Nine Nasty Words by John McWhorter

Title and author printed stylistically on an orange background

I read this one just for fun. Think of it as a modern version of George Carlin’s seven words you can’t say on TV. I used to listen to the author’s podcast Lexicon Valley, so I knew what to expect. While he is a linguistics professor at Columbia, he is also down-to-earth, funny, and entertaining.

Profanity in English has gone through a series of great shifts. Initially, bad words were those related to religion such as “damn” and “hell”. Then as religion became less important in every day life during the Enlightenment, cursing moved to those words related to our bodies like “fuck”, “shit”, “ass”, “dick”, and “pussy”. Today, the most profane and forbidden words are those that slur others. I almost hate to write them here, but the two he covers in the book are “nigger” and “faggot”. While I have used many of the others (and often still do), I never use the last two.

There is a chapter on each of these words. In each, the author goes over not only the word itself but how it became profane. He also covers any other versions of it and some fascinating insights. Here is one example.

As we take our leave from fuck, I can’t help mentioning that on ye olde Fucker John and the descent of his surname from an antique French name Fulcher, I refrained from mentioning one of the chance renditions of the original word. One outcome of Fulcher, as humans rolled it around in their mouths over the generations, was Folger. Those of us who remember television’s Mrs. Olson, as well as those of us who are in on the fact that instant coffee is actually somewhat better than one might think despite the cultural penetration of Starbucks, can enjoy that on a certain abstract level, there are people across America starting their day with a good hot cup of Fucker’s Coffee.

This book was a fun romp through the crazy evolution of bad language. I recommend it to anyone who ever wondered about some of the profanity that is used in English, “Why do we say that?”

My rating: 4/5

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

The title surrounded by laurels on a cream colored background meant to look like old parchment

I was looking for a single volume book that covers the history of ancient Rome. In school I had learned about the ancient Greeks and Alexander the Great followed by the Roman Empire and its Senate. But I didn’t know very much about either. My research for a history of Rome led me to this book, which tells the story of Rome from its founding in the eighth century BCE to the granting of citizenship to all free inhabitants by Emperor Caracalla in 212 CE.

Overall, I found the book enlightening. Rather than presenting a bunch of cardboard characters with names and dates, the author gives a surprisingly approachable history that presents the times as very much like our own with people just trying to live their lives. I learned about the leaders, generals, and emperors, but I also read about the poor and enslaved. I gained a view of ancient Rome that was very different than I expected from my cursory knowledge before reading the book.

The author is British. This posed a bit of a challenge for me as an American. Yes, the spelling was different with a lot of extra u‘s, but that wasn’t the issue. The perspective was just the slightest bit different with the use of some words I wasn’t familiar with. That slowed me down. The layout of the content added to the complexity of the topic. It is not strictly chronological, though it mostly is. The subject matter is so vast, there was a little bit of a topical focus that required a little back in forth in time.

In the end, I feel that this book gave me a much clearer and better understanding of a history I formerly only knew at the surface. The work was a little challenging and not a quick read, but I am grateful for the knowledge gained.

My rating: 3.5/5

Respectful Genetic Archeology

Origin book cover

I read multiple books at a time–at least one fiction and one non-fiction. At the same time that I started reading The Peacekeeper, I also started reading Origin by Jennifer Raff. The Peacekeeper is a novel that takes place in an alternative present where North America was never colonized. Origin is about the peopling of North America. It is written by a biological anthropologist–she uses genetics to study our ancient human past. It turned out to be a good pairing.

In this book the author presents both the archeological and genetic evidence for how and when humans first arrived in the Americas. I found the addition of the genetic evidence fascinating. While I might have thought that genetics would have unambiguously narrowed the possibilities, this does not seem to be the case. It brings some clarity but also some questions and therefore some dispute. Raff is open and transparent about this dispute, doing her best to simply present what the evidence could mean as well as pointing to what most archeologists believe.

What I most appreciated about this book is that it is sensitive to what the genetic research means to indigenous peoples. Tribes consider the DNA and bodies of their ancestors to be sacred. Scientists and archeologists have not always respected this. Raff discusses at length in the latter part of the book how this has hampered research and the trust needed between indigenous peoples and the scientific community that are required to perform it. All in all this book is a wonderful introduction and foundation for understanding the current state of genetic archeology in the Americas as it continues to develop.

Finding the Right Book

The Card Catalog book cover

After reading The Library, I was hoping for something a little more interesting in the realm of the history of books. I found this gem in my read pile and dug right in. The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures by The Library of Congress is the type of narrative history I was looking for.

Granted, it is more a history of how books are found in a library than a history of the library itself. It also has the flaw of being mostly about Europe and the United States, though due to the fact that the author is listed as The Library of Congress that is hardly surprising. Most importantly, the prose is both informative and engaging.

The added bonus in this book is all the photos. Yes, of cards from card catalogs but also of books, libraries, and individuals that are the core of the story. This book really brought back memories of time spent with a card catalog drawer pulled out, looking for just the right book. A fascinating look at book history.

A Dry History

The Library book cover

I learned about The Library: A Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen from a Jeff Jarvis tweet. I was intrigued by his comments and the subject matter of the book and added it to my read pile. I recently finished reading it and have to say that I was very disappointed.

The book is quite dry and very slow. In fact, it reads a bit like a graduate dissertation that was edited for the general public. The feel is that lots of facts were gathered together and linked with spare prose. The prose and the facts are interesting and informative but a long way from entertaining, at least for me.

Another drawback is that the book is almost entirely focused on Europe and the United States. There is no exploration of libraries or their history anywhere else except for the very brief discussion of the Library of Alexandria in Africa. Surely the Muslim world had libraries during the Dark Ages when Europe was basically struggling to simply survive.

As I said, this book wasn’t my favorite. Maybe I came to it expecting too much. I certainly expected more than it gave.

Our Digital Present and Biological Future

The Code Breaker book cover

Today we live in world that is largely dominated by computers and the internet. The history of how we got here is well told by Walter Isaacson in his book The Innovators. If we’ve learned anything in the last two years, our future seems likely to be influenced by biology and epidemiology. Walter Isaacson’s latest book explores this recent history and potential future in his latest book The Code Breaker.

In The Code Breaker he tells the history of CRISPR-Cas9 and gene editing, centering it around the Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna. The first part of the book is partly a biography of her and her race with other scientists to unlock the key to editing human genes. The story is one of both scientific competition and collaboration.

The book raises ethical questions about editing human DNA. Will it create a privileged group of super humans, leaving the poor behind? At the same time, don’t we have an obligation to help those with genetic diseases like sickle cell and Huntington’s disease?

Finally, the author covers the role these same scientists played in the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly when it comes to testing. The discoveries made there may lead to better and faster detection of many diseases beyond COVID-19.

If you are interested in how we got to the digital age we find ourselves in, read The Innovators. And when you finish that one, read The Code Breaker to get up to speed on our present and future in the biological sciences.

Unusual Writing Style Choices

Matrix book cover

I can’t remember how I first learned about Lauren Groff’s novel MatrixWhat I do remember is being attracted to the subject matter. A story about a reluctant nun who uses her newfound role as abbess to build her abbey and protect the women in it. It deals with feminist themes during a time (England in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries) when women’s roles were limited, to say the least. After reading the novel, I can’t say that I’d recommend it to everyone.

On the positive side, it is extraordinarily well-written. The reader is absolutely immersed in the convent and the life of the sisters there — the cycle of church services, the prayer, the work. And you are immersed in the emotions of the characters as well. And while the novel is very feminist in its philosophy, it emerges gently from the experience of the main character Marie. I never felt like I was hit over the head with it. On the contrary, I often found myself trying to navigate what exactly the main character was aiming at ultimately.

Unfortunately, while the writing is excellent, it is also very laden with terms of the world in which it takes place. Many of these are understandable from the context, but many are left unclear. This pulled me from the story to try to figure out what was being said. And there were absolutely no quotation marks in the whole book. Dialog takes place in this odd sort of reported way without the use of direct quotation. And the text almost reads like it was written in first person, though it is not. I found this combination of style choices jarring, repeatedly taking me out of the story.

In the end, I have to say that I am happy to have read the book and I enjoyed it somewhat while reading it. However, I would not recommend it to the casual reader. This feels like a book that is best read in a college English class exploring feminist themes and/or medieval monasticism. So if those themes are your happy place and you enjoy exploring an unusual writing style, this book may be for you. Everyone else, I suggest giving it a pass.

Why Humans (and Machines) Play Games

Seven Games book cover

Author Oliver Roeder in his book Seven Games uses those seven games (checkers, chess, go, backgammon, poker, Scrabble, and bridge) to explore both the human history of games in general as well as how the approach to creating artificial intelligence (AI) has changed as it has been applied to games. At first those developing AI tried to develop machines that think like humans do. But that direction was unfruitful due to the depth of the games. There was simply too much to these games to simply use brute force calculations. New approaches were attempted and the results were a completely different way to think about games, a machine way.

The book also highlights the best players of each of these games and how AI has affected them and game play in general. The author does an excellent job of showing the human side of playing games and their importance to human development. And he takes what could be a very dry topic (AI) and makes it extremely relatable. For anyone interested in games in general or the development of AI, I highly recommend this book.

A Complicated Man

Cover of the book American Lion by John Meacham

History is full of turning points. One such turning point in US history is the presidency of Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States. Before him, the office was seen largely as administrative and inferior in role to the Congress. The government was largely elected and run by elites elected by a very small electorate largely made up of white male land owners. This left much of the population unrepresented. The slow change to larger enfranchisement started during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. The presidential biography American Lion by John Meacham covers these years and Jackson’s role in them.

The book leans largely toward hagiography in the vain of much Lincoln biography. Jackson saw himself as a father figure to the nation, a champion and savior of the people, and the author shares this view with little exposition on the darker moments in his presidency. Regardless, this is a largely well-written overview of Jackson’s life as a US president.

Jackson saw the role of president differently than his predecessors. He saw a strong role for the president as the only federal office directly elected by all citizens. While this was not strictly true (and still isn’t) due to the electoral college, it is not entirely inaccurate either. At that time Senators were still elected by state legislatures. The election for president was the closest thing the country had to a national mandate. Our modern view of the role of president started with Andrew Jackson, and this book is an excellent introduction to this history.

The book is heavy on the Eaton affair and its affects on the first years of the Jackson administration. It also covers the main events of Jackson’s presidency in fair detail including the Bank War and the nullification crisis. It is regrettably short on coverage of the treatment of native Americans in general and the Seminoles and Cherokees in particular as well as the growing controversy over slavery. This last is an especially grievous oversight as Jackson himself was a slaveholder. I was left with the feeling that the author so admires the strengths of Jackson that he couldn’t bring himself to equally cover the flaws in his character and behavior.

Despite this shortcoming, the book is a good overview of the presidency of Andrew Jackson and illustrates how it was a turning point in US history. It does show Jackson as a complicated man with both strengths and flaws, though I feel it overemphasizes his strengths and too easily forgives his flaws. It rightly treats the subject as a man like anyone else but doesn’t go into enough depth on the darker more controversial aspects of the man and his presidency.

Reading a Banned Book

Cover of the book The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman

With all the controversy over the graphic novel Maus after a school board in Tennessee removed it from its eighth-grade curriculum, I decided to read it for myself. I’d heard of the book and that it is the only graphic novel to ever win a Pulitzer Prize, but I had never read it myself.

The book is the story of the author’s father in Poland during the Nazi rise to power in Germany, including his experience of the war in Poland and in Auschwitz. The Jews in the comic are mice, the Germans cats, and the Poles pigs. As you might expect, it is not a story with a happy ending.

In fact, the story doesn’t have much of an ending at all. And it is more than just the story of the author’s father. It is the story of how the author interviewed his father and came to learn about his experiences. Through the story we learn that in large part this was an effort of the author to learn about and understand his father in light of his own childhood with his father. And the telling is unflinching and real.

Perhaps this is why the book has been both used as a tool for teaching the holocaust in schools as well as made it the target of banning. It shows the brutality and cruelty of what really happened and how it affected not only those who went through it but the rest of their families as well, including their children born after the war. It is a story that still needs telling, and reading.