“The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature” by Daniel J. Levitin (Dutton, 2008)

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Bestselling author of This is Your Brain on Music (which continues to be popular) returns with The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature, in which he posits that one of the first abilities that ancient human beings developed was music through sound and singing and the feeling this created within us, leading to developments in language and community and the forming of our ancient civilizations.

Through music and its growing complexity, humanity’s thought process was able to develop and progress.  Levitin breaks down music to its basic song elements, theorizing that there are six types of songs that are instrumental in our development, whether millennia ago, or for each of us alive right now.  These songs, each with their own chapter, are songs of friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love.  Levitin goes into depth with each song, providing clear examples in recent history, as well as many of his own case studies and examples from his life.

What makes The World in Six Songs not just a book of Levitin teaching and telling like a textbook, is that he includes himself in every chapter, revealing his own experiences and actions throughout his life and how music and these six specific songs have played a role from his childhood to the writing of this book.  In this way the reader sees and feels the humanity of it, and is able to empathize and understand all the better for it.

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Originally written on November 12th 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.

“How to Live: A Search For Wisdom From Old People (While They’re Still on This Earth)” by Henry Alford (Twelve, 2009)

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Henry Alford has written for Vanity Fair, The New York Times, and The New Yorker, and is the author of Municipal Bondage.  In his latest book, How to Live: A Search for Wisdom From Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth), he does just that, providing insight and viewpoints from those who will not remain for much longer on this earth to give those who still have a while to go a greater respect and appreciation for life and what one can accomplish with it.

In the first chapter, Alford lays the ground rules, explaining that while there are certainly intelligent young people, one is most likely to find experience and wisdom from those over seventy who have simply lived much longer.  Beginning with his stepfather and mother, Alford moves on from interview to interview, surprised at the response he gets from perfect strangers.  In addition to interviewing some famous people like Edward Albee, Harold Bloom, and Phyllis Diller, it is the people we know nothing about who tell the most moving stories; like the retired schoolteacher who survived Hurricane Katrina, but lost her home, all her possessions, and even her husband, but still lives each day to its fullest.  While How to Live is not all fun and games with some sad and sobering life stories, Alford balances it out with some funny stories like his descriptive tour through Sylvia Miles’ stuffed and cluttered apartment.

Whether you start the book with expectations and preconceptions, or pick it up for curiosity’s sake, you will ultimately be surprised and delighted with what people who have spent at least seventy years on this planet have seen and what they have to say about it and life.

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Originally written on January 30th 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Born to Be Good” by Dacher Keltner (Norton, 2009)

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In a time when this world seems a bleak place with suffering and death across the continents, economies plummeting, societies approaching collapse, and a general despair in the air; one has little else to turn to.  But then there’s Born to Be Good.  Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and director of the Greater Good Science Center, presents a book that offers hope in humanity to those who feel there is none.  The first part of the book is spent on the Confucian concept of jen, “which refers to kindness, humanity, and reverence,” as well as Keltner’s thoughts on the Eastern Religions and what they offer in “being good.”  The second part of Born to Be Good is spent researching and delving into the anthropological reasoning behind being a good person, and how it exists intrinsically in our DNA and our species, providing examples in other animals, as well as Homo sapiens.  The last part of the book combines these two spheres of thought into a cohesive whole using what Keltner terms the jen ratio.  Keltner fully believes there is absolute goodness in humanity, and Born to Be Good is an uplifting and enlightening read in these dark and dower times.

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Originally written on January 3rd 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.

Originally published in the Sacramento Book Review.