Swan Songs 

This month's East Bay best-sellers investigate fallacious assumptions and soul-crushing petty humiliations.

Our take on this month's best-sellers at East Bay independent bookstores, including Analog Books, Bay Books, Black Oak, Cody's, Diesel, and Pegasus.

A rare example of philosophical-treatise-as-best-seller, Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Random House, $26.95) is a vitriolic diatribe against common sense. Taleb insists that most of what we think we "know" is false inductions based on accumulated anecdotes — none of which are truly predictive or causative of any potential future occurrences. What he leaves us with is a barren landscape of nihilistic empiricism that would make even Hume or Bishop Berkeley blush. According to Taleb, any attempt to predict the future is futile because trend analysis inevitably fails to take into account the unpredictable. While many hail Taleb as a genius, others point out that his philosophy has no practical value. Why put that chocolate in your mouth? Just because chocolate tasted good the last thousand times you tried it doesn't mean it won't taste like wasabi this time around. Right, Nassim? Speaking of "highly improbable," just what are the odds that two different books starting with the words "Black Swan" would be best-sellers simultaneously? David Mitchell's novel Black Swan Green (Random House, $13.95) follows in the deep footsteps of Catcher in the Rye and The Secret Diaries of Adrian Mole — yet another coming-of-age melodrama told in the voice of a misunderstood lad whose insights, vocabulary, and erudition sound a little too perfect. Set in Thatcher-era Britain (and what isn't these days?), it follows our hapless protagonist through the soul-crushing petty humiliations of being thirteen in an anonymous town. Some might call the proliferation of progressive nonprofit organizations a form of group daycare for grownups with useless college degrees who need to be supported by handouts since they don't know how to actually do anything. Paul Hawken is trying to change that perception with Blessed Unrest (Viking, $24.95), which argues that, far from being a trustafarian rumpus room, the nonprofit sector is actually "the largest movement in the world" and will save humanity from the diabolical for-profit sector, i.e., rapacious corporations. On nearly every page, Hawken hoists his favorite phrase, "social justice," apparently unaware that there are a wide variety of definitions of the concept, many of them contradictory and not a few unsettling, shall we say. His basic premise is that all nonprofits have essentially the same goals, that those goals are admirable, and that, combined, they constitute humankind's greatest-ever project. If idealism and naïveté had a baby, it might look like this book. Cal journalism professor Neil Henry valiantly tries to rescue his avocation from extinction with American Carnival: Journalism Under Siege in an Age of New Media (University of California Press, $24.95), in which he points out all the thankless tasks reporters do that bloggers won't: the grunt work of the newsroom. And he has a point. He also describes scandals that have damaged the industry, such as specific instances of deception. But he jettisons his own credibility by laying claim to the word "truth" as if he and his fellow media dinosaurs have a monopoly in that department, and then compounds the problem by glossing over the primal cause of journalism's 21st-century crisis: perceived editorial bias — and the fact that what you don't report on is often more important than what you do.


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