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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change
by Stephen R. Covey
Edition: Paperback
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5.0 out of 5 stars Be Your Own Dr. Phil, October 8, 2007
Despite the high buzzword content, I loved this book and found it very informative for getting one's life in order. Habit 1 hit me right off the bat -- be proactive. We are responsible for our own happiness; we either make our own decisions about how to live our lives and to pursue our own happiness (being proactive), or we let others make those decisions for us. This is most certainly true. Recommended for anyone who is just starting a career, turning 30, going through a midlife crisis, or just feels like they need more direction in their life.

Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality
Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality
by Donald Miller
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.18
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Inspired Me to Read His Other Books, October 8, 2007
Blue Like Jazz is a sort of meditation on Don Miller's spiritual life so far (he's in his early 30s), sprinkled with a little Christian apologetic told by narrative rather than by theories or "spiritual laws" (Miller's "Search for God Knows What" is more along the lines of an apologetic though). Miller's writing style is accessible and easy, though he's prone to meditative tangents on the nature of God or faith or creation that may annoy the less religiously-inclined reader. Miller has a lot of credibility in the so-called emerging church movement for his narrative approach (and probably for his decidedly left wing politics), but his religious beliefs themselves come across as pretty standard evangelical Christian, which I was a little surprised by. It's not heavy theology by any means, and there's a lot of raw meat in Miller's book for the internet's theology attack dogs to tear apart, but the books resonated with me. After reading "Blue Like Jazz," I was inspired to read Miller's "Searching for God Knows What" and "Through Painted Deserts." My favorite moment in the book was the "reverse confession booth," where the campus Christians confessed the sins of the church to astonished students. For a new spin on evangelical Christianity, check out "Blue Like Jazz."

Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future
Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future
by Michael Barone
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.48
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5 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars I expected more from Michael Barone., February 27, 2007
I disliked Michael Barone's Hard America, Soft America, which is sad really, because Michael Barone is one this nation's better political commentators. His knowledge of the American political landscape is encyclopedic, as evidenced by his annual Almanac of American Politics (a sort of dungeon master's guide for political science nerds like me), and from his appearances on Fox News we know he's not a rabble-rousing showman, but rather intellectual in manner. More George Will than Ann Coulter.

Which is probably why I found Hard America, Soft America so disappointing. Barone's encyclopedic mind is apparent in full force here, but it serves an incredibly simplistic thesis. Hard America, Soft America asks, "why does America continue to produce incompetent 18-year-olds but remarkably competent 30-year-olds?" The answer is the dichotomy between the Soft world of education and the Hard world of business ("Hard" and "Soft" are always capitalized). Soft worlds are worlds free of competition and accountability, where failure is tolerated, understood, and dealt with in a compassionate manner. Education theories are the best example of a Softness in America today. Hard worlds are worlds of accountability, punishment for wrongdoing, risk and reward; the world of the entrepreneur. Barone shows how law enforcement, big business, and the military went from Soft to Hard over the past generation, and hopes that education will do the same.

So this book is about another book about "two Americas"- conservative and liberal, red and blue, Hard and Soft. Barone is smart enough to recognize that both Hard and Soft environments are necessary for the country to survive (which I suppose puts him above most of his colleagues), but the whole thing is rather simplistic and, for my money, the labels "Hard" and "Soft" have too much of a David Brooks-like cuteness to them (I think Brooks would have come up with better labels than Hard and Soft though. "Bobos" is rather clever). In the end, Hard America, Soft America is book of pop sociology from a guy who is capable of far more.

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business
Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business
by Neil Postman
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.88
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112 of 114 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A classic, February 27, 2007
Postman's book is a harsh diatribe against the television industry and its effects on intellectual discourse in the United States. Postman argues that television, especially when compared to the written word, cannot foster deep, rational thought in its viewers, because it requires absolute passivity from them. Television can only be about entertainment, and its cultural dominance, Postman argues, has had negative effects on education, politics, and religion.

The first half the book dedicated to Postman's updating of the famous Marshall McLuhan postulate, "the medium is the message." Postman agrees, but takes it even further, stating in chapter one that "the medium is the metaphor." What he means by this is that our language -- how we communicate -- is only a metaphor for reality. We describe as best as we can what we see and know, but our method of communication circumscribes how and what we can actually communicate. Postman argues that whichever mode of communication we chose to communicate with -- be it oral, written, or televisual -- each comes with its own set of limitations. That is to say, "the form excludes the content." Some ideas simply can't be expressed by certain forms, which should be obvious to anybody who has tried to write a sarcastic email without the appropriate smiley face at the end.

Postman then guides the reader through a history of communication, laying out eras where oral, print, or visual communicative forms were culturally dominant. For Postman, the print era (or "age of typography"), which he dates roughly from the Reformation to the 19th century, is when rational argument reached its pinnacle. The form of the written word, Postman argues, requires the marshalling of evidence and the presentation of that evidence in a logical order on behalf of the writer, and patience and discernment on the part of the reader. Only in the printed word could complicated truths be clearly and rationally conveyed. During the 19th century, when print had reached hegemony in communications, rational thought was most most valued. A striking example that Postman provides is the Lincoln-Douglas debates. While these were certainly public spectacles (usually held at state or county faires), Postman presents them as if they were dueling long-form essays. In one particular debate (Peoria, October 16, 1854), Stephen Douglas went first for three hours, after which Lincoln suggested everyone go home to have dinner and come back in the evening. They did, and when they returned they were treated to another four hours of oratory, starting with Lincoln's rebuttal of Douglas. This sounds more like a paper session at an academic conference than a political debate, which is Postman's point exactly. Lincoln and Douglas did in fact write their speeches out, to make sure they made sense, though neither man was insensitive to audience response. In this era -- the era defined by typography as the leading communicative form -- major public figures, be they politicians, preachers, or activists, were expected to be able to make a long, rational, public argument, and the people were willing to listen to it. They weren't bored into a catatonic state by long speeches at all, Postman says, but rather interacted with the orators to encourage them, or challenge them to stay on point.

In the modern (television) age, however, things are different. Following the maxim "the form excludes the content," political discourse is no longer about rational argument, says Postman, but about entertainment and appearance. People get bored if television images are too static, so change has to happen, and frequently. There's no time to lay out a rational argument, but no matter, the passive audience doesn't want long, convoluted logic anyway. Television makes its viewers demand constant stimuli, so if things take too long, people just tune out. Debates rarely last even 90 minutes (poor Stephen Douglas), and politicos are lucky to get five minutes on a particular question. Not that they're expected to give a logical answer, anyway. In fact, they can repeat catchphrases as much as they want ("lockbox!" "it's hard work!") as long as they don't look bored (Bush 1992), condescending (Gore 2000), or annoyed (Bush 2004). Who really remembers what was said at the debates in the last presidential campaign anyway? Indeed, did those commenting on the debates immediately following ever really analyze what was being said? In rare cases, such as on PBS, you'd get issue analysis, but for the most part television political commentary was limited to "how did the candidate come across to voters?" "Did he appear honest? Likeable?" Postman says that we're no longer in the Age of Typography, but rather in the Age of Show Business. Television's rules control how we communicate today, even if we aren't on television ourselves.

Take, for example, religion. Postman spends a chapter on religious discourse in the modern era, basically laying into television preachers. Postman (who was Jewish) found some televangelists intelligent, others insulting and emotionally manipulative, but, above everything else, they were all entertainers. There was very little theological depth compared to say, Jonathan Edwards or even Charles Finney. Postman comes to two conclusions about religion on television:

The first is that on television, religion, like everything else, is presented, quite simply and without apology, as an entertainment. Everything that makes religion a historic, profound, and sacred human activity is stripped away; there is no ritual, no dogma, no tradition, no theology, and above all, no sense of spiritual transcendence. On these shows, the preacher is tops. God comes out as a second banana. The second conclusion is that this fact has more to do with the bias of television than with the deficiencies of these electronic preachers...

The point is that in the Age of Show Business, nothing escapes becoming entertainment. Postman reserves special scorn for the way education and news are handled by television. The news chapter is specially informative. Our news programs (even the "serious" news shows), he says, are basically entertainment, because they have music introducing ideas and pretty people ("talking hairdos") telling the stories. News items are stripped from local context, commodified, and given to the viewer in bit-sized chunks, separated by the "now.... this!" phenomenon, which serves to make the viewer dismiss it all as meaningless candy he or she can do nothing about. The "now... this!" phenomenon can be tried on any news broadcast. Tonight, for example, and update on the Iraq will be followed by ("now.... this!") Britney Spears' latest escapades. Postman says this serves to reduce it all to meaningless trivia.

Amusing Ourselves to Death is definitely a polemic. Postman starts off the book with a comparision of George Orwell's 1984 with Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, stating that the point of his book is exploring the possibility that Huxley's dystopia was correct. Unlike 1984, where people are controlled by violence and pain, Huxley presented a world where people are controlled by giving them every pleasure they want. For Postman, television is the device that controls us by entertainment and pleasure. Is Postman provocative? You bet. But he does raise important questions about our uncritical acceptance of what we see on television, and our easy adoption of any new technology that comes down the pipe. Amusing Ourselves is a book that should be read and discussed by as many people as possible.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 3, 2015 6:04 PM PST

God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life (Focal Point)
God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life (Focal Point)
by Gene Edward Veith
Edition: Paperback
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars To Love and To Serve, January 25, 2006
This book is a short (164 pages) treatise on the Christian doctrine of vocation. It's a solid, well-written book, but I'm less impressed with this book than I was with Veith's other book on Lutheran Christianity, "The Spirituality of the Cross," as a lot of Veith's writing seems third-hand (Veith writes about Luther's doctrine of vocation via theologian Gustaf Wingren).

Those familiar with Lutheran theology are familiar with the idea that God works through "means." The "Means of Grace," for example, are the means by which God draws Christians to faith and grants them salvation. Proclamation of the Gospel, study of the Word, and Baptism (for those who can not yet comprehend), specifically, are the means by which God can bring people to faith, according to Lutherans. But the idea of God working through means isn't limited to issues of salvation. In the natural realm, for example, God works through the means of scientific laws (i.e. physics) in order to keep the universe running. He could, should He so choose, decide not to act though those means anymore, suspend the laws of science, and watch the world fly apart at the seams. But He doesn't do that. Indeed, he shows no malice at all in acting in the natural realm, causing rain to fall "on both the just and the unjust."

Vocation is the means by which God holds human societies together. God promised us "daily bread," and He could certainly give us all manna from Heaven every day in order to fulfill that promise. However, God has instead chosen to provide us food through the vocations of the farmer, delivery worker, cook, and so on. According to the doctrine of vocation, what we understand as "the economy" is basically the interaction of the various vocations in human life. When we do our best in our vocations, we are doing God's work by providing something for all people, "the just and the unjust." When we sin in our vocations, such as by poisoning the neighbor's crops or stealing company funds, then we disrupt the means by which God has decided to provide for the people on earth. It's important to note that both Christians and non-Christians are doing God's work through their vocations. Vocation is really God providing for "the just and the unjust" through the means of "just and unjust" human beings. It's just that only Christians are aware of what's really happening.

Vocation also works in family. As Luther points out, God could have easily created each successive generation of humans from the dust, but He didn't. He gave some to be parents in order to provide for future generations of human beings. The vocation of family, interlocked with the vocations of husbands, wives, and children, is the most important vocation of all, Luther believed, because in our familial roles, we model all the other roles we will play in society. (In case you're wondering, the vocation of children is to "honor thy father and mother.") In family, we learn about authority (children submitting to parents), caring for and serving others (parents for children), and love (hopefully both directions).

God expects us "to love and to serve" others. What does this mean? What it does not mean, according to Veith via Luther's apprentice Philip Melanchthon, is that loving and serving others gets us salvation. Indeed, our relationship with God is based entirely on faith made possible by grace. Our good works are "filthy rags" to Him. However, Melanchthon says, our relationships with other human beings are defined by good works. Other people can't see "faith," but they can see us loving and serving our fellow man. What's more, it is really God doing the "loving and serving," as He works through us, providing for "both the just and the unjust," hiding in the shadows, as we work in our vocation.

In the end, the doctrine of vocation is a positive doctrine. It is not a doctrine that says "Good Christians DON'T" and forces us to do spiritual naval-gazing. Instead, it's a positive, outward driven doctrine that tells us what "Good Christians DO," which is love and serve our fellow man.

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal
Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal
by Eric Schlosser
Edition: Paperback
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tremendous, July 22, 2002
This is an absolutely tremendous book. Schlosser takes on the fast food industry -- their marketing schemes, their labor practices, the monopoly-like operations -- and comes out a winner. His chapters on what the conglomorization of the agriculture industry has done to traditional farmers and ranchers made me sad. His chapters on how the fast food business regularly violates federal workplace rules, USDA safety standards, immigration laws, and federal tax statutes made me mad. His chapters on how fast food effects the American culture and landscape made me think. This is a great book. Pretty well written too, as Schlosser mixes careful analysis, polemic, and personal vingette (the story about the Colorado rancher who -- as he saw his own land disappearing right before his eyes -- took his life, really touched me) into a fine book. It's maddening how government is unable/unwilling to stop things from getting worse. If Schlosser is right, the fast food industry has a lot of explaining to do.

Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There
Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There
by David Brooks
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.95
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Clever and fun, January 14, 2002
Bobos in Paradise is a clever and fun book. I didn't find it laugh-out-loud funny, but I did find that it delivered some good smirks and chuckles from time to time (maybe just because I was on a plane I didn't want to indulge myself). Brooks's anecdotes about "Latte Towns" and the consumption habits of Bobos are his best.
This book has been criticized for not being analytical enough -- for not giving statistics backing up all the claims about Bobos -- and that's a fair criticism. However, I don't think hard statistical analysis is Brooks's aim here. He's trying to get a general "sense of things." More of a humanities approach than a social science approach, I'd say. With that in mind, Brooks's best chapter is one on the intellectual origins of the Bobo lifestyle. He gets into some classic works of history and sociology of the 50s and 60s, like Whyte's "The Organization Man" and Jacobs's "Death and Life of Great American Cities," and finds the ancestors of the Bobo culture. I was quite impressed by his efforts in this regard.
All in all, a good book that belongs on everyone's shelf. Not as funny as some have said, but not as intellectually shallow as others have said. I'm really interested to see if the word "bobo" is ready to invade our culture like the word "yuppie" did twenty years ago.

by Noam Chomsky
Edition: Paperback
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82 of 162 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Go for a book where you actually learn something, December 11, 2001
This review is from: 9-11 (Paperback)
The book is brief (96 pages), but it's substantive content is even less than that. Anyone who's read Chomsky's articles knows what is going to be said here. The United States government and the terrorists are morally equilvalent, regular Americans are too ignorant to understand the Middle East, somehow Bush is to blame, it's Israel, stupid, and so on. Nothing particularly new here. There's the typical left-leaning commentary about how we should cut our support for Israel (an "apartheid state") and drop sanctions against Iraq. There's also the moral equivalance argument where Reagan/Bush/Clinton/Bush are just as bad as bin Laden/Hussein. I'm not particularly offended by of Chomsky's claims. He's just wrong.
Unless you are a Chomsky lover, like the majority of the students in my graduate history courses, stay away from this book. Chomsky's reputation as America's foremost dissident and intellectual has gone to his head. Instead, how about buying one of the substantive books about the Middle East crisis? Check out Bernard Lewis, Chaim Herzog, Amin Maalouf, Simon Reeve's "New Jackals", or anything by Ahmed Rashid. Leave Chomsky on the shelf so there are plenty of copies for the tenured radicals to buy.
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America in Search of Itself: The Making of the President 1956-1980
America in Search of Itself: The Making of the President 1956-1980
by Theodore Harold White
Edition: Paperback
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Next to 1960, the best one., June 20, 2001
Theodore White's "Making of the President -- 1960" is obviously his best book and the one that put him on the map, but this book is his second best, and my personal favorite. It's hard to get, but if you can get a copy used, it's worth the read.
White spends the first half of the book detailing the major changes in the political landscape from 1956-1980. Much of it is nothing new to students of history, but it is interesting nonetheless because it is coming from an insider. Some major changes he identifies are the death of political conventions as anything meaningful, the breaking up of traditional ethnic political alliances, and the increasing role of media in chosing a President. A typical Cold War centrist liberal, White laments the rise of "radical" McGovern-type liberalism (especially affirmative action), as well as the anti-government conservatism of Ronald Reagan. He sees these forces as tearing the nation apart, and wishes that the 1950s and 1960s "liberal concensus" was still the dominant political ideology.
The second half of the book is the tale of the 1980 Reagan/Carter/Anderson election. It is the typical T.H. White narrative. He gets insider information from the major campaign players, and constructs a classic narrative of strong-willed men vying for the ultimate prize. In White's books, the hero is always the victor and the villian is always the loser, but the tale is always very exciting. If you enjoyed "MOTP -- 1960", you'll enjoy this one as well.

Inside Congress: The Shocking Scandals, Corruption, and Abuse of Power Behind the Scenes on Capitol Hill
Inside Congress: The Shocking Scandals, Corruption, and Abuse of Power Behind the Scenes on Capitol Hill
by Ronald Kessler
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
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5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Dull, June 20, 2001
I enjoyed Kessler's book on the Presidents sooo much more. Maybe I just find the Presidents more interesting subjects, but I thought this book was rather dull and plodding, just a laundry list of problems with the members of Congress. It's based on personal interviews and news reports, which are thankfully all footnoted so we know KESSLER is not making this stuff up, but how honest are his sources?? This book is for those who enjoy the National Enquirer.
If you like the Enquirer and can get this book in a cheap paperback, go ahead. Otherwise, don't bother.
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