My List: Five Books +Plus One

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Origins of the Book: Nag Hammadi Codex Collection. Among the Earliest Known Codices Extant (Book Binding rather than Scroll). Dated to ca. 200 C.E. Discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, December 1945. Photo: PD.

Well, here you have it.  My list of “Five Books +Plus One.

Sometimes having to live by your own rules is harder than one would think.  This was one of those cases.  I realized that a few of the choices I easily could have included were not books but articles from periodicals or chapters from books.  As tempting as it was to cheat, I didn’t.  I’m not even mentioning them here as kind of a back door way of saying, Oh, by the way, these were the “also-rans” and here’s why. The other issue, as I’m sure not a few of you have also encountered is the sheer volume of books we have read during our life-times. Thousands is not a stretch of the reality.  How do I winnow all those down to just six?  It was not an easy process. I even resorted to staring at my bookcases and mentally inventorying what was there.  It turned out not to be all that helpful.

Here’s my list, roughly in chronological order as I read them.  It may surprise you; to some degree, it did me:

  1. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  2. Identity, Youth and Crisis by Erik Erikson
  3. The Church by Hans Kung
  4. Organizational Ecology by Michael Hannan and John Freeman
  5. The New American Standard Bible

My “Plus One”

  • The Black Hole War by Leonard Susskind.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov. Published in 1951.

This is the cover of my first copy of "Foundation."

I have often said that Isaac Asimov taught me how to Think (capital “T”). Other than the Bible, I have read it through more than any other book.  I bought my first copy from a grocery store book rack when I was 15 or 16 and it changed my life.  Foundation is an unusual story in the Science Fiction genre because it is about a group of people, facing the collapse of a galactic empire, who Think.  Calling themselves “psychohistorians” they developed a complex logic and math-based system of predicting events in the future.  No magic, no Force.  Smart people thinking about almost hopelessly complicated assumptions and outcomes.  Did they get it right?  You’ll have to read the book.

I wanted to be a psychohistorian, not so much for the ability to reason out the future, but to be able to explore human behavior in its most deep and subtle implications.  To that end, I pursued psychology.

I can describe two huge influences Foundation (a series Asimov stretched into fourteen novels) had upon me.  First was the inspiration of learning how to Think, to stretch my mental capacity through creative and logical thinking and education.  Once you learn how to do that, all of life in its almost infinite variabilities becomes fascinating.

The second impact was to ask the question: What does it mean to be human?  Isaac Asimov in his nonfiction works said that was the central theme of Foundation.  He was a humanist, but an optimist who saw that through our common humanity we have the ability to overcome the many inhumanities we inflict upon one another and make ourselves into a better species—even if he did use robots to help us along that journey.  That optimism struck me as a teenager, and I carry it as a core of who I am to this very day.

Identity, Youth and Crisis by Erik Erikson. Published in 1968.

Thinking about all of the books I read as an undergraduate as a psychology  major (even though I graduated with a major in Biblical Studies, with minors in Psychology and General Science, due to the Northwest Christian College curriculum structure in 1976), I had the hardest time narrowing this chapter in my life to just one book.  I decided, finally, on Erikson’s Identity, Youth and Crisis, for three reasons.

First, Erikson’s idea of human development and epigenetic life stages has been a key part of my professional life, even today. Though the stages have been modified, the essential concepts have stood the test of time.  Other authors, including those writing about spirituality and religious development have built on Erikson.

Second, out of a handful of books that shaped my self-identity as a “psychologist,” Identity, Youth and Crisis rightly belongs at the top of that list.  That was not an easy decision to make because the also-rans were very influential as well.  But as I thought about which of them I had returned to over the years, Erikson came in first.  The only way I can think of to describe its impact is that after I read this book, I “became” a psychologist, and through it, as I entered first seminary and then my masters in counseling program, Erikson continued to be of special importance.

So, third, I returned to Identity, Youth and Crisis in my masters in counseling program at the University of Oregon (1981).  My second year, I elected to do a reading and conference course, and chose to read Erikson as my topic.  Even though I read six of his most influential books, I started again with Identity, Youth and Crisis.  It was the anchor for the term.  I still keep my copy handy on my book shelf.

The Church by Hans Kung.  Published in 1968.

This is the choice that surprised me.  As I pondered which books have had the most profound theological effect on me, it came down to three.  One was out of my heritage as a Disciples of Christ, two were written by Catholics.  Hans Kung, one of the Catholics, won.  Why? Similar to what I noted above, it is the book I have returned to most often over the years because it is the book that was most transformational in my personal and professional development as a theologian.

Hans Kung, a German theologian has been in trouble with the Catholic Church for nearly half a century.  He’s an iconoclast of sorts, and writes things that are transparently Protestant, and therefore the Holy See takes a dim view of his views. I have read that Kung and the current pope are not on good terms.  Nevertheless, when I read The Church, I could hardly put it down.  Kung’s grasp of the history of the church, the context from which doctrines and practices arose were so eloquently explained that by the time I got to the end of it, for the first time, I finally had a clear concept of “Church” in my head, and one from which I could see how Disciples’ theology clearly fit into. The “Church” and “the church” finally made sense, and that is saying something.

Little did I realize at the time that the chapters on Catholic sacraments and things like the priesthood and Apostolic Succession, would be a necessary reference in my work, but even now, The Church is my first reference when I encounter another confusing Roman Catholic belief or practice, which after 15 years still occasionally happens.  We don’t have to tell the pope I’m using Kung to check his facts.

Organizational Ecology by Michael Hannan and John Freeman.  Published in 1989.

  I spent eight years working on my doctor of philosophy degree at the University of Oregon, studying Higher Education Policy and Management and graduating in 2002.  One would think that at least one book in higher education would make this list.  Two almost did.  When I got to my dissertation research, however, the foundation of that work took an unexpected twist.  Blame that on my advisor, Dr. Paul Goldman.  He took a kernel of an idea I had and put it into a context that ended up with my not only getting to do cutting-edge research, but also got my dissertation published in the internationally renowned Journal of Educational Administration.  That twist was Organizational Ecology.

In a nutshell, Organizational Ecology is a branch of Organizational Theory that examines how institutions survive in the ecology of their organizational environment.  It assumes that organizations either thrive or wither depending on how well they can access the resources that “feed” their mission and productivity.  It is a very organic model, parallel to biological ecology.  It also assumes that institutions have a life span, and theorizes how they can replicate themselves across generations.   This very developmental perspective for me was a perfect fit.

Organizational Ecology changed the way I think about the institutional world.  It was a touchstone in the process of researching and writing my dissertation that changed how I think.  Literally.  The greatest moment of amazement I experienced as I finished the dissertation manuscript was the realization that the way I think had been organized into something completely different than when I began.  In one respect I had this sense that I had taken a step toward being a psychohistorian.  It was the last thing I expected to gain from earning a PhD.

The New American Standard Bible.  Published Originally by the Lockman Foundation in 1960. Authorized Updated Version Published in 1995.

It is a well-known aphorism in biblical studies that every translation of the Bible is a collection of compromises.  This is true and generally accepted, even by those scholars who believe the Bible is literally the Divinely dictated words of God. For the rest of us, the issue takes a different path.

I find value in reading a variety of translations because I understand the nature of the compromises that went into each version.  Knowing that different translations and paraphrases reflect the theological perspectives of their editors makes each a much more interesting read.

For me, I find The New American Standard Bible my version of choice.  I got my first copy of the NASB when I was 16 years old.  I still have it and use it frequently (which is a testament to the quality of its manufacture and binding, as much as to my affinity for its text).  The NASB was designed to be a Bible that was as close as possible to being a literal translation of the original Hebrew and Greek, to also be as theologically neutral as possible, while at the same time being written in excellent English.  To be honest, they got the literal and neutral parts better than the English.  The readability, however, was significantly improved when the bible was updated in 1995.  To this day I have yet to find another translation of the English Bible that does a better job of presenting the first two, even as they work on getting the English part more polished.

I suppose some of my readers are wondering why I didn’t talk about how the Bible has been the spiritual bedrock of my faith. The answer is simple. This is a list of books that have influenced my life, not a spiritual autobiography.  And why didn’t I make it my +Plus One choice?  Doesn’t it deserve that special distinction?  The answer again is simple. It was a compromise.  I wanted to highlight The New American Standard Bible as the translation that has profoundly influenced my faith and life for over forty years.  Therefore, I decided it belonged in the list of Five, those books that have been my most important standards for shaping me as a person and as a professional.

As for my +Plus One.  I’ve decided to put that in a separate post, as Part 2.  I listed it above.  Now you can ponder why I might have chosen it for that distinction.

Communities of Fate: Read the Abstract to my Journal Article

I have added a page to my blog that provides the abstract to my journal article and the ERIC citation, co-authored with Paul Goldman, PhD (my doctoral adviser) “Universities as Communities of Fate: Institutional Rhetoric and Student Retention Policy” published in the Journal of Educational Administration in 2005.  Just click on the “Communities of Fate” link below the header.

I remain deeply grateful to Paul for his support and guidance, both during my doctoral studies and for encouraging and shepherding me through the publication process!

Thank you Paul, and I miss our long sessions drinking very strong coffee, the great discussions about organizational and educational policy, and the hours working on yet another draft of the article!

Behold, the Black Swan: Updated

Economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of Black Swan (2007), interviewed on PBS’s “The News Hour” on Tuesday, October 21, said:

The banking system, the way we have it, is a monstrous giant built on feet of clay.  And if that topples, we’re gone.  Never in the history of the world have we faced so much complexity combined with so much incompetence and understanding of its properties. . . We live in a world that is way too complicated for our traditional economic structure (Italics added).  It’s not as resilient as it used to be.  We don’t have slack.  It’s over-optimized. . . Of all the books you read on globalization, they talk about efficiency, all that stuff.  They don’t get the point.  The network effect of that globalization means that a shock in the system can have much larger consequences.

A “Black Swan” event, according to Taleb, is one considered impossible, because no one ever thought of it.

Alan Greenspan, former Fed chairman, testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, on Thursday, October 23:

“Yes, I’ve found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I’ve been very distressed by that fact. . .This modern risk-management paradigm held sway for decades.  The whole intellectual edifice, however, collapsed in the summer of last year. . .This crisis has turned out to be much broader than anything I could have imagined. It has morphed from one gripped by liquidity restraints to one in which fears of insolvency are now paramount.”

Behold, the Black Swan.

UPDATE: New York Times’ columnist, David Brooks’ (previously quoted in this blog) latest piece (27 October) devotes the majority of the column to Nassim Taleb’s economic metaphor of a Black Swan event unfolding before us:

Taleb believes that our brains evolved to suit a world much simpler than the one we now face. His writing is idiosyncratic, but he does touch on many of the perceptual biases that distort our thinking: our tendency to see data that confirm our prejudices more vividly than data that contradict them; our tendency to overvalue recent events when anticipating future possibilities; our tendency to spin concurring facts into a single causal narrative; our tendency to applaud our own supposed skill in circumstances when we’ve actually benefited from dumb luck.

And looking at the financial crisis, it is easy to see dozens of errors of perception. Traders misperceived the possibility of rare events. They got caught in social contagions and reinforced each other’s risk assessments. They failed to perceive how tightly linked global networks can transform small events into big disasters.

Hear, hear!

This concept of “social contagions” and “risk assessment reinforcement” has been explored in organizational theory (now, don’t glaze over on me, here).  Selznick, writing in 1996, termed this process “mimesis” (as in mime) and that it is a response to uncertainty.  The more uncertainty, the more institutions rely on a single model of operating that is perceived as successful.  But there is another side to this.  Organizations, over time, begin to believe their own myths. He wrote:

“In postindustrial society, formal structures, ‘dramatically reflect the myths of their institutional environments instead of the demands of their work activities.’  Furthermore, ‘the more an organization’s structure is derived from institutional myths, the more it maintains elaborate displays of confidence, satisfaction and good faith, internally and externally‘” (quoting Meyer and Rowan, 1991). (Italics added)

For example, a Lehman Brothers myth was they could weather any financial storm, and so they maintained the “elaborate display of confidence” that they could manage their way out of anything, no matter how high the risk.  Or take an AIG, whose myth was they were too big to fail, so pushed fearlessly into derivatives because, well, they were too big to fail.  Risk assessments were trivial or even a barrier to higher profits.

As Taleb points out in The Black Swan, the turkey believes in its personal myth that is has the best of all worlds as it feeds daily without concern, until the Wednesday before Thanksgiving Day.