2017: My Year in Books

An image collage of book covers for all the books I read this year.I set a goal to read 40 books this year, and according to my Goodreads Reading Challenge, I read 59!

I am profoundly grateful to be able to read this much and this widely, considering the historical “book famine” that has plagued blind readers. Only about 10% of English books ever make it into an accessible Braille or audio format, and in most world languages that number is closer to 1%, Advances in technology (like Bookshare and the NLS) and policy (the Chaffey Amendment to U.S. copyright law an the Treaty of Marrakesh internationally) are allowing for more books to be made accessible in Braille and audio more quickly than ever before.

And so, to celebrate, I have taken a cue from my friend Emily K. Michael and decided to share my full 2017 reading list. I’ve pulled out a few that I highly recommend to everyone and added a few comments (choosing which was hard—almost everything I read this year was good!).

Top Picks

(grouped by subject, not quality):

Fiction

 The Dream of Scipio, by Iain Pears

This intricate and well-crafted historical novel traces the lives of three men who live in southern France at different times in history: a fifth-century Roman philosopher-turned-Christian-bishop, a poet in the court of the fourteenth-century Avignon papacy, and a scholar of medieval French poetry in the years leading up to World War II. The three men’s lives parallel one another as each reads and interprets the work of the one who came before.

The King Must Die, by Mary Renault

Mary Renault is a master. This historicized novelization of the myth of Theseus is infused at every turn with her deep knowledge of the ancient Mediterranean world. It perfectly balances the foreignness of the past with the universality of human experience. Historical fiction at its finest.

Non-Fiction

Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass

I have thought of this book often since I read it. It is the third and last of Frederick Douglass’ autobiographical works, revised in 1892, three years before his death. Douglass’ life and accomplishments are, of course, astounding, and his prose is masterful. He is a model of the courage to risk everything for freedom, the passion to fight for justice and equity, and the strength to forgive even those who have harmed us most.

The only fault is Douglass’ meticulous effort to thank and acknowledge every abolitionist and freedom fighter he ever met, which results in long lists of names otherwise forgotten to history. Those aside, the writing is excellent, and this book is well worth the read.

Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice, by Dr. Willie Parker

This is a must-read for all American Christians, and probably for most other Americans as well. Dr. Willie Parker is a Southern, African-American, Pentecostal Christian abortion provider—a unique perspective in a political landscape known for entrenched positions and hostility to productive discussion.

Dr. Parker argues from his life history and his Christian faith that access to safe abortions is a moral imperative in a loving and just society. It is precisely the Christian foundation for his beliefs and practice (often in the face of abuse and threats of violence) that makes this book so unusual and valuable. It defies the notion that Christianity can permit only one stance on reproductive rights, and I hope by the end readers will see that there is more to being truly pro-life than simply voting against abortion.

Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, by Roy F. Baumeister

Probably the best book I’ve read on the dark side of human nature. Baumeister’s broad synthesis of the research debunks the common simplistic notion that only unusual, intrinsically bad people (i.e., “bad apples”) can commit acts of horrific violence. He also avoids the emerging popular view that these terrible deeds are primarily the product of external, situational factors (i.e., “bad barrels,” an approach typified by Philip Zimbardo in The Lucifer Effect, below).

Instead, Baumeister presents a complex interaction between individuals and their contexts. The seeds of evil are present in every person to a greater or lesser extent, but how they manifest depends greatly on the social and cultural context. 

The theoretical backbone is strong, but it is still a 20-year-old book. I would love to see an updated second edition informed by more recent research and world events.

Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition, by Michael Tomasello

This is a pretty dry, technical linguistics book, but I loved it so much. Tomasello blew my mind on nearly every page as he completely reconfigured the way I think about language and human interaction. If you are interested in fundamental aspects of what language is, how it works, and how we use it, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

The End of White Christian America, by Robert P. Jones

Important reading for pretty much everyone in the U.S. Whether the title inspires glee, fury, or anything in-between, it is difficult to deny that in the coming century the “default American” will no longer be both white and Christian. This book gives a good overview of the rise and decline of White Christian America over the course of the last century, with an insightful epilogue written after the 2016 presidential election.

Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That is a Problem, and What to Do About It, by Richard V. Reeves

Phenomenal book. Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institute shows that rising income inequality cannot be blamed on the wealthiest 1% alone. The entire top 20% of the American income distribution have done their best to elevate their position and then “pull up the ladder” behind them. Laws governing taxes, housing, education, and inheritance have all been shaped to protect the upper middle class and their children from downward mobility, and have stifled upward mobility in the process. As the top 20% pulls further and further ahead of the rest, the meritocratic American ideal becomes less and less a reality. I was convinced, convicted, and inspired to reanalyze my policy views and voting choices.

Personal Development

Designing Your Life: Build a Lifethat Works for You, by Bill Burnett andDave Evans

This superb book applies design thinking to life choices, demystifying some of the most perplexing aspects of wayfinding in life and career in the process. I plan to reread this and work through the exercises in detail, probably multiple times throughout my life.

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown

A strong argument for ruthless focus. If you, like me, have the tendency to make “a millimeter of progress in a million directions,” this book might help you reframe and refocus on the few essential things.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport

A practical guidebook for developing practices, habits, and schedules that foster deep focus and productivity. Great framework for getting things done!

The Rest of the List

(in the order I read them): 

  • Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, by Jill Lepore
  •  Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, by Paul Bloom
  • Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform our Lives, by Tim Harford
  • Empirical Models Challenging Biblical Criticism, edited by Raymond F. Person and Robert Rezetko
  • America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, by Jim Wallace
  • Little Book of Restorative Justice, by Howard Zehr
  • Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, by Arlie Russell Hochschild
  • The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger
  • Why Wall Street Matters, by William D. Cohan
  • Crashing Through: A True Story of Risk, Adventure, and the Man who Dared to See, by Robert Kurson
  • The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, by Norman Doidge
  • Intelligence in the Flesh: Why Your Mind Needs Your Body Much More than it Thinks, by Guy Claxton
  • On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfurt
  • The Shadow Series by Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Shadow, Shadow of the Hegemon, Shadow Puppets, and Shadow of the Giant)
  • Teacher Man, by Frank McCourt
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
  • Dreamblood Series by N. K. Jemisin (The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun)
  • The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
  • Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet can tell us about Who we Really Are, by Seth Stephens Davidowitz
  • The Sellout, by Paul Beatty
  • Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond
  • The Babylonian World, edited by Gwendolyn Leick
  • The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class, by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett
  • The Egypt Game, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
  • What Technology Wants, by Kevin Kelly
  • When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi
  • Small Great Things, by Jodi Picoult
  • The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language, by John McWhorter
  • The Song of Achilles, by Madeleine Miller
  • Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
  • The Giver Series by Lois Lowry (The Giver, Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son)
  • Engines of Liberty: The Power of Citizen Activists to Make Constitutional Law, by David Cole
  • The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles, by Steven Pressfield
  • The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, by Philip Zimbardo
  • The Articulate Mammal: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics, by Jean Aitchison
  • The “Lotus Sutra”: A Biography, by Donald S. Lopez, Jr.
  • The Book of Mormon: A Biography, by Paul C. Gutjahr
  • Nefertiti, by Michelle Moran
  • The Reign of Nabonidus, by Paul Alain Beaulieu
  • The Time Keeper, by Mitch Albom
  • Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, by John Steinbeck

What is the best book you read in 2017? Leave a comment and help me build my 2018 list!

The Speed of Sound

Image representing the sound wave of an audio file.

On the recommendation of blog reader Margaret, I’ve been reading through Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain that Changes Itself. The book investigates neuroplasticity, the process by which the brain rewires itself and changes its physical structure in response to specific demands. There are a lot of interesting insights in there for people with sensory loss, and I’m already planning to write a longer post about it once I finish. 

In the meantime, I just wanted to share a short passage that caught my attention, and a few thoughts about it. Doidge writes:

I was at a dinner party with a friend, whom I shall call Emma; her writer husband, Theodore; and several other writers.

Emma is now in her forties. When she was twenty-three, a spontaneous genetic mutation led to an illness called retinitis pigmentosa that caused her retinal cells to die. Five years ago she became totally blind and began using a seeing-eye dog, Matty, a Labrador. Emma’s blindness has reorganized her brain and her life. A number of us who were at the dinner are interested in literature, but since she has gone blind, Emma has done more reading than any of us. A computer program from Kurzweil Educational Systems reads books aloud to her in a monotone that pauses for commas, stops for periods, and rises in pitch for questions. This computer voice is so rapid, I cannot make out a single word. But Emma has gradually learned to listen at a faster and faster pace, so she is now reading at about 340 words a minute and is marching through all the great classics. “I get into an author, and I read everything he has ever written, and then I move on to another.” She has read Dostoyevsky (her favorite), Gogol, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dickens, Chesterton, Balzac, Hugo, Zola, Flaubert, Proust, Stendhal, and many others. Recently she read three Trollope novels in one day. She asked me how it might be possible for her to read so much more quickly than before she went blind. I theorized that her massive visual cortex, no longer processing sight, had been taken over for auditory processing.

Naturally this caught my eye, since I have RP and—like Emma—have taken to consuming most of my books in audible form. I too have increased the speed incrementally, and now listen at between 400 and 450 words per minute.

Anyone who has heard blind people use their phones knows this is pretty common. The advent of smartphone technology in the decade since this book came out has improved text-to-speech synthesis by leaps and bounds over the old Kurzweil machines. It is cheaper and more widely available, and the voices are more pleasant and natural-sounding, clearer and easier to understand at higher speeds.

Now that I’m used to it, I actually love using my phone to listen to books. For one thing, the high rate of speed keeps me engaged and focused. I know exactly how long it will take to read a book, because my reading app tells me, down to the second. And It makes note-taking easy—I just pause, highlight the text I want, and export all of my highlights once I’m done with the book. 

But there’s good news for those of you whose eyes still rule your brains: this is not some kind of blind superpower, and you can learn it too. I know, because my wife Kristin does it, and her vision is completely intact. She found herself getting impatient with the pace of audiobooks and podcasts and, since she knew I listened fast, she started increasing the speed. Now she listens to everything sped up anywhere from 1.5x to 2x normal speed, depending on what it is and what else she is doing at the time.

You can always learn new skills, even if large tracts of your cortical real estate haven’t been recently vacated. Much of the rest of Doidge’s book discusses how regions of the brain can be recruited for novel tasks, at the same time as they continue to do their old jobs. So it seems hiss explanation here is overly simplistic. Blindness had certainly prompted changes in Emma’s brain, but some—like fast-listening—could have happened even if she was sighted.

Brain function is not a zero-sum game, where gains in one domain can only happen at the expense of another. We haven’t found—or even gotten close to— the limits of the human potential to learn. We don’t know how many skills a person can master, or to what depth. The brain is glorious in its flexibility and ability to change, at any age and in any circumstances..

I’m excited to share more from this book and a few others I’ve read recently in the same vein, they all tend to show the benefits of that hard work I wrote about last week. The grueling work of learning to live again without sight not only allows us to lead happy and fulfilling lives. but could protect the health and longevity of our very brains.

Stay tuned!

What Would the “America First” Budget Mean for Me?

Ever since the White House released the blueprint for its “America First” budget, my email inboxes have been inundated with urgent pleas from organizations who would have their funding cut or eliminated under the new plan. After a few days, it became clear that these budget priorities would affect the work that I do and the ways that I do it on a daily basis.

Many things in this budget make me deeply uneasy, but this isn’t the place for a full analysis, and I am not a policy analyst. What I am is a person who works at the corner of blindness and academia, and I recognize things in this budget blueprint that would create very real difficulties for me on both of those counts. I will focus here on two specific cuts and the harm they would cause without creating any real benefit.

Research Funding

The “America First” budget blueprint calls for elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA; p. 5). These two organizations provide funding and support for projects and programs, large and small, in the arts and humanities. 

I have personally worked on research projects that were funded by grants from the NEH, and I have benefitted from many more. In a recent email to members, the president of the Society of Biblical Literature reported that SBL members have received over $7.2 million in research grants from the NEH. Further, the SBL’s Bible Odyssey website, a source for reliable, scholarly information on the Bible and Bible-adjacent topics, is made possible in part by a $300,000 NEH grant.

This is just one scholarly society. Scholars working in Egyptian, Syrian, Anatolian, and Mesopotamian studies also receive funding from the NEH. 

Their research links us to our shared cultural heritage. It connects us to the roots of Western society and the worlds from which our major religions sprang. If you cringe when ISIS bulldozes ancient gates in Palmyra, churches in Aleppo, or palaces in Nineveh, you should cringe when the humanities are dismantled at home. 

I might be more sympathetic to this budget reduction if the amount of money saved were not so extraordinarily small. The NEA and NEH each received about $148 million last year, meaning together they made up only 0.006% of the federal budget. Their elimination is an ideological and symbolic gesture that would do a great deal of harm while doing taxpayers very little good.

Educational Resources

According to the blueprint document, “[t]he 2017 Budget…continues support for the nation’s most vulnerable populations, such as students with disabilities” (p. 17). If only that were true. It seems that, in reality, these budget priorities would place a heavy burden on students with disabilities. For younger students, the emphasis on charter schools would probably end up reducing school choice and educational quality (see point 3 in this article). 

For me in particular, and other blind students, scholars, and citizens of all ages, it would mean increased difficulty in accessing books and other academic materials. The budget jeopardizes funding for the Educational Technology, Media, and Materials for Individuals with Disabilities Program, which benefits me through services like Bookshare.

Bookshare is an online library that provides accessible digital versions of print books to people who are blind, have a learning disability, or are otherwise unable to read print. Their catalog contains more than half a million books, and is growing quickly.

I use Bookshare literally every day—it is not my only source for accessible books, but it is a major one, and it has saved me dozens, if not hudnreds of hours of work in the past few years.

And this is why Bookshare is so important, for me and for everyone else: because it saves so much work. Bookshare is an incredibly efficient and economical program, and defunding it would make life more burdensome for students of every age and level, and would end up increasing costs for everyone. Here’s how:

Books enter the Bookshare library in two ways: either publishers send digital files directly, or volunteers scan printed books and submit their own files. When a volunteer digitizes a book, it takes a few hours to scan the book, OCR and edit the text, and prepare the file. After that, it can be downloaded and read in large print, Braille, or audio by students nationwide using any number of disability-specific apps and devices. There is some additional labor in maintaining the database and website, but it is minuscule in comparison with what would be required if Bookshare’s federal funding were cut.

If that happened, the burden of providing accessible materials to disabled students would shift to local school districts. Not all districts would be able to advocate with publishers as effectively as Bookshare, which would increase the burden on volunteers and paid school staff. That same 4-10 hours of work digitizing books would have to be done anew in every district in every area of the country.

This could only play out in two ways: either local taxes would increase to accommodate the increased need, or educational outcomes for disabled students would suffer due to lack of resources. More likely, both of these would happen to a greater or lesser extent in every school district, depending on the resources at their disposal.

I am a firm believer that U.S. schools should provide excellent educations to students with disabilities, so that they can become self-sufficient, contributing members of society. But I also believe that accommodations for students with disabilities should be made in the most efficient and effective way.

In the digital age, centralization is the best way to provide many kinds of accessible materials in the most economical wa  without compromising its quality or availability. A federal dollar simply goes much further than a state or local dollar. Cutting federal funding for accessible materials may appear to save money, but any savings will be offset by a manifold increase in costs at the state and local level. It helps no one, and hurts everyone.

Other Cuts

These are only two issues raised by the budget blueprint, but there are many other, darker parts of the White House budget priorities. The cuts to Legal Services could prevent citizens with disabilities from seeking and receiving justice from discrimination and mistreatment. Cuts to the Department of Labor, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and various programs like Meals on Wheels could remove much-needed aid from the disabled, poor, elderly, or otherwise vulnerable populations in the U.S.

In short, these specific cuts and the “America First” budget priorities as a whole are hostile to academic learning and disabled citizens. Furthermore, any savings at the federal level would increase costs locally, creating a net harm to taxpayers. Pleas contact your legislative representatives and suggest budget priorities that do more than pay lip service to education and the idea of supporting vulnerable populations.

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If you would like to help support Bookshare, I would appreciate it! They have provided this very easy to use tool to write your representatives about it: Support Bookshare