Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1964) is a work of impressive scholarship that remains extremely (and sometimes depressingly) relevant today. It traces periods of intellectual flourishing as well as the reactions against them, from the deeply intellectual Founding Fathers to the incoherent and incandescent anti-intellectual aggression of the McCarthy era. The overarching point of the book seems to be that since its inception, America has undergone cycles of anti-intellectual sentiment. These rise when expertise oversteps its bounds, and makes mistakes, or perhaps even when it is needed too badly. At other times, expertise and intellectuals can come to be valued, though a latent suspicion often remains. Overall the book is well worth reading for an understanding of how such a large proportion of America acquired anti-intellectual sentiments, as well as for providing insight into many cultural and social aspects of American life and history. Continue reading
David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years is a magnum opus, with a scope so vast that any attempt to summarise it exhaustively, in a review such as this one, is unlikely to do it justice. This resistance to summary is partly due in straightforward fashion to its 544 page length, but length alone is an insufficient explanation for its expansive defiance—and it defies much more than mere summary. It begins with seemingly simple questions: “Must one pay one’s debts? If so, why?” The answers seem obvious, even self-evident, until, that is, one tries to justify them. Even within standard economic theory, it is not the case that all debts must be repaid: interest rates reflect the risk that the creditor assumes that the debtor might default. So whence the pervasive sense that all debts must be repaid? Very quickly one starts to see the looming spectres of moral judgment and threats of violence, in just two basic questions. With even a tiny bit of scrutiny, the complex relationship between economic questions and morality, which is central to this book, begins to surface. Continue reading
I recently read Elizabeth Warren’s autobiography A Fighting Chance which came out in March. Although at times it’s intensely personal, its historical and political aspects are really what make it an engaging read. It presents a compelling history of bankruptcy law in America, an overview of how financial deregulation since the 1980s has fuelled political corruption, and her often ill-fated attempts to fight these trends. It’s not quite Steinbeck, but as an epic on inequality it’s not a million miles away either, and it is definitely worth a read.
I’ve just read John McPhee’s Basin and Range for my book club. It’s not an easy book to summarize. Part itinerant tour of America’s geology, part history of geological theories, part dreamlike, hypnotic reflection on the formation of the world, it’s a mixture of nonfiction and beautiful prose that’s reminiscent of Carl Sagan. Continue reading
Last week I read Russell Hoban’s The Turtle Diary (1975) which I quite liked. It’s an understated study of loneliness and a search for meaning in London in the 1970s, and many of its concerns remain of unwelcome relevance to today’s Londoners, however drastically the city has changed in the past four decades. The novel’s protagonists are two solitary characters, William H., a divorced man working at a bookshop, and Neaera, who writes and illustrates children’s literature. In an unlikely coincidence, both become convinced that they need personally to liberate sea turtles at the London aquarium. Despite having hardly spoken to one another, they also simultaneously intuit that the other is having precisely the same thought. Continue reading
I first came across George Saunders in a New York Times piece on his new novel, and due to its high praise, I proposed his first book, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), to my book club a few months ago. I read it in two days, and even though many of the stories are a bit repetitive in theme and content, on the whole I thought it was worth a read. It’s taken me a while to put my thoughts together but here they are.
This week I finished John Banville’s The Untouchable, a moving chronicle of longing, reminiscence, and sadness. It is a book about memory and about the act of remembering, too personal to really be called a history, despite the fact that it’s based on real people and events. Memory for Banville is much sadder than it is for that most famous of literary recollectors, Marcel Proust, and not just because the concerns of The Untouchable are much graver than the frivolous happenstance of Remembrance of Things Past. Rather, it is because the act of remembering itself is a tragedy, a dirge for time irrevocably lost. From the title of Proust’s work, À la recherche du temps perdu, or In Search of Lost Time, one might expect the loss of time to be of primary concern. But in fact the emphasis is on the search, an inherently hopeful act: Continue reading
Cooked is the first Michael Pollan book I’ve read, but it won’t be the last. Loosely, it’s a history of cooking through Pollan’s personal experience of learning to cook. Alongside this journey he develops theories about how cooking fits into human evolution, and what it means that modern humans are spending an ever-diminishing amount of time in the kitchen. Continue reading
Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island, a humorous travelogue from two months of taking public transport around the United Kingdom, is worth a read, particularly if you are a foreigner living here. From the reviews on Amazon UK it appears to be even more entertaining to Brits as a keen view from the outside. Bryson’s style is engaging, and the book alternates between amusing (occasionally hilarious) anecdotes, and rants about the apparently insufferable clash of architectural styles he encounters in various cities—which were lengthy enough to weary, as I personally find the jumble to be part of the place’s charm. Amidst his comical observations there’s a fair bit of history, which gave me a moderate interest in visiting far-flung parts of the country. On the whole, though, it’s inferior to his more serious (if no less scatterbrained) undertaking At Home, which, although not specifically about Britain, manages a better proportion of quirky British historical facts to amusing but inconsequential fluff. ★★★☆☆
D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913) is a sort of bridge between two centuries of literature. Its length, breadth, and the length of time it narrates make it a close relative of the Victorian novel. However its concern with themes of sexual frustration, alienation, and meaninglessness place it thoroughly in the twentieth century.
If it’s not clear from that introduction, Continue reading