Sunday, April 08, 2018

Review: The Sackett Brand: The Sacketts

The Sackett Brand: The Sacketts The Sackett Brand: The Sacketts by Louis L'Amour
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This takes up almost right after Mojave Crossing with the story of Tell and Ange. It takes a dark turn and turns into a thrilling man hunt and trial of survival through the canyons of the Mogollon Rim in Arizona. Many Sacketts, familiar and new, arrive to come to Tell's aid and gives this book a classic Western revenge movie feel. As with all L'Amour books, the story telling is crisp, the descriptions beautiful, and there is plenty of philosophical musings about the mores and norms of the West.

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Review: The History and Achievements of the Islamic Golden Age

The History and Achievements of the Islamic Golden Age The History and Achievements of the Islamic Golden Age by Eamonn Gearon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

These lectures are a captivating tour of the Islamic world from the 8th to the 13th centuries. Eamonn Gearon is a great storyteller and each lecture in this series could stand on its own as fascinating and engaging. His deep knowledge of the history and ideas of the Islamic world is evident throughout all the lectures.

The breadth of Gearon’s discussion shows that the Islamic Golden Age produced achievements in nearly all branches of science, philosophy, mathematics, and technology. The achievements during the Islamic Golden Age across all areas of human thought and life is unparalleled until the European Enlightenment – which owes no small influence to the Islamic Golden Age. There is much in our modern world that has its roots in the Islamic Golden Age. Gearon makes a point to underline that these intellectual and practical achievements are not necessarily religious or particularly tied to or driven by Islam. The achievements came from all kinds of people, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Arab, European, African, Persian, and so on. What makes it the Islamic Golden Age is that this a period ruled by Muslims, by states that had Islam has the state religion.

One of the most interesting questions that runs throughout the lectures is why was there so much progress during this period and then why did it come to an end? The thread one gets from these lectures is that with regional stability from the Abbasid Empire came the relatively free movement of goods, peoples, and ideas. This along with the relative toleration and interaction of ideas and people set the ground for the flourishing of human thought and achievement. As the Abbasid Empire weakened, the stability, tolerance, and trade weakened as well. And as a consequence, as Gearon says, the Golden Age become silver and then the bronze.

So why did the Abbasids weaken? Gearon explores this a bit but not in great detail. Essentially a combination of foreign invasions (Christians and Mongols), internal divisions (the Fatmids, the Almohads), and the natural complacency of the ruling class contributed to the Abbasids fall and with it the Islamic Golden Age.

There are remarkable parallels to the Roman and English empires. In all these, there was a general correspondence of (relatively) liberal trade and immigration policies, (relative) tolerance of ideas, and the health of the culture and achievement of people under the empires. This is not to say that there were not awful problems, people excluded and dominated, and so on, but compared to other periods and other regions, there was remarkable growth and achievement. And when these more liberal and tolerant policies ebbed, so do the achievement and progress, and then the empires themselves. Important lessons for our times.



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Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Review: Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man

Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man by Timothy Sandefur
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the words of my eight-year-old son: “Frederick Douglass is cool!” Timothy Sandefur’s new book on Douglass is a pithy account of why he is so cool. In this tightly and clearly written account of Douglass’ life and legacy, Sandefur persuasively makes the case that Douglass is an important and central figure of 19th century American politics and should be for the 20th and 21st centuries as well. He highlights the nuance, depth, and breadth of Douglass’ intellectual achievements: not just on the abolition movement but also on constitutional and political theory more broadly.

Sandefur shows how Douglass’s ideas, style, and methods influenced in various ways thinkers and activists such as Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He details Douglass’ self-made rise from bondage to dining with and influencing U.S. Presidents.

The one “problem” with the book is that it will inspire you to go out and read more about Douglass and by Douglass.


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Saturday, March 17, 2018

Review: The Ghostway

The Ghostway The Ghostway by Tony Hillerman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hillerman always crafts a tight mystery interwoven with the beautiful landscape of the southwest and the traditions of the Navajo. The Ghostway is no exception. Many of Hillerman's novels are also part meditation on what it is to be Navajo, and here we see Chee's internal struggle with his own Navajo identity get highlighted by foil of those he encounters in trying to solve the mystery: traditional Navajo, uprooted and un-rooted LA Navajo, and white people.

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Friday, March 16, 2018

Review: American Emperor: Aaron Burr's Challenge to Jefferson's America

American Emperor: Aaron Burr's Challenge to Jefferson's America American Emperor: Aaron Burr's Challenge to Jefferson's America by David O. Stewart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Aaron Burr is a fascinating historical figure. A revolutionary war hero. He presages the modern politician. He very nearly beat Jefferson for the Presidency in 1800. In the infamous duel, the sitting vice-president kills Alexander Hamilton. Under two murder indictments, he finishes his term and presides over the senate, including the impeachment hearing of Judge Samuel Chase. If that’s not enough, he spends the next five years essentially trying to become emperor of Mexico and probably more. He narrowly avoids a conviction of treason and then spends another five years in Europe trying to get a European power to support his plans to take over Mexico (in between his many romantic dalliances). Finally, he returns to New York only to lose the only two people he probably cared about: his daughter and grandson. He lives until 80 in what had to be a lonely and disgraced life.

Burr was charming and convivial, but also a power hungry, manipulator who most likely was conspiring to take over all of the North American continent and make himself an American Napoleon. Unlike Napoleon, though, there was no underlying political ideology motivating Burr. Burr’s motivation is best captured in the Hamilton musical: “I wanna be in the room where it happens.” Burr just wanted to be _the guy_. He wanted to be admired and loved, he wanted to be in charge.

And he almost succeeded.

The audiobook was performed well by Andrew Garman. It starts with the set-up for the Hamilton duel and takes you through the rest of Burr’s life. The author spends a lot of time and detail on Burr’s “western expedition” preparations and the subsequent treason trials. It provides a fascinating look at the leading lights of the founding era through Burr’s often unsympathetic eyes.


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Friday, March 09, 2018

Review: The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money

The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money by Bryan Caplan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bryan Caplan’s new book is a devastating and depressing take down of the education system. Caplan argues that the education system does little to educate and that most of the gains we see from education are not linked to what students may learn. If he’s right, then most of the current education system (K-12, higher ed) is a colossal waste. There are, nevertheless, important liberating elements (at least for me as a higher ed teacher).

There is a lot Caplan covers, and I won’t touch on most of it here. I’m going to focus on a few key things that struck me as the most important and interesting. Agree with his conclusions or not, Caplan presents us with an important argument about education with which we need to deal. Refreshingly, he’s very open with the data and even provides links to the spreadsheets for people to play with the data and assumptions themselves. One gets the sense he would love to be disproved about the disvalue of education.

First, the devastation and depression. The basic theme of the book is this: college graduates, on average, earn 73% more than high school graduates and Caplan wants to explain this earning premium. It needs explaining because, as he argues, very little of it seems to be tied to what college graduates learn in college. The view that the premium is tied to the training and skills learned in college is what Caplan calls the Human Capital view. You go to college, learn a bunch of stuff, and this makes it so you are more likely to be hired into a good job and earn more. Caplan argues that this conventional view is largely mistaken on a few counts: students don’t learn that much or remember much of what they do learn; and what they learn is not usually a skill relevant for the job. (If you are skeptical of this, read the book and evaluate his data and arguments.)

One of the things that has convinced me that the human capital view is not accurate is that college dropouts are not in a much better position (for hiring and earning) than high school graduates. For example, at ASU you need 120 credits to graduate. If you earn 119 credits but skip that last credit hour, your hiring and earning potential is just slightly better than the high school graduate with 0 college credits. That’s hard to square with the human capital view. You earned 99% of the degree and so if the college premium was due to what you learn you should be a lot closer to the college graduate than the high school graduate. Unless, as Caplan quips, we teach all the important skills in that last credit hour.

Caplan shows that a huge chunk of the college premium is just having the degree—not what you learn while getting the degree. This is the Signaling view. The college degree signals important information to potential employers about your employability: intelligence, conformity, and conscientiousness (discipline, work effort, punctuality). Crossing the finish line of the diploma takes some reasonable amount of intelligence. Going to (and graduating from) a traditional four-year college shows your willingness to conform to social norms and expectations. Lastly, it shows, at a minimum, that you were able to follow enough directions and show up to class on time enough that you were able to pass enough classes to get the degree. Caplan argues that these signals make up about 80% of the college earning premium.

One might say, ok, fine signaling is most of the premium, but education is still worthwhile because it broaden student’s horizons, awakes them to new possibilities, spurs the imagination beyond the mundane, and teaches them deeper thinking and conceptual skills that they can use to become better citizens and human beings. Caplan’s response: Wishful thinking. That’s want we education to be. It’s what for academics like myself and Caplan it partly was. It’s just not what it is for most people. For most students: they don’t want to be there and they aren’t prepared to be there. And even so, their horizons and imaginations don’t actually get broadened all that much anyway.
Caplan acknowledges that this sounds cynical and elitist. But, as he argues, it is about what the data shows. Maybe a different education system could fulfill the broadening horizons myth, but education in this world and in this structure doesn’t even come close. Based on my near two decades of teaching in universities, I’d have to agree. I like to think I’m expanding student’s horizons and improving their thinking; that I’m exposing them to new and exciting ideas. And there are a few students for whom this is true. But most just ask if it is going to be on the test and can we get out of class early. Maybe I’m just a crappy teacher or have mediocre students. But Caplan’s data suggests otherwise: no matter the teacher or the school this is the norm.

In this way this is depressing: what is the point of my job? Am I just wasting my time? But it is also liberating. It frees me to focus on the students and ideas in the here and now. It’s not about job prep or their future: it’s about engaging ideas with students who are interested right now. I can focus on what I find exciting and cool. The students who are also engaged can come along. Those who aren’t, aren’t really missing out on anything important to them. They can just move along the signal chain on to something that does interest them.

One of the counters to his critique that Caplan looks at is this. Sure, students aren’t going to use categorical syllogisms on the job or find much use outside of history for learning how to interpret original historical sources. But the abstract thinking skills they learn when doing these things is something that will be important in their lives and jobs. It’s hard to teach these abstract thinking skills directly, but they can be picked up by studying logic, history, chemistry, etc. Call this the abstract thinking argument. It’s an argument I’ve made in the past when trying to sell students on philosophy. Caplan looks at the education psychological literature and argues that there just isn’t any empirical evidence for the abstract thinking argument. I’m not that convinced he’s right on this.

Now, I haven’t look at this literature, but based on the what Caplan says about it, I’m not sure it works to show the abstract thinking argument doesn’t work. He looks at what is called “transfer of knowledge.” Do students who learn the scientific method, use the scientific method outside the contexts in which they learn it? In other words, do they transfer the method over from their chemistry classes to using it outside of chemistry? The evidence, Caplan says, is no, they don’t. And that might be true (I see versions of this in which students don’t use the writing skills they learn in composition classes in other non-composition classes such as my philosophy classes). But this seems different from the abstract thinking argument. The transfer of knowledge evidence seems to be about specific skills or methods. But I’m not sure it applies to learning abstract processes of thought like logical thinking.

Here’s an analogy. You learn dribbling in soccer and that isn’t applicable outside of soccer. But running as a skill is broad athletic skill that is used across many sports (and beyond). I am concerned that what Caplan has shown is that dribbling is not transferable but then using that as the claim that there is no evidence that running is transferable. If abstract thinking skills are more like running with wide usage, then Caplan’s evidence misses the mark.

The policy implications of Caplan’s book are intriguing. The most important one, I think, is the need to develop and encourage different pathways for students. There are students for whom the traditional college experience is perfect: they will succeed at it, enjoy it, and reap the benefits from it. But it is not and should not be the path for all. Apprenticeships, technical education, and vocational education are other options that would serve the needs and interests of many more people—and have greater payoff for the broader society and not just the individual who is better able to get a job and earning a living.

There is a lot in Caplan’s book that is worth looking at and thinking about it. Some of which is probably wrong. I surely don’t agree with all his arguments or interpretations of the data. What I think is most important about the book is that it calls for us to look at education as it is, not what we wish or hope it to be. If we want to get education to what we wish it could be, we have to deal with the reality of the current system and not pretend it is something else.

Caplan calls himself an educational whistleblower. His whistleblowing will, I hope, lead to more conversations, and more realistic conversations, about education.


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Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Review: Riot Act

Riot Act Riot Act by Zoƫ Sharp
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a very good follow up novel. The structure and unfolding of the plot is not identical to the first novel and Sharp continues to develop the Charlie character. The setting of northwest UK works really well. I typically end up spending some time on Google maps checking out the locations. I also like that they don't Americanize the spellings or slang; it would really detract from the story telling if they did that. I am not sure, however, about the Sean Meyer character and how he'll get integrated into the story. I get the idea of introducing a love interest, but I don't want that to overshadow Charlie and her story.


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Friday, February 16, 2018

Review: The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution The Industrial Revolution by Patrick N. Allitt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Professor Allitt is great. I've listened to several of his courses, he's a great lecturer: informative, humorous, and balanced. This history of the industrial revolution does a thorough job of explaining the historical precursors, the key individuals involved, and the progress and effects of the revolution up through contemporary times. The first half of the lectures are focused on the developments in Britain. The second half moves into the US, Europe and then the industrialization of other parts of the world. There are focuses on important inventions: the steam engine, automobile, flight, electricity. Allitt also looks at the impact of industrialization on the art, politics, economics, war, and the environment.

I highly recommend this course -- and any course by Professor Allitt.


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Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Review: My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are many hard truths in this book; things that cannot and should not be ignored. I don’t always agree with Shavit’s conclusions about how to deal with these truths or what they mean in the bigger picture but I think it is important that they be faced. These sometimes myth-busting, sometimes disturbing stories pose deep challenges to those who, like me, grew up on the standard Jewish-American discourse about Israel. That is not to say it is revisionist or offering a history that was previously unknown. But what Shavit is able to do is put a human face on all sides of the history of Israel. This makes it harder, for example, to downplay or dismiss a tragedy as just an unfortunate consequence of a war. It makes the tragedy personal and thus much more real to the reader. (That said, this very poignancy can also distort one’s thinking about the issues by pulling too much at the personal—this is a paradox of thinking about these kinds of issues. You can’t ignore the personal for the sake of a comprehensive, principled account, but bringing in the personal has a way of putting too much on weight on the personal stories at the expense of objectivity.)

Shavit’s journey through the history, demography, and geography of Israel is deeply personal. It is not a detailed work of history or policy analysis. Shavit selects certain points of history and certain individuals and tells us their story. In many ways it is, necessarily, incomplete and piecemeal. What ties the book together is the way that Shavit brings these threads together to form his vision of the past and potential future of Israel.

Shavit seems to be writing this book to answer questions about Israel: Why was Israel necessary? How did it get built? What impact did this have on the people in Israel (Arab and Jewish alike)? How has Israel survived and flourished? How has Israel (and Israelis) changed over decades of its existence? What explains these changes? What do these changes and the forces behind these changes mean for the future?

I don’t think one walks away from this book with definitive answers to any of these questions. One gets a sense of Shavit’s answers—but given the personal nature of the book these are not offered as _the_ answers and Shavit doesn’t present us with arguments to justify these answers. But the necessity of raising these questions and thinking about them is what makes this book important.



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Thursday, January 04, 2018

Review: Winner Takes All

Winner Takes All Winner Takes All by Robert Bidinotto
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The third in what is now a trilogy, Winner Takes All, deals with questions about justice and revenge through an exciting and compelling story. While I enjoyed the novel, I think I preferred the first two better. The story meanders a bit in the beginning as Bidinotto sets the pieces. The plot is more wide-ranging, with more players and elements, so he needs to do this. But it took me a bit to get into it. Personally, I found the subplot of the relationship between Annie and Dylan to be at times distracting. The relationship is important; it humanizes and grounds Dylan. But their interactions were often just a bit too on the nose for my taste.

Nevertheless, the second half of the book cooks as Dylan unwinds what is going on and figures out how to stop it. Dylan is a bad-ass; part Batman, part Jack Bauer, part Jason Bourne. Fans of this genre (Child, Silva, Thor, Flynn, Baldacci) will like it.

From the intellectual side, Bidinotto works his idea of the master narrative into the plot. It drives the motivations and decisions of both the good and bad guys in the novel. The protagonists struggle explicitly with the apparent conflicts of integrity, justice, morality, and the law in a corrupt world. It is important for how the characters individually resolve or deal with these conflicts to understand how they see themselves and how they see the world: their master narrative.


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Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Review: Spencer & Locke

Spencer & Locke Spencer & Locke by David Pepose
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This graphic novel blew my mind. I adore Calvin And Hobbes. Easily my favorite all time comic strip; it is not even close. Watterson's strip was beautiful, poignant, and brilliant.

But imagine the darker timeline. What if Calvin's world was not a loving, middle-class upbringing? What would Calvin have been like? And what if he became a cop and still had Hobbes around? That's what you get in this amazingly creative noir graphic novel.

You don't need to been as big a C&H fan as I am to appreciate what the authors have done in their retelling and re-conceptualization of C&H. It certainly helps to get some of the background, but it's an intriguing story on its own.


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Review: The Name of the Wind

The Name of the Wind The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This a great book. It's a refreshing fantasy story; exciting and well-written. The characters are interesting and the story new. While there are elements/motifs from other fantasy novels (be it Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter), Rothfuss isn't rehashing these. There is magic and there are dragons and demons. There is a boy turning into a man while at school where he is an outsider and causing all kinds of trouble. But Rothfuss creates a new tale out of these many of these classic elements. The world creation is subtle but deep. There is mystery and intrigue in the story Rothfuss tells us. And he shows us this world in a beautiful and detailed way (without ever being pretentious). Highly recommend it to anyone who loves the fantasy genre.

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Thursday, November 23, 2017

Review: Mojave Crossing

Mojave Crossing Mojave Crossing by Louis L'Amour
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Sackett novels are such fun. L'Amour is wonderful at depicting the southwest: its beauty, its danger, its allure. They do get a little formulaic at times, but L'Amour is such a master it doesn't matter.

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Saturday, November 18, 2017

Review: State of the Union

State of the Union State of the Union by Brad Thor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thor writes a fun, entertaining thriller. But it's boiler-plate, formulaic. Harvath is no different than any other character in this genre. There is little character development, growth, or exploration. The plot is straight-forward--even if somewhat preposterous. It's basically the standard-issue, indistinguishable summer action flick but on the page.

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Thursday, November 02, 2017

Review: Democracy and Political Ignorance

Democracy and Political Ignorance Democracy and Political Ignorance by Ilya Somin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In many ways, this is a frightening book. Somin goes into careful detail on the arguments and evidence for widespread and persistent political ignorance. Then he discusses the harm such ignorance has on policy and good governance. And then he shows that most solutions are likely to fail to significantly reduce the problem. Some of the solutions discussed wouldn’t likely work even if they were feasible or likely to be implemented. Many of the other solutions—including Somin’s own suggestion: limiting the scope and power of government—suffer from the paradox that to implement them means first overcoming the problem of political ignorance.

Thought there is some technical detail; Somin has an exceptionally clear style. He’s careful and thorough in his research, and makes great effort to be balanced and intellectually honest.

The case Somin makes for limiting the scope (what government can do) and power (decentralizing power) of government is persuasive – though I am predisposed towards his conclusions to start with. Nevertheless, Somin’s discussion of the contrasting efficacy between ballot voting and voting with one’s feet does a lot to make a relatively ideologically neutral argument for limiting the power and scope of government.

There is one persistent sticking point for me. So the long-standing evidence shows that most voters lack political knowledge. This is explained by the theory of rational ignorance: where since (1) gaining more political knowledge takes resources (time, effort) and (2) any individual vote has almost no chance of having an impact (no payoff), it is rational to remain ignorant: there is no payoff for the resources invested. A potential problem here is that one thing that voters are ignorant of is (2). Most voters think their vote matters and has an important impact (and this why they vote). So it seems that by their own standards, they should be investing the resources to gain more political knowledge. But they don’t. This makes it seem that their ignorance is not, by their own lights, rational. Maybe the literature on rational ignorance has an answer to this, but the ones I’ve come across don’t seem to explain it to my satisfaction. Somin’s response seems to be that this falls into a sort of sweet spot: voters overestimate their impact (so they go to vote) but not enough to give them an incentive to get more political knowledge. This may be the case, but I still don’t find it satisfying. It might explain the paradox of voting, but I’m not sure it explains the apparent irrationality of thinking your vote has an impact while remaining ignorant.

This is an important book that any one interested in social knowledge, political philosophy, or political science ought to read.

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Monday, October 09, 2017

Review: One False Move

One False Move One False Move by Harlan Coben
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I enjoy the Bolitar series. Coben has created an interesting set of characters. They are not all original or novel for the genre, but the admixture is unique and works well.

This installment was very good. The set up and mystery were well crafted. And we get some character growth and development with Myron, Win, and Esperanza. The ending was even a bit of surprise.

The only thing that bothered me was how dated it felt. It was only published 1998 but it feels like an alien world. Every time one of the character said "cellular phone" I cringed a little. Myron even uses microfiche machine to search newspapers. Microfiche! Might as well be talking about gramophones and talkies. Obviously this is not Coben's fault but it's somewhat weird that a book not even 20 years old could feel so out of date technology-wise. This doesn't bother me as much with novels from the 70s or novels that are intentional set in another time. I think it stands out here because these books are contemporary.

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Review: Words on the Move: Why English Won't - And Can't - Sit Still

Words on the Move: Why English Won't - And Can't - Sit Still Words on the Move: Why English Won't - And Can't - Sit Still by John McWhorter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

McWhorter's approach to language and linguistics is refreshing and enlightening. As a trade book, I am sure the ruffles and edges of more scholarly approaches are smoothed out, but McWhorter does a good job of making it simple without being simplistic.

In this work, McWhorter discusses how languages are constantly adapting and changing. He explains how the ceaseless shifts in sounds, usages, and meanings change the language and our understanding of it.

For the purists out there (and I have a lot of sympathy for this group) some of what McWhorter says might not fit comfortably. He makes, however, a persuasive case for his point of view and he is frank about the counterarguments.

Most of all, McWhorter is funny and engaging, a pleasure to read regardless (or irregardless) of your agreement with his view.

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Review: Words on the Move: Why English Won't - And Can't - Sit Still

Words on the Move: Why English Won't - And Can't - Sit Still Words on the Move: Why English Won't - And Can't - Sit Still by John McWhorter
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

McWhorter's approach to language and linguistics is refreshing and enlightening. As a trade book, I am sure the ruffles and edges of more scholarly approaches are smoothed out, but McWhorter does a good job of making it simple without being simplistic.

In this work, McWhorter discusses how languages are constantly adapting and changing. He explains how the ceaseless shifts in sounds, usages, and meanings change the language and our understanding of it.

For the purists out there (and I have a lot of sympathy for this group) some of what McWhorter says might not fit comfortably. He makes, however, a persuasive case for his point of view and he is frank about the counterarguments.

Most of all, McWhorter is funny and engaging, a pleasure to read regardless (or irregardless) of your agreement with his view.

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