One theme I chased this month was: what are stories from history that most people haven't heard about or don't have an accurate understanding of? My exploration was successful.
I started the month reading about a 1920s conspiracy to commit murder for oil rights against the Osage Native Americans, jumped a few decades ahead to be enthralled by the story of the African American women who helped launch the space race, and ended the month on the West Coast in the 60s to learn about the Manson trial.
Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann (notes) - This book opened my narrow mind to a new (for me) genre of writing: narrative non-fiction.
It tells the true story of the Osage murders and gives a unique insight into the early days of the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover's philosophy for running the Bureau. The writing was so captivating, I started it one day and finished it the next. This story needs to be told more. On that note, I was excited to see a movie, directed by Martin Scorsese, coming out in 2023.
Since this was a narrative, I didn't highlight much. I did, however, learn exciting facts about the early days of private detectives and forensic science.
Hidden Figures by Margot Shetterly - Captivating, heart-breaking, and awe-inspiring are just a few of the many adjectives I could use to describe this book. The author, Margot Lee Shetterly, did a great job weaving together the lives of "the black women mathematicians who helped win the space race" to show their grit and cant-stop-me attitude mixed with the terrible injustices they had to face.
One thing I realized was that African American's fought for "freedom" in both world wars but they weren't offered that same freedom back home. America and the allies painted themselves as a land that loves all and recognized the injustices the Jews were facing in Germany. Yet at the same time, African Americans were still fighting for fundamental freedoms and rights back home. I had never seen that juxtaposition before.
A similar situation happened during the space race. The USSR ensured anyone who so desired could be trained as an engineer. They had waves of people learning the most advanced math, science, and physics. Meanwhile, In America, African Americans were struggling to get a decent grade school education. In 1959 in Prince Edward County, rather than integrate, segregationists defunded the entire county school system. The schools in that district remained closed for five years. "Virginia," Shetterly writes, "a state with one of the highest concentrations of scientific talent in the world, led the nation in denying education to its youth."
When the space race took off, Civil Rights activists thought we didn't have any business reaching out beyond the stars if we couldn't figure out how to live together beneath them. I see their point.
Lucky for us, Dorthy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson looked these difficulties in the face and persevered. Their work helped John Glenn orbit earth and Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.
Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi - **A thorough, graphic, and shocking play-by-play of the Charles Manson trial written by the lead prosecutor for the Los Angeles District Attorney's office himself. I wanted to read this book for two reasons:
Partly to understand why America is more fascinated with the Manson crimes than they are with most other mass murders.
Helter Skelter is the best-selling true crime book in history. As Killers of the Flower Moon opened my mind to narrative non-fiction, I wanted to see how other writers approached that topic. I wasn't disappointed. At just under 28 hours long for the audiobook, my attention was held from cover to cover even though I knew how it ended! Bugliosi is a brilliant writer.
In 2018, journalist Tom O'Neill published Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties. I'm reading that now and he refutes a lot of what Bugliosi says. In the epilogue, O'Neil accuses Bugliosi of hiding evidence to more accurately paint the picture of his Helter Skelter race war motive. O'Neil thinks there's more to the story. A lot more. I plan to write an essay in the new year comparing the two.
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (notes) - Few books touch your soul the way Letters To a Young Poet does. The language is enchanting. The problems are wide-ranging and applicable to most people. The main creative outlet addressed in the book is poetry, but the advice applies to anything someone with a creative bone in their body touches with pride and says: I made that.
It's a book for the soul, not the mind. Don't expect to learn tips for managing your creative workload or a process for creating great work. Rather, expect to look at your heart, more than once, and ask it: Why do you want me to create, little heart?
Joan Didion on Keeping a Notebook - "Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss."
The Kopp-Etchells Effect Explained - "This means that the metals used are substances that can spontaneously ignite in air. But of course this doesn't happen in normal circumstances; we don't see bricks of titanium bursting into flames. Rather, the spinning blades of the helicopter generate a cloud of metal particles, just like the cloud of sand. Once in a powdered form, the metal particles can ignite and create the brilliant scenes above."
John Von Neumann: A Strange Kind of Bird - "Rather, his creation of game theory, the economic concept of utility being a number, and 'von Neumann architectures' in computing were more the byproducts of an excellent mathematician making expert use of the tools of his trade in approaching the problems of other fields."
Why Graham Hancock Thinks Everything We Know About Human Prehistory Is Wrong - "There's the Phantom Time Hypothesis, which argues that the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries AD simply never happened. Unlike Hancock's theory, this one substantially rewrites a very familiar history: there was never a Charlemagne, or an early Middle Ages; the whole thing was concocted by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III, and we're actually currently living in the year 1725."
Finding the Right People - "Even one person can change you: one person who shows you how to be loved, how to be self-assured, how to take risk."
The Birth of the Institute for Advanced Study - "Mathematicians with a fondness for tennis (the courts were nearby) didn't have to go home before returning to their offices --- there was a locker room with showers. When its doors opened in 1921, an undergraduate poet called it "a country club for math, where you could take a bath."
The Adjacency Fallacy - "Here's the difference between striated and smooth career-spaces: navigating the former just takes intelligence. Navigating the latter takes intelligence, creativity and balls."
Model Suggests Link Between Intelligence and Entropy - "A variety of previous research has provided "lots of hints that there's some sort of association between intelligence and entropy maximization," says Alex Wissner-Gross of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). On the grandest scale, for example, theorists have argued that choosing possible universes that create the most entropy favors cosmological models that allow the emergence of intelligent observers ."
Don't Surround Yourself With Smart People - "Beneath the humblebragging in both versions (your cut-off for smart is a de facto declaration of "look how smart I am; only Einsteins are worthy of surrounding me, and I understand the things they say!"), there is a basic logical issue: If the smarter people are dumb enough to surround themselves with the likes of you, they are dumber than you, which means they're smart and you're dumb. Wait. What?"