Cover story

Nicholas Blechman and Greg Mollica, who created the cover for "The First Word," get their due in "Penguin 75." A wonderful book celebrating Penguin's 3/4 century, it features 75 of the best and worst covers from the past decade with commentary from the designers, authors, artists, editors and agents. Here, too, a great blog post on the book that excerpts the commentary on The First Word.


Consider the optimist

Since 2004, I’ve spent a lot of time staring at the ceiling thinking about tsunamis and earthquakes. The monster wave that hit Indonesia that year was caused by a earthquake so violent it shifted the axis of the earth a few centimeters. Now I can’t get this out of my mind: The planet literally shook.

Everyone has one--whether its global warming, phthalates, flu, or junk food--it's that thought that makes them quake. Still, despite the fear, most people do their best to live sustainably, heal naturally, and raise their children right.

But how often is it that one's efforts feel good enough? For the most part, the solutions are inadequate or unachievable or overwhelmingly, confusingly both. If you turn on the air conditioner because you are too warm, you cause global warming. If you vaccinate your children to protect them, you fear the vaccine may hurt them, and yet if you get cancer, it’s your fault for being so angry and fearful all the time. What if you don’t actually want to walk to the local abattoir and slaughter your own pig so you can eat your sausages morally? What does that even mean?

You could consider optimism, for a change. I thought about it a lot when I reviewed Matt Ridley's "The Rational Optimist."

Case Studies from The Twilight Zone

Have you ever wondered what would happen to a child’s brain if you left them in front of the TV all day? What about kids in bright, happy daycare-like situations where there’s no personal attention. What kind of future do they have? How about children who have all the money in the world but no parental attention? Are they really worse off than poor children with no material advantages? Consider the flip side: How do children from career-criminal families differ from other children?

I just read Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential--and Endangered by Maia Szalavitz, a science journalist, and Bruce Perry, a child psychiatrist, a great book in which these questions are explored. Szalavitz and Perry track the neuroscience of qualities like resilience and empathy—and the lack of them—through a series of case studies, mostly of children who have been treated by Perry. I met Szalavitz once. She’s a rock-solid science journalist who’s walked where many reporters fear to tread, writing vividly about the more disturbing side of life in The Boy Who Was Raised As a Dog and Help at Any Cost. “Born to Love” is in the same vein--many of the stories, which are compulsively readable, have a straight-out-of-the-twilight-zone quality.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Szalavitz and Perry's story of a young girl called Trinity from Los Angeles. Trinity was one of eight sisters from the same mother and father, and many more siblings from her mother and father separately. She survived a childhood of deprivation, abuse, addiction, and the cruel murder of a young family member. That she made it to adulthood is remarkable enough, but even more amazing is the fact that Trinity grew up to be a loving human being. In her adult life, in her job and her family, she gives strength and comfort to many people. How is this possible? Where does resilience like this come from? Szalavitz and Perry bring a wealth of information about the brain and the body and genes to this question. Their investigation of the strange forces that shape people—even the way that attitudes and ideas can influence bodies and brains—is similar in spirit to Norman Doidge’s "The Brain That Changes Itself," but crucially it’s about the most vulnerable population out there, children.

Be excellent to one another

Frans de Waal, director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, believes that it's just as natural to be nice as it is be mean. Man may be wolf to man, as the old saying has it, but de Waal points out with casual eloquence in The Age of Empathy that wolves are often... Slate.

Language as a tool of change

You were 37, you'd had two harrowing bouts with breast cancer, and you'd reached critical levels of ennui in your magazine editor's job (the constant promotional parties, the fancy shoes, and the endless supply of giveaway moisturizers). Then, you were fired and you took a major left turn. You went to India for a year to learn Hindi. doubleX.