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The Omnivorous Reader - October, 2017


The Omnivorous Reader

November 2 · Issue #3 · View online

Recommendations, reviews, and assorted digital flotsam and jetsam

Hi, all.
Here’s what I’ve been reading this month.
Why You’re Getting This: This reading list is going out to old and new friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. If you’re receiving this, I thought you might appreciate it.
Feel free to unsubscribe–obligatory reading is the worst.
If you know a fellow reader who might enjoy it, please pass it along.

Here’s something I’ve never said: “Well, I’m not really enjoying this book, but I’m already 50 pages in, so I guess I’ll finish it.”  I’m convinced that the only way to read lots of stuff is to make sure I ruthlessly abandon books I’m not enjoying. 
One of the benefits of using the library, the Library Extension (Have you installed it yet?), and Interlibrary Loans is that you don’t have to deal with any sunk-cost feelings about discarding a book you’ve already purchased. It’s great when I want to read everything I’ve checked out of the library, but more often than not, I’m abandoning at least one book for every book I end up finishing. And abandoning a book doesn’t mean I’ll never read it–I can always try it again another time. 
By way of example, here’s a bunch of books that I didn’t read (or in one case, reread) this month:
Nope...or at least, not right now.
Nope...or at least, not right now.
Autonomous by Annalee Newitz
I primarily grabbed this one due to a favorable blurb from William Gibson on the front cover, which is pretty much the literary equivalent of catnip to me. This was a terrific science fiction story with very interesting takes on both bio-tech and AI. When done well, I’ve found that AI narrators afford us the ability to take a wry look at our own consciousness using the language of software and hardware. My favorite was the following musing from one of the robotic characters:
“Knowing this didn’t bother [him]. These feelings came from programs that ran in a part of his mind that he couldn’t access. He was a user of his own consciousness, but he didn’t have owner privileges. As a result, [he] felt many things without knowing why.”
Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
I don’t read a ton of mysteries, but I’ve been on an Agatha Christie kick since reading Magpie Murders, which is a mystery within a mystery with a pleasingly intertwined narrative–sort of a Cloud Atlas starring Hercule Poirot.
The setup is that the editor of a series of mystery novels receives the unfinished manuscript–and therefore unresolved mystery–of the author’s final novel only to hear that the author himself is has died under mysterious circumstances. Satisfyingly, the narratives don’t skip back and forth very much–instead, the author’s mystery is allowed to mostly come to its cliffhanger before the story pulls back to focus on the editor.
As a mystery itself, it was fun. As a sort of love letter to the mystery story, it was deeply insightful:
“Whodunnits are all about truth: nothing more, nothing less. In a world full of uncertainties, is it not inherently satisfying to come to the last page with every i dotted and every t crossed? The stories mimic our experience in the world. We are surrounded by tensions and ambiguities, which we spend half our life trying to resolve, and we’ll probably be on our own deathbed when we reach that moment when everything makes sense. Just about every whodunnit provides that pleasure. It is the reason for their existence.” 
The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey
I was skeptical of this one as I worry that we’re fetishizing failure through a weird interpretation of Dweck’s work on the growth mindset
Lahey, a middle school teacher and current parent, surprised me with her sensible take on challenge and expectations. There’s nothing groundbreaking about the books’s central message: That parents need to let children suffer the disappointments and frustrations that come from making mistakes without swooping in to save them.
But Lahey writes thoughtfully about the struggle to do so when it comes to academic struggles (e.g. If your kid leaves their finished homework at home and you’re going by school later anyway, do you drop it off for them?) and about how robbing kids of agency and choice in the name of “protecting” them avoids the central task of parenting: Raising a self-reliant adult.   
Other Clicks and Views
Reboot for the AI revolution : Nature News & Comment
Nick Winkelman on Blocked, Serial and Random Practice - Teach Like a Champion
I hope you’re all doing well and that you can find (or make) the time to read whichever of these books catches your interest. And if you know of a good book that you’d recommend, please pass it along.
Take care,
Chris Cunningham
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