Three Great Books: Angle of Repose, The Cave and the Light, and The Rise and Fall of American Growth

Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner.

Why I picked up this book: Over the past few years I have been working my way through a list of the 100 best novels as selected by Modern Library. Angle of Repose is number 82 on the list.

One sentence describing what this book is about: Angle of Repose is about a turn-of-the-century family making their way in the American West, as told by their grandson, who reveals his own story while telling theirs.

Ratings:

  • Entertainment: star1star1star1star1 Angle of Repose had many interesting stories wrapped around each other. It took place in locations with which I am very familiar, but which have changed quite dramatically since the story took place. The characters were all extremely vivid, complex, and believable.
  • Insight: star1star1star1 The angle of repose is the steepest angle that a granular material can be piled up before the pile collapses. The book used this metaphor very cleverly in the exploration of emotions and relationships.
  • Knowledge: star1star1 Among other things, learned some interesting things about civil engineering, specifically about mining mercury in the Almaden Valley (now part of Silicon Valley) in the late 1800’s.

Other notes: This is the first book by Wallace Stegner that I have read. The book is beautifully written, conveying almost photographic images of the setting and very tangible depictions of feelings and emotions.

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The Cave and the Light, by Arthur Herman.

Why I picked up this book: Came across this book while browsing in a bookstore, and was intrigued by the subtitle: “Plato versus Aristotle, and the struggle for the soul of Western Civilization”.

One sentence describing what this book is about: The Cave and the Light presents a distilled view of the teachings of Plato and those of Aristotle, and discusses their impact on serious thinkers from antiquity to the present day.

Ratings:

  • Entertainment: star1star1 Perhaps leaning towards challenging, this was neither a quick nor easy read. The writing style was fairly engaging, but there is a lot information to process, and a lot to think about while reading.
  • Insight: star1star1star1star1 After reading The Cave and the Light I found I had a much greater understanding of how the basic principles of our society evolved. I find now that I often read articles and opinions more critically, subconsciously considering whether a Platonic or Aristotelian viewpoint is being espoused.
  • Knowledge: Enlightening. I learned a ton about great thinkers I had never heard of, and about the history of Western thought in general.

Other notes: None.

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The Rise and Fall of American Growth, by Robert J. Gordon.

Why I picked up this book: I read a short review of this book in either the Wall Street Journal or the San Francisco Chronicle (NOT the NY Times, because their reviews are NEVER short) and thought it sounded interesting.

One sentence describing what this book is about: The Rise and Fall of American Growth describes the huge improvement in the American standard of living from roughly 1870 to 1970, and takes the position that this improvement has now largely stagnated.

Ratings:

  • Entertainment: star1star1 This book is 650+ pages long, and includes, tables and graphs. The writing style is engaging, however, and the material is so interesting that the book is both engaging and taxing
  • Insight: star1star1star1 We engineers often talk (or even gloat) about the current pace of technological change. However, this book really hammered home the fact that the capability to send disappearing messages containing funny movies really does not compare to things like running water, electrification, and the highway system when it comes to real impact on our living standard.
  • Knowledge: star1star1star1star1 The Rise and Fall of American Growth paints a vivid and astounding picture of what life in America was like prior to the 1870-1970 growth century. It covers all aspects of our living standard incredibly comprehensively.

Other notes: None.

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