Briefly noted: The Precipice, Lost and Wanted, Hidden Valley Road

* The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity: A very good book about what it claims to be about, namely, whether we’re going to escape the present moment’s extinction possibilities (nuclear weapons, pandemics, and climate change are all possible extinction vectors—the book was published before COVID) and move into a future where energy is ubiquitous and clean, consciousness is understood and readily emulated, and humans or post-human consciousnesses can live in space. We seem to be on the verge of technologies that will dramatically increase human robustness, if we can avoid screwing things up in the next couple decades. How often do you read books that really cover the long view?

Ord says, “safeguarding humanity’s future is the defining challenge of our time.” Yet I don’t recall ever hearing a politician say as much—can you? Halfway through, Ord reiterates: “We need a public conversation about the longterm future of humanity: the breathtaking scale of what we can achieve, and the risks that threaten all of this, all of us.” In some ways, one would think coronavirus might inspire this conversation, but it seemingly hasn’t.

The book is printed on strangely crappy paper, for a work about eternity.

* Lost and Wanted: A Novel, by Nell Freudenberger. Great premise but the opening pages had too much standard politically correct stuff, which makes it boring. Some good essays have been written about it, but they omit what I just foregrounded. Maybe I should have persevered. The boring standard politically correct stuff feels like reading a nineteenth century novel and getting slammed with a bunch of Catholics-vs-protestants, or why religion is essential for a healthy society: a bunch of irrelevant, extraneous, and distracting material. The 200 or so novels from the nineteenth that normal people might still read today mostly eschew this kind of thing.

* Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, by Robert Kolker: The story of the Galvin family; parents Don and Mimi had 12 kids between 1945 and 1965 on what was an essentially middle-class salary. If everything had gone perfectly, maybe they could have pulled that feat off, but many things did not: “Six of the Galvin boys took ill at a time when so little was understood about schizophrenia.” Not only was little understood, but Freudians still had some stature within psychiatry, and, insanely, people denying the biological aspects of mental illness held many positions of power. In some ways we get a story of the history of the bent mind: “In the beginning—before anyone turned the study of mental illness into a science and called it psychiatry—being insane was a sickness of the soul, a perversion worthy of prison or banishment or exorcism. Judaism and Christianity interpreted the soul as something distinct from the body—an essence of one’s self that could be spoken to by the Lord, or possessed by the devil.”

Things have improved in many ways, but we’re still closer to “a sickness of the soul” than many of us would like to be. A few years ago, a psychiatrist could legitimately ask, “Does Psychiatry Need Science?” Or, to take another review, “Can psychiatry be a science?” We’re still a bit wobbly on the answers. Kind of like we’re a bit wobbly on why, deeply, Don and Mimi have so many kids; Catholicism is one answer, but 12? Don and Mimi needed access to contraception: many of their boys would still have developed schizophrenia, obviously, but the amount of attention available had to have been stretched, particularly because Don and Mimi couldn’t readily draw on family or community resources due to distance and fear. Denial played a role, too: “Nothing may have been more important to Mimi than a flawless Thanksgiving.” A flawless Thanksgiving stems from real, positive family relationships. Take those away and Thanksgiving will always be the stuff of New Yorker short stories.

The book’s second half is more compelling than its first, and, like a lot of stories, part of it is about accepting what we can change and what we can’t: “From her family, Lindsay could see how we all have an amazing ability to shape our own reality, regardless of the facts. We can live our entire lives in a bubble and be quite comfortable.” Mimi’s drive for a flawless Thanksgiving is one such attempt to build the bubble. The reality of their situation, however, is much stronger than the bubble fantasy.

The big downside to Hidden Valley Road: it’s an incredible story, but you won’t learn much; I started by being against schizophrenia, as well as the various other very bad things that occur, and I came out against them too. I’m curious about the history of developing alternate drugs to treat schizophrenia, and the extent to which different mental disorders bleed into one another: we get some information about this, but that’s where my attention was drawn.

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