Review: The Wright Brothers

Review: The Wright Brothers

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


When you open a McCullough book you know what to expect: fine prose, strong storytelling, and inspiring stories of American heroes. That is his domain, and he is the master of it. This book about the Wright brothers exemplifies all of these virtues in just over 300 pages. The audio book in particular, narrated by McCullough himself—whose folksy and yet erudite speaking voice encapsulates his ethos—is perhaps the most concentrated form of McCullough that you can imbibe.

Like many people, I was surprised at how little I knew about the Wrights. My hazy impression of their story was thus: The brothers were eccentric bike mechanics who, through a series of trial and error, managed to make some primitive flying machines, devices that could putter a few hundred feet and lift a few dozen feet off the ground. This is quite wrong. The Wrights approached the problem of flight with remarkable dedication and care. They read all the scientific literature they could find; and they performed careful experiments, documenting each step of the way. Their final product was not just some clumsy motor-powered kite, but a sophisticated machine capable of crossing the English channel and flying over the Eiffel Tower. Their creative vision was matched only by their persistence and perfectionism.

The story of the Wrights is legitimately inspiring. Having no special resources, no roadmap, no background, no support, they were able to succeed where so many other famous and wealthy inventors failed. They endured countless setbacks, both in the research and development of their craft and then in achieving recognition for their accomplishments. But in the end, two modest men from Ohio profoundly changed human life. It is a testament to their tenacity as much as to their intelligence.

It is difficult to criticize McCullough, because he does so perfectly what he sets out to do: show us how people in ordinary circumstances accomplish extraordinary things. But of course, this requires minimizing or even ignoring many aspects of a story that would attract other writers. One prominent example of this is the Wrights’ personalities. McCullough portrays them as dignified and diligent, representatives of an old-fashioned work ethic, unconcerned with fame or fortune. But in the hands of another biographer, the Wrights might not come across as so perfectly admirable. To me, they seemed curiously aloof, distant, and even repressed. The fact that Orville flew into a rage when his sister got married, for example, seems to be worth more investigation than McCullough is willing to give it. He dismisses the long estrangement as one of Orville’s “moods.”

Reading McCullough is a bit strange in today’s political climate. He was never concerned with being cutting-edge; but now more than ever he feels distinctly like a holdover from another era. As is commonly observed, American life has become deeply divided; so McCullough’s mission—to write about universally admirable Americans—seems more quixotic than ever. Yet McCullough’s reputation appears to have survived the late polarization relatively intact. And I think that is a good thing. True, it is wise to be wary of national mythologizers. But for the life of me I cannot find anything to trouble my conscience or divide the nation in the figures of Wilbur and Orville Wright.



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Review: Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human

Review: Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human
Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human

Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is not quite as absurd as its title would seem to indicate. If anybody worshipped Shakespeare enough to think that the Bard literally did invent humanity, it would be Bloom. But Bloom’s primary thesis is the only slightly less grandiose claim that Shakespeare, by creating the most persuasively realistic mode of representing personality, shaped our ideas of what it means to be human. This at least falls within the realm of physical possibility.

I quite like the idea of approaching Shakespeare this way, since it allows us to integrate literature into intellectual history. Surely, the great innovators in poetry, prose, and drama must have contributed to our understanding of the human psyche. And Shakespeare’s works may, indeed, represent a great leap in this respect. Unfortunately, Bloom—both by background and temper—is not really up to the task of substantiating this claim. A serious inquiry into Shakespeare’s novel modes of portraying the human would require a broad overview of Shakespeare’s predecessors. There is nothing of the kind in this book; Bloom instead gives us a series of commentaries on each of Shakespeare’s plays.

For my part, I do agree with Bloom that Shakespeare’s greatest gift was his ability to endow his characters with startling depth. And if I can judge from my own reading, this was something quite new in the history of literature, though perhaps not quite as unique to Shakespeare as Bloom asserts. Montaigne and Cervantes—two near-contemporaries of Shakespeare—also portrayed shifting and unfolding characters, and by Bloom’s own admission Chaucer had encroached on this territory several hundred years earlier.

In any case, establishing a claim for intellectual priority in inventing the human is not at all what this book is about. Instead, this book is a reader‘s guide, consisting of a close reading of Shakespeare’s 39 plays. The plays are grouped both chronologically and thematically, from the early comedies to the late romances. Bloom’s attention is admittedly uneven. To some of the minor works he devotes some ten pages or so, while Hamlet gets nearly fifty. In his approach, Bloom is a self-professed follower of Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, and A.C. Bradley—that is, mainly focusing on the character’s personalities and Shakespeare’s methods of representing them.

As you may know, this approach has been out of intellectual fashion for quite some time. Indeed, in many ways Bloom was a deliberate stick in the mud. He was adamantly opposed to reading any kind of social, political, religious, or other message in the plays, and was mostly uninterested in how Shakespeare’s own historical context shaped the play’s content. He was an old-school champion of the autonomy of the aesthetic, of literary excellence existing in a realm apart from the rest of life. You can imagine that this is not especially popular nowadays, to say the least; and Bloom, never one to mince words, is constantly taking swipes at his fellow academics. For the casual reader, this is mostly just a distraction, since most of us just want to enjoy and understand the plays a little better.

Any critic, however broad, will inevitably have strong and weak sections when dealing with a corpus as vast and varied as Shakespeare’s plays. Bloom is no different. I consistently found Bloom at his worst when he was at his most passionate. That is, whenever he felt called upon to rhapsodize over the Bard’s incomparable genius, the book devolved into a string of superlatives that did little to enrich my reading. Thus, ironically, this book is weakest when Shakespeare is at his strongest—particularly in the chapters on Hamlet, King Lear, and the Henry IV plays. Any attempt to analyze the brooding Prince of Denmark or the fat Sir John Falstaff—the Bard’s two greatest creations, according to Bloom—knocks him off his rocker.

By contrast, many of the shorter chapters on Shakespeare’s slightly less famous works are quite strong. Bloom is at his best when he is doing the work of an uncommonly good common reader—that is, merely picking up the play and noting which sections are strong, weak, moving, interesting, disturbing, etc., and then trying to analyze why. This is basically what all of us try to do here on Goodreads, and it just so happens that Bloom is quite good at it. What he is not good at is moving beyond this close, sympathetic reading to arrive at a more general conclusion.

Insofar as Bloom does have a general insight into Shakespeare’s mode of creating the human, it is the concept of self-overhearing. Unfortunately, Bloom does not elaborate on this idea very much, so it is difficult to know exactly what he means by it. As far as I can tell, the idea is that Shakespeare’s characters are never fully able to articulate what they think or feel, but their words always somehow one step behind their psyches. Put another way, Shakespeare’s characters experience a kind of self-alienation, forever trying and failing to fully articulate their own innermost selves. Thus, overhearing their own failed attempts at articulation cause them to change and grow, as they try to correct their own previous failures at self-revelation.

I think this is quite an insightful way of looking at Shakespeare’s characters, and it does pinpoint something novel about Shakespeare’s mode of representation. In most fiction, the characters either articulate exactly what they think, or they articulate the exact opposite (when they are lying, or when they are supposed to be self-deluded). But Shakespeare’s characters are far more subtle than simply dishonest or even self-deluded personas. What they say is never exactly right nor exactly wrong, but forever on the cusp, just missing the mark; and this inability to ever get it exactly right drives the kind of verbal excess that marks Shakespeare’s most powerful speeches—poetry pushing toward the ineffable.

And I do think that this captures something essential about us: that we can hardly ever articulate exactly what we think, how we feel, or what we want; and so there seems to be a disconnect between our innermost core and the outward selves we are able to project. Did Shakespeare first have this insight or did he just perfect its use in the theater? That is a question for a different kind of literary critic than Bloom.

I am spending too much time on this issue of character—since it fascinates me—even though the real value of this book does not consist in its philosophical insights. This book is an excellent companion for reading Shakespeare’s plays, since it allows you to read them alongside a very opinionated, highly intelligent, and fiercely individual reader—which is always valuable.



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2019 in Books

2019 in Books

This has shaped up to be another excellent year in reading. For the most part I kept going with themes that occupied me last year. The history of science is a prominent one. As for primary sources, the only book I completed was a short one, Christiaan Huygens’s Treatise on Light, where he analyzes light as a series of waves. Andrea Wulf’s popular biography of Alexander Humboldt technically falls within the history of science, though the book reads more like a hagiography. Much better—and one of my favorite books of the year—was Thomas Kuhn’s book on the Copernican Revolution. Lawrence Principe’s series of lectures on the history of science rounded out this category for me.

Next year, I hope to finally get to Lavoisier’s book on chemistry, Lyell’s book on geography, and Faraday’s book on electricity and magnetism. We shall see how I do.

As for philosophy, I decided to dip into existentialism. This began with Sarah Bakewell’s wonderful popular work on the subject—which was so charming, in fact, that I think it made existentialism seem a little bit more interesting than it really is. Kierkegaard’s Either/Or was the first serious philosophy book on the list; I found it brilliant, if uneven and ultimately disagreeable. Then there came Sartre’s tome, Being and Nothingness, which was ultimately even less satisfying than Kierkegaard’s book, even if it gives the reader a lot to chew over. Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus, if not precisely existentialist, still failed to make much of an impression on me.  La Rouchefoucauld’s Maximes, Baltasar’s Arte de la prudencia, and Pascal’s Pensées had much more in the way of philosophic interest and life advice than these existentialists. 

My travels dictated some of my reading this year. In preparation for a trip to Naples, I read Pliny the Younger’s letters, which include his description of the eruption of Vesuvius; before going to Istanbul, I listened to a history of Byzantium by Kenneth Harl; and in order to ready myself for Normandy, I read a book about the D-Day landings. Yet of all this travel reading, the best was Mary Beard’s book on the Parthenon, which I read a bit too late for my 2018 trip to Athens.

This year, I had a vague idea that I would finally read some books about subjects that fascinated me as a child. This directed me to Stephen Brusette’s book on dinosaurs—badly written but informative—and Bob Brier’s lectures on Ancient Egypt—both informative and extremely entertaining. In this same spirit, I read the Very Short Introduction on Human Evolution, written by Bernard Wood, a former professor of mine. I combined this reading with trips to my favorite childhood museums, the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I marvelled once again over the Tyrannosaurus fossils and the mummies. 

As usual, I tried to read about America for my summer back in the United States. This led me to some really superb books. The first was Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, a man with a story worthy of a musical, play, film, or anything else really. David McCullough’s biography of John Adams was even more enjoyable—the best book of the year, if measured in pure reading pleasure (and the television series was great, too)—while I found Jon Meacham’s biography of Thomas Jefferson quite remarkably bad. Reading about America also means reading about our wars. This led me to McCullough’s short book on the first year of the Revolutionary War, and Ken Burns’s classic documentary on the Civil War (not a book, but book-length).

This year I got around to a few works of fiction that had long been on my list: The Call of the Wild, The Jungle Book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Lord of the Flies… I probably enjoyed them in that order. Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls was much funnier than I thought it would be, given the title, and Balzac’s Père Goriot was likewise more bleakly depressing. But the two outstanding works of fiction, for me, were Stendhal’s The Red and the Black and Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, both of which I greatly loved. I should also mention Benito Pérez Galdós’s wonderful novel, Fortunata y Jacinta, which was one of my major reading challenges of the year—over 1,000 pages of literary Spanish.

A new discovery this year were the lecture series by the Great Courses. I have already mentioned a few of them: Principe’s on the history of science, Harl’s on Byzantium, Brier’s on Ancient Egypt. To this, I must add Edwin Barnhart’s excellent lecture series on the peoples of North and of Central America. The very best, however, may be Robert Greenberg’s introduction to the history of Western music, which was so good it convinced me to start going to the opera. In general these Great Courses fill a perfect niche in my reading, providing in-depth but painless introductions to topics that have long interested me, and allowing me to learn during the walks on my commute. 

But the dominating presence in my reading this year has been William Shakespeare. I read, watched, or listened to fifteen of his plays, and completed Harold Bloom’s enormous guide to the works of the Bard. I may not be convinced that Shakespeare invented humanity, but I am convinced more than ever that he is one of my favorite writers. Now that Shakespeare is done (or nearly done), I will hopefully return to be goal of reading through Plato’s works. Then I’ll have to figure out something else to do with my time.

A partially failed effort was to get more into mathematics, as a complement to my interest in the history of science. I did manage to speed my way through Morris Kline’s calculus textbook—an accomplishment I am rather proud of, even if it probably didn’t do me much good—as well as a short book on performing mental calculations (I forgot most of that already, too). I had hoped to read Thomas Heath’s Manual of Greek Mathematics, as well as some classic Greek mathematicians, but I only managed a hundred pages of the former and a small book by Nichomachus. I hope to read the rest next year.

Despite all these weighty-sounding books, two books this year represent bigger shifts in my actual day-to-day life. Peter Sagal’s book on running was part of my transition from total indolence to regularly exercising, a process that culminated in my running the Madrid half-marathon back in April. I hope to do it again this coming year. I also read a book about chess, as my amateurish interest in the game grew. I am still a very bad chess player; but the fact that I play at all is a big shift from last year, when I professed to scorn all games. Though not really a practical book, David Graeber’s book on bullshit jobs was my most cathartic read for the year, since it seemed to ratify many of my working experiences.

The only other thing worth mentioning is my attempt to turn my book reviews in a podcast. I did this for about twenty books, and then decided that it was a little silly, and stopped. Now my podcast is about life in Spain, which may be just as silly.

I will end this review on a sad note. As you may know, Ted Schmeckpeper died this year. He was one of my favorite people on Goodreads, not so much for his reviews as for his general presence. He helped to make Goodreads into a real community. Ted was also personally kind. Not only did he mail me a book from his own library, but Ted read an early draft of my novel and gave me detailed feedback. He had a rich and full life, as you can tell from his obituary. I miss him.

Review: Maya to Aztec

Review: Maya to Aztec
Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed

Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed by Edwin Barnhart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here is another excellent lecture series by Edwin Barnhart. Just earlier this year I listened to, and greatly enjoyed, his series on the civilizations of North America. Now he is on his home turf, for Barnhart is a specialist in Maya archaeology. Surprisingly, however, I thought that the lecture series got off to something of a rough start. He jumps right into the Olmecs without enough framing or background. But soon enough I got my bearings, and the rest was a delightful trip through Meso-American archaeology.

Although I was somewhat more familiar with the basics of the Mayans and the Aztecs than with the ancient peoples of North Americans, I was still astounded at the depths of my own ignorance. It is frankly incredible that you can go through the American educational system and learn infinitely more about the Babylonians, Egyptians, and the Greeks than about the Mayans and the Aztecs. Granted, much of what we know about these civilizations was discovered fairly recently. The Mayan script was only deciphered in the 1970s; and as Barnhart points out, there is so much left to be discovered, including whole cities. Barnhart himself discovered a city (Maax Na).

The pyramids, pictoral script, and ancient date of these civilizations naturally bring up associations of Egypt. Yet the comparison is somewhat misleading, since the peoples of Meso-America consisted of a patchwork of cultures, sharing obvious similarities but equally important differences, whose fortunes waxed and waned through the centuries. Egypt, by contrast, was a singularly homogenous culture. Mesopotamia is likely a better comparison in this regard. But, of course, the Meso-American cultures have many distinct features.

One of the most important is the elaborate calendar system. Barnhart, an expert on paleo-archaeology, goes into great detail in explaining the Mayan numeral and calendrical systems. What is striking is not only the great complexity of the system, but also the cultural importance of the calendar. It was used by the entire region; and its keepers—who were religious men—communicated with one another even while their own states were at war. The calendar was filled with significance and omens, and was always consulted before important tasks. Barnhart speculates that the cyclical nature of the calendar also explains why cities were periodically abandoned.

Another peculiar feature is the Meso-American ball game, which was played across the region. This ball game was not just a sport, but a kind of living metaphor for Meso-American cosmology. I am not familiar of any other examples from the ancient world of a sport being so culturally central. And, of course, there is the human sacrifice—especially among the Aztecs. It is difficult to hear about these practices nowadays; though I do wonder which area had more religion-inspired killings during this time: Meso-America or Europe?

Barnhart ends the lecture series by narrating the first European contact and the eventual destruction of the Aztec Empire by Hernán Cortés and his men. (There is a new series on Amazon about Cortés, which was made to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the fall of Tenochtitlán, which happened in 1521.) It is an exciting and a depressing story, as the work of centuries is burned or buried. But Barnhart ends on a positive note, observing the many ways that these cultures have survived, and expressing hope that the modern descendants of the Maya, the Aztecs, and the many other cultures will take control of their heritage. For my part, now I really want to go to Mexico.



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Review: Bullshit Jobs

Review: Bullshit Jobs

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Economies around the world have, increasingly, become vast engines for producing nonsense.


Reading this was cathartic. Like so many people, I, too, have experienced the suffering that is a useless job—a job that not only lacks any real benefit to society, but which also does not even benefit the company. (Lucky for me, I am now a teacher, which, for all its unpleasant aspects, almost never feels useless.) Even though I got a lot of reading and writing done on the job, the feeling of total futility eventually drove me half-crazy. So it felt liberating to read an entire book about this phenomenon.

But let me take a step back and explain the book. In 2013 Graeber published an article in STRIKE! magazine (a fairly obscure publication) about bullshit jobs, and it immediately went viral. This book is basically an articulation, elaboration, and defense of the points in that short article. Graeber notes that Keynes predicted the rise of automation to cause a startling reduction in the work-week. Yet this has not occurred. Many economists explain this by pointing to the rise of the so-called “service” industry. But this would seem to imply that we have switched from factory-work to making lattes for one another, or giving each other massages. As Graeber shows, this is hardly the case: the number of people in such jobs has remained fairly constant. What has grown, rather, is a vast edifice of managerial and administrative work.

Anyone familiar with the academic world will instantly recognize this. Universities have come to be dominated by a top-heavy administrative structure, and faculty have been forced to spend ever-increasing amounts of time on bureaucratic nonsense. The same is true in the medical field, or so I hear. Really, the story is the same everywhere: an increasingly arcane hierarchy of administrators, leading to byzantine networks of paperwork—all of it ostensibly for improving quality, and yet manifestly distracting from the real work. This kind of ritualistic box-ticking is only one of the types of bullshit jobs that Graeber investigates. Also included are flunkies (subordinates whose only role is to make superiors feel important), goons (jobs which arise from a kind of arms race, such as marketing agents or corporate lawyers), and duct tapers (who are hired to patch over an easily-fixed problem).

Obviously, one could argue all day about the typology of useless jobs. One could also argue about which jobs, if any, are useless. It must be said that Graeber’s reliance on subjective experience of his informants does introduce a worrisome element of capricious judgment. Besides this, some might say that the free market can never give rise to useless jobs, since such things would be obviously detrimental to a company’s profits. But one need only read through the many testimonies collected by Graeber to be convinced that, yes, some jobs really ought not to exist. According to surveys, around 40% of workers report that they believe their own jobs to be useless—so useless that they could vanish tomorrow without anyone minding. To pick just one of Graeber’s examples: a man works for a subcontractor of a subcontractor of a contractor for the German military, whose job is to fill out the paperwork necessary to allow somebody to move their desk from one room to another room. I do not think this is necessary.

But this raises the obvious question: If so many jobs are really useless, why do they exist? One might understand this happening in the government, but this is precisely the sort of thing that the private sector should be immune from. Well, Graeber is an anthropologist, not an economist, and so his explanations are social and cultural. He cites several factors. There is a huge amount of political pressure, from the left and the right, to create more jobs. This is natural, since being out of work means being poor, or worse. More than that, we have culturally internalized the institution of “work” to the extent that our jobs are the primary source of meaning in many people’s lives, even if they ultimately are disagreeable. Indeed, Graeber believes it is just the unpleasantness of work that makes it a source of value in our culture, as it becomes a type of ennobling suffering.

Graeber also notes the usefulness of useless jobs to the upper classes. For one, they keep people endlessly busy; and, what is more, well-paying, white-collar jobs—even useless ones—make their holders identify with the interests of the upper class. The economy then becomes a kind of engine for distributing favors and resources down an elaborate chain of command. Graeber coins the term “managerial feudalism” for this arrangement: the return of the medieval obsession with ranks mirrored by the modern penchant for inflated job titles. Now, my brief summary does not do justice to Graeber’s writing. Nevertheless, it is here where one wishes most for an economist to contribute to the argument. For even if there are forces countervailing the pressures of profit, the economy is still running on manifestly capitalist lines. So how could a sort of inefficient feudalism exist in this context?

Another point that Graeber examines is the relative pay of people with useful and useless employment. The obvious trend is that jobs which have undeniable social value—like nurses and teachers—are paid less, while jobs that have questionable or even negative social value—such as “creative vice presidents” and corporate lobbyists—are richly rewarded. Now, I do not think you need to be an idealist to see this situation as undesirable. Graeber explains this tendency by analyzing the culture of work (specifically, that useful employment is supposed to be its own reward, while useless employment requires incentives), but again one craves an economic explanation. (This, by the way, is one of the frustrations of social science: that the different disciplines operate with incompatibly different premises and methodologies.)

For my part, my own experience, combined with the many testimonies and statistics in this book, is enough to convince me that some jobs are really bullshit—even from the limited standpoint of a company’s profit. And I think that Graeber may be correct in searching for a cultural and political, rather than a strictly “economic,” explanation. After all, we humans are not exactly renowned for our rational economies. But for my part, I think he may have underestimated the role that corporate mergers have played in vastly reducing competition—and, thus, the pressure to eliminate useless jobs.

While all of this deserves analysis and debate, I think that this book is valuable if only for raising serious questions about the institution of work itself. The more that I read about history, the more I have come to see our modern ritual of work as strange and aberrant. The idea that we would all go to work five days a week, eight hours a day, year after year—regardless of whether we are making cars or filling out forms, and regardless of how much work there is on any given day—would have struck people in nearly any other place and time as bizarre.

To me, it just seems backwards to use a cookie-cutter schedule for every task (from lawyer to salesman), and then expect every member of society to adopt this basic template or risk abject poverty. Considering that the economy requires a certainly level of employment to function, and that the current social safety net could not support a large number of unemployed people anyway, perhaps it should come as no surprise that we are plagued by dummy jobs. And if you think about it, it would be an amazing coincidence if the economy—through all the structural and technological changes of the previous century—always needed between 90 to 95 percent of the working population at any given time.

Graeber’s proposed solution to this problem is Universal Basic Income—providing every person with a regular paycheck, sufficient to cover the necessities of life. Personally I think that this is a wonderful idea, and one which could greatly alleviate many of our social ills. Unfortunately, in the United States, at least, UBI seems just as likely as paid maternity leave. But whatever the means, I think it is high time to change our attitude towards work. We spend enormous amounts of time doing things we do not want to do, and, what is worse, things which often do not need to be done. What fuels this is a kind of masochistic work ethic, defining our worth by our ability to do things that we do not want to do. This ethic has so pervaded our culture that, in America at least, we take it for granted that everything form health care to our self-respect should depend on our jobs.

One of Graeber’s most interesting points is that the phenomenon of useless jobs may reveal that we are using a flawed conception of human nature. One would think that being paid to do little or nothing would be the height of happiness. But most people in useless jobs report profound feelings of unease and distress. Again, my own experience testifies to this. Though I had little work, and was paid decently, I often found myself miserable, even beside myself with a strange mixture of boredom and anxiety. Graeber has a long section on this, but basically it comes down to the way that useless work undermines our sense of agency in the world. There is a reason the gods punished Sisyphus that way. As Dostoyevsky said, having humans perform an unpleasant, uninteresting, and totally worthless task might be the most profound form of torture. In my own case, it gave me a very unsettling feeling of dissociation, as if I really could not control my own actions.

So if we build our economy on the assumption that humans, left to themselves, will choose to get the maximum reward for the least benefit, we may be building on false premises. I think that Graeber is right, and that people generally prefer feeling like they are doing something useful. This is why I think we ought not to fear that Universal Basic Income, or a drastic reduction in working hours, would lead to a society of lazy idlers. In any case, people bored at home may do something more worthwhile than people bored at work, who mostly seem to go on social media. (Graeber notes that the rise in social media use coincides with the rise of useless employment. Certainly it was true in my case, that useless employment led naturally to spending huge amounts of time on Facebook.)

This summary does not do justice to the full contents of the book. Graeber is a sharp writer and an agile thinker. Not only is he the first to really hone in on this strange aspect of the modern world, but he does so within a wide perspective. To give just a few more examples, he connects the rise of bullshit jobs with the slowdown in scientific progress and the decline in quality of Hollywood movies. Perhaps Graeber’s political identity as an anarchist helps him to avoid the basic narratives of both the left and the right, and to develop strikingly original opinions about social problems. While I am not anarchist myself, I think the institution of work deserves far more questioning and criticism. We have accepted work as the bedrock of society and the foundations of our lives’ meanings, and yet most of us do not particularly like it. If I could wax utopian for a moment, I would imagine a movement devoted to the creation of a society of leisure. I would even work for it.



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Review: The Red and the Black

Review: The Red and the Black
The Red and the Black

The Red and the Black by Stendhal

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Good heavens! Is being happy, is being loved no more than that?

Few books have so totally engrossed me as this French novel written nearly two hundred years ago. Stendhal has aged very well. The novel is just fun to read: with short chapters, simple prose, and a plot that keeps the reader constantly wondering. That the novel was not widely appreciated during Stendhal’s own lifetime shows how much literary taste has changed. Whether this change has been for the better is difficult to say. But at least we can now appreciate Stendhal’s masterpiece.

For me, Stendhal’s signature effect is the interplay of Romantic idealism and deflating realism. Like his contemporary Balzac, Stendhal catches the world in his net. Every character, scene, and situation is carefully realistic. Though hardly a political novel, Stendhal succeeds in painting a subtle and compelling portrait of his age—the dynamic between the provinces and Paris, the political clashes between liberals and royalists, the relationship between the peasants, the clergy, and the old aristocracy. His characters, while individual, are also recognizable types, which he uses to dissect and analyze the social realities of his age.

Yet acting as a great counterweight to the ballast of detail is Stendhal’s famous psychological acuteness. This turns what would potentially be a dated social study into a gripping story of universal import. For his protagonist, Stendhal creates Julien Sorel—passionate, brilliant, stubborn, naïve, calculating, ambitious, and manifestly unfit for his social station.

Stendhal, a liberal himself, could easily have written a kind of morality tale about what happens when a man of great gifts is born in the lower ranks of society, with hardly any legitimate way of advancing. This is indeed Julien Sorel’s position. This morality tale would show us a good-hearted man, doing his best to be recognized for his genius, but overcome by circumstances. Yet Julien is infinitely more interesting for being both flawed and devious. Stendhal does not only show us how society makes his lot difficult, but, far more subtly, shows us how society deforms his psyche.

Deprived of any external encouragement, Julien’s motivation must come from worldly ambition and an egoistic pride. Since his only path to advancement is through people he despises—the clergy and the aristocracy—Julien must be dishonest, hypocritical, and ever-cautious. Forced to suppress his own emotions so constantly, and forced so frequently to act against his inclinations, whenever Julien is given a taste of kindness, love, or happiness, he loses control and threatens to undo all that his calculating subtlety had accomplished.

This psychological portrait is so perfectly realized that we both sympathize with, root for, and yet see through Julien Sorel. He is extraordinary, and yet painfully limited by his surroundings. His tragedy is that circumstances deprived the world of what he could have been had he been born in a different time and place. That Stendhal could create, at the same time, a universal morality tale, a realistic sketch of society, a vivid psychological study, and a thrilling novel—complete with a burning love story—all in the simplest prose, is a testament to the author’s high art.



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Review: The Myth of Sisyphus

Review: The Myth of Sisyphus
The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays

The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays by Albert Camus

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I still vividly remember my writing class in my first semester of college. Our professor was a lover of paradoxes. She had us read Kafka and Borges, whom none of us could understand. And she had a habit of asking impossible questions—such as “What does it mean to be infinitely finite?”—and savoring the uncomfortable silences that followed. Once, she even scared us half to death by asking one of these questions, and than yelping like a banshee half a minute later. Quite a good professor.

The final section of this iconic essay was among the readings she had us read. Of course I did not understand a word of it. I was no where near mature enough to wrap my mind around the idea of absurdism. The “meaning of life” was not a problem for me at that time. Surrounded as I was by thousands of potential friends and girlfriends—free for the first time in my life to do as I pleased—such a confrontation with nihilism was beyond the horizons of my mental life.

This was not the case four years later, when I graduated college with thousands of dollars in debt, confronted with the possibility of deciding “Who I Wanted to Be.” Probably I should have read this book at that time, when I could so keenly feel the weight of life’s pointlessness. Or maybe I should have read it a year later, when I was working in an office job. Humankind has seldom plunged deeper into the void than in entry-level positions.

I mention this biographical background because I think this book should likely not be read during a time of relative stability and contentedness, such as I am in now. We seldom pause to ponder the “meaning of life” when we are enjoying ourselves. The problem of “philosophical suicide” is not a problem at all on beautiful summer days. It is only a problem on cold, rainy Tuesday nights, in the few minutes of mental calm between work, chores, sleep, and work the next day. Unfortunately, such Tuesdays come all too often in this world of ours.

My point is simply that I would have enjoyed this essay far more under more propitious circumstances. Albert Camus’s style is well-calculated to please: a winsome mixture of anecdote, philosophy, literary criticism, and poetry. Certainly it is a relief after dragging my way through Sartre’s tortured syntax and cumbersome verbiage. Camus, by contrast, is concise and stylish. My only reservation is that, for all his accessibility, Camus is not perfectly clear. I say this from the perspective of somebody trying to read his essay as a philosophical work. All philosophy consists in argument; and in order to accept or reject an argument, one must use clearly defined terms. With Camus, however, I was never quite sure what his criteria were for considering something absurd or meaningful—his two central categories.

This is perhaps the wrong way to read Camus. What he was trying to create was arguably more in the tradition of wisdom literature than formal philosophy. From this perspective, the essay is somewhat more satisfying. However, here too I found Camus somewhat lacking. One extracts more piquant lessons in the art of life from Montaigne or La Rochefoucauld than from Camus. Where Camus excels these authors is not in wisdom per se, but in capturing a certain mood, a mood peculiar to modern times: being intellectually and spiritually adrift. After all of the traditional systems belief which underpinned life have crumbled, it is the crushing realization that one is unable to justify anything, even life itself. In this peculiar vein, Camus is difficult to beat.

Even so, I wonder if this iconic essay adds anything essential to that famous remark of Pascal: “Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed.” Camus’s Sisyphus is the twin brother of Pascal’s thinking reed—the plaything of an indifferent universe, and yet dignified by his consciousness. In his more despairing moments, Pascal may have been quite as horrified by the vast spectacle of an indifferent cosmos as Camus: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” The essential difference between these two men is not their realization of humanity’s insignificance, but their reactions. Pascal seeks to escape this conclusion any way he can, bolstering his faith with every fallacious argument under the sun. Camus was innovative in his insistence that we must calmly accept this situation, taking it as a starting point and not as a depressing conclusion.

My main criticism with this essay is that, if life has no inherent meaning, and the universe is nothing but a cold expanse, this throws the question of the “meaning of life” back upon each individual. Answering that question definitively, for every person, becomes de facto impossible. But, again, perhaps Camus is not trying to prove anything universal. Rather, his essay is a sort of invitation to abandon the traditional justifications of life, and to focus, as Camus himself did, on the smaller joys—sunlight, the sea, travel. The rest of the essays in this collection may be seen in that light, as enlarging upon Camus’s omnivorous curiosity for his surroundings.

What bothers me is that I do not agree with Camus’s opening assertion: I do not think the most pressing question is whether we should all just commit suicide. To the contrary, once this question is decided in the negative, it opens up a world of far more interesting issues.



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Review: Coriolanus

Review: Coriolanus

Coriolanus by William Shakespeare

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In my review of Plutarch’s Lives, I noted the stark difference between that ancient author’s conception of personality, and our own. For Plutarch, character was static and definable—an essence that is manifested in every decision and remark of a given person. Compare this with Montaigne’s or Shakespeare’s portrayal of personality: fluctuating, contradictory, infinitely deep, and ever fugitive. To borrow a metaphor from Oswald Spengler, the Plutarchian self is statuesque, while the Shakespearian self is more like a work of music. The first is a self-contained whole, while the second is abstract, fleeting, and morphs through time.

It is fascinating, therefore, to see Shakespeare handle a story right out of Plutarch. Shakespeare adapts his art to the subject-matter, and creates a character in Caius Marcius Coriolanus that is remarkably opaque. I say “remarkably” because Shakespeare had just finished with his five greatest tragedies, each of which has a character notable for its depth. Caius Marcius, by contrast, is a man almost in the Plutarchian mode: with a enumerable list of vices and virtues, who acts and speaks predictably, with little self-reflection. Next to Hamlet, Iago, or Macbeth, the Roman general seems almost childlike in his restriction.

Like Julius Caesar, this play is interesting for a certain amount of moral ambiguity. It is difficult to side with any of the major players. The plebeians of Rome are certainly not a mindless rabble, but they are somewhat vain and narrow-minded, not to mention easily influenced by empty words. Coriolanus himself is a superb soldier but ill-suited to anything else, whose capital vice is not exactly pride, but a certain smallness of mind. His mother, Volumnia, is scarcely less warlike than her son. Even if her counsels are good, it is difficult to see the mother-son relationship as perfectly healthy. She comes across, rather, as a kind of Roman helicopter mom, bringing up her son to be a killing machine for the glory of the state.

For me, the tragedy was not quite successful, simply because Coriolanus was such an unsympathetic protagonist—belligerent, scornful, reactionary, and often a great fool. It is a testament to Shakespeare’s art that he is not altogether hateful. As Harold Bloom says, this play is technically brilliant: in its pacing, language, and plotting. Shakespeare was certainly a professional. But if you come to Shakespeare seeking grand personalities, the work is a barren field.



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Review: How to Listen to and Understand Great Music

Review: How to Listen to and Understand Great Music

How to Listen to and Understand Great Music by Robert Greenberg

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


As I wrote in my review of the standard music history textbook, writers of survey material find themselves in an uneviable position: threading the needle between technical description and subjective response. In other words, a textbook writer must somehow discuss the music objectively, but with an absolute minimum of specialized vocabulary. As a result, even the best writers are bound to fall a little short of perfection.

But Robert Greenberg resolves this dilemma by avoiding writing altogether. Indeed, the audiobook format is arguably a far better medium than paper for a survey course on music. Rather than resort to scores or diagrams, Greenberg can simply play a recording of the music; and if he needs to break it down, he can play sections on his piano. The result is more integrated and more satisfactory than the textbook approach. What is abstract on the page—motivic development, thematic contrast, timbrel coloring—can be clear as sunlight when heard.

If the format is ideally suited to the subject, the man is ideally suited to the occasion. Robert Greenberg is a wild ball of energy—joking, screaming, whispering, laughing, and blabbing—all while waving and jabbing his arms about. Seeing him lecture is a performance in itself, as he goes the whole forty-five minutes without a single misspoken word. While some might find him grating, and others merely hokey, his animating presence helps to make this most abstract of all art forms into something eminently approachable.

But Greenberg would be little more than a clown if he were not, as well, an extremely knowledgeable and passionate musician. His examples are all well-chosen to illustrate his chosen lessons, and his explanations are both insightful and easy to follow. The lectures work so well because he can immediately exemplify any point simply by playing the relevant bit of music, thus sharpening our ears. Of course, this being a survey course, he does not go into great detail in any one area, and there are many omissions. But considering the time constraints, I think it would be hard to improve upon these lectures.

After finishing the aforementioned music textbook, I wondered whether language might have something to do with music development. I am gratified to find that Greenberg, at least, thinks that it does. The dominance of German-language composers in these lectures is overwhelming. After German, the composers’ languages by frequency are Italian, French, Latin, Russian, and English. Personally, I found it striking that there was not a single Spanish composer even alluded to in the course. Certainly you could not do a survey of visual art or literature with the same omission.

I am not subscribing to some kind of linguistic determinism (though the idea that linguistic patterns influencing musical patterns is intriguing); I am only remarking on the strangeness that one culture, even one city—Vienna—could be so dominant, and another equally affluent culture so comparatively minor.

This is all rather beside the point. I am very glad to have listened to these lectures, and even a little sad to be done with them. Luckily for us, Greenberg is an extremely prolific teacher, and has seemingly endless courses on every area of Western concert music. Where does he find the time to conduct, compose, and play his own music?



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Review: Fortunata y Jacinta

Review: Fortunata y Jacinta
Fortunata y Jacinta

Fortunata y Jacinta by Benito Pérez Galdós

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Evil breeds, and the good are annihilated in sterility.

Here is a real masterpiece of Spanish literature, one of the seemingly endless landmark novels of the nineteenth century. Benito Pérez Galdós, an intensely prolific author by any standard, cranked out this enormous work in two year’s time. This was a long time for Galdós. The vast bulk of Galdós’s dozens of other novels are not even half as long as this work, and many are not even a quarter in length. He went to such lengths because his creative ambition had been spurred on by the publication of Leopoldo Alas’s La Regenta, another enormous novel, in 1885. By 1887, Galdós was ready with his reply: this book.

As the title indicates, the story is basically a love triangle, consisting of the respectable Jacinta, the poor Fortunata, and the privileged cad, Juanito Santa Cruz (called “el Delfín”). The main outline of the story is familiar: Santa Cruz marries the wealthy Jacinta, but has a dalliance with the lowly but beautiful Fortunata. Scandal ensues. This could easily be a trite and uninteresting story. Yet Galdós turns this basic plot into a lens, focused on the middle-class life in Madrid. Galdós documents this life with extraordinary finesse. We meet so many different sorts of people—pharmacists, priests, saintly nuns, military men, café intellectuals, chatty maids, arrogant housewives—each of them with their own quirks of speech and their own peculiar forms of mild insanity. It is a thorough and relentless dissection.

Galdós’s portrait of this world is not flattering. Like so many novels of this time, the plot focuses on the impossible plight of women. But Galdós is quite different from any of his English, French, or even Russian counterparts in his remarkable frankness. He is merciless in portraying the moral hypocrisy of this world, which basically leaves no option open for happiness to the lowly Fortunata. Here there are no dramatic heroes who fight duels, no heroines who throw themselves in front of trains or swallow poison. Instead Galdós gives us the crushing weight of custom, slowly grinding down the characters trying to navigate the morally bankrupt social conventions. In this way, the novel is rather more frightening than the operatic stories of Dickens, Tolstoy, or Flaubert—since it requires no suspension of belief to be believed.

Casting about for a comparison, the writer closest in style may be the great realist, Balzac. Galdós is also a realist of a high order. His endlessly animated prose is heavy with quotidian detail, making every scene photographically vivid. This also makes his novel feel rather modern and easy to read. There are no philosophical asides or extended descriptions of scenery: just action. In fact, if there is one main shortcoming of this book, it is that there is simply too much of it. Galdós is brilliant in the small scale; but at times one feels that he has been carried away with his loving portrayals of various Spanish types, his fascination with certain mannerisms, or his obsession with extreme realism. There are times that one wishes the book to swell into a crescendo, but Galdós stays at a steady volume.

The real star of this book is, undoubtedly, Fortunata. The title notwithstanding, Jacinta disappears for much of the story, only really the protagonist during the first quarter. The shameless lover, Santa Cruz, is also surprisingly absent from these pages. Jacinta and her unfaithful husband serve as the background for the tragedy of Fortunata, an unfortunate woman of high spirit and deep passion—a woman who, in other circumstances, could have become a saint, but whose actual circumstances forced her to become a scandal. Sharing in her tragedy is Maximiliano Rubín, a well-meaning, idealistic, and extremely naïve young medical student who falls in love with Fortunata. He, too, may have become a saint, if not for the ridiculous ideas of female honor holding sway at that time.

As the openning quote shows, a major theme of this work is fertility and sterility. Jacinta, the faultlessly faithful wife, is unable to have children; Rubín, the idealist obsessed with honor, is also sterile. Only Fortunata, the disgraced woman, and Santa Cruz, the philanderer, are capable of bringing life into the world. I cannot help but be reminded of The Departed, wherein only the good men can father children. The situation in Galdós’s novel is ostensibly the reverse. His point, however, is not that evil is somehow more fecund, but that the societal conventions of marriage virtually guarantee that people end up in disfunctional marriages (with divorce illegal, of course). It is society itself, then, that is sterile, and this respectable society would implode if not for the constant breaking of its social code—moral lapses that are ignored or excused in the men and ruthlessly punished in the women.

It is a brilliant metaphor, in a brilliant book briming over with vitality. Certainly the novel is too long and, at times, messy and rambling. But as a portrait of life at this time, it can hardly be surpassed; and as a portrayal of societal hypocrisy, it is definitive.



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