Sunday, August 25, 2019

Range - David Epstein ------------------- 2.5 Stars

About a month ago, I read David Epstein's last book, The Sports Gene, and reviewed it here. As you can see, I thoroughly enjoyed his detailed look at why great athletes are world class at sports. In perhaps a more important book, Range studies why certain people become the best in their field and/or who might change the world. However, unlike the last book, it was not nearly as an enjoyable read.

To be clear, I thoroughly enjoyed his premise and appreciated the argument he makes - generalists triumph in a specialized world (yes, I copied that from the cover). His point, is that far too often in our education focused world, we take some of our smartest and most creative and breed that out of them while they specialize deeper and deeper in a singular subject. He continues that the greatest inventions, positive changes in our world, strongest athletes, best musicians, etc. had broader backgrounds, were later starters, etc.

So, he makes a strong case. However, I strongly feel this book could have either been a long article or about 150 pages shorter. Again, he makes a strong case early in the book to support his argument. And while I appreciate the varying stories he tells (nearly all of which I had not heard before) to strengthen his argument, he goes on far too long, either in the telling of the story or adding more stories. Really, it's a fairly narrow argument, so after you understand his viewpoint with a few examples, it makes sense. I didn't feel the numerous subsequent chapters relaying the same message were necessary.

Like the previous book, Epstein had some fascinating examples to support his premise. Perhaps the most interesting in this book is the story of orphaned musicians of the Venetian sex industry who become world class musicians on multiple instruments centuries ago. Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, too often these examples aren't nearly as interesting and exciting as one would hope.

Overall, the premise of the book is fantastic. I think he's questioning about the limitations of specialization and the importance of people being able to think in a more broad way is incredibly important. I just don't think you need such a long book to make the point. If only there was a condensed article to save the time; alas, here is a perfect one from the Atlantic written earlier this summer. Enjoy!

Monday, August 19, 2019

The Monuments Men - Robert Edsel -------------------- 4 Stars

Perhaps, you were like me and saw The Monuments Man movie, or even the PBS special (The Rape of Europa), about a decade ago. But, were you also like me and read and enjoyed the splendid book that both were based on? If not, read ahead (actually, just read ahead regardless).

If not familiar, the book/movies are about a great story regarding a group of men who served in the armed services during World War II. Their expressed objective was to keep the Nazis from destroying the greatest art/cultural pieces in Western Europe. The book follows the story of about a half a dozen of the most important characters that worked as Monuments Men from 1940 to 1945.

When I started, I wasn't sure I'd be as engaged in the story as the movie. Like often, the movie was (obviously) much shorter and pulled the most important aspects of the book. However, I was so pleased to enjoy the book as fully as I did. As happens often when comparing book vs. movie; the level of depth the author was able to spend with back stories, small details, and rounding of characters, made the book a fascinating read. Surprisingly, I struggled to put the book down, as the author did a masterful job of jumping from character to character; and, as soon as one start began to ran dull, it jumped back to another character's big discovery or closeness to death (that happens in war).

The book also had some existential themes run throughout. Perhaps, what made me most pensive, was the idea of a person's life/worth vs. a classic piece of art or historical document. Can you compare one to the other? Does any life trump non-life? Alternatively, is there any life as "valuable" as, say the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo's David? While the author never posed these questions in the book, I found myself often thinking about these incredibly famous historical works that were truly saved or rescued while the many losses of life necessary to do so.

I found few drawbacks of the book. Like any non-fiction story, there were times when the paced slowed too dramatically. In addition, some of the characters are a bit more interesting than others. So, there are parts where I was hoping that the author might jump to a more interesting character; but that feeling really did not last long (as the book did usually jump!)

I'd recommend this book to nearly all readers. It's a great unknown piece of history, especially during one of the most important periods of all time. The stories of these heroes that truly saved some of the world's great masterpieces is not to be missed or underappreciated.

Friday, August 9, 2019

The Sports Gene - David Epstein ---------------- 4 Stars

While David Epstein's new book, Range, is getting some positive reviews, his earlier book, The Sports Gene, included many of the viewpoints espoused in his most recent book. While I look forward to reading, Range, I really enjoyed The Sports Gene.

The premise of the book is pretty interesting - basically, based on recent scientific discoveries, there are some underlying genes that make people better/worst at certain sports. What's also interesting is that he also party discredits some of the more common views that "you can grow up to do anything" or the now normed, 10,000 hours idea (which is that you need 10,000 hours to become an expert in anything (popularized by Malcolm Gladwell)). The book goes on to talk about all the different findings regarding the discoveries about the human body and that affect on athletes from around the world.

Overall, the book is really quite fascinating. For me, it was an interesting read as the majority of the book was talking about why athletes are great and experts at what they do. Unlike, many of the past book recently about this topic, including the reviewed Talent is Overrated, it was interesting to hear more about the other side of the nature/nurture coin. As you can imagine, some the author's premises are difficult for others to hear/want to discuss. First, he basically puts out that your genetic make-up has a lot more to do with success than hard work; not a great narrative for many coaches/parents/teachers to hear. Second, there is a lot about race that goes into this book which also can be hard for others to digest. For example, science has shown (and reality) that runners from the eastern part of Africa tend to be much stronger at shorter distances, while those on the western part (see: Keyna marathoners) tend to be much better at long distances. Science has shown different genetic make up (that they believe were based on revolutions over time based on their social needs) between the two sets of people. Similarly, if you ever notice that many of those winning 100 meter dashes in the Olympics come from Jamaica (again, a similar gene arrangement).

The only downside of the book is that, on too many occasions, it goes a bit deeper into the science than necessary. While I do feel the author did a good job breaking very complicated science down to easily digestible pieces for laymen readers, there are sometimes long passages or almost page(s) dedicated to the specific scientific underpinnings that make his point. While not a huge negative, it did take away from the reader on some occassions.

As a whole, I really enjoyed the read. Mixing peak athletic performance, with a philosophical mix of nature/nurture, this book was right in my sweet spot of interest. I also enjoyed hearing a more slanted nature viewpoint to help balance most of what I have read/heard more about lately. While I do believe (as does the author) that it is a large mix of both to be an expert at anything, this book does jive with my own "eye test" about observing athletes becoming great (just take a look at how many NBA players have only started playing in their past few years of life). Do check this book out if you have any interest in what makes superb athletes or the science behind the "nature" trumps nurture idea.