A large premise yields slight results.



Seeking to illuminate the emotional relationship between people and things, a psychiatrist examines objects from Beanie Babies to a “Roboslapper” through the lens of literature, academic sources and his personal observations.

We start our psychological connection with the material world early, contends Akhtar (Psychiatry/Jefferson Medical Coll.; Immigration and Identity, 1999, etc.). A baby blanket or teddy bear allows toddlers to “create the experiential realm between the inner world and external reality.” This grows into the ability to grasp the world on a metaphorical level and opens the door to understanding art and literature. A section entitled “Everything” touches upon anthropologists’ view that amassing belongings helps human beings mark milestones; it also looks at the driving role played in the urge to collect by childhood experiences, particularly loneliness. “Sacred Things” yields a mixed bag of largely basic information about topics including the Wailing Wall, the elephant-headed deity Ganesha and the Dome of the Rock, along with interesting etymological analyses of “sacred,” “profane” and the Hebrew word “qadosh.” Abruptly switching gears from the sacred, “Sexy Things” explores the very subjective notion of what makes something a turn-on. After offering overbroad distinctions between men’s and women’s perceptions, Akhtar stumbles into a few judgmental and off-kilter conclusions. For example, he soberly informs us that the anal insertion of a cucumber, banana or even a dildo “is a travesty of the purposes for which these objects are made.” Among the highlights are some intriguing thing-related factoids: The inventor of the Frisbee instructed his family that after death his remains should be incorporated into limited edition Frisbees; after the Collyer brothers’ deaths in the 1940s, New York police could barely enter their residence, crammed as it was with nearly 180 tons of junk, including six tons of old newspapers, the chassis of a Model T Ford and an armory of weapons and firearms.

A large premise yields slight results.

Pub Date: Aug. 9, 2005

ISBN: 1-4000-5444-3

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Harmony

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2005

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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 29, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.


“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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