Brief reviews of three books (including one by someone whose name made an unfortunate headline this week)
"The Moment of Lift", by Melinda Gates
For a book written by one of the world's wealthiest people about one of humanity's most vexing issues, "The Moment of Lift" is laudably down-to-earth and self-aware. Melinda Gates shares a long list of moments of realization or discovery, mostly from experiences as a significant donor to causes related to human development, but virtually all of which revealed ways in which attending to the status of women and girls plays a fundamental (if under-appreciated) role.
Gates repeatedly acknowledges where she was wrong about assumptions or unintentionally ignorant about causes and effects, and those acknowledgments underscore the importance of humility in all of us. She openly embraces religious faith and openly discusses her struggles with the part religion too often plays in making development harder -- and in many other ways, she manages to highlight conflicts in thinking that stand in the way of addressing the root causes of important problems. While the subject matter is often serious, the writing is lucid and easy to digest.
Verdict: A vital topic explored with humility
"To Heal a Fractured World" by Jonathan Sacks
The conventional religious book is generally either a biographical conversion/revelation story or a long sermon to the converted. Jonathan Sacks did something radically different with "To Heal a Fractured World". Sacks, the longtime Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, wrote a book that at length seeks to explain a thoughtful place for Judaism in the modern world while making really no effort to convert or even preach to the reader. The book is substantially more about freedom and mutual obligations among humanity than it is about theology, and as a result, it is compelling and persuasive in a deeply unusual way.
Sacks's gift for thinking like an academic but writing like a poet results in a book that is packed with proverbs and footnotes alike -- coexisting peacefully, as he grapples with the Bible just as deftly as with Nietzsche, Hayek, and Rawls. "Sin is rarely original, but a good deed sometimes is", writes Sacks. And the originality of his book is a testament to what a good deed he did in writing it.
Verdict: A deeply worthwhile book that will expand the reader's moral imagination
"The Enchiridion" by Epictetus
If you believe that human nature is constantly evolving -- that the spark of what makes someone a human being today animates different passions, energies, and predispositions than what formed people living in previous ages, then the words of Epictetus will mean nothing to you. But that would be to your immense loss. The Stoic philosopher taught just a few decades after the life of Christ, and we are fortunate that one of his students recorded the essence of some of his lessons in the Enchiridion. While it is a short collection -- easily read in little more than an hour -- its simple, practical advice makes an awful lot of sense entirely untethered to the time of its writing.
Epictetus certainly had no idea he was speaking to a culture saturated with reality television and social media when he wrote, "If a person had delivered up your body to some passer-by, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in delivering up your own mind to any reviler, to be disconcerted and confounded?" Yet that advice, like so much else in the Enchiridion, is just as sensible today as it was two millennia ago. For anyone whose knowledge of Stoicism is no deeper than a paragraph in a history textbook, reading this book is a worthwhile investment of merely a few minutes.
Verdict: Rewards those who know that human nature is fundamentally unchanging