Book Notes Digest #7
January 1, 2020
Happy New Year and welcome to a new decade!
2019 was a good reading year for me—I finished 30+ books, started this little newsletter, and really started to dial in my note-taking.
In the spirit of resolution-making, 2020 is going to be the year that I refine what my ultimate output should be. A newsletter? More focused writing that is driven by the things I read? Less focus on books and more on papers, articles, and other types of long-form content? Hopefully I can answer those questions over the coming months. If you have thoughts on this let me know! 😄
I’m switching to a new note-taking system so no attached notes for this update. But email me if you’d like a copy.
And if you’d like to share these out more broadly, you can use this link where anyone can subscribe: https://booknotes.substack.com/
1 - The Power Broker
Robert Moses built public works costing, in 1968 dollars, twenty-seven billion dollars. In terms of personal conception and completion, no other public official in the history of the United States built public works costing an amount even close to that figure.
The Power Broker, is a massive biography of Robert Moses, a man who did more to shape modern day New York City than any other person alive in the 20th century. By acquiring power through unelected positions, he dodged voter accountability, and built up a tremendous stockpile of goodwill and power, which allowed him to complete hundreds of massive public works projects—parks, roads, bridges, complexes (e.g. the Lincoln Center)—all funded through bonds issued on toll-revenues, and his adroit ability to secure federal, state, and city government funding.
By all accounts, he was a truly terrible human being. He designed his overpasses so that public buses couldn’t pass beneath, effectively barring classes of people from recreating and enjoying the things he built with public money. He was a cruel and ruthless leader—leaving ruined careers, and broken men and women in his wake.
So why read a thousand-plus page biography on Moses? Because it’s an amazing look at how “power reveals”. Caro masterfully builds a narrative around the conversion from young idealist, to old, power-hungry ideologue. It’s a masterclass in how politics works, and what young legislators are up against when they seek to pass a bill, or get things done. Perhaps most of all, it is a reminder of what one person can accomplish if power is left unchecked—both good, but mostly bad.
2 - Awareness
"What you are aware of you are in control of; what you are not aware of is in control of you. You are always a slave to what you're not aware of."
A simple, but powerful book on how to finding happiness. "Happiness is not the same as excitement, it's not the same as thrills." It is being satisfied in the moment and constantly changing to adapt to the vicissitudes of life.
How do we do this? Through a process of self-observation, we we watch for negative feelings, detach them from ourselves, and not longer identify ourselves with those feelings, labels, and other transient things.
3 - Nature Form & Spirit
I’ve been interested in George Nakashima since I saw one of his Peace Altars at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. The altars, formed from beautiful English Oak slabs, were designed to represent, “peace in a tangible form” and Nakashima intended to gift one to a location on each continent.
This book, written by his daughter Mira’, provides an overview of his remarkable life—studying in Paris, working as an architect in Japan and India, interned during WWII in Minidoka (where he learned Japanese woodworking), and the building of his compound/family home/work studio in Hope, Pennsylvania.
On a personal level, I was particularly impressed with how he dealt with being Japanese-American during and after World War II:
“George, however, would not submit to the oppressive inferiority complexes prevalent in most *nisei* (second-generation Japanese), but instead sensed a need to prove that there was an innate goodness in the people most Americans regarded as enemy aliens. Indeed, he was one of the few brave enough to speak with genuine pride of his mother’s acceptance into the Imperial Court, his noble samurai lineage, and in effect promulgated and vindicated the norms of Japanese beauty through his work in the United States. One of his friends, the Japanese sculptor Masayuki Nagare, later remarked that my father was ‘more Japanese than the Japanese.’”
4 - The Soul of A Tree
Part memoir, part manual for woodworking, this book introduces, whereas Mira’s Nakashima’s book expands and continues. Many of the same stories are shared in both, but I found that Mira’s book had more context and felt more “complete”.
“Preserving the techniques of fine joinery can help save us from the onslaught of mediocrity in our furniture and housing. The great cypresses and cedars of the Orient are fast being depleted, the Lebanon dear is almost extinct and even the fine American cypresses, the Port Orford cedar and the Alaska cedar, are in short supply. But new trees grow and the wood that can still be joined is luckily still adequate, though limited. We can still make joints to our hearts’ content, joints that are honest, sound and enduring.”