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
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. ★★★☆☆