thomas m wilson

10 Best Books of 2018

December 17th, 2018

The end of the year approaches and I look back at the world of new books….

 


 

Each year about this time the newspaper and the commentariat is full of lists of ‘Best Books of 2018’.  I usually have very little overlap with the choices of the journalists and commentators who make these lists (this year the novel The Overstory was on many lists and on mine), so I thought I’d contribute my selection.  I’ve given myself a limit of ten books, and the books have to have been published for the first time in 2018.

Pinker’s book, along with Hans Rosling Factfulness (which was almost on this list and I urge you to read), has made me much more grateful for everything that has been going right in the world.  I read the reviews of Pinker’s book before reading the book and am shocked at how so many reviewers themselves seem prone to the negativity bias that Pinker diganoses amongst the left-leaning intelligentsia.  I don’t agree with every sentence in the book but its still worth attending to.

Hari’s Lost Connections is a good summary of why you might still feel a sense of emptiness even when you’re sitting amongst the fruits of what progress we have achieved in the developed world (or the Level 4 world to use Rosling’s terminology).

Tony Hoagland died this year and we have lost one of contemporary English language poetry’s greatest voices.  Thankfully he left us with this new collection.  Mark Halliday’s book of poems Losers Dream On is also more than worth the price of admission.  Both men speak candidly about love, loss, death and reveal the funnier side of the inanities of contemporary life.

Damasio’s The Strange Order of Things: The closest I’ve read to a theory of life and everything in a while. Damasio demonstrates how feelings are mental representations of how close the inner environment of the viscera and the endocrine system is to the ideal of homeostasis. If the organism is in a state conducive to homeostasis then the feelings are of a pleasant nature. If far then of an unpleasant nature. The interesting thing is that the nature of emotion and affect in accompanying the regulation of homeostasis is new in terms of evolutionary time. Single celled bacteria don’t have feelings, but they do exhibit many of the behaviours that our affect goes along with. Brilliant book – possibly revolutionary.

The Plant Messiah of the title is Carlos Magdalena.  He works at Kew, and this long haired Spaniard takes you into the world of botanical horticulture and critically endangered plants.  Imagine finding a tree on a mountain in Mauritius and realising that there are only two of them left on the planet.   This book along with Richard Powers The Overstory (a novel at which the tree and trees are at the very centre of many different lives) have done a good job at pushing back at the plant blindness to which humans are prone.

The one biography that made my list is about Bruno Manser, the closest that we’ve had in the late twentieth century to a person who has grown up as a Westerner and then completely stepped into the world of traditional hunter-gatherers and taken on their lifeways and their culture.  Powerful and illuminating book, set in Borneo mainly.

Rule Makers Rule Breakers is a summary of recent research in cross-cultural psychology about why some cultures are more socially conservative (tight) and why some are more liberal (loose).  Important book to read if you want to understand the Middle East, amongst other regions.

Jonathan Haidt’s latest is a manual you should have in your pocket if you want to venture onto a university campus today.  Many lessons to take from the book, for example we should be preparing the child for the road, not the road for the child.  This isn’t Haidt’s best book (mainly because some of it is derived from his previous work), but it still makes my list for the significance of its messages.

  1. Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions.   Hari, Johann    (Bloomsbury USA 2018)
  2. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.  Pinker, Steven            (Viking 2018)
  3. Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God: Poems.   Hoagland, Tony   Graywolf Press (2018)
  4. The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures.  Damasio, Antonio         Pantheon (2018)
  5. The Plant Messiah: Adventures in Search of the World’s Rarest Species.  Magdalena, Carlos              Penguin (2018)
  6. The Overstory.   Powers, Richard          William Heinemann (2018)
  7. Losers Dream On (Phoenix Poets).  Halliday, Mark University of Chicago Press (2018), 94 pages
  8. The Last Wild Men of Borneo: A True Story of Death and Treasure.  Hoffman, Carl William Morrow & Company (2018)
  9. Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World.  Gelfand, Michele   Scribner Book Company (2018)
  10. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.   Haidt, Jonathan, Allen Lane (2018)

 

And finally, here are the books that almost made my list of 10 Best Books published in 2018.  All of these have also made an impact on me.

Buddhism in the Forests of Sri Lanka

December 10th, 2018

A few days ago I was standing at the feet of this Buddha statue, carved from a stone mountain around 300 AD.  I looked up at the quiet and serene face of the mountain in the midst of the forest and the midst of the countryside.  Only elephants, birds, insects and the odd monk for company many, many centuries.  The gentle smile of the Buddha’s face.

This Buddha had been carved to express a different look from different angles and when standing at its feet and looking up the expression was of utter contentment.

2018 has been the year in which I read Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright, the Yale based philosopher.  It has allowed me to see the ways in which the process of biological evolution did not set us humans up to be happy, and shown me the ways in which Buddhist practices can, in a way, ‘cheat’ evolution and allow more calm and contentment in one’s days.

Wright talks about the different cognitive modules that our minds work with, for example sexual jealousy or violent rage.  Sometimes an emotion of this kind will arise with the dynamics of its particular cognitive module, and a practiced Buddhist will be able to watch it arise and not identify with it or get swept up into it, and it will fizzle out rather than hijack one’s psychology.  Wright does a good job of taking an admittedly secular and naturalistic version of Buddhism (yes, a very selective and Western reading of Buddhist traditions) and showing how it has some very useful psychological tools in its psychological toolkit.

So as I looked up into the calm smile of the Buddha on this granite mountain in the middle of the forests of tropical Sri Lanka I had this appreciation of Buddhist philosophy in the back of my consciousness.  On the other hand I also had a purely momentary and subjective sense of well being and pleasure at the way in which the ancient stone carving spoke to me.  And this was as if the land was speaking to me.  The smile, for me, was the smile of utter ease and acceptance of the greater natural world of which we are a part.  The sense of the mountain smiling.  The face of the Buddha above me was the face of man in nature, calm and untroubled, far from the city, far from the contemporary and the babble of the street, deep and triumphant in the ancient and yet every young world of leaves and bird song and drifting herds of elephants and tree-time.  So it was an important moment for me, making it to this little visited statue of the Buddha and, more generally, making it north-central Sri Lanka where there is a significant connection between the life and iconography of the Buddha and the natural world.

Ascending up into the clouds on an early morning visit to the sacred mountain of Mihnitale in north-central Sri Lanka.  Ascension to contentment and calm is something we can all join Buddhist pilgrims in wanting more of.

 

And finally, just a couple of other travel photos…

 

Two men sat by the side of the road under a big old tree which cast deep shade and provided refuge from the powerful heat of the tropical sun. I stood in the field behind them and pretended to be interested in the view in the opposite direction, but really I was just interested in the prospect of two men relaxing under a tree in the middle of the day by the side of the road, something not seen very often in workaholic Australian capital cities.

 

 

As far as I know Sri Lankans haven’t built a single kilometre of new railway line since the British left the island, and the tracks are not in great condition.  But on the other hand that is part of the charm of the place – it hasn’t been relentlessly modernised like say, homogenised and concrete-clad China in the late twentieth century.  There are still to be seen, hanging as I was out of the side of the slowly moving train carriage over fields of low cut and bright green tea plantations, little rural hamlets looking out of beautiful prospects of green mountains and valleys.  Village life is often poor, but also still cohesive and seemingly functioning as you roll through the highlands.  Its hard not to feel alive and adventurous on the Kandy-Ella train, rolling through mists and along mountain sides and past valleys where a thundering waterfall falls in the midst of indigenous alpine forest, the smell of the wet earth sucked deep into avid nostrils.

 

 

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