The Overstory by Richard Powers (Literary Fiction)

This book absolutely deserved the Pulitzer — the writing is probably the best I have ever seen; the characters have the level of depth and detail that makes them more real than the people we interact with daily; the plot — like life — is in no way predictable.

I can try to explain what the book is “about,” but it will sound like a plot and in no way will explain what it will be like to read it —to be drawn into the world it depicts in a complete immersion. It’s a book about forests — the trees and plant life that came into being about 400 million years ago and have been thrumming along ever since. It’s about philosophy and psychology and activism. It’s about how eight wildly different people with wildly different backgrounds and interests became part of the story about recognizing the rights of forests as more than simple utility for humans. I’m still not getting across what it’s about exactly 🙂

The first eight chapters serve as the introductions to each character. Each is like a short story in itself. While this served to provide the backstories, each was intriguing in its own way. Except for chapter one! I can’t explain but I didn’t like that chapter at all, and in fact this stopped me from continuing the first two times I attempted it! I can’t explain it — hated the first chapter and then got completely absorbed and never looked back.

Eight individual narrative arcs are superimposed on a segment of an ultra-long term narrative — that of forests and the planetary ecosystem. An engineer, a gaming prodigy, a property lawyer, a plant specialist, a behavioral economist, an activist, an artist, and a man I’m having a difficult time categorizing all twirl around in our current world engaging with our trees. Some cross physical paths, some influence others, all have their minds shifted in one way or the other … and we go along for the ride. All are misfits in the sense that they don’t feel forced to adhere to cultural norms and this makes them both more interesting and more capable of growth.

I love the way the author brings in so many different angles. From actual behind-the-scenes information to new (to me) concepts about rights. In succinct and yet poetic language do we learn about the nature and mechanisms of the ecosystem, the wood industry, and the way human societies behave. As an aside, this is a book that writes about nature in a way that appeals to me — I’m not a visual person so long descriptions of the way something looks does zippo for me. This book describes nature in terms of its systems using vivid imagery and detailed behaviors. And the concept of plant rights — sounds ridiculous and yet by the end of the book I was thinking about it. A quote: “Until the rightless thing receives its rights, we cannot see it as anything but a thing for the use of “us” — those who are holding rights at the time.” Wow — doesn’t that sound familiar from past and current fights?

Beautiful writing, beautiful sentiment — every sentence is perfect. Covers the gamut of interaction styles — between each other and within ourself — intellectual, spiritual, emotional. The scale of this book is only barely comprehensible to the reader — but it is. Definitely not a fast read — you’ll want to take your time with this one.

So many quotes! I had to whittle down the list but here are some of my favorites:

“Even as an infant, he hated being held. Every hug is a small, soft, jail.”

“Adam can’t stop reading. Again and again, the book shows how so-called Homo Sapiens fail at even the simplest logic problems. But they’re fast and fantastic at figuring out who’s in and who’s out, who’s up and who’s down, who should be heaped with praise and who must be punished without mercy. Ability to execute simple acts of reason? Feeble. Skill at herding each other? Utterly, endlessly brilliant.”

“We’re all trapped in the bodies of sly, social-climbing opportunists shaped to survive the savanna by policing each other.”

“… the backs of her thighs bitten Braille by wasps…”

“The understory fills up with tracks like longhand accusations scribbled on the snow. She listens to the forest, to the chatter that has always sustained her. But all she can hear is the deafening wisdom of crowds.”

“And still a part of him wants to know if his few and private thoughts might in fact be ratified by someone, somewhere. The confirmation of others: a sickness the entire race will die of.”

“You know, you look at those mountains, and you think: Civilization will fade away, but that will go on forever. Only, civilization is snorting like a steer on growth hormones, and those mountains are going down.”

“Once Ray starts a book, he force-marches through to its conclusion, however hard the slog. Dorothy doesn’t mind skipping the author’s philosophies to get to those moments when one character, often the most surprising, reaches down inside herself and is better than her nature allows.”

“Righteousness makes Mimi nuts. She has always been allergic to people with conviction. But more than she hates conviction, she hates sneaky power. She has learned things about his mountainside that sicken her. A wealthy logging outfit, backed by a pro-industry Forest Circus, is exploiting the power vacuum prior to a big court decision by rushing through an illegal grab of mixed conifers that have been growing for centuries before the idea of ownership came to these parts. She’s ready to try anything to slow the theft down. Even righteousness.”

“The article stokes his distress. Should trees have standing? This time last month, it would have been his evening’s great sport to test the ingenious argument. What can be owned and who can do the owning? What conveys a right, and why should humans, alone on the all the planet, have them? … His entire career until this moment — protecting the property of those with a right to grow — begins to seem like one long war crime, like something he’ll be imprisoned for, come the revolution.”

“His heart contracts back down to the size it was when she found him.”

“All that’s left to sell up here is nostalgia, those recent yesterdays when tomorrow seemed the answer to everything a human might ever want.”

“This is her freedom. This one. The freedom to be equal to the terrors of the day.”

“At some time over the last four hundred million years, some plant has tried every strategy with a remote chance of working. We’re just beginning to realize how varied a thing working might be. Life has a way of talking to the future. It’s called memory. It’s called genes. To solve the future, we must save the past. My simple rule of thumb, then, is this: when you cut down a tree, what you make from it should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.”

“It strikes her that she envies him. His years of enforced tranquility, the patience of his slowed mind, the expansion of his blinkered senses. He can watch the dozen bare trees in the backyard for hours and see something intricate and surprising, sufficient to his desires, while she — she is still trapped in a hunger that rushes past everything.”

“A massive, crowd-sourced urgency unfolds in Like-Land, and the learners, watching over these humans’ shoulders, noting each time a person clicks, begin to see what it might be: people, vanishing en masse into a replicated paradise.”

The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis (Non Fiction)

Fascinating book about the birth of the field now known as Behavioral Economics. Part biography, part history, part research summary, this is the story both of the evolution of a friendship and collaboration as well as the melding of two previously disconnected fields: Economics and Psychology.

After their first meeting around 1968, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman were rarely apart. The decades long tight collaboration that resulted produced a stunning number of key insights and seminal papers on the psychology of Judgement and Decision Making. The primary idea: there is systematic bias in the way people make decisions. Their work was responsible for the fall of the concept of the “rational man.”

They studied the cognitive basis for common human errors and elaborated on a set of heuristics (simple rules) and cognitive biases that subconsciously influenced the way people formed judgements or made decisions. Many of the resulting concepts — such as Anchoring, Framing, Hindsight, and the Halo Effect — have become household terms. Their “Prospect Theory,” created in 1979 and developed in 1992, was a “psychologically more accurate” description of how people made decisions, replacing the previously accepted Utility Theory which claimed that people made decisions by rationally calculating the utility (or value) of all potential outcomes. Applications of this work are widespread, ranging across medicine (evidence based medicine), sports, finance, and military uses.

Some of the heuristics:
• Representativeness heuristic: the decision making shortcut that determines probability based on how well the subject is representative of a stereotype.
• Availability heuristic: the mental shortcut that makes decisions based on examples that come immediately to mind.
• Anchoring and adjustment heuristic: the influence of a previously suggested reference point (the anchor) on a person’s assessment of probability.
• Simulation heuristic: the shortcut for determining an event based on how easy it is to imagine – or “the power of unrealized possibilities to contaminate people’s minds.”

Some of the biases
• Recency bias: Decision making based on the relative ease of remembering something that happened recently rather than long ago.
• Vividness bias: bias based on the ease with which an option can be recalled.
• Hindsight bias: the tendency of people to overestimate their ability to have predicted an outcome that they could not have possibly predicted.
• Present bias: The tendency of people to undervalue future with respect to present.

The structure of the book follows the story of the two men. Though the closest of friends and collaborators until the last few years of Tversky’s life, their personalities and background were quite different. While both Israeli, Amos came from an aggressive Zionist family, while Danny and his family escaped from Nazi Europe; Danny was an appeaser, Amos a bully; Amos loved theory while Danny liked practical application of psychology, “Amos was built to fight, Danny was built to survive.” The book includes captivating detail about their backgrounds and interactions, and the process by which the work took flight and captured the interest of researchers and practitioners around the world.

The journalistic style of the story makes the personal bits easy to remember, with the research results a little harder to grasp in its entirety. The narrative jumps around a bit and the down side of watching a theory evolve (and not necessarily in a linear order) is that it can be harder to comprehend the whole. I found reading the Wikipedia articles on Kahneman and Tversky helped supplement my understanding of the actual work.

Some great quotes:
Asked if their work was related to AI, Amos said: “We study natural stupidity instead of Artificial Intelligence.”

In response to evolutionary psychology proponents Amos said, “The mind was more like a coping mechanism than it was a perfectly designed tool.”

On “Creeping determinism,” Amos says: “He who sees the past as surprise-free is bound to have a future full of surprises.”

“Economics was meant to be the study of an aspect of human nature, but it had ceased to pay attention to human nature.”

“Theories for Amos were like mental pockets or briefcases, places to put the ideas you wanted to keep.”