Review: Hiroshima

Review: Hiroshima

Hiroshima by John Hersey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This is certainly one of the great books of the previous century. It is superlative in many respects. Most obvious is the book’s historical value, which needs no further elaboration. Hiroshima is also a stylistically innovative and influential book, pioneering the dramatic writing techniques that would come to characterize some of the best journalistic writing after the war. And Hersey also deserves praise for his stylistic restraint. Virtually no event could have been more liable to evoke overwrought prose or vain attempts to capture the broad sweep of the tragedy. Hersey’s decision to focus on only six survivors, and to narrate what they saw with simple directness, was an act of great authorial self-control.

But this book is great for more important reasons than these. The power of atomic weapons is such that most of us can barely imagine it, much less picture ourselves their victims. Thus, as with many historical atrocities, the stories of survivors bridge the gap between imagination and experience, and allow us—at least dimly—to grasp the extent of the horror. Merely being faced with the reality of the bomb is enough to make a point. Without any explicit preaching, Hiroshima utterly convinces us that weapons which wreak such indiscriminate violence and widespread destruction have no possible rational use, even in war.

Last, the book is a wonderfully humanistic document. The people in this book were struck with a weapon they did not even suspect existed. They lost their homes, churches, and businesses, and they lost parents, children, spouses, and friends. And yet Hersey shows how these ordinary people often proved capable of extraordinary heroism and resilience, not only in the immediate aftermath, but in the years that followed. I found this especially moving, as I am often ashamed of my own inability to deal calmly with petty frustrations and minor setbacks. Books like this may not make me any wiser, but they at least leave me with a little hope—for myself, and for us all.



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Review: Why We Sleep

Review: Why We Sleep

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I first heard of this book from Michael Pollan’s short work on caffeine. There, he calls Why We Sleep (to paraphrase) one of the most disturbing books he had read in a while. This caught my attention. How could a book on sleep be disturbing?

From the first page of this book, I knew why. The author, Matthew Walker, is essentially diagnosing a major health crisis that is going on in front of our drooping, baggy eyes—namely, the crisis of insufficient sleep. According to Walker, virtually everything we do—how we work, how we relax, how we seek entertainment—is disruptive of sleep. And he has plenty of studies to show that, when you do not sleep enough, there are serious consequences.

In addition to the familiar cognitive impairments of bad sleep (inability to focus, lack of energy, wild mood swings), there are the long-term health risks, such as the increased likelihood to develop cancer, heart disease, or diabetes. More unfortunate still, there does not seem to be any way of getting around the familiar recommendation of eight hours of sleep per night. We cannot get by with less, and we cannot make it up on the weekend.

Indeed, the news gets worse and worse. Even moderate amounts of alcohol and caffeine can gravely affect sleep (and marijuana, too—sorry); and sleeping pills may do more harm than good. Our phones, tablets, and computers—even our indoor lights—wreak additional damage by throwing off our natural diurnal rhythms. So this pretty much eliminates all of my nightly plans.

What it comes down to, says Walker, is a cultural disrespect for sleep. I am certainly guilty of this. I have always taken pride in using the opportunity of a plane, train, or bus ride to read a book rather than to nod off, and felt secretly superior to those dozing around me. More generally, sleeping is often equated with laziness. Waking up after midday is a moral failing; taking a nap on the job is a fireable offense; and going to bed early is socially questionable. Further, many people—especially in the business world—take pride in their ability to get by on few hours of sleep. Wakefulness is productiveness. But this prejudice is, Walker contends, based on ignorance of the real value of sleep.

Sleep is a biologically basic process. All mammals, birds, and reptiles, some fish, and even insects have been observed in a sleep-like state. Lack of sleep can not only be harmful, but fatal. Some gruesome rat experiments have shown this, as does the rare disease, Fatal Familial Insomnia, in which the brain becomes incapable of generating sleep—which is inevitably fatal. Sleep is just as basic a need as food. And as you might expect from such a basic need, it is hard-wired into our evolution. Indeed, two distinct types of sleep have evolved, which accomplish different purposes: REM and (creatively named) non-REM.

As you may know, the REM stands for “rapid eye movement,” which is when we experience vivid dreams; and it alone accomplishes many things. In addition to fostering creativity by forging novel links between memories, REM sleep apparently keeps us sane (people experimentally deprived of REM sleep for long enough experience symptoms of psychosis). Non-REM is, perhaps, the more restful sort, when new memories are moved from temporary storage to a more permanent location. The two sleep types thus work together and come at predictable moments in the night: deep non-REM sleep early on, and REM closer to the time we wake up. (Short sleep thus selectively cuts down our REM sleep time.)

Walker explains the science because he wants to drive home the importance of sleep—not a luxury, or an indulgence, but a survival mechanism designed by natural selection. With this basic point in hand, Walker goes on to make several social criticisms, and at times the book almost becomes a polemic.

Take driving, for example. Everybody knows that driving drunk is dangerous and irresponsible. But Walker cites studies showing that drowsy driving is, if anything, even more dangerous. When you are sleep deprived, your brain can drift off into what are called “micro-sleeps,” which last just a couple seconds. This is quite enough time to get into a serious car crash. And this is common. Over the Christmas break, everybody I mentioned this to had a story about falling asleep behind the wheel. It has happened to me, too—a thoroughly alarming experience, which thankfully did not result in a crash. Considering this, I cannot help but agree with Walker this issue is just as deserving of public awareness campaigns as inebriated driving.

Walker is also highly critical of how the medical community treats sleep. For one, most general physicians have little training when it comes to sleep, and so are apt to prescribe sleeping pills to patients with insomnia. Unfortunately, sleeping pills merely sedate the brain without generating natural sleep, and so do not really solve the problem. Another issue is that of doctors’ timetables. From residency on, doctors are often expected to work inhumanly long shifts, even though evidence shows that sleep-deprived doctors are less effective by every measure. Another issue is patient sleep. Although sleep is highly conducive to healing, hospitals often present hostile sleep conditions (loud noise, bright lights, poorly scheduled tests), especially in the ICU, which actively impedes recuperation.

Last but not least, Walker contends that many (though not all!) children diagnosed with mental disorders, like ADHD, may really be suffering from a sleep problem, as insufficient sleep can cause many of the same symptoms (lack of focus, lack of emotional control, etc.). This neatly dovetails with another issue: schools. According to Walker, every person has a natural sleep-schedule, and teenagers tend to have a later one than adults. When teenagers are expected to get to class by eight o’clock or earlier, therefore, we are making it impossible for them to adequately sleep, in the same way most adults would not be able to adapt to a job that began at six in the morning. As a result, many teenagers are chronically under-slept. No wonder that they are so considerate and polite.

This certainly resonates with my experience. Not only did my high school start early, but most of the musical extra-curriculars took place in the hour before regular classes. This meant that I had to arrive by quarter to eight, while I hardly ever went to bed before midnight (often much later). Unsurprisingly, I was a zombie for most of my morning classes. It is easy for me, then, to concur with Walker in proclaiming these early start times for high schools to be illogical and counterproductive. Thankfully this message seems to be slowly sinking in, and some schools have begun pushing back their schedules.

This review, long as it is, hardly does justice to the content of this book. Not only has Matthew Walker written an excellent work of popular science, but he has written a quietly revolutionary work. After all, our society would really look quite different if we took our need to sleep as seriously as we took our need to eat. The world Walkers imagines is certainly a more relaxed and humane one (though, it must be said, perhaps a bit puritanical in its strictures). Imagine, for example, a world when napping during work was encouraged and when start times were flexible. Imagine getting a deduction on your health insurance for sleeping enough. A boy can dream.

There was only one moment in which I doubted the good Walker. In 2015, a study was released that tracked the sleep of three hunter-gatherer groups, and found that they slept, on average, slightly less than seven hours, rather than the expected eight. This seems to undermine Walker’s contention that the modern world is uniquely inimical to sleep. He counters that the study may only show that these hunter-gatherers are also not sleeping enough. But this seems like rather weak tea after telling us of the evils of coffee, alarm clocks, and LED lights. If those free of modern temptations can’t do it right, what hope do we have? Perhaps we are doomed. Even so, I think all of us could benefit by treating our shuteye with a little more respect. Speaking of which, it is already past my bedtime.
_______________________________________________
A fellow reviewer on Goodreads, Siddhartha, recommended an article written by the blogger Alexey Guzey that examines the first chapter of Matthew Walker’s book in depth, purporting to find many factual errors. I think it is worth going over Guzey’s points.

First, he notes that, while Walkers claims that longer sleep leads to longer life, in reality studies show a kind of U-curve, where both short and long sleep times are associated with higher mortality. Walker addresses this later on, but defends his position by stating that diseases and comorbidities often lead people to sleep more. Guzey counters that some diseases actually make people sleep less. In any case, Walker’s argument does seem fairly week to me in the absence of evidence that these longer sleep times are certainly caused by diseases. (Also it seems like circular reasoning to assert that anyone sleeping significantly longer than 8 hours must have some sort of disease. Were they presumably under-sleeping before, causing an illness that pushed them into over-sleeping?)

Guzey’s next points out that it is untrue that a good night’s sleep is always beneficial, since sleep deprivation is used as a therapy for depression. Now, to me these seems like nit-picking. One can still say it is almost always beneficial. True, Walker does discount the potential benefits of sleep deprivation therapy without much thought, but that is still a minor point since Walker is not a psychologist.

Guzey’s third point is also somewhat unfair. He points out that it is far from certain that the lack of sleep is what kills victims of Fatal Familial Insomnia. Yes, Walker uses Fatal Familial Insomnia to bolster his claim that lack of sleep is fatal, but he does admit (later on) that it is impossible to say that the lack of sleep is what actually kills in the disease, since victims suffer extensive brain damage. But Walker bases his assertion of the mortality of sleep loss on some (rather cruel) rat studies. Admittedly, we are not rats.

Another of Guzey’s criticisms is that, while Walkers is quite insistent on the eight-hour number, the National Sleep Foundation actually recommends anywhere between seven and nine hours. (And though Walkers invokes the WHO, the World Health Organization has not actually issued sleep recommendations.) This is certainly a legimitate critique of the book, since somebody who sleeps seven hours is actually within the normal range, even though they would get the impression from Walker’s book that they are underslept and at risk.

Several other factual errors Guzey point out are quite valid. It does seem true that, contrary to Walker, the WHO has not declared any sleep loss epidemic in industrialized nations. This is a serious error in itself. Guzey also calls into question whether those in the industrialized world really are getting less sleep now than people did 100 years ago. This claim, in my opinions, does deserves far more scrutiny. True, late night work emails and LED screens are recent inventions. But working on a farm or a factory is hardly more forgiving or flexible. And, again, if hunter-gatherers aren’t sleeping more than we are, perhaps the evidence of a recent sleep loss epidemic is not so strong after all.

Not having done any research myself, I can only give my two cents. I did get the strong impression that Walker consistently emphasized the most potentially dire consequences and examples of sleep loss. And, honestly, I really hope that Walker’s prophecies of doom are somewhat exaggerated, since obtaining perfect sleep while going to work, having a decent social life, keeping up with a hobby or two (not to mention the pressures of raising children—not that I have any) seems close to hopeless.

Even after all of this, I do think that this book is an important corrective to our current cultural disregard of sleep. Thank you for your time.



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Review: Johnson’s Dictionary

Review: Johnson’s Dictionary

A Dictionary of the English Language: an Anthology by Samuel Johnson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

LEXICOGRAPHER: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.


A dictionary is a marvelous thing. I discovered this during my first year in college, when I was finally asked to do some challenging reading (and when I finally decided to start doing the assigned readings). It was with some shame that I admitted to myself, after a few weeks, that I often came across a word I did not understand. Indeed, this happened with such frequency that I finally resolved to underline all of the words I could not confidently define, and then look them up. But even this didn’t seem like enough. By the time I encountered the troublesome word again, its definition would be forgotten. Thus the “Word Project” was born.

To forcibly expand my pitiful lexicon, I resolved that I would write out the definition of every unfamiliar word in the back of a marble notebook. Then, to reinforce the definition, I would flip to the front of the notebook and use the word in a sentence. Astoundingly, I actually followed through with this resolution, and carried on the habit for years—filling up two whole marble notebooks in the process, comprising thousands of words, definitions, and sentences. I even filled up the margins with lists of synonyms. (I cannot help feeling that I have gotten much lazier with time. Could I be so disciplined now?)

A few examples from the first page include: inculcate, surfeit, equivocal, corroborate, and depredation. By the time I got to the second notebook, the words were more exotic: jactitation (the restless turning of the body in illness), imago (the unconscious idealized mental image of someone), and ontogenesis (which I’ll let you look up). But I find the lists of synonyms, or near-synonyms, more interesting now. For example: petulant, peevish, tetchy, crotchety, fractious. Or: effrontery, impudence, impertinence, insolence. I could go on—synonyms are wonderful fun, at least for writers—but I shall resist.

The project was a success. My vocabulary improved markedly, to the point when I so rarely came across an unfamiliar word that I stopped bothering to write them down. (It does still happen from time to time, though.) However, my loftier goals were unrealized. You see, I had hoped that, by expanding my vocabulary, I might even make myself noticeably more intelligent. A mind with more words to express itself must, I theorized, think more efficiently. Unfortunately, that theory did not seem to hold water (half the time I don’t think in words, anyway), and my mental acuity remained unchanged. I also thought that such a project might improve my writing. And though I do think I am, at least, more sensitive to language as a result of the project, I normally prefer to use simpler words, anyway.

Even so, in retrospect the “Word Project” was one of the greatest things I ever did for my own education. The definitions of these abstruse words were, for me, a kind of key to the wider world of knowledge and literature. I would never have developed my love of books had I constantly been scratching my head at unfamiliar words. So I have a keen appreciation for any “harmless drudge” who chooses to write a dictionary. Lexicographers do the world a great service.

This volume is, of course, not a book one can use as a standard dictionary. David Crystal has edited the 2,300 pages of dense text into something more manageable, by selecting for those passages that the modern writer might find most curious. Included are words that are now obsolete, words whose meanings have significantly changed, and words with especially pleasurable definitions.

As an example of the latter, fun is defined as “sport, high merriment, frolicksome delight.” And to flatter is “to sooth with praises; to praise with blandishments; to gratify by servile obsequiousness.” As you can see, Johnson has a tendency to pleonasm in his definitions. He is also fond of expressing his opinion of a given word, in a way that no modern dictionary would. “Fun,” for example, is “a low cant word,” and many terms are dismissed as “barbarous.”

Some words have changed in surprising ways. Johnson defines punk as “a whore; a common prostitute; a strumpet,” and punctuation as “the act or method of pointing.” Yet the most delightful entries are perhaps those words which are no longer used. Often one feels that it is a shame it should be so. What is wrong with smellfeast (“one who haunts tables”), fopdoodle (“an insignificant wretch”), and mouth-friend (“one who professes friendship without intending it”)?

If nothing else, it is worth reading this anthology to fully admire Samuel Johnson’s genius and industry. Virtually nobody nowadays would undertake to write a dictionary single-handedly. And such a task would be so massive—running the gamut from scientific jargon to recent slang—that it is difficult to image anyone succeeding. That Johnson did succeed is, more than any other of his accomplishments, the reason he was so widely venerated during his lifetime. (His contemporaries more often referred to him as “Dictionary Johnson” rather than “Dr.”)

And even if his dictionary is hopelessly outdated now, it still can serve as a model of strong writing. Johnson’s definitions are a pleasure to read through—punchy, pugnacious, and punctilious—and each one is accompanied by at least one (often many more) quotation from well-respected authors. This way, the reader’s mind is expanded while her taste is refined. An elegant idea, at least. Yet if I wish to accomplish anything in this review, it is not to praise Johnson’s Dictionary—worthy though it is of praise—but to exhort you to pause, every so often, and ask yourself whether you really know what a word means. A trip to a dictionary can open up new realms of reality.



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2022 in Books

2022 in Books

2022 on Goodreads by Various

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I have the nagging feeling that I’ve gotten lazy about reading—as if I fail to prioritize it, or that it is rarer for me to get swept up into a book. When I examine the books I did manage to read, however, I see that I have had an altogether decent year in this department. In any case, it is wiser to focus on the positives.

As usual, my reading was divided between certain themes and a random spattering of other books.

One major theme—arguably the dominant theme of the year—was music. The first book I completed was Paul McCartney’s The Lyrics, which coincided with my second viewing of Peter Jackson’s incredible Beatles documentary, Get Back. This reignited my Beatlemania and, more generally, my musical fandom. During the course of the year, I made my way through three books on blues, a history of jazz, a history of music in New York City, a history of modern pop music, biographies of Biggie Smalls and Bob Dylan, and the memoirs of Bob Dylan, Pattie Smith, and Miles Davis. Of these, the absolute best was Miles Davis’s Autobiography, which is so engaging, so full of great stories, so illuminating, that it easily ranks among the best books of the year. And I should also mention Malcolm Gladwell’s audiobook on Paul Simon, a delightful little gem. If nothing else, I am grateful to have reconnected with my love of music this year.

Another, rather vague category could be termed “nature and adventure.” This incorporates Ken Burns’s excellent documentary on America’s National Parks, a book about the Hudson River school of landscape paintings, as well as several accounts of getting lost in the wilderness. Most of these combine danger with discovery: Lewis and Clark’s journals on their voyage across the country, Ernest Shackleton’s account of his failed attempt to cross Antarctica, and Steven Callahan’s record of his struggle to survive in an inflatable life-raft. Best of all was Over the Edge of the World, Laurence Bergreen’s book about Magellan’s journey around the world. This last book was such a winning combination of excitement and historical interest that I would recommend it to nearly anyone.

In the realm of fiction, I made my way through some old classics: Eugénie Grandet, Eugene Onegin, The Charterhouse of Parma, Ivanhoe, As I Lay Dying, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Their Eyes Were Watching God… My absolute favorite was younger, slimmer, and more stylish than these hoary volumes: Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a travelerThough not profound, it is a delightful work which manages to be utterly post-modern without being annoying (well, it is slightly annoying). I should also mention Camus’s The Fall, which is certainly profound but not quite delightful.

By far the longest book I finished was a history of science in Spain, El país de los sueños perdidos. I feel almost silly for having dedicated so much time to it, since I neither enjoyed it very much nor learned what I hoped to learn. My most popular review of the year was of David Graeber’s posthumously released book, The Dawn of Everything, which somehow managed to be both brilliant and disappointing at once. Meanwhile, the most-represented author on my list is none other than Rick Steves. Somehow, this dorky, goofy tour-guide absolutely won me over. In addition to reading three of his books, I watched all of his travel programs on YouTube—learning a lot about European travel and travel writing in the process.

Two of the most moving books of the year concerned the holocaust: Anne Frank’s diary and Elie Wiesel’s Night. The books are, in a way, complementary, as they are both written from the perspective of a young adolescent swept up in this catastrophe—indeed, Wiesel’s book begins where Frank’s diary ends, at the gates of the concentration camp. These first-hand accounts of human cruelty were supplemented by Paul Preston’s book on atrocities committed during the Spanish Civil War. There seem to be no depths too deep for us to sink to. But since I don’t think a book review—or the year itself, for that matter—should end on such a dark, depressing note, I also would like to mention that I finally read some books on Norse Mythology, which were lovely.

I suppose if next year’s books are just as good as this year’s, I will have no cause to complain. And, as always, the pleasure will be all the greater with the Goodreads community.

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Review: The Song Machine

Review: The Song Machine

The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I was quite young, somebody gave my brother and me a new toy for Christmas. It was a little plastic speaker, which played 60-second clips from popular songs from tiny memory cards called “HitClips.” Though primitive in retrospect, at the time it seemed like incredible technology—to us kids, at least—and I spent weeks driving my mother crazy by playing and re-playing the one-minute version of NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” I had. My brother, meanwhile, had the HitClip of Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life,” and now if I listen to either song it makes me slightly nauseous.

This was, however, probably the most significant intrusion of contemporary pop music into my childhood. My father is a musician and, under his influence, I became a fan of the music of his generation—the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Bob Dylan—and remained mostly ignorant of, and uninterested in, the music of my peers. Indeed, like many teenagers with pretentions to artistic and intellectual superiority, I was quite proud to be disdainfully unaware of what was on the radio. It was therefore quite interesting to retrospectively learn about this music via John Seabrook.

Seabrook examines just the music that I was busy snubbing my nose at: the pop music of the nineties and aughts, such as the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, Brittney Spears, Rihanna, Kesha, Kelly Clarkson, and Katy Perry. However, as quickly becomes clear, these artists are not the real focus of the book. Rather, Seabrook wants to examine the far less famous people who actually write and produce the songs that make popstars so famous. Indeed, it is fairly uncommon for a pop star to actually write their own music nowadays, which is why they have to tour and perform so regularly—they do not make much money on record sales.

A surprising number of songwriters are Swedish (apparently, the culture or the language fosters melodic gifts), such as Max Martin—a man infinitely less well-known than the singers I listed above, but who has written many of the songs that made them famous. Martin, along with others such as Dr. Luke and Tricky Stewart, do not write songs the way you might imagine is the “normal” way. Rather than searching for chords and melodies on a guitar or a piano, they focus on making “beats” or backing tracks—usually, using only digital tools, a fact that has put many studio musicians out of business. Then, this track is sent out to “top line” writers, who come up with the melody and perhaps the title; and finally, a lyrics writer finishes up the product.

Working this way, a song can be created relatively quickly. This is key to the modern pop song industry, as it allows producers to search for potential hits via trial and error. The same backing track can be sent out to a dozen or more top line writers, who in turn send back their melodies and ideas for the song. Of these options, the most appealing is chosen, and then worked into a full song. Even at this point, however, it is not unusual for a recorded song to be canned for being deemed insufficient. With so many options to choose from, producers need only to release what they are confident will succeed. And this is not merely a matter of guesswork. According to Seabrook, there are computer programs which analyze songs and rate their likelihood of becoming popular.

Now, being a purist is a good way to make yourself unhappy. And, in any case, “authenticity” in art is difficult to insist on, as it is such a slippery thing to pin down. Even so, I have to say that my sneering teenage self felt amply justified by this book. But before I snub my nose, I must add some caveats.

First, as Seabrook points out, this is hardly the first time in history when songs have been written by professionals for purely commercial ends. From Tin Pan Alley, to the Brill Building songwriters, to Motown and Phil Specter, there have long been professional songwriters creating material for charismatic singers. And hardly anybody thinks it inauthentic, for example, when a trained soprano sings an aria written by a professional composer (and many opera composers were quite shamelessly commercial, recycling old material and working with tight deadlines). At the very worst, this production model puts pop singers on the same level as movie stars, who are admired and praised just for knowing how to recite their lines. If anything is new about the modern “song machine,” then, it is just that the producers nowadays have more advanced tools than their predecessors.

All of this being granted, I must admit that parts of the book turned my stomach. This was especially true of the chapter on K-pop, which describes how potential stars are trained to sing and dance from a young age, and whose lives—from their schedules, to their diet, or even the boundaries of their love life—are carefully managed. The section on the dispute between Kesha and Dr. Luke—which included allegations of abuse and rape—was just as upsetting, epitomizing the exploitative extremes of the business. Indeed, as another reviewer has pointed out, there is a striking gender imbalance in the industry, with the overwhelming of producers and songwriters being men. And, of course, even if it is not exactly new, it is never pretty to see the inner workings of industrialized pop culture. It is like a visit to a hot dog factory.

Seabrook, for his part, seems to have come to like contemporary pop music more as a result of his delve into this world. Well, to each their own I suppose. He has written an informative and entertaining book on a subject that most people are familiar with, but which relatively few understand, and so has earned the right to listen to as much NSYNC as his stomach can handle.



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Review: Alan Lomax’s American Patchwork

Review: Alan Lomax’s American Patchwork

Alan Lomax was one of the few non-musicians—perhaps the only one—whose influence on American music rivals that of the greatest artists.

He spent the whole of his life studying, collecting, analyzing, and disseminating traditional music, especially that of his own country. Great artists like Muddy Waters might never have gotten their big break if not for Lomax. Other artists, like Bob Dylan, might never have been exposed to formative influences.

Rivers of song flowed through this man, who was never rich, who never held an academic post, who often operated with no institutional backing, and who remains comparatively little known. This is not entirely the public’s fault. Lomax was a genius when it came to finding wellsprings of musical traditions, but he was not so adept at self-promotion. It took him decades, for example, to find a publisher for his writings on blues music, The Land Where the Blues Began—a book that was finally published in 1995, some forty years after the events it describes. (More unfortunately still, the book is ultimately disappointing and disorganized.)

As another pertinent example of Lomax’s troubles with finding backers, there is a gap of twelve years between the release of the pilot of his American Patchwork documentary series (1979) and the rest of the programs (1991). Yet whatever he lacked in persuasiveness, he made up for in perseverance. However long it took, Lomax did eventually complete his documentaries on American music, which are now free to stream on folkstreams.net. And they are a treasure.

The American Patchwork series consists of five episodes. The pilot, which shares its title with Lomax’s book, is about blues in the Mississippi Delta. The other episodes cover jazz parades in New Orleans, Cajun music (also in Louisiana), the folk music of Appalachia, and finally “Dreams and Songs of the Noble Old,” which explores how the elderly serve as the pillars of musical tradition. Each episode is about an hour, and each one is worthwhile. Lomax, as usual, created them on a shoestring budget, with just a single cameraman, and so the documentaries have an almost homemade and unprofessional feeling to them. There is no sophisticated editing, no stunning visuals (indeed the camera work and editing often seems sloppy), and Lomax himself does all of the voiceovers. But what they do have, in abundance, is great music.

Most striking of all, this music is not, for the most part, played by famous professionals. Lomax takes care to find living traditions, and to enter into the communities to record the music as it is enjoyed in its original setting—often played by volunteers and amateurs, or at most by semi-professionals. As a child of the suburbs, I find these sorts of traditions fascinating and even inspiring. This sort of music—local, nonspecialist, communal—is so different from the music of the modern world, written by professional songwriters, performed by groomed superstars, and consumed from headphones or a speaker.

This difference is exemplified most clearly in Lomax’s episode on the “Noble Old.” There, Lomax shows how this music—most of which is not written down—is passed down from generation to generation, through living repositories of song, who accumulate more and more knowledge with each passing year. This could not contrast more sharply with today, where even being in one’s thirties is enough to isolate oneself from the main currents of popular music. (I am speaking from experience!) When music must be transmitted that way, from mother to daughter, from mouth to mouth, then it takes on an entirely different quality. For nothing will survive long in a community’s collective memory if it is not, somehow, vital to the identity of the community, embodying its values and even a sort of wisdom.

Lomax was a champion of this music his entire life. And despite his tendency to make romantic and unconvincing generalizations about peoples and cultures, he ultimately does make a convincing case for the vitality and beauty of these traditions. Of course, there is a certain paradox in people like Lomax and, by extension, myself—people who have traveled widely, read widely, gone to college, live in cosmopolitan cities, and so on—pining for the traditions of those who live in relatively closed, isolated, and often poor communities. In the modern world, we do not know the songs of our elders (if they even have songs to share), but we know a great many other things. And as much as I loved the episode on Appalachia, I will not be moving there anytime soon.

Even so, I found myself moved halfway to tears by each one of these documentaries. Comparing this lovely, haunting music with the formulaic and soulless jingles of the modern world, it is difficult not to feel that we have, somehow, gone badly off course. Nevertheless, the banality of pop culture is probably an inevitable price to pay if you want to live in a cosmopolitan culture. After all, once a society becomes relatively unmoored from traditional values (which is one way to define cosmopolitanism), the only measure of cultural value is what attracts people’s attention, and pop music certainly does that. Ironically, however, this freedom from tradition is what allows us to appreciate the musical traditions of vastly different cultures—within the United States and beyond.

I do not think Alan Lomax ever squared the circle of how to reconcile local tradition with a broad and tolerant perspective—how to have a strong identity and yet appreciate people quite different from oneself. His most ambitious attempt was to create a world-wide database of traditional music, the global jukebox; but rather than create a universal schema that could incorporate all human art, it only showcased the incredible variety in the world. Even so, and even if his loftiest intellectual goals were never reached, Lomax changed American music forever. And he still has much to teach us.

Review: Over the Edge of the World

Review: Over the Edge of the World

Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe by Laurence Bergreen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I am a sucker for books like this—stories of survival and exploration—and this one must be among the best. It has everything: wild orgies, bloody battles, mutinies, shipwrecks, torture, disease, treasure—and all of this excitement is woven into a historically significant tale. Indeed, aside from being just a darn good story, Magellan’s voyage provides an insightful window into its time: the state of navigation, of European politics, and of global trade, as well as a snapshot of early European encounters with other cultures (it did not go well).

Magellan was arguably a victim of the same misconception that misled Columbus: namely, that the earth was significantly smaller than it really is. Just as Columbus believed that he could make it to Asia simply by heading straight across the Atlantic, so did Magellan believe that the spice islands would be within a few days or, at most, weeks sail beyond South America. Both were mistaken, though for Magellan’s crew the consequences were significantly more dire.

In the 99 days at sea between the strait which now bears the explorer’s name, and their first landfall at Guam, nineteen sailors died of scurvy, and many others fell gravely ill. (Of the 270 sailors who set out on the voyage, 173 would die, 55 would desert, 12 would be taken prisoner, and only 30 would successfully complete the circumnavigation.)

In retrospect, it is difficult to believe that Europeans could remain so ignorant for so long about the causes of the disease (vitamin C deficiency). Somehow, it did not even cross the sailors’ minds that their diet of biscuits and dried meat could be the cause of their ill health. Even seemingly obviously sources of evidence—such as their quick recovery upon eating fresh fruit, or the seeming immunity from the disease of all those (like Magellan) who were eating preserved quince—did not provoke any sort of epiphany. Instead, the sailors vaguely chalked up the disease to “bad air.” This is an illustrative moment in the history of science, for it shows how background assumptions and beliefs shape the sorts of things we are inclined to view as pertinent evidence.

Indeed, many aspects of this voyage strike the modern reader as absurd. For one, the expedition’s main objective was the acquisition of spices—namely, cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Considering that virtually anyone can now obtain each of these spices in a supermarket for a pittance, it beggars belief that so many sailors would risk their lives for such a purpose. At the time, these “exotic” spices were only grown in a few islands in the Pacific Ocean, and were thus rarer and more valuable than gold. Nowadays, in the age of factory farming, this is obviously not the case—a vivid lesson in supply and demand. What used to be the quintessential marker of extreme wealth are now the standard components of a pumpkin spice latte.

Another absurdity is that Magellan never intended to circumnavigate the globe. Thinking that the spice islands (the Moluccas) were not very far from South America, his plan was to return the way he came. Instead, he proved that his new route to Asia was entirely impractical, with virtually no commercial prospects whatsoever. The Pacific Ocean (which he named) proved to be both far too big and not at all “pacific.” Ironically, the main accomplishment of the voyage was intellectual—proving, for example, that the earth was far larger than previously thought—which had nothing to do with its original purpose. Certainly, Magellan himself was the furthest thing from a scientist.

If I have one criticism of the book, it is that Bergreen is far too laudatory of Magellan, using words like “heroic” to describe him and his men. The man was undoubtedly impressive: brave to the point of foolhardiness, determined to the point of stubbornness, and a highly skilled navigator. However, he was hardly an exemplary leader. Brutal, cruel, highhanded, he did not inspire any loyalty among his armada. He was almost the victim of a popular mutiny (and, in any case, one ship did sneak back to Spain), and he was possibly abandoned by the bulk of his men during the battle that claimed his life. One can clearly see the shape of European colonization to come in his attempts at mass conversion and his willingness to kill and enslave those he comes across.

It is yet another irony that the man most famous for circumnavigating the globe only got about halfway before dying in an ill-advised and unnecessary battle. Interestingly, though in Spain Juan Sebastián Elcano—the captain who led the survivors back to Spain after Magellan’s death—is almost as famous as Magellan himself, the Basque mariner does not feature prominently in this book. Elcano, for his part, is certainly a less colorful character than the Portuguese commander, though he must have been a skilled leader to have successfully completed the voyage. (He later died of scurvy on another expedition.) In celebration of the 500th anniversary of the voyage (completed on September 6, 1522), there was even a cantata written in Elcano’s honor and performed at the National Spanish Auditorium. Unfortunately, there were no more tickets available, and I missed it.

Yet if this strange and terrible voyage had a true hero, I would argue it was neither Magellan nor Elcano, but the Venetian nobleman, Antonio Pigafetta. A gentleman scholar, he kept a diary of the voyage that has proven to be a trove of information. He was endlessly curious, and made genuine attempts to understand the language and culture of some of the places they visited. It is largely thanks to him that we have such a vivid account of the voyage. And I think a good story is worth all the tea in China—or all the cloves in the Moluccas.



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Review: Miles, the Autobiography

Review: Miles, the Autobiography

On a hot day a few summers ago, I took a trip to Woodlawn Cemetery, in the Bronx, with my dad. It is an enormous place, so even with the official map it took some time to find who we were looking for. Eventually we stopped the car and got out to front a large black slab, inscribed with two bars of music, so shiny that we could see our own reflections in it. This was the tomb of “Sir” Miles Davis (he was a member of the Knights of Malta), the man who had helped inspire my dad to devote himself to jazz bass.

Through my dad’s influence, I have been listening to jazz all my life (though not always intentionally), and I have come to know and love most of the great names. Some of them were right there in the cemetery: Duke Ellington, Max Roach, Coleman Hawkins. It was with this background that I approached Miles Davis’s autobiography, and I loved every minute of it.

The magic of this book is the skill with which Quincy Troupe has captured Miles’s voice. He is completely there, in all his profane glory (much to the chagrin of some readers). This, combined with an uncanny impersonation by Dion Graham in the audiobook, makes you feel like you are right in the room with him. But of course the person who ultimately deserves the credit is Miles himself, for agreeing to the project, and for being just so uncompromisingly blunt. His raw honesty is what makes this into a great autobiography.

And if you are in any way a jazz fan, this is a real feast. Miles knew close to everybody. From the very beginning of his career, he was thrown in with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, right at the center of the Bebop world. His stories of Charlie Parker alone—who seems to prefigure Miles in many ways—are worth the price of the book. After his early years, Miles becomes a bandleader, and helps to launch the careers of many other musical giants: Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock… In short, for decades Miles’s career was at the very center of jazz history. And more often than not, he was at the vanguard.

But this book is not just namedropping and a few memorable anecdotes. As I said, Miles the man really comes alive in these pages, and that means, most of all, his love for the music. Near the end of the book, he describes himself as having “musical demons,” and I think that is an apt description of the way that music ruled his life. It really seemed to open up the finest part of his nature: not only in pure musical expression, but also in his treatment of other musicians. Despite his mean reputation, he is generosity itself when discussing the accomplishments of his fellows, and does not stint on praise. This is what, I think, made him such an effective bandleader—he could really appreciate different sorts of musical gifts.

The dark side to an overwhelming obsession like this is that it leaves little in your life for other things. This is apparent in his often abysmal—indeed, abusive—treatment of the women in his life. This is perhaps even more apparent in his behavior as a father—or lack thereof, as his four children are barely mentioned at all in the book (he takes time to criticize two of his sons, though admits he had not been much of a father). Another major theme is drug abuse—an occupational hazard of touring musicians, I suppose—which ebbs and flows throughout his life. Indeed, his substance abuse and mistreatment of women often go hand in hand, as he depends on women either to enable his habit or to help him get clean. Suffice to say that this isn’t the autobiography of a saint.

The final impression is of a deeply restless man. He was never fully satisfied, and never content to sit on his laurels. This is what enabled him to stay musically innovative for so long, this constant searching. It is only near the end of his life that he seems to achieve a modicum of peace, and he accomplished this by turning to painting—another creative outlet that would make the musical demons quiet down. (I quite like his paintings, actually.)

As far as political opinions go, there really is only one Miles expresses, but he does so over and over: That white Americans are stealing black culture—copying styles of music and making millions off of them. Now, to me, this seems to be an obvious fact, as it has repeatedly happened throughout the course of history, most notoriously with Elvis Presley. So I cannot fault him for being resentful. I also think Miles is onto something when he says that black music is America’s one great contribution to world culture.

I picked up this book feeling curious, and put it down nearly obsessed with Miles. It is worth reading because he was one of the major musical forces of the last century, but also because it is simply a great autobiography by any standard. Miles was a complex, and contradictory person, and the book seems to capture his every vice and virtue, and even his living voice. I wish it were longer.

Review: Travel as a Political Act

Review: Travel as a Political Act

Travel as a Political Act by Rick Steves

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Since Rick Steves has taken over my life lately—don’t ask—I decided to see how all his travelling has affected his politics. I was sort of afraid, given his background, that this book would be little more than a collection banalities and platitudes (“make friends with people from other cultures,” “don’t think your way is the only way,” and that sort of thing); but this book surprised me by being genuinely, well, political. Steves has definite opinions and a real message—with a few platitudes thrown in, too, of course.

It should be noted that, like almost everything Steves writes, this book is primarily for Americans. Many of his “lessons” will be obvious to people who live elsewhere. For example, he begins with a good chapter on the wars in former Yugoslavia. He paints a vivid picture of the how the Balkan countries are still scarred by the conflict—including a woman who still has a piece of shrapnel in her back. His point is simple: most Americans don’t know what it is like to be in a war, and seeing its effects up close might make us reconsider our proclivity to bomb and invade other countries.

Some of the content is to be expected by any thoughtful American who has travelled in Europe. It is hard not to think at least some aspects of life overseas are superior: public transport, social healthcare, bike-friendly cities, long vacations, family leave… the list goes on. I would add the lack of guns. After you spend some time in a country where you can be sure the vast majority of people—criminals included—do not have guns, the entire “debate” in the United States is immediately seen to be silly. When Americans argue that guns increase personal safety and ensure political freedom, the rest of the world simply laughs.

Steves is strongest on drug policy. He notes the many European countries which have substituted a public safety for a law enforcement model with drugs, and makes a strong case that it is both more humane and more effective than just locking people up. The travel writer is not just all talk, either, since he helped to promote and sponsor the bill to legalize marijuana in his home state of Washington. This is another excellent example of how travel can affect one’s politics, since the first time you travel to a country where marijuana is legal to consume, and notice that the sky isn’t falling, you wonder if it’s really worth imprisoning people for doing so.

The chapters on Iran and on the Holy Land were classic Rick Steves. They were both attempts to understand a conflict (between the US and Iran, and between Israel and Palestine) from a less partisan perspective. It is perhaps extremely naïve to think that by simply getting to know ordinary people “on the other side,” so to speak, we can reduce antagonism. As Steves himself makes clear, there are historical and structural forces at work, which push peoples into conflict. Nevertheless, I find it heartwarming that he so earnestly tries to focus on the ordinary humanity of these peoples, rather than on the political narratives. It is something we see all too little in conventional news.

The chapter on El Salvador was perhaps the most impressive. The United States’ interventions—often violent and undemocratic—in Latin American politics is something that most Americans are hardly aware of. It is an uncomfortable history to say the least, and only figures such as Noam Chomsky routinely talk about it. But Steves travelled to El Salvador during the Salvadoran Civil War, and several times after that, to see our foreign policy with his own eyes. He even had his travel diary printed and sent to members of Congress, in a bid (albeit an idealistic one) to stop American interference.

By the end, for someone who could easily have spent his life eating gelato for the camera, Steves is shown to be a man of strong convictions. Of course, the book is not perfect. Steves is prone to falling into stereotypes when he compares Europeans and Americans; and, not being an expert on anything he writes about, his analysis can be fairly superficial. And of course there is the trademark cheesy Rick Steves style—that is inevitable. But I think this book is valuable for voicing some opinions that are likely to be quite unpopular among many Americans, and for doing so in a way that is accessible and friendly. Maybe travel really is enlightening? Now, if we could only figure out how to fly without creating greenhouse gases…



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Review: The Dawn of Everything

Review: The Dawn of Everything

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Social theory is largely a game of make-believe in which we pretend, just for the sake of argument, that there’s just one thing going on…

This is a difficult book to review. Not only is it long and extremely ambitious, it is also a beguiling mixture of strengths and weaknesses that are difficult to untangle. To begin with, this book is not, as its title promises, a history of humanity; and considering that the book only examines the past 10,000 years, it is also not about the dawn of humanity, much less everything. Really, this book has a far more focused purpose: to dismantle the standard narrative of how humans went from hunter-gatherers to urban-dwelling agriculturalists.

The standard narrative—as found in many popular books, from Steven Pinker to Jared Diamond to Yuval Noah Harari—goes something like this: In the beginning, humans were all hunter-gatherers, living in small groups, taking only what they needed from their environments. Only the most rudimentary technologies were employed; yet there was no war, no poverty, no oppression, no office jobs, no television commercials, no taxes, no bureaucracy, no robo-calls—in short, it was a simple time.

Now, depending on whether you follow Rousseau or Hobbes, you may differ as to whether you consider such a state of affairs a paradise or a slaughterhouse, and thus you may think that the switch to city life was a fall from grace or a stairway to heaven. But both camps agree that agriculture implies hierarchy, since the extra resources freed up some members of the group to do things other than just gather food; and once there was specialization, there had to be people to coordinate the specialists—in a word, leaders, middle-managers, and bureaucrats. Thus, the egalitarian band of hunter-gatherers eventually became the walled city controlled by an oligarchy, or the great empire ruled by a monarchy, or the insurance office run by the regional manager.

The simplest way to characterize this book is that it is a long refutation of this narrative. The authors do this by citing counter-example after counter-example from the archaeological record. This is where the book is most entertaining, as a great many of these archaeological anecdotes are both surprising and fascinating. By citing this evidence, the authors attempt to show, first, that hunter-gatherers did not all have the roaming lifestyle or the total lack of social structure that is often projected onto them. Elaborate burials and, most conspicuously, large stone monuments paint quite a different story of our ancestors.

The authors go on to show that the transition to farming was not sudden, nor did it immediately lead to dramatic social changes. Many communities, they aver, practiced a kind of limited farming for centuries before they became full-time agriculturalists. Furthermore, there is no necessary connection between the switch to city life and the rise of hierarchy, or the rise of empires and the invention of bureaucracy. In a nutshell, the authors contend that the main characteristics of the modern state—centralized leadership, a monopoly on violence, an administration to carry out laws, and so on—are a kind of constellation of social features, all of which have diverse and, often, quite unrelated origins, and which only came together to form the modern state gradually. To put the matter most succinctly, then, our world of nation states was not the inevitable outcome of a deterministic process.

Now, summarizing the book in the above manner is not exactly fair. The central thesis of the book is all too often in the background, and the reader is instead swimming through a sea of examples and ideas, struggling to spot land. This is both a vice and a virtue, since many of these observations, arguments, and examples—though leading off in a thousand directions from the central path—are quite intriguing. Still, it does often feel as though the authors are trying to take on the entire world, criticizing everything from the naming of epochs in archaeological literature to the academic treatment of feminist theories of prehistory. Interesting, yes, but a little distracting.

How to evaluate the book, then? As an attack on a commonly held myth of how humans went from agriculturalists to urbanites, it is successful. At the very least, the authors convince us that prehistory is an awful lot more complex and compelling than the simple, linear narratives we often project onto it. Nevertheless, I found myself wondering to what extent this myth predominates in the academic community. After all, the direct targets of the authors’ criticism are popular writers, whose specialty is not even prehistory (Pinker, Diamond, etc.). When academia is mentioned, the authors portray researchers as so hopelessly specialized, or so beholden to prejudices, as to be unable to see the big picture. Is that true? Regardless, I do think this book has a lot to offer the interested layperson, at least. It is a successful popularization of archaeology.

Yet it would be remiss of me not to mention the obvious political motivations of the authors. Both of them anarchists, this book can be read as one long justification of their beliefs. It is as if they are saying, “See? Humans don’t have to life in states, with huge bureaucracies and oppressive hierarchies!” But I do not think this was necessarily a good rhetorical strategy for promoting their philosophy. For one, when we are considering what we should do now, today, in a sense it does not matter whether humans lived in this or that place, at this or that time, in an approximately anarchist manner. History is not destiny. What is more, the societies the authors discuss are so totally unlike our own—in terms of scale, technology, and accumulated history—that it does not seem particularly relevant, anyway. (I am not, you understand, arguing against anarchism here, only the rather heavy-handed role their sympathies played in the writing of the book.)

While somewhat overbearing, disorganized, and not altogether convincing, as a corrective to many other popular accounts of human history, this book is valuable indeed.



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