Saturday, November 26, 2016

Holiday reading

I recently got to catch up with a colleague who works for a major software company (no, not Google or Microsoft) and has some similar geeky interests to my own: languages and linguistics, urbanism and transportation policy, and of course, getting a handle on what the hell happened in the 2016 election and how progressives completely didn't see it coming, and what we need to better understand to chart a better path going forward.

On that last point, I can't (yet) offer any specific books beyond those already widely reported on, including Hillbilly Elegy (placed in context by this informative Harvard Business Review article; I wrote a short qualitative review on Amazon) and Strangers In Their Own Land (mentioned in this insightful interview with the author by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley).

But I do have some well-thumbed recommendations for the other categories, so in case you're a geek too, you may find these interesting when you have some breathing room to read over the holiday break…

Languages of the World by J. Katzner: ~1 page on every extant language with an example of its literature, translation into English of the sample, and a sample of its writing, particularly interesting for languages with non-alphabetic writing systems. A good bedside book to read a few pages at random each evening. There is a (too short) introduction to the history and development of linguistics and the discovery of language families, but (see next book) it feels a bit tilted toward Indo-European.

The Origin of Language (Merritt Ruhlen)—a controversial linguist who speculates that all language could come from a single ancestor, based on applying the same techniques that were used to infer the existence of the indo-european language family. His argument presumably runs into trouble because unlike Indo-European, there are no written corpora available to provide evidence, and some of the linguistic evolution that must be assumed in order to support parts of the argument requires mini-leaps of faith (as I oversimplified when trying to explain it to a colleague, "at some point you're fitting noise to noise").  But, reading the next book below went a long way towards winning me over to Ruhlen's argument:

The Journey of Man (Spencer Wells) is an easier-to-read, somewhat less deep version of the same central argument of Genes, Peoples, and Languages (Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza). TL;DR: population genetics has independently converged on the same directed graph of human migration that was independently posited by Ruhlen as the potential family tree of spoken languages.  This book was made into a miniseries, I think on HBO, narrated by the (very telegenic) author.

Of course, you can't read The Journey of Man without the framing of the brilliant Guns, Germs, and Steel (Jared Diamond), which hypothesizes lucidly as to why the accidental geography of the continents largely preordained the outcome of the stratification of civilization (who conquers/who gets conquered, and why it worked out that way).  Diamond deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for this book. There is also a 3 part miniseries hosted by him about the book, but it's far more superficial than the book's argument, and less tightly focused.  Read the book, it's worth the effort and the writing is perhaps the most lucid I've ever seen in a popular-press book by an academic author.

My colleague and I also discussed quality-of-life issues in big and small cities and in the burbs. If Rachel Carson's Silent Spring is the "bible" of the environmental movement, Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities is the bible of modern urbanism, so you should read that if you can. If you're impatient, you can instead read How Cities Work (Alex Marshall)  or The End of the Suburbs (L. Gallagher; I reviewed this one on Amazon) to get the Cliffs-notes version of the main arguments.  If you want more detail and a scholarly perspective on how we got to where we are, I don't think you can do better than Kenneth Jackson's Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States.

Well, that's it. I am hoping for a peaceful, and thoughtful, reading season in the rainy weeks ahead.