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The Boston Phoenix Heavy Duty

Think books of 1997 for assorted wonks, humanitarians, and brain-trust types.

By Scott Stossel

DECEMBER 8, 1997:  This year yielded a bonanza of big books on important subjects. Below, a sampling.

MIND AND BODIES

How does the mass of convoluted tissue inside our skulls allow us to walk, talk, see, and experience sexual desire, not to mention appreciate art, practice religion, and wonder about how the mind works? And why does the brain allow us to do all this? In his boldly titled new book, MIT cognitive scientist Steven Pinker sets himself the impossible task of explaining to readers How the Mind Works (W.W. Norton, $29.95). Pinker writes clearly, with wit and flair, and he has produced an excellent layperson's introduction to these questions. Drawing on everything from psychology to anthropology, biology to linguistics, and artificial intelligence to pop culture, Pinker argues that the mind operates as a set of individual evolutionarily selected modules, each of which programs us to carry out a specific cognitive task or gives us the urge to engage in a specific type of behavior. It's a fascinating 660-page expedition into the workings of the human mind; give it to someone who likes to think hard about the meaning of life.

For a slightly harder-to-read exploration of similar territory, try biological anthropologist Terrence Deacon's The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain (W.W. Norton, $29.95). Deacon, like Pinker, traces the origins of language to biology and evolution; he differs from Pinker, however, in his belief that language -- the distinctive capability that gives rise to the mind -- is not an innate instinct but rather something acquired when we internalize the logic of symbolic representation. Even though Deacon's book is more modestly titled than Pinker's (and its arguments more nuanced and convincing), its claim is nearly as grandiose: language, or the ability to represent external, physical reality symbolically -- that is, in words -- is what makes us human.

After Pinker and Deacon, Barbara Ehrenreich's explanation for one of the most universal human behaviors -- waging war -- comes off as surprisingly cultural. In Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War (Metropolitan Books, $25), Ehrenreich argues that the passions of war are similar to the passions of religion and may have a similar origin -- our atavistic fear of being eaten by predatory animals. Yet, as she argues in lucid prose, evolutionary theorists who focus exclusively on a (usually testosterone-fueled) aggressive instinct as the source of war overlook the component of vulnerability that might motivate it. While giving biology and natural selection their due, Ehrenreich traces our bellicosity to culturally transmitted rituals -- such as blood sacrifice and ritual animal killings -- that were meant to help humans overcome their fear in a world dominated by wild animals. War, she points out, is only 12,000 years old, and its rise corresponded to an overall decline in the number of threatening animals on the planet.

If it's a lover, not a fighter, that you're shopping for, consider Why Is Sex Fun? The Evolution of Human Sexuality (Basic Books, $20), by UCLA Medical School professor Jared Diamond. Here, evolutionary biology sheds light on such questions as: Why do humans, unlike all other animals, insist on having sex in private? Why don't men lactate? Why, for that matter, don't the females of our species eat the males after copulation, the way some spiders do?


WHAT'S THE BIG IDEA?

For more than 50 years, one of the West's best political thinkers was the distinguished Oxford scholar and essayist Isaiah Berlin, who exerted an enormous intellectual influence on the political thought of our time without ever writing a full-length book. Alas, we'll get no new essays from him; he passed away last month at the age of 88. Fortunately, he left us with a final collection, The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and Their History (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25), a readable and thought-provoking anthology of ideas. Here he demonstrates his understanding of the dangers of nationalism, the hubris of pursuing a utopian society, and the fuzzily imperfect nature of political knowledge.

Who will fill Berlin's shoes? What philosopher or writer is so brilliant and so clear, so wide-ranging and so relevant, so accessible and, above all, so wise? I nominate Martha Nussbaum. Nussbaum is a rare bird: a classicist by training, she is a philosopher and political theorist of complex intelligence whose prose is readable and to the point. And she, like Berlin, seems almost to inhabit the ideas she writes about -- even those she disagrees with -- while infusing her arguments with the humane moderation and wisdom that made Berlin so appealing. Her new book, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Harvard University Press, $26), is the most potent salvo yet in the academic culture wars launched back in 1987 by Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind. Nussbaum reveals herself to be an expert practitioner of intellectual judo, taking the most powerful thrusts of the opposition and using them to stake out an eminently sensible defense of ongoing reform in higher education.


GETTING AND SPENDING

The strongest current in political economy over the past 25 years has been the belief that unregulated free markets -- a laissez-faire economy -- will bring democracy, health, and material prosperity to all. But there is a strong and growing undercurrent that says markets are not panaceas -- and that they actually endanger a free and democratic society. The best and most influential example of this undercurrent is Everything for Sale: The Virtues and Limits of Markets (Alfred A. Knopf, $27.50), by Robert Kuttner (who, in the interests of full disclosure, I must reveal is my boss). The book lays out in unsparing detail the many adverse consequences of allowing the market to intrude unchecked into areas -- such as health care, the environment, and religious worship -- where it doesn't belong. A powerful argument for a mixed economy.

Meanwhile, for some years now we have heard lamentations about the demise of cultural criticism -- where are our Dwight MacDonalds, our Thorstein Veblens? We may someday discover that they have been writing for the Baffler, a Chicago-based journal edited by the iconoclastic Thomas Frank, whose new book, The Conquest of Cool (University of Chicago Press, $22.95), makes an interesting cultural complement to Kuttner's. Frank, who has more than a little MacDonald and Veblen in him, argues persuasively that the "counterculture" has been co-opted by business forces, who use putatively countercultural ideas and images to sell their products and accelerate consumption.


COLOR LINES

Sometimes it seems that the biggest beneficiary of what Gunnar Myrdal called the American Dilemma is the publishing industry, which every year churns out hundreds of books on the subject of race. This year has been no exception; authors such as Randall Kennedy, David Shipler, and Jim Sleeper have all weighed in with much-talked-about volumes. The biggest book, in terms of both size and impact, is America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible (Simon & Schuster, $30), by conservative scholars Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom. The Thernstroms deploy an armada of statistics to argue that the position of African-Americans in this country has improved dramatically since the pre-civil rights era -- but that the rate of improvement has slowed markedly in the years since affirmative action and other preferential race programs were institutionalized.

But by far the most provocative book on race this year is Darwin's Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race (Houghton Mifflin, $22.95), by John Hoberman. Darwin's Athletes is an angry screed against a society that privileges black athletic success above more standard forms of intellectual and professional achievement. By holding up Michael Jordan and Emmett Smith as the black men to emulate, Hoberman argues, we are selling black children a tainted bill of goods.


BOOKS ON TAPES

Whatever else they may be, the videotapes of coffee klatches at the Clinton White House may be a wistful reminder of our pre-Watergate past, when presidents recorded everything on audiotape. Three newly published books, each extraordinary in its own way, make clear how much we've lost now that presidents no longer record what goes on in the Oval Office. The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis (Harvard University Press, $35), edited by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow, provides an incomparable glimpse of President Kennedy at his steely and decisive best, at a moment when the Cold War very nearly went hot. Michael R. Beschloss's Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964 (Simon & Schuster, $30) may lack the narrative tension of the Kennedy book, but by letting us listen in on Johnson's interactions with figures like Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Sargent Shriver, and J. Edgar Hoover, Taking Charge provides us with a rich mental portrait of a politician growing into the chief executive's position he suddenly found himself occupying. Finally, Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes (Free Press, $30), edited by Stanley Kutler, reveals Nixon and his advisers at their weaselly, conniving worst. All three of these books serve up history at its best -- raw and unadulterated.


HISTORY LESSON

Finally, before O.J., before Louise Woodward -- even before the Scopes monkey trial -- there was the real trial of the century: the 1907 trial of union boss Will Haywood for arranging the assassination of former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg. J. Anthony Lukas's Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America (Simon & Schuster, $32.50) tells the story of the Haywood trial and the events that surrounded it. Lukas packed everything -- suspense, a rich social tableau, minute historical detail, reflections on the meaning of our country -- into this 877-page class parable writ large, and the effort may have killed him (he committed suicide before publication last summer). There is more Americana in this teeming narrative than you'll find in a dozen standard history books.


Scott Stossel's bookshelf is about to collapse.


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