Saturday, June 18, 2016

Reflections: Up from Slavery

Up from Slavery is one of the most important books I've ever read on education.  Although it's not its sole focus, Booker T. Washington provides clear and poignant direction on how to educate, including what is important and what is not.  The debate, like most things, continues today and in a form not terribly different than what it looked like during Washington's day.  In addition to the excellent commentary on education, Up from Slavery presents a leadership philosophy for African Americans I find oddly absent from today's debates regarding race and discrimination.  Although Washington feels a bit self-congratulatory at times in the book, I found Up from Slavery to be an enjoyable and insightful autobiography.

In the same tradition as The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, who was Washington's contemporary, Booker T. Washington tells a story which feels ancient and unbelievable from a modern reader's perspective.  Washington grew up a slave and was emancipated when he was a boy.  His descriptions of experiencing freedom for the first time, along with other freed slaves, are quite educational.  Washington describes an America substantially different from today's, albeit still familiar in important ways. 

Second only to his commentaries on education, I found Washington's insight into leadership, especially in relation to African Americans, to be extremely interesting and shrewd.  Take, for example, the following statement:

"I think that the the whole future of my race hinges on the question as to whether or not it can make itself of such indispensable value that the people in the town and the state where we reside will feel that our presence is necessary to the happiness and well-being of the community.  No man who continues to add something to the material, intellectual, and moral well-being of the place in which he lives is long left without proper reward.  This is a great human law which cannot be permanently nullified."

I do not hear this philosophy of social existence today.  I've written elsewhere about my struggles with race relations in American, and I worry that a viewpoint like Washington's is so completely foreign and not a part of the general discussion.  Today's leaders, of all colors, seem insistent that the only causes of conflict for any race are external, whereas Washington seemed much more eager to look inwardly while not denying the injustices that existed.  I feel his viewpoint is needed in today's debates, regardless of whether or not you feel he's correct.

As mentioned earlier, I feel Washington's commentaries on education are some of the most important I've read.  Washington, in my opinion, would fit pretty comfortably in the grit school of thought today.  I admit my own bias toward that educational outlook while maintaining that my viewpoint, like most others', is nuanced and can't be perfectly categorized.  Washington did so much more, however, in the furthering of education than most commentariats, myself included.  He began and ran a successful educational institution and appears to have gained the favor of many, both in the South and the North (he's where he becomes a bit too self-congratulatory).  Like his viewpoints on leadership and social acceptance, his educational opinions ought not to be ignored today.  Like freedom, most African Americans were experiencing education for the first time.  In effect, a natural experiment was underway that simply cannot be duplicated today.  (Nor would we want to).  For that reason alone, Washington's conclusions and directions should hold a greater weight than most researchers and social scientist.

The Civil War period, before, during and after, is a fascinating, troubling, and heroic time in American history.  The personalities involved in those pivotal moments and events are overshadowed by only the founding generation.  Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery is an excellent addition to my knowledge of that time period and on critical issues, such as education and leadership. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Mrs. Lincoln: A Life
Reflections: Gods and Generals
Reflections: American Lion

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Reflections: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

I've been hesitant to read business-oriented books in the past.  I've laid out my reasons why in a separate blog post.  When I was invited to participate in a book club at work and read and discuss the business book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team I was thrilled to participate, but my excitement was more in being able to interact with other leaders and not as much regarding the book itself.  Happily, I found some value in the book and would be willing to recommend it to the others.

The first red flag that went up when I was introduced to the book was the subtitle: "A Leadership Fable."  I immediately thought of Who Moved My Cheese? and the fable it is intended to be.  That book, in my opinion, is so juvenile it's barely worth reading.  (In fact, I don't really think it is worth reading).  I was worried The Five Dysfunctions would also take the simplistic to the point of offense route.  Although The Five Dysfunctions is simply written (don't expect Dickens here), I would not consider it a simple book.  I fully admit that the book club interaction I had at work helped tremendously in assisting me to glean meaning and lessons from the book.  Yet, I do believe there are lessons to be learned here even in the absence of having a team or club to interact with while reading the book.  The fiction in this case, as opposed to something like Who Moved My Cheese?, was surprisingly effective.  It was applicable without being infantile.

Inevitably, The Five Dysfunctions posits its own "secret sauce" of teamwork along with the supreme obstacles to achieving it (hence the five dysfunctions).  Reading this book wasn't exactly a revelatory experience, but it does provide some additional insights I had not considered to the fullest extent.  If any one author truly has found the "secret sauce" of business, teamwork, or whatever else, there would probably be far less business books to peruse and digest.  I believe in the power of ideas, however, and The Five Dysfunctions give some tasty food for thought.

In the end, I was pleasantly (albeit mildly) surprised by The Five Dysfunctions.  I didn't find it pretentious, as I do many business books.  (Thankfully the author didn't recommend I had to read his book multiple times in a year in order to truly appreciate it!).  Teamwork, effective and efficient teamwork, is desperately sought after in almost all businesses, whether its a call center or an emergency room staff.  There is some good information to be found here, and it's worth a read.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Who Moved My Cheese?
Reflections: Steve Jobs
Reflections: 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Reflections: Good Omens

Humor is incredibly difficult to write.  Writers lack visual cues, tone and tenor of voice, environmental and other elements often needed to strike the funny bone.  I’ve read incredibly unfunny writing, even when it tried so very hard to be funny, and I’ve read some pretty funny stuff too.  Good Omens, luckily and happily, is in the latter category.  It’s very, very funny, and a nice change of pace from my usual reading.

Good Omens was a chance book.  I hadn’t read anything from Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett when I picked it up, but thought I would give it a chance due to a “Buy 2 Get One Free Sale” at Books-a-Million.  I absolutely love when I take a chance and it pays off.  It doesn’t happen all that often, but when it does it’s a wonderful feeling for a book reader.  I'll admit I don't take too many "chances."  More often than not I read a book because of some kind of recommendation, whether that be word-of-mouth, top book list, or something similar. 

The most entertaining aspect of Good Omens is its memorable and distinct characters.  Although the narrative and its nuances feel a bit opaque at times, the book’s various characters provide all the entertainment necessary to overlook some of the problems that inevitably come along with a fidgety narrative.  Good Omens is populated with reluctantly loyal angels and demons, bureaucratically creative witch hunters, an adolescent and unknowing antichrist, Satanist Nuns, and the list goes on.  It’s quirky but not in a trite way.  In other words, it's not quirky for quirky's sake, which trap some storytellers fall into.  As long as outlandish and unexpected things happen, then that must be creative and entertaining, they mistakenly think.  Gaiman and Pratchett successfully avoid that trap and display some refreshing creativity.

Coming back to my original point, Good Omens is genuinely funny.  In fact, I laughed out loud several times, which I almost never do while reading a book, even if I would consider it funny.  It pokes fun at a lot of belief systems and a lot of different kinds of people, but the humor does extend beyond simply being harsh or spiteful.  There is wit to be found here.  The theology in the book is total fantasy, which is appropriate for a book of this sort.  From an angel giving away the Flaming Sword to Adam to a devil named Crowley infatuated with Queen, this book takes significant theological license and the authors are clearly having a good time.

Good Omens is a fun book.  Its humor and its characters memorable.  Reading it reminded me of a book I read years ago called Bring Me the Head of Prince Charming, a fun variation on a theme.  I realized I missed that kind of book; I have a tendency to read to some pretty heavy and heady stuff, and Good Omens step away from my ordinary.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Daughter of Smoke and Bone
Adaptation, Please: Dracula

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Reflections: The March of Folly

In 2002 Elder Neal A. Maxwell gave a talk in General Conference titled Encircled in the Arms of His Love.  As part of his talk, he briefly discussed the Founding Fathers and subsequently quoted Barbara W. Tuchman from her book The March of Folly: "It would be invaluable if we could know what produced this burst of talent from a base of only two and a half million inhabitants."  As part of my quest to catalogue as many books quoted at General Conference as possible, I added the book to the list and shortly thereafter ordered it for myself.  The March of Folly is a deep dive; it's not for escapists or fair weather readers.  It takes focus and consistency to enjoy.  It's an excellent book.

Tuchman's main premise is that there have been many, many occasions in humanity's past in which governments, rulers, kings, etc., have acted against their own self-interest, even when clear alternatives were available, which led them to commit folly.  Tuchman focuses on four such events, to wit: Troy, the Renaissance Popes, the American Revolution, and the Vietnam War.  Although appearing to be disparate events and time periods, and one being veiled by mythology, Tuchman asserts that each have similar characteristics and outcomes.  Her writing and exhaustive research does plenty to convince the reader of her perspective.

I've read plenty of non-fiction books and works of history.  I have read very few more researched and detailed than The March of Folly.  Tuchman presents an avalanche of details--names, dates, locations, events.  It can be overwhelming and is not welcoming to readers unfamiliar with this kind of writing.  However, Tuchman has provided an incredible addition to the study of these particular events.  The American Revolution chapter in particular was especially intriguing.  Living in America we obviously and rightfully approach the American Revolution from an American-centric perspective.  However, Tuchman presents the circumstances leading to and pushing forward the American Revolution from the perspective of the British parliament and government officials.  She quotes their letters and their journals; she highlights their disagreements and apathy toward the American colonies.  She chronicles their ignoring of discontent, and the power of the American appetite for freedom.  It's a fascinating variation on a theme and story I have read about many times over but never from this angle.

Perhaps the most challenging chapter of the book was the one related to the Vietnam War.  My feelings on the war are nuanced, as they probably should be, but Tuchman presents details and information in The March of Folly I was completely ignorant of.  Although only occurring a handful of decades ago, the events of the Vietnam War seem distant and mystifying.  Tuchman demystifies some of it, but her cynicism and bias is most apparent during this chapter.  The Vietnam War was a badly managed war and was fought for troubling reasons, but I struggle to call it completely vain in purpose the way that Tuchman does.  As Gordon B. Hinckly said: "I have had many feelings about that conflict . . . I have known something of a feeling of bitterness over some aspects of that conflict . . . I think I have felt very keenly the feelings of many of our young men concerning this terrible conflict in which we are engaged, but I am sure we are there because of a great humanitarian spirit in the hearts of the people of this nation."  Communism is the greatest system of human slavery ever devised, and America's efforts, however mismanaged or misguided, to stop its spread throughout the Earth was noble.  Tuchman presents some troubling facts, mostly about the management of the conflict.  Regardless of my agreement or disagreement, The March of Folly presents a very valuable reflection on the Vietnam War and there are lessons to be learned.

The March of Folly is an excellent academic study of the four events or time periods previously listed.  It's a heady book and wouldn't be enjoyed very much by those looking for a lazy read.  It's a wonderful addition to my collection, and I will undoubtedly return to its pages for quotes, references, and insights.

Notable Quotes:
  • "The opponent's point of view is rarely considered in the paranoia of war."
  • "Men thinking for themselves will defeat the slush funds--if there are enough of them."
  • "The power to command frequently causes failure to think."

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: American Lion
Bosom Buddy Books: The Prince and the Radical
Writing History I can't Forget: Leon Uris

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Reflections: The Book of Mormon

It is no mistake that the vast majority of reviews on Amazon of The Book of Mormon are either 5 stars or 1 star.  The very nature of the book, claiming as it does to be holy writ, the word of God, makes it divisive and partisan.  Therefore, you see reviews related to the book as follows:

"A trite, misogynistic, racist collection of demonstrably false stories written by a convicted con artist and peddled as Gospel truth by a masonic country club of ancient, white men who gleefully scam their ovine followers out of time, money, and critical thinking skills..."(Amazon Customer)

"One of the most helpful books you can ever read! I have read it many times and yes I had my doubts but anyone who prays to God while reading this book will know the truth. Many people try to prove this book wrong and failed. They will continue to fail because that which is truly from God cannot be destroyed." (Dustin)

The dichotomy is staggering yet not unexpected.  During Jesus Christ's time some said He "was not of God" while others said: "How can a man that is a sinner do such miracles?" (John 9:16).  As a devout Latter-day Saint, I firmly believe The Book of Mormon comes from God.  I have written before that I don't believe in encore reading; however, a book like The Book of Mormon or the Holy Bible are designed for encore reading.  Indeed, their purpose and significance cannot be truly appreciated unless they're read again, again, and again.  Having recently completed The Book of Mormon for the thirteenth time, I felt it was appropriate to provide a reflection on the book, from a reader and a believer's perspective.  

The Book of Mormon deals with the great themes of humanity.  In its commentary and perspective it is extremely binary.  Nations are wicked or righteous.  Choices are good or evil.  The complexities of the nations aren't exactly on display in this record.  Yet, the endless cycle is.  As Joseph Campbell said: "As I can see no reason why anyone should suppose that in the future the same motifs already heard will not be sounding still . . . put to use by reasonable men to reasonable ends, or by madmen to nonsense and disaster" (Emphasis added).  Those "motifs" are clearly and simply detailed in The Book of Mormon.  This simplicity compels some to criticize the book; however, for those who believe the record's truthfulness it is one of its most attractive features.  

At its core, The Book of Mormon is a work of doctrine, not history; therefore, those details which normally would be included in such a record, compels, once again, its critics to look for something The Book of Mormon never attempts to be.  The record's authors are far more worried about the faith in its readers than their intellectual understanding of ancient American civilization.  It provides details that supporters and detractors obsess over but in the end don't matter to its essential message.  The doctrines emphasized in The Book of Mormon are ennobling and inspiring, but the historical message and its conclusion are not particularly encouraging.

The sanguinary conclusion of The Book of Mormon describes a people "without civilization," which they lost in "only a few years" (Moroni 9:11-12).  It's a tragic lesson for any people, any nation, any family.  Beyond the religious and doctrinal implications of the truthfulness of The Book of Mormon is a message about humanity which can only be ignored with devastating consequences.  People may laugh at and scorn the book, but they miss something crucial when they do.  They miss some of the greatest themes and repeated lessons of history.

Those involved in the bringing forth of The Book of Mormon, such as Joseph Smith, in some cases gave everything, including their lives.  Elder Jeffrey R. Holland asked why they would do such a thing for a book which was not only false but a fraud.  He said: "They were willing to die rather than deny the divine origin and the eternal truthfulness of the Book of Mormon."  Furthermore, he made the following comment regarding the various explanations for the book's existence: 

"For 179 years this book has been examined and attacked, denied and deconstructed, targeted and torn apart like perhaps no other book in modern religious history—perhaps like no other book in any religious history. And still it stands. Failed theories about its origins have been born and parroted and have died—from Ethan Smith to Solomon Spaulding to deranged paranoid to cunning genius. None of these frankly pathetic answers for this book has ever withstood examination because there is no other answer than the one Joseph gave as its young unlearned translator."

And so I line up on one side of the debate, the side of faith and acceptance of the book as the genuine word of God.  The Book of Mormon will remain a divisive book, perhaps one of the most divisive because it claims so much more than almost any other book.  Stephen L. Carter once wrote that religion and education "share a characteristic that so many human activities lack: they matter."  The Book of Mormon, unlike many or even most books, matters.  This I believe and know to be true.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Apocrypha
Reflections: Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling
Reflections: People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture