Two Reviews: Liars and Happiness

Here are two book reviews. Neither book is particularly great, terrible, or long, so I’ll just combine them into one post in my reading log.

The oldest published is Liar’s Poker, written by Michael Lewis in the late 1980s. It’s one of the best stories of Wall Street in the 1980s, when the boom began and avarice became normal. Wall Street, Barbarians at the Gate, then this. Mr. Lewis is a good writer, even though he’s a Princeton man. I can’t quote much from this text, though, because it’s colorful and vulgar. So is the Wikipedia summary. The book contains profanity because traders were profane people, in both the non-sacred and language senses. From the people I knew who went into trading in the late 1990s, traders are still profane people.

Mr. Lewis does a good job of describing the situation as it existed. The new traders in his training class were scourges, the stuff of teacher nightmares. One of the bad signs for a company is when employees don’t care, and these men (and a few women) didn’t care. Eventually, that leads to trouble. Unfortunately for my sense of righteousness, that trouble comes after they have received – not earned – piles of money. I had a chance at that. Instead of that life, I sit here in a $20 floor chair from Target. And it’s partially broken. I can always wonder. Overall, this is a quality book, but not life-changing. It gets a 3 out of 5.

Today’s other book is Stumbling On Happiness by Daniel Gilbert of (The book has its own site.) He and I both have blogs.  But he’s been on the Colbert Report and I have not, so he’s ahead. Plus, he’s a full professor at my alma mater, while I’m an assistant professor at a small school in Louisville; he’s ahead there too.

The book summarizes lots of research on how we humans imagine the future. Not surprisingly, we make errors, particularly on what makes us happy. We add details to complete memories, but often those details are not what happened. We rely heavily on current mood, meaning the future and past look more like the present than they will or did. Initial impressions matter too much, and final rememberances hold in the long time. A pattern of improvement makes a situation appear better; people often prefer a worse situation overall that improves to a constant one. There are lots of sources, and lots of studies, and lots of tales. I recognized one of the studies, because I met the author and some of the workers while at Chicago. Social psychology has many, many results to share, thanks in large part to a captive test pool of undergraduate students.

Dr. Gilbert has a good plan. He even knows enough to include some diagrams to break up the semi-academic text. As I’ve gotten more into education, and the learning styles of students, I have increased my appreciation of the visual. Visual learning differs from verbal; people trying to inform should use both. Unfortunately, the images appear not often enough, and I had trouble slogging through some chapters. And I’m an academic! Scholarly journals have almost no white space or pictures, because every page costs money. On the other hand, in a public book pages are relatively cheap. This book cries out for better pacing. It makes it less than great.

There’s a larger problem beyond pacing. Stumbling on Happiness suffers from an world-weary author. This book needs a positive tone, a positive approach, It’s about happiness, after all. Instead, Dr. Gilbert is smarky, a modern cynic. Though he wrote science fiction in the early 1980s, now he’s with the people that form modern literature, the mostly men of the Harvard Faculty Club. I don’t fit into that crowd, as I think more in terms of positivity and nurturing. (For more about my thoughts on the tone of literature, scroll over to First Meetings.) I think more about happiness. Dr. Gilbert writes more about stumbling. That’s an error, and leads to my rating of 2 out of 5. 

About Adam

My quest is a world where calling someone "virtuous like a fairy tale hero" is routine, not fantastic or ironic. My vocation is the teaching and learning of statistics. My dream is a long happy life with a wonderful wife and kids. Who knows if any will become true? More information is at my homepage on the twelvefruits network:
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