The literal translation of the Korean equivalent to “Happy New Year” is “May you receive many blessings in 2022.”
Hopefully a few new blessings.
2021 turned out to be another year spent indoors waiting for viruses, lawyers, and judges to finish their work. I didn’t see enough movies to generate a list of favorite films. The only play I saw indoors was a high school production of Macbeth (Eleanor was one of the witches). My only other non-Zoom experience was seeing David Sedaris at the Mount Baker Theatre in September.
Fortunately, one of the benefits of emerging from the fog of mental illness is that I’m reading again. In addition to magazines and other online reading, last year I finished sixty books. Here are my favourites:
Roger's Favourite Books of 2021
1. Barbara Blatchley, What are the Chances? Why We Believe in Luck
2. Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory
3. Lauren Hough, Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing
4. Lacy Crawford, Notes on a Silencing
5. Temple Grandin, Animals Make Us Human
6. Sarah Schulman, Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York 1987-93
7. Stephen King, On Writing
8. Oliver Sacks, On the Move
9. Douwe Draaisma, Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past
10. B.J. Fogg, Tiny Habits
11. Daniel J. Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music
12. Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams
13. Maria Konnikova, The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win
14. Brian Greene, Until the End of Time
15. Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain
16. Leonard Mlodinow, The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules our Lives
17. Eric Garcia, We’re Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation
18. Sam Quinones, The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth
19. David Sedaris, A Carnival of Snackery: Diaries (2003-2020)
20. Simon Garfield, Dog’s Best Friend
21. Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird
22. Michael J. Fox, No Time Like the Future
23. Julia Glass, A House Among the Trees
24. Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians
25. Oliver Sacks, Hallucinations
26. Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, & Cass Sunstein, Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment
27. Alan Cumming, Baggage
28. Ethan Kross, Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why it Matters, and How to Harness It
29. Daniel J. Levitin, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload
30. Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design
I’m fascinated by memoirs, both as a reader and a writer. My 2021 reading list included memoirs by writers, mathematicians, neurologists, addicts, and actors, as well as dispatches from across the Autism Spectrum. Plus Vladimir Nabokov. Many English Majors identify Speak, Memory as the best-written memoir ever. It’s true – the rest of us should probably just give up writing. But we can’t help ourselves.
Upcoming blog essays respond to the two memoirs that spoke most directly to me in 2021. Lacy Crawford is a journalist. In Notes on a Silencing, Crawford describes her trauma as a sexual assault victim at a prestigious boarding school, and her triggers and re-traumas three decades later as she observed how the legal system worked to protect her abusers and their enablers.
Lauren Hough is a middle-aged lesbian writer/cable installer whose parents raised her in a weird sex cult named “The Children of God.” Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing tells how Hough escaped her religious roots by finding a new community in the military – only to find herself betrayed by authoritarian abusers in the era of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” It turns out Pharisees and lawyers are everywhere.
As usual, many of the other books on my 2021 reading list are about how thinking does and doesn't work.
Other than our extraordinary brains, humans are unremarkable as a species. Many animals are faster and stronger, with superior powers of vision and hearing, or superpowers like flight and invisibility. Instead, after our primate ancestors diverged from their chimpanzee cousins, evolution spent the next sixteen million years focused on building bigger and fancier human brains. This turned out to be a great longterm investment – eventually.
In the meantime, we spent most of the Pliocene and Pleistocene eons as feeble hairless bipeds cowering in trees and caves. Even after the arrival of modern Homo sapiens half a million years ago, we lived for hundreds of thousands of years scattered in small bands of hunter-gatherers, well down the food chain from more impressive predators. Even within genus Homo, H. sapiens isn't very special. To the contrary, just 100,000 years ago we were one of at least six extant human species. Even after we tamed fire and invented a few stone tools, the investment in big brains was hardly paying dividends. As Yuval Noah Harari points out,
We assume that a large brain, the use of tools, superior learning abilities and complex social structures are huge advantages. But humans enjoyed all of these advantages for a full two million years during which they remained weak and marginal creatures.
Then, just a few thousand years ago, something clicked in the human brain. Suddenly we experienced an accelerating series of revolutions: agriculture, writing, civilization, empires, industry, automobiles, and iPhones. In a cosmic blink of the eye, humans achieved supremacy over every other species on the planet.
Since this Cognitive Revolution, there hasn’t been enough time for natural selection to accomplish further genetic evolution. Instead, our enhanced human brains are responsible for the havoc wrought by the immense cultural evolution that continues at an ever-accelerating pace. At our current rate of “progress,” we’ll only need a few centuries or even mere decades before we join Tyrannosaurus Rex and the dodo in extinction, no doubt dragging the rest of the biosphere with us. Unless we finally learn how to think clearly.
For decades, evolutionary biologists and child psychologists have been trying to figure out when the human mind originated. Both point to the same breakthrough in the development of the human species and in the development of each human individual child: “Theory of Mind.”
The phrase “Theory of Mind” comes from an influential 1978 paper by David Premack and Guy Woodruff, “Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind?” Only modern Homo sapiens has demonstrated the capacity to understand our experience and to act based on the proposition that other individuals possess a mental state that may differ from our own. When humans finally evolved enough to feel empathy, our brains grow three sizes. Not just our hearts.
Some neuroscientists and philosophers focus on another important aspect of Theory of Mind: because each individual’s mental state is independent of the real world, humans can feel, believe, and foresee things that are not true and may never be. According to Harari, “large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.”
One of the few TV shows I binge-watched in 2021 was The Wheel of Time, a sorta-feminist variation on Game of Thrones set in a fantasy world that resets itself every few thousand years. Human experience In the real world is profoundly cyclical, whether you focus on days, months, seasons, years, or the school calendar.
Last year I read several excellent books about how our brains process probabilities, choices, disappointment, and uncertainty. My upcoming blog essay “How Lucky Can You Get?” dives into these topics, including some of the insights from my favourite book of the year, What are the Chances? Why We Believe in Luck, by neuroscientist Barbara Blatchley.
Blatchley identifies our reliance on “counterfactuals” as another important aspect of Theory of Mind:
Counterfactuals are alternatives to reality that we generate, particularly after negative events. An upward counterfactual is an imagined alternative to reality that is better than what actually happened. A downward counterfactual is an alternative that is worse than reality. Researchers have found that upward counterfactuals might help us prepare to encounter this negative situation again in the future and perhaps to do better the next time.
What are the Chances? resonated with the best book I read in 2019, Carol Dweck’s Mindset. Dweck is the psychologist who coined the terms “fixed” and “growth” mindsets:
In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.
Similarly, Blatchley observes “When lucky people are unlucky – when something unwanted or awful happens – they learn from their mistakes, incorporating that experience into their expectations about the future. They are able to use their transformed expectations to change their bad luck into good for the next time.” Life becomes an upward spiral.
Somehow we all made it through 2020 and 2021, endured Donald Trump and Zoom school, and survived forest fires and floods. Now it’s another new year. The holiday snow is melting and the days already feel longer. As we slouch toward Groundhog’s Day, remember the lesson of the classic 80s movie: Bill Murray learned how to learn from experience.
According to Barbara Blatchley in What are the Chances?,
Luck is the way you face the randomness in the world. If we are open to it, accepting, not anxious or afraid, willing to learn from mistakes and to change a losing game, we can benefit from randomness. We can gain a modicum of control over this aspect of life, even if we can't control the universe on a large scale. Randomness will happen no matter what we do—chaos theory rules in our universe. Knowing how to roll with the punches; now that's lucky.