What We Are Reading Today: The Elephant in the Brain

What We Are Reading Today: The Elephant in the Brain
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Updated 14 April 2021

What We Are Reading Today: The Elephant in the Brain

What We Are Reading Today: The Elephant in the Brain

Edited by Kevin Simler & Robin Hanson

In “The Elephant in the Brain,” Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson argue that human beings are primates that are political animals. Our brains, therefore, are designed not just to hunt and gather, but also to help us get ahead socially, often via deception and self-deception. 

But while we may be self-interested schemers, we benefit by pretending otherwise. The less we know about our ugly motives, the better — and thus we don’t like to talk or even think about our selfishness. This is “the elephant in the brain.” 

Such an introspective taboo makes it hard for us to think clearly about our nature and the explanations for our behavior. This book confronts our hidden motives directly and tracks down the darker, unexamined corners of our psyches and blast them with floodlights.

Our unconscious motives drive more than just our private behavior; they also infect our venerated social institutions. You won’t see yourself — or the world — the same after confronting the elephant in the brain.


What We Are Reading Today: Ethnography through Thick and Thin by George E. Marcus

What We Are Reading Today: Ethnography through Thick and Thin by George E. Marcus
Updated 15 June 2021

What We Are Reading Today: Ethnography through Thick and Thin by George E. Marcus

What We Are Reading Today: Ethnography through Thick and Thin by George E. Marcus

In the 1980s, George Marcus spearheaded a major critique of cultural anthropology, expressed most clearly in the landmark book Writing Culture, which he coedited with James Clifford. Ethnography through Thick and Thin updates and advances that critique for the late 1990s. Marcus presents a series of penetrating and provocative essays on the changes that continue to sweep across anthropology. He examines, in particular, how the discipline’s central practice of ethnography has been changed by “multi-sited” approaches to anthropology and how new research patterns are transforming anthropologists’ careers. Marcus rejects the view, often expressed, that these changes are undermining anthropology. The combination of traditional ethnography with scholarly experimentation, he argues, will only make the discipline more lively and diverse.

The book is divided into three main parts. 

In the first, Marcus shows how ethnographers’ tradition of defining fieldwork in terms of peoples and places is now being challenged by the need to study culture by exploring connections, parallels, and contrasts among a variety of often seemingly incommensurate sites. The second part illustrates this emergent multi-sited condition of research by reflecting it in some of Marcus’s own past research on Tongan elites and dynastic American fortunes. In the final section, which includes the previously unpublished essay “Sticking with Ethnography through Thick and Thin,” Marcus examines the evolving professional culture of anthropology and the predicaments of its new scholars.


‘The Arsonists’ City’ by Hala Alyan spans the world to tell a complicated tale  

‘The Arsonists’ City’ by Hala Alyan spans the world to tell a complicated tale  
Updated 14 June 2021

‘The Arsonists’ City’ by Hala Alyan spans the world to tell a complicated tale  

‘The Arsonists’ City’ by Hala Alyan spans the world to tell a complicated tale  

CHICAGO: From California by way of Beirut, Lebanon, Hala Alyan introduces readers to the Nasr family in “The Arsonists’ City” — a family of five whose multi-faceted members create worlds within worlds to cope with their complicated lives. Alyan places her characters together in Beirut, where they’ve all laughed and loved and where some secrets come to flourish and others die.

Alyan’s story transitions between past and present, where both spiral around one another until they clash. Idris and Mazna convince their American children to travel to Beirut for the summer before Idris sells his father’s home, a decision no one takes lightly. Despite the fact that they are spread out across the globe, their grandfather’s home is their base, where their roots have taken to the Earth, where their memories come alive and where the façade of perfection holds no value against the past and the truth.

Life flourishes despite the civil war that raged in Lebanon during Idris and Mazna’s youth and the present Syrian conflict that now prevents Mazna from returning to her native Damascus. Their children, despite growing up in American, still hold dear their grandparents’ home, a short walk from the Corniche that was built two centuries ago. They remember the events of their childhood, the people and circumstances that shaped them into the adults they have become. And no matter how far from their roots they travel, how far from their grounded reality they venture, they always come back because they are connected to one another and to their past.

Alyan’s novel brims with life as the Nasr family’s secrets are revealed, pushing past into present. Spanning across the globe, from Palestine to Lebanon and from Syria to America, each character is housed in pockets of social and identity politics, exile, civil war, and everything in between. But Beirut means something different to everyone, and going back makes them all face their predicaments head-on. There is no more glossing over devastation and past tragedies here. They must relive their lives, where love rushes to the fore as quickly as heartbreak.


What We Are Reading Today: After the Fall by Ben Rhodes

What We Are Reading Today: After the Fall by Ben Rhodes
Updated 14 June 2021

What We Are Reading Today: After the Fall by Ben Rhodes

What We Are Reading Today: After the Fall by Ben Rhodes

After the Fall is an excellently written book that is equally alarming and comforting in its diagnosis regarding the nationalist direction that both America and the world at large has taken in recent years.

From 2009 to 2017, author Ben Rhodes served as deputy national security adviser to former US President Barack Obama, overseeing the administration’s national security communications, speechwriting, public diplomacy, and global engagement programming. 

His book was a “fascinating look into America in context with the rest of the world (specifically in comparison to Hungary, Hong Kong and Russia),” said a review on goodreads.com. 

“It’s an inquiry into the rise of authoritarianism, with a lot of introspection into what has changed in the US, and what has not,” said the review. 

In the book’s most appealing passages, Rhodes “sits down with people very much like himself, chastened idealists who have come to know the world as it is but refuse to conform to its demands,” said a review in The New York Times.

Prior to joining the administration, Rhodes was a senior speechwriter and foreign policy adviser to the Obama campaign from 2007 to 2008.


What We Are Reading Today: The Selected Letters of Nikos Kazantzakis

What We Are Reading Today: The Selected Letters of Nikos Kazantzakis
Updated 13 June 2021

What We Are Reading Today: The Selected Letters of Nikos Kazantzakis

What We Are Reading Today: The Selected Letters of Nikos Kazantzakis

Author: Edited and translated by Peter Bien

The life of Nikos Kazantzakis — the author of Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ — was as colorful and eventful as his fiction.
And nowhere is his life revealed more fully or surprisingly than in his letters. Edited and translated by Kazantzakis scholar Peter Bien, this is the most comprehensive selection of Kazantzakis’s letters in any language.
One of the most important Greek writers of the 20th century, Kazantzakis (1883–1957) participated in or witnessed some of the most extraordinary events of his times, including both world wars and the Spanish and Greek civil wars.
As a foreign correspondent, an official in several Greek governments, and a political and artistic exile, he led a relentlessly nomadic existence, living in France, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Soviet Union, and England.

He visited the Versailles Peace Conference, attended the 10th-anniversary celebration of the Bolshevik Revolution, interviewed Mussolini and Franco, and briefly served as a Greek Cabinet minister — all the while producing a stream of novels, poems, plays, travel writing, autobiography, and translations.


What We Are Reading Today: The Profession

What We Are Reading Today: The Profession
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Updated 12 June 2021

What We Are Reading Today: The Profession

What We Are Reading Today: The Profession

Authors: Bill Bratton and Peter Knobler

The Profession is both a searching examination of the path of policing over the past fifty years, for good and also for ill, and a master class in transformative leadership.
“A riveting combination of cop stories and community involvement, The Profession presents not only a fascinating and colorful life at the heights of law-enforcement leadership, but the vision for the future of American policing that we sorely need,” said a review on goodreads.com.
A review in The New York Times said that The Profession “begins in Boston, where William Bratton joins the police force out of high school as a highly ambitious but also highly cerebral cop, one who liked computers, geography and demographics.”
He absorbed Sir Robert Peel’s 19th-century dictum that “the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.”
Over a 50-year career in which he has headed three big-city police departments, he has walked a political and ideological tightrope that has maintained his credibility on all sides.