# books

“Scattered Minds” by Gabor Maté

# books# mind

Scattered Minds is one of the most influential books on the topic of ADD/ADHD. Canadian physician Gabor Maté wrote the book after receiving his own diagnosis for ADD. (Maté uses the shorter abbreviation, “ADD”, so I’ll do the same here.)

Scattered Minds is an impressive accomplishment of memoir, medical writing, and self help all in one as Maté ties together his childhood, family life, medical practice, research, and life’s wisdom. His prose, weaving together his personal experiences, research, and case studies, kept me engaged for the most part. Nonetheless, I got bored a few times and skipped a few chapters. I found some sections a bit repetitive or drawn-out. But, on the whole, I thought this was a great book about life as well as ADD.

Maté was born to Jewish parents in Hungary during the Holocaust — which immediately become relevant in Maté’s main thesis about ADD: it is primarily caused by emotional strain during infancy. Maté goes so far as to argue that ADD is actually caused by a deficit of eye contact between guardian and child in the early stages of development. I found his insistence on this causality suspect, but I take his broader point: emotional stress during early development affects the brain, and that can present in later years as ADD. Maté says that early childhood strain leads to a weaker executive function. In his analogy, the traffic cop who regulates emotions, thoughts, and impulses is off duty.

I don’t know if I have do or don’t have ADD. I haven’t been assessed or diagnosed. What I do know is that I grew up in a house with financial strain, and my parents divorced when I was seven. My report cards describe a child who didn’t pay attention or hand in assignments despite being thoughtful and intelligent. In high school, I was excited to enroll in the advanced classes, but I spent much of my time asleep on my desk, having stayed up too late the night before and now unable to follow what was happening on the chalkboard. I developed a distrust for authority and tendency toward subversion. I fell in love with activism and backpacking. In university, I argued with my teachers. At work, I argued with my bosses. I picked up side gigs and worked on weekends. I never felt like I was doing enough.

I relate to many experiences that Maté and other people with ADD describe. So many that I can’t list them here; I would need to go through the book again with a pen and paper. Like the experiences described in the book, I developed a self-identity based in unmet potential, even while I was accomplishing achievements I was proud of.

I don’t think you need ADD to learn from Scattered Minds. Ultimately, we live in a society that puts strain on working humans from life’s first moments through to its last. About the social conditions for ADD, Maté quote the poet Robert Bly,

Bly notes that “in 1935 the average working man had forty hours a week free, including Saturday. By 1990, it was down to seventeen hours. The twenty-three lost hours of free time a week since 1935 are the very hours in which the father could be a nurturing father, and find some center in himself, and the very hours in which the mother could feel she actually has a husband.” These patterns characterize not only the early years of parenting, but entire childhoods.

Although society has created economic pressure on women to participate in the workforce when children are very young, it has made little provisions for the satisfaction of children’s needs for emotional nourishment and stimulation. In neither Canada nor the U.S. has public support for the care of young children of working parents come close to adequate.

Under this pressure, many of us struggle to find any sense of accomplishment or stability. In lieu of that, it’s normal to feel anxious, unmotivated, and flustered.

For someone with an ADD diagnosis, there are proven medical treatments, including psychotherapy and medication. But for anyone who feels overwhelmed with the scope of daily life, Maté offers solid advice rooted in self-acceptance and self-compassion.

Beyond finding compassion for ourselves, I think Scattered Minds is also a call to cultivate compassion for others. In 2015, when I read Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes, the idea of neurodiversity blew my mind. I realized that many people’s psychological experience of the world is profoundly different from what we understand as “normal.” But instead of accepting a diversity of minds, we demean people who seem odd. Scattered Minds reminded me of this again. Everyone has a different experience of the world. Sometimes, those experiences can be very difficult. Sometimes, society makes those experiences unnecessarily difficult. But nonetheless those different experiences — the things that make each of us me — are beautiful.

“The Age of Revolution” by Eric Hobsbawm

# history# books

Eric Hobsbawm was one of England’s most distinguished and respected historians. The Age of Revolution is the first book in Hobsbawm’s monumental four-part summary of modern European history. The book covers the period from the French Revolution in 1789 through to the European political upheavals of 1848.

Hobsbawm, who died in 2012, was a communist. He doesn’t waste time lyricizing about the economic gains or innovations of the Industrial Revolution. Instead, he goes straight into the living reality of the time.

Such as it was, the world of 1789 was overwhelmingly rural, and nobody can understand it who has not absorbed this fundamental fact… even in England itself, the urban population only just outnumbered the rural population for the first time in 1851.

From this starting point, we understand that the history of the “long 19th century” is a history of the relationship between people and the land that provided their livelihood — a relationship that grew increasingly alienated year by year.

The book focuses on the Industrial and French revolutions as coincident revolutions that both completely changed the economic structure of society, pushing England and France from traditional feudal societies to early market-based societies. By the end of the period, for the first time in history Europe had an economic system where land and labor could be easily bought and sold. Humans who had always worked the land for themselves now understood that their basic needs — food, hygiene, housing — came from a market.

A lynchpin in the story is the invention of the cotton gin, which automated the processing of cotton. Over the 18th century, America had built a massive industry of cotton production. But it still took considerable time and effort for enslaved people to process the cotton so it could be used for textiles. The cotton gin removed this effort and opened the floodgates of industry. Cheap cotton flooded the market, originating in the American South and entering Europe through Scotland and Northern England.

All of a sudden, cloth became a material that ordinary people could cheaply buy and use. The production of cotton exploded in the United Kingdom as the British sold it domestically and then abroad. England flooded with money from cotton, and that money launched the Industrial Revolution.

At the same time, the demand for cotton fed an explosion of slaveholding in America, which would grow over the following decades until reaching a breaking point with the Civil War.

This is the period of European history when power shifted from the aristocracy (traditional land owners) to the bourgeoisie (market capitalists). In the United Kingdom, the transfer of power passed through industrialization. In France, the transfer passed through violent revolution.

France’s revolution also solidified the idea of the nation. After French revolutionaries rose up and created a new constitution, they believed that they had a righteous mission to spread their politics abroad. Napoleon, who had risen to prominence through the revolution, seized on this nationalism to lead France through a series of wasteful and ruinous wars across Europe, which ended in defeat and disaster.

This is a rough summary based on what I can remember of what I have read so far. I’ll take time to update it as I proceed.


Preface

The book “is not a detailed narrative, but interpretation.”

The book is for the person “who is not merely curious about the past, but wishes to understand how and why the world has come to be what it is today.”

Introduction

The period between 1789 and 1848 “forms the greatest transformation in human history since the remote times when men invented agriculture, metallurgy, writing, the city and the state… The great revolution of 1789-1848 was not the triumph of ‘industry’ as such, but of capitalist industry; not of liberty and equality in general, but of middle class or ‘bourgeous’ liberal society; not of ‘the modern economy’ or ‘the modern state’ but of the economies and states in a particular geographical region of the world whose center was the neighbouring and rival states of Great Britain and France.”

”… the twin crater of a rather larger regional volcano.”

“it is more relevant… that they could not with any probability have been expected to occur at this time in any other part of the world.”

“Our problem is to explain not the existence of these elements of a new economy and society, but their triumph.”

Chapter 1

The world in the 1780s was relatively empty: large blank swaths on the map, criss-crossed by trade routes. Much of the world was unknown. Inhabited territories of Europe were largely marsh, brush, and underutilized grazing territory.

“Europeans were, on the whole, distinctly shorter and lighter than they are today.”

People moved slowly by foot, cart, or boat. They “lived and died in the county, and often in the parish, of their birth: as late as 1861 more than nine out of ten in seventy of the ninety French departments lived in the department of their birth.” “There were no newspapers.”

“The world of 1789 was overwhelmingly rural, and nobody can understand it who has not absorbed this fundamental fact.”

Even “the provincial town still belonged essentially to the economy and society of the countryside.” The town professionals worked in auxiliary industries.

“The provincial city had declined sadly since its heyday in the later middle ages. It was only rarely a ‘free city’ or city state; only rarely any longer a centre of manufactures for a wider market or a staging-post in international trade.”

“The provincial town of the late eighteenth century might be a prosperous and expanding community… but that prosperity came from the countryside.”

Early economists assumed that land and land rent was the sole source of income. “The crux of the agrarian problem was the relation between those who cultivated the land and whose who owned it, those who produced its wealth and those who accumulated it.”

Europe divides into three areas:

  • Overseas colonies were where farm workers are unfree, either on latin feudal estates or American slave plantations
  • Eastern Europe was mostly agrarian serfdom, so the typical farm worker was unfree
    • “the flood of serfdom which had risen almost without a break since the later fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries.”
    • “the typical peasant was a serf, devoting a large part of the week to forced labour on the lord’s land, or its equivalent in other obligations. His unfreedom might be so great as to be barely distinguishable from chattel slavery.”
    • The colonies and the East largely served Western Europe as dependent economies.

The West was modernizing, though “In most countries of Western Europe the fuedal order implied by such ways of thinking was still politically very alive… Economically, however, western rural society was very different. The characteristic peasant had lost much of his servile status in the late middle ages… The characterisc estate had become a system of collecting rents and other money incomes.” The peasant was “more or less free,” and paid rent or a share of crops to a landlord or a local lord. England had already progressed well towards capitalist agriculture. As English smallholding and cottage industry was stripped away in the 18th century, there remained a bourgeois class of agricultural entrepreneurs and an agrarian proletariat.

The UK became incredibly powerful through economic development, and “by the 1780s all continental governments with any pretence to a rational policy were consequently fostering economic growth, and especially industrial development.”

(p. 36)

“Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell

# reading# books

At my office book club, we finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. On the whole, I found this book disappointing. I respect Malcolm Gladwell as a storyteller, but as a philosopher his ideas are deeply misguided.

In the first two chapters, Gladwell says the book is about the concept of success. I think the thesis is that conditions predict success more than ones’ individual determination does. That part of the book is compelling.

After that, Gladwell uses the rest of the book as a rambling argument for racism. The book’s penultimate chapter is called “Rice Paddies and Math Tests,” which — you may have guessed — is about how Chinese people are good at math because of rice farming. That’s as crass as a stereotype can be. Gladwell never feigns any attempt at subtlety or caution. Gladwell’s coup de grace in the final paragraph of the chapter is that the world’s hardest working students and the countries with the world’s best math students are all in East and Southeast Asia: Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan.

What those five have in common, of course, is that they are all cultures shaped by the tradition of wet-rice agriculture.

Gladwell leaves it to a footnote to clarify that China (the primary country discussed in the chapter) is omitted from this list for technical reasons, and he completely ignores that neither Signapore nor Hong Kong produce any rice at all. In fact, the other three countries don’t even produce that much rice. Per person, they rank below Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Nepal, Mali, Madagascar, India, and Peru — all countries that have miraculously avoided the good-at-math stereotype.

But Gladwell asserts that Asian readers should take no offense at the bizarrely unsubstantiated stereotype.

Go to any Western college campus and you’ll find that Asian students have a reputation for being in the library long after everyone else has left. Sometimes people of Asian background get offended when their culture is described in this way, because they think that the stereotype is being used as a form of disparagement. But a belief in work ought to be a thing of beauty… Working really hard is what successful people do, and the genius of the culture formed in the rice paddies is that hard work gave those in the fields a way to find meaning in the midst of great uncertainty and poverty. That lesson has served Asians well in many endeavors but rarely so perfectly as in the case of mathematics.

Gladwell acts as if he misses the obvious facts here:

  • anyone would be offended if you described them as if they had just walked out of a peasant farm,
  • millions of East Asians feel uncomfortable as strange assumptions about their skills and interests follow them through their whole lives, and
  • billions of people from thousands of cultures in dozens of countries compose the group that Gladwell describes as “Asian” and reduces to the concepts of rice.

But more than that, he also ignores the wrongness of assuming character traits about people based on their ethnicity. On the contrary, he argues that to do so is logical — a lazy intellectual trap that puts Gladwell squarely in the same category as the eugenicists and phrenologists of days past.

I won’t comb through the rest of the book, but I had similar qualms with almost every chapter. This raises the question: is Gladwell deliberately oblivious, or just unwise? In this case, I think he’s probably just unwise. Towards the end of the book, he loosely logics that Caribbean slavery was ultimately a good things because it led to himself (a descendent of slaves) being born. We don’t need a Philosophy 101 class to understand that consequence doesn’t justify cause, but Gladwell seems to genuinely miss this fact.

© Sam Littlefair, 2023