The book reads like an extended game of Trivial Pursuit, featuring some who play very well and many more who play very...

HEAD IN THE CLOUD

WHY KNOWING THINGS STILL MATTERS WHEN FACTS ARE SO EASY TO LOOK UP

The story of the dumbing-down of the American brain, as we have all become increasingly dependent on letting our computers think for us.

This breezy, pop-research overview of the decline of basic knowledge in the age of information overdrive could provide plenty of nuggets for journalists and hand-wringers over how many more millennials are familiar with the Kardashians than Descartes and can’t name a single South American novelist or locate most African countries on a map. So what? Whatever we need to know, we can Google, right? While Poundstone (Rock Breaks Scissors: A Practical Guide to Outguessing and Outwitting Almost Everybody, 2014, etc.) is careful not to confuse correlation with causation, he suggests that, where general knowledge is concerned, “high scores correlate with high income, good health, and sometimes other positive attributes” (including happiness, in some studies). In a voting democracy, it’s sad to note that little more than a third of Americans can name the three branches of government and that some of those with the strongest reservations about immigration, global warming, or evolution are among the least knowledgeable in general. However, Poundstone’s primary tone is less alarmist than amusing, since it’s clear that he’s including all of us among those who could stand to know more than we do. As he heads one section, “True or False: You and Everyone You Know Are Idiots.” Some of the author’s ways of determining knowledge or lack thereof can seem, as he describes some of his results, “arbitrary and puzzling.” For example, one chapter seems to equate knowledge with recognizing historical portraits and says that it’s quite possible that those who don’t recognize a photo of Bach (“about half of the American public”) might well be familiar with his music. (Though perhaps it's more remarkable that even half of Americans surveyed recognize a photo of Bach.)

The book reads like an extended game of Trivial Pursuit, featuring some who play very well and many more who play very poorly.

Pub Date: July 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-316-25654-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: April 19, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2016

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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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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

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. 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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