Perspective

The Invention of Nature

The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

How we look at the things around us—our mental viewing of the interrelation of a specific subject or its parts—is critical to shaping our point of view.  I just finished a fascinating book, Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature:  Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, that tells the story of how one visionary and now oft-forgotten German naturalist changed the way we see the natural world.  His perspective was radically different than his scientific contemporaries of the late 18th and early 19th century because he conceived of nature as a complex and interconnected global force.  A force that did not exist for humans alone. He came to this conclusion after extensive and exhaustive research, observation, travel, and scholarship before he reached the age of 33.

Alexander von Humboldt’s visit to the inactive volcano Chimborazo in the Andes, made during a five-year journey to South America at the beginning of the 19th century, led him to take all this knowledge and this new point of view and express it in one drawing:  his Naturgemälde (which Wulf describes as an untranslatable German term than can mean a “painting of nature” but which also implies a sense of unity or wholeness.)  That new perspective—and the scores of books he wrote over his 89 years—led Humboldt to become the most famous scientist of his age, influencing individuals as wide ranging as Goethe, Wordsworth, Thomas Jefferson, Darwin, Thoreau, the artist Ernst Haeckel, and the environmentalists John Muir, and Rachel Carson.  On the 100th anniversary of  his birth in 1869, celebrations were held all across the globe, including in most major U.S. cities. (25,000 gathered in New York City alone and President Grant led the celebration in Philadelphia.) Humboldt is honored with more place names around the world than any other individual in history.  Little did I know until I looked it up that little Humboldt, Tennessee—near my hometown—was named for a German naturalist whose work predated and in many ways envisioned Darwin’s theory of evolution, identified man-made climate change as a serious issue, and called for environmental protection decades before John Muir.

Naturgemalde

Alexander von Humboldt’s Naturgemalde

Humboldt embraced observation.  It changed his perspective and he was able to change the world.  When he died, a contemporary called him “the greatest man since the Deluge.”

This story about observation and perspective reminded me of a wonderful line in the Holly Morris film The Babushkas of ChernobylHolly was a TrustLive speaker at our recent PastForward conference in Chicago, where she told the story of these babushkas (or grandmothers) who came back to their homes following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and have now outlived their contemporaries who were evacuated.  There is one scene where one of the ladies (and I’m paraphrasing here) said, “When some people come to a puddle, all they see is the puddle.  Others look down and just see themselves.  And others look down and see the sky.”  I love that line.  My perspective is that when you can see beyond the problem (the puddle) or yourself, you can see the world, its connections, and its possibilities.

How we observe our world and how we choose to connect the parts of what we see is so important to every part of our lives.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Telling the Full Story

The Half Has Never Been Told

“The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” by Edward E. Baptist

For whatever reason, I’ve been plowing through books this fall.  Perhaps that is what a great deal of time on planes and trains does for one’s reading habits.  In any event, this has been my first chance to stop and reflect on these recent readings for the blog, so I’m seizing the moment.

One of the two I’ve included here is a very important work, significantly moving the scholarship forward in its field.  The other is a small, family story that nonetheless captures the heart as it tells of a charming, privileged woman who struggled to live as a lesbian in the South of the jazz age.  Both, now a couple of years old, are recommended.

Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told:  Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism is a troubling and ultimately persuasive 2014 book by historian Edward E. Baptist.  In this ambitious work, Baptist sets out to to demonstrate, in great detail, that slavery was not the pre-modern institution on the verge of extinction with paternalistic slave-owners as claimed by so many historians and southern apologists alike.  Instead, in the eight decades prior to the Civil War, slavery expanded into a continental cotton empire that “drove the evolution and modernization of the United States.”  Baptist writes that “the 3.2 million people enslaved in the United States had a market value of $1.3 billion in 1850—one-fifth of the nation’s wealth and almost equal to the entire gross national product.”  This empire and wealth, Baptists asserts, was the reason the U.S. grew into a modern industrial and capitalist economy.

Cotton Fields

A View of the Cotton Empire

While some of Baptist’s techniques (such as naming chapters for different parts of the body) are not successful in and of themselves, the work as a whole is very persuasive and unsettling.  He describes a system that is very efficient at sorting out slaves to get those who are most productive, and the brutality that made that efficiency possible.  Not one to mince words, Baptist names the violence that led to increased productivity “the whipping machine.”  When, in the 1830s, the term “fancy girl” began to appear in descriptions of young women who fetched high prices because of their physical attractiveness, Baptist writes that “Slavery’s frontier was a white man’s sexual playground.” His clear writing and extensive documentation takes the reader into the many horrors of the slave system in the United States. To Baptist, this was out-and-out torture.  However,

“Perhaps one unspoken reason why many have been so reluctant to apply the term ‘torture’ to slavery is that even though they denied slavery’s economic dynamism, they knew that slavery on the cotton frontier made a lot of product.  No one was willing, in other words, to admit that they lived in an economy whose bottom gear was torture.”

Writing about the book in the New York Times, Pulitzer prize winning historian Eric Foner says,

“It is hardly a secret that slavery is deeply embedded in our nation’s history. But many Americans still see it as essentially a footnote, an exception to a dominant narrative of the expansion of liberty on this continent. If the various elements of ‘The Half Has Never Been Told’ are not entirely pulled together, its underlying argument is persuasive: Slavery was essential to American development and, indeed, to the violent construction of the capitalist world in which we live.”

To understand the many challenges we face today as a nation, one could do much worse than to add Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told to your nightstand reading pile.

Irrepressible

“Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham” by Emily Bingham

A much-less ambitious work, Emily Bingham’s Irrepressible:  The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham is nonetheless a worthy read.  I learned of this book while meeting the author in her home in Louisville.  (Full disclosure, I have known and worked with Emily’s mother Edie on preservation projects for decades.)

Henrietta was Emily’s great-aunt, and was born into Southern privilege at the beginning of the 20th century.  As the author notes in the prologue, “The surest way to make a child curious about an ancestor is never to discuss her.”  It wasn’t until Emily and her husband named their newborn daughter for her great-aunt did family members come forward with stories of embarrassment, but also remembrances and photographs—especially of the early Henrietta—that spoke of a remarkable, unconventional, and ultimately tragic life lived by someone who dared to push the norms of Southern (certainly) and even American life.

Henrietta’s story really begins when—at age twelve—her mother dies in a horrific train and automobile accident that she witnesses.  Three years later her father marries the richest woman in America, the widow of Henry M. Flagler, the Standard Oil baron and Palm Beach developer, who—as explained by the New York Times reviewer—”promptly died under murky, Michael Jacksonesque circumstances involving a shady doctor and copious narcotics. ‘Bing’ later bought The Courier-Journal and The Louisville Times, jump-starting the family’s media empire.”

Emily Bingham then unfolds a story of a woman of enormous wealth who “spent much of her twenties and thirties ripping through the Jazz Age like a character in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.”

“There were parties, music, great quantities of alcohol, and, on both sides of the Atlantic, lovers—lots of them, men and women, but far more women than men.  In Henrietta’s time that took courage.  Later there would be mental breakdowns, scandals, and a decline no one talked about.”

Sometimes it is hard to keep up with Henrietta’s affairs recounted in Irrepressible, but it is clear that while she had some famous male lovers, include the producer and actor John Houseman, she loved women far more — the tennis star Helen Jacobs (described as the Martina Navratilova of the 1930s), her Smith professor Mina Kirstein, the painter Dora Carrington, and the actress Hope Williams.  While she did serve, essentially, as her father’s social secretary when he was ambassador to the United Kingdom in F.D.R.’s first term, Henrietta lived quite independently and well on her father’s money.

The early flings are interesting prelude to the long affair with Jacobs.  One gets the sense that in today’s world, Henrietta Bingham and Jacobs would have settled down and lived normal—for wealthy and famous individuals—lives.  But that wasn’t possible in the South, especially after World War II and the coming of the repressive McCarthy era.  So Henrietta turned even more to alcohol to push away the world which would not let her love the person (or people) she clearly cared for the most.

Having grown up in the South, I have seen older gays and lesbians who have struggled—with varying degrees of success—through the challenges of navigating Southern mores about sexuality, religion, family, propriety, hierarchy, judgement, and gender in an age before Civil Rights and sexual freedoms.  It is a very sad story that was all too familiar for beloved professors, musicians, offspring of the town’s patriarchs, and more.  So while Henrietta Bingham did not, in the end, change much in her world, the way that world ultimately changed her is a story worth hearing. When we force people to live according to our precepts, judging them to satisfy our interpretations of values, both those who are repressed and those who administer the acceptable code of conduct, suffer in the end.

More to come…

DJB

History as an Antidote to Folly

Age of Folly

Age of Folly: America Abandons Its Democracy by Lewis Lapham

Kurt Vonnegut has called him America’s greatest satirist, while others suggest he was born of Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken.  Lewis Lapham—editor emeritus of Harper’s Magazine, founding editor of Lapham’s Quarterly, and the object of those accolades—is a writer of great eloquence and “lethal wit.”  I was delighted to see that some of the best of Lapham’s essays from the past twenty-five years have now been collected into a new work, Age of Folly:  America Abandons Its Democracy.

This is both a wonderful and important book. Lapham surveys the past twenty-five years to make the case that America’s imperial impulses have shaken our democratic principles.  You can agree or disagree with his premise, but his arguments are lucid, thoughtful, and often challenging.

In the very first essay, from 1990, Lapham states his case succinctly and directly.

“If the American system of government at present seems so patently at odds with its constitutional hopes and purposes, it is not because the practice of democracy no longer serves the interests of the presiding oligarchy (which it never did), but because the promise of democracy no longer inspires or exalts the citizenry lucky enough to have been born under its star.  It isn’t so much that liberty stands at bay but, rather, that it has fallen into disuse, regarded as insufficient by both its enemies and its nominal friends.  What is the use of free expression to people so frightened of the future that they prefer the comforts of the authoritative lie?”

Lapham also explores the change in our concepts of public and private and its affect on our society, noting that “the familiar story (democracy smothered by oligarchy) has often been told”  but that

“…it is nowhere better illustrated than by the reversal over the past half century of the meaning within the words ‘public’ and ‘private.’  In the 1950s the word ‘public’ connoted an inherent good (public health, public school, public service, public spirit); ‘private’ was a synonym for selfishness and greed (plutocrats in top hats, pigs at troughs).  The connotations traded places in the 1980s. ‘Private’ now implies all things bright and beautiful (private trainer, private school, private plane), ‘public’ becomes a synonym for all things ugly and dangerous (public housing, public welfare, public toilet).”

This book was published prior to Donald Trump’s election as president, but Lapham sees it coming and is not surprised.

There are many themes addressed throughout Age of Folly.  But to make his overall case, Lapham turns to history, calling it an “antidote to folly.”

That theme runs throughout the book, but is summed up in the final essay, dating from 2014 and entitled “The World in Time.”  This essay begins with a quote from Cicero—“Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child”—and then discusses Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s last word on the reading and writing of history.  “It is useful to remember” he quotes Schlesinger,

“…that history is to the nation as memory is to the individual.  As persons deprived of memory become disoriented and lost, not knowing where they have been or where they are going, so a nation denied a conception of the past will be disabled in dealing with its present and its future.”

Just as we have tried at the National Trust for Historic Preservation (where I work) to tell the full American story and break out of the mold of house museums preserved in amber, Lapham notes that history is “constant writing and rewriting, as opposed to a museum-quality sculpture in milk-white marble….History is not what happened two hundred or two thousand years ago; it is a story about what happened two hundred or two thousand years ago.  The stories change, as do the sight lines available to the tellers of the tales.”  In this particular essay, Lapham looks at the writings of Tom Paine, one of two founding fathers he especially admires (the other being Roger Williams), because Paine’s writings are “like the sound of water in the desert” in these days. They speak not to the rich and privileged, but to the common man.  Paine uses memorable aphorisms such as “The mind once enlightened cannot again become dark” and “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.”

Lapham closes this essay, and this book, by noting that “None of us dies in the country in which he or she was born.”  History is made every day.  Our country changes.  It always has.  It always will.

“Sensing the approach of maybe something terrible…the guardians at the gate look for salvation to technologies as yet undreamed of by man or machine.  My guess is that they are looking in the wrong direction.  An acquaintance with history doesn’t pay the rent or predict the outcome of a November election, but it is the fund of energy and hope that makes possible the revolt against what G.K. Chesterton once called ‘the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.’”

History as an antidote to folly.  As we challenge ourselves to hear, understand, and honor the full American story, this rings true.

Highly recommended.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Complicity in a Shared Work of the Imagination

Clayborn Temple

Clayborn Temple (photo credit: Steve Jones)

Last week I had the privilege of launching the National Trust’s National Treasure campaign for Clayborn Temple, a landmark in the history of the Civil Rights movement.  It was here where Memphis sanitation workers gathered in 1968 and decided to go on strike, marching with their “I Am a Man” signs that became a potent symbol for all that is at stake in the fight for equal justice.  Clayborn Temple was where the leadership of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. transformed the strike from a local labor dispute into a national issue, effectively tying the sanitation workers’ cause with the national issues of economic justice and racism. It was to Memphis and Clayborn Temple that Dr. King was returning when he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet.

To be in that sacred space with more than 150 Memphis residents, young African American poets and musicians, revered spiritual leaders who walked with the sanitation workers, preservationists of all ages, and current members of the workers’ union was an honor and a reminder of how the story of Clayborn Temple could be ripped from this weekend’s headlines.  We are still addressing the issues those sanitation workers and their supporters faced almost fifty years ago.  Preservation, remember, is not only about the past, but is also about today and the future.

It just so happened that I was reading a new book while traveling to and from Memphis.  Lewis Lapham’s Age of Folly:  America Abandons Its Democracy, covering America from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the 2016 election, has much to digest and ponder.  I’ll return to it more fully at some point in the future to explore Lapham’s contention that an acquaintance with history can serve as folly’s antidote.  But one of the opening essays related so closely to what had happened at Clayborn Temple that I quoted from it while in Memphis.

This 1992 essay is entitled Who and What Is American?  In response to the false construction that the American people share a common code of moral behavior and subscribe to identical theories of the true, the good, and the beautiful, Lapham writes,

The American equation rests on the habit of holding our fellow citizens in thoughtful regard not because they are exceptional (or famous, or beautiful, or rich) but simply because they are our fellow citizens.  If we abandon the sense of mutual respect, we abandon the premise as well as the machinery of the American enterprise.

I Am a Man.

What joins the Americans one to another is not a common nationality, language, race, or ancestry (all of which testify to the burdens of the past) but rather their complicity in a shared work of the imagination.  My love of country follows from my love of its freedoms, not from my pride in its fleets or its armies or its gross national product.  Construed as a means and not an end, the Constitution stands as the premise for a narrative rather than a plan for an invasion or a monument.  The narrative was always plural—not one story but many stories….

If we indulge ourselves with evasions and the pleasures of telling lies, we speak to our fears and our weaknesses instead of to our courage and our strength.  We can speak plainly about our differences only if we know and value what we hold in common. (Emphasis mine)

I Am A Man

Sanitation Workers in March 1968 outside Clayborn Temple (photo credit: Ernest C. Withers/Withers Family Trust)

So much of the story at Clayborn Temple points to what it means to be American, and who gets to decide.  When we were there to celebrate that space and its rebirth last week, I felt we were doing the “shared work of the imagination” that is required if we are to ensure that our faith in the republic does not—to use another of Lapham’s memorable phrases—“degenerate from the strength of a conviction into the weakness of a sentiment.”

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter

The Revenge of Analog

The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter by David Sax

I recently finished David Sax’s new book The Revenge of Analog:  Real Things and Why They MatterAppropriately, I bought my hard-back copy in that most analog of places—Portland, Oregon’s Powell’s City of Books—the nation’s largest independent bookstore.

Sax, a business journalist from Canada, posits that “while digital technology has certainly made life easier, the analog technologies of old can make life more rich and substantial.”  He argues that in today’s digital world, analog is making a surprising comeback.  What are those analog technologies?  Notebooks and paper.  Vinyl records.  Film.  Board games.  (Vintage Game Night at the Woodrow Wilson House, anyone?) He also looks at the comeback of analog “ideas” in areas such as printing, retailing, and education.

Some of Sax’s examples strike me as first-world games of the highly educated. However, as I thought about the tactile nature of the pages as I read, I realized that he had an important point about the impact of real things in our lives. About two years ago I stopped purchasing e-books and have returned to buying books to read during my commute to-and-from work each day. (Sax quotes a twelfth-century Judaic scholar in saying, “Make books your treasure and bookshelves your gardens of delight.”)  We still subscribe to the New York Times home edition, in part, because my 24-year-old son wants to do the Times crossword puzzle with paper and ink (his grandfather would be proud) and Candice enjoys reading from a “real” newspaper.  One commentator noted that analog technologies such as newspapers allow us to have a feeling of finishing a task, whereas digital news feeds and links never seem to end.

At the National Trust for Historic Preservation, where I work, we are all about real things. Real places. And why they matter.

I’ve even had a revelation about my move to a paperless office, which I made two years ago.  Frankly, I’m not sure it has made me more productive. In discussing the revenge of analog in digital companies, Sax writes:

“One of the great promises of the information age was that advancements in communication technology would result in increased productivity.  Studies have shown that has not occurred, but most people don’t need academic data to realize this.  They simply need to look at the e-mails piling up in their inbox, at the texts pinging away on their phone…to understand that any technology built with the promise of productivity has the real potential to deliver an inverse result.

What some technology companies have done in response to this is limit technology itself.  At Percolate, a New York (software) company…(they) banned all digital devices from company meetings.  Noah Brier, Percolate’s cofounder and CEO, said the rule arose because he consistently sat in meetings where one person spoke and everyone else pretended to listen while they responded to emails or texted.  Not only was this rude, but the distraction increased the length of meetings drastically.  Once Percolate banned devices, the results were instantaneous. ‘It just makes it so people are actually paying attention.  Meetings are shorter and more useful.’”

Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, notes in a review that Sax quoted a time-management expert as saying, “’You can waste time with all kinds of stuff, but the digital world provides a lot of opportunity to waste a lot of time.’ A notebook’s selling point is that you can’t use it to look up stock futures or to swipe right or to play solitaire. It concentrates, not dissipates, the mind. What if Picasso had had Snapchat? What if Hemingway had spent half the afternoon writing Yelp reviews of his favorite bars?”

You may notice that I’ve begun showing up at some meetings without my computer in tow, and with a simple notebook and pen. (I haven’t made the complete break, I have to admit.) A retreat exercise helped drive the points about attention and productivity home for me, and started my shift even before reading Sax’s book.  We don’t have to be Luddites, but I like to think about how the “real places” we work to save in our communities can remind us how rich and substantial a better balance with technology can have in many different aspects of our lives.

Journals

I’ve always loved journals – my journal from my Rome sabbatical on the right and my current journal on the left, with my tools of the trade. Very analog!

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Bubbles. Lots and Lots of Bubbles.

Mohonk Mountain House

Mohonk Mountain House

On a visit to Mohonk Mountain House earlier this year, I took the opportunity to reconnect with Dr. Nina Smiley.  Nina has the wonderful title of Director of Mindfulness Programming at this Victorian-era resort that has been in the Smiley family since 1869.  I first met Nina almost twenty years ago when she was serving on the board of the National Trust’s Historic Hotels of America, and she remains one of the most thoughtful, perceptive, strong, yet gentle people I know.  Talking with Nina is—to put it simply—a joy.

When we spoke in March, the topic turned—naturally—to mindfulness.  As the author of The Three Minute Meditator, Nina believes that mindfulness can be just minutes away if we give thought to how we communicate with ourselves.  That often requires recognition that our self-talk can be taking us away from the moment and leading us into a negative rut.  In the course of the conversation, Nina suggested as an exercise taking a simple task that you do multiple times a day—such as washing your hands—and using that as a cue to bring your thoughts back into the moment.

Three Minute Meditator

The Three Minute Meditator

It seems that finding a cue that works for you is key. Shortly after my conversation with Nina, I found myself at a wash basin in an airport restroom. I clearly wasn’t focused on the task at hand, but this time the outside intrusion helped bring me back to the moment.  Around the corner, I could hear a father speaking to what was clearly his very young son.  The dad’s instructions went something like this:  “Let’s begin with the water.  Now add some soap.  Begin to rub your hands together and create bubbles.  Lots of bubbles.  Lots and lots of bubbles….now rinse the bubbles off your hands.  Finally, let’s dry those hands.”

It was a simple and charming 20-second exchange. But I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment.  It was the cue I needed to take something simple and use it as a way to reconnect to the moment.  It is an exercise, if you will, to move closer to mindfulness, which Nina and her co-author (and twin brother) David Harp, define as “a mental state characterized by clarity, insight, compassion, and serenity, no matter what is going on around you.”

Clarity. Insight. Compassion. Serenity.  Those traits appear to be in short supply in today’s world, where we are constantly bombarded by outside stimuli.  Perhaps you have your own cues to bring you back to the moment.  If not, feel free to do as I do, and think “bubbles” as you stand at the wash basin.  It may lead to a small step back to mindfulness.

View of MMH

View of Mohonk Mountain House

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Observations from the Road: The Vacation Reading Edition

I’ve now been back from vacation for two weeks, and have finally decided that I am not going to find the time to write lengthy posts on each book I checked off my summer reading list.  So I’m resorting to my trusty “Observations from the Road” formula, to give you short takes on the four books I read over those two weeks.

Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott

Hallelujah Anyway:  Rediscovering Mercy — Shortly before leaving on vacation, I picked up this book by the popular author Anne Lamott after seeing several short quotes attributed to her work.  Candice’s reaction was, “You’re reading Anne Lamott?” and I understand that sentiment. Yes, she is crafty and crotchety, and she has a “perfectly calibrated NPR appeal” which can grate on some. But yes, I am.  She’s funny and a bit snarky, both traits I enjoy (when I agree) and she’s a very good writer.  She’s also brief (a quality I’m enjoying more as I plow through 500+ page works).

This is a book about mercy.  She wanders a bit in getting there, but in the end there is a good bit to take away from this small collection.

“Mercy, grace, forgiveness, and compassion are synonyms, and the approaches we might consider taking when facing a great big mess, especially the great big mess of ourselves—our arrogance, greed, poverty, disease, prejudice….the idea of accepting life as it presents itself and doing goodness anyway, the belief that love and caring are marbled even into the worst life has to offer.”

“Kindness towards others and radical kindness to ourselves buy us a shot at a warm and generous heart, which is the greatest prize of all.  Do you want this, or do you want to be right?  Well, can I get back to you on that?”

It’s the attitude in that last line that led me to respond to Candice, “Yeah, and I’m enjoying it.”

The Only Rule

The Only Rule is It Has to Work

The Only Rule is It Has to Work —You knew there had to be a baseball book in the batch…and you would be right.

This is a story of what happens when two numbers guys—Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller—get the chance to run an independent minor league team for a season.  Both worked at Baseball Prospectus and were eager to see how their sabermetric theories might play out in real life.

This is a fun read, in part because both are good writers and they have a good story to tell.  (They switch back-and-forth in writing chapters, which you get use to.)   For part of the season, they move slowly in implementing their theories.  But after they make the bold move to fire the player/manager who pushes back on many of their suggestions, changes come more quickly.  There’s the added bonus of having their team—the Sonoma Stompers—become the first professional team with an openly gay player.  Sean Conroy’s story is just one example of how the authors blend metrics and human interest in this funny and informative book.

Everybody Lies

Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Everybody Lies:  Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are — This was easily the most interesting book of the four I read over my vacation, and I picked it up after chatting with a seat mate on a recent plane ride who gave it a strong recommendation.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is a social scientist who is using new, big data sources to uncover hidden behaviors and attitudes.  He notes that Google searches are a type of “truth serum” because we undertake those searches anonymously and tools such as Google Trends can tell us what people—in huge data sets—are really thinking.  “In other words, people’s search for information is, in itself, information.”  And as Stephens-Davidowitz explains, “The power of Google data is that people tell the giant search engine things they might not tell anyone else.”  That’s true about race, politics, and especially sex.  People lie about all three things when taking surveys, but they don’t lie when searching for data in the anonymity of their living rooms.  The recent acknowledgement of the rise of white nationalism in the main stream media was something that Google searches predicted in 2008…on the night Barack Obama was elected president.  There were more searches using the “n-word president” than “first black president” in some states.

This book has much to recommend it, and much that is disturbing to know about ourselves and our fellow citizens.  There is great analysis, excellent storytelling, and witty writing throughout.  I could go into so much more here, but suffice it to say that this book will change the way you view the world.

Architecture's Odd Couple

Architecture’s Odd Couple

Architecture’s Odd Couple:  Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson — Hugh Howard’s 2016 work on the intersection of two of the 20th century’s best-known architects is an interesting read that ultimately falls short of making its central case:  which is that each architect was greatly influenced at a key point in his career development, by the work of the other.  It is a hard argument to make given that Wright was a stunningly original innovator and one of the world’s great designers.  Johnson was more of a shaper of architectural tastes whose work doesn’t reach the breadth or depth of Wright’s.  (Full disclosure:  I work for an organization, the National Trust, that owns houses designed by both men.)

Nonetheless, there is much to like and take away from Howard’s work.  The focus on Johnson’s breakthrough with the MoMA architectural exhibition that helped introduce Modernism to the American public, while alienating Wright in the process, makes for great reading.  The descriptions of Wright’s designing of his masterpieces—Fallingwater and the Guggenheim Museum—as well as Johnson’s conception of The Glass House, are compelling and showcase Howard’s writing skills.

Fallingwater

Fallingwater (photo credit: DJB)

At the end, Howard’s conclusion gets it right.

“Rather against his will, Johnson evolved into one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most important public admirers.  As a man who worshiped the zeitgeist, he found that his old nemesis’s ideas retained remarkable vibrancy.  As he came to recognize the importance and the value of their odd alliance, he also grasped that Wright’s work transcended style and even time.  Though it rendered his work inimitable, Wright’s genius was, quite simply, of a greater magnitude than Johnson’s.”

“Today, more than half a century after his death, Wright remains America’s best-known and most admired architect.  By the time Johnson died, barely a decade ago, he had become what he himself disparagingly called, ‘the famous architect.’ With his death, his fame began to recede; inversely, Wright’s clearly grows.  Yet their connection, in death as in life, enriches our understanding of both grand men of American architecture.”

Once you read this book, you’ll be ready for another field trip to New Canaan, or Bear’s Run, or Spring Green, or New York City to see the works of these two men.  And that’s reason enough to pick this one up.

More to come…

DJB