What I’ve been reading, vol. iv

Gotta say, these past two months have been pretty good for reading. From the most recent to the more distant in time:
1. Why Mahler?. This might be better for people who already care at least a little bit about Mahler, one of those characters that lends to incompleteness. Like talking about his music. Too vast, too contradictory, too universal, too personal. Still, it’s a breezy, rangy biography mixed with some memoir, and it’s a good read.

2. Listen to This. Alex Ross is one of my favorite writers. This book is mostly a collection of stuff he’s written for The New Yorker. The essays I dog-eared most heavily were Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues, Infernal Machines, The Storm of Style, Song of the Earth, Verdi’s Grip, and his writings on tour with Radiohead and Bob Dylan were interesting, too. He’s also got a great audio guide for Listen to This like the one for The Rest is Noise (which is awesome).

3. The Art of Non-Conformity. Got curious about this one because I recognized the brand. The blog is better.

4. The Music Instinct. Author Philip Ball struck me first and foremost as a very fair writer. It seems like he doesn’t have very many bones to pick, aside from the fact that we should stay open-minded and open-eared. The first 60-70% of the book, the best part, is nerdy stuff about music theory—the science of pitch, scales, harmony, timbre, rhythm, etc. He’s glad to branch out across the world and not just focus on Western tradition. I found it quite good.

5. The Substance of Style. Couldn’t finish. Seemed sort of argument-by-anecdote-y, which is fine, but not what I wanted at the time.

6. The Art of Travel. This is mostly worthwhile, the first half in particular. Each section centers around a topic (Anticipation, Curiosity, the Exotic, the Sublime, etc.), a tour guide of sorts (e.g. Huysmans, Humboldt, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Van Gogh), and de Botton’s own observations and musings. It’s a good, quick read.

7. The Book of Basketball. I thought it was awesome. Rare to find any book, nonfiction or otherwise, that keeps you up late a few nights in a row.

8. On Kindness. Another one that I really, really liked and shared a bunch of quotes from. Great brain food here.

9. Steppenwolf. I read this one right after “The Moviegoer”, below. They both deal with existential angst, but this one is much more over-the-top, orotund, and, um, German. I think you could get your time’s worth just reading the first 40 pages or so.

10. The Moviegoer. I liked this one alright. Nothing much happens in the story, but the narrator’s struggles—with his own ambivalence, with relating to people, with finding satisfaction outside of passive distractions, etc.—were good food for thought.

11. Jane Eyre. This was a bit of a drag. Either I’m a curmudgeon with no heart or it’s kind of boring. This was, however, the first book I read mostly on my iPad, so it was nice to have that experience. I would have shared a bunch of quotes and bon mots, but, alas, as of now there’s no way to export highlights from iBooks other than tedious cut and paste. Maybe get to that later…

I think I’m due for some more fiction soon. More of what I’ve read lately can be found in volumes one, two, and three.

The Book of Basketball (review: 5/5)

The Book of Basketball
It’s a great book, let’s get that out of the way before we proceed. Just know that Bill Simmons is a carefree, garrulous writer and it is obsessively focused on basketball. It might not be your thing. One of the best practices when I was reading this one was to keep the iPad nearby so I could do a little backgrounder on legendary players I’d never heard of, and, more importantly, keeping YouTube handy to look up amazing dunks, passes, etc. If you haven’t followed basketball, there is a learning curve. On the upside, like I told Justin, reading this book after the recent playoffs, finals, The Decision, etc. has me more interested in basketball than I’ve ever been.

The biggest parts of the book cover Larry Bird, Russell vs. Wilt, The Secret (e.g. TEAMWORK), ranking the best players ever, and ranking the best teams ever. All in obsessive detail. You can open a page anywhere in the book, and in short order stumble on a really good argument about something. In a 3-page section on Elvin Hayes, Simmons lists 5 reasons that Hayes stands out. In item #5, there’s a little mini-essay on the fall-away/turnaround shot:

My theory on the fall-away: it’s a passive-aggressive shot that says more about a player than you think. For instance, Jordan, McHale and Hakeem all had tremendous fall-aways—in fact, MJ developed the shot to save his body from undue punishment driving to the basket—but it was one piece of their offensive arsenal, a weapon used to complement the other weapons already in place. Well, five basketball stars in the past sixty years have been famous for either failing miserably in the clutch or lacking the ability to rise to the occasion: Wilt, Hayes, Malone, Ewing and Garnett. All five were famous for their fall-away/turnaround jumpers and took heat because their fall-aways pulled them out of rebounding position. If it missed, almost always it was a one-shot possession. On top of that, it never leads to free throws—either the shot falls or the other team gets it. Could you make the case that the fall-away, fundamentally, is a loser’s shot? For a big man, it’s the dumbest shot you can take—only one good thing can happen and that’s it—as well as a symbol of a larger problem, namely, that a team’s best big man would rather move away from the basket than toward it. […] So here’s my take: the fall-away says, “I’d rather stay out here.” It says, “I’m afraid to fail.” It says, “I want to win this game, but only on my terms.”

Woah, right? Coming up organically in a discussion about a specific player we get a really interesting observation on the game itself, couched in a super-fan/nerd’s historical mastery, with some speculative psychology delivered in the kind of friendly/authoritative tone you’d hear at a bar. A later section on Kobe Bryant looks at his career through the lens of Teen Wolf, vacillating between the team-player (Michael J. Fox) and the devastating ball hog/alpha dog (Wolf). Maybe the better movie analogy is thinking of Tim Duncan like Harrison Ford:

If you keep banging out first-class seasons with none standing out more than any other, who’s going to notice after a while? There’s a precedent: once upon a time, Harrison Ford pumped out monster hits for fifteen solid years before everyone suddenly noticed, “Wait a second—Harrison Ford is unquestionably the biggest movie star of his generation!” From 1977 to 1992, Ford starred in three Star Wars movies, three Indiana Jones movies, Blade Runner, Working Girl, Witness, Presumed Innocent and Patriot Games, but it wasn’t until he carried The Fugitive that everyone realized he was consistently more bankable than Stallone, Reynolds, Eastwood, Cruise, Costner, Schwarzenegger and every other peer. As with Duncan, we knew little about Ford outside of his work. As with Duncan, there wasn’t anything inherently compelling about him. Ford only worried about delivering the goods, and we eventually appreciated him for it. Will the same happen for Duncan one day?

If there is a weakness, it’s that the occasional jokey celeb-bashing comes up really lame and unnecessary. But that’s a small price to pay for 700+ quality pages and a comparable number of entertaining footnotes. Worth a read!

On Kindness (review: 4/5)

On Kindness
While it didn’t finish as awesomely as when I first tweeted my excitement half-way through, On Kindness still ended up being very good, and still among the top nonfiction of the year for me. The goal here is to figure out what happened to kindness: why we have an instinct for it, why religions encourage it, how the ideas of fellow-feeling and sympathy went from being a celebrated part of a well-balanced life to something we see as either suspicious or weak nowadays. Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor put special focus on the experience of kindness as we move from childhood to adulthood. Rousseau (e.g. Émile) and of course Freud receive special attention. The idea of the “riskiness” of kindness was really, really novel for me. Here are some favorite quotes, starting with a good summary:

Acts of kindness demonstrate, in the clearest possible way, that we are vulnerable and dependent animals who have no better resource than each other. If kindness previously had to be legitimized by a God or by gods, or located in women and children, it is because it has had to be delegated—and sanctioned, and sacralized, and idealized, and sentimentalized—because it comes from the part of ourselves that we are most disturbed by; the part that knows how much assurance and (genuine) reassurance is required to sustain our sense of viability. Our resistance to kindness is our resistance to encountering what kindness meets in us, and what we meet in other people by being kind to them. And, of course, our resistance to seeing the limits of what kindness can do for us.

Real kindness is an exchange with essentially unpredictable consequences. It is a risk precisely because it mingles our needs and desires with the needs and desires of others, in a way that so-called self-interest never can.

Freud: We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love.

Childhood has become the last bastion of kindness, the last place where we may find more love in the world than there appears to be. Indeed, the modern obsession with child-rearing may be no more and no less than an obsession about the possibility of kindness in a society that makes it harder and harder to believe in kindness. Talking about child development and about parenting may be one of the only ways we have now of talking about fellow feeling.

Growing up, if anything, is the imaginative elaboration of fellow feeling: the acknowledgment that other people have what we need and that their well-being matters to us.

When it comes to appetite, all exposure is experienced as overexposure.

If people are too kind–too thoughtful, too considerate, too sensitive–sex can be insufficiently exciting; if they are not kind enough, it can be too frightening too enjoy.

Kindness is a continual temptation in everyday life that we resist. Not a temptation to sacrifice ourselves, but to include ourselves with others. Not a temptation to renounce or ignore the aggressive aspects of ourselves, but to see kindness as being in solidarity with human need, and with the very paradoxical sense of powerlessness and power that human need induces. Acts of kindness involve us in different kinds of conversations; our resistance to these conversations suggest that we may be more interested in them, may in fact want much more from them, than we let ourselves know.

What I’ve been reading, vol. iii

Man, my reading of books has taken a nosedive since I got an iPad + Instapaper. But I’m not sure if I mind that much. The best of that stuff ends up on my tumblr, anyway. Here’s a rundown of bound volumes:
1. A Certain “Je Ne Sais Quoi”. It’s basically a long list of phrases and where they came from. It’s really good if you care about words and where they come from.

2. Coltrane on Coltrane. What comes up again and again in these profiles and interviews is how kind, humble, and reticent Coltrane is. He seems like a genuinely nice guy. Which makes it not nearly as interesting as Miles on Miles. Miles Davis is not known for being kind, humble or reticent. He’ll speechify and declaim and accuse and he’s got giant chips on his shoulder. In many of the Coltrane interviews, you see the interviewer’s paragraphs of speech balanced with just a few words from Coltrane. Too bad.

3. The Broom of the System. I couldn’t finish this one. Wallace’s nonfiction is where it’s at for me, though I’m still holding out hope for “Infinite Jest”.

4. The Happiness Hypothesis. Did I mention that you have to read this book? Yes I did. Still standing as my favorite nonfiction of 2010.

5. I Love Led Zeppelin. Some of it is funny.

6. Exit Wounds. Skip.

7. The Elegant Man was a nice style guide, if only for reasons of vocabulary and attention to detail. The nice thing about being a guy is that if you learn the classics, you’re set for life.

8. Mrs. Bridge. This is a day-to-day chronicle of suburban broken dreams, etc. Eh.

9. Finite & Infinite Games. Skip.

10. Then We Came to the End. I thought it was a nice chronicle of life in an office.

11. Once a Runner. It’s one of the classics about running, and true to its reputation, the best passages are about running and how exhilarating and exhausting it is to take it seriously. The overall plot was merely okay.

12. Ghost Wars. I really liked another book of his, but I didn’t get chance to finish this. What I read was really good.

13. The Places in Between. It’s a great travelogue and has a nice balance with explaining the history and complicated social intricacies of Afghan culture. Great read. I hear author Rory Stewart is a potential Prime Minister.

Here are my first and second reading round-ups.

The Happiness Hypothesis (review: 5/5)

The Happiness Hypothesis
Awesome book. I thank Justin for the recommendation. What you have in The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom is a perfect balance between nerdy science/philosophy and distilled layman’s explanations. Jonathan Haidt is so efficient with this book. It’s an impressive balance of general theory and immediately useful information. Below lie a bunch of quotes or scraps I found particularly worthwhile. You can find a lot more in Derek Sivers’ notes for the book, which I recommend very much for a solid overview. Read this book, y’all.

Scandal is great entertainment because it allows people to feel contempt, a moral emotion that gives feelings of moral superiority while asking nothing in return. With contempt you don’t need to right the wrong (as with anger) or flee the scene (as with fear or disgust). And best of all, contempt is made to share. Stories about the moral failings of others are among the most common kinds of gossip.

Set for yourself any goal you want. Most of the pleasure will be had along the way, with every step that takes you closer. The final moment of success is often no more thrilling than the relief of taking off a heavy backpack at the end of a long hike. If you went on the hike only to feel that pleasure, you are a fool.***

“Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing.” -Shakespeare

The human mind is extraordinarily sensitive to changes in conditions, but not so sensitive to absolute levels.

Conditions include facts about your life that you can’t change (race, sex, age, disability) as well as things that you can (wealth, marital status, where you live). Conditions are constant over time, at least during a period in your life, and so they are the sorts of things that you are likely to adapt to. Voluntary activities, on the other hand, are the things that you choose to do, such as meditation, exercise, learning a new skill, or taking a vacation. Because such activities must be chosen, and because most of them take effort and attention, they can’t just disappear from your awareness the way conditions can. Voluntary activities, therefore, offer much greater promise for increasing happiness while avoiding adaptation effects.

“Happiness formula”: H = S + C + V (set point, conditions, voluntary activities)

External conditions with significant impact on your happiness, that you can never fully adapt to: Noise. Commuting. Lack of control. Shame. Interpersonal conflict.

Variety is the spice of life because it is the natural enemy of adaptation.

The extensive regulation of sex in many cultures, the attempt to link love to God and then to cut away the sex, is part of an elaborate defense against the gnawing fear of mortality.

Our life is the creation of our minds, and we do much of that creating with metaphor. We see new things in terms of things we already understand: Life is a journey, an argument is a war, the mind is a rider on an elephant. With the wrong metaphor we are deluded; with no metaphor we are blind.

Religious experiences are real and common, whether or not God exists, and these experiences often make people feel whole and at peace.

Life is much like a movie we walk into well after its opening scene, and we will have to step out long before most of the story lines reach their conclusions.


***This reminds me of one of Chris Willett’s rules for long-distance hiking. #1: If you’re not enjoying yourself, you’re doing something wrong. [I construe broadly the term “enjoying” here]. To round out the list, Rule #2: Never leave good trail for bad. Rule #3: Only a great fool leaves a dry place.

Then We Came to the End (review: 3.5/5)

Then We Came to the End

We were delighted to have jobs. We bitched about them constantly. We walked around our new offices with our two minds.

Then We Came to the End was Joshua Ferris’ first novel. I knew about it before I read it mostly because it was written in the first-person plural. We did this, then we did that, so-and-so told us about that guy. The cast is a group of employees in an advertising agency on the down-and-out. I think this one could have been chopped down a bit, but what’s there is still pretty good. And it reads so quickly, it’s not a big deal. The setting and tone reminded me a lot of Matt Beaumont’s book, “E”. The employees gossip, connive, overreact, speculate. Ferris has a great ear and eye for the office, a great observer of office life:

He came by each one of our individual offices, he visited the cubicles and the receptionists. We even saw him talking to one of the building guys. They hardly said anything to anyone, the building guys. Just stood on their ladders handing things up and down to one another, speaking in hushed tones.

And body language:

You didn’t talk about money or job security during a time of layoffs, not in the tone she had taken, and not when you were friends. The silence extended into awkward territory.

[…]

“I wasn’t trying to be snide just then,” she said, finally sitting down, reaching out to touch the edge of his desk as if it were a surrogate for his hand.

And this bit about cuts and promotions:

The point was we took this shit very seriously. They had taken away our flowers, our summer days, and our bonuses, we were on a wage freeze and a hiring freeze, and people were flying out the door like so many dismantled dummies. We had one thing still going for us: the prospect of a promotion. A new title: true, it came with no money, the power was almost always illusory, the bestowal a cheap shrewd device concocted by management to keep us from mutiny, but when word circulated that one of us had jumped up an acronym, that person was just a little quieter that day, took a longer lunch than usual, came back with shopping bags, spent the afternoon speaking softly into the telephone, and left whenever they wanted that night, while the rest of us sent e-mails flying back and forth on the lofty topics of Injustice and Uncertainty.

They all have the ring of truth. Sandwiched between the sillier bits, there’s a pretty amazing little intermezzo chapter, “The Thing to Do and the Place to Be”. That one focuses on one of the characters, a manager, who’s struggling to face an upcoming surgery. It’s quite touching.

As the book carries on, the loose, manic tone can start to wear a bit thin. But then, the mood does change. Employees are fired or move on. This “we” that you’ve been a part of breaks up. Former co-workers reunite, have a few drinks, and move on. In the end, the most clever part about that narration is that I really related to it, as corny as it might sound. What makes this book worthwhile is not that it pokes fun at office life, but it helps you to value it.

There is plenty of good discussion of the book elsewhere. I also thought this comparison of “Then We Came to the End” with Tim O’Brien’s “The Things We Carried” was really interesting.

The Unlikely Disciple (review: 4/5)

The Unlikely Disciple
The Unlikely Disciple chronicles Kevin Roose’s semester “abroad”–he transfers colleges for a semester, from Brown University to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. This is exactly the kind of nonfiction I like: adventurous, curious, open-minded, respectful. You get a sense of his attitude in the Acknowledgements section, where Roose’s final thank-you is to the students, faculty and administration at Liberty: “By experiencing your warmth, your vigorous generosity of spirit, and your deep complexity, I was ultimately convinced—not that you were right, necessarily, but that I had been wrong.” I love that attitude. LOVE.

Why did he do it? Unfamiliarity, mostly:

One recent study showed that 51 percent of Americans don’t know any evangelical Christians, even casually. And until I visited Thomas Road, that was me. My social circle at Brown included atheists, agnostics, lapsed Catholics, Buddhists, Wiccans, and more non-observant Jews than you can shake a shofar at, but exactly zero born-again Christians. The evangelical world, in my mind, was a cloistered, slightly frightening community whose values and customs I wasn’t supposed to understand. So I ignored it.

I’m in the half that knows quite a few evangelicals, so it was really refreshing to see them treated sympathetically. It is so easy to dismiss crowds you might not agree with, or that you only know by association with FOX News (shudder). Roose offers a bunch of anthropological observations, which I found to be the best part, because many of them ring so true:

Outside of Jane Austen novels, nowhere is marriage a more frequent topic of conversation than at Christian college.

He also talks a bit about how, even at an evangelical college, everybody doubts… There’s a sort of paranoia about yourself and a concern for others that animates social life. What he first perceives as prying (“Are you saved?”) is actually an expression of genuine concern. And at the same time, this paranoia is balanced with a kind of self-help/empowerment vibe. Sin and salvation are two sides of the same coin:

Of all the people I expected to have a moral awakening this semester, Joey was at the bottom of the list. Liberty does this to you, though. It tempts you with the constant possibility of personal realignment.

Later in the book he joins a group for a spring break evangelism trip, down at the wild, sinful beaches of Florida. No success. Part of what cripples this crowd is a language barrier:

Claire’s other problem is total linguistic isolation. She, like many other Liberty students, speaks in long, flowery strings of opaque Christian speak. When a twenty-something guy named Rick tells Claire he doesn’t believe in God, Claire sighs and says, “Listen, Rick. There’s a man named Jesus Christ, and he came into my heart and changed me radically. And there is a God who loves you, and who sent his son to die on the cross for you, to take away your sins and my sins, and God shows himself to me every day. When I don’t have hope for tomorrow, Jesus never fails. His love is never ending.”

It’s no surprise that language is one thing that separates particular communities, but I’d never thought about it in a religious context before. Later in the book, when he’s talking about conversion, he echoes the bit about language and community:

Maybe the transition isn’t so smooth when the foreign experiences deal with God. The anthropologist Susan Harding defines a religious conversion as the acquisition of a form of religious language, which happens the same way we acquire any other language–through exposure and repetition. In other words, we don’t necessarily know when we’ve crossed the line into belief.

If there’s a weakness in this book, it’s that I would have liked to read more about the culture that is Liberty University. He says he peppers other people about their history, beliefs, reasons for being at Liberty, etc. (sometimes to the point of raising suspicions of his true purpose there), but it’s mostly about his own experience. This is a fair approach, but there’s still a voyeuristic side of me that would like to dig more into the sociology of the college itself. Anyway, great book. Recommended.

Up in the Air (review: 3/5)

Up in the Air
I saw the movie, liked it a lot, heard good things about the book and figured I might as well. I liked this one just fine. I don’t think it’s quite great enough to recommend, but most good fiction has some oh-yes-that’s-just-like-real-life moments and general snippets of good writing worth sharing. Surely everyone knows a couple like this:

Her husband makes it all possible, a software writer flush with some of the fastest money ever generated by our economy. He hangs pleasantly in the background of Kara’s life, demanding nothing, offering everything. They’re a bountiful, gracious people, here to help, who seem to have sealed some deal with the Creator to spread his balm in return for perfect sanity.

A nice bit of airline paranoia:

I turn on my HandStar and dial up Great West’s customer information site, according to which our flight is still on time. How do they keep their lies straight in this business? They must use deception software, some suite of programs that synchronizes their falsehoods system-wide.

After a disagreement with his sister during a road-side stop, she walks away and he philosophizes on male-female argument dynamics:

My sister is dwindling. It’s flat and vast here and it takes time to dwindle, but she’s managing to and soon I’ll have to catch her. There are rules for when women desert your car and walk. The man should allow them to dwindle, as is their right, but not beyond the point where if they turn the car is just a speck to them.

On childish yet important body-language politics during a business lunch:

He chooses a two-setting table on a platform and takes the wall seat. From his perspective, I’ll blend with the lunch crowd behind me, but from mine he’s all there is, a looming individual. Fine, I’ll play jujitsu. I angle my chair so as to show him the slimmest, one-eyed profile. The look in my other eye he’ll have to guess at.

On Denver and arts scenes:

I’ve been told my old city possesses a “thriving arts scene,” whatever that is; personally, I think artists should lie low and stick to their work, not line-dance through the parks.

The Happiness Project (review: 3/5)

The Happiness Project
I felt pretty torn about this one. I’d been following Gretchen Rubin’s blog about the Happiness Project for a while and wondered what extra stuff would be in the book. I got it from the library, so I’m not sure that it matters as the only cost to me was time. Luckily she’s a really fluid writer and it’s a quick read, so it’s not in the “waste of time” category. Good parts:

If there’s a downside, it’s that I wish she’d shared more of the studies she read up on (surely a ton), and less of the personal anecdotes of how she applied them. But then again, I wonder if I’d say the opposite if the reverse were true? Either way, you can probably get the most bang for your buck by ripping through the best-of section over on her site. Tyler Cowen says “On net, Gretchen’s tips will enhance your happiness.” I suspect this is true.

Bicycle Diaries (review: 3/5)

Bicycle Diaries
I like David Byrne, but I feel really ambivalent about this book. On the one hand, there are some great gems and little thought-bits that come out of a curious mind. On the other hand, as the title so clearly points out, it’s diaristic. There’s a good amount of day-to-day humdrum “this is what I did here, this is what I did there” stuff to wade through. With that said, here are some parts I especially liked:

On the meta-ness of ringtones:

Ring tones are “signs” for “real” music. This is music not meant to be actually listened to as music, but to remind you of and refer to other, real music… A modern symphony of music that is not music but asks that you remember music.

Although he praises Europe’s cultivated, park-like landscape, in particular the “manicured” blend of man and nature in Berlin, he finds it

a bit sad, I think, that my visual reference for an unmediated forest derives from images in fiction and movies. Sad too that the forest in this preserved area was once quite common, but now lives on mainly in our collective imaginations.

Early in the book he talks about a number of American cities in brief. On the town of Sweetwater, Texas:

I enjoy not being in New York. I am under no illusion that my world is in any better than this world, but still I wonder at how some of the Puritanical restrictions have lingered—the encouragement to go to bed early and the injunction against enjoying a drink with one’s meal. I suspect that drinking, even a glass of wine or two with dinner, is, like drug use, probably considered a sign of moral weakness. The assumption is that there lurks within us a secret desire for pure, sensuous, all-hell-breaking-loose pleasure, which is something to be nipped in the bud, for pragmatic reasons.

And I liked this back-of-the-envelope theory on mating and signaling in Los Angeles:

I don’t know what the male-female balance is in L.A., but I suspect that because people in that town come into close contact with one another relatively infrequently—they are usually physicall isolated at work, at home, or in their cars—they have to make an immediate and profound impression on the opposite sex and on their rivals whenever a chance presents itself. Subtlety will get you nowhere in this context.

This applies particularly in L.A. but also in much of the United States, where chances and opportunities to be seen and noticed by the oppsite sex sometimes occur not just infrequently but also at some distance—across a parking lot, as one walks from car to building, or in a crowded mall. Therefore the signal that I am sexy, powerful, and desirable has to be broadcast at a slightly “louder” volume than in other towns where people actually come into closer contact and don’t need to “shout”. In L.A. one has to be one’s own billboard.

Consequently in L.A. the women, on the face of it, must feel a greater need to get physically augmented, tanned, and have flowing manes of hair that can be seen from a considerable distance.

Summarizing a conversation he had about the creative impulse:

People tend to think that creative work is an expression of a preexisting desire or passion, a feeling made manifest, and in a way it is. As if an overwhelming anger, love, pain, or longing fills the artist or composer, as it might with any of us—the difference being that the creative artist then has no choice but to express those feelings through his or her given creative medium. I proposed that more often the work is a kind of tool that discovers and brings to light that emotional muck. Singers (and possibly listeners of music too) when they write or perform a song don’t so much bring to the work already formed emotions, ideas, and feelings as much as they use the act of singing as a device that reproduces and dredges them up.

In a later part, in the London section, he talks about a new wave of appreciation for the late artist Alice Neel, and touches on the convoluted ways we evaluate and reflect on creative works new and old:

Maybe the work looks prescient? Maybe it looks prescient every decade or so, whenever a slew of younger artists do work that is vaguely similar to hers? In that way maybe she’s being used to validate the present, and in turn the present is being used to validate the past?

And lastly, on PowerPoint:

A slide talk, the context in which this software is used, is a form of contemporary theater—a kind of ritual theater that has developed in boardrooms and academia rather than on the Broadway stage. No one can deny that a talk is a performance, but again there is a pervasive myth of objectivity and neutrality to deal with. There is an unspoken prejudice at work in those corporate and academic “performance spaces”—that performing is acting and therefore it’s not “real”. Acknowledging a talk as a performance is therefore anathema.

Manhood for Amateurs (review: 4/5)

Manhood for Amateurs
I became impatient with the few Michael Chabon books I’ve tried, never finished one. And historically I have had little patience with memoir. So what do I do? I go pick up Michael Chabon’s new memoir, Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son. Good decision, it turns out.

On the title page there’s a spinner-type illustration like you’d see on a game board, with possible landing spots marked Hypocrisy, Sexuality, Innocence, Regret, Sincerity, Nostalgia, Experience, and Play. If I could oversimplify, it’s about the awesomeness and awkwardness of being a guy. Not “awesome” as in “cool” but “awesome” in the sense of actual awe, realizing as you grow older that you are part of a tradition that our entire half of the population all experiences. Luckily he’s not too cliché with the whole thing, in one section even going so far as to meditate on the clichédness of feeling like a cliché and turn it into something worthwhile.

Cup size, wires, padding, straps, clasps, the little flowers between the cups: You need a degree, a spec sheet. You need breasts. I don’t know what you need to truly understand brassieres, and what’s more, I don’t want to know. I’m sorry. Go ask your mother.

There you have it: the most flagrant cliché imaginable. As I utter it, I might as well reach for a trout lure, a socket wrench, the switch on my model train transformer. This may be the fundamental truth of parenthood: No matter how enlightened or well prepared you are by theory, principle, and the imperative not to repeat the mistakes of your own parents, you are no better a father or mother than the set of your own limitations permits you to be.

The essays cover things like being a brother, cooking, the man-purse, faking it when you’re in over your head, best friends, Jose Canseco, first love, failed love, fatherhood and more. Here’s a bit on marriage, from the excellent story The Hand on My Shoulder (which link takes you to Chabon reading it on NPR):

The meaning of divorce will elude us as long as we are blind to the meaning of marriage, as I think at the start we must all be. Marriage seems—at least it seemed to an absurdly young man in the summer of 1987, standing on the sun-drenched patio of an elegant house on Lake Washington—to be an activity, like chess or tennis or a rumba contest, that we embark upon in tandem while everyone who loves us stands around and hopes for the best. We have no inkling of the fervor of their hope, nor of the ways in which our marriage, that collective endeavor, will be constructed from and burdened with their love.

Yesterday I tumbled a great quote from his essay on the The Wilderness of Childhood. Here’s another:

We have this idea of armchair traveling, of the reader who seeks in the pages of a ripping yarn or a memoir of polar exploration the kind of heroism and danger, in unknown, half-legendary lands, that he or she could never hope to find in life.

This is a mistaken notion, in my view. People read stories of adventure—and write them—because they have themselves been adventurers. Childhood is, or has been, or ought to be, the great original adventure, a tale of privation, courage, constant vigilance, danger, and sometimes calamity.

In “Cosmodemonic” he talks about being a “little shit” and basically, growing up:

We are accustomed to repeating the cliché, and to believing, that “our most precious resource is our children.” But we have plenty of children to go around, God knows, and as with Doritos, we can always make more. The true scarcity we face is of practicing adults, of people who know how marginal, how fragile, how finite their lives and their stories and their ambitions really are but who find value in this knowledge, even a sense of strange comfort, because they know their condition is universal, is shared.

Tyler Cowen said “This supposed paean to family life collapses quickly into narcissism, but that’s in fact what makes it work.” Much better than I’d expected.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (review: 5/5)

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

This Sotsgorodok was a bare field knee-deep in snow, and for a start you’d be digging holes, knocking in fence posts, and stringing barbed wire around them to stop yourself from running away. After that—get building.

I knew I would love this book when I came across those lines, about five pages in. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writes about a labor-camp worker/political prisoner named Shukhov. It’s only one full day, from just before sunrise until lights-out. I love the restraint to focus on one day, one character, one setting. That aside, I think my favorite part of the book was a sort of underlying optimism. There’s plenty of bold, revolutionary exposé-type stuff about injustice, deprivation, dehumanizing treatment, etc. (It’s probably because I grew up after this devastating period that I can write it off with an “etc”…) But more interesting to me were the little glimmers of endurance and good humor in truly awful conditions.

“Call the gang.”

Gopchik ran off.

The great news was that the gruel was good today, the very best, oatmeal gruel. You don’t often get that. It’s usually magara or grits twice a day. The mushy stuff around the grains of oatmeal is filling, it’s precious.

Shukhov had fed any amount of oats to horses as a youngster and never thought that one day he’d be breaking his heart for a handful of the stuff.

“Bowls! Bowls!” came a shout from the serving hatch.

Another favorite bit is a sort of emotional shift that I found pretty remarkable. The oppression became sort of a background feature for me. With all that given, conscious sympathy sort of fades until you get about 90% finished…

Fetyukov passed down the hut, sobbing. He was bent double. His lips were smeared with blood. He must have been beaten up again for licking out bowls. He walked past the whole team without looking at anybody, not trying to hide his tears, climbed onto his bunk, and buried his face in his mattress.

You felt sorry for him, really. He wouldn’t see his time out. He didn’t know how to look after himself.

Very much a Literary Wow Moment for me. Our hero still manages feelings of pity for his fellow slave-laborer, while the reader has gotten kind of worn out. Just when you’ve gotten numb from reading about a full day of hardship, you feel the pang again because this one guy probably won’t make it. One last cool thing, also evident in the paragraph above, is that the third-person omniscient narration is peppered with asides and reactions from Shukhov himself:

The bosses were afraid the zeks would scatter and waste time in warming sheds. A zek’s day is a long one, though, and he can find time for everything. Every man entering the compound stooped to pick up a wood chip or two. Do nicely for our stove. Then quick as a flash into their shelters.

It’s a fairly short read. Totally worth it.

Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior (review: 4/5)

Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior

By now it should be clear that you’ll be most comfortable with my arguments if you fully accept yourself as a fitness-flaunting consumer narcissist who has been deluded, throughout your whole life, into irrational spending habits by advertising euphemisms and peer pressure. In other words, you’ll probably feel uneasy for much of the time you’re reading it.

That line comes about 100 pages into the book. I stumbled on it when I was flipping through and it’s the passage that convinced me to take it from the library. Geoffrey Miller’s book, Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior turned out to be very good. If I could just block-quote the entire thing right here, I probably would.

You get a sense of the tone from the quote above. It’s fairly conversational. There’s a counter-cultural bent to it that comes across as more detached and bemused, rather than left-wing-ish panic or conservative haughtiness. He picks on both perspectives fairly evenly. Some of it I found genuinely funny, some was awkward funny (“Mobile phones are already becoming too Lilliputian for adult males to use without feeling like a palsy-pawed giant ground sloth.”). Most of it offered plenty of brain-tweaking “I hadn’t thought of it that way” moments. The book got quite a collection of dog-ears by the time I got through with it.

He starts out with a discussion of the “Big Five” personality traits, explaining what they are and how he’ll be using them to guide the discussion. The discussion at hand hinges around the idea of signaling: basically, how we inform others (and exaggerate) our worthy traits and minimize the appearance of less worthy traits. We signal in really primitive ways based on evolutionary learning (e.g. nice, white teeth = healthy) and in really modern ways, such as conspicuous consumption (e.g. nice, white teeth covered with a grill = wealthy).

Anyway, as you make it to page 75, he lists a few reasonable assumptions for the rest of the book:

  • We are social primates who survive and reproduce largely through attracting practical support from kin, friends, and mates.
  • We get that support insofar as others view us as offering desirable traits that fit their needs.
  • Over the past few million years, we have evolved many mental and moral capacities to display those desirable traits.
  • Over the past few thousand years, we have learned that these desirable traits can also be displayed through buying and displaying various goods and services in market economies.

And a few pages later, he brings the connection with consumerism and marketing, and hints and hints at the anti-consumerist arguments that he’ll get into later in the book:

Consumerism depends on forgetting a truth and believing a falsehood. The truth that must be forgotten is that we humans have already spent millions of years evolving awesomely effective ways to display our mental and moral traits to one another through natural social behaviors such as language, art, music, generosity, creativity, and ideology. We can all do so without credentials, careers, credit ratings, or crateloads of product.

The next bit ranges into a really interesting discussion on the three basic ways we signal: conspicuous waste, conspicuous precision, or conspicuous reputation. Conspicuous waste is fairly self-explanatory: gigantic cars, 30oz steaks, liquid-cooled gaming PCs. Conspicuously precise products rely on refinement, intricacy, low tolerances for error: luxury cars, fine sushi, Apple products. Conspicuous reputation is about envy or facade. Miller mentions BMWs and well-regarded postal codes in this category. Those aren’t perfect examples, and the categories can bleed, but you get the idea.

In one great leveling passage, he writes:

Each signaling principle has its distinctive pros and cons from the viewpoint of the signaler, the audience, and the population and ecology at large. These distinctions are significant but often overlooked. For example, socialist and environmentalist critiques of runaway consumerism apply most forcibly to cruder forms of conspicuous waste, which sequester matter and energy for the rich at the expense of the poor, and which impose the largest ecological footprint (resource and energy requirements). It is much harder to raise socioecological objections to an iPod nano than to an H1 Hummer. Aristocrats differ from the nouveaux riches not in their freedom from consumerism, but in their preference for conspicuous precision and reputation (“the finer things in life”) over conspicuous waste (“the crass and the vulgar”).

Later parts brought to mind the idea of social objects: “As a self-display strategy, it is very inefficient to buy new, branded, mass-produced products from stores at the full manufacturer’s suggested retail price. The product comes into one’s life naked and mute, without any social context, memorable circumstances, or narrative value.” It’s not just what you have, but how you earned it and how it brings you closer to those you love.

And I just love this one bit, about 3/4 through the book. He’s spent a couple sentences talking about buying a Toyota Camry or a comparable Lexus. Both are made by the same mother company to similar quality levels:

If you must have the Lexus, that’s OK, as long as you consciously accept two things: (1) apart from its higher mass, you are paying an extra $40,000 for the Lexus badge, and (2) everyone who sees you driving the Lexus, and who has read this book, will assume that you could think of nothing in the world more creative, kind, or conscientious to do with $40,000.

Zing! Boom! That’s something to think on.

The last 10% or so of the book wasn’t as good the beginning. It got more prescriptive than descriptive, and it just wasn’t as interesting. But man, that first 90% was so worth it.

More elsewhere:

Love Is a Mixtape (review: 4/5)

Love Is a Mixtape
If you like love and/or music, I think you will like Love Is a Mixtape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time. Rob Sheffield wrote the book after the unexpected death of his wife of five years, Reneee. He didn’t write it right away—the story came welling up again as he was moving to a new apartment, unpacking some old tapes of theirs. The book’s 15 chapters each touch on a different mixtape and a different time. It explores the music and life and love they shared. It captures part of the Charlottesville music scene (they were both DJs) and the bigger stuff in the ’90s: Nirvana, Pavement, R.E.M., etc.

I liked Sheffield’s writing. The passage of time helps to bring out this sort of humorous self-awareness, like when he describes a moment shortly after they were married:

Now we were alone with each other.

Which meant we had all these neighbors to deal with. The old lady next door dropped by with a plate of muffins one Sunday afternoon, right in the middle of Studs. Renee explained that in the South, this is normal—you just drop in on your married neighbors. I was aghast. I was a husband in the South now. We had married into this alien landscape with its strange customs.

Or when he talks about his love as a supporting role, after a moment when he was driving and singing back-up on “Midnight Train to Georgia”:

When we got to the final fade-out with Gladys on board the train and the Pips choo-chooing their goodbyes, Reneee cocked an eyebrow and said, ‘You make a good Pip.’ That’s all I ever wanted to hear a girl tell me. That’s all I ever dreamed of being. Some of us are born Gladys Knights, and some of us are born Pips. I marveled unto my Pip soul how lucky I was to choo-choo and woo-woo behind a real Gladys girl.

And everywhere it’s saturated with pop-culture references, so the time comes alive. And that’s what makes it (and other good memoirs?) special: that the story is so specific. It’s not just a love story, but a story about what it’s like to be a music-lover in love with a music-lover mostly in Charlottesville in the early and mid-’90s. And when you read his enthusiasm (“how lucky I was to choo-choo”), you can’t help be a bit jealous/understanding of what he has, and you feel the loss more acutely than in a story that seems like it could be set anywhere (The Notebook, maybe, or how about Romeo and Juliet?). I think you should read it.

Oblivion (review: 4/5)


James Tanner’s Growing Sentences with David Foster Wallace is a nice parody of the writer’s style. A little absurd but kind of spot-on. Amusing for a little while, just like it always is when you’re watching someone else work. But if you get a chance to read a bit of Wallace (granted, I’m no expert—I’ve only got maybe 3-400 pages under my belt, but more is on the way), you get a sense of how crazy inventive this guy was, whether you like the stories or not.

In the stories in Oblivion, all these layers of ambiguity or inexactness juxtapose with excessive detail. I like the way the narrators/protagonists/Wallace zip around making associations and adjustments and corrections, sentences accumulating detail as you read. At its best it’s kind of like a mural with words. Everything, large, all at once.

Let me get fetishy with a couple sentences. My favorite bit in recent memory, from The Soul Is Not a Smithy:

I was often the first to register the sound of my father’s key in the front door. It took only four steps and a brief sockslide into the foyer to be able to see him first as he entered on a wave of outside air.

Four steps and a sockslide and a wave of outside air. Lord, that’s perfect. I’m willing to grant that I especially like that one because it makes me think of Dad, but I haven’t read something so compact but evocative in a long time. Here’s a funny bit from the opening story, Mister Squishy, mostly set in a market research office:

Attached to the breast pocket on the same side of his shirt as his nametag was also a large pin or button emblazoned with the familiar Mister Squishy brand icon, which was a plump and childlike cartoon face of indeterminate ethnicity with its eyes squeezed parly shut in an expression that somehow connoted delight, satiation, and rapacious desire all at the same time.

You can certainly read the verbosity as annoying and peacockish, but I can’t help but love seeing the product of a mind at work, like he’s been doing some serious thinking and noticing. Likewise, a couple dozen pages further into the story, some clever meeting room cynicism:

All that ever changed were the jargon and mechanisms and gilt rococo with which everyone in the whole huge blind grinding mechanism conspired to convince each other that they could figure out how to give the paying customer what they could prove he could be persuaded to believe he wanted…

I’d say Good Old Neon was the highlight for me, but the title story Oblivion gives it good competition. The first is imagined reflections before a suicide. The second a husband’s retelling of an ongoing dispute with his wife about his alleged snoring. Neither of those summaries do them justice. Read those two at least.

A Theory of Capitalism & Socialism (review: 4.5/5)

A Theory of Socialism & Capitalism: Economics, Politics, and Ethics
The first book by Hans-Hermann Hoppe that I read was the most excellent Democracy: The God That Failed. In the introduction to that book, Hoppe talks about competing social theories and, in face of conflicting arguments about society or politics or economics, how we can decide between them:

The data of history are logically compatible with… rival interpretations, and historians, insofar as they are just historians, have no way of deciding in favor of one or the other. If one is to make a rational choice among such rival and incompatible interpretations, this is only possible if one has a theory at one’s disposal, or at least a theoretical proposition, whose validity does not depend on historical experience but can be established a priori, i.e. once and for all by means of the intellectual apprehension or comprehension of the nature of things.

In other words, disagreements can’t be solved only by appealing to historical data. In the end “a priori theory trumps and corrects experience (and logic overrules observation), and not vice-versa.” A Theory of Capitalism & Socialism: Economics, Politics, Ethics [full text, pdf] takes this deductive approach. Hoppe starts by building a theory of property. We only need property because things are scarce; where there is no scarcity (e.g. ideas) there is no property…

And the rest flows from that. Sorry I don’t remember much more than that off-hand, because I finished the book almost a year ago. This draft has been sitting neglected for months and months. Just wanted to clear out the archives. Highly recommended, though.

American Nerd (review: 3/5)

American Nerd: The Story of My People

In the imagination of the fake nerd, the nerd is attractive because he is unaffected, untrendy to the point of primitivism, a kind of inert noble savage.

American Nerd: The Story of My People covers a pretty good range of history and culture, tying together various forms of the outcast and how this one particular version came together: the unathletic, socially dysfunctional, mathlete type (did I mention I was captain of my HS academic team?). It starts to get really good a few chapters into the book, when Benjamin Nugent dives into historical/literary precedent for today’s nerds and normals, e.g. Mary Bennet vs. Elizabeth in Pride & Prejudice, Tibby in Howard’s End, Victor Frankenstein. He also has a great section on the history of sport and the beginnings of the nerd/jock split, and why it became so important for young men to be strapping and not Jewish (see: Muscular Christianity).

Drawing on T.S. Eliot’s essay, The Metaphysical Poets, he also delves into a split between feeling and thinking, the intellectual and the reflective. The works of Donne and his comrades were a sort of pinnacle of heart/brain unity; later writers like Tennyson, rebelling against the “rationative,” not so much. Eliot:

The difference is not a simple difference of degree between poets… Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.

Quality of the poetry aside, the split between feeling and thinking anticipates a social divide. Nugent:

Since the Romantic era, we have been in an age in which machines have the capacity for some minimal semblance of rational thought, performing tasks that once would have been the exclusive domain of humans. Reason is no longer quintessentially human; spontaneity is. People more inclined toward logical deliberation than spontaneous expression have started to become somehow less totally human…

The pathos of being a nerd is to feel that because you are comfortable with rational thought, you are cut off from the experiences of spontaneous feelings, of romance, of nonrational connection to other people. A nerd is so often self-loathing because he accepts the thinking/feeling rift, and he knows and cares that other people accept it, too. To be a nerd is often to live with a nagging feeling of one’s own incurable heartlessness.

The first half is great, but the book goes astray in the second. The second used more case studies and memoir. It had an anthropological observation sort of bent that doesn’t hold up nearly as well compared with the earlier chapters. I preferred Nugent’s wide reinterpretation of culture and history and literature.

But the second half does have a nice section on hipsters and the contemporary appeal of the nerd aesthetic, where I got the opening quote from. He ties it in with Norman Mailer’s essay The White Negro. There’s a nice connection between hipsterdom and the creative professions…

… a choice on the part of the privileged to identify with the outsider. The outsider in this case is the nerd, because nerds are people incapable of, or at least averse to, riding cultural trends. When your greatest fear is that you will become a loser because your intuition will fail to keep up with tastes, you embrace the nerd…

There’s also a nice bit on the connection between nerdiness and autism:

The idea that having a capacity for empathy, for expressing and understanding emotion, is part of being a normal male is fundamentally contemporary and a way of asking that men learn a traditionally feminine virtue. When men were in an unquestioned position of control in the economy—when the bedrock of the nuclear family was a single male wage, a flow of income largely unavailable to women—there was less force compelling men to make themselves attractive mates through understanding the feelings of others and expressing affection. The Asperger’s population is 90 percent male; it’s likely that one reason Asperger’s got “discovered” and then “boomed” is that the rest of us have slowly been revising our expectations of men.

Miles on Miles (review: 4/5)

You don’t know how to play better just because you’ve suffered. The blues don’t come from picking cotton.

I’ve never read anything quite like Miles on Miles: Interviews and Encounters with Miles Davis. The book collects about four decades’ worth of his life, broken up across a couple dozen interviews that were published in small jazz magazines all the way up to big serials like Newsweek and Rolling Stone. Some were with notable music journalists, a few with overmatched college radio station DJs.

The interviews start up in the late 1950s, about 10 years after he got his start with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and a couple years after he kicked his heroin habit. The general consensus, even back then: he was bleeping brilliant, charismatic, deeply flawed. Behind the gruff, badass facade was a sensitive, needy man. As the book goes on, it’s cool to see how the different interviewers sum up the career to date, through the shifting bands, radical changes in style, divorces, illness, new addictions. At some points in his life, he’s gregarious, absurdly fit from boxing, full of ideas. Later, for several years, he pretty much didn’t do much aside from drugs, rarely even leaving his house.

I don’t like to lay back. I don’t like to relax. Show me a motherfucker that’s relaxed, and I’ll show you a motherfucker that’s afraid of success.

You might have to like Miles to make it through his harangues. There weren’t a whole lot of brilliant comments or analysis of music. He usually avoided commenting on his own music, insistent that the past is dead, and I didn’t see a whole lot of criticism of other artists.

I usually don’t buy jazz records. They make me tired and depressed.

But I loved seeing how he phrased things, how he responds to similar questions over the years, and how he remembers and retells things differently. And there are occasional asides that I never would have expected:

I don’t know where I want to live. But the best time I ever had in my life, other than playing trumpet, was when I was out in the country riding horses.

The Bin Ladens (review: 5/5)

The Bin Ladens
Before 9/11, I don’t think I could have named one living person from Saudi Arabia. Afterward, I could name one. So I didn’t know much going into Steve Coll‘s book.

The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century starts near the turn of the century, with Awadh Bin Laden’s beginnings in Yemen. His sons Mohamed and Abdullah would leave for Saudi Arabia and begin the Bin Laden Construction Company. The close ties that Mohamed managed to develop with the first king of Saudi Arabia helped cement his fortunes, earned with a combination of pluck, overwhelming work ethic, and obsequiousness. He and his kids would become involved in construction projects in Riyadh, Medina, Mecca, and other spots in Saudi Arabia. The Bin Ladens were in on a pretty incredible list of projects: lots royal palaces and getaways, highways, telecommunications, infrastructure, renovations on the Prophet’s Mosque and the Grand Mosque, and some semi-suspicious military-related projects near the Yemeni border. The Bin Laden family relied on the royal family.

Mohamed had at least 54 children. His oldest son Salem became the new family patriarch after Mohamed’s death and continued the ties with the royal family and launched a new wave of international investments. The family businesses and the family itself spread across the globe. Miami, California, D.C., Boston, London, Geneva, Egypt, Syria, everywhere. His brother Bakr rose to leadership when Salem died.

Osama was the 17th son of the family. His story, like the rest of the family, seems to get a pretty fair treatment. It’s easy to paint a one-dimensional villain as we now see him, but the whole story is told. There’s a sense of appreciation for some of the energy and courage of Mohamed, the ineluctable cheer of Salem, the maturation of Bakr. Coll doesn’t hesitate to point out contradictions or hypocritical behavior of anyone in the family. He’s also quick to qualify when his research is incomplete (“the best evidence suggests that…”).

I could have done with fewer anecdotes about shopping sprees for planes and jewelry. Otherwise, a great read and a surprising page-turner for its heft.

Crisis & Leviathan (review: 5/5)

Crisis & Leviathan
I had been meaning to read Robert Higgs‚Äô book for years and I’m very glad I got to it. And I’ve been sitting on my review for a while because I always fear sounding like a shrill, libertarian paranoid.

Crisis & Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government explores the past century of American history, the national response to the nation’s worst crises (whether genuine or contrived), and the aftermath of each. The government’s scope and power exploded in response to World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. And after each, the powers were mostly disassembled.

Mostly. The so-called ratchet effect meant that after each event, the government never fully relinquished all its powers. Some of that was due to bureaucratic inertia or cronyism—some agencies never disappeared, but continued or assumed new roles in the aftermath. And a large part was of course due to changing ideology and public support for the government’s new roles. There were the lingering effects of decades of propaganda and new generations raised in those times. We grew comfortable with the new role, learning that it “wasn’t all that bad”—we could still worship as we pleased, and the news wasn’t yet nationalized. We looked to the progressive examples of the European states. The costs of the larger government were hidden with clever schemes like income tax withholding—you never miss what you never had—and the ever-growing number of people included in the tax base. Mind-blowing trivia: in 1913, the highest income tax bracket was 7% and 98% of the population owed no income tax. Times change.

One of the big assumptions in the book, one that makes me uncomfortable for our present, is that “government has substantial autonomy in its policy-making”. Like we saw recently, even with widespread opposition to the first bailout, we got one anyway. And the strategy seems to change with every day. We probably have even more on the way. Especially in these crisis situations,

Few people outside the government have enough information to identify the precise contours of the emergency or to formulate comprehensive plans for dealing with it. Citizens tend simultaneously to demand (a) more governmental action and (b) less research, public consultation, debate of alternative, and general “due process” in governmental decision-making.

Higgs’ study of each era ranges through the socionomic and political conditions before, during and after; the prevailing ideologies; the leading elites and interest groups; emergency orders and agencies; court challenges and decisions; and the institutional fallout—what society learned. He ranges through statistical analyses, Supreme Court decisions, legislative studies, executive backroom dealing and more. While there is a clear growth trend, Higgs makes the distinction between big government and Big Government. The first is an issue of size, the second has more to do with intrusion in peaceful affairs. We’ve had increase in both. I find it astounding that, during World War II for example, we so easily accepted conscription and price controls—even the courts went along with it. And once you give in to those, what are a few other small sacrifices here and there?

The book was published in the late 1980s, but you can see the same patterns repeated in the wake of 9/11 and our current financial awkwardness. This does not bode well.

By the second week of March 1933 an extraordinary conjuncture had developed: 1) a genuine economic crisis, especially the massive unemployment and the pitifully depressed production and consumption; 2) and artificial economic crisis produced by the nationwide banking shutdown; 3) a widespread sense of crisis and a feeling that only extraordinary measures could prevent an even greater catastrophe, sentiments manifested in the numerous and diverse calls to “do something” even if dictatorial powers were required to do it; and 4) a new administration taking office unencumbered by perceived responsibility for past ill fortunes and unchecked by opposition from a partisan Congress eager to obstruct and embarrass the President.