the fact that in time the uranium will release radiation, triggering the geiger counter, releasing the hammer, breaking the vial and killing the cat. However, at any given moment, the radiation may OR may not release. Therefore, the hypothetical cat may actually be either alive or dead–we will not know until we open the box. In a closed and unobserved system, the concept concludes, the cat is both alive and dead since both possibilities are equally probable. It is the observing that defines the cat’s untimely demise or it’s fortuitous release.

 

The full version of Erwin Schrodinger’s thought experiment opens the 2018 book What Is Real? Adam Becker provides a rousing history of quantum theory, looking at the personalities, mathematics, and experiments that have shaped this central theory of physics over the last century. With outsized characters like Schrodinger, Werner Heisenberg, Albert Einstein, and especially Neils Bohr creating the foundations of the theory, it is little wonder that quantum physics moved to the center of our understanding of how atoms and electrons work. The math is sound: quantum calculations are at the heart of literally thousands of innovations in technology and have predicted many of the discoveries in physics that excited both scientists and laypersons alike throughout the twentieth century.

 

What even many scientists fail to fully understand, though, is that there is still no complete understanding of HOW and WHY quantum mechanics works. The math works. Find a quantum problem, enter the variables, and out pops the solution. The temptation then is to follow the advice of one key physicist: shut up and calculate. (In fairness, that scientist himself rejects his own advice.) But many scientists are unwilling to accept this practical solution. They want to know WHY it works. Certain principles of quantum mechanics seem to violate Einstein’s Theory of Relativity by creating changes simultaneously in two bodies separated by great distance. If communication faster than light is impossible (Relativity says it is), then this can’t be. Other facets of quantum theory show behavior of objects changing based on observation (e.g. Schrodinger’s poor cat being both alive and dead until it is seen as being definitively one or the other). But exactly why does the behavior change upon observation? And what qualifies as “observation”? Were these particles behaving one way throughout time, waiting for someone with a PhD to come along? Or does behavior change if a cat, or a mouse, or a flea, were to observe it? These are the kinds of questions that scientists have been wrestling with since the beginning of quantum theory, and many of those questions remain unanswerable to date.

 

Various critiques of the traditional understanding of quantum physics have been offered, some gaining more traction than others. One which has become very popular in science fiction (if less so among actual scientists) is the multiple worlds theory, which holds that any action which has multiple potential outcomes has actually resulted in each of those potential outcomes, with the universe dividing again and again and again to accommodate those outcomes. In one universe the poor cat has died, in another it lives. That is again oversimplifying the argument to the point of devastating it, but the beauty of the multiple worlds theory is again that the math works. (I am taking Becker’s word for this–my math skills are not elite on any possible world.)

 

To a degree, though, this is both the agony and the ecstacy of quantum theory: it does a magnificent job of predicting what will happen, but we still cannot understand why it actually does this. Parts of quantum theory (especially as it relates to waves, electrons, and events occurring at a sub-atomic level) can be demonstrated as factually true. But why it works at the level of electrons and yet fails to predict the behavior of molecules as effectively is something scientists cannot yet answer.

 

Becker’s story is about the people who have looked and are looking for those answers. It goes beyond “just” the science and looks at the scientists as people and at the times they lived in. Becker deals squarely with the Nazi sympathies and collaboration of Heisenberg and other German scientists during WWII (and the disruption to European science in particular by the anti-Semitic prejudice and actions of the Nazis). He follows the path of one scientist exiled from the US during the “Red Scare” of the 1950s and how that affected the trajectory of quantum theory during a time when no one wanted to be accused of being “communist.” He traces the outsized influence of Neils Bohr, acknowledging his brilliance while noting that his influence was in part due to his amazing personality and warmth. Einstein’s critiques of quantum theory failed to gain as much traction, in part, due to Einstein’s more standoffish personality–Bohr won over critics with warmth and genuine affection when sometimes his math and writing were less precise.

 

The key question is the title of the book: What Is Real? In one sense, quantum theory answers this question. It works, therefore it is real. It predicts actual behavior of electrons. It leads to the creation of repeatable experiments. It results in actual inventions that have real world applications. That’s as real as you can get. But in another sense, the question remains unanswered. Can quantum theory predict the behavior of things larger than an electron? Can it be unified with the Theory of Relativity–which also works–in a way that explains the universe compellingly? If it is real, is it only real on a scale that we will never effectively observe? The search for those answers continues.

 

I loved the book–although I admit that I am not smart enough to fully understand it. Becker writes well. His stories about the people who shaped the theory are fascinating and fun. I will never be able to explain quantum physics or understand it nearly as well as my children do. But I appreciate the fact that scientists are people who struggle with bills and careers and politics as well as math and observation and theory. Becker’s book is about science and it is about the people who do science. That makes it a fascinating read.

Book Review: Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

Book Review Nonfiction: Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

 

I’ll admit, I was hoping to read Nudge and get much smarter about making decisions. That is not exactly what the book delivers. Nudge is more for wonks — geeks focused on government and/or political policy. If you make decisions, set policies, create procedures, or design products that involve choices by other people, then Nudge is definitely for you. If you are looking for guidance in making better decisions for yourself in these matters, well, the lessons are a bit more abstract. Incidentally, Richard H. Thaler, co-author of Nudge, won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Economics for his contributions to behavioral economics, the integration of psychology and economics. For more on the Nobel details see https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economic-sciences/laureates/2017/press.html

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As an abstract guidance lesson, take the following example from Nudge. Educators in San Marcos, TX, wanted to improve the rates of college admission by graduates from local high schools. Obviously there are any number of things that potentially could have helped: increased emphasis on academic classes, better preparation for college admissions tests, etc. But San Marcos is an area where few parents had ever gone to college. For many students, the idea of college was not something they ever entertained. So San Marcos added a graduation requirement: every graduating student has to complete and submit a college application to the local community college. Counselors from nearby Austin Community College visited with students and helped them complete the application. They also talked to students about how much more money college graduates make (on average) compared to those who only finish high school. They provided financial aid information and assistance with other potential barriers to college attendance. The result: in one year the percentage of San Marcos High graduates who went on to college increased by 11%!

 

That is the kind of Nudge that Thaler and Sunstein are talking about. They coin a phrase, “paternal libertarianism” to describe the type of choice architecture they propose. Anytime a choice is offered, decisions are made as to how those choices are presented. A cafeteria might choose to group foods according to type, according to color, alphabetically, randomly, etc. The location and groupings of the food will influence the choices people make when eating. If it is a school cafeteria, the manager can choose to position the fare in a way that maximizes profit. That, though, may not be in the best health interests of the students. Thaler and Sunstein would propose that consideration must be given to maximizing the health interests of students.

 

The two words of their phrase must balance each other for their proposals to work. “Paternal” implies looking out for the benefit of those making the choices. It assumes that choices can be objectively measured as “better” or “worse.” An insurance plan that covers more medications at a lower price is going to be better than one that covers fewer prescriptions for a higher price, if you are dealing with a population that uses a lot of prescriptions. Thus, if you are presenting insurance plans to (for example) an elderly population, you might “Nudge” them toward making that better choice. This can be done in several ways: listing it first, making it the default choice, advertising it more aggressively, giving it a leading name (perhaps “the BEST insurance”).

 

But they firmly argue that “libertarianism” is equally important. One choice may be objectively better than another for most people, but removing people’s choices is removing their freedom. In the insurance example, they might suggest that the best prescription plan be the default plan for seniors who take a lot of medicine, but they would not want that to be the only choice. What about those seniors who expect to have a lot of surgery but not as many medications? What about those who are in excellent health and would prefer to pay a lower premium? They argue that a nudge is important, but choice is equally important. San Marcos may require applications to the community college, but none of their graduates is obliged to attend. That is a paternal nudge with a libertarian conscience. That hypothetical cafeteria manager may group foods to encourage healthy eating, but she might still provide the option to eat cake and drink soda. That is a paternal nudge with a libertarian conscience. Those are the types of examples that meet with Thaler and Sunstein’s approval.

 

Individually, the best parts of Nudge describe how humans generally make choices. In a word, they make them poorly. So the authors have some suggestions for fooling ourselves into making better choices. One example is in the area of saving. Americans are particularly bad at saving money. But we are good at making well-intentioned promises. They suggest starting saving with a small, easily managed amount of money. Make the withdrawals automatically on your payday so you never actually see the money in your checking account. Then, set up your IRA (or other savings vehicle) to increase that amount by a percentage every year, kicking in at the same time as your annual raise (assuming you get one). This way the amount withdrawn increases as your income increases, and continues to be “hidden” by not appearing in the checking account.  This does not reduce your choices: you can always change or even cancel this process. But it uses some of our own human weaknesses as leverage to attain a desirable outcome.

 

Although the authors do address objections and concerns within the book, I remained cautious after reading it. I see huge advantages to the kind of Nudge – paternal libertarianism they describe. But I also see the possibilities of less altruistic persons using their choice architecture to lead consumers toward decisions that benefit companies and not people.  The authors use the example of Enron, and the way their retirement benefits were geared toward pushing employees to reinvest their retirement money into Enron stock. They use this as a negative example, and indeed when Enron collapsed many of their employees lost their life savings along with their jobs. The authors encourage companies to do the opposite, to promote diversifying retirement investments and promote strategies that are both safe and employee-focused. Other than altruism, though, I am not sure they make a compelling case for companies to do this, and my experience has made me wary of the altruistic motives of most corporations.

 

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I would love to say that reading Nudge will change the way you make decisions and transform you into a healthier, wealthier, and happier human being. That outcome lies beyond the scope of the authors. However, it does give great insight into how choices can be presented in ways that encourage positive decisions and growth. Nudge is worth the read if for no other reason than to understand the motivators behind our decisions (and those behind our choices to NOT make certain decisions). Perhaps understanding ourselves is the best first step toward making better choices.

Book Review: Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

If you are interested in political policy also see

Book Review Nonfiction: Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, Amy Chua