Sunday, December 19, 2010

Childhood's End -- Arthur C. Clarke ------------------------ 5 Stars

Every so often one stumbles upon a book that is absolutely fantastic you can't help but wonder why you never read it before. Usually, you hear about the book through a small article or website, in a random conversation, or when speaking to a friend or family member. Well, I was recommended Childhood's End through the latter source. My father, who enjoys different books than I (science vs. politics, fiction vs. non) recommended this in a recent conversation. Like most folks who recommend a book, he absolutely 'loved' it and thought it was 'one of the best books he's read'. I was immediately apprehensive. He told me Arthur C. Clarke might be the best science fiction writer ever; I didn't know him from Adam. But, as they say, father (or is it mother?....well, whatever) knows best.

Childhood's End is a perfect novel. I don't even know where to start in describing it. A quick synopsis: quasi-aliens come to Earth and sort of take over but not completely. Life gets better for humans. It moves forward about 50 years, they do some other things then it gets crazier, and then there is a really cool ending.

That's about all I can reveal without giving it away. See, it's in the genre of science fiction, but it's not hardcore science fiction. I hate science fiction, this is good stuff. In fact, the novel is much more about the human civilization and how individuals struggle within a society. It also questions the importance of humans in the grand scheme of the world/universe/galaxy thing. It reminds me more of a 1984 and Brave New World then a science fiction book.

Anyway, back to may raving. The novel is superb. It is quite short, but Clarke does such an unbelievable job with the story that every page, every sentence, every word is critical. I found myself rereading passages and paragraphs again, not because they were confusing or cumbersome (like some writers) but because he said so much with so few words. In fact, that was what I found most surprising and enjoyable about this novel: how much I enjoyed his writing style. Simple, yet deep and so crisp and easy to follow.

The novel also had so many overarching existentialist thoughts and musings. The great part, unlike many authors, Clarke never takes a real view; he just presents both sides and the reader can interpret as he sees fit. Clarke will present the one side, of the smallness and how inconsequential the human race is and then quickly show another side, which values people's work in the arts, literature, music, etc. Really, it was quite well done.

Now, one might wonder how it's possible that this short book could garner a 5 star rating. Does it have any weaknesses one might ask? Well, the one thing that Clarke does not do well, is character development. There is no real depth to the characters, and they are introduced and removed fairly quickly. But, as I said earlier, it's a perfect novel. I believe that is all quite on purpose. This book is NOT about people and individuals, its about society and humanity as a whole. It's written with the focus on the BIG picture, not simple, minuscule human individuals.

All in all, it truly is a great novel and wonderful book. Easily up there with the likes of the other 5 star novels I have reviewed: East of Eden, The Godfather, and Pillars of the Earth. It's a book that says something. It's a book that is incredibly fun to read (I finished it in 3 days). It's really well written. The ending is honest to the novel and unexpected. I don't know what else to say about it, but you should go get it. Like I said originally, every once in a while a book comes along that you don't know why you haven't read it before but after you do you are so happy you did. This is that book!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Nudge – Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein ------ 2.5 STARS

So, it's been exactly one month since my last post and things have changed. I erroneously and sillllyy (that's right, I just added an 'ly"to silly) thought that I would have more time to read with a newborn around. Oi! I know see the error of my ways. He seems to keep us pretty busy as witnessed by it taking a month to read this fairly short book. However, in my defense, part of the tardiness in completing Nudge was it's lack of umph. See, the book really wasn't that good. In fact, it was one of those books I had on my 'must read' list for a while, and I was really quite disappointed.

The book, as the title implies, is about little things that can be done to nudge people to make better decisions. The authors focus specifically on health, wealth and happiness (important stuff), and the idea behind the book is great. It is of the Gladwell and Airely ilk of quasi behavioral economics (kind of psychology + economics) and quasi political scienciey (I like this making words up thing). The big problem though is that is written by two economists. No, I don't like to put down economists just to put them down (they already have so much going against them with their calculators and geeky pocket protectors...jk), but they aren't the most exciting writers. In fact, there were times were I thought I was reading a textbook. That wouldn't be a problem if that was what I was getting into, but I thought this was a book for pleasure and would have a bit more creativity and excitement to it (to wit - the genius of Gladwell).

So, the writing was dry, boring and long at many points, and that was the biggest turnoff. In fact, it was almost painful to finish the book as the best stuff, in my opinion, was at the start. Let's talk about the good stuff.
Well, there were some good stats. Like, when going out to eat with others you eat 35% more than usual with 1 other person, 75% more with groups of 4 or more and 96% more if with more than 7 people. If trying to help people quit smoking the best way to do so is with money. People who pledged a certain amount of money to stop smoking, and would lose it if they did smoke, quit 53% more of the time than average. And, of course the best, by putting a fake fly in the bottom of a urinal, 80% less spillage occurs.

Overall, the book left me with some good summarizing ideas that might be applicable to one's own life. Specifically, when trying to nudge people remember the importance of social factors. People will often make decisions based little on economic viability and more with what others are doing. Another lesson, the default choice is incredibly important. If people are deciding something, whatever is the default is what most will go make sure it's the right choice.

In general, the authors support something called libertarian paternalism which basically means liberty preserving. However, I found most of their suggestions to have a lot of "choice" already made in them. Almost always they support allowing people to choose what they would like in a situation BUT they nearly always have an option that people will automatically choose for people or has something set for them. So, although they do always have an option of free choice they nearly always want policies to be set up to help people as if they don't know what they are doing. Well, I think this is .............. great! People are stupid; those in the know should help them.

So, overall, it's not a bad book. Had I never heard of it and just picked it off the shelf to read it would have been given a higher rating. It is fairly interesting and the authors ideas I agree with and support more than most other books I read. I was just so UP for reading it and it was just written in such a boring way it was tough to give it a great rating.