Here are some of the books we’ve read and discussed in PourRichard’s Symposium.
The Language of God by Francis Collins. We selected this in early 2009 because of the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth that February. Collins is a clear-headed thinker and writer who offers a new presentation of the classic integration of faith and reason in the Western tradition.
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. This was a fascinating read though it’s evident Gladwell is not a scientist but a journalist. Some of his conclusions were not very solid. For instance, he concludes that the reason high risk students succeed at the KIPP school in the Bronx is a result of the length of the school day. There are many more likely reasons for their success than this but Gladwell confuses correlation with causation, which is the classic error of post hoc ergo propter hoc.
Letter on Toleration by John Locke This short piece from 1689 was the most philosophically intense thing we tackled in our first year. The reading of Locke’s letter was inspired by an earlier PRS lunch during which we discussed the US Constitution. Locke’s argument is that religious societies and political societies are both voluntary. You cannot thus impel someone to belong to a church or to hold a particular belief, since this is the opposite of voluntary. You can compel outward behavior but not inward belief. Radically for his day, Locke abstracts from the question whether some religions are true or more genuine than others. No wonder he published the Letter anonymously while laying low in the Low Countries.
The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism by Andrew Bacevich. This was the most political and potentially sensitive of the books we tackled in the first year. Fortunately, the conversation stayed at a high level and did not devolve into the theatrics of that WWF wanna-be called the US Congress. Essentially, Bacevich argues that the US government and military are incapable of carrying out nation building, even if it were a good idea. Bacevich argues that it’s a terrible idea in fact and laments the extreme actions in international relations and military operations that the populus requires of the government to support an excessively consumerist American lifestyle. The burden to carry out these wrong-headed objectives falls on a disproportionately small percentage of the citizenry, who risk their lives while everyone else refuses to make even small sacrifices for the common good.
Mindset by Carol Dweck. Stanford professor Carol Dweck set out to study some basic questions about the factors that lead some people to succeed where others fail. Her conclusion is that there are two basic ways we learn to think about challenges, which she calls “mindsets”. The fixed mindset focuses on results, finds setbacks personally threatening, and cannot abide criticism or failure. As a result, a person with this mindset sets progressively lower challenges so as to avoid falling short.
The growth mindset views setbacks as an impetus to learn more. The person with this mindset does not value himself or herself based on results but on the willingness to work at hard problems.
The book has great chapters on business leaders and athletes who demonstrate the two mindsets, but is most interesting in its chapter on parenting. Here the advice is to praise your children for the effort they put into things, and not for the outcome, since a child who becomes dependent on praise will not develop persistence. This book spurred great conversation both at the PRS wine event and also after the event, when people began to discuss its ideas with their spouses.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. This is an extra-ordinary book about the lessons Frankl learned about human life and suffering from his unimaginable experiences in Nazi concentration camps. The book is fascinating and moving on two levels: first the story of Frankl’s life and survival within the camps, and second, the meaning he draws from this extreme test-bed of man at his most dehumanized. Frankl concludes that we are invited to lives of meaning, through our relationships, through our work, and even through our suffering. But we need to choose to make those things meaningful. It is better to think not of what we expect of life, but of what life expects of us. This book had a profound effect on a number of the people in the group.
PourRichards Overnight Farm Visit, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing. One of our favorite PRS members invited a small group of us to his farmhouse in the mountains, where we hiked, cooked, drank wine, talked, fished, and learned a little archery over two wonderful days. The second evening we gathered in front of a cozy fire to discuss the incredible story of Shackleton’s experience of leading his men through two years of living on the ice after their planned landing goes astray. The personal endurance of the crew, their will to survive, and the leadership skills of their skipper are inspirational and instructive.