Review: 9-11 (Chomsky)

Review: 9-11 (Chomsky)

9-11 by Noam Chomsky

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For a book that is admittedly kind of a rush job (it consists of a series of interviews done within a few weeks of the attacks, at a time when we were still uncertain whether Bin Laden was responsible), it has held up pretty well. If you are familiar with Chomsky’s critiques of American foreign policy, there will not be very much new here. This book is, rather, an attempt to popularize his basic views; and this means contextualizing the terrorist attack of 9/11 within the history of America’s own violent attacks on other nations.

Ironically, though the tone and subject of this book are quite serious, I often found myself thinking of a comical exchange between Chomsky and the popular philosopher, Sam Harris. Harris presents himself as a paragon of reason; and as part of that, he attempted to have a sort of sober “exchange” of views with Chomsky. This quickly devolved into acrimony as Chomsky was not, shall we say, in a friendly mood. However, I do think that the exchange does, somehow, effectively pinpoint the ethical position that Chomsky is taking, and that so many people fail to understand.

The disagreement between the two centers around the 1998 U.S. bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory, in Sudan. Chomsky uses this as an example of American state terrorism, and in this book asks the reader what would be the response if the situation was reversed, and Sudan had bombed a U.S. pharmaceutical plant. Harris’s defense—and I believe this is the standard argument in favor of U.S. intervention—is that our intentions were pure. We did not mean to kill anybody or deprive anybody of life-saving medication; we were just trying to stop terrorists from producing weapons.

Harris presents Chomsky with several thought experiments, making the (rather facile) point that intentions matter when making ethical judgments. If I try to save somebody and they die anyway, I am ethically superior to someone who killed somebody and succeeded. But Harris overlooks the (I think) quite obvious point that there is a grey area between altruistic and hostile intentions—that is, not caring one way or the other—which, ethically speaking, is often hardly better than being actively hostile.

This aptly describes the mentality behind the U.S. bombing of Al-Shifa. Consider: If we thought that weapons were being produced by terrorists in, say, Brussels, would we have sent cruise missiles to blow up the building? Obviously not, because the “collateral damage” would be deemed totally unacceptable. And yet, in the case of Sudan—a much poorer country, where people are far more dependent on a single factory for life-saving medicine—the decision was made quickly in favor of attack. Clearly, Sudanese lives were not deemed as important as Belgian ones would have been; and this shows an ethical stance of disregard.

A great deal of Chomsky’s critique on American foreign policy boils down to an attempt to get us to consider all lives as equally valuable, and all nations as equally sovereign. That is, to stop applying a double standard—one treatment for poor nations, another for rich ones. We are still very far from this stance. If we found out that the attack of 9/11 originated in, say, Ireland, what are the chances that we would have invaded the entire country? As Chomsky points out, the U.K. did not invade and bomb Boston, even though many of its citizens actively funded the IRA.

We can see this uncaring attitude of American foreign policy in the August 29 bombing that killed 10 in Kabul this year. None of those killed were terrorists, but six of them were children. Harris excuses “mistakes” like this by pointing to limitations in our intelligence and our weapons technology. With perfect knowledge and perfect weapons, we would never kill any civilians. This is like hunting for ducks in a crowded city park, and then blaming the shotgun when a person gets hit. Being ethical means acting within the limitations imposed by a situation, and considering the possible negative consequences of an action. No drone strike would have taken place in Brussels. But again, the possibility of killing innocent Afghanis is given very little weight.

It is clear that we are dealing with a serious sort of moral blindness, since it leads us to commit blunders as well as crimes. We even seem to think that everyone else will see past the accidental death and destruction, and give us credit for our irreproachably pure intentions. Thus, we are surprised when our long occupation of Afghanistan ends in a humiliating defeat, as we cannot understand why the population does not rally around our wonderful American values. But what speaks louder: the beautiful words on our lips, or the thousands of dead in our wake?



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Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I feel compelled to give this book top marks, not because it I loved every second of it, and not because I agreed with every one of Pollan’s many opinions, but simply because I cannot imagine a better book about food. For a book dedicated to such a seemingly banal subject as what to eat for dinner, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is remarkably ambitious—so ambitious, in fact, that I am inclined to view my dinner with even more reverence than I customarily do.

The titular dilemma refers to the difficulty omnivores have in choosing what to eat. A panda or a koala does not have to spare a moment’s thought in deciding that question. But for a human, capable of eating everything from fried beetles to foie gras, this choice can be dizzyingly open-ended. Traditionally, culture has cut through this infinitude of options by prescribing a typical diet. But in the United States—a place nearly bereft of culture—we have come to rely on government regulation, food science, and big industry to take the place of these traditional prescriptions. The problem, as our waistlines reveal, is that these make poor substitutes.

So Michael Pollan sets out to investigate the American diet, using four meals as focal points. The first is an order from McDonalds, which represents industrial food. Unsurprisingly, it is a depressing picture. Farmers grow acres upon acres of genetically modified corn, which is itself not fit for eating, but meant to be processed into any number of food products. Much of this corn (along with soybeans) is also fed to cattle, who are not really evolved to eat the stuff, but are fed it anyway because the corn makes them fatter, faster. One of the more memorable scenes of the book is Pollan’s visit to a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation)—which is equal parts horrifying and disgusting.

The next meal is a dinner cooked with ingredients from Whole Foods, which represents industrial organic. Pollan takes the reader through the history of the organic movement, revealing how the designation “organic” has come to be defined by bureaucrats in ways that are not necessarily meaningful. The truth, he concludes, is that many of these products are only marginally better than their non-organic industrial counterparts. After that, we get to the centerpiece of the book: Pollan’s portrait of Polyface Farm, run by Joel Salatin. Salatin uses what you might call deliberately old-fashioned, small-scale techniques to create an ultra-sustainable farm—where cows, chickens, and pigs are used to graze, clean, and fertilize the soil. He sells his products directly to customers.

The final meal (after Pollan eats a chicken from Polyface) is one that he grows, gathers, or hunts himself. He shoots a wild pig, “hunts” some wild mushrooms, and gathers some vegetables from his garden to create what, for him, is the perfect meal. But why “perfect”? Because, Pollan says, this is the only meal he has ever had in which he knew exactly where everything came from, and what it took to get it to his table. In contrast to the meal from McDonalds, in other words—which is made out of who-knows-what from who-knows-where—the food is entirely transparent. This is Pollan’s ideal.

In the end, then, Pollan is advocating that we eat very much how Joel Salatin wants us to: old-fashioned, and small-scale. Perhaps it would be quickest to describe him as a modern-day Rousseauian—someone who thinks that the natural is always preferable to the artificial. He argues, for example, that scientists have not truly discovered what makes soil fertile or food nutritious, so traditional practices are possibly better guides. He thinks we should eat what we can get locally, and in-season, so that we can feel a connection to the land and understand where the food came from. He is, in a word, an anti-industrialist.

Now, that is quite an unfairly simplistic summary of Pollan’s positions. Even so, I cannot help but suspect that he is advocating something unworkable. I simply do not think that we could feed the world using farming practices like those in Polyface. And how could everyone in a major city eat locally? This is not to say that we cannot create more sustainable farms or attempt to reduce food transportation. But I don’t see this as a grand solution. Admittedly, Pollan was writing when the issue of global warming was not as omnipresent an issue as it is today. He has an entire chapter on the morality of meat-eating, for example, without mentioning what has become the primary reason for reducing meat consumption: greenhouse gas emissions.

It would be unfair to end this review without mentioning Pollans many virtues. For one, he is a great writer, able to both paint a scene and explain a concept with style. He is also intellectually broad. During the course of this book, he weaves a story together that includes chemistry, biology, government policy, history, philosophy, anthropology, and of course gastronomy. And he is thorough. He visits an industrial cornfield, buys a cow in a CAFO, spends a week at Polyface Farm, and learns to fire a rifle and identify wild mushrooms. I very much appreciated these eyewitness reports, as I often feel myself quite disconnected from my own personal food-chain.

In sum, if you want to think more deeply than ever before about what to have for dinner—so deeply that you accidentally start pondering the whole cosmos—then I can heartily recommend this book.



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Review: For Whom the Bell Tolls

Review: For Whom the Bell Tolls

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find out when the time comes.


Along with millions of Americans, I was assigned to read The Sun Also Rises in high school English class. And along with (I presume) a good percentage of those millions, I did not finish reading it in time for the exam. But I do remember the teacher explaining that, for Hemingway, “the most important thing is grace under pressure.” At the time it struck me as very odd that this would be so important to someone. After all, aren’t there many other important qualities for a person to have? What about intelligence, education, kindness, wit?

My professor’s remark came back to me, with full force, as I read For Whom the Bell Tolls. This is a novel about courage—not just grace under pressure, but grace in the face of mortal peril. This idea is developed almost into a full moral system, where instead of sinners and saints we have the brave and the cowardly. Everyone is measured by this metric. At first glance there is a lot to criticize in this worldview. Can’t you fight bravely for a horrible cause? Can’t you put your life on the line for something truly ugly? Indeed, the sorts of situations that Hemingway fixates on—hunting, bullfighting, war—are ethically dubious, at least in my opinion.

And yet, the more I read, the more I found myself thinking of Albert Camus, of all people. The perspective espoused in The Plague seemed, though obscurely, to be mirrored in For Whom the Bell Tolls. The characters inhabit an absurd universe, where traditional notions of good and evil have broken down, where death is unthinking and meaningless, and can come at any time. Both Robert Jordan and Dr. Bernard Rieux are fighting a battle that they are unlikely to win. But they continue to fight, mostly out of a simple sense of duty.

Of course, Hemingway’s hero is fighting other people, whereas Camus’s had to face a faceless disease. What sets Robert Jordan apart from his enemy—at least in Hemingway’s eyes—is that he kills out of necessity, in order to ultimately save others, whereas the fascists kill because they think they have a right to decide who is worthy to live. Indeed, perhaps you can even say that, for Hemingway, cowardice and fascism come from the same impulse: the denial of death—or, rather, the denial of our powerless in the face of death. Cowards run because they think they can exempt themselves from the basic condition of life. It is a form of inauthentic egotism. And fascists kill for the same reason: they think that they can decide who lives and dies, rather than accepting that who lives and dies is not really up to anyone.

The only authentic way to live, for Hemingway and for Camus, is in the direct face of death, with no illusions. This is why the bullfighter is such a central symbol for Hemingway: it is the most literal image of a man facing his own death. Thus, rather than simply a novel about a mission to destroy a bridge, this book becomes a kind of meditation on how a small band of men and women behave when they know they might have only a few days to live. In some places, Hemingway even sounds downright Buddhistic in his ecstatic embrace of the ‘now’ as the only time we ever truly have.

What is not exactly Buddhistic is the way that loves comes into the story. Love, for Hemingway, is a kind of shorthand for the sweetness of life. Or perhaps it would be better to say that love is the ultimate expression of life’s sweetness. And in an absurd universe, the joys of food, of friendship, and yes, of sex, are the only real values we have. To be truly brave, then, means fully embracing the sweetness of life, since it is only by understanding how precious life is that one can understand how much we have to lose. Likewise, one can only love authentically in the face of death, as it is life’s inevitable end that makes it so sweet.

Clearly, I have managed to read a lot into what is, in truth, a fairly straightforward war novel. Most readers will likely not find it as profound. Even without the philosophy, however, I enjoyed it quite a bit as a story of the Spanish Civil War, especially as I have spent a lot of time in the Madrid sierra myself. (As a side note, I am fairly sure that there aren’t many caves up in those mountains. At least not deep ones.)

But of course, the book isn’t perfect. The love story, for example, is lessened by Hemingway’s tendency to make his women absolutely subordinate to his men. This tendency does not extend to (in his words) “old” and “ugly” women, however, as the character of Pilar is quite compelling. As for the love story itself, I have trouble deciding whether Hemingway is touching or simply sappy. At least the tender emotions form a pleasant contrast with the harsh world of war.

An odd decision was rendering the Spanish dialogue as a kind of literal translation into English. When a character says “menos mal,” for example, it is translated (nonsensically) as “less bad,” when it really means something more like “thank goodness.” I had mixed feelings about this, since sometimes I did feel like I could hear the Spanish, but at other times it just was distracting. I particularly didn’t like his use of “you” and “thou” to convey the difference in the Spanish “usted” and “.” Thou and just have such vastly different emotional registers. Also, to be pedantic for a moment, I noticed that Hemingway would sometimes incorrectly use “thee” in his dialogue for the subject (as in, “Thee blew up a bridge”), when it is really an object pronoun (as in, “I blew thee up”).

In the end, however, this book, like all of Hemingway’s, is dominated by his distinctive style. If you enjoy that style, you will enjoy the book; and if not, not. And all the absurdist philosophy in the world won’t change that.



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Review: Contact

Review: Contact

Contact by Carl Sagan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


A couple of weeks ago, on June 25, the Pentagon did something rather unusual: It released a report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP), a subject that has long been associated with alien spacecraft. This was the culmination of the public and political interest piqued by the 2017 release of videos, taken by the United States Navy, of strange flying objects. The content of these videos was not especially groundbreaking—indeed, like all the amateur UFO videos before them, they feature grainy blobs—but their source was. It is one thing when the neighborhood loony says they were abducted; it is another when the most powerful military on the planet admits they cannot identify something in their airspace.

Opinions will differ as to whether report is interesting or boring. Of the 144 reported sightings (quite a lot), 143 remain unexplained. The investigators conclude, tentatively, that these objects are real (i.e. not optical illusions or sensory errors, since they were picked up on many different sorts of sensors, not to mention seen by eyewitnesses), but do not rule out technological malfunction in accounting for the remarkable flight patterns recorded in some instances. Of course, no rational person could conclude that any of this constituted evidence of a visitation by aliens, or even their drones. Still, it is difficult to watch the 60 Minutes segment on the sightings, for example, without one’s curiosity getting piqued. Even Obama seems interested.

In this spirit, I picked up Carl Sagan’s Contact, a physicist’s imagined version of how first contact with an alien species would play out. The book functions on two levels: as a novel and as a thought experiment. Considering that Sagan was no novelist, it is easy to imagine Contact being quite deficient as a work of fiction. Surprisingly, however, the story pulls its own weight. Yes, there is too much exposition and not enough characterization; and yes, the style is more akin to a work of nonfiction than of fiction. But the imaginative plot pulls the reader into the story quite effectively, making the book a pleasurable read.

As a thought experiment, the book is even more compelling. From the details of the message, to its decryption, to the assembly of the machine, to the social and political ramifications of the discovery alien life, Sagan has taken great pains to imagine how his scenario might realistically play out. Unlike so much science fiction, this book does not insult the reader’s intelligence by asking her to suspend disbelief or accept bizarre premises. And as the book is set in the (then) near-future, it is also fun to compare Sagan’s predictions with how events actually turned out. We have not, for example, made as much progress with commercial space flight as he thought we would. And our space billionaires are not nearly so enlightened as Sagan anticipated.

The main theme of the book is the conflict between religion and science: faith vs. reason. I cannot say that Sagan was especially insightful here, as he takes the fairly standard view that science is superior because it is based on evidence. What is more, if I am not mistaken, this issue has lost some of its teeth within the last few years. Nowadays, American conservatives are more concerned with preventing children from learning about racism than about evolution. And as the pandemic revealed, cultural resistance to science is just as likely, if not more so, to come from secular conspiracy theories, social resentment, or political affiliation as from traditional religions.

Above all, this is an immensely optimistic book. Sagan describes all of humanity coming together when faced with intelligent alien life, leading to the triumph of the better angels of our nature. I greatly admire Sagan for this hopefulness; it is one of his best qualities. Personally, though, I doubt that a message from outer space would prompt humanity to come together in the way he describes. A common threat—in the form of a virus—was not even enough to make Republicans and Democrats work together, much less Americans and Russians. At this point, I think even unambiguous contact from an alien race could be absorbed into our polarized politics.

As a last note (and warning, spoiler ahead), though interesting, I did not exactly follow Sagan’s idea of there being a message in π. If you were searching an unlimited string of random numbers—using arithmetic in multiple bases—then is it not inevitable to find a long string of, say, 0s and 1s? And even if a particular string is improbable, how could you rule out a statistical fluke? I suppose a message of sufficient complexity and length, with significant content (say, blueprints to make a Ford Model T), would be difficult to disbelieve. But being able to arrange a circle using 1s and 0s in base-11 arithmetic does not strike me as a clincher.

This is just a quibble. On the whole, I greatly enjoyed this book. Like Sagan’s series, Cosmos, Contact left me full of hope for the human future, and full of wonder for the universe. He was a treasure of a man.
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Sagan imagines billionaires living in luxurious space hotels, or chateaus. But as I learned from a recent story in the news, even now, astronauts in space do not even clean their clothes. They wear them until the stink becomes unbearable, and then throw them away. So it is not exactly opulence above the clouds.



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Review: A Splendid Exchange

Review: A Splendid Exchange

A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World from Prehistory to Today by William J. Bernstein

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Five or six years ago, a Christmas mix-up resulted in my brother receiving two copies of this book. Not knowing what to do with one, he simply gave it to me. In so doing, however, he disobeyed Adam Smith’s doctrine that humanity has a natural instinct to truck and barter. Clearly, a rational animal would have used it to exchange for something he himself lacked, like cinnamon or frankincense or some textiles. What a wasted opportunity.

This book is part history of, and part homage to, trade. Four hundred pages is not nearly enough space to give such an expansive topic exhaustive coverage. But Bernstein does manage to pack quite a lot of interesting tidbits into his narrative. What most struck me was how central trade has been to human history. It has caused wars of invasion, spurred on colonialism, motivated the great journeys of “discovery,” helped to spread epidemic diseases, and stimulated newer forms of economic organization. In short, the urge to turn a profit has helped to join together every corner of the world—leading to many wonderful things and quite a few atrocities, too.

After reviewing this thrilling history, Bernstein ends by examining the old conflict between free trade and protectionism—or, more concretely, low tariffs or high tariffs. It is an interesting question. Low tariffs provide a small but tangible benefit to the general populace in the form of cheaper goods; but they do so at the expense of workers displaced by competition from abroad (and vice versa with high tariffs). So what is more important, knocking off a few cents from something bought by millions or allowing a few thousand people to keep their job? The traditional answer is that the government should keep tariffs low, and “bribe” those displaced with additional support in the form of welfare and job retraining. But in practice most workers are left to fend for themselves, which can eventually create political instability if resentment grows too widespread.

Another question has to do with the development of an economy. High tariffs can be used to shield domestic industries from foreign competition, allowing them to grow to the point that they can effectively compete. But high tariffs can also preserve inefficient companies and obsolete technologies, putting a country at a long-term disadvantage. Orthodox economic logic always favors free trade, but the evidence is mixed. According to Bernstein, several studies actually found a positive correlation between high tariffs and economic growth in the 19th century. Still, Bernstein comes down in favor of free trade, not because it offers an economic miracle (he says its benefits are overstated), but because it helps to foster bonds between potential enemies. But, if you ask me, when a nation is dependent on another (and potentially weaker) country for its resources, this can easily become a powerful source of conflict.

Now, if you don’t mind, I am going to disobey Adam Smith myself and donate this book to a library.



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Review: The Babur Nama

Review: The Babur Nama

The Babur Nama by Zahirud-din Muhammad Babur

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this History I have held firmly to it that the truth should be reached in every matter, and that every act should be recorded precisely as it occurred.

I do not think I ever would have read this book, had it not been gifted to me last Christmas. It is quite a beautiful volume—hefty but compact, the pages thin but not fragile, the font and layout quite attractive—and yet, I still felt daunted by the prospect of reading an autobiography from a time and place that I knew so little about. It was a kind of miniature adventure.

By any standard, the Baburnama is an extraordinary book. The memoirs of Babur, founder of the mighty Mughal Empire, the book covers his life (with notable lacunae) from his early years to a short time before his death. It was written in Chaghatai, an extinct Turkic language that was Babur’s mother tongue. This edition, by the way, was translated by Annette Beveridge, who was something of an extraordinary figure herself, having completed this translation at her English home for linguistic amusement. It was no easy task, as the mountains of footnotes—almost all comments on a particular Chaghatai word or phrase—attest.

Babur’s life was nothing if not eventful. The story begins in Central Asia where, at the tender age of 11, Babur first becomes a ruler. From this moment he is thrown into the thick of politics and war, conquering and losing territories, fleeing for his life, gathering forces again, and repeating the process. Eventually his changing fortunes force him southward, to India (or Hindustan, as he calls it), where he conquers vast territories in a series of massive battles, thus setting the groundwork for the Mughal Empire that would dominate for centuries to come.

And yet this thumbnail sketch does not really capture the experience of reading this book. For one, it reads a lot more like a diary than a polished autobiography, full of short entries of quite quotidian details. One senses that Babur wrote this either for himself or for a small circle, as he does not take many pains to explain who people are. In any case, there must be well over 200 individuals mentioned in this book, which can make for a pretty frustrating reading experience—especially when you are also unfamiliar with the geography of the region. (I do wish Beveridge’s footnotes added historical context rather than expanding upon linguistic puzzles.)

In most professional reviews I have read of this book, the writer dwells upon Babur’s virtues. There is, indeed, much to admire in the man. His prose is plain and unadorned, cutting straight to the point with no unnecessary flourish. Even more important, Babur is frank to quite a surprising extent. He admits, for example, that his first feelings of love were for a boy (even if he did not go after men, women did not seem to excite him all that much). He can be disarmingly sensitive; at one point he cries after a melon reminds him of his lost homeland. And he is consistently honest and fair-minded, neither magnifying his victories nor minimizing his defeats.

Babur also boasts many intellectual virtues. He was clearly quite cultured and literate. This book is scattered with poems, many his own. Clearly, he cared deeply for the written word; near the end, he even takes the time to chastise his adult son for sending him a badly-written letter. And in the section on the flora and fauna of Hindustan, Babur reveals a penetrating eye for nature. He divines, for example, that the closest living relative of the rhinoceros is the horse—a brilliant deduction, considering how superficially different the two animals appear. He consistently dwells on his love for beautiful natural spots and well-made gardens.

So much can be said for Babur. But not enough is said—either in those reviews, or the introduction to this edition—of the river of violence that courses through these pages. True, Babur does not dwell on this violence; he usually mentions it as a passing detail to a more interesting story. But it is never far off, and I always found it disturbing. Babur speaks quite casually about executing prisoners and, indeed, putting whole cities to the sword. Probably I should not be shocked by this. After all, Babur was one of history’s great conquerors; and it is obvious from his own narrative that he lived his entire life under threat of violence.

Even so, I could not bring myself to admire the amateur naturalist knowing that he had, some time before, been strolling through the streets of a conquered city, stepping over the bodies of hundreds of massacred civilians. And I think that this considerably diminished my enjoyment of the book, as I found it far more difficult to savor the quieter, more human moments of the text. This, along with the preponderance of names and the diary-like brevity, made the book a bit of a slog at times. However, if you have any historical interest at all in this time or place, then the Baburnama is obligatory. It is full of so much valuable detail that a historian could easily spend a decade on this book alone, parsing out all of the references, piecing together the wider story. And even if you are a complete amateur, like myself, this book is still quite an educational experience.



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Review: The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Review: The Autobiography of Malcolm X

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


By some fateful coincidence, I find myself writing this review on the 55th anniversary of Malcolm X’s murder. The coincidence feels significant, if only because this is probably one of the most crucial books in my reading life. I originally encountered the little paperback in university—borrowed from a roommate who had to read it for a class. Though I had only the vaguest idea of who Malcolm X was, the book transfixed me, even dominated me. Every page felt like a gut punch. My love of reading was substantially deepened by the experience. One decade later, The Autobiography of Malcolm X has lost none of its power.

This book has so many things going for it that it is a challenge to focus on a few. For one, Haley has beautifully captured Malcolm X’s voice. You can really hear him speak through the page—with humor, with wit, with passion, and most of all with righteous anger. (This time around, I listened to Lawrence Fishburne’s excellent audio version, which brought an extra dimension of realism to Malcolm’s voice.) What is more, the story that he tells is simply a good story on any terms, even if it were all made up. His childhood poverty, his gradual introduction into the ‘hustling life’ (as he called it), his incarceration, his conversion, his betrayal, his journey to Mecca—a novelist would have difficulty coming up with anything better.

But what is most valuable book is, as Malcolm X himself says, its sociological import. The first time I read this, I thought of it mainly as a historical document. Yet the sad truth is that Malcolm X’s story is still very much possible—indeed, a reality—in the United States. All of the essential ingredients are still there: segregation (de facto if not de jure), limited job opportunities, and mass incarceration. Indeed, while some things have gotten better, and much has remained the same, in some ways things have gotten worse. For example, the US certainly imprisons more people nowadays (disproportionately POC) than in Malcolm X’s day. There is still a direct pipeline from the failing public school in the black neighborhood to the prison cell.

Malcolm X is often contrasted with Martin Luther King, Jr., for presenting a “violent” alternative to King’s non-violence. But the perspective that Malcolm X consistently articulates cannot be simply boiled down to violence. His essential point is that, if any group of people in the world had been treated like black people in America have been—enslaved, lynched, legally disenfranchised, economically shut out, thrown into jails—then they would be well within their rights to fight back, “by any means necessary.” One can hardly imagine a group of, say, German immigrants, after undergoing such an ordeal, marching “peacefully” for their rights. Few ethical or legal codes prohibit self-defense. And it is the height of moral hypocrisy to hold the oppressed to a higher ethical standard than the oppressors.

The best response to this I know is from James Baldwin, who, while conceding the premises, wrote: “Whoever debases others is debasing himself.” In other words, if blacks did unto whites what whites did unto blacks, they would do spiritual damage to themselves. Now, not being of any religious bent myself, I at first treated this as a vaguely mystical sentiment. But I have to admit that, during the presidency of Donald Trump, I gradually came to see the real, practical truth in this statement. Racism is really a kind of psychic rot—not localized simply to our attitudes about race, but spreading in all directions, poisoning our sense of justice, spoiling our intelligence, stultifying our emotions. Though Malcolm X never gave up his insistence on the right to self-defense, he agreed with Baldwin in treating racism, not simply as a matter of prejudice to overcome, but a gnawing cancer at the heart of the country, capable of destroying it. And, for my part, I am no longer inclined to view such statements as merely rhetorical.

So in addition to being a thrilling story, wonderfully told, The Autobiography of Malcolm X presents us with a challenging indictment of America—still as true and valid as when he spoke it, fifty five years ago. I think any citizen will be improved by wrestling with Malcolm’s story and his conclusions. But let us not forget the personality of Malcolm, the man—someone who radiates genuine charisma. For my part, what I find most appealing and inspiring in Malcolm X is his intellectual side. Deprived of a formal education, he largely educated himself in prison by reading voraciously. And this curiosity stayed with him all his life. He recounts the thrill of debating college students—white and black—during his speaking tours, and speaks wistfully of going back to school to get a degree, and filling up his days studying all sorts of arcane subjects. In a saner society, Malcolm X would certainly have become a respected member of the intelligentsia, pushing the bounds of knowledge. It is up to us to create such a society.



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Review: A Promised Land

Review: A Promised Land

A Promised Land by Barack Obama

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Barack Obama rose to national prominence after giving the speech of his life at the 2004 Democratic Convention. I remember it. I was 13 at the time, on a camping trip in Cape Cod, listening to the speech in a tent on a battery-powered radio. Though I was as ignorant as it is possible for a human to be, I was completely electrified by this unknown, strangely-named man. “That should be the guy running for president!” I said, my hair standing on end. Four years later, I watched Obama’s inauguration in my high school auditorium, cheering along with the rest of the students, and felt that same exhilaration.

I am telling you this because I want to explain where I am coming from. Obama was the politician who introduced me to politics, so I cannot help but feel a special affection for him. You can even say that Obama was foundational to my political sensibilities, as he was president during my most sensitive years. This makes it difficult for me to view him ‘objectively.’

In this book Obama displays that quality which, despite him having almost nothing in common with me, made it so easy for me to identify with him during his presidency: his bookishness. He is clearly a man delighted by the written word. And Obama is able to hold his own as a writer. While I do think his prose is, at times, marred by his having read too many speeches—his sentences crowded with wholesome lists of good old fashioned American folks, like soccer moms, firefighters, and little-league coaches—the writing is consistently vivid and engaging, pivoting from narrative to analysis to characterization quite effortlessly. If Obama is guilty of one cardinal literary sin, it is verbosity. This book—700 pages, and only the first of two volumes—could have used a bit of chopping.

Obama is notorious for his caution, his conservative temperament, his insistence on seeing issues from as many perspectives as possible. But what struck me most of all in this book was his confidence. Aiming to justify himself to posterity, I suppose, Obama spends the bulk of this book explaining why he made the right decision in this or that situation. Indeed, Obama attributes even his few admitted missteps to noble intentions gone awry.

As Obama goes through the first term of his presidency, explaining how he tackled the financial crisis, healthcare, global warming, or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the central tension of his presidency becomes apparent: the conflict between idealism and realism. Obama the speaker is, as I said, electrifying—soaring to rhetorical heights equaled by very few politicians. And yet Obama the president does not soar, but plods his way forward, examining the earth for any pitfalls five steps in advance. Indeed, I think Obama’s philosophy of governance could by fairly described as technocratic, preoccupied with effectiveness rather than liberty or justice.

This, I would say, is the central flaw in Obama’s governing philosophy. Obama ran for office with a simple message: the promise that we Americans could put aside party loyalty and work together towards a common goal. But this both underestimates and overestimates the forces that pull us into competing factions. In other words, this is both naïve and slightly cynical. Naïve, by failing to understand that politics is about power, and that there was more power to be gained through division than unity. But cynical, by considering our differing political ideologies to be superficial and ultimately unimportant.

Obama seemed to believe that the goals were obvious—that we all basically agreed on the sort of country we wanted to live in—and that the only thing needed was somebody competent enough to actually get the job done. Admittedly, this is quite a compelling idea, even an inspiring one in its way; and Obama is a very convincing proponent. But the limits of this thinking are on display all throughout this book. Obama is constantly making pre-emptive concessions to the Republicans, thinking that a market-friendly healthcare plan, or a strong commitment to killing terrorists, or a more modest stimulus bill will win them over, or at least mute their dissent. The consequence is that, in his policy—such as the deportations or the drone strikes (hardly mentioned here)—he is sometimes unfaithful to the principles he so eloquently expounds at the podium.

I am being somewhat critical of Obama, which is difficult for me. He was subjected so much silly and unfair criticism during his presidency that it can feel mean to add to this chorus of contumely. And I do not wish to take away from his very real accomplishments. Compared to either the administrations that came before or after his, Obama’s presidency was an oasis of calm, sensible governance. Though the fundamental change promised by his campaign failed to materialize, by any conventional standard Obama’s policies were successful—helping to heal the economy, expand healthcare, and slowly disentangle us from foreign wars.

It is also difficult to criticize Obama because it is clear that so much opposition to him was fueled by racial resentment. Obama was continuously subjected to a double-standard, constrained in the things he could do or say. No story better illustrates this than the Henry Louis Gates arrest controversy. After Obama rightly called the decision to arrest a black Harvard professor on his own property ‘stupid,’ the political backlash was so fierce that he had to recant and subject himself to an insipid ‘beer summit.’ And, of course, the moronic birther controversy speaks for itself. In short, it is difficult to imagine the opposition to Obama’s policies being so fierce and so persistent had he been a white man.

I listened to a part of this book on January 6th, the day of the Capitol Riot. After watching the events unfold on the television all day, I decided I could not take anymore, and went out for a walk. As I strolled along the Hudson River, I played this audiobook, listening to Obama narrate his presidential campaign. The contrast between that time and this was astonishing. I could not help but feel nostalgia for those days of relative innocence, when Obama’s “You’re likable enough, Hillary” qualified as a scandal. But I also could not help wondering to what extent, if any, Obama was responsible for what was becoming of my country. If he had embraced bolder initiatives, rather than striving to be as respectable as possible, could he have staved off this backlash of white rage? It is impossible to say, I suppose.

In the end, if I came away somewhat disappointed from this book, it is only because the Obama I found did not measure up to the messianic figure I embraced as an adolescent. But that is an unfair standard. Judged as a mere mortal, Obama is as about as impressive as any person can be—a man of prodigious talents and keen intelligence, whose presidency provided a relief from the onslaught of Republican incompetence. For that we can say, thanks, Obama.



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2020 in Books

2020 in Books

2020 on Goodreads by Various

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Well, this has been quite a year.

I began by reading the latest release of one of my favorite authors, Bill Bryson, about the human body. I devoured this book—a Christmas present—with the kind of rapacious glee that comes over me whenever I discover an untapped well of unfamiliar facts. It had never even occurred to me that the human body could be so strange and so mysterious, or that there was still so much we do not know about our organic vessels. One particular moment sticks in my memory: The section on infectious diseases ends with a warning that another 1918-type pandemic is very possible, and that we are little better prepared to deal with it. I remember this because I actually scoffed at it, thinking the notion alarmist.

Life went on as planned, at least for a while. My big idea was to continue reading about economics, mathematics, and the history of science. I listened to several Great Courses, struggled through the works of Archimedes, and beat my head against a biography of John Maynard Keynes. Unfortunately, I remain much unimproved; but at least I finally read Daniel Kahneman’s fascinating work on the psychology of decision-making (another Christmas present), which has quite serious ramifications for economics.

Then the coronavirus hit, derailing my reading as well as the rest of my life. While many used reading as a means of escapism, I felt extremely frustrated by my lack of understanding of what was happening, and so I embarked on a series of books about diseases. This began with Micheal Osterholm’s book about infectious illness, Deadliest Enemy, which is a kind of all-purpose primer about the threats posed by different sorts of germs. I recommend it. Another all-purpose analysis is William McNeill’s speculative book on the impact of infectious diseases on human history. This was followed by John Barry’s history of the 1918 pandemic (also recommended), Richard Preston’s account of Ebola, Andrew Spielman’s summary of mosquito-borne illness, and Daniel Defoe’s fictional narrative of the bubonic plague. The best book of the lot was And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts’s devastating report of the AIDS epidemic in America, which unfortunately has many parallels in the handling of the pandemic by the current administration.

In June, the pandemic restrictions were mostly lifted in Spain. Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter exploded across the world, and the American elections came into focus. This prompted another reading adventure. I had the idea of reading at least one book about each major problem facing my beloved and beleaguered country. This began with David Wallace-Wells dire warning about climate change (potentially much worse than a pandemic!), Uwe Reinhardt’s mordant criticism of the abysmal American health system, and Sara Goldrick-Bar’s study on the difficulties of paying for higher education. Alex Vitale made the case for defunding our militarized police force, Angela Davis urged for decarceration, and Michelle Alexander—in perhaps the most eye-opening book of my year—compellingly argued that mass-incarceration was just another chapter in American racism.

Economics looms large in any diagnosis of societal ills. Andrew Yang, William Julius Wilson, and the co-authors Nicholas Kristoff and Sherlyn WuDunn all came to similar conclusions: that good jobs are disappearing from many parts of the country, with devastating social consequences. David Harvey, Thomas Piketty, and the co-authors Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo analyzed this same worrisome trend on a macro-scale, and came to essentially the same conclusion: that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer, in part thanks to neo-liberal economic ideas (“trickle-down economics”) which have failed quite abysmally in delivering on promised growth. But as an analysis of economic woes, no book was more revelatory than Matthew Desmond’s book on eviction—easily one of the best, and most depressing, books of my year. Before leaving politics, I should also mention David Hemenway’s analysis of gun violence, Herman and Chomsky’s critique of the mainstream media, and two very upsetting works of journalism about the presidency of you-know-who.

Since I devoted so much energy to all this nonfiction, my fiction reading was necessarily limited, though I did get around to many books which had long been on my list: Henry James’s The Ambassadors, D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, Lord Byron’s Don Juan, Gabriel García Márquez’s Cien años de soledad, John Williams’s Stoner, and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. To a certain extent, I liked all of these books, some of them very much; but I cannot say that any of them were the gut-wrenching literary experiences I was hoping for. My year in philosophy was even less impressive, consisting only of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, which mostly left me cold.

But I did learn some new things. I revisited college chemistry with lectures by Ron B. David, Jr., and I also make some clumsy attempts at learning to draw. My biggest accomplishment was probably my German. Lockdown provided me with a lot of time to regain all the proficiency I had lost since switching my focus to Spanish, and I think I am now better than ever before. And of course there were many books that did not fit into any of the above categories, some of them quite excellent, like McCullough’s history of the Wright brothers or Murakami’s essays on running.

On the whole, then, I think I must rate this year very highly, if only because I learned so many things—about history, disease, politics, economics, science—that I had not even considered learning before. Somehow, my main coping mechanism (read a book about whatever it is that is giving me anxiety) served me well during this whole, 365-day ordeal. I do hope, however, that I will not have to use it so much in the year ahead.

Thanks to you all for being a part of this great community. This year would have been worse without you.



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Review: Stoner

Review: Stoner

Stoner by John Williams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is among the class I call ‘Goodreads Books,’ because so many of my friends here have read the book, whereas nobody I know in the real world has even heard of it, much less read it. Among a certain niche of readers, this book is quite highly regarded; some have even gone so far as to dub it the ‘perfect novel.’ I would hate to be the dissenting voice in this chorus of praise; so I am happy to report that I liked the book, even if I did not find it ‘perfect.’

The novel follows the life, from birth to death, of William Stoner, a farm boy turned man of letters. It tracks the few successes and many disappointments in his long and fairly undistinguished earthly career. What makes the novel special is not the character of Stoner—a rather bland and colorless fellow—nor anything that happens to him. Rather, it is the tone with which Williams narrates Stoner’s life—a sort of tender melancholy, searching for the beauty and sadness in ordinary things.

For me, the strongest parts of this book were the beginning and the end (which are very good parts for a book to be strong). We first see Stoner emerging from his drudging life of farm work into the halls of academe, and witness his discovery of literature. Any devoted reader will naturally appreciate this. The book ends with a striking narration of Stoner’s confrontation with his own mortality, and his acceptance of his deeply flawed life.

The middle parts of the book were dominated by a series of interpersonal conflicts, and I enjoyed these somewhat less. The dominant relationship of this novel is that between Stoner and his wife, Edith. Shortly after the marriage, it becomes clear that Edith has been emotionally (and perhaps physically?) abused, and is traumatized from this abuse, which turns her into an abuser. This makes the marriage hellish for Stoner; and the dynamics of a dysfunctional relationship are described quite expertly. However, I was frustrated by Williams’s portrayal of Edith, which is almost entirely without sympathy. As a character, she has no interiority, no real perspective, but is merely a kind of wounded automaton that goes on wounding. As a result, I found her actions incomprehensible and even unbelievable.

I would lodge a similar complaint about the novel’s other villain, Hollis Lomax. Stoner’s academic rival and eventual boss, he is possessed by a kind of vindictiveness that is never fully explained, or even investigated. The third major relationship in the book—the affair between Stoner and Katherine Driscoll—is far more sympathetic. Still, I was baffled by its eventual end. (Spoilers here.) Lomax threatens to have Driscoll fired, so Driscoll quits? Stoner ends the relationship to preserve his non-existent family life? This did not square.

It is fair to say that the only character granted interiority is Stoner himself. Judging from the reviews, many readers seem to have found in Stoner a certain nobility—seen him as a fundamentally decent man borne down by circumstances—and thus interpret this book as a tragedy of a good man in a bad world. And while I agree that Stoner is decent enough, I read this book as a case study of the pathetic man. To say this in a slightly more cultivated way, I interpreted Stoner as a prime example of what the existentialists call ‘bad faith.’

By that I mean that Stoner never seems to consciously choose what he wants from life. Even in the book’s beginning, when Stoner switches from studying agriculture to literature, this is narrated not as a conscious choice but as a kind of instinctual impulse. The same goes for his marriage, and for virtually everything else. Very often, Stoner seems hardly aware of what is happening, and most often he decides to simply go along with the current. The only time he really goes against the prevailing wind was in his attempt to prevent a bad student from obtaining a Ph.D., and even then he frames this decision as an attempt to defend the university from the world ‘out there.’ Indeed, Stoner’s whole attitude towards the university is that of a diver’s towards a shark cage. It is a shield from life.

My point is that Stoner is largely responsible for the way his life turned out. He could have divorced his wife, or have tried far more vigorously to have protected his daughter from his wife’s abuse. After Lomax decided to torture him, Stoner could have simply left the university and gone to another one. He could have eloped with Katherine Driscoll—why not? In each of these instances, Stoner simply did nothing, staying in a bad marriage, relinquishing his daughter to his wife’s power, bowing to Lomax’s schemes, and cutting it off with the only person he ever loved.

The best example of Stoner’s decision making may have been his refusal to enlist to fight in World War I. When it finally dawns on him that he would have to decide, for himself, whether to fight, he seems absolutely dumbstruck. He asks the people in his life to tell him what to do. And then, he does nothing, merely continuing on with his routine—not because he is against war, and not even because he is afraid of dying on the battlefield, but simply because it is the null choice. This, to me, is bad faith.

Now, all this is not to say that I did not like the book, or that I did not find any value in reading it. To the contrary, I think there is a great deal of value in exploring such a character. But I do not blame the world for Stoner’s problems.

Stylistically, I could not make up my mind whether I liked or disliked Williams’s writing. There were times when the prose swelled into beautiful lyricism, but mostly the narration is deadpan, often dreary, and occasionally even dirge-like—a kind of funeral procession for Stoner’s life. As for the story, I wish Williams had focused far more on Stoner’s relationship with literature, rather than simply narrating it from a distance. We never experience Stoner, say, savoring a poem; most of his energy is expended in rather dry academic work—though this, again, accords with his use of literature as an existential shield rather than a way of enhancing his life.

Regardless of one’s take on Stoner, or William’s prose, or the untapped veins in the story, it is evident that this book evokes strong reactions from its readers, some negative and mostly positive. And that, if anything, is a mark of a good book.



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