Recommended for anyone who wants to spend time with intelligent minds wrestling not with each other but with understanding.

MAKING SENSE

CONVERSATIONS ON CONSCIOUSNESS, MORALITY, AND THE FUTURE OF HUMANITY

The text version of the popular, hyperarticulate, interviewed-based podcast.

So much of public debate in America, circa 2020, takes one of two forms: people arguing in order to generate controversy or conversations in which the interviewer is little more than a set piece for an unchallenged monologue. Harris aims for something eminently more useful. This lightly edited sampling of his podcast of the same name includes long-form interviews with scholars and intellectuals on a range of topics. Whether the discussion is about artificial intelligence, the future capacities of knowledge, politics, philosophy, intuition, history (philosopher Thomas Metzinger shares experiences from post–World War II Germany that are hard to look away from), religion, reason, or the nature of consciousness, Harris grounds lofty discussions with concrete examples and his gift for analogy. Few of the interviewees are household names—perhaps aside from psychologist Daniel Kahneman and Timothy Snyder—but readers will not question their credentials or motives. If you’re bright, well read, and secure in yourself, you don’t mind having your arguments examined, even by thinkers with the intellectual chops to poke holes in the fabric of your life’s work. Case in point: The interview with physics professor David Deutsch contains the guest’s criticism of the host’s self-described “cherished” thesis from Harris’ book The Moral Landscape. This critique wasn’t spontaneous; Deutsch had initiated a private conversation, and Harris asked for permission to press record. This speaks to the author’s agenda: free and open debate, in the best sense of the word. Nonacademics may hit intellectual potholes when encountering words like epiphenomenalism and panpsychist and, to be sure, this is no breezy read. But the book’s advantage over the podcast is that readers can linger as they need to and cherry-pick interviews at will.

Recommended for anyone who wants to spend time with intelligent minds wrestling not with each other but with understanding.

Pub Date: Aug. 11, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-285778-1

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: April 26, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2020

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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A sweet-and-sour set of pieces on loss, absurdity, and places they intersect.

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY

Sedaris remains stubbornly irreverent even in the face of pandemic lockdowns and social upheaval.

In his previous collection of original essays, Calypso (2018), the author was unusually downbeat, fixated on aging and the deaths of his mother and sister. There’s bad news in this book, too—most notably, the death of his problematic and seemingly indestructible father at 96—but Sedaris generally carries himself more lightly. On a trip to a gun range, he’s puzzled by boxer shorts with a holster feature, which he wishes were called “gunderpants.” He plays along with nursing-home staffers who, hearing a funnyman named David is on the premises, think he’s Dave Chappelle. He’s bemused by his sister Amy’s landing a new apartment to escape her territorial pet rabbit. On tour, he collects sheaves of off-color jokes and tales of sexual self-gratification gone wrong. His relationship with his partner, Hugh, remains contentious, but it’s mellowing. (“After thirty years, sleeping is the new having sex.”) Even more serious stuff rolls off him. Of Covid-19, he writes that “more than eight hundred thousand people have died to date, and I didn’t get to choose a one of them.” The author’s support of Black Lives Matter is tempered by his interest in the earnest conscientiousness of organizers ensuring everyone is fed and hydrated. (He refers to one such person as a “snacktivist.”) Such impolitic material, though, puts serious essays in sharper, more powerful relief. He recalls fending off the flirtations of a 12-year-old boy in France, frustrated by the language barrier and other factors that kept him from supporting a young gay man. His father’s death unlocks a crushing piece about dad’s inappropriate, sexualizing treatment of his children. For years—chronicled in many books—Sedaris labored to elude his father’s criticism. Even in death, though, it proves hard to escape or laugh off.

A sweet-and-sour set of pieces on loss, absurdity, and places they intersect.

Pub Date: May 31, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-316-39245-7

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: March 11, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2022

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