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Books to Get You Thinking

For book lovers, every summer brings with it recommended reading lists brimming with enticing titles of every shade and hue – mysteries and thrillers, memoirs, and nonfiction to enjoy outdoors in your backyard, on a sunny beach, or just curled up on your favorite couch in the cool of your home. Stephen King, in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, proclaims “Books are a uniquely portable magic.” For all of you who enjoy a good work of nonfiction, the year 2021 has seen the publication of some outstanding reads. Here is a selection of a few fascinating titles owned by the Mercer County Library System that would make for great summer reading!

Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgement by Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony and Cass Sunstein

This book is the result of an interesting collaboration between three distinguished scholars - Daniel Kahneman from Princeton University; the 2002 Nobel Prize winner and author of Thinking Fast and Slow, Oliver Sibony, Professor of Strategy at HEC Paris; and Cass Sunstein, Director of Behavioral Science and Public Policy at Harvard University. The book highlights the phenomenon of noise– the wide disparities in individual opinions, judgements and decisions that can exist among different professionals on the very same issue.  This is most evident in domains like medical diagnosis, insurance underwriting, judgments in criminal cases, and job interviews. The authors attribute the significant variability in decisions to the twin factors of bias and noise.  While the impact of bias in decision-making has been recognized and discussed extensively in earlier literature, this book explores in detail the role and pervasive nature of noise in decision making.  The authors present methods to measure noise while discussing strategies to counteract it.  They identify the phenomenon of systems noise and how, in group situations, noise can amplify.  Many case studies are reviewed to illustrate the mechanics of noise and the authors have proposed several check lists and corrective actions (decision hygiene) to achieve consistent decision making.  It is important for organizations and businesses to recognize the enormous costs that emanate from inconsistent decision making and focus their strategy and operation management on eliminating it. The research incorporated in the book presents a milestone and an understanding of the interplay of bias.  Noise in decision- making has far reaching implications.

Elizabeth Kolbert is a writer for the New Yorker who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her earlier book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History which brought attention to the existential threat we face from climate change. Her new book takes the discussion on climate change one step forward by critically examining the feasibility of large-scale technology interventions to reverse the ecological consequences of global warming.  The author investigates several large geo-engineering projects of the past, revealing that most of these projects have either failed or created a new set of problems, which in turn then require even more comprehensive solutions. One case study that she discusses is the engineering effort to save New Orleans from sinking that involved an elaborate network of levees, embankments, and floodwalls. Another interesting example highlighted by the author is a project in Chicago that reversed the flow of the Chicago River to avert the drainage of sewage flow to Lake Michigan.  One of the consistent themes that emerges from Kolbert’s review of these projects is the enormous scale of human effort that will be required to tackle climate change along with the inherent human limitations to anticipate the negative impact of technology.  Based on countless interviews with researchers and professionals in the field, the book provides a succinct view of the innovative projects being undertaken in many parts of the world. The projects include some that are highly controversial, while others have groundbreaking potential.  The most compelling message of the book is the urgency, and the scale, of global efforts that are needed to save our planet.  This book is a pivotal study which will shape the debate on mankind’s future and what we have lost in our quest to conquer Nature.

Simon Winchester has a long and distinguished career in journalism and has written several outstanding books including The Perfectionists and The Professor and the Madman. In this new work, the author presents extensive research and analysis on how ownership of land has played a pivotal role in the progression of our civilization, as well as in the evolution of our political, cultural, and social institutions. The scope of the book is enormous and the narrative moves at a brisk pace, revealing the complex facets of land ownership. He talks about the geological forces that have shaped the formation of the land which we inhabit today, how the emergence of agriculture created an urge to find fertile land, and how battles have been fought to establish national boundaries and assert rights to exploit the land.  There is also a story of a brave researcher who spent four decades in measuring the size of the land spanning the earth, as well as a century long quest to create an exquisite map which truly represents the land in its myriad forms, terrains, and topology.  The author explores how many communities have approached land with humility and cared for its preservation and how reckless industrialization, political expediency and greed have caused havoc and the destruction of land resources.  The book urges us to reevaluate our relationship with land. One the most remarkable narratives is the impact of climate change on land.  While through the ages, mankind has assumed the immutability and permanence of land, Winchester provides a compelling perspective that an irreversible decline is imminent, and we need to redefine our social and political priorities to ensure that land, in it most enchanting and magnificent form, is preserved for future generations.  

- by Nita Mathur, West Windsor Branch

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