• What We're Reading This Winter

    Senior ophthalmologists share the best of what they’re reading this winter. Share what you’re reading in the comments below or send your review to scope@aao.org

    Leadership in Turbulent Times
    By Doris Kearns Goodwin
    Reviewed by M. Bruce Shields, MD

    Doris Kearns Goodwin, the author of “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” is among the pre-eminent presidential biographers of our time.

    Her work has focused on four of our country’s most notable presidents: Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. In her latest book, she uses the lives of these four presidents to explore the backgrounds and qualities that produce effective leadership.

    Goodwin notes that, among the many types of leadership, two are antithetical: transactional and transformational. The former, which is by far the more common, is influenced by self-interest of their constituency (quid pro quo), while the latter seeks to inspire their constituency to higher goals (sacrifice for the common good). She suggests that effective leaders, including all four in this book, use both to achieve their ends.

    Rather than reviewing the lives of four individuals in sequence, the author breaks their lives down into three stages and discusses how each stage influenced their leadership development. Their formative years offer no clear pattern, from poverty to wealth, except that all four were ambitious and sensed their leadership destiny. In their challenging years, each faced adversity (Lincoln’s political setbacks, Teddy Roosevelt’s loss of mother and wife on the same day, FDR’s polio, and LBJ’s early political defeats). In their leadership years, they all rose to specific challenges of the times and left the country better than they found it.

    Those who have enjoyed Goodwin’s earlier works will find this book to be enjoyable and inspirational reading.

    Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress
    By Steven Pinker
    Reviewed by Alfredo A. Sadun, MD, PhD

    Reading the newspaper every morning has become a depressing and frightening proposition. Watching the news at night is no longer even tenable. It interferes with my blood pressure and sleep.

    As some of you readers may know, I’ve been reading Yuval Harari’s books, especially “Sapiens” and “Homo Deus,” that proclaim that mankind is at a singularity. I take Harari’s point that we are at the third and greatest crises of humanity.

    What does this have to do with Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now”? It is the antidote. Pinker is a scientist, philosopher and psychologist. I knew him when he was at MIT, and since moving to Harvard he has become more outspoken in speeches and with his books. His cause is to combat the prevailing pessimism that seems to have gripped all Americans. And to fight the fear mongering that seems to fuel bipartisan Washington, D.C. politics.

    What makes Pinker wonderful though, is not his optimism or clear writing style. The book is memorable for all the data presented in tables and graphs that show that things are getting much better. In general, his data is unassailable. It shows that we in the West have become much wealthier but also safer, healthier and even happier.

    There is less crime, fewer homicides, and much less violence. With a tiny downtick in the last two years, lifespans, health and most other measures of human happiness have never been higher. And these effects have trickled down to where they are needed most – to third world countries.

    Sure, there has been some shift in the dangers. Where people used to die of starvation, now a much smaller number die of diseases related to obesity. Where there used to be major wars, now there are minor proxy fights and terrorism. This positive shift in numbers is staggering. There has never been a better time to avoid a violent death than the present, no matter where in the world you choose to live.

    Pinker points out that fears make the news. Fears not realized don’t. We were supposed to fear German reunification, run out of food and fresh water, suffer from a new horrible pandemic, run out of oil, etc. His data is unequivocal. Of his many graphs, only his “tone of the news” has a definite downslope to it. Everything else is getting better.

    Most of the improvements have come from unexpected directions. New methods of food production, storage and distribution, as well as social and political changes, have stabilized the world from chronic famine. The great powers are not directly at war with each other and medicine has made extraordinary gains around the world.

    I don’t doubt these facts. But I worry that they don’t exactly parry Harari’s claim of mankind being at a singularity. If the tradeoff is fewer world wars because weapons of mass destruction are so horrific, or that the internet has increased the power of market forces to provide wealth and distribution of materials and labor, then we may just be seeing the calm before the storm.

    Pinker concludes that there has never been a better time to live other than the present. That’s probably true, but I’m still worried for my kids. However, Pinker has a point. As he says, “If the hands of a clock point to two minutes to midnight for 72 years there’s something wrong with the clock.”

    Chopin’s Piano: In Search of the Instrument that Transformed Music
    By Paul Kildea
    Reviewed by Susan H. Day, MD

    Don’t be intimidated by the rather academic-sounding title. Authored and beautifully written by a professional musician, this nonfiction offering is a tapestry of the expanse of human capabilities – from sheer genius, to political forces, to persistence, to human relationships. 

    You need not have Frédéric Chopin as your favorite composer to appreciate this book. It helps, however, to understand how his ability to capture emotion in his creations reflects more than innate talent: Hard work, tools of his trade (consequent to evolution of keyboard capabilities), geopolitical events and eking out financial support were all essential.

    This is not purely a biography. Most of the book features other central characters. Chopin’s piano – a precursor of what we play on today – disappeared shortly after his death.

    Artists have longed to retrieve it to recreate his music on the instrument which defined his genius. Entangled in the world of Nazi Germany, the piano – as with so much other precious art – served the purposes of the Third Reich with virtual no apparent appreciation of its value. I will leave the reader to discover whether it was ever found.

    On Desperate Ground: The Marines at the Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle
    By Hampton Sides
    Reviewed by J. Kemper Campbell, MD

    Hampton Sides is the current American master of historic nonfiction literature. The variety of his books’ subjects, the depth of his research and the quality of his dramatic narratives distinguish each of his efforts. On Desperate Ground is no exception.

    Occurring between World War II, which had the American public’s universal support, and the controversial and unpopular Vietnam conflict, the origin and history of the Korean conflict is often ignored by Americans. This book should remind readers that the veterans who fought in Korea (many of whom had also fought in WWII) were equally valorous and patriotic, although the ultimate result was an unsatisfactory stalemate.

    Kudos to Sides for acquainting readers with American heroes deserving overdue recognition.

    Sides describes a pivotal battle in the oft-neglected Korean conflict of 1950-53 to highlight the tactical difficulties faced by the vastly outnumbered 1st Marine Division, which endured subfreezing temperature extremes in unfamiliar terrain while surrounded by Chinese troops.

    With his acute sense of character development, the author provides insight into the first black U.S. Navy fighter pilot, the first Chinese-American Marine officer, the stoic Marine general who avoided annihilation, and the vainglorious architect of the debacle, Douglas MacArthur. As in most wars, the men who engaged in the brutal fight were pursuing nebulous goals based upon false political assumptions.

    Readers desiring a more complete understanding of the entire spectrum of the Korean War should read David Halberstam’s final book, “The Coldest Winter.” Those who want a thrilling update of the deadly battle in the Chosin basin of North Korea should begin with this memorable book.

    Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
    By Jack Weatherford
    Reviewed by Thomas S. Harbin, MD, MBA

    The Mongol hordes: Unspeakably cruel barbarians who killed and laid waste to all cities and civilizations in their way.

    That’s their reputation, according to historians from the 18th century up until the recent past, including Stalin’s communist regime, which restricted access to Genghis Khan’s burial ground.

    Earlier in history, Geoffrey Chaucer and Francis Bacon admired Genghis Khan, and Chaucer devoted his first Canterbury Tale to him.

    What’s the truth?

    On the debit side of the ledger, it is true that Genghis Khan killed countless people from China to Persia and part of Europe, mainly soldiers who would not surrender and aristocracy. He also killed peasants who were used as advance fodder for a conquest.

    On the credit side of the ledger, as Khan and his descendants had to devise ways to rule the biggest empire in history, one that eventually stretched from China to Persia to Russia and part of Eastern Europe, they instituted the following:

    • Religious freedom. Christians, Muslims, Jews and Buddhists were free to worship. This was at a time when heretics were burned at the stake in many parts of Europe.
    • Torture was abolished, unlike the practice of kings, sultans and emirs at the time.
    • International law that applied to rulers and the upper class
    • The first international postal system
    • A regular census
    • Free trade and commerce across the Mongol empire with paper money used to facilitate trading, resulting in history’s largest free trading zone
    • Construction of more bridges than under any ruler in history
    • Diplomatic immunity for ambassadors and envoys, even from enemy countries
    • Transplantation of technology across the empire – Chinese doctors were sent to Persia, German miners to China. Agricultural best practices and new crops were exported to suitable areas, such as lemons and carrots from Persia to China. Noodles, playing cards, tea and new fabrics for a different style of clothing came from China to the West. The author asserts that the printing, compass, abacus and firearms adopted by Europe led to the Renaissance.
    • Schools for peasant children and the general promotion of literacy

    This book will provide you a very interesting history of the world from the 12th century on from a different perspective.

    Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
    By Barbara Demick
    Reviewed by Samuel Masket, MD

    In the opening pages a satellite photo of northern Asia at night reveals the densely lit cities in South Korea. However, North Korea is virtually pure black, indicating life in the dark, both literally and figuratively. People have no electricity, internet, television or other connections to the world outside.

    But the book does not suggest or promote anti-Korean propaganda. Interestingly, in juxtaposition, the book’s title is the slogan that North Korean leaders use to have the uninformed populace believe that their quality of life exceeds that of the West.

    The individual litanies are jaw-dropping. Among the subjects is a physician who escapes to China only to find that dogs in China eat better than doctors in North Korea. A teenage couple can share romance in the evening only because they can hide in the pitch-black conditions. People survive on tea made from tree bark, until it is a vanishing commodity.

    Among the ironies, however, is that one appealing character survives against great odds, escapes and settles in South Korea, is overwhelmed by electronics and other technologies, but then ultimately has elective blepharoplasty.

    Given the current political climate, this book makes for important, informative and markedly entertaining reading.