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The Reading File: Excerpts from interesting articles

Traits of smart people

In the Atlantic, James Fallows explains "How Actual Smart People Talk About Themselves." Read his essay in full at Here's an excerpt.

Here are three traits I would report from a long trail of meeting and interviewing people who by any reckoning are very intelligent.

• They all know it. A lifetime of quietly comparing their ease in handling intellectual challenges — at the chess board, in the classroom, in the debating or writing arena — with the efforts of other people gave them the message.

• Virtually none of them (need to) say it. There are a few prominent exceptions, of talented people who annoyingly go out of their way to announce that fact. Muhammad Ali is the charming extreme exception illustrating the rule: He said he was The Greatest, and was. Most greats don't need to say so. It would be like Roger Federer introducing himself with, "You know, I'm quite graceful and gifted." Or Meryl Streep asking, "Have you seen my awards?"

• They know what they don't know. This to me is the most consistent marker of real intelligence. The more acute someone's ability to perceive and assess, the more likely that person is to recognize his or her limits. These include the unevenness of any one person's talents; the specific areas of weakness — social awkwardness, musical tin ear, being stronger with numbers than with words, or vice versa; and the incomparable vastness of what any individual person can never know. To read books seriously is to be staggered by the knowledge of how many more books will remain beyond your ken. It's like looking up at the star-filled sky.

Please help yourself

In the New Yorker, Alexandra Schwartz takes a romp through a shelf of self-help books, puckishly surveying "what the self-help gurus and their critics reveal about our times." Read "Improving Ourselves To Death" in full at Here's an excerpt.

Soon enough February will come, mid-winter doldrums will set in, and you'll start to slide. Not to worry. Jane McGonigal's SuperBetter tells you how to gamify your way back from the edge with the help of video-game-inspired techniques like finding "allies" and collecting motivational "power-ups"; and Angela Duckworth's Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance reminds you that persistence makes all the difference when the going gets rough. Duckworth doesn't think you need talent in order to become, as another of (Charles) Duhigg's books puts it, Smarter Better Faster, and neither do any of these other experts. According to their systems, anyone can learn to be more efficient, more focussed, more effective in the pursuit of happiness and, that most hallowed of modern traits, productivity. And if you can't, well, that's on you.

Humans are real animals

In New Statesman, Simon Barnes reviews books that "explore our relationship with wildlife." Read "Why humans need to rethink their place in the animal kingdom" in full at Here's an excerpt.

This is dangerous ground. Most of our science, philosophy and religion starts from the assumption that there are humans and there are animals — and there could never at any point be any common ground between them. To call someone an animal is as bad an insult as you can offer, and yet we're all mammals. For centuries, the notion of human uniqueness was the most fundamental orthodoxy. Now it is being challenged. Book after book ventures into the no-man's-land — the no-animal's-land — that lies between our species and the other 10 million or so in the animal kingdom. As often as not, they reveal more of ourselves than of our fellow animals.

With every page we turn, we can feel the resistance to any suggestion that non-human animals are even remotely like ourselves. Of course animals can't think, can't feel, can't talk. We resist this not because such things are impossible but because they are unthinkable. Our lives would be horribly compromised if we accepted that we humans were just one more species of animal.

• • •

For years, it was accepted that the issue was binary. You could be objective, or you could be sentimental. Scientific orthodoxy stated that animals had no emotions or personalities: even to consider such a matter was a sin. This was not something to be investigated or put to the test. It was an error that could be corrected with a single word: anthropomorphism.

Mary Midgley, the ethical philosopher, wrote about mahouts, elephant riders, and how, if they failed to take into account "the basic everyday feelings — about whether their elephant is pleased, annoyed, frightened, excited, tired, sore, suspicious or angry — they would not only be out of business, they would often simply be dead." Anthropomorphize or die. Anyone who works with horses knows that.

The stick: unsung hero

In Nautilus, Alexander Langlands writes about the lowly stick, "stone's silent sister in the archaeological record." Read "The Stick Is an Unsung Hero of Human Evolution" in full at Here's an excerpt.

Hafting — the technological capacity to attach a stick to a stone — really is the point at which craft becomes cemented as an evolutionary option for the human species. The composite tool or utensil was born, and with it the capacity to make at a much more advanced level than before. That seminal moment of creating a weapon or tool is, in my opinion, a crucial coming together. It is an event that signals a new dawn in human technical advancement — effectively the creation of an extended limb — and one that is certainly well developed by the Mesolithic. Whether it began 500,000 or 300,000 years ago, I'd like to pick up the hafting story in its final days, somewhere in the 1950s, with my grandfather, the former golf-club maker.

The Reading File: Excerpts from interesting articles 01/11/18 [Last modified: Thursday, January 11, 2018 4:15pm]
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